Modern Responses to the Problem of Evil

July 19, 2008 | 25 comments
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In a previous post I summarized biblical explanations for the problem of evil or the existence of suffering in the world as presented in Bart Ehrman’s latest book, God’s Problem. In this post I’ll continue with additional explanations from modern and LDS sources.

A short statement of “the problem of evil” is that God cannot be both omnipotent and good if there is evil or suffering in the world. [For a fuller statement and discussion, see the IEP article "Logical Problem of Evil."] One of the primary modern responses to the problem is the free will defense. From the linked IEP article, here’s a brief summary of Alvin Plantinga’s version of it:

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.

This likely sounds rather familiar to Mormon ears. Here’s the Book of Mormon formulation of the free will defense:

    For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, … righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad.
    I speak unto you these things for your profit and learning; for there is a God, and he hath created all things, both the heavens and the earth, and all things that in them are, both things to act and things to be acted upon.
    Wherefore, the Lord God gave unto man that he should act for himself. (2 Ne. 2:11, 14, 16)

Ehrman does discuss the free will explanation in his book, noting that it “plays only a very minor role in the biblical tradition.” The free will argument

was more or less the answer given by some of the great intellectuals of the Enlightenment, including Leibniz, who argued that human beings have to be free in order for this world to be the best possible world that could come into existence. For Leibniz, God is all powerful and so was able to create any kind of world he wanted; and since he was all loving he obviously wanted to create the best of all possible worlds. This world–with freedom of choice given to its creatures–is therefore the best of all possible worlds.

A variation on the “best of all possible worlds” approach makes a distinction between moral evil and what is termed “natural evil,” which is evil or suffering that occurs due to the operation of natural laws or natural disasters (which are often given the odd label “acts of God”). One objection to the free will defense is that while God might have need of granting moral autonomy to us human creatures to bring to pass our eventual salvation in the best of all possible worlds, that doesn’t explain why an omnipotent God couldn’t have tweaked Creation to eliminate cancer or tornadoes or appendicitis. The “need for natural laws” response seeks to counter that objection. Here’s a summary of that response from the SEP article “The Problem of Evil.”

[First,] it is important that events in the world take place in a regular way, since otherwise effective action would be impossible; secondly, events will exhibit regular patters only if they are governed by natural laws; thirdly, if events are governed by natural laws, the operation of those laws will give rise to events that harm individuals; so, fourthly, God’s allowing natural evils is justified because the existence of natural evils is entailed by natural laws, and a world without natural laws would be a much worse world.

Voltaire’s Candide, of course, famously ridiculed the whole “best of all possible worlds” line of thinking initiated by Leibniz. It’s not clear to me that Voltaire, a Deist, took the logical problem of evil seriously. His response to evil in the world might be termed the pragmatic and humane one of minimizing suffering whenever possible and, in the meantime, enjoying the good things in life, such as tending one’s garden.

A second modern explanation is atheism, which denies God, thus denying God’s omnipotence and benevolence and avoiding the logical problem. Atheism as a way of framing moral and existential questions emerged during the Enlightenment, then gained ground over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries. Surprisingly, the Book of Mormon presents atheistic arguments of one Korihor who describes religious doctrines as “foolish traditions of your fathers” and attributes belief in them to “the effect of a frenzied mind” (Alma 30:14, 16).

    And many more such things did [Korihor] say unto them, telling them that there could be no atonement made for the sins of men, but every man fared in this life according to the management of the creature; therefore every man prospered according to his genius, and that every man conquered according to his strength; and whatsoever a man did was no crime.
    And thus he did preach unto them, … telling them that when a man was dead, that was the end thereof. (Alma 30:17-18)

For those who find little consolation in this whole discussion and who remain troubled by evil in the world, I recommend the following articles outlining possible LDS responses to the problem of evil. Any of these links provide more detailed coverage of the problem and the LDS response than my short comments above.

