What if all proposed solutions to the problem of evil were implausible?

Chris Hallquist takes this as a paradigm story for the argument from evil:

IN THE EARLY HOURS of New Year’s Day, 1986, a little girl was brutally beaten, raped, and then strangled in Flint, Michigan. The girl’s mother was living with her boyfriend, another man who was unemployed, and her three children including a nine-month-old infant fathered by her boyfriend. On New Year’s Eve, all three adults went drinking at a bar near the woman’s home. The boyfriend, who had been taking drugs and drinking heavily, was asked to leave the bar at 8:00 p.m. After several reappearances he finally left for good at about 9:30 P.M. The woman and the unemployed man remained at the bar until 2:00 A.M. at which time the woman went home and the man went to a party at a neighbor’s home. Perhaps out of jealousy, the boyfriend attacked the woman when she entered the house. Her brother intervened, hitting the boyfriend and leaving him passed out and slumped over a table. The brother left. Later, the boyfriend attacked the woman again and this time she knocked him unconscious. After checking on the children, she went to bed. Later, the woman’s five-year-old daughter went downstairs to go to the bathroom. The unemployed man testified that when he returned from the party at 3:45 A.M. he found the five-year-old dead. At his trial, the boyfriend was acquitted of the crime because his lawyer cast doubt on the innocence of the unemployed man. But the little girl was raped, severely beaten over most of her body, and strangled by one of those men that night.

His first comment on the story is:

When I thought about cases like that, the solutions to the problem of evil that had initially sounded so good to me stopped sounding remotely plausible. In fact, I’ve done a lot of reading about the problem of evil since then, and none of the responses I’ve discovered sound remotely plausible to me, not as responses to cases like the one above.

And so he chose atheism and stuck with it.

So why couldn’t I, a convinced natural theologian and Catholic, agree with Hallquist that all the proposed solutions are implausible? Implausible doesn’t seem like a fatal obstacle to a Christian, and many theologians were content with far less. For example, when St. Thomas treated of the highest mysteries,  he was content to show absence of formal contradiction, which is a much lower bar than “plausible”. So does a Christian have to find the Trinity or other mysteries of the faith plausible?  In some sense I suppose they must, but this certainty doesn’t seem so in the most familiar sense of plausible which is what we find likely or what we would expect given what we know-  because no one would ever expect the Incarnation or the Trinity to be likely from an analysis of the things we know about the world. In fact, isn’t the failure to have a plausible answer to a profound problem a very familiar predicament, even in natural knowledge?

So let’s say I agree with Hallquist. All solutions to the argument from evil are implausible, especially in the face of unspeakable crime against a five-year old girl. What then? At the very least, we can still talk about what Hallquist and I are doing when we read the story as an evil for which there is no plausible response.

First, note that both of us are seeing it as an essentially luminous story. One can imagine Hallquist poring over various evil stories, rejecting one after another, until he found this one and thought “Yes, this is exactly what I’m talking about!” The news story is forceful and manifestive – so much so that it spontaneously throws everyone towards what is absolute and universal viz. “no solution can exist for this” or “All responses to the argument from evil are implausible in the face of this” etc.  Who could miss the clarity, force and therefore the essential luminosity of the account?  Hallquist is seeking to justify and structure his entire life as a response to it! It’s not just any old story that could do that. Both Hallquist and I, therefore, are drawing good out of evil. We are trying to draw a very profound and formative truth out of a disgusting and unspeakable crime. Can’t we say even more than this? Aren’t we seeing the crime itself as illuminating some profound and absolute truth?

There is a second point in what Hallquist and I are doing that raises a deeper question. I might wonder whether we have any right to determine that this girl’s suffering means one thing or another. Assume, per impossibile, that she could respond to what we are saying about her story. Suppose that Hallquist then explained himself to the girl in terms that a five-year old could understand, for example: “I heard about what that bad man did to you. That’s why I stopped going to church.” So what if the girl answered back, with great insistence: “You’re being naughty! You should go back to church right now!” Wouldn’t this utterly destroy the luminous clarity that the story seems to have? Wouldn’t the victim have the authority to destroy the interpretation that was given to her story? Citing her story would be like trying to cite the story of Christ’s crucifixion as a perfect example of the argument from evil. In fact, would it be any better if, after Hallquist explained himself, the girl agreed with his interpretation? Just because she sees her own suffering that way doesn’t mean that I have to see my own suffering in the same way, or that Maria Goretti would have to see the sexual assault and murder of a young girl in the same way. To be blunt, it’s not clear that the evils inflicted on human beings can have their ultimate meaning apart from the response that victim makes to them. What might this do to the absolute character of the stories of human suffering?


  1. Gagdad Bob said,

    September 18, 2010 at 5:27 am

    In a way, one could say that Christ’s central message to us is that the worst suffering is nevertheless relative and does not triumph over the absolute. And as you suggest, the fact that the skeptic uses this example to illuminate universal truth or morality undercuts the idea that the example itself could be absolute. It also goes to the deeper mystery of why there is good, especially in a species capable of so much evil. Only humans are privileged to know that there is something very wrong with the world, but we can only know this because of an innate intuition of how things ought to be.

  2. Vetdoctor said,

    September 18, 2010 at 3:52 pm

    Here’s the stout but with the forgiveness at the end. Your answer is beyer but I would ask the atheist to explain forgiveness in a Godless world.


  3. RP said,

    September 19, 2010 at 2:36 am

    The argument that an all-powerful, all-good God wouldn’t allow evil is based on a faulty notion of God: one which makes it possible to think God doesn’t think and act as I do. It’s basically a character fault, not a rational argument.

    The proper philosophical response to this is: so what? Get over it. If God wouldn’t allow evil he wouldn’t allow the person who thinks God is bound to the way of thinking and acting of a finite being.

  4. Norris said,

    September 20, 2010 at 1:00 pm

    In a broad sense it seems that the problems found in the atheist’s fetish with the problem of evil are (at least):

    -The mistake of thinking that an “all good God” necessarily requires that all things be good.

    -The mistake of thinking that an “all powerful God” can do anything, even that He can do that which is logically contradictory.

  5. September 22, 2010 at 10:01 am

    Hello James!

    I did my own response to this post, and I just wanted to let you know that I was tossing your name around where Google lurks as a courtesy. Great blog by the way and sorry about this comment, but I couldn’t find any other way to contact you.

    Take care.

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