Rethinking the Problem of Evil: A Unified Theodicy (Part 5) – The Evidential Problem of Evil

As alluded to, while the logical problem of evil has been adequately dealt with, we are still left with the evidential problem of evil. Yes, it is logical for God and evil to co-exist, but is the current amount of evil we see necessary? This is where the argument of gratuitous, or superfluous evil becomes extremely problematic for theists.

The skeptic might accept Plantinga’s argument, but turn around and argue that we can imagine a possible world with less evil. We could, conceivably, imagine a world where humans never discovered how to split the atom, which would prevent disasters like Nagasaki and Hiroshima from occurring. It would prevent the threat of annihilation. It would prevent people dying slow, horrible deaths from nuclear poisoning and the inevitable cancer that comes with it (think of Chernobyl or the inevitable problems that will be caused by the Fukushima power plant). We could imagine a world where Hitler or Stalin never came to power or where nations mostly existed peacefully (with wars only arising every few hundred years).

Likewise, we can imagine God acting to prevent some of the superfluous evil without contradicting a person’s free will (or at least this is the argument, though I take issue with it). For instance, if a man grabs a little child to kidnap her, we could imagine God sending an angel down to stop the man from doing so. After all, God prevented Pharaoh’s army from slaughtering the Hebrew people, He prevented Daniel from being eaten by the lions, and prevented Daniel’s three friends from being consumed in the fire. So we have examples of God supposedly preventing a superfluous evil, so why can’t we imagine a world where this Divine intervention happens more?

– Great Good Theodicy

Many theists and Christians attempt to explain the existence of superfluous evil by stating that it’s not really superfluous; they take Plantinga’s argument and say that every act of evil is invariably tied to a greater good that results from the evil. God will allow an evil only if a greater-good can be obtained from the evil, or if He intends for the greater good to obtain from the evil.

A greater good (G-G) theodicy teaches that some goods are contingent upon certain evils. They point to the example of the cross, where Jesus’ death, though evil, must occur for the good of salvation. Or one can think of the chicken pox, that while a child must endure the temporary evil of the chicken pox, she will have the greater good of not getting it later in life when it would be worse. Under the G-G theodicies, no evil is really “gratuitous” because it will always produce a greater good, it always has a reason, and is always necessary.

Already some readers may recognize the problem with G-G theodicies. The first problem and possibly the biggest is that it forced God to become reliant upon evil. If God wishes to obtain good and must only rely on evil, then how is He not ultimately responsible for evil? It would mean that God would have to cause evil in order to obtain a good from the evil. Likewise, it makes God the ultimate pragmatist, which would seemingly contradict God’s holiness; just because a greater good can be obtained through evil, how could God remain holy for doing this in every instance?

The other problem with G-G theodicies is that they significantly limit free will, which forces us to reconsider or abandon the answer to the logical problem of evil. If every act of evil begets good and good is part of God’s plan, then we must commit that act of evil. God is dependent upon us acting in an evil way, we have no other choice, so how are we truly responsible for acting in an evil manner? Let’s say that God plans to use Mike to cure HIV/AIDS, but the only way Mike will do this is if his wife contracts the disease through a blood transfusion and dies from it. Thus, God kills Mike’s wife in order to motivate Mike to cure HIV. Where is Mike’s free choice in the matter of choosing to cure HIV/AIDS? God knows that the only thing that will motivate Mike to cure HIV is the death of his wife via HIV (and then AIDS). Mike doesn’t really have a choice in such a situation and God becomes the cause of evil.

Along the same line of though, if all evil leads to a greater good then we have no reason to prevent evil. If a man sees a woman being mugged he has no reason to step in because a greater good could obtain from her being mugged. How do we know the good provided by evil won’t be greater than the good we achieve by preventing the evil? If a greater good obtains in every case of evil, then why work to stop every case of evil?

Hoes does a proponent of G-G theodicies escape the inevitable conclusion that God wills evil? As Little argues, “…if the good is necessary to the plan of God, then so is the evil, which logically leads to the conclusion that God wills the evil.”[1] If the good is willed by God and is necessary to the plan of God, then the evil that brought about the good would also be willed by God (under G-G theodicies). It’s a matter of forward causation – if God demands that G occurs, but E is needed for G to obtain, then God must have ordered E to occur.