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25 Responses to Modern Responses to the Problem of Evil

  1. NorthboundZax on July 19, 2008 at 8:54 pm

    It is always interesting to discuss the problem of evil from a Mormon perspective. Two quick points I’d like to throw out, though.

    1) Don’t discount Voltaire’s thinking on this problem as superficial. His poem on the great Lisbon Earthquake that killed tens of thousands of people and leveled the city (on All Saint’s Day, no less) clearly shows a lot of thought on the subject that shaped at least some of his reasoning on the character (or absence of) God.

    “But how conceive a God supremely good,
    Who heaps his favours on the sons he loves,
    Yet scatters evil with as large a hand? ”

    2) It is curious that while Korihor lays out the arguments, they are never really refuted except for extracting an admission that the devil told him to use those lines of reasoning. It would have really increased the value of the Book of Mormon from a theological perspective to lay out God’s reasoning for including large earthquakes, harlequin babies, and such at this point. Unfortunately, we get only a rebuttal in the form of the super ad hominem (arguments discarded because Satan made them). Ah well, opportunity missed.

  2. StillConfused on July 19, 2008 at 8:55 pm

    If one of our children gets hurt, does that make us a bad parent? If we have a child who is going to make a decision that we know will bring consequences, do we let that child make that decision anyway?

  3. Seth R. on July 19, 2008 at 9:10 pm

    Why can’t we have free will but rig the game so that cancer artificially just “goes away?”

    The problem with this is, we usually end up selecting our own pet “enemy number ones” for elimination.

    It’s OK to have rape, but just not child rape.

    Why?

    Because kids are cuter?

    Or maybe it’s OK to have the horrors of the Battle of the Bulge, but not the Holocaust.

    Why?

    Because we like Jews more than soldiers? Or do we consider the soldiers more culpable? Why are they more culpable? Why does it matter?

    I call this the fluffy kittens line of thinking. We select certain evils for elimination, basically on a superficial cuteness factor. I think a particular evil is “eww gross,” so I’d rather go without that one. The other evils are fine, just not that one. Right?

    Says you.

    Who says fluffy kittens are more worth saving than slimy reptiles?

    This problem turns up with just about every evil people select for elimination.

    Who says child rape is more ultimately harmful than… say… identity theft? Have you ever experienced ID theft? Have you ever experienced child rape? Have you ever witnessed the aftermath of ID theft or rape? How many others did it harm?

    This business of “ranking sins” in order of seriousness is a ridiculous business and ultimately impossible. It basically winds up being a bunch of people picking their own ultimate eeew-gross-out and saying that one needs to go. But who says they’re right?

    And if God were to rig the system so that only lizards are allowed to die, but not fluffy kittens, where’s the agency in that? Where’s the Plan then?

    Nowhere.

    What you have is one great big video game where the corpses of your enemies magically disappear because “leaving them there” would “just be too messy” and “detract from the fun.”

    People who argue that God should not allow the “worst evils” (whatever those are) don’t want a life. They want a video game.

    There is no agency in a video game. Only the illusion of such.

  4. Ginger on July 19, 2008 at 9:13 pm

    I guess one of the problems I have with the discussion of natural laws and “evil” is that I don’t equate natural disasters as evil. What people can do to harm others is evil. What a natural disaster does (beyond the harm) is return people to God (if they die), or allows others to serve those who have been harmed. I suppose it is a rather simplistic view point, but I try to look at the reasoning behind allowing bad things to happen. If we really do believe in life after this one, shouldn’t that change how we look at the death and destruction that is caused by nature?

    Of course, when I look at the lives being led by, for example, a woman in Afghanistan who has lived her whole life in what to me would be a ramshackle house, no electricity, no running water, less than desirable sleeping conditions, and I think of her with morning sickness, or trying to get comfortable while being pregnant, I wonder how that is helping her in the eternal scheme of things, and admit it makes me pause. Why does God privileged some of us with being born into modern comfort, and others not? I don’t know, but it tells me God expects more from me, and while it isn’t exactly the same as evil/natural disaster, it takes me along the same thought path.

