THE PROBLEM OF EVIL

From GOD AND THE CHALLENGE OF EVIL (2001)

JOHN L. YARDAN 

The Russian philosopher, Nicolas Berdyaev, once said:

 

The existence of evil is the greatest mystery in the life of the world and causes the greatest embarrassment to official theological doctrine and to all monistic philosophy.

 

Evil is an embarrassment to all monistic philosophy because the one (monistic) principle, the source of all that happens in the world, has been traditionally thought to be good, not evil. If the good is the source of all that is, where does evil come from and how does it arise? The existence of evil is a mystery because the One Creator of All is supposed to be a good and loving God.

In the previous chapter we have seen that a more scientifically inclined person might not consider earthquakes, tornadoes, floods and other natural disasters to be evil. And we know that if we should try to catalog the worst evils of our time, we will very likely have a special prominent place for the evils done by man to his fellowman. The fact that humans do not have to harm their neighbor, and that somehow they can avoid violence toward others gives a special bitter character to human evil.

In one sense the distinction between human evil and natural evils makes no difference in the problem of God and evil. Critics can complain that God is responsible for human evil because he gave us such a meaningful degree of freedom. Or, . . . that humans are not free at all and, hence, God is responsible for all the evil in the world. Or, . . . that God botched the world, that he should have given us different laws of nature, ones that would preclude our being hurt by the processes of nature.

A recent writer, Richard Rubenstein, has expressed part of this shape of the problem of evil. The problem for him revolves around excess human evil and is rooted in manís inhumanity to other men. For Rubenstein, far more harm has been done by man down through the ages than by natural catastrophes. He thinks that the real objection to the existence of a personal or theistic God is that Godís tolerance of hideous human evil cannot be reconciled with his perfection. After the horrible experience of the Nazi death camps, no Jew should accept the omnipotent God of history or the doctrine of the election of Israel as Godís chosen people. Jews can remain a religious community without such doctrines. That God acts meaningfully in history is a terrible mistake, for if God acts meaningfully in history, then he is the ultimate author of Auschwitz. Should God tolerate the suffering of one little child, he would be infinitely cruel or hopelessly indifferent.2 Rubenstein is influenced by Fyodor Dostoevsky who, in The Brothers Karamazov,3 gives a number of examples of cruelty and wickedness in the world.

Dostoevsky tells of Richard the convicted murderer who grew up as a wild animal in the mountains of Switzerland. An unwanted illegitimate child, he was given to some shepherds who barely fed and clothed him and taught him nothing. He was cruelly beaten when caught eating the garbage given to the pigs. When he grew up he worked as a laborer and drank up any money earned. He robbed and killed an old man, and was put in a Geneva jail to await death. While in jail he was attended to by religious people who taught him how to read and write. Richard was converted to Christianity, thereby becoming an object of great joy to the inhabitants of the city who showered him with kisses on his way to the guillotine. Grace had descended on him, and he was dying in the Lord. According to the pious inhabitants, it should have been the greatest day of his life.

Ivan complains about the cultured gentleman and his wife who flogged their seven-year-old daughter. He says that there are people who get great pleasure out of such things and when they are brought to court and declared not guilty, the spectators cheer. He tells how a five-year-old was beaten and kicked. Later, on the pretext that she soiled her bed, the parents smeared her face with excrement and forced her to eat it. They locked her in the outhouse until morning.

A retired general lived on his estate with two thousand serfs, one of whom, a boy eight-years old, injured the Generalís favorite hound. The boy threw a stone and inadvertently hit the dog in the leg, causing it to limp. The General took the boy away from his mother and locked him up overnight. The next day at dawn the General led a hunt with all his neighbors and serfs present. The boy was brought out, stripped naked, and made the quarry of the hunt. As he started to run the General shouted, "Sic `im," and the hounds tore the boy to pieces before his motherís eyes.

Rubenstein, shocked by such examples of evil, blames God for not intervening and preventing them. In a recent work, The Cunning of History, he suggests that in our own time war was an instrument of an "automatic, self-regulating mechanism" which was blindly yet purposefully experimenting with alternative means of population reduction. It would seem that in his view, if God exists, then he is both a cruel and an indifferent experimenter.

