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The Problem of Evil

Theodicy, the Problem of God and Suffering, is the main focus of this web site, although resources and essays for a variety of other issues are components of the entire web site. On the Publications page, various items can be downloaded: below is the introduction to "theodicy" by Barry Whitney in his 1989 book, What Are They Saying About God and Evil? (New York: Paulist Press). A revised and greatly expanded version of this book is underway to reflect more accurately and in much more detail the biblical understanding of God and Evil.

Chapter One: Introduction to The Problem of Evil and Suffering
By Barry Whitney, from the book,
What Are They Saying About God and Evil? (New York: Paulist Press, 1989).

We live in a world of unprecedented atheism, humanism and despair. Ours is a world where belief in God certainly is not easy to maintain. The growth of modern science over the past few centuries has given rise to an explanation of the world which challenges traditional religious beliefs, for science purports to explain all things in terms of natural causes (i.e., in terms of “physics and chemistry”). Science, as such, has “no need for the theistic hypothesis,” as the scientist LaPlace supposedly once informed France’s Emperor Napoleon.

The scientific challenge to theism is monumental, and yet there is an even more urgent problem for the theist: the problem of reconciling belief in God with the world’s suffering and anguish. In the minds of many theologians, this is by far the most serious threat to religious belief, a threat which the contemporary scientific alternative has rendered more pressing than ever. How can we believe in an all-powerful and all-loving God who orders and guides our lives, when all around us there exists such devastating evil and suffering? Could an all-powerful God not have eliminated the suffering and pain we creatures must endure? Should an all-powerful and all-loving God not have done so? Indeed, could an all-powerful and all-loving God not have created a better world in the first place, a world with less evil or perhaps with none at all?

This, in brief, is the infamous “problem of evil,” technically referred to as “theodicy.” It has been a major concern of theologians for centuries and persists as one of the most perplexing and disconcerting of problems. It not only is a problem, moreover, for professional theologians and philosophers, but has been a prevalent theme in poetry, novels, drama and in other facets of human creativity and inquiry. “Everywhere, everywhen, and everyhow, it seems this problem has been near the heart of the important work of significant writers,” artists, and others. The problem of evil is a problem which no human being can ignore; it is, as the late theologian Karl Rahner pointed out, "universal, universally oppressive, and [a problem which] touches our existence at its very roots."

The problem of evil certainly is not restricted to Christians, although the limitations of this present book must confine the discussion of the issue to the Christian perspective. Christianity shares with Judaism and Islam a uniquely formulated problem of evil inasmuch as these three “western religions” seek to reconcile the existence of evil with belief in one God (“monotheism”). Other religions, which believe in the existence of many gods (polytheism), or in the existence of no gods at all (as is the case. For example, with early Buddhism and Jainism), are faced with a radically different problem of evil. Christians, Jews and Muslims must face the challenge of reconciling belief in one God, the creator of all things ex nihilo (“out of nothing”), with the devastating reality of evil and suffering in the world. The three western religions cannot appeal to evil gods as the source of this misery nor transpose the issue to a non-theistic level.

(a) Formulation of the Problem of Evil
The Christian problem of evil has been formulated over the centuries by philosophers and theologians in a fairly consistent manner. Yet perhaps the most succinct and renowned articulation is to be found in the writings of the eighteenth century philosopher, David Hume: “Is he {God} willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?” Hume considered evil to be decisive evidence against the existence of God6 and a significant number of contemporary writers concur, many of whom have focused upon the apparent logical inconsistencies inherent in the Humean triad of propositions. It is not only skeptics, however, who formulate the theodicy problem in this way. Christian theologians do likewise, yet without acquiescing to the atheistic conclusion. C.S. Lewis, to cite one prominent example, began his inquiry into the theodicy riddle as follows: “If God were good, He would wish to make His creatures perfectly happy and if God were almighty He would be able to do what He wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore, God lacks either goodness or power, or both.” Philosopher Nelson Pike likewise wntes:

If God is omnipotent, then He could prevent evil if He wanted to. And if God is perfectly good, then He would want to prevent evil if He could. Thus, if God exists and is both omnipotent and perfectly good, then there exists a being who could prevent evil if he wanted to and who would want to prevent evil if he could. And if this last is true, how can there be so many evils in the world?

The question is clear: “Si deus est, unde malum?” If God exists, why is there evil?

