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Examine what Theists understand as the Problem of Evil.
It is impossible to deny the existence of evil in the world as we as human beings experience pain and suffering every day. It is generally accepted that there are two different types of evil – natural and moral. Moral evil is caused by human beings and occurs when humans inflict suffering on other people (e.g. world wars, the Holocaust), animals (e.g. animal testing) or the environment (e.g. pollution, destroying the rainforests). Natural evil is not caused by humans and occurs naturally in the world – e.g. earthquakes, droughts and cancer. However, not all evils can be easily separated into these categories as humans can contribute to natural evils – i.e. although cancer is a naturally occurring disease, humans often do things which bring it about.
The problem is not the evil itself but the fact that it exists in the first place. The problem of evil is a problem caused by the nature of God. If we believe that God created everything (‘creatio ex nihilo’), then he has total responsibility for the existence of evil as he must have created it. This provokes the question: why did God create evil or why does he allow evil to exist?
The God of classical theism is all good and all-powerful. This suggests that he would want to remove evil for the good of the human race and is able to do so. Therefore, if God is all good and all-powerful then there should be no evil in the world. However, there clearly is evil in the world. This brings about the following possibilities and questions.
God is not good all good – is he a malevolent God?
God is not all-powerful – is he worthy of worship?
God does not exist.
This is the problem of evil. Augustine summed it up most effectively when he said, ‘Either God cannot abolish evil or he will not. If he cannot then he is not all-powerful. If he will not then he is not all good.’ Augustine viewed evil as merely the absence of good just as dark is the absence of light, a non-being – ‘a name for nothing but the want of good’. He looked to the Bible to account for the existence of God and believed that the fall of humanity from grace, as shown in Genesis, showed the origin of evil. He believed that evil came into the world because human beings had deliberately turned away from God and his goodness. This suggests that both moral and natural evil is a result of original human sin. However, natural science provides a powerful criticism against Augustine’s argument and denounces the idea that of the fall from grace being the origin of evil. Natural scientists have sufficient evidence to show that, rather than having fallen from grace, human beings have developed from primitive life forms to what we are now – this is known as Darwinism. It is proven that human beings have developed both mentally and physically so we may in fact be heading towards perfection rather than away from it.
The problem of evil questions the nature of God and threatens his status as a figure worthy of worship. Surely human beings would not wish to worship a God that is neither all good nor all-powerful? The figure we call God is seen to be entirely perfect and flawless in every way. The problem of evil also questions God’s omniscience – i.e. that he is all knowing. If God is omniscient then he must know the harm that evil does and the suffering it will cause. The attributes in question are the essence of the nature of God and without them he becomes more like a human than a God. If any of God’s characteristics are omitted, he ceases to be a perfect being.
Aquinas looked at the problem of evil from a theocentric perspective. Like Augustine, he defined evil simply as a privation of good – privatio bonni. He believed that evil is not an entity in it’s own right but merely the absence of good. He claimed that when humans do evil they are falling short of perfection and that nothing can be pure evil as anything that fell short of it’s nature 100% would not exist. For example, Satan and Hitler are good to the extent that they existed but evil in that they acted against their nature and fell short of perfection. Aquinas explained that God cannot be evil because he is infinite and unchangeable, he cannot be other than he is – i.e. he cannot fall short of perfection. Therefore it is a logical contradiction to say that he is evil. This statement is validated by the fact that most religions believe in an omnipotent, benevolent who is entirely good. However, Aquinas’ argument does not justify suffering and provides little comfort for terminally ill people, victims of murder, rape or abuse or victims of famine or drought. Process theologians claim that the argument is less valid because Aquinas’ god is not personal and that the argument should start from the point of human suffering. Aquinas’ argument simply suggests that God is not responsible for evil and that it is humans who create evil by turning away from him. Aquinas does not offer any justification for the existence of evil because he denies that evil exists as a separate entity and that evil is simply the absence of good.
Hick and Swinburne also consider the problem of evil. In ‘Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion’, Hume puts forward the idea of the inconsistent triad. The three points are omnipotence, omnibenevolence and evil. Hume maintains that only two out of the three can exist and it is therefore contradictory and inconsistent to hold both views. He believes that the problem of evil is a logical problem and concludes that God does not exist. Swinburne also questions God’s existence and says, ‘There is a problem about why God allows evil and if the theist does not have an answer to it, then his belief in God is less rational and there is no reason why the atheist should share it.’ However this is an arguable point. Some may suggest that, as evil affects everyone, atheists must be concerned with the problem of evil. They are simply not concerned with questioning why God does not stop evil or if he can or not.