There are serious difficulties with Rubensteinís view. He thinks that a good and omnipotent God who cares about humans should have intervened to protect the Jews during the holocaust. No doubt, manís inhumanity to man is an important problem even today. And yet, there is too much to be said for human responsibility and its failure, and to blame God for manís greed, incompetency, carelessness, apathy and the like, is unfair. Another expression of what is really the cause for many evils in the world is manís willingness to place the blame for his suffering on someone else. By making someone else the scapegoat for his own evil actions he thereby gets rid of his own guilt. Ernest Beckerís suggestion makes more sense here. Men have abdicated their natural rights over goods and power, and have let others make crucial decisions for them. Mistaken decisions lead untold masses of men to death and destruction.5 Human beings do not have to give in to the tendency to engage in violence. Peaceful adventures can supply the passionate enjoyment that some men find in the exciting events of war. The deep-rooted apathy or greed that leads some men to ignore the plight of other humans who need their help desperately is a clear-cut failing of which we should not be proud. Perhaps Jung was right when he said "the principal and indeed the only thing that is wrong with the world is man.

While Rubenstein holds God responsible for evil human actions during the holocaust, history points clearly to man as the cause. Europeís long history of anti-semitism was a human failure. So too was the failure in scripture studies or their misuse that led to seeing the Jew as a Christ-killer. The Allies allowed economic conditions in Germany to so deteriorate after World War I that the stage was set for a dictator like Hitler to seize power. The Nazi ideology was unsound, bizarre, and brutal. Nazi propaganda involved a massive distortion of the truth and was extraordinarily effective. The need for a rigid obedience to authority had been drilled into the populace for years. Rubenstein himself in The Cunning of History calls our attention to the very competent bureaucracy that effectively controlled masses of stateless persons. He also noted the element of greed that inclined management types and industry to cooperate in slave labor schemes.7 Despite these many human shortcomings and mistakes, Rubenstein is reluctant to blame man for the terrible evils that occurred, and talks about an "automatic mechanism" that actualized such evils. His suggestion is unconvincing and strange in the face of the evidence. It is as if man had no obligation to his neighbor and no capacity for the love of his fellowman, no obligation to be just and decent to those around him, no duty to avoid cruelty to those around him, to say nothing of the need to show compassion and at times to sacrifice on behalf of those less fortunate than he. Difficulties also arise when Rubenstein looks to Dostoevsky for support. We should not find comfort in the company and complaints of Ivan Karamazov.

While Rubenstein indicts God as cruel because he allows terrible human evil, David Hume holds God responsible for all the evils of manís existence, including those resulting from natural disasters. Either God is not good because he does not prevent such evil, or God is put down for lacking the power to prevent evil, no matter where it is found. Hume expresses the traditional problem well when he has Philo say:

 

Is he (God) willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?

 

According to Hume, if Godís power is infinite, then whatever he wills is executed. However, neither humans nor animals are happy, and, hence, God does not will their happiness. God has infinite wisdom and never makes mistakes, and yet, the course of nature does not tend toward human happiness. Hence, God did not intend manís happiness. Later on Philo says that misery does not come about by chance. Its cause cannot be Godís intention, for God is benevolent. Misery, however, cannot occur contrary to Godís intention, for He is almighty.

Godís infinite knowledge together with the course of nature is what places the blame for human unhappiness on him. Here Hume positions himself with those who would see any evil at all in the world as a problem for the omnipotent and good God. Later on, however, in Part XI of the Dialogues, he talks about God making interventions in "the secret springs of the universe" and turning all the accidents to the good of mankind and rendering the whole world happy.10 A righteous armada of ships might always meet fair winds. Good princes would enjoy sound health and a long life. Persons born to power would have good tempers and virtuous dispositions. Hume is not proposing the elimination of all evil in the world by means of some divine interventions unknown to man. Rather, he should be classed with those thinkers who would propose a reduction in the worldís evil as quite acceptable. Later on, Hume seems willing to accept a "cure" for most of the evils of human life. He says he would be content if man had a greater propensity to industry and labor, used his mind more, and was more diligent in applying himself.11 He thinks that almost all of the moral as well as natural evils of human life come from idleness.