  5. Geoff J on July 19, 2008 at 9:17 pm

    As has been discussed at great length around these parts in the past, Mormonism handily answers the logical problem of evil by amending the classical/creedal notion of omnipotence. But the logical problem of evil is not the only problem and it is still very hard how to explain an occasionally intervening God. I have concluded that in the end we simply have to exercise faith in God — faith in his love and faith in his competence when deciding when to intervene here or not.

  6. NorthboundZax on July 19, 2008 at 9:28 pm

    One more point that may be worth highlighting comes from your last reference. Jacob Hawken lays the problem out nicely as detailed from Hume’s Dialogues. Hawken’s propositions are interesting in that he argues that LDS theology is better than traditional Christian thought with the notion that God is subject to natural law, so he can’t change certain things leaving seemingly needless suffering intact. In effect, Jacob removes the omnipotence premise from the equation. This could potentially solve the particular conundrum, but it does bring up a large slew of other eyebrow-raising questions. E.g., can God not really stop earthquakes?

  7. NorthboundZax on July 19, 2008 at 9:34 pm

    Still confused, I think you have to ask if that child was hurt because of our negligence or not. That will determine our fitness of parenting in that instance.

  8. NorthboundZax on July 19, 2008 at 9:46 pm

    Seth R., I don’t think you should be quite so disparaging of the ‘video game experience’. As much as I enjoy my independence, I appreciate my parents willingness to bail me out on occasion (where they have the means). I’m sure there are many in Darfur that would readily exchange a great deal of their real experiences for something more saccharine.

  9. Ray on July 19, 2008 at 9:49 pm

    #7 – Who defines negligence?

  10. Perry Shumway on July 19, 2008 at 9:55 pm

    Mormonism 101: Omnipotence doesn’t mean you can control the consequences of your actions. God can do anything once; after that, if he had done the wrong thing, he couldn’t dodge the consequences. He would “cease to be God.”

    So why are his earthly interventions so seemingly selective? Easy. Life on earth is a careful balance between that which promotes faith, and that which detracts from it. Too much on either side of the equation will mess up the plan.

    Example: Too much anti-faith propoganda, “evidence,” or persuasiveness, and no one will exercise enough faith to make it back to God.

    On the other hand, if God intervenes every time something “unjust” is about to happen, it becomes far too obvious that God exists, and our knowledge of him becomes so clear that it’s difficult to exercise faith any more (faith vs. perfect knowledge – Alma 32). Under such circumstances, it would be very hard to repent for even the slightest sin, and the atonement wouldn’t have the power to save us, after we made poor choices notwithstanding our near-perfect knowledge. (Where much is given, much is expected, etc.)

    So God intervenes judiciously, just enough to keep each person’s equilibrium at the optimum level, so we each can maximize our chances of returning to him. This is the real reason why God allows evil.

    The Book of Mormon answers the age-old “problem of evil” questions in ways much more satisfying than those of the philosophers and apologists of old.

    http://www.problemofevilmovie.com

  11. NorthboundZax on July 19, 2008 at 10:13 pm

    Ray, we could set up a committee of resurrected beings. We might have to find committee members from an alternative universe, though, so there isn’t a conflict of interest with their employer. – J/K.

    No matter the quibbling about the line, the I think the principle still stands that the answer to StillConfused’s question about good/bad parenting when a child is harmed comes down to negligence (assuming the parent is not actively abusing the child). Do you disagree?

  12. Ray on July 19, 2008 at 11:02 pm

    NZ, depends on the age of the child, doesn’t it?

  13. Clark on July 19, 2008 at 11:09 pm

    I guess one of the problems I have with the discussion of natural laws and “evil” is that I don’t equate natural disasters as evil.

    But not preventing them when you could is.

  14. Seth R. on July 19, 2008 at 11:12 pm

    Says who Clark?

