The AFE, Utopia, and the cross

Brian Green Adams summarizes the argument from evil (hereafter, AFE):

The problem of evil argues that there are inherent contradictions between the attributes of omnibenevolence, omnipotence, and the evil and or suffering we seem to observe. Christians typically believe God possesses these attributes, so if he could not, then the God they believe in could not exist.

Adams gives an articulate and forceful account of the argument which seems targeted towards the sorts of objections one hears against it, and so one can’t fault him for overlooking my idiosyncratic objections to his case. That said, my first objection is that (as with all other AFE’s) we continue to get no accounts of why any actual theist thought God was good or powerful in the first place, even though there are multiple ways of understanding the relation of God’s goodness to the evil in the world and relatively few of them allow for an AFE.

The Greek tradition saw moral evil as arising either from a general ignorance (Socrates/Plato) or from a momentary willful ignorance (Aristotle). But – and this was the crucial assumption – the Greeks thought God alone could be completely without ignorance. Two things followed : God alone was perfectly good, and human life could not exist at all without the possibility of evil. The Greek view of divine goodness therefore rendered an AFE impossible. This was not merely a speculative theory: Greek tragedy lives in a context where ignorance is unavoidable, and even if one minimizes it as far as he can the remainder will still suffice to trip even the most blessed and fortunate person into ruin. Greek morality also reflects this unavoidable element of evil. Aristotle is clear that morality is the sort of action only appropriate to one who lives a life between a beast and a god, and so when the AFE speaks of God’s supposed benevolence or moral perfection they are appealing to ideas that Greeks would have found absurd, even while they continued to insist on the integral goodness of divine beings.

The AFE thus operates under the assumption that the Greek view of the world is wrong, and that there is a real possibility (and not just an imaginable one) that human and animal life could exist without evil. The AFE is thus a critique of tragedy and a sort of testimony to the real possibility of Utopia. How else could we find fault in God for failing to create it?

Christianity, of course, does insist that Utopia actually existed and will come again. This requires it to concede that Utopia is a real possibility, and so far as this goes it allows the possibility of an AFE. But anyone who accepts the Christian testimony that God wants us to live a blessed life free from evil has to accept with it that the means to attain this is through conformity to the Son, and above all in his patient acceptance of evils. And so the AFE becomes impossible again, for while the Christian makes a blessed Utopia a real possibility which God could create, he insists that suffering and evil have a necessary role to play as means to its achievement. Briefly, a Christian cannot raise the argument from evil without denying his need for discipleship to Christ – without denying the cross – which is exactly what makes him a Christian.

In the modern era, however, both Christian and non-Christian philosophers started arguing for a new sort of research program, one which would, in Descartes’s words, be a relief to man’s estate. This Cartesian program came to associate knowledge with relief from evils, which invited the inference that a complete knowledge would be nothing other than a complete relief from all evil. But surely God had such a complete knowledge, right? At this point we finally get a view of divinity that could give the AFE real bite. I say “could” because we can only make the argument after we have rejected both the Greek and the Christian accounts of divine goodness and the evil in the world. Against the Greeks, we need to assert the real possibility of a Utopia that God could bring about; and against the Christians we have to assert that this Utopia cannot (or at least should not) be brought forth eschatologically though the cross. But, if this is right, what god is being denied by the AFE?

That was the end of the post proper, but here is a whimsical postscript. When we take a close look at the god who is denied in the AFE, he seems to be one who

(a) denies the truth of the tragic view of life, even as it might manifest itself in an idea like original sin.

(b) denies the truth of the cross.

(c) Is one who would prove that he exists – and so is worthy of worship – by entering into the project to relieve all human suffering.

So perhaps the AFE isn’t talking about God at all, but Antichrist.


  1. GeoffSmith said,

    August 28, 2015 at 5:36 am

    Very helpful post. I’d seen the connection to tragedy made before, but not quite this way.

  2. thenyssan said,

    August 28, 2015 at 8:19 am

    “All these will I give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”

    Nicely done.

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