When Hume talks about making the whole world happy and curing most of the natural and moral evils in the world, he is willing to accept a world with some evil as not posing a problem for a good and omnipotent God. Modern writers speak in terms of a person being happy even though he might suffer slightly from time to time.

There are other difficulties in Humeís discourse. It is possible that an infinitely powerful God might will that some things happen because a truly free human being wills them. If this is so, then it is likewise possible that at least some of manís unhappiness might be due to manís free decisions. Humeís view seems to presuppose a rigid determinism that cannot be justified as an accurate account of the way things are.

Again, Humeís presupposition that nature does not tend toward human happiness is questionable. One might argue that each man has much to say about his own happiness, that the subjective aspect is very important in such matters.

Again, divine interventions in the secret springs of the universe, turning all accidents to the good of humankind, is hardly a convincing possibility, given the great complexity of the universe and our ignorance of many causal relations. Hume of all philosophers should be aware of manís difficulty in reaching causal knowledge. If we really cannot attain a proper cause of something which will allow us to predict rigidly about the future, then how can we tell when God intervenes and when he does not? For all we know, he might be intervening here and now to prevent even greater evils from occurring. For all we know, we might be asking God to do the impossible, or to do something that would bring about an even greater evil. Hume talks about tinkering with causes that are unknown. This is most dangerous and appears to betray a commitment to acting upon ignorance. His examples of the fleet whose purposes are salutary to society and the prince whose life should be healthy and long are not much help. The fleet is involved in war, and war is more properly attributed to the failure of man, rather than blamed on God. While some thinkers might be convinced that man is destined to wage war upon his neighbor, their case is not very strong. One might argue that just as a rich, talented, and healthy person might make his life a hell on earth, so too, humans through their greed and selfishness are responsible for war. If so, then how can we establish a clear-cut obligation on Godís part to rectify that which humans can correct by themselves?

David Hume believes that manís life is full of misery and suffering. In the Dialogues, Demea and Philo agree that manís life is characterized by unhappiness, misery, the unsatisfactory enjoyment of pleasures, riches, and honors, and the general corruption of his nature. Demea says that the whole earth is cursed and polluted. Fear, anxiety, and terror agitate the weak and infirm. The stronger prey upon the weaker, imaginary enemies trouble the innocent. Diseases and disorders of the mind are found everywhere. If a stranger from another world dropped in on us, he would see a hospital full of diseases, a prison crowded with evildoers and debtors, a field of battle littered with dead bodies, a fleet floundering at sea, and a country suffering under tyranny, famine, or pestilence.12 

Ordinarily we consider the above kind of thinking as the mark of a pessimist. Not that the extreme opposite outlook is more accurate, for anyone who says that the world is made up completely of pleasantries is off the mark. And yet, many people are not terribly bitter about their lot in life. Many are thankful for the simple things such as reasonably good health and a chance to work at something constructive. Also, many of Humeís complaints above can be attributed to manís abuse of his freedom. Humeís pessimism seems to be the result of the human tendency to ignore or take for granted many of the good realities of life.

It is interesting that Hume is ready to accept a good God if his existence could be established a priori, without recourse to an empirical basis.13 If we could establish Godís existence a priori, then all the evils Hume has complained about would not detract from Godís existence and might easily be seen to be reconcilable to it. We would assume that God has good reasons for allowing so much evil in the world even though such reasons are unknown to us.14 Nelson Pike has pointed out that Humeís conclusion should be stated more firmly. From the existence of suffering and the existence of a good, omniscient and omnipotent God we should conclude that there must be a good reason for God to allow evil.15 This kind of necessary conclusion can also be reached in those theologies which accept the existence of the good God on faith. There the problem loses much of its force. Humeís view of the world as permeated by suffering is only a part of the story, and if taken as decisive, is misleading.

