Preface for blog: The “Problem of Evil” is perhaps the most vexing issue in theism. How can an all-powerful and all-good God make and direct a world containing such pain and viciousness? This is a guest post by Joy Buchanan, author of the well-received Nicodemus (reviewed here). While no one is going to dispose of all difficulties in one short essay, Joy brings a helpful perspective. She recounts recent philosophical evil-based attacks on the coherence of theism, and calls out the unsupported assumptions in these attacks. She calls attention to the fact that nearly all people choose to keep on living in this world, despite its unpleasantries, and notes the significance of God in Christ entering into human existence.
Lucky To Be Alive: A Biblical Response to the Problem of Pain
by Joy Buchanan
It is often said that a survivor of a great disaster is “lucky to be alive.” I was in my 8th grade history class in New Jersey when the news reports started coming in from nearby New York City that two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center towers. The only thing on anyone’s mind for the next week was who had miraculously been prompted to stay home on September 11th, who had survived the attack, and how to rescue anyone still trapped in the wreckage.
However, in view of the philosophical “problem of evil” (POE), one could ask what all the excitement was about. Why would anyone want to live in the kind of world where people fly airplanes full of civilians into buildings full of civilians, many of whom perished in agony on 9/11 ? We all experience terrible pain from interactions with nature as well as other humans. And no matter how many friends or treasures we accumulate to protect ourselves from deprivation and despair, we will all watch each other die until we ourselves are dead. As the unhappy author of Ecclesiastes puts it, “This is the evil in everything that happens under the sun: the same destiny overtakes all.” 1 There is an overwhelming amount of cruelty and suffering in this world we occupy, yet for some reason, individual humans do not generally consider their own existence to be a horror or a tragedy. In fact, there exists the ubiquitous and seemingly contradictory phrase: lucky to be alive.
I believe that we are not, in fact, merely lucky to be alive. There is a divine intention that is responsible for our existence. However, the question of whether God exists is beyond the scope of this paper. Instead I will argue against the problem of evil, which can be construed as an attack on the internal logical consistency of the theistic worldview. I will make a case from the standpoint of an orthodox Christian that, despite the pain experienced by people on Earth, an omnipotent God who brought us into being, with the full knowledge of what we would experience, can be perfectly morally good.
First, I address both the deductive and inductive logical problem of evil. My second point is that, though we might legitimately question why God does not do more to mitigate specific instances of suffering, pain can be a necessary part of God’s good Creation. Lastly, I will examine the Biblical attitude toward pain and the God’s glorious revealed plan for humanity. I recognize that using promises recorded in the Bible probably will not convince an atheist that God is good, but if atheists use Biblical passages to refute theism than Christians should certainly be able to point to passages that defend God’s character. I agree with the philosopher William Hasker that Christians have more to contribute to the POE than just proving the logical possibility of a good God. 2 My purpose is to argue that Christianity is internally consistent through showing that the God described by the Bible is very good.
Is the Problem of Evil a Problem?
The POE is one of the most popular attacks against the intellectual viability of theism. Christians claim that there exists an omniscient, omnipotent God who is morally perfect and the very essence of love. This God designed the world and populated it with sentient beings including Gandhi, Hitler, you, and me. The question asked by both atheists and theists is how a good God could stand by and watch people who he claims to love go through so much pain.
The POE is only a problem because of the outrageous claims made about God by most theists. In contrast, there is the materialistic worldview that claims humans came into existence through unguided natural processes in which case pain is as inevitable and morally neutral as gravity. C. S. Lewis writes, “[Christianity] creates, rather than solves, the problem of pain, for pain would be no problem unless, side by side with our daily experiences of this painful world, we had received what we think a good assurance that ultimate reality is righteous and loving.”3 Evil undoubtedly presents a problem, but many theistic philosophers believe it is a problem that can be solved.