(b) Moral and Physical Evils
The problem of evil is discussed most often as two separate though interrelated problems. What is the reason, we ask, for moral evil? And why does the world contain physical evil? “Moral evil” can be defined as “sin” or, more simply perhaps, as the evil caused by human beings: the greed, conceit, cruelty, rage, contempt, and countless other means by which we so relentlessly torment ourselves and our fellow human beings. Saint Augustine (354-430) believed that all of the evil in the world could be attributed to this one source: the misuse of our free will. More precisely, he taught that human sin is the cause of moral evil and that physical evil is God’s just punishment for our moral evil. Augustine’s explanation for physical evil (as divine punishment) has been challenged, as we shall see, yet many contemporary theologians do agree with Augustine that it is reasonable to suppose that most of the world’s evil is, in fact, brought about by human beings themselves. C.S. Lewis, for example, estimated that four-fifths of evil originates in human wickedness, and theologian John Hick has insisted that ‘’by far the greatest bulk of human suffering is due either wholly or in part to the actions and inactions of other human beings.” Saint Thomas Aquinas proposed much the same” and it does seem to be a suggestion which has great force. The disgusting inhumanity human beings display toward one another, to say nothing of our wanton and disgraceful callousness with regard to lesser life forms and to the environment, most certainly leads to incalculable destruction and misery.

In his classic presentation of the problem of evil, David Hume has listed with alarming precision the seemingly endless variety of moral evils with which we human beings mutually torment ourselves: the “oppression, injustice, contempt, contumely, violence, sedition, war, calumny, treachery, [and] fraud,” etc. Consider also the “remorse, shame, anguish, rage, disappointment, anxiety, fear, dejection, despair-who has ever passed through life without cruel inroads from these tormentors?” Yet perhaps no one has documented human cruelty more vividly than the great nineteenth century Russian novelist, Feodor Dostoevski, in his masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov. His heart-rending accounts of the vicious sufferings inflicted upon children not only by strangers, but (so often) by their own parents, numb and offend our sensibilities. A child of five, for example, was kicked and tortured by her parents until her body was one bruise, and she then was locked up in a cold and frosty outhouse for wetting the bed. That innocent child wept alone in the dark, crying to her loving God to protect her, and while she cried and prayed, her parents slept soundly, apparently oblivious to her anguish. We all know that such cruelties to defenseless children continue to be a fact of life, and that this kind of abuse is only one instance of our race’s seemingly infinite propensity for the mental and physical cruelty by which we misuse and abuse our powers of free will.

Just as devastating and most certainly as disturbing is the “physical” (or “natural”) evil we creatures must endure: the birth defects, the seemingly infinite assortment of diseases which afflict us, the squalor and malnutrition, and the devastation caused by apparently arbitrary forces of nature, the misnamed “acts of God” which wreak such terrible havoc: the droughts and famines, the hurricanes and tornadoes, the floods and volcanoes, and countless other “natural disasters.” Jesuit scholar G.H. Joyce has written pointedly about the seriousness of this problem: “The actual amount of suffering which the human race endures is immense,” he notes, “and if we focus our attention upon the miseries of life we may be led to wonder how God came to deal so harshly with His creatures as to provide them with such a home.”

David Hume’s time-honored description of natural evils argues a similar point, and while his account may be somewhat overstated, for many people its truth is all too evident: The whole earth . . . is cursed and polluted. A perpetual war is kindled amongst all living creatures. Necessity, hunger, want stimulate the strong and courageous; fear, anxiety, terror a8itate the weak and infirm. The first entrance into life gives anguish to the newborn infant and to its wretched parent; weakness, impotence, distress attend each stage of that life, and it is, at last, finished in agony and horror.

The issue before us is clear: how can we continue to worship and love, indeed how can we believe in the existence of an almighty and all-loving God, when the world is so ravaged by evils and misery? The question cannot be avoided, whether we seek a rational, theological explanation or whether, as suffering people, we attempt merely to cope with the evils and tragedies which devastate our lives, evils which so often come with crushing swiftness, with little or no warning, and which leave no life untouched.

Discussions of the theodicy issue generally make a crucial distinction between what is known as the “faith solution” and the intellectual (or rational) solutions, the latter referred to as “theodicies.” The faith solution cautions us that human beings never will comprehend fully the reasons why God permits (or perhaps causes) the world’s evil, but that since we believe in the existence of God, we ought to place our faith and trust in the belief that there is a good and just reason for evil, a reason which forever may be known only to God. Human attempts to uncover this reason (or reasons) not only are wasted efforts, proponents of the faith solution are quick to warn us, but, more seriously, any such efforts to unravel this divine mystery smack of impiety and (perhaps) even blasphemy.

The faith solution is assessed critically in Chapter 2; its strengths are acknowledged and then some of its serious weaknesses are exposed. The remainder of the book addresses the rational solutions ...

The endnotes are not yet included in this abridged web version. The original publication was the 1989 book, What Are They Saying About God and Evil, by Barry Whitney, New York: Paulist Pres, 1989). Other chapters from this book are available on this web site.

© BARRY WHITNEY, 1994, 2004. Please request permission at DrBarryWhitney@mac.com to use this publication in whole or in part in web publications or in other forms of publication and dissemination.