Skeptical Theism is overtly present in Plantinga’s Ignorance Defense. It must be noted here that he does not call it that. The monicker makes sense because it relies on human ignorance in order to work. In other words, the defense states that since human wisdom is incomparable to God’s, we cannot know why he allows evil. Moreover, since it is reasonable that he has some reason, unbeknownst to us, for allowing evil, we cannot reasonably blame God for the evil in the world. Of Plantinga’s explications, Kai Nielsen says the following:
Plantinga grants that, as far as we can see, there are many cases of evil that are apparently pointless. Indeed there are many cases of such evils where we have no idea at all what reason God (if there is such a person) could have for permitting such evils. But, Plantinga remarks, from granting these things it does not follow that “an omnipotent and omniscient God, if he existed, would not have a reason for permitting them” (Plantinga 1993, 400). From the fact that we can see no reason at all for God to permit evils, we cannot legitimately infer that God has no reason to allow such evils. It is not just, Plantinga continues, “obvious or apparent that God could have reason for permitting them. The most we can sensibly say is that we can’t think of any good reason why he would permit them” (Plantinga 1993, 400)Plantinga, Alvin. God, Freedom and Evil. New York: Harper & Row, 1974. 58. Print.
This, in a nutshell, is the Ignorance Defense. Humans are, in other words, ignorant of God’s will and our wisdom pales in comparison to his. Nielsen’s contention, however, has the makings of a perfect defeater. All that is needed is to see his objection from the point of view of one of God’s attributes. Nielsen states that “it looks more like, if he exists and is all powerful and all knowing, that then he more likely to be evil” and adds that “we see that all the same he might possibly be, as Jewish, Christian, and Islamic religions say he is, perfectly good. But we cannot see that he is. The Mosaic God looks, to understate it, petty, unjust, and cruel to us” (Ibid.). This defeater is perfected if we see this from the point of view of God’s omniscience. God would know that we would be incapable of seeing that he is good in light of natural evil. This evil is, in fact, gratuitous. God would have seen, by way of his omniscience, that the quantity of natural evil in the world would be enough to drive so many to doubt. This apart from contradictory revelations, the limited range and capacity of Christianity, i.e., its incapacity to appeal to people of other cultures, e.g., Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and indigenous people across every populated continent, and the negative evidence against the existence of the Judeo-Christian god.
We are then asked “to stick with a belief in what we see to be some kind of possibility, namely that God is, after all, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, perfectly good” (Ibid.). This as an obstinate appeal to the very faith that needs to be substantiated. Furthermore, this appears to imply the superiority of faith over reason. Like Galileo, who no doubt said this with a different sentiment, I “do not feel obliged to believe that same God who endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect had intended for us to forgo their use” (Galilei, Galileo, “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany, 1615” (2013). Instructional Resources. 97.).
For a clearer explication of skeptical theism, McBrayer offers:
Skeptical theism is the view that God exists but that we should be skeptical of our ability to discern God’s reasons for acting or refraining from acting in any particular instance. In particular, says the skeptical theist, we should not grant that our inability to think of a good reason for doing or allowing something is indicative of whether or not God might have a good reason for doing or allowing something. If there is a God, he knows much more than we do about the relevant facts, and thus it would not be surprising at all if he has reasons for doing or allowing something that we cannot fathom.McBrayer, Justin P. “Skeptical Theism”. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web.
This matches Plantinga’s Ignorance Defense one-to-one. There is therefore, no need to belabor the point. My concern is twofold: the failure of skeptical theism should be clear and since this appeal to human ignorance is an obstinate roadblock borne of a reluctance to accept an atheistic conclusion, it is crucial to develop arguments that make use of its faulty intuition and arguments that leave no room for a skeptical theistic response. In other words, if the intuition can be turned on its head, in a perfect example of how to employ the double standard and outsider tests (see Galef, Julia. The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t. New York: Portfolio, 2021. 63-66. Print), perhaps the theist is not in a position to see the vast shortcomings of skeptical theism. This is what I want to do because I am at a loss when it comes to understanding why anyone would think such a response works when confronting The Evidential Problem of Evil and Schellenberg’s Divine Hiddenness Argument. For our purposes, I will set aside stating explicitly The Evidential Problem of Evil, as I think it is unnecessary review for the initiated. Schellenberg’s Divine Hiddenness Argument, on the other hand, is not as familiar, even to the thoroughly initiated. Thankfully, Veronika Weidner has explicitly stated the argument accurately:
(1) Necessarily, if God exists, then God is a personal perfect being.
(2) Necessarily, if God is a personal perfect being, then God always loves all human beings perfectly.
(3) Necessarily, if God always loves all human beings perfectly, then God is always open to be in a personal relationship with all those human beings capable of such a relationship with God.
(4) Necessarily, if God is always open to be in a personal relationship with all those human beings capable of such a relationship with God, then God does or omits nothing which would prevent all those human beings to relate to God personally who are capable of a personal relationship with God and also not resistant to a personal relationship with God.
(5) Necessarily, a human being capable of a personal relationship with God who is not resistant to a personal relationship with God is only able to relate to God personally if she believes that God exists.
(6) Necessarily, if God does or omits nothing which would prevent all those human beings to relate to God personally who are capable of a personal relationship with God and also not resistant to a personal relationship with God, then it is not the case that there is a human being capable of a personal relationship with God who is not resistant to a personal relationship with God and yet not able to relate to God personally because she does not believe that God exists.
(7) There is at least one human being capable of a personal relationship with God who is not resistant to a personal relationship with God and yet not able to relate to God personally because she does not believe that God exists.
(8) Therefore, God does not exist. (see Schellenberg, 2015b: 24–25)Weidner, Veronika. Divine Hiddenness. Cambridge University Press, 2021. Web.
Prior to discussing Schellenberg’s argument in some detail, it is crucial to understand why skeptical theism fails:
A) Even if we grant that unforeseen goods balance the scales, as it were, i.e. justifies the 1,800 cancer-related deaths of children per year in the United States, there is no way for finite human minds to causally connect these deaths with the goods whenever they arrive; the most we can do is callously reason that their deaths are akin to necessary sacrifices that enable us to eventually find a cure—which is related to minor problem (a) below and more importantly, is not something we should ever give God credit for; developing cures is a slow, painstaking process that does not involve anything like putative revelation or God whispering the secrets to a much needed vaccine in a doctor’s ear. There is also the issue that the goods may arrive well after our lifetimes, which segues into the next problem.
B) On exclusivism, many of today’s atheists are eternally lost because evil and hiddenness were just too persuasive and the goods never came due within our lifetimes. On universalism, this is all arbitrary. This can be conjoined to Street’s recent response to skeptical theism: we are free to indulge moral aporia because no matter what we believe or not, we will ultimately be saved (see Street, S. (2014). If everything happens for a reason, then we don’t know what reasons are: Why the price of theism is normative skepticism. In M. Bergmann & P. Kain (Eds.), Challenges to moral and religious belief: Disagreement and evolution (pp. 172–192). Oxford: Oxford University Press.). So talk of evil and hiddenness and unknown goods to account for them ends up being null.
I have a sneaking suspicion that theists feel the gnaw of these defeaters. Atheists certainly do. This then becomes an exercise of being overly charitable to a kind of argument that can never prove successful. If skeptical theism fails, it is a thread that should be cut and discarded. There are a couple of minor problems that are important as well:
a) It is utilitarian in its analysis. The evil and hiddenness we experience are lesser in magnitude when compared to the goods that await us, be it in heaven or by way of some earthly recompense. The greater good overtones are palpable. I cannot see how a being who is appealed to as the objective and perfect moral standard can subscribe to utilitarianism given its shortcomings.
b) It begs the question because it really is no different from someone saying “just wait and see!” Many people on all sides died waiting and seeing and per Schellenberg, honestly sought divinity their entire lives and came up empty. If God had a better track record of making do on past atrocities, then we would be able to inductively reason, as many of us do with science, in this manner. The thing is, it looks like the bills for the Holocaust and slavery are overdue and all of us, living ~80 and ~450 years respectively, after these atrocities happened, cannot even begin to causally connect potential goods that God has deployed with the intention of paying this debt. Perhaps it is too much to expect God to pay that debt because those were human crimes; but I can also think of disasters, diseases, pandemics, mass extinctions, and other natural evils that are overdue and again, I am not sure what goods are intended to repay the extinctions of all of our hominid cousins, for example.
c) The whole accounting that is done really puts a lack of value on human life that turns out to be nihilistic and even fatalistic. The Black Plague wiped out millions. Are we really to believe any good repaid that debt? Are we supposed to buy that the life of a child, whose loss emotionally crippled her mother, is worth so little that we can just make do with the fact that some future kid was saved from danger in her place? That does nothing at all to alleviate the suffering the child and her mother experienced, so that is another issue, one of currency: what is the value of this coin God is paying his debts with and how exactly does it exchange with the coin in the sometimes distant past?
Now to turn my attention to an argument that subsumes the observations of The Evidential Problem of Evil and The Divine Hiddenness Argument. This argument is novel, forceful, and to my mind, defeats the idea of not just perfect being, omni-god theism, but theism overall. Weidner already observes the following: “After all, the hiddenness argument, if successful, helps us see the deficiencies of personal perfect being theism” (Weidner, ibid.). My next argument should help one see the deficiencies of theism in general.
Infinity Entails Supererogative Capacity
Weidner’s next stop is to grapple with the conclusion of My Argument From Assailability: “if we find in any being, a characteristic that is assailable, then we have no reason to call it a god.” How is a non-perfect theistic being different from an alien, one might ask. Crucially, if per the hiddenness and evil arguments, God does not seem open to being in a relationship with all human beings and does not intervene when great atrocities happen, then we have located an assailable characteristic. How does an omnipotent or, at least, an incredibly powerful being succumb to bystander effect? Even if God is not all-powerful and could not snap the Nazis out of existence, if he is at least powerful enough to assume a disguise and poison Hitler and his top advisers, why not step in and prevent the Holocaust?
