A problem in theodicy/ Argument from Evil

Would it make a difference to theodicy if moral evils were worse than physical ones? (M>P)*

There seems to be a consensus that physical evils are more problematic than moral ones, e.g. the suffering of children or animals from disease or abuse or natural disasters is harder to explain or justify than the freely-willed evil of a moral agent inflicting needless suffering.

On M>P this raises the problem of why a greater degree of something bad is more problematic than a lesser amount of it. How can this be so if the problem arises from evil as such? If some problem arose from curiosity as such we’d expect more curiosity to create more of the problem, or if Christianity as such had a fatal flaw we’d expect the problem to be more pronounced in a more intense and devout Christianity.

So the aporia seems to be this:

1.) When X as such is a problem and X can be greater, more X is more problem (axiom)

2.) Physical evil is more problematic than moral evil (assumption of argument from evil).

3.) M>P.


*Newman famously defended M>P and refused to back down from it when challenged:

The Catholic Church holds it better for the sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions on it to die of starvation in extremest agony, as far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one wilful untruth, or should steal one poor farthing without excuse.

Apologia Pro Vita Sua p. 247

Athanasius’s Argument from Evil

1.) The human race is a failed project. “If you eat it, you will die” was addressed to the whole race. He ate. In one of the darker points of agreement between faith and reason, theology and biology agree that the human race is just one more species waiting for its extinction event. This is why natural catastrophes and the madness of war (floods, genocides, sieges, earthquakes, and even our own sicknesses) foreshadow the unavoidable natural extinction event, and are interpreted by prophets as anticipations of it, in the way that peak moments in the firework show all make us wonder if we’re looking at the grand finale.

2.) But, says Athanasius, this leads to a divine dilemma:

a.) Dishonor of an image dishonors the model, but man is the image of God. The fall is not just a human catastrophe but a divine dishonor.

b.) If we can do something to help a loved one but do not do so, this is usually understood as making us either unable to help or just negligent. It “argues for limitation” as Athanasius puts it.

c.) Everyone is a natural enemy of what is opposed to its nature and mission, but the corruption of the logos in man is opposed to the nature of the incorruptible Logos and its mission to give this to human persons.

3.) But all of these concede the key premises of the Argument from Evil, the only difference being that Athanasius sees evil as occurring within a historical project that takes the extinction of the human race and its many anticipations as given, and yet as allowing for a double value. Death and the evil that anticipates it are both paths on a historical arc to a pointless annihilation and ways to become conformed to the image of the incorruptible God. This historical arc toward incorruptible existence does not negate but completely presupposes death and extinction and is impossible without it.

4.) Evil is thus an ontological grue-bleen. To turn it into an argument from evil is to see evil as ahistorical and not part of a larger story of fall and recreation, one where our being “like all other species” is presupposed. This likeness to all other species is, though the Incarnation, a means by which the corrupted logos of the human person can be conformed to the image of the incorruptible logos of the Son.

Notes on the Argument from evil

-The best any particular argument from evil can hope to do is to establish that God is not good in the sense the argument assumed. There are, however, at least a dozen non-reducible ways ways in which God can be called good/ infinitely good/ benevolent.

-There’s a lot of literature on the argument from evil that I’ve never read, but I’ve gone through a good deal of it without ever seeing an argument that began by saying “Dr./Saint _____ argued that God was infinitely good because _____” The arguments always start as if “God” just meant “infinite goodness/ benevolence”, and as if everyone from time out of mind just assumed he knew this without giving an account of what he meant or a reason why he thought it. And as if everyone meant the same thing by it.

-Even if one takes God’s infinite goodness as axiomatic, there are multiple ways in which it can be so taken, consider

a.) when the one supreme God of gods is thought of, even by those who believe that there are other gods, and who call them by that name, and worship them as gods, their thought takes the form of an endeavor to reach the conception of a nature, than which nothing more excellent or more exalted exists. (Augustine De doc, 1.7)

b.) God is that than which nothing greater can be thought.

c.) God is called good ‘as that by which all things subsist’ (Dionysius)

d.) The perfect is always prior in being to the imperfect (Boethius, following Aristotle)

e.) God is a perfect/ ideal person (Plantinga)

Notice that, while (a) was a clear influence on (b), the former is far more limited and particular while the latter is more general. (c) and (d) can be taken as showing either that God is axiomatically good, or that this follows from very broadly held assumptions.