The law of non-contradiction was recognized by ancient Greek philosophers. Simply put: two contradictory statements cannot both be true. Until recently, the most popular formulation of the problem of evil was deductive: there is a fundamental contradiction between the existence a good God and the existence of evil.4 However, the work of Alvin Plantinga and other theistic philosophers has shown that there is not a necessary contradiction. The ‘Free Will Defense’ posits that God created beings with significant causal power to influence the world for good or evil. This may prove that God is logically possible, but considering the tremendous suffering all around us, the problem of evil remains, it just gets messier.
William Rowe’s formulation of the problem of evil has fueled discussion. He claims that it is logically impossible for a good being with the power ascribed to God to allow suffering that could be prevented without taking away from the greater good.5 Michael Tooley takes a similar approach in his probabilistic argument against the existence of God. He states that, “the logical probability that God exists cannot be greater than the logical probability that there is an omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect person.”6 Then he attempts to prove that the logical probability of the existence of such a person is quite low.
Tooley sets the stage by listing many observed evils in the world with an emphasis on the faulty design of the human experience that leads to suffering, including genetic defects and natural disasters. However, he settles on just one horrific occurrence to illustrate his argument: the Lisbon earthquake which killed approximately 60,000 people. The action of allowing something terrible, like the Lisbon earthquake, to occur when one could have prevented it has wrongmaking properties. To make the logical step from the wrongmaking properties of allowing the Lisbon earthquake to the likely non-existence of God, Tooley lays out his argument in distinct premises and conclusions. His first claim is as follows:
(1) It is logically necessary that, for any possible state of affairs S, if the action of choosing not to prevent S is morally wrong, all things considered, then an omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect person would never perform that action. 7
Assuming that the wrongmaking properties of allowing the Lisbon earthquake outweigh any known or unknown rightmaking properties, an omniscient, omnipotent person who allowed the Lisbon earthquake could not possibly be morally perfect. Therefore, as stated in claim (8), God did not exist when the Lisbon earthquake occurred. Tooley anticipates the objection that, although allowing the Lisbon earthquake appears evil, there could be rightmaking properties that we are unaware of. He establishes the “Symmetry Principle” to expand on the idea that, if we think an action is wrong, it is more likely to be wrong than right, even though there are conceivable rightmaking properties that outweigh the bad. 8
Tooley’s claims (1) through (11) are logically necessary after which he introduces the probabilistic half of the argument. Claims 15 and 16 are the most crucial:
(15) Any action of choosing not to prevent the Lisbon earthquake has a known wrongmaking property such that there are no rightmaking properties that are known to be counterbalancing.
(16) For any action whatever, the logical probability that the total wrongmaking properties of the action outweigh the total rightmaking properties- including the ones of which we have no knowledge- given that the action has a wrongmaking property that we know of, and that there are no rightmaking properties that are known to be counterbalancing, is greater than one half. 9
If (15) and (16) are true, then we can conclude that a being who allowed the Lisbon earthquake has performed an action that is probably morally wrong. The implication is that there is a probability greater than one half that either God existed at the time of the earthquake and is not perfectly good, or that God does not exist. Thus far, Tooley has only proved that the probability that a good God exists is less than one half. But when he expands his argument to encompass all events that are apparently evil, the probability that a good God exists begins to approach zero based on the following calculation:
P(1,n) = 1/(n+1)
P(k,n) is the “upper bound upon the probability that none of the prima-facie evils is really evil, all things considered.” 10 And n is the number of prima-facie evils we observe in the world. Since there are a very many number of events we can consider wrong, the probability that it is morally permissible to allow all of them is almost impossibly low. So, if we believe that there are a large number of events that it would be evil to allow, the probability that God exists is so low that it becomes unreasonable to believe it.