Another philosopher that deals with the problem of evil is Ivan Karamazov who sets out a powerful attack on God in Dostoyevesky’s ‘The Brothers Karamazov’. Ivan accepts that God exists but rejects him because of the suffering of innocent children. He gives several horrific examples from Russian newspapers including a five-year-old girl who was beaten and forced to eat her own excrement because she wet the bed. Ivan says to his brother that nothing is worth the price of innocent suffering and if it was necessary for God to have created a world in which suffering is present then the price is simply too high. He rejects the Free Will Defence and claims that the price of freedom is too great. He believes that God should take responsibility for what humans have done with their free will and wishes to put God on trial. Ivan is often compared to Job because they both feel that innocent suffering is not worth it but, unlike Ivan, Job maintains his faith in God.
Many attempts have been made to overcome the problem of evil and perhaps the most famous is the Free Will Defence theory which attempts to overcome the problem whilst at the same time defending God’s goodness and omnipotence. It claims that God gave humans free will so they could choose to have a loving relationship with him and not be forced into doing so. Therefore, by giving humans the free will to love him, God also gave us the ability to inflict pain and suffering on ourselves and others.
Another attempt to overcome the problem is the school of thought known as Process Theology which was developed by Alfred Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne in an attempt to get around the inconsistencies of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God who allows evil to exist. It defines God as being bi-polar, suggesting that he is both abstract and concrete, personal and impersonal – thus defeating the problem of evil. God depends on human’s personal experiences to concrete side of his nature. Therefore, evil is not created by God but arises from the free choices made by human beings. This absolves God of any ‘blame’ as he has no control over our choices except to try and guide us in the right direction. This suggests that he is not coercive but instead simply persuades humanity to co-operate with his plans. The outcome depends on to what extent human beings decide to co-operate and whether or not they turn to evil. So rather than God directing the action of the universe, he is simply a part of the process of creation – hence the name, process theology. Charles Hartshorne’s understanding of God as having a dual nature can be viewed as an attempt to solve the problem of how ‘to conceive of God both as ultimate and divine (and so as absolutely necessary and unchanging) and as genuinely loving (and so as having the relative, contingent and changing experience involved in a loving relationship with members of his creation)’.
In conclusion, the problem of evil is a complex problem concerning both theists and atheists. It questions the nature of God and it is doubtful that a theory overcoming this problem will ever be found, although many of the theories already available do put forward commendable arguments.
Evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the two Theodicys which attempt to provide solutions to this problem.
Saint Augustine and Irenaeus each put together a theodicy to try and overcome the problem of evil. Augustine, a Christian, based his arguments on the Bible – especially the accounts of the Creation and the fall in Genesis. He claimed that God is perfect and created a world free of flaws. He believed that God could not be blamed for creating evil because evil is not a substance; it is simply the absence of good – ‘privatio bonni’. He suggests that evil comes from human beings who chose to deliberately turn away from God. Augustine also believed that the possibility of evil in the world is necessary as created beings are susceptible to change – only God can be perfect and unchangeable. He believed in original sin because everyone was seminally present in Adam and therefore everyone deserves to be punished. He claimed that natural evil is a fitting punishment and came about because human action destroyed the natural order. Moral evil flourished and spread in this new, damaged environment. He believed that this meant God is right not to intervene and that God shows that he is merciful as well as just as he saves some people through Christ – i.e. he could have chosen to send everyone to Hell to be punished for their inherited sin. This supports the Christian belief that man can only be redeemed from the consequences of his sin by Jesus. He believed that God sent Christ to save some human beings because he foresaw man’s fall. Augustine also believed in the Free Will Defence and claimed that man was created in the perfect likeness of God (Genesis 1:27) with true moral autonomy that allowed him the freedom to make his own decisions. He believed that the exercise of free will leads to sin and its consequences – evil and suffering.
Augustine’s Theodicy has many strengths. For example, because it is biblically based, it appeals to Christians and those who believe in the creation, as shown in Genesis, and man’s fall from grace. It also prevents God’s nature from being threatened. The theodicy defends God’s omnipotence because Augustine claims that God chooses not to intervene – not because he can’t, but because he wants the human race to have free will. Augustine values free will as the best possible choice God could have made for mankind – this is a generally accepted idea because most people agree that having free will is far better than being programmed automatons. It suggests that God giving us free will was a compassionate gesture – thus defending God’s benevolence. Also, the fact that God foresaw the fall of man defends his omniscience. The advocating of free will by Augustine also absolves God of any responsibility over man’s choices. God gave humans free will so that they could love him freely and choose to do good, we cannot blame God for allowing man the opportunity to choose evil – only man is responsible for turning away from God and choosing evil. Perhaps the strongest point in Augustine’s theodicy is that God is not responsible for the existence of evil in the world either. Evil was not originally part of God’s creative work and only came into existence when man, in the original form of Adam, turned away from God and chose evil over good. Also, God could not have created evil because evil is not a substance it is only a privation of goodness, just as darkness is a privation of light.