A present-day thinker, Edward Madden, sees the problem of God and evil as revolving around the existence of an excessive amount of evil in the world. The existence of some evil in the world would not constitute a problem for the good and omnipotent God, for it could be needed as a means for developing character or for appreciating the good. The trouble is that there is too much of it. According to Madden:

 

No one would deny that some evil is necessary or desirable. Some evil may be necessary for building character, some for understanding or appreciating good by contrast, and so on.16

 

For Madden, the problem of evil arises because we cannot easily explain the necessity or desirability of all evil.17 Gratuitous evil, evil that is prima facie unwarranted, is the source of the problem. There would be no problem if the universe were changed to eliminate this evil, while the other necessary evil remained.18 

Such writers, as we saw in Hume, are accustomed to give some idea as to what changes they would make in order to get rid of unnecessary evil in the world. Their criticisms revolve around the concept of better possible worlds which, in their opinion, a good and all powerful God must bring about. A weakness of this kind of approach to the problem is the great difficulty facing anyone who tries to spell out what this better world would be. Oftentimes, the suggestions made are relatively few, and the consequences are not elaborated. This is not enough to establish a serious objection to the good and all powerful God. In later chapters I will consider some of these proposed possible worlds.

The problem of evil has been stated eloquently by the Jesuit theologian, G.H. Joyce:

 

The existence of evil in the world must at all times be the greatest of all problems which the mind encounters when it reflects on God and His relation to the world. If He is, indeed, all-good and all-powerful, how has evil any place in the world which He has made? Whence came it? Why is it here? If He is all-good why did He allow it to arise? If all-powerful why does He not deliver us from the burden? Alike in the physical and moral order creation seems so grievously marred that we find it hard to understand how it can derive in its entirety from God.19

 

Joyce emphasizes the idea of the human mind reflecting on God and his relation to the world. This is important, for it opens up the possibility that the problem of evil is rooted in manís conception of the world, as possibly a problem unique to the human mind which makes value judgments. Moreover, Joyce points to the role that evil might play in the world, and suggests the possibility that there is a reason for it. Also, we see that God might merely allow evil, and we are reminded of the way in which all of us, good intentions though we might have, allow something evil to occur as we insure the actualization of a greater good. Then too, for Joyce, God is always present to us and able to remove the evil that burdens us. This evil is, again, not only the physical evil of natural catastrophes and disasters, but also the moral evil of manís inhumanity to man. We seem to be dealing with an imperfect, flawed world. Hume talked about the creation of the world as a botched job. Joyce talks about it as "grievously marred." The question, then, is, "How can the good and all powerful God produce such an effect?

Two other thinkers approach the problem in a slightly different way. The theologian, Dom Mark Pontifex asks:

 

How indeed can there be even the possibility of evil when God is absolutely good, or how can the idea of evil ever have occurred to anyone?20 

 

Pontifex points to the importance of the absolute character of Godís goodness. If God is absolutely good, and the source of all that exists, then how can he be the source of evil? Or, how can evil have any basis at all in reality? How can evil exist if all that exists comes from the absolutely good God?

This view focusses attention on the problem of physical evils such as earthquakes, hurricanes and other natural disasters. It avoids the uneasiness and suspicion that is attached to any attempt to excuse God from any responsibility for the disasters of the world. Pontifex points to the importance of the absolute character of Godís goodness in the problem. If God is absolutely good, then how can there even be the possibility of evil?