Yet, G-G theodicies become more problematic the more we examine them, namely that we can always imagine ways God could bring about some good, yet use a less evil. We can think back to Roman times when the death of a Christian served as a testament to God. People would argue that the temporary evil of a Christian being torn apart by a lion would beget the greater good of the testimony offered by the Christian. Yet, we can imagine that God could somehow miraculously save the Christian, which would equally display His power to people.

Or we can imagine the collapse of a building during office hours in which hundreds are killed. The building collapsed due to faulty standards and oversight. Though hundreds are killed, the government passes new legislation that fixes the building standards and provides more oversight to prevent the tragedy from ever happening again. But can’t we also imagine that an inspector catches the problem before it happens and lobbies the government to pass such a law and they do? Or what about the building collapses a night with no one inside, leading to the same good as if hundreds had perished? In this example too, while a good does obtain as a result of the evil, we can imagine far less evil (or no evil) occurring that leads to the same resulted good.

Even if we accept that God somehow relies on evil to obtain good in every instance of evil, we can still imagine God using lesser evil. The problem is that to respond to this, one must argue that the level of evil is actually necessary for the good to obtain. As Little argues, “

“If the good is necessary, then so is the particular evil, for if the good could be accomplished with a lesser evil, then the all-good God would use the lesser evil. The end is, that the particular evil is necessary, for the good could not obtain without the evil and the good must obtain because it is necessary.”[2]

God then either appears infinitely dull in not thinking of better ways to obtain the good by using lesser evil, or it becomes an impossible mystery to us, but this doesn’t offer an answer to the problem of evil. We must argue that every act of evil is absolutely necessary (which can lead to Christian nihilism, where there is no point in preventing evil) or that God just can’t think of a better way to use a lesser evil.

Even if we disregard the above objections, we still have a further problem with G-G theodicies, namely that they almost inevitably lead to further evils. What is good now may be evil tomorrow.

One can think about the freedom of the US and all the good that was brought about through the evil of war. But turn around and think of the evil thrust upon the Native Americans via expansionist genocide. Or we can think about the evil caused by the institution of slavery. The original good (freedom from an oppressive government) eventually turned into evil (oppression was thrown upon another group).

We can imagine about how Israel was formed because of the Holocaust, and Israel is good in that it provides a homeland for Jews who would otherwise be persecuted (today or eventually) in other countries. But the trade-off is that many Palestinian people were forced off their homes (either by Jewish settlers or out of fear) and also caused a perpetual state of war between Israel and her neighbors. Even if this isn’t the ultimate fault of Israel, we can see that much evil has arisen from the original good of the Jews having their own homeland.[3]

In the end, some goods end up causing greater evils, which in turn should lead to greater goods, which in turn would inevitably lead to greater evils, and so on. This leads us to believe that at some point, good should stop allowing for evil, or the only evils left will be so horrendous that they would wipe out all of human existence. The evils should get greater if we look at the history of humanity and apply a G-G theodicy to it. And finally, at what point does the cycle end, or are we doomed to simply watch evil escalate until humans can’t stand it anymore?

Finally, G-G theodicies don’t adequately deal with natural evils because rarely do we see a “greater good” coming from a natural disaster. We can think of Haiti’s earthquake in 2010 and how they are still suffering from the devastating affects of the earthquake. Where is the greater good? Or what about Indonesia where over 200,000 people were killed, leaving even more without mothers, fathers, friends, husbands, wives, children, and so on? Shall we say that a greater good has come from the earthquake in Indonesia, and if it has, where is it? In all these cases, couldn’t God allow structural damage while disallowing the loss of life and still achieve the same “greater good”?

The ultimate problem with G-G theodicies is that they leave an undue burden on the theist to explain evil and find the greater good in every act of evil. I think back to an episode of the television show Scrubs where Dr. Cox takes the antagonistic position on evil while Nurse Roberts takes the affirmative position, arguing that God allows evil for a reason. The entire episode they go back and forth with Cox pointing to an evil and asking, “What’s the purpose in that,” while a short time later Roberts finds the purpose and shows him. But is such a defense necessary or even warranted? Why should theists have to point out the good in every act of evil when the good isn’t always apparent?

