What Are We Really Asking With the Problem of Evil?

I often begin to ponder the problem of evil on this site and even wrote a long 10 post series on it. In addition to that, as some people may have noticed, I’m quite critical of most theodicies that Christians offer concerning the existence of evil in this world.

I think modern theodicy has shown quite adequately that the existence of evil does nothing to threaten the existence of God. Christianity teaches that humans have free will and the existence of free will always allows for the chance for evil to occur. While some may debate whether or not we have free will, that deals more with the correspondence of Christianity to the real world, not with the internal consistency. In other words, to prove we don’t have free will would do more to question Christianity as a religion itself; there would be no need to bring up the problem of evil.

Thus, when we ask why God allows certain horrible actions to occur, we could equally ask why we continue to do them. Likewise, if God did step in to stop the most atrocious of evil actions, then the somewhat “acceptable” evils not would become atrocious and we would ask why God doesn’t stop those. Eventually, God’s duties would be relegated to ensuring that our ice cream never fell off the cone and that our internet never went out. Of course, this would destroy all free will which would negate a very important part of the Gospel. In addition to the above, what is evil is often subjective. If God were to stop every instance of evil then would we have a monarchy or a democracy? Some would argue a democracy, others a monarchy; whichever system God put in place, some people would consider it an evil. All individuality would be lost if God stopped every instance of evil, but this would be necessary if God stopped all gratuitous evil. Thus, by logical necessity (since God is consistent), if he is to allow free will then he must allow for gratuitous evil.

The above argument makes sense and, in my opinion, is a very solid theodicy. Yet I’m left feeling incomplete with it. In other words, what I have offered above is the best intellectual response that exists to the problem of evil, but it’s not satisfying. That’s not to say it’s wrong or that atheism has finally won; all the problem of evil can do for atheists is prove that an internal contradiction exists with Christianity, likewise the lack of a satisfying answer doesn’t mean the answer given is wrong. Rather, I think my answer isn’t satisfying because I’m asking the wrong question and approaching this issue with the wrong method.

I, and many others, aren’t really asking “Why does God allow evil?” We’re asking why he doesn’t stop it, specifically why doesn’t he stop the most egregious evils, yet in the Bible we see him stopping other evils. This is the wrong question to ask because we’re asking for specifics from an individual. We often forget that God is not some abstract concept that we study, but an actual person. Thus, when he acts, he has reasons for acting and sometimes doesn’t want those reasons known, or sometimes those reasons cannot be known. While some may roll their eyes (as I did) at the whole “his ways are higher,” it does make sense for specific evils and why he’d stop some and not others. Just as an infant cannot understand why his parents force this horrible mushy substance into his mouth, so too are we incapable of understanding why God acts the way he does in certain situations; it’s not that he purposefully hides it from us, it’s that by nature we’re incapable of understanding.

Yet, even this leaves me unsatisfied. Why do horrendous evils still occur? These evils are seemingly superfluous; certainly if God had a reason for allowing them we would eventually discover the reason, even if it took many generations to discover it. Yet, there are ancient evils that still baffle our minds. Here we are, a few generations removed from the Holocaust and rather than gaining clarity and seeing why God allowed it, we’re ending up with deniers of the Holocaust, celebrants, and we’re even more confused as to why it happened than we were when we first discovered it. While God’s ways are mysterious and we won’t always understand the specifics, I’m not sure this is a good answer, even if it is the right one. That is to say, while the answer is true, I’m not sure it works as an answer to the real question in the problem of evil (“Why doesn’t God just stop evil?”).

Ultimately, this points to the wrong method in answering the problem of evil. We often approach the problem of evil as an academic problem, something we see on paper that can be solved, and we especially do this in the West. But the problem of evil has only become academic because it really exists in our own lives first. We contemplate “why evil” long before we learn how to read, long before we gain critical thinking. Job was capable of questioning why God would allow evil without the aid of David Hume or Epicurus. A young girl who loses a parent (or both parents) can question the goodness of God without ever being introduced to the complex debates on theodicy. In other words, this is an existential problem long before it becomes an intellectual problem; in fact, I would argue that it’s primarily an existential problem with only the logical problem of evil (how can God and evil co-exist) composing an intellectual part.

