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Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Abandoning the search

I've been spending a lot of time searching for an adequate answer to the problem of evil. Someone mentioned today, though, that there is no real answer to the problem of evil, and I've been thinking about that ever since. I looked through a book I'd bought but haven't yet read - Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God by Marilyn McCord Adams - and saw that she agrees. She lists many of the defenses to the problem of evil in detail, but then writes I pay my respects to the depth of horrors by abandoning the search for morally sufficient reasons why God permits them. Adams spends much of the rest of the book on how God makes good on suffering. I think it's time I readjusted my focus in this direction as well.

Here below is a bit more of what Adams wrote on this (pp. 53-55) .....


Many philosophers of religion insist that the problem of evil can be solved only if we can identify some (logically possible) morally sufficient reason why God would (though omnipotent and omniscient) permit evils. Pressed to meet this demand, many seize on considerations that may plausibly play some role in God's creative choices -- for example, the desire to make a world of the highest possible overall excellence, the desire to people it with incompatibilist free creatures and allow them choices of moral and perhaps eternal significance, or the fact that suffering can have pedigogical value and figure in complex goods -- and elevate these considerations to the status of "morally sufficient reasons why" or reasons why sufficient by thenselves to render the permission of such evils compossible with omnipotent, all wise, goodness.

In my judgement, this has proved a bad idea, first because trying to make these considerations do all the work of explaining why God permits evils in the amounts and of the kinds and with the distributions found in this world, often only adds to the problem of how a being thus motivated could be good in the relevant sense. Such attempts show rather that where horrors are concerned, not only do we not know the actual reasons why of Divine permission; we can scarcely think of any candidates for a complete explanation. I do not say that God has no reasons why; on the contrary, God is personal, and so the sort of agent that can act for a reason. Moreover, if good to created persons, we may suppose that, in permitting individuals to experience horrors, God would act for a reason -- and not capriciously -- in matters so momentous for them. Nor do I want to say that we cannot know or think of any partial reasons why God might permit horrendous evil, in the sense of considerations that could have some weight or other in God's creative choices. On the contrary, I assume the desire to have personal creatures who have some free play and the desire to have a very good world on the whole are among God's reasons. And I have already stipulated an unwillingness on God's part to permit any horrors God couldn't defeat within the context of the individual's life. I am about to add a more specific partial reason why in the next section. Nevertheless, I agree with Anselm, that any reasons why that we may discover are only partial, and that for any disclosed to us, there are and always will be deeper ones we cannot fathom. I also concur with Anselm that the mystery of Divine goodness is permanently inexhaustible by us and permanently partially inaccessible by us; exploring it will keep us fascinated for eternity.

If our knowledge of reasons why is only partial, how can the problem of evil generally, and of entrenched horrors in particular, be solved? My suggestion is that we can explain the compossibility of God and evil (even the evils of entrenched horrors) if we can offer a (logically possible) scenario in which God is good to each created person, by ensuring each a life that is a great good to him/her on the whole, and by defeating his/her participation in horrors within the context, not merely of the world as a whole, but of that individual's life.



Blogger MadPriest said...

The reason why we struggle with the concept of evil is that we refuse to let go of the concept of an omnipotent god. If God is not omnipotent, the answer to the question "Why does God allow evil things to happen?" is "Because he can't stop them from happening."

The completely omnipotent God is a scholastic invention. Biblically, God was often far less than perfect.

Personally, I can't see why a less than omnipotent God would be worthy of any less love and praise. In fact, the opposite is true. A god that might not be able to raise his son from the dead, who takes a risk, shows his true love for us.

Once you let go of the omnipotent god idea, systematic theology becomes far easier. For example, the Atonement becomes an explainable and necessary event.

Logically, God cannot do the impossible. For if God can do something it isn't impossible. So, being able to do all that is possible for God is qualification enough for god-status. In fact, you could argue that being able to do all that is possible, but not the impossible, is omnipotence.

2:16 AM  
Anonymous Dyan said...

Very interesting MadPriest! I especially liked your third paragraph - that really touched my heart. When I read your last paragraph I looked up "impossible" and this was the first definition:
"Incapable of having existence or of occurring." Yep, something new to think about today.
What do you think, Crystal?

8:55 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi MadPriest,

Thanks for commenting. I've wanted to have the chance to tell you how much I like the sermons you've posted.

the answer to the question "Why does God allow evil things to happen?" is "Because he can't stop them from happening."

This seems to be the conclusion of everyone who's opinion I respect.

I guess I've had some serious personal investment in not wanting to believe it - I'm so scared all the time.

Having said that, I think you're right.

11:49 AM  
Blogger crystal said...


MadPriest's idea of a God who takes risks touched me too. I think I've been like a child who wants his parent to be perfectly powerful so he can be protecting, if only the child can win his love. Maybe it's time I realized that a parent who may not be able to make everyting ok, but who is vulnerable and loving, is preferable.

11:57 AM  
Blogger MadPriest said...

Of course, if we still hold to the belief that God is our creator (which I do, even if this might be within the universe rather than outside of it) we now have to ask the question, "If God cannot stop evil was the creation of beings capable of suffering worth it? In fact, was it a good act or an evil act (albeit accidentally evil). Is what we've got better than what there was before? Is something, no matter how bad, better than nothing?

My gut instinct is to say it is not worth it. But, if you ask people who have more than their fair share of suffering (for example a person born with painful and life-shortening disabilities) you often get a more positive response to this question.

Also, this question cannot be posed with just the present in mind. If our understanding of the economy of God is true then all suffering will be redeemed (if God wins) and that puts our present suffering into an entirely different context. Like the suffering of Christ our suffering becomes part of the redemption of creation. In some way, our suffering is necessary for, not only our redemption, but the redemption of all things (possibly including God).

12:20 PM  
Blogger crystal said...


If God cannot stop evil was the creation of beings capable of suffering worth it?

I ask myself that a lot. I know there are people who don't think it's worth it - the ones who commit suicide - but I think you're right that most people, even ones who have suffered, would rather have lived than not.

this question cannot be posed with just the present in mind.

In the online Spiritual Exercises retreat I once took, the weirdest thing for me was the end, where after a whole week spent on watching Jesus suffer and die, we then spent a week with him trying to share his joy in resurrection. Somehow the life after death trumped all the suffering. Maybe God has the ability to really redeem, to really make more than good on all the bad that went before?

1:07 PM  

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