-Notice that no one ever said “God is infinitely good because everything is awesome! Just look around :-)!” The goodness of God is given within a world where evil not only exists, but often seems to be deeply and radically involved in goodness. In other words, God’s infinite goodness can be just as much an attempt to come to grips with the evil in the world as the argument from evil is. As an empirical support for this, notice that evil makes some turn to God and some away from him.

-If we actually took some of the arguments or axioms of divine goodness seriously, we’d see they saw goodness though the idea of wholeness and totality rather than the way we see it as… what exactly? A lot of the lit says that God must be morally good, but we don’t have any consensus over what this would mean. Would God be an ideal utilitarian? Virtue ethicist? Should he have some goodness transcending this? Is even raising questions like this sheer nonsense? All of these accounts would give us very different views of God, and would in turn give rise to many different sorts of argument from evil, along with different clear resolutions to it. We should stop talking about “moral goodness” as if we all agreed what that meant.

-Many seek out God in the face of bad luck (loss of spouse, getting cancer, born in the wrong place or time) Here again we get another account of the divine goodness: God alone can give meaning to bad luck. God alone can ensure that this evil that befalls us has some sort of intrinsic, real meaning and not just one that we might impose on it though sheer force of optimism. This argument is part of a larger genre: arguments for the divine goodness that arise precisely because of the reality of evil (the simplest arises from the question, “if there is no God, why is anything evil?”)

-In the last fifty or sixty years we’ve grown comfortable seeing goodness as meaning, e.g. to ask “what is the meaning of life” or “what does it all mean” is the same as asking what it is good for or what the good of it could be. This commits us, however, to either seeing all good as determined by humans (whether individually or socially) or as determined by some other intentional agent. Either way, we get very different accounts of the argument from evil. What sense is there to “evil” if all goods (meanings) are determined by us? If we cannot determine them all, then how is good “meaningful”? If we trace this back to nature, in virtue of what is this good properly meaningful? 

Job and the Argument from Evil

Job can be considered in relation to three others:

1.) Job to his friends. This relationship is hard to evaluate but the end is at least clear: his friends are dismissed in contempt by God without comment or response while Job gets a lengthy if pointed response.

2.) Job to God. God does not explain the reason for Job’s suffering, nor does he answer his prayers. True, God responds to Job but not in the way Job asks for – as one who might present himself for interrogation or dialogue.

3.) Job to the reader of the Book of Job. This is a third perspective which is rather like God’s perspective. We, unlike Job, can see exactly why Job suffers, sc. the devil is testing a hypothesis about Job’s fidelity.

Start with (3). Notice there is no sense of a ‘divine contest’ alluded to in the text between God and the devil. God asks if the devil saw Job, and the devil responds that Job’s righteousness would not withstand trial. God neither contradicts him nor suggests the idea of a trial, but only allows Satan to act under certain constraints, and the text gives no reason for either. Satan returns to extend his power, and God allows for the extension under constraints but again gives no reason. The sense the reader gets from this is simply that the Devil is allowed to sin in the same way anyone else is. The only thing God seems concerned about in both exchanges is that the Devil might recognize Job’s holiness.

To (1), what’s interesting is that God’s rebuke of Job is still a better response than his friends get, in spite of the fact that his friends seem more eager than Job to justify the ways of God. The lesson seems unmistakable: neither Job nor his friends know what is going on, but the friends are worse off for assuming they do. This might be a critique of theology, but it’s interesting that this is exactly Socrates’s account of his own philosophical life in Apology. 