Ultimately, the G-G theodicies, while popular, are problematic in their logic, but also impractical as explanations. They place an undue burden on the theist without giving a satisfactory explanation. While sometimes God will allow an evil in order to bring about a greater good, to say that He does this in every case of evil is unfounded and unnecessary.

– Creation-Order Theodicy

A new alternative to the G-G theodicies is Bruce Little’s Creation-Order Theodicy (C-O). Rather than attempting to deny the existence of gratuitous evil or say that God allows all evil for a greater good, it embraces that gratuitous evil exists, but that this doesn’t count against God’s holiness or power. Ultimately, his theory is based on the idea that because humans have free will, God cannot logically prevent certain evils or most evils because this would limit human freedom. He argues,

“The creation order does not provide a means for God to filter out the bad choices from which He cannot bring about a greater good. Instead, the creation order allows for gratuitous evil as a corollary to the authenticity of the libertarian freedom.”[4]

Evil, even gratuitous evil, must be allowed because God allows free choices, which means we must be responsible for these choices. So why doesn’t God stop terrorists when they detonate an explosive in a crowded restaurant? If He prevented every act of evil, or most acts of evil, then free will wouldn’t exist because there wouldn’t be consequences to our choices because our choices would never be actualized.

The C-O theodicy, therefore, allows for superfluous evil, evil that seems to have no reason for existing. At the same time, a C-O theodicy does teach that in some instances God will allow an evil to bring about a greater good, but God will sometimes do this in spite of the evil or because the good wasn’t necessary (meaning the evil wasn’t necessary either). Little explains,

“The C-O theodicy argues that gratuitous evil is actual and God is morally justified in permitting such…Rejecting the premise of G-G theodicies does not deny there are never any cases where God brings good from evil intent…The objection here is that the evil is allowed for the purpose of bringing about a greater good…In the case of C-O theodicy, the believer doe not solace himself with the thought of some eventual good springing from his suffering, but rather he looks directly to the mercy and comfort of God himself to sustain and encourage him in times of suffering (2 Corinthians 1:3-4; 12:9).”[5]

What distinguishes C-O theodicy from G-G theodicy is in instances where God allows an evil to achieve some good, He only does so in spite of the evil, but is not reliant upon the evil. For instance, Go could achieve the good in a different manner, but will allow the evil because a human made a choice to act in that way.

Yet, not all evil is allowed because God has a greater good in mind; some evil is mindless and has no purpose or reason. God simply won’t stop all evils because it would require him to limit free will. Likewise, if God prevents one evil because it is too grotesque, then why not prevent all evil? Turning to Little once again, we read,

“Another problem arises when one thinks through the logic of the question [God, why this evil]. If a horrific evil is horrific because of how it compares to another evil, then logically this will mean that all evil should be prevented.”[6]

God will allow the existence of gratuitous evil because to stop it would require Him to prevent all evils.  To use an example from Little’s book, if we imagine evil on a scale of 1-5, with E+1 being a minimal evil while E+5 is the greatest amount of evil, we can get a better idea of why God doesn’t stop superfluous evil. If God prevented all E+5, then E+4 would be the greatest amount of evil in existence, so why not stop it as well? If we follow this to its logical end then God would need to eliminate all evil, which again hampers human freedom.

The other factor of a C-O theodicy is it teaches that if God does allow an evil in order to obtain a greater good that the good wasn’t necessary and neither was the evil. As Little writes, “If God wants evil stopped…then it must not be necessary for some good to obtain…Out of this category of evil [gratuitous], God at times will accomplish some good. Most often, this happens in spite of the evil, not because of it.”[7] What he is saying is that if God wants us to work against evil and if He works against evil as well, then evil must not be required for good to come about, otherwise there would be no reason to work against it.

