The Problem of Evil

“Mama, he says himself that all troubles and pains and miseries and rotten diseases and horrors and villainies are sent to us in mercy and kindness to discipline us; and he says it is the duty of every father and mother to help Providence, every way they can; and says they can’t do it by just scolding and whipping, for that won’t answer, it is weak and no good — Providence’s way is best, and it is every parent’s duty and every person’s duty to help discipline everybody, and cripple them and kill them, and starve them, and freeze them, and rot them with diseases, and lead them into murder and theft and dishonor and disgrace; and he says Providence’s invention for disciplining us and the animals is the very brightest idea that ever was, and not even an idiot could get up anything shinier. Mamma, brother Eddie needs disciplining, right away: and I know where you can get the smallpox for him, and the itch, and the diphtheria, and bone-rot, and heart disease, and consumption, and — Dear mamma, have you fainted! I will run and bring help! Now this comes of staying in town this hot weather.”

-Mark Twain, Little Bessie Would Assist Providence

Is the “Problem of Evil” really compatible with omniscience and omnipotence? Let’s consider the options:

1. The omniscient, omnipotent deity allows evil to happen because he doesn’t really care about it, or is, in fact, evil. A possible answer, but not one that’s compatible with most religion.
2. It’s all for a higher purpose, to punish us. I can’t help but think Twain’s satire is all the refutation of that needed.
3. It’s all to test our faith. This would make said omniscient, omnipotent being a sadist. Anyway, wouldn’t he already know the result if he was omniscient under most definitions of the term?
4. It’s all unknowable. Why?
5. Free will. There are several sub-possibilities

5a. When combined with the standard “he creates us individually” arguement, this means that the deity is creating people he knows will turn out to be evil. This again hits the problem of the sadist god.
5b. If the deity doesn’t create people individually, then we still run into problems: Do diseases have free will? If not, why does the deity allow them? Are accidents important parts of free will? Is it restricting free will to prevent a car hitting an icy patch that sends it careening off the road? There’s a lot of suffering out there that has nothing whatsoever to do with free will.
5c. Looking at willful acts, we still hit problems. At the Columbine High School Massacre, several bombs failed to explode, which prevented the massacre being even worse. Isn’t this, and any other event that prevents anything being even worse than it is, an implicit restriction on free will? And if it’s acceptable, why shouldn’t all human-led acts of that sort be similarly restricted? Why shouldn’t acts of great evil be blocked at every turn, with, say, passports of the 9/11 hijackers having gone missing, so they couldn’t board? Hitler having a sudden heart attack?

6. In the manner of Krishna, the universe is merely the biological processes of a giant being. I’m actually rather enamoured by this option, but it’s hard to see why a specific actin fibre, even a single neuron should expect the body to care about it than any other protein or cell.
7. Any higher beings that have any real interaction with us are not omnipotent, and have extremely limited omniscience, if any. I honestly can’t see any other option than this, and thus am forced to reject most of the glib assumptions of standard religious faiths.

6 replies on “The Problem of Evil”

  1. That’s pretty much exactly what I try – and fail – to say when the situation arises! Unfortunately, it’s been my experience that options 2 and (especially) 4 are invincible to any form of rational argument…but we live in hope, right?

  2. I think that your responses to 5 are a bit weak. Free will implies, even demands, that people can and will fail. This potential, combined with the essential Christian conception that the universe is imperfect, means that (in short) stuff happens. Diseases do not need free will to infect someone anymore than a rock needs free will to fall in a gravity field. In neither case is the action moral or immoral; it simply is. The catching of disease or the impact of the rock is not a moral act in any way – it is an occurance. Morality only enters the equation when a being with free will, i.e., a sentient human, reacts to the infection/impact/etc.

    The creation of a person with a free will that has the potentiality to become evil is not sadistic in that the presumed creator is allowing the person to choose; there is no coercion toward an ‘evil’ outcome. A car may be driven through a crowd of people or transport an injured woman to the hospital; neither is a moral reflection on the maker of the car. While humans are sentient, the fact of their sentience presumes that they are personally responsible for their own moral choices.

    Likewise, the failure of bombs to explode is a failure on the part of bomb builders, not a divine act, thus reflects incompetence, not supernatural interference. The major Christian groups that endorse miracles (Catholics and the Orthodox) see them as vanishingly rare events.

  3. Why would gravity be allowed to exist? Falling down and breaking a bone is ‘unnecessary harm’. Without sounding too theistic, the essential Catholic/Orthodox construct is that such things as ebola, hypothermia, old age, and cancer are not impositions of divine wrath, but mere ‘side efects’ of a less-than-perfect universe that allows free will. Indeed, the descriptions of both the Garden of Eden and the description of heaven (in Genesis and Revelation, respectively) desribe a theologically, metaphysically, and physically perfect world – no aging, no disease, no animals eat meat, etc.

    Indeed, one of the key elements in the story of the Fall of Man from the perfection of Eden is that the exercise of free will was not possible in a perfect world (or, perhaps, that choosing to do evil corrupted the world – six of one, etc.). To prevent all possible suffering, or all ‘unnecessary’ suffering, Mankind’s selections would be severely limited, impairing our will.

    Further, you are conflating ‘suffering’ with ‘evil’. Theologically, these are actually radically different ideas. If I suffer while training for the olympics, is that evil? No, unless it is imposed on me against my will, say. Some suffering may be good, even necessary. For example, the pain of a series of rabies injections.

  4. Deep Thought –
    Why was the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil allowed to exist? Clearly free will existed, since Adam and Eve chose to partake of the apple. God being all knowing and making humans knew that we would be unable to resist breaking the rule, so why make the tree and give the rule? If the tree had to exist, why put it in the Garden? If it had to be in the Garden, why not simply surround it in a human-proof wall of force? To make humans such that we had to know, and then telling us we weren’t allowed to and putting it within reach, God essential sets us up for failure, and then becomes wrathful when we do. God wanted an excuse to kick us around is the only real reason for that story, and that brings us back to God as sadist.

  5. Tribal,
    So – you are more of a biblical literalist than 90% of all the Christians who have ever lived? Interesting! Considering that the traditional interpretation if this episode in Genesis is that knowledge of the external is impossible without awareness of mortality and the capability to choose a negative (i.e., abstract thought and free will) and that the ‘curses’ of God were His listing of the problems associated with being self-aware and capable of abstract thought and that this interpretation is quite old, I find it interesting that a non-Christian were to demand a literal reading of such richly-symbolic text.

    The core idea here is that free will demands not only that beings with it *can* make bad choices, but also the inevitability that they *will*. Denying the nature of reality always results in penalties, this says, penalties brought on by our own actions.

    I have a stove in my home; I warn my sons it is hot. One day, one of them decided to see if that was true. Am I a sadist for owning a stove and using it, or did my son experience the consequences of his freely-chosen actions in defiance of my warnings?

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