  15. Clark on July 19, 2008 at 11:15 pm

    Important caveat to that last point I raised. It’s evil not to prevent suffering when you could unless there is some higher good in not preventing it. This is one vague approach to a successful Mormon theodicy, although I’ve not seen the details worked out by anyone successfully. That is we say God has to allow suffering for our growth. It seems fine on the face of it but ends up necessitating that there is no free will and every evil we experience is customized for our particular growth needs. But, while that’s unfortunately a sometimes common view missionaries hold, it seems pretty hard to hold as a correct doctrine if you think about it long.

  16. Clark on July 19, 2008 at 11:19 pm

    Seth, if we don’t think God is unlike us then if it is wrong for us to let someone drown when we could save them it follows it is for God as well.

    Now one alternative is to say that good for God is completely different than good for us. (This was, for instance, Anselm’s approach). The other alternative is to say that whatever God does determines the good and God doesn’t do the good because it is good. However that has all sorts of troubling problems (many discussed by Blake Ostler in his recent book).

  17. NorthboundZax on July 19, 2008 at 11:40 pm

    Of course it does, Ray. Although, I would use ‘maturity’ rather than ‘age’. Even so, if I were in position to do so, I would pull a full-grown child of mine out of the way of an oncoming bus. If not, I think I would indeed be ‘negligent’. However, I’m not entirely sure why the age/maturity distinction matters much anyway. Are we worried about principle or degree here? A lesser degree (e.g., reducing the definition of negligence) does not get around the ‘problem of evil’, although maybe it does make it easier to sweep under the rug.

    I concur with Clark. It is hard to see how the recent Chinese earthquake or the Indonesian tsunami were necessary greater goods for those hit with the devastation.

  18. Seth R. on July 19, 2008 at 11:49 pm

    Who says it’s good for ME to indiscriminately use my theoretical superpowers to save people who would otherwise die?

  19. NorthboundZax on July 20, 2008 at 12:04 am

    Seth, by extension who are you to indiscriminately use your non-theoretical physical powers to pull someone out of the front of a bus? I suspect you would say exercising your abilities to save that person is the right thing to do (correct me if I’m wrong here). Just because you have access to more reliable and efficient tools for the job doesn’t change the morality of saving that person. In fact, I would argue that it makes you more culpable in not saving that person. Where much is given, much is required.

  20. Ray on July 20, 2008 at 12:21 am

    Who says there is any “good” or “bad” in any natural disasters – or in letting consequences of actions play out without stopping them – or in many things we label “good” and “bad”? We have so little perspective on eternity, that I have a hard time labeling anything that is not a conscious choice “good” or “bad” – and I have a hard time saying that not stopping the exercise or consequences of human agency is either “good” or “bad”. Maybe it just is.

    Just to consider:

    Mormon theology includes a view of individual progression that is reincarnative in nature – including at the very least five distinctly unique stages of “physical change”. We know next to nothing of the real details of the other four stages. Therefore, this type of discussion is the height of speculation. Interesting and fun, but speculative. When dealing with speculation concerning things over which we have no control and only can assign arbitrary labels, sometimes we simply think too much.

  21. Lorin on July 20, 2008 at 1:49 am

    Northboundzax,

    I don’t know precisely where you stand on this, but I have never been persuaded by the “If there were a God, He would intervene” line of reasoning. That’s only a slight restatement of, “If I were God, I would intervene.” If you don’t see eye to eye with God on what to do about the world’s heaping doses of injustice, evil and suffering, that’s fine. If your thinking is colored by your failure to see divine intervention when it would be most logical, fair enough.

    But can we agree that this is still largely an emotional argument rather than a purely logical one? I don’t pretend to know why God countenances so much pain and evil. Why do intellectuals pretend to “know” that it is impossible for a real God to allow such conditions? If that’s really the only conclusion they can come to, I’d be interested to know what other explanations they thought through first. I’ve seen far too many people consider only these two possibilities (there is either a kind God who acts in ways I can comprehend or there is no God), which I see as a crisis of creativity to come up with other possible options.