Again, the C-O doesn’t say that some good can’t come out of an evil act, just that a greater good won’t always result from an evil act and that the evil act wasn’t necessary. Little explains, “The C-O theodicy does not deny that in some cases good does come out of evil; that is, not all evil is gratuitous…If a good obtains, it may be the providential work of God reversing some evil intent.”[8]

In light of the above, a C-O does allow for the “Joker” scenario. In the movie The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne is attempting to figure out what the Joker’s motive is in the destruction of the city. Alfred, the butler, says, “Some people just want to see the world burn.” A G-G theodicy doesn’t allow for such a scenario, but a C-O theodicy does; it allows for a world where someone’s will is so perverse that he just wants to destroy everything. There is no reason for the evil other than the person is sick and twisted. Some people just want to do horrible things, which is what we call superfluous evil.

Though I have an affinity for C-O theodicy and will draw upon it, it seems to have some problems.[9] While Little allows for some good to obtain out of some evil, or even a greater good to obtain out of some evil acts, it seems that he accidentally precludes a G-G theodicy as a meta-explanation for evil (that is, the ultimate reason why evil exists). Little writes,

“…if the Kingdom is a better state…than initial creation and if the Kingdom comes about because of sin with Christ’s subsequent redemption, then sin is necessary to the best state. According to this line of thought, God is morally justified in requiring evil since form it He brings into being, a redemption, a better state for humanity…This requires that evil is necessary to the best world, which, if it does not make God the author of evil, it does make Him dependent on evil for doing what is best.”[10]

In other words, the traditional belief that God allowed evil that humans might be perfected and enter the Kingdom, which is better than our original creation, is problematic to Little’s C-O Theodicy. But I would contend that Little is being inconsistent with both God’s logical nature and the argument of “best of all possible worlds.”

If God has a goal in creation then there are logical limits on what it must take to achieve that goal. For instance, if God wants creatures to love Him then logically He must create free will creatures who are capable of love. If we take this further and argue that God’s ultimate purpose in creation is to display His love in the most perfect way to inferior beings, there are logical limits to what God can and cannot do. The most optimal way to show love is through sacrifice, but for the sacrifice to occur there must be evil. Thus, God allows evil because it does help Him achieve His end goal. God is not ultimately reliant or responsible for evil, but does rely on the evil if He chooses to actualize a world in which He displays the ultimate act of love to free will creatures.[11]

Little’s criticisms of G-G theodicies seems to preclude God having a purpose for allowing evil general, but instead lumps general evil in with specific cases of evil. We can think of Isaiah 53 where it is said that it pleased God to crush Christ, that he was sacrificed for the good of many. In other words, if we accept that Christ dying for the sins of many was part of God’s will, then we must allow in certain instances that God allows evil in order to achieve a greater good. More importantly, we must believe that the overall allowance for evil is because He achieved a greater good (something I will deal with when I get to my Unified Theodicy).

The point I am making, however, is that God can have a purpose in allowing specific evils, but those evils can still be gratuitous. The cause of the evil has no purpose, but the allowance of the evil does. This is dealt with later in the essay, but I point it out now merely to show that Little’s explanation would seemingly preclude such an argument, which in my opinion is a flaw.

Still, the most problematic aspect I see in a C-O Theodicy is it simply doesn’t allow for God to allow the absence of His goodness in some situations where it is necessary. Some goods that are necessary simply can’t be brought about unless there is an initial lack of good. There’s no reason for the Incarnation unless there is a fall of humanity. There is no resurrection of Christ without Christ first dying. Yet, most theologians would argue that this is the entire reason we were created, to experience God’s fullness of love in the best possible way, which is through sacrifice.

In fact, we can turn to the Damascene to see that the death of Christ was necessary in order to defeat death, which is a greater good. He writes,

“Wherefore, then, death approaches, gulps down the bait of the body, and is pierced by the hook of the divinity. Then, having tasted of the sinless and life-giving body, it is destroyed and gives up all those whom it had swallowed down of old. For, just as the darkness entirely disappears when light is let in, so is destruction driven away at the onset of life, and life comes to all, while destruction comes to the destroyer.”[12]