Both Rowe and Tooley offer arguments against God’s goodness, given the amount of apparently unjustified evil in the world. Their weakness lies in the definition and identification of gratuitous evil. William Hasker points out that this argument assumes that gratuitous evil exists, which basically assumes that God does not exist. If you believe that God exists based on other evidence, then you could say that is proof that gratuitous evil does not exist. 11
In responding to Tooley’s statement, Alvin Plantinga takes a similar tactic. Plantinga also makes a focused attack on Tooley’s attempt to tally up the wrongness and rightness of God’s actions. That presents an accounting quandary that may even be too difficult for the wizards who propped up the American mortgage bubble for so long. Tooley’s Premise (16) says that if the known wrongmaking probabilities outweigh known rightmaking properties, it is likely that the action is evil. Tooley is saying that unknown rightmaking properties are not enough to sway the probability of a prima-facie evil action being evil. Plantinga believes that the proper attitude toward the situation should be one of agnosticism; we just don’t know enough to make the call. The entire probabilistic argument hinges on (16), so if (16) is unsound, then Tooley’s claim that the existence of God is low given evil does not hold up. I agree with Plantinga that (16) is dubious. Tooley is not taking into account the possibility that certain evils are necessary for the overall good of Creation. In that case, their rightmaking properties could be very difficult to identify yet very large.
The writers of the Bible did not ignore the problem of evil. The entire book of Job can be interpreted as a thought experiment to decide whether human pain negates the goodness of God. When Job questioned God’s goodness, God merely pointed out that Job did not hang the stars in the heavens or invent snow, so he is clearly not mentally equipped to judge the character of God. One reason is the physical limitations of our human minds to understand. I would argue further that we do not know enough about the details of God’s eternal plan to judge accurately. For example, the prospect of some people being eternally consigned to hell might be enough for some people to label God evil. But we actually know very little about that experience. C.S. Lewis proposes that our conceptions of hell may be skewed by medieval painters who were appealing to emotions more than they were concerned with Biblical accuracy. 12 The Job defense may seem like a cop-out to atheists, but it is not. If it is true that there is a God, it is not unreasonable to believe that humans are not capable of accurately judging His intentions or knowing His reasons for designing the world as He did.
Maybe God is Good, But Could He Be Better?
Even if it is logically possible (and not impossibly unlikely) that God is good, we still face the problem of pain every day. Hasker summarizes the remaining problem well with the chapter title “Shouldn’t God Be Doing More?” Assigning humans free will may account for some evil, but certain kinds of pain appear to be built into the natural world. God is so powerful, so why can’t he accomplish his good purposes without the horrors of tsunamis or cancer? Part of the proposed answer is that God can only do what is logically possible. Lewis writes, “You may attribute miracles to Him, but not nonsense.” 13 It follows that even an all-powerful God cannot create a world that is better than the best world that is possible to create.
Gottfried Leibniz put forward the idea that God has created the best of all possible worlds. Thus, there would be no world that God could create that is better than this one. Hasker explains that many theists object to this idea, firstly because the existence of a best possible world is uncertain, especially with so many free agents. However, it is valuable to consider that some sources of pain may actually be necessary for our existence to be as good as it can possibly be. The physical world provides enjoyment and nourishment to us as well as pain. C.S. Lewis argues that the same consistency in nature which makes it possible to live will inevitably be inconvenient at times. 14 If the laws of nature were compromised every time someone did not like them, we would suffer mind-boggling uncertainty. If there were no consistency in the world, then we could hardly participate in any ethical choices, since we would in such a world have no idea what effects our actions would actually have.
This idea can be extended to the spiritual realm as well. If God miraculously changed our sin to good every time, then we would not be able to experience the world as a free moral agent. For example, if it is Jonathan’s will that he hit Sam in the face, it would be a direct restriction of Jonathan’s will for God to force him to not hit Sam. And pain results. If God is going to create beings with real choice, or libertarian free will, it is not possible for him to simultaneously ensure that they never influence the world in a negative way.
Is All Pain Evil?
