Divine Evil?

I recently posted comments about the problem of evil. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam typically maintain that God is all-powerful and perfectly good. So how do we reconcile the following ideas?

(1) God is omnipotent.
(2) God is perfectly loving and just.
(3) The world is filled with tragedy and suffering.

This issue could also be called the problem of suffering, since some have tried minimize the extent of evil on Earth by defining nightmarish, excruciating suffering in ways that makes it technically not-evil.

Critics of religion have pointed out that according to the Bible God not only allows evil but directly causes it. For instance, after getting upset about human sinfulness, God decided to kill almost all living creatures by drowning them in a flood. That’s about as appropriate as using a hydrogen bomb to annihilate a gnat. And even if Noah’s flood never occurred, scientists say there have been several mass extinctions, including one which wiped out over 90% of all species. Furthermore, as Rick Gore reports in National Geographic, June, 1989, “Extinctions have claimed 99 percent of all species that have ever lived” (p. 669). Most mass extinctions took place millions of years before humans even existed. If animals have value and their suffering matters, what was the point of all this destruction?

An essay by David Lewis which was published in Philosophers without Gods, edited by Louise Antony, explored an argument about evil “that has been strangely neglected.” Most discussions of this topic “focus on evil that God fails to prevent. But we might start instead from the evils God himself perpetrates. There are plenty of these, and, in duration and intensity, they dwarf the kinds of suffering and sin to which the standard versions allude” (p. 231). Lewis then considers the idea that unredeemed sinners will go to hell. “The orthodox story is explicit about the temporal scale of the punishment: it is to go on forever. Many of those who tell the orthodox story are also concerned to emphasize the quality of the punishment. The agonies to be endured by the damned intensify, in unimaginable ways, the sufferings we undergo in our earthly lives. So, along both dimensions, time and intensity, the torment is infinitely worse than all the suffering and sin that will have occurred during the history of life in the universe. What God does is thus infinitely worse than what the worst of tyrants did. However clever they were at prolonging the agonies of their victims, their tortures killed fairly quickly. God is supposed to torture the damned forever, and to do so by vastly surpassing all the modes of torment about which we know” (p. 232).

What’s more, some Christian denominations teach that the vast majority of humans will go to hell. And these miserable creatures never asked to be born. Suppose God temporarily created each soul and asked, “Would you like to be born as a human on Earth?” – warning them that the odds were high that 99.99999999999999999 (etc.) percent of their existence would be unimaginably hideous. It seems to me that any rational individual would say, “Absolutely not!! I would much rather remain non-existent, but thanks for asking.”

How can theists deal with evil? First, they need to discard the notion of eternal damnation, an ungodly doctrine that is soiled with the fingerprints of human hostility and vindictiveness. One can also ameliorate this problem by denying God’s omnipotence. The claim that God has unlimited power is supported by visionaries who say they have directly experienced the fact that God is all-powerful. But how does one experience such a thing? Perhaps a thunderous voice proclaimed, “I am the Lord, and I hereby inform you that I am ‘omnipotent’ in the standard sense of that term used by teachers in philosophy of religion classes.” In most cases, however, I suspect that visionaries have simply felt an overwhelming power that staggered their imaginations. This led them to say that God is omnipotent, but they could easily have reached a more modest conclusion: God is far, far more powerful than anything else we know. How could one tell the difference between encountering absolute power and encountering power that is merely mind-boggling? So one way to solve the problem of evil is to say that God’s power may “only” be astonishing rather than entirely unlimited.

Some think this solution carries too great a cost. To say that the creator of the universe cannot always prevent evil might shake people’s faith. In praying to a deity whose power is limited, they could never be sure of receiving adequate assistance. On the other hand, even if God has limitless power, we cannot know whether prayers will be answered as the supplicant would wish. An omnipotent being is still constrained in various ways. For instance, it is impossible for an infinitely good being to choose to do anything less than the best. Sometimes doing what’s best might mean allowing bad things to happen because they will lead to a greater good. Christians certainly do not see it as “good” that Jesus died in agony, but they believe that his suffering led to (or was in some way closely connected with) our salvation.