In the death of Christ we see good triumphing over evil and defeating death, but we also see the love of Christ. The ultimate problem with Little’s argument that we could have fully experienced the love of God without a fall or without evil, or that the fall was allowed because it makes us better than original created, is we’re offered no promise of being free from sin in Heaven. If we are returned to the state Adam was in once we’re in Heaven then what prevents us from sinning? Rather, the Eastern explanation of theosis, that our wills match God’s will once in Heaven, would explain why we no longer sin, yet still have free will. However, it also shows why evil was allowed; without evil in the first place, we could not be perfected.[13]

We must ask ourselves though how a C-O Theodicy allows for us to experience the fullness of God’s love without the death of Christ. Remember, under a C-O Theodicy, while God will allow evil in order to achieve a greater good, neither the good nor the evil are necessary. But I would contend that Christ’s death is necessary in the best of all possible worlds where God has the goal to display the fullness of His love to His creation. If this is the case, then evil is necessary in such a possible world. A C-O Theodicy doesn’t allow for this, but a Unified Theodicy would allow for it.

– The Failure of Both Evidential Problems

The ultimate problem with both of the explanations offered her is that neither really opens the path for counseling when it comes to the existential problem of evil. They work in very specific vacuums, but not when applied to certain situations or in an overall view of the world. Both require us to cast doubts on the Free Will Defense, which leaves us stranded on the logical problem of evil. In short, while they might work in specific instances, neither is adequate as an overall explanation for the evidential problem of evil.

Likewise, neither truly allows God to act against our choices. Under a G-G theodicy God won’t act against our choices, but instead uses our choices to achieve a greater good. Under a C-O theodicy, God won’t act against our choices because this somehow ruins free will. Yet, the Damascene wrote, “One should note that the choice of things to be done always rests with us, but their doing is oftentimes prevented by some disposition of Divine Providence.”[14] That is, there are times where God will act against our choices, while other times He won’t. Neither theodicy really explains how this is possible. In short, one makes God overbearing and reliant upon evil in every circumstance (G-G theodicy) while the other would seemingly make God reactionary to evil and not really sovereign (C-O theodicy). Ultimately, however, neither helps us deal with the existential problem of evil.

[1] Little, 61

[2] Ibid. 68

[3] This isn’t an argument against the existence of Israel, as I support the Jews having their own homeland. Instead, it’s an argument that shows that even when a greater good obtains, evil can still result from it.

[4] Little, 109

[5] Ibid. 103

[6] Ibid. 111

[7] Ibid. 114

[8] Ibid. 115

[9] I should add that Little has another book out titled A Creation-Order Theodicy: God and Gratuitous Evil, which I have not read. Thus, my criticisms could be answered in this book. Likewise, much of what I say when I explain my own Unified Theodicy could actually be a version of C-O Theodicy or the Theodicy itself.

[10] Little, 99

[11] I don’t necessarily follow this line of thinking, but merely am using it as a counter-example. My own Unified Theodicy will deal with this problem.

[12] An Exposition, 332

[13] This is best explained through the Incarnation. When the person of the Word came down into human flesh, He sanctified it and unified it with Himself (though we are still separate in identity and being). The point being, He did something to human flesh that He could not logically have done at the moment of creation, which is open a way for the human will to be unified with the will of God.

[14] An Exposition, 257

One thought on “Rethinking the Problem of Evil: A Unified Theodicy (Part 5) – The Evidential Problem of Evil

  1. “There’s no reason for the Incarnation unless there is a fall of humanity. There is no resurrection of Christ without Christ first dying. Yet, most theologians would argue that this is the entire reason we were created, to experience God’s fullness of love in the best possible way, which is through sacrifice.”

    So quadrillions of beings must scream in agony so God can show how “loving” he is. What a vile tyrant.

    “Rather, the Eastern explanation of theosis, that our wills match God’s will once in Heaven, would explain why we no longer sin, yet still have free will. However, it also shows why evil was allowed; without evil in the first place, we could not be perfected.”

    It’s utter nonsense to suggest that it is better first to be imperfect – and for quadrillions of beings to suffer agonies – then to become perfect; than to have been created so that “our wills match God’s” in the first place. Either this matching is compatible with free will, in which case we would have been created thus if God were omnipotent and good, or it is not, in which case the supposed perfect end-state, heaven, isn’t perfect, and the supposed justification for allowing evil vanishes.

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