To (2) God never mentions the actual reason for Job’s suffering, even though the reader is told of it at the beginning of the book. All the evil afflicting Job traces back to a free choice, nothing is mere nature or bad luck. God couldn’t make imperfect volitional beings without allowing for imperfect volition, and so for sin, and so God could only strike out the source of Job’s suffering by denying existence to Job himself. But God nowhere gives this rather straightforward reason. He sees the better response as a series of rhetorical questions aimed at proving that Job is not partial to a perspective from which suffering could make sense. Suffering, we are left to assume, is something that only makes sense in the context of the generation of the universe as such, in all of its minute interaction and complexity, not only as it exists now, but as it exists throughout all time. And so Gd’s rebuke turns out to be a sort of shadow cast from a much brighter source – Job sees that his suffering corresponds not to anything temporal or finite but to the universe as such in its very source of generation.

Atheist/ theist rapprochements on the argument from evil

Consider evil as manifesting creation.

– Creation does not require evil, but it does require both the possibility of evil and the reality of the non-good. Evil manifests something intrinsic to creation, a possibility that is always latent in it and (so far as evil is a non-good) a reality that is intrinsic and inseparable from it.

(N.B. Not all non-goods are evils. The limitation of good is non-good, but not evil and (in another way) potential goods are non-good, but not evil.)

-Creation requires separation from God.

A: So why doesn’t God swoop in whenever an evil is about to be committed and stop it?

B: Because you’re living in creation. You’re divided from God. This is where he is not.

A: Is this some sort of doctrine about sin or a curse?

B: No. It’s just ontology – or maybe nothing more than an account of what the word “creation” means.

A: But this is unjust!

B: That’s a secondary question. But we can both agree about the separation, and that evil manifests it.

-The theist agrees with this: a man who is suffering is right to say “if this is what’s most real, then God does not exist”. And the real is, after all, that which permeates all aspects of ones being.

-Metaphysical analysis concludes to esse. But esse cannot manifest finitude, and so leaves us blind to what is intrinsic to creation. The metaphysician must balance his reduction to esse against the reality of evil.

-Evil and beauty are the twin revelations of creation. Both give the fundamental insight into its origin, intrinsic structure, and destiny. Atheism is not wrong to affirm the first half of the revelation.

The argument from evil in the gospel

There are at least two arguments from evil in the gospels, that is, claims that some evil is incompatible or counts as evidence against either the existence or goodness of God. One occurs while Jesus is walking to the tomb of Lazarus:

Jesus wept. The Jews therefore said: Behold how he loved him. But some of them said: Could not he that opened the eyes of the man born blind have caused that this man should not die?

(John 11 35-37)

That is, the one who does miracles failed to save Lazarus from death, which bespeaks either inability, ignorance, or malice. But the one who does miracles is either God or his representative, and so the failure to heal Lazarus counts as evidence against God’s benevolence, knowledge, or existence. The narrative places this argument in between Christ’s great promise “I am the Resurrection and the life” and his proving this by raising Lazarus. The text is showing that the argument from evil occurs between the promise and its fulfillment. Notice that after the fulfillment,  Christ does not so much confound his enemies as change the terms under which they are his enemies, since after Lazarus’s resurrection, those who are against Jesus go from merely questioning him to advocating his death.

Many therefore of the Jews, who had come to Mary and Martha and had seen the things that Jesus did, believed in him.  But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them the things that Jesus had done.

The chief priests, therefore, and the Pharisees gathered a council and said: What do we, for this man does many miracles?  If we let him alone so, all will believe in him; and the Romans will come, and take away our place and nation.  But one of them, named Caiphas, being the high priest that year, said to them: “You know nothing.  Neither do you consider that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people and that the whole nation perish not.”

(John 11 45-50)

The refuting of the argument from evil does not win everyone over to theism, but intensifies our opinions about God.

The other argument from evil occurs in Matthew 16. Immediately after Peter confesses that Jesus is divine, Christ is described as telling his disciples about his approaching suffering and death. And Peter taking him aside, began to rebuke him, saying: Lord, this shall never happen to you. The rebuke makes perfect sense: since God is good, he most certainly would not allow himself to suffer the worst possible evils. For Christ to suffer evil would count as evidence against his divinity. Christ’s response is as emphatic as it is familiar:

Turning to him, he said; Get behind me, Satan, you are a scandal unto me: because you savour not the things that are of God but the things that are of men.

