Friday, December 8, 2017
For Ramin Gholizade: A Short Reflection on the Problem of Evil
This short essay is for my friend Ramin in Iran. In it I briefly explain the Mackie/Plantinga debate, and then offer some of my own reflections on the problem of evil.
Alvin Plantinga argues that it is possible that God COULD NOT create a world without evil. It is possible, Plantinga claims, that any people God could create would freely cause evil at least some of the time. If people act freely, then God cannot control what they do. So if people decide to cause evil, and God allows them to act freely, then God cannot create a world without evil.
So, the idea is this. Mackie argues that it is impossible for God and evil to co-exist. If evil exist, then God does not exist. Plantinga denies this. He says that it is possible that God could not prevent evil – because God wanted to create people with free will, and when they have free will, then God cannot stop them from doing evil if they choose to do so. In that case, it is in fact possible for God and evil to exist together, which means that when Mackie says that it is impossible for God and evil to exist together, Mackie is wrong.
That is a short version of the debate between Mackie and Plantinga. I give more detail in my book Key Terms in Philosophy of Religion.
Here is my view. On many points I am not sure. I think that Alvin Plantinga is right when he says that it is possible for God and evil to co-exist – it is possible for God to allow evil. (Or at least I think that is probably right, but I will not develop that point here.)
In short, I do not understand why God allows evil. Some philosophers try to explain why God allows evil – they give what are called theodicies. Some philosophers say that free will is such a good thing, and that God knew that if God were to create people with free will, they would do very bad things. I do not think that is a good explanation. When a child dies of cancer, what does that have to do with free will?
Some philosophers say that God allows evil to test us, to make us stronger, to make us better people. I do not think that is a good explanation either. So much evil and suffering destroys people – it does not make them stronger. When a child dies of cancer, obviously the child does not become stronger as a result. The child is dead! And many times when parents lose children because of cancer or something else, the parents are completely devastated by it. They are not made stronger by their suffering!
Finally, some philosophers say that God allows evil because from God’s perspective the world looks like a beautiful place with all the suffering in it. St. Augustine accepted this view. The idea is this: think about a beautiful painting that has many colors. Some of the colors are very dark, but the dark colors help make the painting more beautiful. Evil is like that to God, St. Augustine said. From our perspective evil seems terrible, but from God’s perspective it adds to the overall beauty of the world.
I do not agree with St. Augustine on this point. If God thinks that evil and suffering (from wars or disease or famines) are somehow beautiful, then I do not want to worship God. Then God does not really care about people. I will only worship God if God is good and God loves us. A God who is not good and does not love us is not a God at all.
So, those are some of the theodicies that philosophers have come up with, and I don’t find any of them very persuasive. Like I said, I don’t understand why God allows evil.
Does that fact cause me to give up my belief in God – to stop believing that God exists? No, it does not. True, I cannot understand why God allows evil; but God is so much greater than I am. God knows so much more than I do. How could I expect to understand God’s actions? The fact that I cannot understand why God allows evil is not surprising at all. The fact that I cannot understand God’s reason for allowing evil does not provide evidence for me that God does not have a reason. I am so small compared to God.
For my part, I hardly ever doubt that God exists. But sometimes I wish God would do more to end the suffering and pain in the world. So many bad things happen. The history of the world contains so much evil, and I do not know why. But I believe in God and I believe that God is good. And I believe that someday, somehow, God will make the world better.