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Suffering Defeated

A Dialogue About God & the Problem of Evil

by Greg L. Bock

Article originally appeared in
Salvo 17

This conversation is meant to capture the main arguments in the philosophical problem of evil and make them accessible to the layperson. Both characters are fictional. Dr. Shepherd is a professor of philosophy at a four-year college, and Jill is one of his brightest students. After listening to Dr. Shepherd's lecture on the arguments for the existence of God, Jill comes to his office to talk about the problem of evil.

• • •

Jill: Dr. Shepherd, the reason I am an atheist is because of the problem of evil: I don't believe that the existence of God makes sense, given all of the evil and suffering in the world. I mean, if an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good God exists, there would be no evil in the world. He would simply do away with it.

But there is evil in the world, so it seems clear that God doesn't exist. In fact, I think this shows that the Christian view is a contradiction: God and evil cannot both exist.

Dr. Shepherd: Thanks for sharing your thoughts with me. We are actually going to talk about the problem of evil in class next week, but we can talk about it now. I, too, have struggled with the problem, but I've come to a different conclusion. I believe they can coexist and there are also good reasons to think that they do.

First, consider this scenario: God exists, and evil is the result of human freedom. The Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga says that God might not have been able to create a universe that contained human free will and, at the same time, contained no evil. Maybe in creating creatures capable of making evil choices, he cannot prevent them from doing so.1

Jill: But that assumes that human beings have free will. Can Plantinga prove it? I tend to think that we don't have free will; it is just an illusion to think that we do.

Dr. Shepherd: Well, it's possible that we don't have free will, but I don't think we need to prove that we have it in order to avoid the logical problem of evil, which is what we call the problem that you raised, that God and evil cannot (logically) coexist. To answer this specific problem, we only need to determine whether it is merely possible that they coexist, which will prove that there is no logical contradiction.

And there are good reasons to believe in free will. For example, it appears to us that we choose between equally possible alternatives all the time and that we are morally responsible for what we do. If you think about it, moral responsibility would ultimately be impossible if we weren't free. Imagine a murderer who argued at his trial that since our actions are determined by our genetics and environment, the court couldn't hold him responsible for his crime. This seems clearly wrong, so we must be free.

Jill: That's interesting, but even if the free will defense is successful, you've only solved the problem of moral evil. You haven't addressed the problem of natural evil—things like earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanoes. If an all-powerful, all-good God exists, he would be able and willing to prevent those things from occurring and from causing so much needless suffering.

Dr. Shepherd: Actually, the two problems can be solved in a similar fashion. Plantinga points out that it is possible—remember we are just talking about mere possibility—that natural evil is caused by demons, in the way, for example, that the torments of Job were caused by Satan. Maybe God could not create a world in which even natural evil would never occur, given the free will of these nonhuman persons.

Jill: But if God is all-good, I would think he just wouldn't create the world, knowing that free creatures would cause so much suffering.

Dr. Shepherd: I see your point, but it is possible that God has a morally sufficient reason for allowing evil in the world—for example, to form our characters. This might be something that could not take place in a world without evil, and I think God will ultimately use this world and the evil in it to destroy evil itself, a strategy that requires tolerating evil for some time in order to defeat it.

Jill: Well, I can see how suffering sometimes can make us stronger, but really, I wonder whether the amount and horrific nature of the evil in this world is compatible with a benevolent God or character formation. Just consider any of the recent mind-numbing murders in the news, or the Holocaust.

Dr. Shepherd: So it comes down to a matter of the amount? I think it is at least possible that no better balance of good and evil is feasible for God among all the possible worlds that contain free creatures. If this response to your concern is even remotely possible, then the logical problem of evil can be answered. Remember, the reasons I've mentioned do not have to be true, or even plausible. As long as they are possible responses, the logical problem of evil has been solved, meaning that Christian belief does not entail a contradiction. Does that make sense?

Jill: Well, I guess I see how it is possible that God and evil coexist, but I don't think it is very likely. I guess I would say that the existence of evil makes the existence of God less believable to me.

Dr. Shepherd: Well, that's what we call the evidential problem of evil. To people like yourself, the evidence seems to be stacked against belief in God. In our textbook, philosopher Richard Gale discusses two examples of horrible evil: (1) the case of a five-year-old girl who is raped, beaten, and strangled to death; and (2) the case of a deer that is injured in a forest fire and dies a painful death over a period of three days. Gale thinks that in both cases the evil suffered cannot be justified by any outweighing good.