Even if God is able to do anything, God’s choices about how to use this ability may be limited by factors beyond our understanding. Thus it might make little practical difference to believers if God is seen as extremely powerful rather than all-powerful. This would ease the problem of evil considerably.

Another, more radical approach, challenges the whole notion that the highest power is coercive power, the dominance of one force over another. Many respected religious teachers advocate process theology, which celebrates the persuasive, encouraging, inspirational power of God. Christian process thinkers such as John B. Cobb, Jr. see this liberating power revealed in the life of Jesus Christ. Citing extensive scholarly evidence, Cobb maintains that the idea of omnipotence was never emphasized in either Hebrew or Christian scriptures. Passages referring to “God almighty” actually mistranslate the ancient word shaddai. See http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=3350.

While brute force is impressive, many theologians contend that the highest power is love rather than compulsion. Without divine compulsion bad things can and do happen, but process theologians would prefer this sort of cosmos to one in which a supreme super-controller orchestrated every movement of every molecule, every single second.

Roger Christan Schriner

Note: David Lewis’ essay was published posthumously after being edited by Philip Kitcher.

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4 thoughts on “Divine Evil?

  1. Roger – have you read philosopher Stephen Law’s “evil god challenge” paper:

    http://journals.cambridge.org/repo_A72V8TEm

    Here’s the abstract for his paper:

    This paper develops a challenge to theism. The challenge is to explain why the hypothesis that there exists an omnipotent, omniscient and all-good god should be considered significantly more reasonable than the hypothesis that there exists an omnipotent, omniscient and all-evil god. Theists typically dismiss the evil-god hypothesis out of hand because of the
    problem of good – there is surely too much good in the world for it to be the creation of such a being. But then why doesn’t the problem of evil provide equally good grounds for dismissing belief in a good god? I develop this evil-god challenge in detail, anticipate several replies, and correct errors made in earlier discussions of the problem of good.

  2. It is an interesting question—but as a Muslim, I am unfamiliar with Christianity and can only approach it from a Muslim perspective……..

    which would look like this…….
    (1) God is Most Knowing. (Muslims prefer to refrain from speaking of God’s attributes in absolute terms)
    (2) God is Most Compassionate and Most Merciful.
    (3) God creates humanity inherently good, yet allows them limited free-will to make choices
    (4) Humanity makes choices—some choose good others choose bad
    (3) The world is filled with tragedy and suffering….and with beauty and blessings.

    Such a proposition acknowledges an interplay between God’s will and (limited) human will….so that it might reflect the nuances of the situation….?……

  3. My apologies 🙂
    1) God is never the author of evil. Everything He does ultimately works out to the best. Being omniscient, He’s the only one who knows the ultimate effect of His actions, therefore only He can say with certainty that a present harm will result in a greater good.
    2) The answer to the riddle, “Can God create a stone so great that He cannot lift it?”, is “Yes”. And the stone is called “free will”.
    3) Man on Earth was not created to live forever. He was ejected from Eden after the apple taught him of “good” and “evil”, but before tasting the Tree of Life.
    4) The natural world is not always a safe place. There are earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, draughts, etc. We can presume that it was necessary for the natural world to be as it is, a mixture of good things and bad things.
    5) But the hazards of the natural world are not “evil”. They are just bad things to deal with.
    6a) Evil is a matter of intent. It takes pleasure in harming others.
    6b) God takes no pleasure in the harms that we do to each other. God takes no pleasure in the harms He must inflict to improve good for everyone. When judging The Flood, keep in mind that everyone who died would have died anyway of other causes.
    7) Morality is a matter of intent. It takes pleasure in what is good for oneself and others.

    The theist deals with evil by placing responsibility for it with us, not God.
    God creates the natural world but does not run it. That is up to us.

    Christianity may be unique in addressing the spiritual problems, but I’m curious how other religions teach lessons like “love your enemies, pray for them that spitefully use you” etc.

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