The Failure of Greater Good Theodicies


For whatever reason, I find the study of evil to be quite fascinating. Perhaps this is because I see it as the greatest obstacle to an acceptance of theism. After all, if God is all good and all-powerful, why does evil exist?

Rather than offering up my own theodicy (which is a theory I’m working on, something that will take a while to develop), I wanted to point out what I see as a problem in the traditionally “Greater Good” theodicies.

For the unfamiliar, a Greater Good Theodicy (GGT) teaches that God will allow an evil if and only if He can use it to bring about a greater good. The problem is many GGT theodicies end up saying that all evil is allowed because God wants to bring about a greater good.

Were I an atheist, I’d simply point out that, logically following, the greater the evil the greater the good; therefore, why isn’t this world full of more evil? If all evil begets a greater good, then perhaps God could allow 1 in 3 children to die of cancer, which would cause people to become scientists to discover a cure for cancer, which would help all humans. Were I an atheist, I could pick apart the logical problems with GGT.

However, as a Christian I can point to some bigger problems with GGT and show how it’s highly inconsistent with what we believe about God. For instance, let’s assume that God allows an evil to occur because it brings about a bigger good; this would mean that God is a consequentialist, possibly a Utilitarian, meaning He doesn’t really care about you.

If God knows that the death of a child will somehow lead to a cure for a deadly disease and He allows it, that means that He allowed the death of one person for the “greater good.” He allowed a child to suffer and die a horrendous death simply because He wanted us to discover the cure. Of course, this is the same God who spoke audibly to the ancient prophets and this is the same God who is infinite in knowledge; surely He could find some way to allow the child to live, have us develop the cure, and not rob us of our free will. Yet, according to GGT there is not another way, which just seems cruel.

In such a situation, it means that God used the child as a means to an end. Such a view inherently contradicts the view that God is love. If God is love and He is infinite in His love, and if God is personal, then it’s a contradiction to say that God will use us as means to an end, showing little concern as to what happens to us. While God will use us to accomplish a goal, He doesn’t use us as means; rather, we become co-workers with God or adversaries against God. Either way, we’re active participants where our involvement matters to God, not simply pawns that He moves across a chessboard in order to win a game.

And this is why, as a Christian, I must reject the GGT. I must say that, in fact, gratuitous evil does exist. I must say that, it’s true, some evil happens without a greater good to counteract it. Some might point to Romans 8:28, but I would point out that (1) it says this only happens for those who love God and (2) it only says that God turns evil into good for those that love Him; Paul doesn’t say that God turns this into a good that is greater than evil.

In the end, then, we must rethink our theodicy when it comes to the evidential argument for evil. We cannot rely on the GGT because, while logically coherent in itself, it becomes illogical when applied to Christian beliefs as it contradicts our view of God.

I would advocate everyone to look at Bruce Little’s Creation-Order Theodicy as a possible solution, though I believe (as he states in his book) that there is a lot of work required to shape up his theory. For those curious, that is where my studying is heading.

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7 thoughts on “The Failure of Greater Good Theodicies

  1. It takes a person of extraordinary intellectual honesty to be able to go after the argumentation of one’s own camp. I find it to be both refreshing and very respectable. Thank you.

    1. I appreciate the compliment and it’s well-received. I think no matter what one’s position is, it’s best if we’re honest about our strengths and weaknesses. I’m interested in the truth. If the truth is that God doesn’t exist, then I want to know about it. Likewise, if the truth is God does exist, then I want to know about it!

  2. I’ve been reading the problem of evil, theodicies and defenses for nearly four years, and your post is a rare occasion for a fresh and new perspective. I also reject the greater good notion, and would much appreciate your feedback on my explanation when you have a few minutes.

    Good luck in your studies.

    1. Thank you very much. I figure if I require honesty from those who disagree with me, I might as well offer honesty on my own position.

      In accord with that, I would note that I find the problem of evil to be the greatest challenge to theism. I typically find modern arguments for atheism lacking, but the problem of evil stands as one of the more viable challenges.

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