Evil is a problem for Christians and other theists because theists believe that God is maximally good and maximally powerful. If God can do anything, he could actualize a world of maximum goodness. So why do we have evil?
The answer that many have concluded is that God does not exist, or at least a maximally powerful God does not exist. Perhaps there are gods out there in this world, who are really great and powerful, but their powers are limited. A God of unlimited power, some conclude, does not exist.
But there are some atheists or undecided agnostics who grant the possibility that evil does not disclose the possibility that a God might exist. (Other facts about the world, such science, might lead these people to conclude that God does not exist, but evil itself might not prove that God does not exist.)
According to some, there are certain stipulations that God must meet in order to have a justified reason for evil and undeserved suffering. If God does not meet those stipulations, then at minimum it reduces the possibility that God exists.
So what are these stipulations that God must meet? William Rowe, an atheist professor at Purdue University, has said there are two things that could justify evil.
- 1) Something far worse might happen if God intervened and stopped a certain evil E.
- 2) Humans would miss out on an overwhelming benefit that could never had happened without the presence of a certain evil E.
You might chuckle at bit at this proposal. For one, how could we possibly, ever, come up with an overwhelming benefit to every instance of evil in this world? And that is exactly Rowe’s point. He uses the example of a fawn dying in a forest fire. Undeserved suffering like fawns dying in forest fires happen times a million every single day, and God did not have to design a kind of world where fires are a necessity or where we sometimes have an excess of a certain species.
What I find interesting, however, is that most Christians have been using arguments similar to Rowe’s long before analytical philosophers became interested in philosophy of religion. Christians say these kind of arguments:
“Without suffering, Sally would have never accepted Christ.” The argument is that Christ is the overwhelming benefit to Sally’s suffering.
Or “If God had intervened and stopped the troops from ransacking the villages in this unpopluated area, the army would have been driven much father south, and gained much stronger forces.”
I certainly agree that there is outweighing benefits to some suffering on earth, and most atheists can agree with this. For example, the tears and frustration of school and university make earning a PhD all the more beautiful. I can remember as a kid being told that I was stupid. When I graduated from college with straight As, it was because of the suffering I went through as a child and the hard work I did to overcome my undereducation that made the As worth anything at all.
But as a whole, I’m struck at how utilitarian this argument is, and I’m not liking it. An old professor of mine first got me thinking this way. Let me explain.
Utilitarianism, first of all, is a normative ethic philosophy that argues that the right course of action is right because it yields the least amount of suffering and the greatest happiness for the totality of society. This does not guarantee happiness for everyone, but just for the greatest numbers. For example, in America we say that it is wrong to sacrifice animals. Since most people don’t want to see animals sacrified and because it contradicts science, the right course of action in America is to go see a doctor when one’s child is ill, not to sacrifice an animal. But for the Hmong tribe who fled Laos to California in the late 70s, early 80s, the fact that they could not sacrifice an animal brought them much sorrow.
In a similiar tone, when we come up with reasons that God allowed evil to occur in our lives, we often forget that not everyone has experienced an overwhelming benefit to evil.
For example, we might could argue that free will is a huge benefit to suffering. That yes, God could prevent a lot of evil, but he could only do so with taking away our free will. And even if someone has gone through horrendous suffering, maybe at the end of his or her life, having free will was still worth it.
We might also argue that patience and courage are huge benefits to suffering, and without suffering, we would have no concept of courage. This is especially true of certain kinds of courage. If life was not fragile and my family and I could not lose our very lives, risk itself would be unknown to me.
It’s also true that sometimes if God intervened, something far worse would happen.
But I am not comfortable with any of these arguments because at its core, it’s utilitarian and it overlooks the minority.
You see, the organization I worked with overseas sponsored this orphanage in the middle of the jungle. The kids, or so we thought, were hidden. But one day the enemy came and burned down the village. You’ve seen pictures of these kids on my blog, but what you don’t know is that we don’t know what happened to these kids, or who is even alive. If God had produced rain leading up to the day this orphanage was attacked, he might have saved those kids lives. It’s also probable that if there had been a series of rain and storms the army would have headed further south, and struck far bigger villages that had resulted in the death of more people.
But you know what? I don’t give a crap. I don’t care if 4500 people more would have died. The 500 lives that died, or were scattered, that day matter to me. They matter so much to me that I was depressed a year from all this.
It’s also true that I might never know patience and courage had I never had suffering. It’s true that my parents gave me sorrow, my community gave me sorrow, and my church body gave me sorrow. I grant that life is still worth it to me though, that I’m glad I have free will, and I’m glad God is not always obvious to me. In my life, the fact that God is not always “obvious” and that suffering is immense is worth it because of the learning and growth.
But I can say that because I’m still kind of privileged. However, I’m not sure that these girls who were found in the jungle not too far from where I lived, who were 14 and had a two-year old by their rapist, who had never learned to talk and had been raped every day of their life, could honestly say that. I lived with some kids who were rescued way before 14, and whose lives are a shattered wreck.I’m not sure if they will ever see the sun shine, but heck, some people are never even safe for a day in their life. One of the huge burdens of working with rape victims is seeing how wrecked their lives are and realizing they are pretty “lucky” compared to others who never get out. It is depressing.
So no, I don’t think there is an overwhelming benefit to all evil and undeserved suffering. Free will, courage, patience, and all may be really, really good, but it’s only good for the majority of people, if it’s even good for the majority.
You see, I believe that every life on earth is precious and dear to God’s heart. If God is real, he has an obligation to each and every life on earth, not just the majority. God can’t play a numbers game and get off the hook. William Rowe knows this, but I’m not sure how many Christians recognize that.
While I don’t have the answers for Christians, I can say that Christian universalists have an easier time because they believe that in the end, everyone will experience and taste the goodness of life. If you honestly believe in hell, you also have to account for the fact that some people will never experience any goodness at all, not on earth and not in heaven. You will also have ot say that tremendous suffering never amounted to a darn thing, at least for people who are sex slaves their whole lives.