Yet, if we pull back from the issue of evil for one second we’ll see that this is how almost all problems are concerning the questions that matter. Where do we come from? What is our purpose? Where are we going? These are primarily existential questions, not intellectual ones (they can be handled intellectually, but are then incomplete). We’ve been blinded to this because prior to Descartes and, really, Gettier, we adopted a Platonic way of understanding the world and our understanding of the world. Plato believed that our knowledge came form interacting with the ideal forms, which then translated down to this earth. Descartes also treated knowledge as an intellectual practice. In other words, every form of epistemology (save for one) that have existed in the Western world has placed an emphasis on the intellect, the mind, the nous. Even postmodernism or experimental forms of knowledge that place an emphasis on experience still, at their base, rely on the intellect (even if they later devalue it to the subjective).

Is it no wonder then that we’re woefully ill-prepared to answer the problem of evil? The problem of evil strikes every aspect of our existence, yet the epistemology we approach it with only does so from one aspect of our existence. This would explain why the answers given in any theodicy (save for Greater Good theodicies) make sense and work, but are still unsatisfying; it’s not that the answers are wrong, it’s that they’re incomplete.

In order to take on the task of providing a full theodicy, however, we first have to develop a new epistemology that addresses knowledge as gained and interpreted through every aspect of our being. Such a theodicy does exist (it’s implicit within the Early Church teachings and some Russian philosophers), but hasn’t really been systematized. In other words, while these works exist in English, the concepts really haven’t been translated. Such a teaching is still lost on the modern world and while touched upon by a few Russian thinkers (Pavel Florensky, Ivan Vasilevich Kireevsky, Vladimir Sergeevish Soloviev, to name a few), it’s difficult for Westerners to understand exactly what they’re teaching.

How I wish I could offer up this new epistemology, one that I think would work to give a more complete theodicy, but I haven’t really developed this epistemology or worked through it. I merely point all of this out to show that I think we’re approaching theodicy in an incomplete manner. If we’re approaching theodicy with an incomplete answer, then we need to stop exacerbating the problem by trying to use a failed method and revisit some of our more basic philosophies. While I think we can deal with the logical/intellectual problem of evil, that problem is ultimately superficial; no one quotes Hume at the death of a child, yet everyone questions God in such an instance. We can use Plantinga’s defense (or even better defenses) when in a debate with an atheist, but we can’t use it when counseling a man who’s been diagnosed with cancer. This means that while the free will defense, or other theodicies, are true, they’re inadequate and incomplete. But we can’t complete them with our current methods or epistemologies, we need something new. But who knows if or when that’ll ever come about.

So I leave this post not with answers, but with more questions. What will this new epistemology look like? Will it work? What will its ramifications be? Most importantly, is it true and we’ve simply ignored it for all these years? These are answers I do not have and may not have for many years. Thus, my apologies for introducing an even bigger problem to the debate, but I find it necessary.


One thought on “What Are We Really Asking With the Problem of Evil?

  1. Thanks Joel, there are plenty of good points you make in this post. I share your view that theodocies are generally
    incomplete. I venture to say that, most probably, this will always be the case (since we do not have all knowledge), although that shouldn’t prevent us from asking the question (of course its reasonable to do so, even children do !).
    In looking at this question over the years, although I never found a satisfactory ‘objective’ answer (intellectual/academic), I think there is at least one possible ‘subjective’ answer – this way. The presence of evil and wrongdoing allows us to step into the breach two ways: 1 – we can positively intervene (various ways) to prevent active harm to others, 2 – we can be agents of change for the better to those in need. (These are probably two ways of looking at the same opportunity). In other words, while we probably cannot exhaustively ‘know’ God’s reasons for allowing evil to persist, we do always have the opportunity to respond to it, in His grace. This is the best that I’ve been able to come up with as an alternative approach to the academic/objective-style approach. As I see it, there’s a fundamental difference between the two (simply stated, in broad terms here): The one puts ‘evil’ at a distance, with no real responsibility attached to act upon it (‘objective’), while the other is a real challenge to act (‘subjective’) and demands response of action. I won’t say that the ‘subjective’ position means that evil is therefore a ‘test’ by an Absolute God, but that it can (and does) function as a call to action to those who are so moved, and thereby ‘evil’ becomes an opportunity – a way – that allows God to work grace into this world (of many ways). Just a thought. Thanks again for your reflective and challenging post. Mark Sherring, Warrimoo, Blue Mountains, Australia.

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