This theologian mentions another way of stating the problem: An evil thing tends toward a decrease in its perfection. Hence, where there is evil there is frustration. But, why should God create a world in which the powers he gives to creatures will be frustrated? This seems to contradict the fact that he has given them.21 Pontifex points up the realization of evil. While evil might be conceivable, why should God allow it to be realized? The only answer is that it is a means to some greater good which outweighs the evil. If so, then the question is: How can evil be an unavoidable condition for good?22 

The Indian philosopher, Sri Aurobindo Ghose, like Dom Pontifex, has difficulty reconciling evil with a good and omnipotent God who stands above the universe, ruling and watching. This is especially so if the inexorable law of karma holds. If we take pain as a trial and an ordeal, then we are led to an all-powerful, cunning, psychologist-God who is cruel or morally insensible. The same would hold if moral evil is the result of ignorance. If pain is a punishment for moral evil, then we can ask why moral evil exists or must entail such pain and suffering? Such difficulties led the Buddha to reject the existence of a free and all-governing, personal God.23

For Aurobindo, all things that exist are what they are in terms of an ultimate reality; Existence-Consciousness-Bliss, a consciousness that is both creative and infinite self-delight. This leads him to ask, how can pain and suffering exist at all if this is so? If this ultimate reality, called Sachchidananda, is God, then he is all good. If so, however, who created pain and evil?

Aurobindoís answer to the problem of evil is that the Divinity also bears the evil and suffering that we find in the creature in whom he has embodied himself. Aurobindo points out that the law governing the world takes no cognizance of good and evil, but only of the force that creates, the force that arranges and preserves, the force that disturbs and destroys impartially. We do not blame the tiger for ripping apart its prey, nor the storm because it destroys whatever is in its path. The urge of Sachchidananda towards self-expression is central. This satisfaction of the conscious-force of existence develops itself into forms and seeks in that development its delight. Delight of being--universal, illimitable, self-existent-- seeks to realize itself as delight of becoming. This delight seeks in mind and life to realize itself by emergence in the becoming, in the increasing self-consciousness of the movement. As it seeks new forms of itself, pain and suffering occur.

If God and the world are so close as to be identified, then Aurobindo has an attractive solution to the problem of evil. But that is a big "if." A competitive partial solution is available in the more classic view in which God is basically other than the world. If created individuals are genuinely real and not mere concentrations of the Divinity, then pain is unavoidable in a world with biological life. If we are to have life as we know it, things must break down. If we are to have the variety of living and non-living things, then the way they act must have real consequences on human beings. Humans are part of the physical world, not that different, not so high on the scale of being that they must be isolated from all suffering. Other things in the universe are more perfect in certain respects than humans and necessarily predominate when the two types of creatures come into contact. Pain does not have to be seen as a divine punishment for moral evil. It might be a natural consequence of our treating somebody badly, or something necessary because of the world, an indicator that steers a person away from greater evils. Pain can also be a means to offer us an opportunity to attain great dignity. Or, . . . a reminder to man that his true destiny does not lie in the material world which he must leave at death, trials are not necessarily evil. Tests give meaning to life.

So far we have seen a number of ways of conceiving the problem of evil:

 

The world is full of misery and suffering from human and natural causes, and God is responsible for it.

The real problem is manís inhumanity to man, and Godís tolerance of it as a cost of freedom.

The real problem arises not from some evil in the world but from an excess of evil.

How can evil in any way come from the Creator who is absolutely good?

The problem of God and evil is a pseudo-problem, for only the One really exists, and it must suffer as it seeks new forms of itself in an ever expanding consciousness.

 

One might say that the problem of evil is not one single problem but a cluster of problems. Central to these problems is the need for evil to be accepted as real if there is to be any problem at all. If the designation of something as evil says nothing about reality, or if it is the mere free expression of an emotion, then we cannot be justified in blaming God for it.

Underlying all is the difficulty in seeing how a reasonable person could at the same time maintain that 1) God is omnipotent and omniscient, 2) God is good, and 3) evil exists. These ideas are not contradictory in themselves as would be the case if we were talking about a square circle or a married bachelor. There is always the possibility that a good and all powerful God has a reason for bringing about a world with evil in it. Good and powerful persons sometimes cause pain and suffering in order to bring about a greater good, as when a surgeon operates or parents rightly discipline their children.

Attempts to defend Godís goodness are couched in language that tries to show how what happens in the world is compatible with the actions of a good person. Attempts to defend Godís omnipotence take the form of showing how even an omnipotent being should not be expected to bring some things about. If either defense fails, then the believerís faith is challenged. The powerful, good and loving Creator whom he worships appears as basically evil or indifferent, or less than all powerful.