The reason Aquinas and others maximized God to have infinite capacities in all respects is because theists already saw the crippling limitations of a god with finite abilities. The question would immediately follow: what motivation is there to worship a being that is not perfect? Infinity entails supererogative capacity. God would be able to give an infinite amount of love, kinship, succor, power, knowledge, and presence and still retain an infinite amount of each. So why does he seem to blithely refuse to commit to this? Perfect and infinite personal being theism is defeated by the combination of Schellenberg’s Divine Hiddenness Argument, The Evidential Problem of Evil, and my argument from God’s apparent lack of supererogatory agency. What is left is non-perfect being theism.
That, however, falls on the horns of my Argument From Assailability and so, Theism is defeated in all its iterations. This is to say nothing about the fact that even a finite deity would be far more capable of supererogatory acts than we are. In any case, the intuition of my supererogative argument can be turned on its head. We can deduce something about God’s power given this lack. God must be much weaker than a hypothetical infinite being due to the fact that he remains a bystander, utterly apathetic to even the worst atrocities known to man—even ones we played no part in causing. This is an assailable characteristic. We therefore, have no obligation whatsoever to worship a being that is apparently weaker than ourselves. As Tracie Harris famously said: “If I could stop a person from raping a child I would. That is the difference between me and your God” (Bennett-Smith, Meredith. “‘Atheist Experience’ TV Host Shocked By Caller’s Statement About Child Rape (Video)”. Huffington Post. 9 Jan 2013. Web). Ultimately, if God appears to be this much weaker than human beings, who can potentially lose their lives when intervening on the behalf of another person, it is far more probable that God does not exist.
Notes on Necessity
The standard contingency argument looks something like the following:
- There exists a series of events
- The series of events exists as caused and not as uncaused
- This series cannot extend infinitely into the past
- Therefore, there must exist the necessary being that is the cause of all contingent being (credit: Queens Community College)
The intuition of skeptical theism, as I made clear at the outset, can be used to cast doubt on contingency arguments across the board. Aside from the fact that there is a chasm between a necessary cause, e.g., something like the Big Bang, and a necessary being, we can assert that we should be skeptical of our ability to discern what a necessary being is. How do we know that it is one necessary being as opposed to many? If a Triune god solves the one-many problem, then why not the Divine Septad of Zoroastrianism? Since we cannot know what the realm of necessity is like, we should refrain from making these kinds of arguments.
Contingency arguments only accomplish one thing: they point to the existence of metaphysical necessities, quite possibly something like brute facts, that can be explained by something more concrete like physical necessity. In my overview of Rasmussen’s recent contingency argument, I go over what this looks like and it is more plausible than crossing the infinite chasm between a necessary cause and a necessary being on blind faith alone. In any case, since we cannot know what necessity is really like and since we cannot visit the realm of necessity, it is best we accept our ignorance on this matter. The intuition of skeptical theism undermines what many theists consider one of the stronger lines of argumentation in favor of theism.
The Argument From Phenomenal Distance
This novel argument, not to be confused with Mander’s “Does God know what it is like to be me?” (see Mander, W.J. (2002), Does God Know What It is Like to be Me?. The Heythrop Journal, 43: 430-443. https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-2265.00203) completely evades skeptical theism. It is an argument from analogy in where an observation about human behavior is mapped onto God. The argument has been alluded to before, but as far as I know, has not been formally stated or given a name.
RC*: The condition of the argument is as follows: there is a difference between the phenomenal experience of human beings and that of earthworms (if it is even appropriate to think that worms have phenomenal experience). Even if earthworms lack phenomenal consciousness, according to some philosophers, we certainly have phenomenal consciousness and as such, there is a distance between our experience and theirs.
RC1 Human beings have phenomenal distance from earthworms and therefore, are indifferent to them, e.g. we walk through a parking lot on a rainy day and probably trample dozens of them underfoot with no second thought.
RC2 An infinite god or even a vastly powerful deity would have an infinite or incalculable phenomenal distance from humans.
RCC1 Therefore, we should expect God to be indifferent to us.
This argument avoids the nauseating intuition of skeptical theism as it cannot appeal to any ignorance we have. One thing we are not ignorant of, as evil and hiddenness make clear, is that either God does not exist or if any gods exist, they are astoundingly indifferent to us. Camus, in The Plague, observes through the character of Tarrou that if God is not going to provide succor in times of great atrocity, it is up to us to take the helm and do something about our plights. Conjoined to his scathing criticisms of the religious propensity to prefer the abstract over the concrete is Camus’ clearsighted focus on God’s absence or indifference, for even as Jacques Othon dies in agony and Father Paneloux shouts out “My God, spare this child!,” the child dies writhing in pain and wailing across the halls of the auxiliary hospital (Camus, Albert. The Plague. New York: Vintage International Books. 217. Web.). This argument is yet another powerful blow against personal being theism because a friend is there in times of need and a father who loves his children, all the more so. No appeal to our ignorance, as my defeaters make clear, can be marshaled in to salvage the notion of the existence of a personal being who loves us and has our well-being and prosperity in mind. The absence or more tentatively, the indifference of God should disabuse one of the belief in a personal being who loves us infinitely.
In the end, I think the lines of argumentation I have pursued here are by no means exhaustive, in that a lot more can be said about evil, suffering, hiddenness, God’s lack of supererogative agency, and an indifference stemming from the incalculable, if not, infinite phenomenal distance he has from us. I defer to Rieux: “No Father. I’ve a very different idea of love. And until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture” (Camus, Ibid., 218).
By R.N. Carmona
In the last entry in this series, we saw how Buddhism can handle the Problem of Evil. Traditionally, the problem exposed a contradiction between the idea of a perfectly good deity and the abundance of evil and suffering in the world. Buddhism solves this contradiction by eliminating the former variable from the equation, leaving only evil and suffering. With no deus ex machina to rescue us, the issue stands before us, waiting to be resolved by humanity, perhaps by way of adhering to principles similar to the Eightfold Path of Buddhism. What is notable about the Buddhist solution to the problem is that it makes it our problem and makes us responsible for doing something about the evil and suffering in our world; it places the burden on us to lift the world out of degeneracy.
Zoroastrianism, on the other hand, has a solution similar to the ones offered by Christians and Muslims. The key difference is that Zoroastrian theology better explains the origin and persistence of evil and suffering. On Christianity, God is perfect in every way. He is perfectly good and there is no evil in him. In addition to this, he is omniscient, omnipotent, and sovereign. Satan does not come close to matching God’s power and more importantly, he could not have produced degenerated conditions prior to the Fall of Adam. Plantinga argues, on the one hand, that Adam is to blame for why humans are capable of evil (Beebe, James R. “Logical Problem of Evil”. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. ND. Web.). On the other hand, he blames cosmic and natural evils on the volition of evil, immaterial entities; he adds that God could not create a world with a better balance of good and evil, an allusion to Leibniz’s idea of a best possible world (Plantinga, Alvin. God, Freedom and Evil. New York: Harper & Row, 1974. 58. Print.). The notion that something is not within God’s power contradicts the belief that he is omnipotent. Furthermore, that fallen angels, beings contingent not only on God’s creative power but also on his immutable and incorruptible nature, were even capable of falling into depravity is dubious. Plantinga’s solutions, like other solutions offered by Christian apologists, compounds the problem.
Where Christian theology fails, Zoroastrian theology succeeds. On Zoroastrianism, Ahura Mazda or Ohrmazd is perfect in every way: he is omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly benevolent, immutable, incorruptible, and timeless. He created a material realm (getig) because he foresaw a future in where Angra Mainyu (Ahriman) would be defeated. Since life cannot coexist with non-life, light cannot coexist with darkness, and creation cannot coexist with privation, Ahura Mazda created the world for purposes of luring Angra Mainyu into it and defeating him. Angra Mainyu, unlike Satan, can corrupt creation. On Zoroastrianism, therefore, the viruses, diseases, parasites, and predators we wonder about given the assumption that there exists a perfectly good god are explained by an equally powerful evil god that can corrupt the substances of creation. Clark explains:
As far as their own natures are concerned, Ahura Mazda (Ohrmazd) and Angra Mainyu are completely opposite to the extent that whereas it is appropriate to say that the former has life, it is more correct to say that the latter has “non-life” and that his “creations” are in fact “anti-creations” or deprivative incursions into the Ahuric. Thus although we can characterize Zoroastrianism as a dualism of sorts, this must be qualified since we cannot say that the religion recognizes two gods in Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu precisely because of the radical distinction of their natures. This distinction is confirmed textually. The term for “Lord,” for example, is never applied to Ahriman (Angra Mainyu) in the Pahlavi books, and both the Avestan and Pahlavi languages have curious double vocabularies in which certain terms are inherently Ahuric and others inherently Ahrimanic. Even seemingly neutral terms like “leg” and “hand” have different words in Avestan, depending on whether they are used with reference to Ahuric or Ahrimanic entities.Clark, Peter. Zoroastrianism: An Introduction to an Ancient Faith. Chicago: Sussex Academic Press, 1998. 85. Print
The longstanding Theism-atheism debate in the philosophy of religion has inadvertently stumbled upon this solution already. While Buddhism removes God from the equation, Zoroastrianism adds an evil god to solve the problem of evil and suffering. It would be interesting to note the similarity between Zoroastrian theology and Aquinas’ explanation of evil. Aquinas was probably familiar with Zoroastrian theology and subsumed their explanation of evil into his philosophy because in light of Christian theology, Aquinas’ musings are incoherent. Floyd states that “evil has no actuality in its own right. It would be a mistake, then, to speak of evil as an actual “thing,” if by “thing” we mean an existing being or quality. For evil is a deprivation of what is actual, like blindness or sickness. For this reason, Aquinas says that something is evil “inasmuch as it is deprived of some particular good that pertains to its due or proper perfection” (QDM 1.1 ad 1; ST Ia 48.2 passim)” (Floyd, Shawn. “Aquinas: Moral Philosophy”. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web.). Alternatively, since Aquinas followed Augustine’s lead here, perhaps Augustine was familiar with Zoroastrian theology and incorporated their explanation of evil into his writings.