Jill: Absolutely, I agree. If God exists, he ought to intervene in such cases, preventing such horrible events from taking place. The girl's death doesn't benefit her in any way, and the death of the deer seems equally pointless.

Dr. Shepherd: I agree that these are awful cases, and if we focus on tragedies like these, we might conclude that God does not exist. However, relative to the background evidence, I think the existence of God is still likely.2 Consider the arguments for the existence of God, such as the cosmological argument. Arguments like these are what I mean by "background evidence." We could say that these arguments together make up a cumulative case that supports the idea that God is the best explanation for the following facts: (1) the existence of the world, (2) the finely tuned order in the universe, (3) the existence of objective moral precepts, and (4) the widespread occurrence of religious experience. If you take all of these (and more) as evidence and weigh them against the evidence that the problem of evil represents, then it seems that God's existence is still plausible.

Jill: But as I pointed out in class, the being that is the best explanation for the facts above is not necessarily the omnipotent, omni-benevolent God that the problem of evil is directed at.

Dr. Shepherd: Well, if we just take omnipotence for a moment, the being that is offered as an explanation for these problems is obviously very powerful, and it seems plausible that a being that powerful is omnipotent in the relevant sense, don't you think?

Jill: But another problem is that there could be several gods, right? I mean, one of them might explain the existence of the world, while another explains the order in the universe, and so on.

Dr. Shepherd: I can see how that might be possible, but wouldn't Occam's razor be relevant here?

Jill: Please remind me what that means.

Dr. Shepherd: No problem. Occam's razor is a logical principle that says that the simplest explanation is most likely the right one. In this case, it would reduce the plurality of explanations to one: a single all-powerful God is the better explanation.

Jill: I see.

Dr. Shepherd: But back to your point about God not having a morally sufficient reason for allowing suffering, as in the case of the five-year-old girl. Do you think that our finite and limited perspective is a good one from which to assess the probability that God—an all-knowing being—lacks morally sufficient reasons for allowing evils like these?

Jill: Well, if the bad things in the world do not count as evidence against God's existence, then you can't appeal to the good things in the world as evidence for his existence, which is what the arguments for the existence of God seem to be doing.4

Dr. Shepherd: Good point. It does seem right that a Christian must admit that the problem of evil counts as evidence against God's existence even if he doesn't find the evidence persuasive.

Jill: And if God's reasons are so unknowable to us, it seems impossible for us to be in relationship with him. Maintaining a relationship requires that we know the reasons behind the actions that affect us, at least to some extent.5

Dr. Shepherd: I agree somewhat, but Christians do claim to have reasons of a sort. First, they believe that, ultimately, evil is the result of human sin. But we can learn from that evil; it's a message from God that we are lost without him.6 Second, Christians are assured in the Bible that even bad events work for "the good of those who love the Lord" (Romans 8:28). In this case, Christians have a scriptural promise that reveals a divine reason. Third, Christians know that their God empathizes with those who suffer. In fact, they believe that God himself came to earth as Jesus Christ to fully experience human suffering. What is more, Christian theology teaches that Christ suffered the punishment that all human evil deserves. Fourth—and this is an element of Christian theology that often goes unmentioned—Christians believe that, through Christ, God has conquered evil and has promised to eternally destroy it, ultimately removing all suffering from those who follow him.

Thus, Christians often point to God's greater actions in the world, which show that he has an overarching plan to destroy evil and cure its effects. They also point to personal experiences in which God assures them of his love and goodness in the midst of suffering. This may not amount to a specific reason for a particular tragedy, but it would help maintain the relationship.

We cannot evaluate the "problem of evil" apart from consideration of other Christian teachings: (1) Happiness is not the goal of human life; knowledge of God is. Suffering would indeed seem pointless if the goal of life were comfort and pleasure, but suffering can bring us to a deeper knowledge of God. (2) Humanity is in rebellion against God, a fact that explains the widespread moral evils in our society.7 (3) Natural evils are sometimes caused by demons or by God (directly or indirectly). (4) God's purposes are fulfilled in this life and in the afterlife. (5) The good of knowing God is incomparably greater than the amount of suffering one experiences. (6) Suffering produces character (soul-making). (7) And, of course, under Christian theology, we see God actively implementing an overarching plan to destroy evil and completely remove it in the long term. Solving the "problem of evil" is in fact exactly what the Christian God is all about.

Jill: Well, you've given me a lot to think about—many new ideas that I'll have to reflect on. I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me, Dr. Shepherd.

Dr. Shepherd: Anytime, Jill. My office door is always open. 


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