Evil: Still no Good Answers

Here is an essay written by my friend Eddie Tabash. He is a Constitutional lawyer, legal scholar, and one hell of a defense attorney. Here he tells of his experiences growing up as the son of an Auschwitz survivor.


Eddie also provides enlightening and incisive comments on evil and theism. When confronted with instances of atrocious evil, and asked how this squares with the belief in a God who is both all-powerful and perfectly good, theists have basically three types of responses:

1) Reject the question as presumptuous. This is the approach of the Book of Job. Job, a righteous and upright man, is made to suffer atrociously, seemingly so that God can win a bet with Satan, who cynically charges that Job’s righteousness is only due to his great good fortune. God therefore permits Satan to smite Job by destroying all that he has and inflicting him with a painful and loathsome disease. Job’s worst torment comes from his “comforters,” self-righteous and condescending assholes who try to make Job admit that his misfortunes are all his own fault. Job rejects the charge again and again, reasserts his innocence, and insistently demands that God tell him why he was treated so unjustly (the bit about the “patience” of Job is a load of hooey that must have been invented by some Sunday School teacher). At last God appears, speaking out of the whirlwind, and, in poetry of unsurpassed splendor, basically tells Job to shut up. God never denies that his treatment of Job is unjust; indeed, he condemns the slick sanctimoniousness of the “comforters.” In response to the question of why he permits injustice, his answer is essentially “Who wants to know?” Pointing to the overwhelming and incomprehensible grandeur and beauty of creation, he demands to know who puny man is to think of questioning His ways.

2) Offer a theodicy. Giving an explanation of “Shut Up!” may be good enough for the Bible, but not for philosophers. Philosophers have traditionally sought to supply a theodicy, an explanation of God’s ways, showing that God’s permission of evil is fully compatible with his omnipotence and perfect goodness. That is, the theodicist attempts to show that there are higher, justifying goods that God can achieve only by permitting evil. The stock answer here is to appeal to the good of human free will or moral responsibility. For instance, Richard Swinburne says that if God is to make humans genuinely responsible for themselves (a great good), he must permit them to harm each other, and not only to harm each other slightly but to do terrible things to each other. A God that hovered over us, preventing us from making mistakes and saving us from life’s hard knocks would be like today’s grossly overprotective “helicopter parents,” and we would be like their inevitably spoiled rotten and worthless children. Instead, God writes the Moral Law on our hearts but lets us decide whether and to what extent we will abide by it. As for non-moral evil, this is somewhat tougher to explain since, prima facie it is due to impersonal forces and not a matter of any being’s choice (except for God, who chooses to let it happen). Thus, disease, disorder, mental illness, natural disasters, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to all appear to be instances of suffering that have impersonal causes written into the natural order and depend on no one’s choice. Gamely, though, some theodicists have tackled natural evils, explaining them as necessary to show us the consequences of our possible actions. Thus, tornadoes can show us what happens when a community is destroyed, so we can know what will happen when we do it with bombs. Natural famines show us the consequences of human-made ones. God, in His mercy, has provided us with copious natural evils to show us what we may cause or prevent. (I am not making this up. See my book God and the Burden of Proof for full bibliographic references here.).

3. Offer a defense. A “defense” is not a theodicy; it does not attempt to explain why God permits evil. Alvin Plantinga, for instance, offers a defense and freely admits that he has no idea why God permits evil. Instead, a defense puts the burden of proof on the atheological objector to theism and demands that the objector show that God’s existence is impossible or improbable given the facts of evil. In other words, the defender does not construe the “problem of evil” as one inherent to theism (as does, say, The Book of Job), but rather sees such issues as raised by pesky atheologians in their attempts to discredit theism. The theist only has the duty of showing that the atheological arguments from evil are inconclusive, that is, that they fail to show that theistic belief is in any sense unreasonable or untenable. Instead of offering a positive account of evil like the theodicists, the defender is content to take a skeptical approach. The defender is sure that God has a reason for permitting evil even though the defender is utterly incapable of saying what that reason might be. So, for instance, William Rowe gives the instance of a fawn burned to death in a forest fire. The painful death of an innocent creature is one that has no easily imaginable justification. An all-powerful being surely could have prevented that incident, and a loving, compassionate being surely would have wanted to do so (Wouldn’t you have saved Bambi if you could have?). Therefore, in a world in which there are myriad examples of such prima facie pointless evils, surely the staggering total of such evils constitutes evidence against the existence of a being that is purportedly both all-powerful and perfectly good. But the skeptical defender replies that our inability to see what good could come from an event is no evidence that God (an all-powerful being who has eternity to work with) in fact has no justification. My cat has no idea why she must be taken to the vet for her annual shots, but that does not mean that I am without justification in doing so. For all we know, therefore, “…eye hath not seen, or ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man (I Corinthians, 2:9)” the goods God has in store that will justify all evil. As William Lane Craig put it:

We aren’t in a good position to assess with confidence the probability (or improbability) of whether God has morally sufficient reasons for permitting bad things. Suffering that appears utterly pointless within our limited framework may be seen to be justly permitted in God’s wider framework. The brutal murder of a child may have a ripple effect through history such that God’s reason for not preventing the evil may emerge only centuries later or in another country. (Dallas Morning News, June 13, 1998)

These are the traditional theistic responses to the occurrence of grotesque evil. Unfortunately, each has deep problems:

1) What gives Job the right to question God? His suffering gives him that right. Preventable suffering always deserves an explanation. Why? Because of the inherent value of sentient creatures. If it does not matter that sentient beings suffer, then such beings are not important. But they are important, and therefore it does matter. If it matters, then, the parties responsible for permitting the suffering must explain why it was permitted, or we rightly presume that they have no excuse. This is our universal moral practice, and there is no reason to modify that practice if the responsible party is God. Some theists have maintained that, on the contrary, since God is our creator, he has the right to treat us any way he pleases. Really? So, if you, say, were to create a race of sentient beings, would you be perfectly permitted to condemn them to lives of lonely torture? Surely no decent person actually believes this. This is one of those instances in which some theists say things and I refuse to believe that they are as bad as they seem to be portraying themselves to be.

2) All theodicies are shown to be empty, flat, and superficial—even trivial—when compared to the actual evils they are meant to explain. The simple fact, as Eddie points out, is that many evils appear genuinely pointless. It is impossible to see that they do any good at all, or, if they do, it is good that could be obtained by far less horrendous means. Take mental illness, for instance. It cannot be claimed that some forms of mental illness make the sufferer better. On the contrary, the illness itself prevents them from becoming the sort of morally responsible persons that God supposedly wants them to be. Far from prompting them to struggle heroically against the malady, it often has the effect of convincing them that they have no malady, but only those who try to help them. Well, then, does the suffering of the mentally ill permit the laudable efforts of those who strive to care for them or cure them? Is this what justifies it? As yourself: Which would be better in my judgment: (a) My child has severe autism, and I demonstrate selfless love and supreme dedication in devoting my life to caring for my child. (b) My child is happy and healthy, and we enjoy the usual ups-and-downs of a loving parent/child relationship? Would anyone choose to have their child suffer a significant disability in order to give themselves the chance to demonstrate moral superiority? If a test revealed to an expectant mom that the baby would very likely be autistic, but a simple, effective, and harmless procedure could prevent the autism, would any sane and decent person not opt for the procedure? If they wouldn’t fail to act to prevent the autism, then why wouldn’t a sane and decent God? If any theodicist has a plausible answer to this, I have not seen it.

3) The skeptical theist’s hope, as expressed in the quote from William Lane Craig, can never be anything other than a speculation or a statement of faith. If you have no idea at all how an evil can be redeemed, then you just cannot be sure that it will be. Indeed, for all Craig knows—or anybody can know—the murder of the child might never be justified. Perhaps no realizable good would be good enough to redeem that murder, or, if something is, the murder is not a necessary condition for obtaining that redeeming good. God could realize the good without permitting the murder. If we are not in a position to know which evils might be redeemed, then we just do not know. Period. Note that Craig admits that we cannot know that it is either probable or improbable that God has a morally sufficient reason for permitting evils. In short, we just cannot say whether some evils are likely to be gratuitous or not; neither possibility can be ruled out. The position that would seem to be most harmonious with that conclusion would appear to be agnosticism; the facts of evil indicate that God either possibly exists or definitely does not, and we cannot know which. Further, evil is a problem intrinsic to theism, as Job realizes. It is not something maliciously invented by hostile atheologians. The problem follows from the basic predicates of God. If God is the omnipotent creator of the universe, then everything—everything—that exists or occurs is ultimately due to him. “All things bright and beautiful” may be due to God, but, as Monty Python noted, so are all the awful things:

All things dull and ugly

All creatures short and squat

All things rude and nasty

The Lord God made the lot

Each little snake that poisons

Each little wasp that stings

He made their brutish venom

He made their horrid wings

All things sick and cancerous

All evil great and small

All things foul and dangerous

The Lord God made them all

Each nasty little hornet

Each beastly little squid

Who made the spiky urchin?

Who made the sharks? He did.

God made kittens and rainbows. He also made Hitler and brain cancer. Theists are sure that God has good reasons for those last two, but they have never succeeded in articulating plausible reasons for their conviction.