What’s more is that the evil god challenge has already been raised and though it was not Law’s intention to argue that this evil god explains evil ontologically, intending instead to pose a new challenge for Theism, Law’s evil god is not far from Angra Mainyu. Law states:
Consider a different hypothesis. Suppose the universe has a creator. Suppose also that this being is omnipotent and omniscient. But suppose he is not maximally good. Rather, imagine that he is maximally evil. His depravity is without limit. His cruelty knows no bounds. There is no other god or gods – just this supremely wicked being. Call this the evil-god hypothesis.Law, Stephen. The evil-god challenge. Religious Studies, 2010 46(3), 353-373. doi:10.1017/S0034412509990369
The key difference is that Law replaces the Judeo-Christian concept of god with a maximally evil being. His concept is more in keeping with monotheism rather than the henotheism present in Zoroastrian theology. Briefly, henotheism entails the worship of one god while not denying that there are other gods or the worship of one god that can manifest itself in other forms or as other gods, e.g., Hinduism. Though Zoroastrians do not address Angra Mainyu as a god, he is not a being created by Ahura Mazda. Furthermore, Spenta Mainyu and Angra Mainyu are recognized as “twin spirits,” co-eternal, and both existing outside of time. Spenta Mainyu, the holy spirit of Ahura Mazda, is hypostatically connected to Ahura Mazda. Clark elaborates:
Just as the good spirit of Ahura Mazda, Spenta Mainyu, and the hostile spirit, Angra Mainyu, are independent of each other, having no connection either conceptually or in any fundamental or primal sense (in that they share no common origin), so evil and good in this world are also completely separate to the degree that one is not only the ideological but also physical antithesis of the other. All that is good, that which we call Ahuric, is a positive quality emanating from the Wise Lord whereas all that is bad is the result of Ahriman’s intrusion into the Ahuric domain, and is in fact a deprivation of the good, a destructive incursion into the created order. That is why the Ahrimanic is sometimes referred to only by what it is not — hence the term ajyati, “not-life” (Ibid., 126).
The maximally great being of Christian Theists and the maximally evil being posited by Law are already present in Zoroastrian theology. Humans are actors on a stage set from eternity; Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu have been at variance for all of eternity and we are either ashavans living by Good Thoughts, Good Words, and Good Deeds or we are drugvants leading a life of hostility, deceit, violence, and so on. Any feature of the universe that we qualify as evil or, at the very least, irreconcilable with a perfectly good being, from asteroid impacts to malignant Narcissists, reduces to the Zoroastrian hostile spirit and his capacity to manipulate creative substance so that it succumbs to degeneracy. On Zoroastrianism, therefore, the abundance of evil and suffering we experience in the world, including features of the animal kingdom that do not square with the existence of a perfectly benevolent being, stem from an intrusive, equally powerful evil god whose greatest weapon is death. From a naturalistic, evolutionary perspective, if the Ahuric design was simply for species to acquire adaptive traits enabling them to survive in perpetuity, Angra Mainyu manipulated evolutionary purposes to introduce death and extinction, or simply, “non-life.”
Interestingly, there is a way for a naturalist to subsume the Zoroastrian solution to the Problem of Evil. If we set aside all reification of evil and good, along with any ideas of omni-beings whether good or evil, what Zoroastrianism predicts is that people living by Good Thoughts, Good Words, and Good Deeds will rid the physical realm of evil once and for all. Just as we learned through Buddhism, while we are ultimately not powerful enough to address all aspects of so-called degeneracy, in that we cannot, for instance, remove entropy from the universe or return it to its original state of perfect symmetry, we can rid the world of exploitation, corruption, deceit, and all manner of malice; with enough scientific and technological advancement, we may be able to achieve versions of functional immorality, thereby curbing death (see Reedy, Christiana. “An End to Aging: Can Science Allow Humans to To Become Immortal?”. Futurism. 3 Mar 2017. Web.). The naturalistic Zoroastrian prescription for a solution to the Problem of Evil is similar to the Buddhist’s: Good Thoughts, Good Words, and Good Deeds, which are similar in many respects to Buddhism’s Eightfold Path. What’s more is that according to Zoroastrian mythology, Ahura Mazda created us to be the impetus of his victory over Angra Mainyu. On a naturalistic reading, then, the eradication of evil and the regeneration of our civilization and planet requires us to become ashavans, following after asha (truth) and following an ethical code that would draw us to the incorruptible light of Ahura Mazda. Essentially, there is no distinction between how Ahura Mazda is described and an ashavan, once again implying that we are to reappropriate the moral powers we mistakenly surrendered to the prevailing idea of God.
Ultimately, Zoroastrianism offers a unique solution to the problem of evil, one that its theology was able to anticipate in today’s Theism-atheism debate in the philosophy of religion, so to speak. For anyone looking to maintain belief in a perfectly good deity, it appears reasonable to recognize that there is an equally, or at least, comparably powerful evil deity through whom we can explain evil and suffering. Aquinas, following Augustine, appears to have been familiar enough with Zoroastrianism; otherwise, it will be hard to explain why his rationalizations of evil sound suspiciously similar. The problem is that I do not think Augustine and Aquinas’ ideas cohere with Christian theology; the notion of deprivation or “non-life” makes a lot more sense given the Zoroastrian belief in the “twin spirits.” Christians have long recognized the appeal of this solution, augmenting Satan’s power to the point of near-omnipotence. On some accounts, he can read minds or predict the future. Martin Luther King Jr., communicating a line of Christian thinking, conveyed the idea of “demonic imitation” in where religions like Zoroastrianism, along with its belief in saoshyants born of virgins, were meant to deceive people and lure them away from Christianity (Jr. King, Martin Luther. “The Influence of the Mystery Religions on Christianity”. Stanford University. 29 Nov 1949. Web.). Christianity does not bestow this level of power on its greatest evil. Zoroastrianism, on the other hand, does acknowledge that Angra Mainyu is maximally evil. Zoroastrianism’s solution is provocative though it entails henotheism or even polytheism. Either way, it is a welcome retreat from the Christian monopoly, a viable way to get out from under Christianity’s long shadow in the philosophy of religion.
By R.N. Carmona
The Problem of Evil, as normally construed, needs to be reframed in order to be discussed more generally in the philosophy of religion. When one thinks of the problem, one thinks about the incongruity between the evil and suffering we observe in the world and the idea of a perfectly benevolent deity. In issues of dissonance, the simplest solution is to identify which one of your beliefs is causing the issue. While it is possible that both conflicting beliefs can be wrong, sometimes it is that one is the case while the other is not. Christians might not allow for the radical solution I am going to offer by way of Buddhism, but it is a viable solution nonetheless. Buddhism is a godless religion and as such, one accomplishes reframing the problem by removing one of the elements causing tension. In this particular case, we simply remove the belief in a perfectly good god. What we are then left with is the fact that evil and suffering abound in our world, which is a problem all its own.
What does Buddhism have to say about evil and suffering? What answers might it give us to start mitigating an issue that affects us all? I think that Buddhism will accomplish something in the philosophy of religion that Christianity has not. Not only will it solve the Problem of Evil, but it will redistribute it, as it were, into the real world where it belongs. This is not to say that Christians do nothing to address evil and suffering, but every hour spent on batting around the tired literature surrounding the Problem of Evil is time not spent addressing the actual problem. As we will see later in this series, beliefs about a god serving as deus ex machina and renewing this degenerated existence predate Christianity and Islam. In other words, people have had similar beliefs for thousands of years, convinced that the restoration of the Earth and humankind to a state without blemish would certainly happen within their lifetimes. Thousands of years have gone by and we are still plagued by many of the same issues that they encountered. The solutions that Buddhism will offer will place the responsibility of solving the problem of evil and suffering squarely on our shoulders. There is no god out there waiting for the opportune time to regenerate all of existence. Buddhism makes the problem our problem and takes it out of the hands of philosophers that prefer argument to action.
Buddhism’s Definition of Evil and Suffering
In Buddhism, suffering is the subject of the Four Noble Truths:
- Dukha: There is suffering because we experience a great deal of disappointment in life. Illness and injury are obvious causes of suffering, but even when we do not find our leg in a cast or have to deal with the death of a loved one, we still lack fulfillment and desire more than we currently have. In the Western sense of thinking, we seldom stop to count our blessings.
- Samudāya: Suffering is rooted in craving (tanhā). Greed, ignorance, and hatred, generally speaking, define our addictions.
- Nirodha: To cease suffering, one need only detach oneself from addictions. Detachment is a concept ripe for philosophical exploration, aside from the subject matter currently in focus.
- Magga: The way through which we can end both our own suffering and the suffering of others. This is inhered in the Eightfold Path.
