Sunday, July 25, 2004

God and Evil

In an earlier post entitled God and Time I mentioned that despite the serious liabilities entailed by the idea that God does not have complete knowledge of the future, that is, he doesn't know what choices free beings will make in their future, it is nevertheless an attractive idea because it provides the theist with an answer to a difficult apologetic question. That question arises in the course of attempts to give a reply to the problem of evil. Let's look at that problem first and then the problematic question that it raises.

No doubt the most troubling objection to the existence of a God as traditionally construed by theists is the existence of evil in the world. Whether people are persuaded by the presence of evil that the existence of a God is unlikely or whether they employ evil as an a posteriori rationalization for the disbelief they've already embraced, it is a difficult challenge for theists and has been since at least the time of the ancient Greeks.

One thing that needs to be said about the problem is that despite its power to instill and sustain doubt, the reality of evil does not constitute a proof against God's existence. Its philosophical strength, its advocates argue, is that it makes is that it makes the existence of God unlikely.

The traditional argument takes the form of a dilemma:

1.If God is perfectly good he would want to prevent evil.
2.If God is all-powerful he would be able to prevent evil.
3.However, evil exists.
4.Therefore, either God is not perfectly good or God is not all-powerful.

In either case, God is not the God of traditional theism.

This is not a proof that God doesn't exist or that he's not all-powerful or good because it's possible to slip between the horns of the dilemma and reply that God could be both able to prevent evil and wanting to prevent evil but for some reason he chooses to permit it to occur.

Most anti-theists grant this as a theoretical possibility but, they ask, what kind of God would allow evil to exist if he could prevent it? What loving father would stand by and do nothing as his child suffers, if he could do something to stop it? No reason the theist can come up with, the skeptic argues, can justify the suffering of an innocent child. Thus it is unlikely that the world is the product of the kind of God the theists believe in.

Before we consider the classical theistic response to this challenge we should lay a bit more groundwork. First, we need to understand that to say that God is omnipotent is not to say that he can do anything at all. Rather, it is to say that God can do anything that it is logically possible to do. This means that it is beyond God's power to do anything which entails a contradiction of some sort. For example, it is not within God's power to create a world in which it would be true to say that he did not create it, or, it is not within his power to bring it about that you and I, or God himself, never existed. These are contradictory states of affairs and therefore logical impossibilities.

A theist might say here that God is not constrained by the laws of logic, that God really can make a square circle if he wishes, but if one wants to argue this way he has to recuse himself from arguing at all and retreat into a private mysticism where nothing much can be said about God. To abandon the constraints of logic is to put God beyond the ability of men to reason about him, or to know anything about him, because anything that one could say about God could be both true and false at the same time, which is incoherent.

The second thing we should mention is that there are two basic kinds of evil. There is evil that emerges from human volition, and there is evil which results from natural causes like disasters, disease, famine, etc. The first we may call moral evil and the latter we'll call natural evil.

Having said this, let's look at why God might allow moral evil to exist, given that it is within his power to prevent it. We'll take up the question of natural evil in a future post.

The argument that many Christian theologians have put forward goes something like this:

Part of God's essence is that he is perfect love. Love desires an object, something to lavish itself upon, something to live in a relationship with. He could have made man so that man would have no choice but to love God, but this would be about as satisfying as programming the screen saver of your computer to say "I Love You." The most satisfying relationships are those between persons who are free to both receive and give love. Thus God created persons to live in a love relationship with him, and he endowed them with the quality of freedom so that they could genuinely choose to requite his love or to reject it. This freedom is what makes us human, it makes us more than brutes, it gives us dignity. Without freedom we're little more than sophisticated robots and there's no dignity in that. Freedom is part of the imago Dei. God gives us the freedom to choose as a marvelous gift, and to the extent that we misuse that gift, to the extent we use our freedom wrongly, moral evil enters the world.

So God could prevent moral evil and wants to eliminate it, but doing so would entail depriving us of the very thing that makes us human, our free will. This would not only reduce us to automatons and destroy our humanity, it would nullify the whole purpose for which we were created in the first place, which is to live in a freely chosen love relationship with God.

Some might deride the idea that this love between God and man is worth allowing men to inflict such terrible misery upon his fellows. Whether this is so is difficult to ascertain from our vantage. We have to look at the matter sub specie aeternitatis, or from the standpoint of eternity. Surely, if this life is all there is then all human suffering is meaningless and existence is a cruel hoax for hundreds of millions of people whose lives have been filled with it. On the other hand, if this life is a relatively brief interlude between nothingness and eternity, then our temporal suffering may ultimately seem a very small price to pay for having lived it.

So, the suggestion that moral evil exists because God gave man free-will as a means of enhancing and elevating our relationship to him strikes me as very plausible. It also seems plausible that the reason God does not prevent evil is because he considers it an even greater evil to strip us of our freedom and thus of our humanity.

However, this brings us to the difficulty we mentioned at the beginning. Let us assume that it is possible to know the future. Let's assume, therefore, that God knows the future and thus knows what would happen in any world, not just this one, that he could create. Among the worlds God could have created are worlds in which people are free to choose, but in which they always choose to do right.

Imagine God before the creation. He has an image of every world he could possibly make in his mind. Because he knows everything it is possible to know (assuming that it is possible for God to know the future) he knows every choice that every being would make in every one of those worlds if that world were to actually be created. At least one of those worlds, it would seem, would contain free beings who always chose to do the right thing. They could have chosen to do wrong, but they don't. Such a world is certainly possible, after all, since Christians believe that heaven will be such a world. So the question is, would not a perfectly good and loving God have created that world instead of the world he did create where people are free but choose to do evil far too often.

Why, in other words, didn't God create the best world he possibly could? For God to have done less is to have deliberately created a world in which some people would suffer terribly, and then, if the Christian view of hell is true, spend eternity in further torment, when he could have created a world in which no one would suffer from moral evil and no one would choose hell. People would be free to choose in this world and would always choose to love God and each other. So, if that world is a possible world, one which God could have created, why didn't he create that world instead of this one? The fact that he didn't, it is alleged, is powerful reason to conclude that God is not perfectly good.

Faced with this question the theist is put in a difficult spot. He can plead that at this point our ability to understand God's ways simply fades out, or he can resort to something like Alvin Plantinga's concept of trans-world depravity, a flaw that afflicts every human in any possible world in which humans exist, and thus makes it impossible for God to create a world in which free people always choose to do right, or he can say that perhaps one of the things that is beyond God's power is to know what free beings will choose in a future which does not yet exist.

In this latter view, the world God fashioned may well be the best possible world he could have created, consonant with the existence of human freedom. Given that God desired to create a world in which humans were free, he had to accept that although he knew all possible outcomes, he didn't know for sure how man would choose to use his gift of choice. Would man use it to love or to hate? In order to have creatures to love, God took a tremendous risk. He knew the stakes and deemed them worth it.

As was said earlier, despite the advantage of providing an answer to the question why God didn't create some other world than the one he did create, there are serious difficulties with this theory and for that reason many theologians and philosophers think it to be on balance not worth the cost of what has to be given up in order to embrace it. Some have even called proponents of the "Open Future" idea heretics. I myself am open to the argument but am sympathetic to the objections of the traditionalists. Perhaps, readers can shed some light here. I invite anyone who's interested in pursuing it to contact us through our Feedback option.

The argument that evil is a consequence of human freedom, to the extent that it is persuasive, only accounts for why there is moral evil. It doesn't explain the existence of natural evils such as accidents, famines, disease, etc. These will be discussed in another post.