I have been using the words evil and pain almost interchangeably while addressing the POE because the problem people usually have with evil is that it causes pain to sentient beings. Would God still be morally at fault for allowing painful experiences that benefit people in the long run? The Apostle Paul, author of much of the New Testament, is a connoisseur of pain. He is actually excited about the prospect of suffering, not because he is a masochist, but because he believes there are real spiritual benefits. Paul wrote to the Romans:
We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.15
Another writer to the early church, James, had the same opinion:
Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.16
Clearly, to value pain the way these men do presupposes that the spiritual reality is ultimately more important than what they refer to as “worldly things” and “worldly desires.” Again, I am arguing from within the Christian worldview to refute the argument that the Christian belief system is internally inconsistent. If Christians see benefits to pain, then we can identify legitimate rightmaking properties to God’s action of allowing painful events to occur. This is not to say that God wishes pain on his people, but there is a tradition in the Bible of God taking what men meant for evil and using it for good. The classic example is the story of Joseph who is humiliated and sold by his brothers. He spends years as a slave in Egypt before God raises him to power just in time to save thousands of people (not just Jews) from a famine.
God cannot do the logically impossible, and He cannot give us something better than the best he has to give. According to the Bible, the best state a human can be in is a trusting relation to God. His plan for us far exceeds an ocean breeze, a perfect donut, or any other pleasure the world has to offer. Lewis writes, “It is natural for us to wish that God had designed for us a less glorious and less arduous destiny; but then we are wishing not for more love but for less.” 17
Heaven is often described in terms of earthly analogies, like streets paved with gold, but Christians believe the main attraction in heaven will be God himself. If someone chooses not to worship God, God cannot create a heaven in which they can worship themselves for eternity. That is hell. In view of eternity, which is the view Christians take, pain we experience on earth is secondary, as far as our ultimate happiness is concerned. If someone’s heart is softened toward God through hardship resulting in spiritual salvation, than that blessing is well worth the pain in a very real sense.
That said, it seems like a very poor Heavenly Father who would put his children on earth for approximately 75 years of torture before, if they made good choices, they get to go to heaven. Events like the Holocaust and the Lisbon earthquake can make it appear that if this world has a designer he is evil. If you accept that God could not have accomplished his plan of creating a world with free agents by creating a world better than this one, you might still ask “is it worth it?”
This is a question that I believe can only be answered on an individual basis. In his theodicy, Richard Swinburne refers several times to the fact that most people have the option of committing suicide and most do not, even in the face of tremendous pain.18 I argue that this statistic can serve as a massive implicit vote in favor of life. Discounting the promise of the afterlife which many people do not believe in, it is a good thing to exist in this world and have free will. That is why we call survivors “lucky to be alive,” even if they have faced terrible tragedies. If this seems like a dubious proof, ask yourself, “Do I regret my own existence?”
The Revelation of a Good Plan
In view of evolution, the entire design plan of the universe can seem fundamentally inhumane. Because of the apparent cruelty of both people and nature, Lewis points out how surprising it is that the idea of a good creator ever got established. Every known people group is religious in some sense, but Lewis proposes that the Jews (the predecessors of Muslims and Christians) were the first group to label a deity “righteous”. It is really only in view of the supernaturally revealed plan of free will and redemption of humanity that the goodness of God could come in.
The heart of Tooley’s argument against God’s goodness is that some evils appear unjustified. Plantinga tries to defeat Tooley’s claim by saying that we can’t know that apparent gratuitous evil is not outweighed by good. My theodicy is based in the revealed good plan that God has for us and in the atoning work on the Cross; this is an overwhelming rightmaking property to add to God’s actions. My argument is that the overall picture of the Bible’s God makes it overwhelmingly clear that, if God exists, God is good.
Some passages of the Old Testament get swept under the Christian rug because God appears so angry and vengeful. These same passages provide excellent ammunition for opponents of God’s goodness. However, the entire Christian message is meaningless without an understanding of the terrible state of judgment that mankind is under as a result of our sin. The Old Testament story is one of gradual revelation from God to men about this condition and about our need for salvation. The prophets speak of wrath, but they also communicate a promise of hope. This promise may get overlooked in philosophical debates because it is so absurdly good.
While Jesus was on earth, he told his disciples, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”19 Notice that Jesus is not apologetic about the existence of pain, even though he feels compassion for individuals and he typically acts to alleviate suffering and injustice. Though we have records of Jesus answering many questions in the New Testament, the POE does not come up.