The Eightfold Path to end suffering is as follows:
- Right Understanding – Sammā ditthi: To live by the Buddha’s teachings, not in the Western, submissive sense, but approaching even his teachings with skepticism and discretion
- Right Intention – Sammā san̄kappa: To learn to assess one’s motives and intentions and being sure to see things clearly, without prejudices and assumptions
- Right Speech – Sammā vācā: To speak the truth and to shun destructive lying. This would also require one to avoid gossiping, slandering, and insulting others
- Right Action – Sammā kammanta: To live in harmony with all living things; this entails a commitment to not cause harm, especially killing
- Right Livelihood – Sammā ājīva: To earn a living without exploiting other people or causing harm. This would entail not selling potentially harmful paraphernalia or products
- Right Effort – Sammā vāyāma: To maintain positive states of mind. This involves keeping oneself from thinking in terms of violence, revenge, and so on
- Right Mindfulness – Sammā sati: To be keenly aware of your thoughts, emotions, and any of the body’s corresponding sensations as it pertains to destructive emotions like anger but also positive feelings like pleasure
- Right Concentration – Sammā samādhi: To cultivate the focus necessary to make this deeper awareness of oneself possible
Of interest is Buddhism’s non-duality; Buddhists do not think of evil and suffering the way most of us do in the West. For us, when we think of evil, we think of the psychopathic serial killer. When we think of suffering, we imagine perhaps a homeless person or someone who is terminally ill laying in a hospital bed. We do not realize that the same sources give rise to both evil and suffering. This is not to merely state that an evil person causes the suffering of another person. That is stating the obvious. Rather, it is to say that greed (the rooster), ignorance (the pig), and hatred (the snake) give rise to evil and suffering within the same individual. The same reasons leading a person to be characterized as evil also result in his own suffering. As Kyokai states: “Greed rises from wrong ideas of satisfaction; anger rises from wrong ideas concerning the state of one’s affairs and surroundings; foolishness rises from the inability to judge what correct conduct is” (Kyokai, Bukkyo Dendo. The Teaching of Buddha. 162. Print). Mark Epstein elaborates:
When we refuse to acknowledge the presence of unwanted feelings, we are as bound to them as when we give ourselves over to them indignantly and self-righteously. Religion has traditionally counseled believers to withdraw from aggressive, erotic, or egotistical states of mind, replacing them with the “purer” states of devotion, humility, and piety. Psychoanalysis has encouraged its adherents to be less fearful of these emotions, to understand their roots and recover the energy that has been lost through the failure to accept primitive urges or longings. Buddhism, alone among the world’s religions, has taken a characteristically middle path, recognizing the need to be free from destructive emotions while at the same time seeing that such freedom comes through nonjudgmental awareness of just those emotions we seek freedom from.Epstein, Mark. Thoughts Without A Thinker: Psychotherapy From A Buddhist Perspective. New York: Perseus Books Group, 1995. 24. Print
Buddhism, therefore, does not relocate evil in others. Unlike other religions, it does not paint the worst of men as monsters or as influenced or even possessed by evil entities. Buddhism, first and foremost, identifies a propensity for evil in you. It also identifies the source of suffering in you. This is a good start because it allows us, in the main, to keep ourselves from slipping into behavioral patterns that result in suffering or evil. Of course, the larger issues are still unanswered. There is a great deal of suffering to address, not only in humans, but in animals as well. Buddhism should offer a way to address the wider evil and suffering in the world: political corruption, poverty, genocide, war, and so on. This is, after all, what people have looked to gods to address, so we are left with a staggeringly massive problem once we remove a perfectly good god from equation; evil and suffering are suddenly the literal weight of the world on our shoulders. It is likely that because these issues are so intimidating and have a way of making us feel insignificant and small, we find solace in the idea that something greater and more powerful than ourselves will eventually rescue us. Like children, who make a mess of their rooms knowing their parents will clean up after them, we have made a mess of our planet and look to a celestial father figure to bail us out. It is time now to reckon with the fact that we are adults; we are on our own and this is entirely our problem to fix.
Predictably, then, if Buddhism identifies evil and suffering in us, then it also identifies the solution in us. This is Buddhism’s greatest insight with respect to evil and suffering. Epstein states:
Yet, one of the most compelling things about the Buddhist view of suffering is the notion, inherent in the Wheel of Life image, that the causes of suffering are also the means of release; that is, the sufferer’s perspective determines whether a given realm is a vehicle for awakening or for bondage. Conditioned by the forces of attachment, aversion, and delusion, our faulty perceptions of the realms—not the realms themselves—cause suffering.Ibid., 16
Briefly, the Wheel of Life is comprised of the Six Realms of Saṃsāra. Below is an image to help visualize what is inhered in each realm:
Prior to assuming a panoramic view, Buddhism’s view on animals is crucial. Recall stages three thru five of the Eightfold Path: Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood. These stages concern Buddhist ethical conduct (śīla). One of Buddhism’s precepts is ahiṃsā (non-violence). Bronwyn Finnigan, Senior Lecturer in the School of Philosophy at the Australian National University, outlines several arguments that extends ahiṃsā to animals. He states: “Since killing and harming animals causes suffering, and since suffering is intrinsically bad and should be prevented, it follows that one should not kill or harm animals” (Finnigan, Bronwyn. Buddhism and the moral status of animals. ABC Religions and Ethics. 21 Nov 2018. Web.). He also remarks: “I do not desire to suffer. If I were killed that would cause me to suffer. Animals are like me in not desiring to suffer. Killing animals causes them to suffer. So, I should not kill animals“; “Psychological states exist but no selves who own those states. If suffering should be removed, given some interest, then all sufferings should be removed, given some interest. Killing and harming animals causes them to suffer. Animals have an interest not to suffer. So, we should not kill or harm animals“; “Not killing or harming animals is a way to cultivate compassion. One should be compassionate. So, one should not kill or harm animals” (Ibid.). One of Finnigan’s four arguments must resonate with everyone. As a neo-Kantian, his second argument is the most compelling. In other words, since animals are like me, in that there is nothing that makes me special or superior to them as Western religions posit, they do not desire to suffer. It follows, therefore, that I should not harm or kill animals. Pursuing animal rights is too tangential for our current purposes, but Christine Korsgaard has an excellent take on this issue (Korsgaard, Christine M. 2011. “Interacting with Animals: A Kantian Account.” In The Oxford Handbook of Animal Ethics, ed. Tom L. Beauchamp and R. G. Frey, 91-118. Oxford: Oxford University Press.).
Now, to assume a bird’s-eye view. What are we to do about all the suffering and evil in the world? If we set aside the historical missteps some Buddhists have taken, e.g. the manner in which some have embraced violence, and try to imagine, instead of a Judeo-Christian-Islamic world, a Buddhist world, would the Eightfold Path solve the real problem of suffering and evil? If we all acquired a deep awareness of our cravings and subsequent addictions; if we all agreed to stop harming and killing others; if we all agreed to stop insulting one another and gossiping; if we all designed to meditate and unravel latent traumas; if we all studied the teachings of Buddha, building upon his initial ideas, do we now find ourselves in a better world? The greatest conceivable human being can be anyone of us, but, to my mind, there is no greater modern exemplary than the Dalai Lama. Boris-Dunchunstang recalls his story:
It was during the early morning hours of February 4, 1997, when three monks who were sleeping a few hundred yards from my living quarters were stabbed to death. They were cut up in a fashion that resembled an exorcism. One of the monks was my dearest friend and confidant, seventy-year-old Lobsang Gyatso. He was found dead in bed. Two younger monks, Ngawang Lodoe and my Chinese-language interpreter, Lobsang Ngawan, had been stabbed fifteen to twenty times, leaving the walls of the small monks’ chamber splattered with blood. I suspect there could have been five to eight attackers. The murderers were sending a very clear message to me.Boris-Dunchunstang, Eileen R. Finding Forgiveness. New York: McGraw Hill, 2006. 60-61. Print.
The Dalai Lama’s response to this tragedy is not what one would expect. He did not seek retribution or vengeance. He analyzed his initial shock and ensuing anger, and ultimately resolved to forgive the assailants. “Forgiveness is about healing suffering for ourselves and others. Until we develop compassion within ourselves and a concern about the welfare of others, we cannot truly forgive” (Ibid., 63). Massive problems like evil and suffering, and everything they entail, require an even greater solution. This, for much of Western civilization, we have imagined to be God. The solution, however, stares back at us every time we look in the mirror.
Buddhism’s solution to the Problem of Evil is to remove gods from the equation and reestablish humanity as both the cause and end of its own suffering. Mbembe, speaking of larger structural forces, invokes the ancient Greek idea that is inherent in the Buddhist definition of suffering:
The vast movement of repopulation of the world inaugurated at the edge of modern times ended in a massive “taking of lands” (colonization) on a scale and using technologies never before seen in the history of humanity. Far from leading democracy’s spread across the planet, the race for new lands opened onto a new law (nomos) of the Earth, the main characteristics of which was to establish war and race as history’s two privileged sacraments. The sacramentalization of war and race in the blast furnace of colonialism made it at once modernity’s antidote and poison, its twofold pharmakon.Mbembe, Achille. Necro-Politics. London: Duke University Press, 2019. 6 Print.
Humanity’s overall addiction can be summed up in the idea of pharmakon. Freud recognized that inherent in desire is dissatisfaction. This is most obvious in destructive addictions like drug and alcohol addiction. When a person gets their fix, they are on cloud nine, immensely satisfied, but the use of narcotics already implies abuse. The fix results in withdrawal and then withdrawal leads to further craving. This applies to money, the things money can buy, sex, power, influence, and so on. Not content with a few thousand followers, the social media influencer desires hundreds of thousands and then millions. There is always this idea in us that there are more steps on the ladder, higher plateaus to reach. Our suffering is already entailed in the deep disappointment we will feel when we fail to reach a goal. When you add layers to one’s ambition involving exploitation, violence, greed, corruption, hatred, and so on, one starts to see how most of the world’s suffering is due to craving becoming addiction and addiction becoming a disregard for the people one knowingly harms and an ignorance of anyone who suffers collateral damage. The Western addiction of colonialism, in America, followed by the institution of its twisted idea of Democracy, is the pharmakon at the root of suffering the world over. America is precisely like The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, difference being that the suffering of one chid is compounded as the suffering of many children.
