The Problem of Evil Part 2 – The Christian Conundrum

In Part 1, I introduced the problem of evil, and discussed Augustine’s view that evil is an illusion. I disagreed with this view, and gave examples of evil that would be difficult to consider as an illusion.  First, I summarized an excerpt of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, where Ivan describes terrible evil to brother Alyosha. Second, I described some of the suffering in Haiti as a result of the recent earthquake. I concluded that those who think evil is an illusion are like Ron and Hermione from the Harry Potter series, who see an illusion only because they have no experiences of true evil and suffering.

The difficulties associated with God’s omnibenevolence, God’s omnipotence, and the existence of evil can be seen in the conventional rendering of the problem of evil, demonstrated by Epicurus and Hume (see Part 1).  Yet there are additional complications to the Problem of Evil when certain traditional Christian doctrines are taken into account. These doctrines are, namely, a creation ex nihilo and a post-mortal rest.  I will discuss these below.

A Creation Ex Nihilo

The first complication comes when coupling God’s omniscience with his creation of the world ex nihilo. In his “Theology and Falsification,” Antony Flew offers that because God created all things with an absolute foreknowledge as to how they would act, he then becomes an accessory to all the wickedness done by mankind, and responsible for the deficiencies of creation. Flew states,

“We cannot say that [God] would like to help but cannot: God is omnipotent. We cannot say that he would help if he only knew: God is omniscient. We cannot say that he is not responsible for the wickedness of others: God creates those others. Indeed an omnipotent, omniscient God must be an accessory before (and during) the fact to every human misdeed; as well as being responsible for every non-moral defect in the universe.”

Certainly, if God created the world ex nihilo he becomes an accessory to all the evil in the world.

An Eventual Rest

Christian doctrine concerning the post-mortal existence focuses mainly on a heaven and a hell – eternal damnation and suffering for the wicked, and an eternal, blissful rest in the presence of the Lord for the righteous. Is it any wonder that the Christian world looks forward to a heavenly peace when the Savior bade his followers, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls” (Matthew 11:28-29; emphasis added). Christians look not only for temporal rest, but an everlasting rest in the company of their Savior.

Yet this second doctrine is as problematic as the first we dicussed. Remember Ivan’s comments to his brother Alyosha. He asks if such a rest merits the horrendous tragedy they both admittedly see in the world:

“Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature… would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth.”

His brother Alyosha answers in the negative, as any reasonable person would answer when faced with actual instances of evil that are found in the world, particularly the evil Ivan highlights.  If all we are going to do in the end is rest, what is the point of all this evil?

John Hick and “Soul-Making”

John Hick is one religious philosopher that has attempted to make a defense against these accusations. Admitting that God is omniscient and the creator ex nihilo, he argues that the evil we find around us is necessary as a “soul-making” agent. He argues,

“Instead of regarding man as having been created by God in a finished state… [some] see man as still in process of creation…, only the raw material for a further and more difficult stage of God’s creative work.”

Hick excuses the evil present in the world as necessary for the development of the human soul, and later suggests

“that there will in the final accounting be no personal life that is unperfected and no suffering that has not eventually become a phase in the fulfillment of God’s good purpose.”

This is one of the better Christian defense against the problem of evil.  Latter-day Saints completely agree that the evil in the world is necessary for us to grow (see Part 3), and opposition is a key element to the LDS conception of the Plan of Salvation.

Yet there are several problems with Hick’s defense, one of which is described by Edward H. Madden and Peter H. Hare. They argue that the dichotomy Hick has set up is inaccurate. Certainly opposition and evil can indeed be soul-making agents, but couldn’t just a portion of the evil currently present in the world be sufficient? Is so much suffering necessary?

Do innocent girls need to be beaten by parents and smeared in excrement in order to experience soul-making? Do innocent boys need to be mauled to death in front of their mothers in order to merit their rest? Is the burning of villages, or murder, or the rape of women and children, or the nailing of prisoners to fences by their ears necessary to achieve peace or growth as argued by Hick?  Certainly not.

Plantinga and Free-Will

Alvin Plantinga takes a different approach than Hick, arguing instead from free-will.  Plantinga summarizes his argument thus:

“A world containing creatures who are significantly free… is more valuable, all else being equal, than a world containing no free creatures at all. Now God can create free creatures, but He can’t cause or determine them to do only what is right. For if He does so, then they aren’t significantly free after all; they do not do what is right freely. To create creatures capable of moral good, therefore, He must create creatures capable of moral evil; and He can’t give these creatures the freedom to perform evil and at the same time prevent them from doing so.… The fact that free creatures sometimes go wrong, however, counts neither against God’s omnipotence nor against His goodness; for He could have forestalled the occurrence of moral evil only by removing the possibility of moral good.”

Plantinga’s argument certainly creates allowance for moral evil; still, there is no allowance created for natural evil, like the evil we have seen recently in Haiti.  The free-will of mankind has no bearing on the winds, or the waves, or the movement of the earth, and we may still ask if such natural evil, or so much natural evil, is necessary for the ends willed by God.  Plantinga’s free-will argument makes no attempt to answer that question.

Something More

While Plantinga’s argument perhaps comes the closest to reconciling the existence of God with the existence of evil, it does not sufficiently answer all of the questions.  Neither does Hick’s “soul-making” defense sufficiently justify the existence of evil.  They come part of the way, but are incomplete; we need something more to answer the questions raised by the Problem of Evil.

What’s more, a creation ex nihilo (making God an “accessory before the fact” to all the evil done by his creations) and a post-mortality of only peace and rest (unbalanced when considered with the immense amount of evil in the word) still cause what I like to think of as the Christian Conundrum.  This conundrum cannot be solved by either Hick’s “soul-making” defense or Plantinga’s free-will defense.

Continuing the Series

  • Part 1 – Haiti, Harry, and the Reality of Evil
  • Part 2 – The Christian Conundrum
  • Part 3 – The Mormon Solution

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