However, there are weaknesses in Augustine’s argument. One weakness it the fact that the theodicy may be considered outdated when considering the evidence of natural science. The theory of evolution (Darwinism) suggests that man is continually progressing, both mentally and physically, so it is entirely possible that we are heading towards perfection rather than falling away from it. This would suggest that we are wrong to assume that man’s fall of grace is the origin of evil. The theodicy also provokes the question: why didn’t God create free beings that always choose what is morally right? Although this question does seem nonsensical because it is impossible to be free and not be able to choose what is morally wrong – this is not free will. It also seems unfair that salvation is reserved for the people that accept Jesus as the son of God. Augustine’s theodicy suggests that those who do not believe in Jesus will not have their sins redeemed and be able to enter Heaven. Another weakness in the theodicy is that it questions God’s benevolence by provoking the question: if God foresaw man’s fall then why didn’t he prevent it? Surely if God is both omniscient and benevolent, he would both know that man would fall from grace and want to prevent it happening. If he didn’t know, he is not omniscient, and if he didn’t want to prevent it, he is not benevolent. Either way, part of God’s nature is threatened. Also, Augustine’s view of evil as a privation can be challenged. Many people would argue that it is not sufficient to view it as a lack or absence and that it is a separate entity.
The other theodicy that attempts to overcome the problem of evil is Irenaeus’ Theodicy. Irenaeus believed that human perfection cannot be created and must be developed through free choice – i.e. Free Will Defence. Irenaeus acknowledged that by giving us free will, God had to allow us the potential to disobey him. If humans were already perfect and God policed the world continually, there would be no free will. Irenaeus believed this is why the natural order had to be designed with the possibility of causing evil – humans had to be imperfect and God had to maintain a distance from his creation. Genuine freedom requires the possibility of choosing evil and Irenaeus believed that evil was necessary in helping us to understand and appreciate goodness. He said, ‘How, if we had no knowledge of the contrary, could we have instruction in that which is good?’ Irenaeus viewed evil as soul making in that it helped man to grown in power, freedom and knowledge and to grow into God’s likeness through responsible choices. He believed in eschatological verification – i.e. suffering is for a purpose and is justified by the union with God after death.
One of the main strengths of Irenaeus’ theodicy is that it is evolutionary rather than dependent on a biblical view of humanity. It doesn’t suggest that God made a perfect world or that humans are being punished for their original sin. Irenaeus takes a far more optimistic view of evil by suggesting that it is soul making and allows people to develop into the likeness of God. It encourages people to choose good and become like God. The theodicy also offers salvation to everyone, rather than just those who accept Jesus, by explaining that man’s positive choices enable him to find redemption through his own actions. Irenaeus’ theodicy values free will as the means by which man develops morally and spiritually and, like Augustine’s theodicy, suggests that God is not responsible for man’s evil choices due to the FWD. Irenaeus does not attempt to justify the existence of evil but makes it sound more appealing by saying it is necessary and teleological as its purpose is to facilitate the growth and development of man. It offers eschatological verification by explaining that all the suffering and evil we experience in this life will be forgotten in the next life when we are at one with God.
However, the theodicy does have its flaws. It suggests that God’s creation was imperfect and goes against the teachings of the bible. It threatens God’s goodness because it suggests that he has created an imperfect world in which human beings must suffer before their union with God. Also, man’s free choices do not always lead to power, freedom and knowledge as Irenaeus suggests. Many people use their free will to cause great harm and suffering to other people, animals or the environment. The theodicy also provokes the question: does the end justify the means? Surely the suffering experienced by the Jews in the Holocaust or victims of murder or rape cannot be justified by the ultimate joy. The soul making process may actually break more people than it makes. The theodicy also provokes other questions, such as: If God is omnipotent, couldn’t he have made a world that didn’t involve such a long process of evil and suffering? Does evil strengthen our faith more than our soul? The theodicy does seem to make the atonement unnecessary. Also, is it possible to achieve our potential to be like God without suffering? This is perhaps the most convincing criticism because it seems strange that the God of classical theism who is supposed to be all good and all-powerful would choose to make us suffer in such ways. Finally, both Irenaeus’ theodicy and Augustine’s theodicy fail to consider that if everything depends on God for it’s existence, then God must be causally involved in our actions. Do we really have free will? If not, can we then blame God for the existence of evil?