(Matthew 16:23)

In the divine plan, evil is cancelled not by avoidance or by the sort of providence that keeps it from ever arising, but by forgiveness, that is, by a person cancelling the debt that is owed to him by choosing not to savor it or demand its rectification, but by incinerating it within his own heart. Evil is the matter of offering or forgiveness, and so is meant to be destroyed by eliminating any possibility that we might encounter it, but by negating it after it is encountered by offering or forgiveness, or generally, by incorporating it into a meaningful life.

On a repugnant presentation of the Argument from Evil

A cartoon version of the argument from evil has been making the rounds on the internet. I refuse to post it or link to it, though I’ll describe it since this neutralizes what is wrong with it. The cartoon is divided into three boxes. In the first, there is a starry-eyed and frivolous-looking woman thanking Jesus for helping her find her car keys; in the second there is an athlete pointing to heaven with bravado and thanking Jesus for helping him score a touchdown, and in the third box there is a captionless photograph of a starving and emaciated black child. It is morally repugnant since it is wrong to use photographs of another person’s suffering in the context of flippant sarcasm and cynical irony. The cause one is promoting is obviously irrelevant to the matter – it would be easy to use photographs of suffering in this flippant and cynical way to condemn anything, including atheist regimes, (how hard could it be to find pictures of the starving children of the Poles, Kulaks, Jews, Cambodian intellectuals, Ukrainians, Chinese ‘counter-revolutionaries’, etc.?) but it would be just as wrong to do so.

At any rate, the cartoon is just as much a critique of the Argument from Evil as a presentation of it – and it might well be a critique precisely because it presents it. To make this clear, note that both Maximilian Kolbe and Victor Frankl were victims of starvation as extreme as anyone has experienced, and yet to place a picture of either of them in the third box of the cartoon would destroy any point that the atheist could make. For that matter, the sadistic juridical torture and murder of Jesus was no less unjust than what the child is enduring, and yet one cannot make the third picture a scene of the crucifixion. If the problem is that the suffering is the suffering of a child, why would it also destroy the atheist’s point to show us the suffering of Maria Goretti or the Holy Innocents? So what exactly is the evil that the atheist is appealing to if it is neither the injustice nor the pain of the situation?

The  answer is that the atheist is appealing to gratuitous evil – a privation that is defined as so extreme or so peculiar that it cannot be a part of a meaningful life.  This is the crucial thing to note about all arguments from evil – they ultimately turn on whether there is some sort of evil that can never be given meaning by the one who experiences it. This formulation is not tendentious: all accounts of gratuitous evil speak of evils that “cannot be ordered to some good”, but a meaningful life is clearly a good.

The more we uncover what exactly the argument from evil presupposes, the more we start to see that it is not just taking the fact of evil, but is rather making a very profound, far-reaching, dubious, and unexpressed judgment about evil. In fact, the AFE is not merely a refutation of theism but an inversion of it. Speaking in another context, Chesterton saw the judgment at the foundation of the argument from evil perfectly, and diagnosed why men advance and accept it:

They do it because they are, like all men, primarily inspired by religion. For them, as for all men, the first fact is their notion of the nature of things; their idea about what world they are living in. And it is their faith that the only ultimate thing is fear and therefore that the very heart of the world is evil. They believe that death is stronger than life, and therefore dead things must be stronger than living things; whether those dead things are gold and iron and machinery or rocks and rivers and forces of nature. It may sound fanciful to say that men we meet at tea table es or talk to at garden-parties are secretly worshippers of Baal or Moloch [but this is so].

Why don’t theists just concede the argument from evil?

The tension in the Argument from Evil (whether evidential or logical) is between omnibenevolence and the existence of evil. But why not just concede the argument, since within the context of the argument “omnibenevolence” has to mean something like “willing all goods that can be done” or even “willing all goods that (ceteris paribus) a human being would be bound to do if he could”? Such a sense of omnibenevolence is demonstratively disproven by the existence of the slightest evil – or at any rate by evils that are easy to come by. Why contest this? Why bother with subtle and intricate theodicies or appeals to ignorance in order to explain how God must have a plan? We can simply shrug and say that there is no such omnibenevolence.