    From the perspective of the restored gospel, it sure helps me to recognize that we’ve all just walked in on the second act of a three-act play, with no idea what unfolded before and very little comprehension of where the plot is going. We religious folks are spending our time trying to figure out the plot and guessing what might happen in the third act (or second act, to most others). Meanwhile, a certain breed of intellectual loudly shouts that there couldn’t possibly be a next act, and with the awful plot taking place on stage, there couldn’t possibly even be a script.

    Anyway, I can understand the “no real God would allow this” argument and why some find comfort in it. But I’ve never accepted the inevitability of that conclusion, nor been shown the iron-clad, objective reasons why this is more compelling than my beliefs. I HAVE seen God’s intervention at key times in my life and the lives of others (and seen some pretty nasty and long-lasting pain along the way). But I can’t deny His hand when it has been there.

  22. Nathan Bunker on July 20, 2008 at 2:22 am

    I think the flaw in the argument is the assumption that this world, as it is, is the end of God’s work. Kind of like your kids thinking you are an evil task master when you give them chores to do. (My 12-year-old scouts think they are being slave driven when they have to wash 3 pots at scout camp.) They don’t see the bigger picture. Which is, the are going to have to grow up some day and fend for themselves and their slave-driver parents will eventually get feeble and pass away. So they have to do unpleasant, and seemingly pointless things. But later it will make sense to them.

    This life is very important, but it’s just one step. They next one we can’t comprehend until we get there. Just like my 2-year-old who doesn’t understand why I have to work at my job everyday. But he will eventually understand why, later. The suffering we see here in this life has a point. This world is not our final destination.

  23. JWL on July 20, 2008 at 7:11 pm

    Re: #1

    Actually see Alma 30:44 where Alma lays out three traditional defenses of the existence of God: from personal experience, from scriptural witness and the cosmological argument. The latter is especially interesting in view of the current state of the science of cosmology which finds many fundamental constants of the universe “fine-tuned” to within very high degrees of sensitivity to lead to a life-supporting universe. For purposes of this thread, however, Korihor does not raise the problem of evil. That is dealt with by Alma elsewhere (chapters 12 and 42) where he presents the proposition that if God tried to deny justice He would “cease to be God.” This is the foundation of the strong LDS response to the logical problem of evil, which is to redefine the nature of divine omnipotence to allow that there are some independent modalities in the universe to which God is subject which prevent Him from instantaneously making beings who are both perfectly free and perfectly good.

  24. M on July 21, 2008 at 10:57 am

    I don\’t know if I can contribute much to this article, but on my blog I\’ve addressed the logical problem of evil. The outline can be found here: http://thinkersaccord.blogspot.com/2008/06/god-and-problem-of-evil-unpacking-and_22.html

    but the article of most interest to readers here might be the last two links on that outline.

    I kind of take the David Paulsen approach in these, but with a less philosophic eye. Enjoy.

  25. Doc on July 21, 2008 at 6:48 pm

    I am a child neurologist. I deal with “natural” horrors every day that are beyond any one’s control, other than God’s. These things are trying, tough, emotionally charged, frustrating, sometimes seemingly hopeless, and yet fulfilling and something I’ve dedicated by life to. I don’t get angry they exist. I help as much as I can. I don’t see the point really of getting angry with the existence of horrific brain rotting disease. Maybe I am naive, but the God I know and have experienced, I trust and lean on when I feel overwhelmed, as have so very many parents and patients that I have witnessed.

    I’ll tell you what really lights a flash of fury in me, though, the child shot in the head by his father, the shaken baby, the shattered skull and violent brain hemorrhage brought on by parents. I don’t get mad at God for this, for I am sure his righteous rage is directed in the exact same direction as mine, and that his pain over the same actions runs deeper than I can comprehend in this case of the incomprehensible. I wonder that anger over the problem of evil would be much better directed at the evil themselves. Then again, we are required to forgive all men. Doh, so much for a neat solution.

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