It is more probable that the suffering and evil we see in the world is because half of the world population persists under the delusion that the world is supposed to be degenerate. This is par for the course, all a prelude for the second advent of Christ, for instance. While that has not stopped Christians in the West from taking action against suffering and evil in the world, they all believe that there is no ultimate solution that humans, on their own, can implement. They continue to believe that the world will remain in a degenerate state despite our collective efforts. Buddhism does better in this respect, returning all power to humanity, and imbuing us, once again, with the god-like power we continue to identify in our own species. We are the source of our own suffering. Specifically, our lack of self-awareness and our lack of compassion for other people has us in this predicament. What’s worse is that now there are forces much larger than any one person at play and it is required for us to topple these idols before we can renew human civilization: American Democracy, racism, colonialism, Capitalism, and all the greed, corruption, and human rights abuses that flow from them. These are evils that we ourselves have cultivated and evils that perpetuate a bulk of the world’s suffering.
What that leaves, then, is disease, natural disasters, and all manner of suffering that is outside of our control. Inherent in Buddhism, as the Dalai Lama identified, is that these things will happen and they will pass. People we love will die of disease or in a natural disaster. There is no finger to point in this case, no one we can blame. But as it is with anger, jealousy, pleasure, and so on, we have to develop a deeper awareness of our mourning and find a way to work through it. Buddhism has a larger, less naturalistic framework, that is capable of addressing existential crises like the loss of a loved one, e.g. the cycle of death and rebirth (saṃsāra).
Ultimately, Buddhism offers much in the way of a solution for the Problem of Evil. To reiterate, it relieves the cause of tension, namely the belief in a perfectly good deus ex machina that will eventually restore the Earth from its current degeneracy. Buddhism then identifies the true source of evil and suffering, which also happens to be the solution to our suffering; humankind, in other words, is like the notion of pharmakon, both its own poison and antidote. In recognition of this truth, Buddhism then offers us a path to release our cravings and end our own suffering: wisdom (pāli), ethics (śīla), and meditation (bhāvanā). Most importantly, Buddhism gives us the potential to finally stop arguing about the Problem of Evil in the philosophy of religion and turn our attention to the actual problem of evil and suffering in our world. The restoration of our degenerate world rests on our shoulders. Aside from solving a longstanding problem in the philosophy of religion, Buddhism provides a prescription to solve the problem at large. This is the kind of solution we should all get behind.
So that there’s no confusion, Steven at Hellenistic Christendom is referring to a post on my Tumblr blog titled An Open Letter to Christians. The letter is admittedly polemic, especially given that I was in the process of revisiting (for lack of a better word) Christian bloggers who I have had debates and discussions with in the past. The Christians who have become even more repulsive, professing things that are shocking even for them, are the individuals the letter was mostly intended for.
In discussions and debates, or in my more general rhetoric, I employ two similar, albeit subtly different, tools meant to end a discussion. The one is a tool meant to tell a given opponent that I have no respect for them personally. To put it mildly, it’s my way of telling them to shove off because I don’t feel the individual is treating me, first and foremost, like a human being. An apotheosis would be most Trump supporters. While I still try to reason with some of them because I recognize they deal with cognitive dissonance borne from disenfranchisement (i.e., they support Trump because, to their mind, it’s the same as supporting the Republican Party; otherwise, there’s no longer a Party for them to belong to), the lot of them don’t see me as a human being and by their own admission, would rather see me dead. There’s no use in having a discussion with anyone who isn’t convinced of one’s basic humanity.
The letter was more so designed to be a definitive end to any discussion or debate with those kind of Christians and it was successful given that none of the individuals I had in mind came forward to respond. Another tool I employ may seem identical, but it is more so intended as a sort of non-fallacious Courtier’s Reply. As Steven can attest, one gets frustrated speaking to someone else who isn’t on the same level, which is to say, I get frustrated speaking to someone who is either an ultracrepidarian or someone who has succumbed to the Dunning-Kruger effect and as such, doesn’t know as much as they think they do about the topic(s) in question. Steven briefly mentioned debates on evolution and creationism; I rarely come across a creationist that deserves intellectual respect and because of that, I often admonish them to study evolution more in-depth. Even when they have a perfunctory grasp of an evolutionary concept, like speciation, they quickly show that they’re not as versed on the topic as they claim to be, conflating or even failing to see the differences between sympatric and allopatric speciation, for instance.
So while I do accept Steven’s apology, I feel like an apology of my own is in order. I apologize because the latter tool ran the risk of knocking the wind out of your sails. Setting aside that you peered over the shoulders of giants, it was unfair to level accusations of intellectual dishonesty, pretense, and hollow thought, no matter how accurate they might have been. The accusations could have resulted in a loss of intellectual interest and curiosity; I’m glad that only confidence was lost for a time. I wouldn’t want to be responsible from having further discouraged you from studying already dismaying disciplines. Philosophy and science are not easily apprehended, as you well know and as evidenced by how esoteric each discipline has become, largely relegated to the confines of the ivory towers of academia.
Otherwise, you have nothing to apologize for. Discussions like these don’t persist for our (mine and yours) benefit. They persist for the benefit of the audience. Given this, whenever I do decide to have such discussions or debates, despite being a post-theist, the hope is that my opponent is an intellectual equal, give or take. It is of no benefit to the audience if there’s a intellectual skew, so to speak. It is my desire, given that anyone is to decide between an array of positions, that each position be represented charitably and accurately. Because of this, in participating in a discussion or debate in where one is at an intellectual (dis)advantage, one is robbing the audience of an accurate and holistic rendering of a given position(s). This is why so many people reject not the position in question, but a misrepresentation of said position, e.g., feminism.
Despite your youth at the time, you didn’t respond with your own surmises. I should have appreciated that more at the time. At the very least, you turned to people you considered authorities on the matter, so even if you couldn’t accurately and holistically represent a given position, you gave the audience a path to follow. Some paths, though dead-ends, are still worth taking if only because they have become undeservedly popular, e.g., mainstream evidential apologetics. Other paths, even if erroneous, are worth taking because I still wholeheartedly believe that the best response to a flawed path comes from someone who walked it. This is why I often start a discussion or debate with a Christian by telling them that I believed as they did; I stood where they stood. So the question I want to stick with them is: why am I now standing over here?
I stand here because I don’t think the Christian system succeeds. This is when some readers would scoff. “Christianity has convinced some one-fourth of the world’s population! How dare he say it’s not successful!?” To which I would say that it takes a depraved Western mind to equate popularity with success. Never mind that Islam is more “successful.”
Look to your brother! Steven has the right idea. Christianity should extend as an overarching philosophy, a fact recognized by Patristic thinkers like Irenaeus, Augustine, Origen, etc. If ever there were a “true” religion, it would have to make sense of reality and experience in toto and for everyone. In this (!), I do not think Christianity is successful.
With no intentions of scaring Steven, he finds himself at a particular place in my own journey that I consider the turning point. For me, it was shortly thereafter when I realized, Christianity is false. It’s not a true religion or philosophy; it is an inadequate system.
To keep this response brief and on topic, one of the reasons I came to this realization is because Christianity doesn’t succeed at logically explaining, defending against, and/or justifying suffering and evil. Before I proceed, it is admirable that Steven is doing what a lot of Christians don’t: leaning on “The Word of God.” Though it isn’t uncommon for a Christian to find comfort in the Bible, some so-called Christians act as though the Bible is beneath them! They would much rather rely on personal insults or less egregiously, on scholarly input devoid of any biblical exegesis, let alone “sound” doctrine. So they end up pursuing what they think is a robust philosophical explanation, but don’t stop to consider whether that explanation is theologically consistent.
The Problem of Gratuitous Suffering and Evil
I take issue with Steven’s idea of “truth that is true for them.” It has the particularly putrid scent of epistemic subjectivism. While I don’t deny that perspectives are important, I wouldn’t say that perspectivism, Nietzschean or otherwise, is equivalent to subjectivism. Although I don’t see Nietzsche as saying that each perspective is as true as the next, even if he did alluded to such a conclusion, I would only agree that each perspective seems as true as the next. Nietzsche, however, isn’t alluding to such a conclusion, let alone drawing that conclusion. So I can understand, given the story of Job, how someone might come to the conclusion that I don’t have the full story. It is, after all, how things seem from Steven’s perspective. I can also understand why Steven would say the following:
The full picture, then, is contained somewhere between the lessons established with the anxieties of the Old Testament man, the judgement of God (“Wail, for the day of the Lord is near,” Isaiah 13:6), the coming of the New Covenant and finally the death and redemptive execution of Jesus’ resurrection. Surely there must be some answer from the Son of God whom has conquered death.
This is where it is once again useful to remind Steven, along with everyone following this discussion, that I walked the Christian path. The story of Job represents not just the anxiety of Old Testament men, men who lived under the old covenant; it also represents the optimism of every worshipper of the Judeo-Christian god from the Old to the New Testament and beyond. God is not just a consuming fire; he is also merciful. The optimism expressed in Job is the optimism modern Christians express as well: “God’s grace and abundance will arrive! He will have mercy. This is just a trial, a tribulation. It means something, it is for something!”
In fact, all of the Sunday School stories are meant to give children a cohesive narrative: “God is like any caring parent. His punishments can be harsh, but even his punishments are informed by his love.” Job’s story ends with God restoring Job’s fortunes: he gave him twice as many friends, ten children (seven sons and three daughters), 14,000 sheep, 6,000 camels, and so on. Likewise, Jonah survives in the belly of a large fish and is eventually released after a repentant prayer. God floods the world save Noah, his family, and two to seven of each kind of animal. All of these are stories borne of, as Steven alluded to, “childish” optimism. Moreover, they are stories intended to instill trust in god.