All that remains to ask is whether there is a sense of “omnibenevolent” other than the one that everyone admits does not exist. But isn’t there? It’s hard to see what we would call a being whose will was the source of every goodness, whether actual or possible, if not “omnibenevolent”. Again, God could be the source, exemplar, and goal of every benevolent act, whether actual or possible. Here again, God is omnibenevolent.

But then why are there evils? Good question, I guess. But it’s not a question on which the fate of omnibenevolence hangs. Why bother answering the question anyway? In my experience, those who love the AFE aren’t listening and don’t want to listen to such answers.

Taken in this way, the Argument from Evil is a way of making precise what the omnibenevolence of God must consist in. It serves as a useful tool to illuminate just what we mean by God’s will being good and the source of all goodness.

The completed rejection of the argument from evil

Once we’ve made up our minds that the argument from evil doesn’t work we’re committed to believing that failure to see evil’s justification, ultimate destiny, or place within the whole is due entirely to the limitations of our intellect. We are committed to holding that there never was and never will be an action or event or occurrence which entirely drives out the necessity of our thanking and blessing God for it. This does not mean that we must wish everything to be or to have been, but only that we recognize that irrespective of what happens we will never confront a situation that does not in any way demand praise, blessing, and thanksgiving.

Who believes in the God that the argument from evil would seek to refute?

(This started off as a response to Christ Hallquist’s very provocative account of the Argument from Evil. My original idea was to respond to him point by point, which didn’t work out for various reasons. So I wrote this post that makes a broader argument.)

The argument from evil, whether evidential or logical, seeks to refute the existence of God as both all powerful and all loving. As a Christian who studies natural theology, I don’t see how the argument challenges anything I believe.

As a natural theologian, I claim it is simply wrong to insist that a proof for the existence of God requires raising the question of whether he is both omnibenevolent and omnipotent. If I could prove that there were, for example, some intelligent being transcending the universe that created the universe and is the source of every good, then I’ve proved that God exists, period. I do not need to affirm or deny omnipotence or omnibenevolence, still less do I have to affirm or deny the peculiar sense of omnibenevolence that is presumed in the argument from evil, which is something like “to actually do every possible good”or “to omit doing no goods” (Why can’t God be omnibenevolent in the sense that every good that exists or could exist reduces to the action of his will? Why can’t God be omnibenevolent in the sense that he extends an infinite good to man? So plese, no hand wringing about “if God doesn’t stop every evil, I can’t see what it would mean for him  to be good”. There are all sorts of things omnibenevolence could mean) As a natural theologian, therefore, the argument from evil seems like a rather minor dispute that might, at most, rule out one sense of what it means for God to be omnibenevolent. It is simply not true that the argument from evil rules out the existence of every being that could be called omnibenevolent, still less that it rules out the existence of every being that would deserve to be called God.

As a Christian, however, I believe that God is all powerful and omnibenevolent from the beginning. Here the argument from evil initially makes more sense. But as a Christian, my usual disposition is accepting the unity of two things whose unity I can’t understand: this man is God; some accidents have no substance; Christ had the beatific vision and the most profound suffering, God is absolutely simple and yet tripersonal, etc. the paradox of omnibenevolence and evil has to take a number and stand in line. But this is all secondary. Christianity is utterly incoherent without the doctrine of original sin, which promises and insists upon the suffering and toil of the human race as a consequence of the divine goodness (namely, his justice). We can call this doctrine impossible or absurd, but we can’t very well say that we get the idea that God is omnibenevolent and omnipotent from Christianity and then turn around and say that we have no idea why the human race suffers. Omnipotence and omnibenevolence are a part of a package deal with original sin.

So who believes in the God refuted by the argument from evil, regardless whether they believe in God because of rational argument or grace? By reason, all the AFE rules out (at best) is one sense of omnibenevolence, by faith in Christ, the argument dies even before it can begin, since this faith assures us that man must suffer as a consequence of the divine goodness (since justice is good).

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