One of my favorite lines from the film, “As Good As It Gets,” is when Jack Nicholson turns to the other people in the waiting room at his psychiatrist’s office as says, “What if this is as good as it gets?” (the sound is a little out of sync)
This captures a frustration many of us feel: the universe shouldn’t be this messed up. A world with no cancer and no abuse would be better. So if there’s a God, why does he allow disease, violence, and suffering? For many, especially those who have personally experienced terrible suffering, this problem overshadows faith. Is there any way to make sense of this? What should we think of a God who creates such a world? I’m going to tackle this question here, but this isn’t meant to comfort those who suffer. It is only an attempt to preserve the intellectual integrity of Christian belief.
A caveat: this topic is hard and few people give it its due. For many, a simple answer satisfies and they continue along the path of faith or skepticism. Others commit themselves to a tribe and accept whatever view is offered. But there comes a point where your train of thought takes you beyond the point of no return to simple answers. Those who love truth more than they love their tribe want more than cliches. If that’s you, read on.
What Is A Defense?
Historically, theologians have tried to work out a theodicy–a clear, definite answer to the “why” question. Others have sought to formulate a defense–a possible solution to the problem. Thoughtful skeptics (atheologians, perhaps), on the other hand, have developed the problem into a daunting and powerful argument against the Judeo-Christian God.
We could put the argument this way:
- If the Judeo-Christian God (all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good) exists, then evil would not exist.
- Evil exists.
- So, the Judeo-Christian God does not exist.
A plausible assumption lurks under premise (1), namely, that such a God would eliminate evil. This version articulates the “logical problem” of evil. It merely contends that God and evil cannot coexist.
Alvin To the Rescue: Free Will
The most famous and successful defense comes from philosopher Alvin Plantinga, who retired from Notre Dame a few years ago. In the manner of a defense, Plantinga does not claim that he knows why God allows evil. He merely offers one possible solution, which refutes the claim that God cannot coexist with evil. (Successful arguments for possibility can refute impossibility claims.)
Plantinga’s “Free Will Defense, in sum, says this: by giving his creatures something of immeasurable value–true freedom of choice–he had to allow the possibility of moral evil. And sure enough, his creatures have sometimes chosen to do evil to one another. If this scenario is possible, then there is a way that God and evil can coexist. (Note: I’m only dealing with moral evil–evil perpetrated by persons–here.)
Here is a more detailed summary (more or less) of Plantinga’s Defense:
Some worlds (a ‘world’ is the totality of everything there is) are not logically possible for God to create. E.g., a world in which creatures have morally significant free will AND God causes them to always choose good actions. This would be akin to creating square circles.
So, God has three possible options remaining. A) a world without morally significant freedom where God causally determines that no creature chooses evil, and no evil occurs; B) a world with morally significant freedom where God does not causally determine that none of them choose evil, and evil occurs; and C) a world with morally significant freedom where God does not causally determine that none of them choose evil, and no evil occurs.
A Question Remains
Question: If A, B, and C are all possible, then why, oh why, didn’t God choose to create world C?
Answer: Possibly, because every feasible world contains evil. As long as this is possible (which it surely is), then we have a way to reconcile the Judeo-Christian God with the existence of evil.
So, (possibly) when God looks at all the worlds with free creatures that are logically possible to create, every one of them contains evil. Take note: I am NOT claiming that this is actually how things are, nor am I trying to prove that it must be this way. It only needs to be possible for the defense to work.
This preserves God’s goodness, because he does not desire evil to exist, per se. It is merely a side-effect of creating free creatures. It preserves God’s omniscience because he is fully aware of the evil that results. And it preserves God’s power because in the possible world I’ve sketched, it is logically impossible for God to eliminate evil while also endowing creatures with real, morally significant free will. Failure to do what is logically impossible is not a “power” issue, any more than creating a square circle is a power issue.
Conclusions About God
So what should we conclude about God’s nature when we see the evil in our world? Here’s an analogy. You and a friend go golfing. You run out of balls, and your friend offers to give you one of hers. She bought a paper sack of used balls at the pro-shop, which has not yet been opened. She walks around to the back of the cart, rustles around in the bag and brings you a ball, which is green. Now, you both know that you always lose green golf balls, but that you never lose white ones. So why on earth would she give you a green ball?
You consider the possibilities. It may be that your friend secretly despises you and intentionally selects a green ball so that you will lose it. It may also be that your friend is color blind and doesn’t know she’s selected green. A third possibility is that the bag she bought contains only green balls. As long as this third scenario is possible, you cannot rightly conclude that the act was due to avarice or incompetence. As far as you know, she simply could not provide you with a green ball because there are none in the sack.
What can we take away from this? Merely that the existence of evil in the world does not rule out the Judeo-Christian God. Whether it makes such a God less likely is another matter. But for all we know, evil is inevitable, given the gift of morally significant free will. If you would rather live in a world with merely the illusion of free choice, where God pre-programs us to always do good, then you can certainly register a complaint. But there is no use arguing that evil precludes a good and powerful God.