These stories are taught in Sunday school for two reasons, one far more insidious than the other: 1) they are allusive to the archetype of Jesus’ redemptive sacrifice on the cross in that god’s wrath during the old covenant is supplanted by his grace via the salvation one can find in Jesus Christ, the advent of the new covenant; 2) it is not so much an instillation of trust in god, but rather what I’ll call first indoctrination. First indoctrination is much harder to instill in an older convert; that is perhaps one reason why it was easier for me, a convert at 18-years-old, to pull away from Christianity. From what I gather, it is much more difficult for a lifelong Christian to even question Christianity, let alone renounce it. First indoctrination is, as many atheists have pointed out, tantamount to the psychology of abuse: “even if god hurts you, it is for your own good; never forget that he loves you no matter what!” Even if god sees fit to make you orphaned, homeless, infertile, sterile, diseased, or what have you, it is for a purpose and, even if you lose sight of the fact and can’t explain why this has happened to you, he loves you.
This is precisely the mentality I had when my relationship with my relatives became strained, when at 19-years-old, I was kicked out of my house. I was homeless for four years and I remember my resolute determination: there’s a reason for this! God still loves me! I’ll make it out of this! Yet my making it out found no better explanation in Christianity than it did in naturalism.
The key was to give myself and the people who supported me credit rather than “give God all the glory.” No! It’s not that god put a certain drive in me, a drive that has made me the kind of person that doesn’t like to lose and that certainly doesn’t quit. It’s not that he put supportive people around me. Rather, given multifarious facts relating to me, my upbringing, what I’ve been exposed to, my genetics, my neurophysiology, and the upbringings, exposures, etc. of them who supported me, I found a way out of homelessness. It’s the proverbial Spanish Pentecostal tale that goes around: “Woe is me! I’m stranded in the ocean! From where does my help come from! It comes from God!” Then God sent a boat. And you said, “no, I will wait on the Lord!” Then God sent a ship. And you said, “no I will wait on the Lord!” Then God sent a helicopter. And you said, “no, I will wait on the Lord!” Then you drowned because you didn’t see that God uses people to bless you!
As Steven alluded to, “God’s hiddenness puts one in a state of ‘existential vertigo.'” That is when one ought to sit still and come to realization that god is not hidden, but rather replaced. Perhaps Christianity has suffered from a base bifurcation: the notion that there’s a scapegoat, a vessel for god’s good use. If there be any value in the Sunday School stories and moreover, in the story and ministry of Jesus, it is perhaps in the realization that redemptive salvation, if indeed you require such a thing, is not in some outside celestial figure, but rather in you. God and man are concomitant in you. So perhaps it’s not so much that man created god in his own image, but that god is the apotheosis of man and that Christianity is thus better apprehended as a full revelation of man himself. The light at the end of the tunnel has nothing at all to do with some invisible figure pushing you along, but rather in you finding it within yourself to keep walking, or even crawling on bloodied knees and knuckles, until the end is reached. Yet why do we make so much of our own suffering?! Other people have it much worse. Furthermore, there are other religious philosophies that have succeeded where Christianity doesn’t, e.g., Buddhism. That’s another reason why I renounced Christianity, but I digress.
The Problem of Gratuitous Suffering and Evil requires a pivot. One must imagine oneself as a Christian, first and foremost. You must step into the Christian’s shoes, adopt the Christian position. You have to commit to the proposition that God exists and that there is an undeniable and observable degree of suffering and evil, both moral (human-driven) and natural (not human-driven) in the world. As a Christian interested in the project of systematizing reality, the onus is on you to reconcile these two propositions. How can a perfectly moral, good god allow so much suffering and evil? As Steven mentioned, there are several defenses and justifications. Unfortunately, none are satisfactory.
A Summary of Defenses and Theodicies
Because my interest is not only to inform, but to inform well, I will take it upon myself to go over two theodicies that are commonly offered. I will discuss the Free Will Theodicy and the Best of All Possible Worlds Theodicy. Then, I will circle back around to Steven’s “Full Story Theodicy,” which Michael Martin coined the “Ultimate Harmony Theodicy.” It is a theodicy based on optimism, on the notion that there’s a good reason for all of the suffering and evil we observe in the world, no matter how gratuitous.
The Free Will Theodicy
Though Alvin Plantinga is often, albeit wrongly, credited for this theodicy, this theodicy goes back to Irenaeus. It was further developed by John Hick, a twentieth century philosopher of religion. Both Irenaeus and Hick systematized human (Libertarian) free will.1 Arguably, there’s an inconsistency in their view of free will because they don’t focus on the origin of the human propensity for evil, i.e., original sin. If one were interested in a systematic reconciliation of the Original Sin Theodicy and Hick’s theodicy, it would be a rather simple task. The only issue would be in assuming that God allowed the Fall because he wanted human beings to ascend to moral perfection. He wanted to give us a choice and of course, a choice isn’t real unless there are alternatives. You can choose to lead an immoral life, to live in sin, or you can, per the Old Testament, keep God’s commandments or, per the New Testament, confess your sins and accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. This sort of theodicy would run into exegetical issues, however. Human beings do not, on their own will, ascend to moral perfection. According to Ephesians 2:8, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”
Moral perfection or perhaps better put, holiness, isn’t a summit one reaches; it is more like, especially given allusions in the Bible (e.g. Colossians 3), a garment that you are adorned with. So Irenaeus and Hicks failed at this systematization because they forgot that “he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). As a person driven by great personal pride, I can see the allure of Irenaeus and Hicks’ point of view; we are essentially Sisyphus, but we succeed at pushing the boulder to the summit! It is, however, not a Christian point of view.
Plantinga, however, does extend the Free Will Theodicy in a way that my open letter alluded to. One proposition he holds is “God is omniscient, omnipotent, and morally perfect; God has created the world; all evil in the world is [the result of free actions by created creatures]; and there is no possible world God could have created that contains a better balance of [moral good and evil].”2 So, according to Plantinga, natural evil is a type of moral evil in that Satan and his demons are responsible for it. It’s worth repeating what I said in my open letter should suffice:
The appeal to spiritual entities has an evidential problem that I’ll set aside, i.e. they already have trouble proving their god exists, but now they’re talking about other spiritual entities that they can’t prove exist. What’s important here is that, unlike their god, these malignant entities are not omnipotent. If their power is finite compared to that of their god’s, the villains in this story would never win. So either the hero isn’t all-powerful or the hero is indifferent. A bystander who stands idly by when someone needs help, given that they’re human, might not help for fear of their own safety. God, on the other hand, would not be susceptible to bystander effect! An eternal, omnipotent being can’t possibly fear for his safety, so why does your god stand idly by when children suffer!?
Per Plantinga, Hurricane Katrina wasn’t caused by God. It was caused by Satan or a very powerful demon(s). Setting aside the dubious notion that New Orleans is filled with concupiscent people who deserved to be made examples of, there were well-meaning Christians and children in New Orleans. God is omnipotent, but Satan and his generals are not. So even if I granted that Satan himself or some powerful demon(s) created a destructive hurricane and aimed it at Florida and Louisiana, with every intent of bringing New Orleans to its knees, there is still the free will of God to contend with! Why did the omnipotent hero stand idly by as less powerful villains enacted their evil plot? Plantinga’s Free Will Theodicy doesn’t explain evil and suffering because God’s will is infinitely more powerful than mine, yours, Satan’s, and any demon’s. So what gives?
We come full circle to Hicks. Perhaps Katrina was allowed to help us on our moral journey. Yet given what the Bible says, we have no such moral journey. Once we repent, we are made clean by Jesus’ blood. We don’t have to do the work of cleansing ourselves. Given this doctrinal truth, there’s no sense in which Katrina or any other catastrophe was intended to strengthen our moral fiber. Tragedies aren’t intended to test us, to call us to action. Perhaps this is why so many Christians are content with “thoughts and prayers”! There isn’t much we can do. All is in God’s hands.
Best of All Possible Worlds Theodicy
Perhaps this is why Plantinga alludes to the Leibnizian Best of All Possible Worlds Theodicy: “there is no possible world God could have created that contains a better balance of [moral good and evil].” Plantinga falls into a trap that Leibniz was well-aware of:
Leibniz was aware of this argument denying God’s obligation to create the best, but he was firmly committed to rejecting it, in virtue of a central principle of his philosophical system, the Principle of Sufficient Reason. According to the Principle of Sufficient Reason, for any state of affairs, there must be a sufficient reason that explains why that state of affairs and not some other state of affairs obtains. When it comes to our world, then, there must be some reason that explains why it, and not some other world, obtains. But there can be no such reason if it is the case that the goodness of worlds increases ad infinitum. Leibniz therefore concluded that there can be no infinite continuum of worlds.3
Given the Principle of Sufficient Reason, a Christian must reconcile the purported existence of a perfectly moral, good god and the observable existence of evil and suffering. From the Christian perspective, these two states of affairs obtain and as such, require an explanation. That, however, doesn’t explain why Leibniz saw this world as the mean of all possible worlds. If there exists infinitely many worlds with decreased goodness and infinitely many worlds with increased goodness, what makes this one the desired middle? This statistical manner of looking at the existence of our world is all too human because means imply margin for error, but for God, there is no error and he therefore, requires no margin for it.