To Jesus, the ultimate good was not being out of pain, but being in accord with his Father God. Jesus went through torture willingly because he understood the good purpose for it. Disciples of Jesus are expected to similarly “take up the cross” in whatever form it comes to them. But Paul and James urge Christians to consider it pure joy because it leads to our purification so that we can be in glorious union with God. William Hasker lays out several specific theodicies in The Triumph of God Over Evil. Here I will briefly attempt a similar defense in view of the Christian doctrine of salvation and forgiveness through Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.
Theodicy of the Cross
1. People were created with free will and moral agency so that we might achieve full personhood and choice. People have chosen to sin. Therefore, all mankind is condemned under the holy judgment of God. We are deserving of death and we are already experiencing some of its effects in this present world.
2. In order to rescue humanity, God came to earth in the form of Jesus Christ. He suffered and died so that the legitimate wrath of God against humanity might be satisfied. Every person now has the opportunity for salvation so that we can spend eternity reconciled to God. As a result of Jesus entering into the experience of suffering, an additional measure of God’s presence and help is now made available to us.
3. In view of 1 and 2, it is abundantly clear that God is good. He has made the ultimate sacrifice so that humans can be free from evil and pain.
In sum: This present world, with all its pleasant and unpleasant facets is, on the whole, good to be part of. That is why people call each other “lucky to be alive.” However, certain instances of evil can cause people to question the morality of the Creator. I do not wish to be insensitive or blindly optimistic, but for full perspective one must bring the spiritual, eternal element into the problem of evil and not just focus on the balance of temporal physical pain versus pleasure. My argument is that the God revealed by the Christian scriptures is morally justified in allowing pain to happen to humans because it is a necessary part of our existence in this particular world, and also because it plays a role in his ultimate plan of redemption.
Postscript for blog: As befits an academic paper answering formal objections to theism, Joy’s discussion above is framed in cool logic. But as already noted, God mainly responds to our questions with Himself, rather than with formal explanations that scratch our intellectual itches. This is much like the response of a parent to a worried small child — a big hug from a secure parent goes further than a technical explanation of risk factors. With Job and elsewhere in the Old Testament, a physical or visceral encounter with God served to assuage the aching, fundament questions, “Do I really have a place in the universe? Is reality hostile, chaotic, purposeless? Does justice triumph in the end? ” Thus, if you are troubled by some of these questions, in addition to reading and thinking on a cerebral level, you might also find it helpful to pursue an experiential encounter with God.
In Christ, God entered deeply into the human experience of birth, development, temptation, success and tragedy. He experienced misunderstanding, abuse, rejection and eventually unjust arrest, torture, and death. Whatever you are going through, on some level God does know what it feels like:
” During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered. (Hebrews 5:7-8) ;… [Jesus was] made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. ” (Hebrews 1:17-18).
1. Holy Bible. Ecclesiastes 9:3 (New International Version) Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.
2. Hasker, William. The Triumph of God Over Evil: Theodicy for a World of Suffering. p. 74, Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2008.
3. Lewis, C.S. The Problem of Pain. p. 12, New York: The MacMillan Company, 1967.
4. Plantinga, Alvin, and Michael Tooley. Knowledge of God. p. 151, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2008.
5. Rowe, William L. “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism.” American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 16, No. 4 (Oct., 1979), pp. 336
6. Plantinga and Tooley, p. 89
7. Ibid, p. 117 8. Ibid, p. 129 9. Ibid, p. 120 10. Ibid, p. 141
11. Hasker, p. 184
12. Lewis, p. 112 13. Lewis p. 16 14. Lewis, p. 20
15. Holy Bible, Romans 5: 3-5
16. Holy Bible, James 1: 2-4
17. Lewis p. 31
18. Swinburne, Richard. Providence and the Problem of Evil. pg. 241, New York: Oxford University Press (UK), 1998.
19. Holy Bible, John 16:33