Thursday, January 28, 2010


Lets do the groundwork first. What is the 'problem of evil'? Here is the form it is often put in:

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”

-Epicurus C. 300 BC

Now, is there a problem here? well generally the answer is no. There is no 'problem' here. Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga wrote a book called 'God, Freedom and Evil' here he proposed the 'free will defense'. Most philosophers have regarded this as a success (an unusual occurrence in philosophy) and since then nobody has thought that evil and God are two inconsistent things to exist.

However, that was not the end of Epicurus' old dilemma. We now have evidential problems of evil, these seek not to show that the existence of God and evil are inconsistent, but that they are unlikely to co-exist as it were.

This illustration helps me to understand the difference:

Imagine me and a friend are on a boat out on the water, and we are looking at a specific body of water. I make the claim that there are dolphins in there. My friend responds:
"No, that is impossible, since there is no dolphin food in this body or water, and in fact they dislike the plants that grow here."
I respond:
"well, actually its not impossible (insert here the 'shmee will defence' for dolphins)... so, you see there could very well be dolphins here."
My friend then responds"
"Fine, that seems to work out, however it is very unlikely that there are dolphins here, and further more, if there is indeed a dolphin or two in here, then they are idiots."

So you see the difference.

Traditionally Christians have here offered a theodicy. Theodicy comes from two greek words: Θεος meaning 'God' and δικη meaning 'justice'. Essentially it as an attempt to 'justify God' in the face of Evil.

I now want to differentiate what I will call a 'strong' theodicy and a 'weak' theodicy. A strong theodicy would be one which a non-Christian could understand and say "o yeah, I don't think evil in the world is a valid reason to not believe in God' while a weak theodicy would be one that is likely to only satisfy Christians, and a non-Christian is more likely to find unsatisfactory for whatever reason.

I cannot think of a single strong theodicy. The various ones out there, the free will theodicy (distinct from the free will defense) does not account well for natural evil, the soul-building theodicy seems to me to be less than satisfactory for the reason that I would rather be immature and not suffer some evil, and also seems to imply that God is unable to bring us to maturity without suffering, there are many others which all seem to me to only answer half the problem and do not really flow that well from the bible anyway.

The main part in which the issue with Evil comes up in the bible is in the book of Job. And Job does not get a theodicy either, here is God's answer: "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? ... Have you commanded the morning since your days began? ... can you bind the chains of the Pleiades or loose the cords of Orion? ... Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it." -Job chapter 38-40:2 (ESV)

To which Job's answer is short: "Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth." -Job 40:4 (ESV)

So yeah, its not a theodicy really.

I think that we as Christians have really failed to grasp this, I am not saying there is no place for a theodicy... but I am pointing out that God felt no need to justify himself in front of Job... however, what does this mean for us?

Should we exclaim to the skeptic who our God is? Should we proclaim his wonders? should we ask them if they can hold the Pleiades in their hand, and if they set the tides of the mighty ocean?

I humbly suggest we do not. This will get us precisely no where, and I think we as Christians have often turned this into an all too intellectual exercise (perhaps this blog post is evidence of this). We may have forgotten that the problem of evil is not out there somewhere, but more often than not its actually the problem of parents being bitterly divorced, its the problem of friends dying in car crashes, its the problem of a child born blind or with autism, its the problem with 150,000 dead in Haiti or the 6 million who did in camps like Auschwitz and then that some people even have the gall to suggest it never happened. All to often we like to think that we can answer this objection by invoking free will and waving our hand in the air as if it was never a problem.

That would not fly with me, and it definitely will not fly with a mother with a blind child or the person who lost his/her friend/spouse in a car accident when they were driving home from a movie.

Maybe we ought to realize that God's answer to Job did not finish there. The biblical narrative then continues through to this man Jesus. Perhaps God's answer is not one that explains problems clearly and offers answers that are really intelligent and insightful, but rather one that is to do with our actions... much like Jesus, to become poor in spirit, and to carry our cross.

Perhaps when we meet this objection we should be brutally honest and say that we have no answer, we do not have a wave of the hand that's going to make it better or an answer that will be obviously true when people hear it. Instead we have only the actions of a suffering servant in 1st century AD Palestine who chose to not avoid suffering but to deal with the worlds suffering by suffering as one of us.


  1. Hmmm...what I have never understood is this 'free will' you talk of. Christians always harp on how God has a 'divine plan' for all of us--how does free will have ANY place in that then? Perhaps an idea for another blog-post? ;-)

  2. Haha. mans responsiblitly vs. God's sovereignty is a tickely issue indeed. Many different Christians have come up with multiple answers, some have denied taht God has a plan (sonmething I don't agree with, but it is interesting) and other Chrsitians have denied free will (its actually never explicitly mentioned in the bible, and in my mind the bible seems a lot mroe deterministic than most Christians think).

    Maybe it will be a blog post, but its such a big issue that i really need to read some more on the issue, and I am more into history than philosophy, but there are a few books on my list.

    But here's a pleminary sketch of a possible answer (and one I have been toying with). *Most* philosophers do not think contra-causal free will actually exists (most think it does via appeal to divine authority, which i don't think convinces many people), however they do not believe strict determinism is true either. So we would call this compatabilism, that both free will and determinism are simultaneously true... in doing this we would have to redefine free will and determinism. Thats where I get lost, so yeah. But here is a link for the philosopher consensus on free will:

  3. Hi Dale,

    I know you're probably speaking more anecdotally, but why do you think Christians accept 'weak' arguments more readily? Should this be the case? Are they just more gullible?

    And do you think unbelief affect the acceptance of potentially 'strong' arguments?

    (p.s. I think determinism is more an atheistic concept isn't it?)

    Your bro in Christ,

  4. Hmmm, some thought provoking questions.

    I think Christians start off with belief in God, and any answer that sounds half-right would be uncritically accepted more easily. It's not necessarily gullibility though, more just a powerful belief in the necessity of the truth of Christianity, and so an answer will do. And I do not think this should be the case.

    I have a reason too. Many of these 'answers' are just spat out at a skeptics face without much thought, and also with some contempt sometimes (as you noted, this is partly anecdotal) and the skeptic who actually may have thought it through and found them weak leaves feeling unlistened to and possibly even abused by someone who only cared about proving a skeptic wrong.

    Hmm, I dunno if determinism is an 'atheistic' concept, some atheists believe in free will... But anyway, compatibilism strikes me as a particularly Christian concept, someone like Jonathan Edwards comes to mind. As a textbook example:

    We are free to do what we want, but we are evil so all our inclinations and wants are always evil, so there is a spark of determinism in it (i.e. the evil nature that determines within what parameter's our actions take place) and a spark of free will, I.e. it does not determine exactly what we will or will not do/think etc.