Leibniz scholars, however, have identified what has been called the Holiness Problem. God is tarnished by the existence of evil because something can’t exist unless he deems it so. Per Leibniz, even if one holds that all evil is a privation of good, there is no way God isn’t also the author of all privations. Leibniz draws an analogy of two paintings, one of which is a smaller-scaled version of the other:
To say that the painter is the author of all that is real in the two paintings, without however being the author of what is lacking or the disproportion between the larger and the smaller painting… . In effect, what is lacking is nothing more than a simple result of an infallible consequence of that which is positive, without any need for a distinct author [of that which is lacking].4
We can agree that art isn’t about exactness or at least, not all art is about that. A portrait or landscape can be photorealistic, but no one would conclude that the artist captured the existence of a thing or even its essence. It is still, in the end, a representation. If an artist makes any conscious choice while rendering his representation, he also chose against some alternative. If s/he chooses to represent a person or landscape in black and white, s/he also chooses against representing a person or landscape in color. As such, the privation of color present in the painting is by choice. Privation is collateral and can, at times, be consciously selected. So God, in demarcating this world as the mean among all possible worlds, is to blame for Attenborough’s parasitic worm:
But I tend to think instead of a parasitic worm that is boring through the eye of a boy sitting on the bank of a river in West Africa, [a worm] that’ going to make him blind.
‘And [I ask them], “Are you telling me that the God you believe in, who you also say is an all- merciful God, who cares for each one of us individually, are you saying that God created this worm that can live in no other way than in an innocent child’s eyeball? Because that doesn’t seem to me to coincide with a God who’ full of mercy.5
In making this the best of all possible worlds, either because it’s the mean of worlds of increasing goodness or because it is the most parsimonious of worlds, God is responsible for parasites of this sort. There would be no getting around that. As with the Free Will Theodicy, there’s also a theological issue with the Leibnizian theodicy: Heaven. God has already created a world with maximum goodness and no evil at all. So we can then ask why human beings weren’t created to inhabit heaven from the start. Even a Christian can start to sense that perhaps, as other Christians have noted, theodicies do more harm than good.
The Full Story Theodicy
Steven’s line of thinking here is not uncommon. In other discussions with Christians, they remind me that god is omniscient and I’m not. I recall one odious Christian telling me something along the lines that I can’t conclude that this doesn’t look like a universe created by god because I’m stupid and god is infinitely more intelligent than I am. Steven’s line of thinking, while not disrespectful, is more or less the same. While he concludes that it’s likely that no one can know the full story in this life, he cites C.S. Lewis who said it would be arrogant of anyone to say there’s a moral dilemma though they’re half-way through the story.
Yes, Job suffered; he suffered enough for three or four different people, but as the story goes, good recompense awaited Job at the end of it all. The same goes for Noah and Jonah. Steven’s Full Story Theodicy rests on the same optimism present in these Sunday School stories. All evil and suffering exists for some good end. That still doesn’t explain how this good end compensates for the degrees of evil and suffering we observe and experience in this world. Even if I agreed that heaven, a place with no tears and suffering, is the good end to these observances and experiences, there’s still the issue that in the present, these things exist. Perhaps a thought experiment can work here.
Imagine a poor boy living in an Arab territory. His father is sick. His mother is unable to work because she is caring for the boy and his younger siblings. So he takes it upon himself to steal bread from a local vendor. Unfortunately, he is caught and he loses his right hand. Eventually, he receives a prosthetic hand that allows him to lift ten times his body weight. It works just as well as the biological hand he once had. Yet this prosthetic hand doesn’t take away the pain he felt when they cut off his hand. It doesn’t change the years he suffered, like the struggles he experienced relearning to do simple things with his left hand. It doesn’t change the nerve pain he still experiences till this day.
On the assumption that there’s a continuance of consciousness between this life and an afterlife in Heaven, no blissful experience there would change the trauma, the pain, the memories from here, and to do so, would be to fundamentally change one’s identity. So, there’s already an issue with that assumption. To delete one’s memories of a loved one because s/he didn’t make it into Heaven would be to change one at a fundamental level. So the version of me that enters Heaven isn’t the person I am now; so there would be no way in which my homelessness at 19-years-old is justified by living in a heavenly mansion. The heavenly version of me would have forgotten all of my earthly trials. Or, to make it so that I can’t suffer or cry would be to change me into the automatons early theologians thought animals were. We know better now, but to exist in a state in where I can’t reflect on my trauma, no matter how distant they are in my past, is tantamount to existing in a state in where I can’t reflect on my bliss either! So if my thinking here is accurate, there’s no sense in which past evil or suffering can be justified by some future good, even on the assumption that a perfectly good world (Heaven) exists.
Steven, it’s not that there are no arguments capable of changing my mind and heart because I’m obstinate. Obstinacy features in a person who is wrong and yet fails to correct himself. What do we say of a person who is right and refuses to budge? My mind and my heart are in the right place because I have done my due diligence in exhausting most of the ways in which Christianity might be true. Aside from systematizing reality, this system would have to be as simple as it is esoteric. Sure, a mature Christianity isn’t the proverbial walk in the park. There is much philosophical and theological ground to cover for any Christian who takes their devotion seriously. You recognize that and I admire that about you.
Likewise, any naturalist who takes their position seriously has arguably more ground to cover. I’m not only a non-Christian, but just as much, I’m a non-Muslim, non-Jew, non-Hindu. I also do not mystify consciousness. I reject nonphysicalist theories of consciousness, for example. I am as fervent in my rejection of panpsychism as I am in my rejection of Cartesian dualism. Just as fervently, I reject a theodicy based on reincarnation: suffering and evil exist because some accumulative karma from past lives determined that. Like you, I do not allow for systemic inconsistency, so it can’t be that I’m a naturalist with regards to the origin of the universe, but a non-naturalist with regards to consciousness. While there are philosophers who entertain such inconsistencies, I don’t think cognitive dissonance is a good leg to stand on. If anything, it’s a temporary crutch while one is in limbo between two seductive positions.
In any case, even though naturalism arguably spreads itself in more directions, it is a far simpler system, especially given that , assuming the naturalist in question believes in agency, only deals with the agency of entities that can easily be shown to exist. So when there’s a particularly pungent stench in the corner of my bedroom coming from a yellowish puddle on the floor, I now have to decide whether my girlfriend or my cat urinated on the floor. I can point to both agents and others can also verify that they both exist, and naturalist, Christian, or otherwise, everyone will agree that my girlfriend is the culprit! Jokes aside, we both know that even in esoteric matters, the simplest and, more often than not, naturalistic explanation is not only preferred, but also the case. No one would reason that a ghost urinated on my floor!
For many reasons not outlined here, I no longer identify as a Christian. It is not because, as some immature Christians would have it, I deny god in my unrighteousness or because I’m angry with him for causing a rift between me and my family, and making me homeless. Truth is, I’m responsible for that rift! Sure, I was young and far more hotheaded then than I am now, but I disrespected the Matriarch of my family, my grandmother and I did so when she was older and more fragile. I was an existential risk to her. My aunts, recognizing this, thought it best to separate me from her. Maybe they knew I was too stubborn to commit suicide or stay homeless or go insane. Maybe they knew I’d find a way.
Since then, we have had a short, but welcome reconciliation. At my father’s wake, which I was afraid to even show up to, my family forgave me. There were hugs and love and memories all around and ironically, this was all to do with my father’s example: he was a forgiving man, a forgiveness he adopted from the teachings of Jesus Christ and one that resonated with them. Yet it was still on me to accept their forgiveness and I did because even though I’ve matured and made someone of myself, I still recognized that my past self was someone who needed to apologize, someone who needed forgiveness. I was wrong!
I am, however, not wrong for being human. I do not think I’m totally depraved and I don’t think humans, by nature, are either. I can elaborate, but what I see are proclivities towards one vice or another for reasons mostly outside of our control. This would explain why even the most publicly devout Christians are the most privately immoral people. This explains why a guy in one of my old churches molested his daughters and granddaughter and explains why one of his sons molested his younger brother. This explains why evangelists seek out prostitutes. This explains why young couples commit fornication near universally. And yet the latter is contingent on the notion that marriage justifies sexual intercourse. I, on the other hand, believe that if both parties are educated, especially with regards to the consequences, and are in a position to consent to one another, then they are doing nothing wrong by having sex.
Where does it end? Let’s say a future good justifies a past evil, if a Christian guy’s girlfriend eventually becomes his wife, then is their past fornication justified by their future marriage? It can be argued that the couple never did anything wrong because God, being omniscient, saw their marriage. Never mind that this relies on what I think is a fault theory of time! On the A-theory, talk of past, present, and future are germane. In fact, on any realist theory of time, these concepts must be entertained. Time, on my view, is purely conceptual and not fundamental, but even in concept, we can visualize it as a line in which all points between a beginning and an end already exist. This is why we can visualize, plan, and execute our plans. This is why we meet someone, see a future with them, and take steps to ensure that that future, and not some other future, happens. So given this, a young man sleeping with his present-day girlfriend is not doing anything wrong if she’s his future-day wife, but I digress.
There’s much more I can say explaining why I’m not a Christian, but suffice to say I’m not a Christian. My reasons are exhaustive and spread out in a lot of different directions, but I think the crux has been aptly captured here: as a system, Christianity fails. This is what I intend when I say that Christianity is not true. For any experience or observation or entity x, Christianity must serve as a cogent and superior explanation for x. No other system should be able to outperform Christianity on any of these fronts. Should there be a system that does outperform it, then the likelihood of Christianity being a good system, let alone the best system, decreases. This is what I found as the scales fell from eyes. Christianity fails to account for many things x, y, and z. Suffering and evil are just a small part of that.
1 Cramer, David C. “John Hick (1922-2012)”. International Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web. ND.
2 Arguing About Evil: Plantinga’s Free Will Defense”. Common Sense Atheism. 25 Oct 2009. Web.
3 Murray, Michael J. “Leibniz on the Problem of Evil”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 27 Feb 2013. Web.
5 Firma, Terry. “Naturalist Sir David Attenborough Loses His Patience With Bible Literalists”. Friendly Atheist. 15 Feb 2014. Web.