The Eastern thinkers who claim that anything beyond the One is not real thereby deny the reality of evil. This way out of the difficulty asks us to give up a truth that is at the heart of Western thought: the reality of the individual being. If they are right and our judgment that evil really exists is only a misguided illusion, then the problem of God and evil would be merely one of correcting our way of looking at things. I do not believe there is much support for this position.

Other non-starters are the basically subjective view of evil (as we have seen in Chapter I) and the idea of good and evil as the free expression of an emotion. Here again, the designation of something as evil would say nothing about reality outside of us, and, under such conditions, to blame God for evil would be strangely unwarranted. It would be another matter altogether if the judgment of good and evil were a non-free expression of emotion, that is, if humans were determined by the Creator to express that emotion.

The objection to the existence of the traditional God can be put in the following way: If we accept the actual existence of evil, we have to reject either the goodness of God, his omnipotence, or his omniscience. If we reject his goodness, then we are left with a powerful Creator who is cruel and uncaring, someone who might now be toying with us. To worship such a being would be foolish. If we reject his omnipotence, we would have a good and loving God who was unable to help us should we need him, someone in whom we could place no hope.

Since omniscience and omnipotence are intertwined, a rejection of Godís omniscience would downgrade his power. If God were not omniscient he would not know fully the consequences of his actions and hence could not be in full control. We would in effect be committed to worship a being who in a sense did not know what he was doing.

In order to be able to make a legitimate inquiry into either God as good or God as omnipotent, we must clarify what we mean by these concepts. The ideas of goodness and omnipotence, then, will be our focus in the following chapters. I will try to articulate meanings that are based in the theist tradition. My approach will not be historical, but that my findings should be consonant with the general theist tradition which forms the basis of the problem.

 

NOTES

 

1. Nicolas Berdyaev, The Divine and the Human (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1949), p. 86.

2. Richard Rubenstein, After Auschwitz (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1966), pp. 69, 86-87, 204.

3. Fyodor Dostoevsky,"Rebellion," The Brothers Karamazov (New York: Bantam, 1970).

4. Richard Rubenstein, The Cunning of History (New York: Harper and Row, 1975), p. 10.

5. Ernest Becker, Escape from Evil (New York: The Free Press, 1975), p. 62.

6. C.G. Jung, "After the Catastrophe," Collected Works, vol. 10 (Princeton, N. J. Bollingen, 1970), p. 216.

7. Rubenstein, The Cunning of History, Ch. 2 and 4, pp. 7, 79.

8. David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Part X, Essential Works of David Hume, ed. Ralph Cohen (New York: Bantam, 1965), p. 363

9. Ibid., pp. 363-365

10. Ibid., p. 370.

11. Ibid., pp. 371-372.

12. Ibid., pp. 358-361.

13. Ibid., p. 373.

14. Ibid.

15. Nelson Pike, "Hume on Evil," God and Evil, ed. Nelson Pike (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1964), p.98.

16. Edward Madden, "The Riddle of God and Evil," Current Philosophical Issues, Essays in Honor of Curt John Ducasse, ed. F. C. Dommeyer (Springfield, Ill.: C. C. Thomas, 1966), p. 196. Cf. also, Edward Madden and Peter Hare, Evil and the Concept of God (Ibid., 1968).

17. Edward Madden, ibid.

18. See also Tan Tei Wei, "The Question of a Cosmophoric Utopia," The Personalist, vol. 55 (Autumn, 1974, pp. 401-406, p. 405.

19. George H. Joyce, Principles of Natural Theology, 3rd ed. (London: Longmans, Green, 1957), p. 583.

20. Mark Pontifex, "The Question of Evil," Prospect for Metaphysics, ed. Ian Ramsey (New York: Philosophical Library, 1961), pp. 122-123.

21. Ibid.

22. Ibid.

23. Sri Aurobindo Ghose, The Life Divine (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1982), pp. 91-96.

 

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