By R.N. Carmona
Alvin Plantinga, a renowned reformed philosopher and theologian, likely has more than the two theodicies discussed here. These two theodicies, however, are a common route for theists to take. The first defense is no doubt familiar to the reader: the Free Will defense. The second defense is also familiar, but is less relied upon: this defense, for our purposes, will be called the Ignorance defense.
Plantinga’s Free Will defense fails for two reasons, but prior to demonstrating this, a fair treatment of his defense must be granted. So we will first look at what his defense is. HIs defense relies on two assumptions. He also has a set of possible worlds, one of which we’ll consider. HIs first assumption is as follows:
(MSR1) God’s creation of persons with morally significant free will is something of tremendous value. God could not eliminate much of the evil and suffering in this world without thereby eliminating the greater good of having created persons with free will with whom he could have relationships and who are able to love one another and do good deeds.1
MSR1, on the surface, makes sense. It’s plausible that this is the reason the Judeo-Christian god allows evil. MSR1, however, is based on a problematic version of free will, namely Libertarian free will. Libertarianism can be defined as the “view that seeks to protect the reality of human ‘free will by supposing that a free choice is not causally determined but not random either.’”2 As commentary, Blackburn states, that “[w]hat is needed is the conception of a rational, responsible intervention in the ongoing course of events”. He adds that “[i]n some developments a special category of agent-causation is posited, but its relationship with the neurophysiological working of the brain and body, or indeed any moderately naturalistic view of ourselves, tends to be very uneasy, and it is frequently derided as the desire to protect the fantasy of an agency situated outside the realm of nature altogether.”3 This statement implies Cartesian dualism, which is too tangential for our purposes. Whether or not Cartesian dualism helps the case for Libertarian free will, or whether or not it is necessary to make sense of such free will shouldn’t occupy us here.
Libertarian free will is itself questionable. Michael Tooley with the University of Colorado writes:
One problem with an appeal to libertarian free will is that no satisfactory account of the concept of libertarian free will is yet available. Thus, while the requirement that, in order to be free in the libertarian sense, an action not have any cause that lies outside the agent is unproblematic, this is obviously not a sufficient condition, since this condition would be satisfied if the behavior in question was caused by random events within the agent. So one needs to add that the agent is, in some sense, the cause of the action. But how is the causation in question to be understood? Present accounts of the metaphysics of causation typically treat causes as states of affairs. If, however, one adopts such an approach, then it seems that all that one has when an action is freely done, in the libertarian sense, is that there is some uncaused mental state of the agent that causally gives rise to the relevant behavior, and why freedom, thus understood, should be thought valuable, is far from clear.4
He adds that the Libertarian can make a switch from event-causation to agent-causation, but there’s no cogent account for agent-causation either. This harkens back to Blackburn’s sentiments.
Plantinga discusses four possible worlds, the third of which is the most important, which is W1. It looks as follows:
(a) God creates persons with morally significant free will
(b) God does not causally determine people in every situation to choose what is right and to avoid what is wrong and
© There is evil and suffering in W1.5
If god exists, this is precisely the kind of world we seem to live in. Plantinga’s defense is that god couldn’t eliminate evil without infringing upon our choices and by extension, what good might come of them. Plantinga, in this vein, states:
A world containing creatures who are sometimes significantly free (and freely perform more good than evil actions) is more valuable, all else being equal, than a world containing no free creatures at all. Now God can create free creatures, but he cannot cause or determine them to do only what is right. For if he does so, then they are not 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 cannot leave these creatures free to perform evil and at the same time prevent them from doing so…. The fact that these 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 excising the possibility of moral good. (Plantinga 1974, pp. 166-167)6
That a world where humans have Libertarian free will is more valuable than one without that is dubious. Plantinga can’t purport to know what such a world would look like. Furthermore, if we are to take predestination seriously, verses like Psalm 139:16 have to be squared with Plantinga’s account of free will. The context of that verse seems to imply we don’t have free will. There is, if that verse and another which will be discussed shortly are to be believed, a celestial determinism if you will. Consider, for example, Exodus 9:12. There is no sense in which Pharaoh was free to listen. His heart was hardened by god; god, in other words, violates stipulation (b) in W1.
So it appears, on the theist’s view, that we live in a world that resembles W1, but differs in a significant way. God sometimes causally determines our moral decisions. Given Libertarian free will and predestination, which was briefly discussed here, Plantinga’s Free Will defense is inadequate.
Another reason it fails is because it focuses on human-driven evil and not natural evil. To cover this base, Plantinga deploys MSR2, which states that “God allowed natural evil to enter the world as part of Adam and Eve’s punishment for their sin in the Garden of Eden.”7 This is textually, historically, and even scientifically dubious. This too is also too tangential for our purposes. Suffice it to say that here Plantinga presupposes Christian theology to defend Christianity. MSR2 is, at best, unsubstantiated and at worst, false. The burden of proof is then on Plantinga to demonstrate that Genesis 3 is a factual, historical account. It isn’t enough to believe that it happened or to assert that it best explains human nature. These predilections are rooted in the very theology Plantinga is attempting to defend. These statements simply beg the question.
We will now turn to Plantinga’s Ignorance defense. We will note here that he himself doesn’t call it the Ignorance defense. We will call it that given the fact that it relies on our ignorance to work. In other words, the defense states that since our wisdom is incomparable to god’s, we can’t know why he allows evil. Moreover, since it’s reasonable that he has some reason—no doubt unknown to us—for allowing evil, we can’t reasonably blame god for the evil in the world. Let us turn to some of Plantinga’s explications. Kai Nielsen states:
Plantinga grants that, as far as we can see, there are many cases of evil that are apparently pointless. Indeed there are many cases of such evils where we have no idea at all what reason God (if there is such a person) could have for permitting such evils. But, Plantinga remarks, from granting these things it does not follow that “an omnipotent and omniscient God, if he existed, would not have a reason for permitting them” (Plantinga 1993, 400). From the fact that we can see no reason at all for God to permit evils, we cannot legitimately infer that God has no reason to allow such evils. It is not just, Plantinga continues, “obvious or apparent that God could have reason for permitting them. The most we can sensibly say is that we can’t think of any good reason why he would permit them” (Plantinga 1993, 400).8
This, in a nutshell, is the Ignorance defense. We are, in other words, ignorant of god’s will and our wisdom pales in comparison to his. Nielsen, however, has the makings of a perfect counter. All that’s needed is to see his counter from the point of view of one of god’s attributes. Nielsen states that “it looks more like, if he exists and is all powerful and all knowing, that then he more likely to be evil.” He adds that “we see that all the same he might possibly be, as Jewish, Christian, and Islamic religions say he is, perfectly good. But we cannot see that he is. The Mosaic God looks, to understate it, petty, unjust, and cruel to us.”9 This counter is made perfect if we see this from the point of view of god’s omniscience. God would know that we would be unable to see that he is good in light of natural evil. This evil is, in fact, gratuitous. God would have seen, in his omniscience, that the quantity of natural evil in the world would be enough to drive so many to doubt. This apart from contradictory revelations, the limited range and capacity of Christianity, i.e., it’s capacity to appeal to people of other cultures, and the negative evidence against the existence of the Judeo-Christian god. We are then asked “to stick with a belief in what we see to be some kind of possibility, namely that God is, after all, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, perfectly good.”10 Like Nielsen, however, I see this as an obstinate appeal to the very faith that needs to be substantiated. Furthermore, I see this as an implied superiority of faith over reason. Like Galileo, who no doubt said this with a different sentiment, I “do not feel obliged to believe that same God who endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect had intended for us to forgo their use.” There are other reasons showing that reason is superior to faith, especially since the former is the agreed upon approach in all aspects of life except religion. Nielsen discusses this at length, but that’s not exactly germane to this discussion.
Though we’ve called it the Ignorance defense, Plantinga does argue that we can be privy to god’s reasons for allowing evil (Plantinga 1993, 400-401). This, unfortunately, relies on revelation and is thus, dubious. No amount of revelation can make one privy to all instances of evil in the world—both human-driven and natural. God, for example, isn’t keen on revealing to believers why a forest fire leads to the suffering and deaths of the animals in that ecosystem. This, in fact, seems to be of little concern given putative revelations in the Abrahamic faiths. God, given, for instance, the Book of Job, seems intent on justifying the existence of and need for human-driven evil. Plantinga employs the Book of Job in his defense. This, like the previous defense, is problematic. Given history and textual criticism, the Book of Job is mired with problems. We would, again, have to lean on an obstinate faith to consider it a good supplement to any theodicy or to see it as a theodicy all its own.
The Problem of Evil, especially when adding the element of gratuitous evil, remains an outstanding problem for theism. There is no cogent theodicy or defense against it, Plantinga notwithstanding. The Free Will and Ignorance defenses fail for a number reason—most prominent of which being the groundless presuppositions underlying the arguments. This is to say nothing of the Leibnizian best possible world and defenses in that vein. Theodicies warrant fuller treatment and this has indeed been done. What we have, unfortunately, is one party who refuses to read what the opposition has to say. This is why some plainly and no doubt, hyperbolically, assert that solutions have been offered for centuries. These purported solutions have also been scrutinized as has been briefly sketched out here. The Problem of Evil can be likened to a hemophiliac’s wound. Theodicies notwithstanding, theists haven’t stopped the bleeding.
1 Beebe, James R. “Logical Problem of Evil”. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. ND. Web. 3 Jan 2015.
2 Blackburn, Simon. The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1994. 208-209. Print.
3 Ibid. 
4 Tooley, Michael. “The Problem of Evil”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2012. Web. 3 Jan 2015.
5 Ibid. 
6 Plantinga, Alvin as quoted in Ibid. 
7 Ibid. 
8 Nielsen, Kai. Naturalism and Religion. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus, 2001. 303-304. Print.
9 Ibid. , p.308
10 Ibid.