20 June 2014

Do theologians have a good response to the problem of natural evil?

Tonight I was chatting with one of my clients about another client and mutual friend of ours who, like us, errs on the liberal atheist side of the political and religious spectrum. He's the kind of guy who, while being very good-natured and friendly, definitely enjoys getting a rise out of people — especially religious conservatives. 

One of the questions he likes to ask religious people, just to see them trip up, is "Is God good, or his he omnipotent?" Now, being that I've been around the interwebs for many years and have stepped into the writings of various academic theologians, I know that some of the more learned believers will not be caught off guard by such a question. I watched it happen — during one of our workout sessions, no less — when one of the other members who, in addition to being a religious conservative, is also a pretty boastful narcissist whom I'll call Eddie Van Halen. Eddie was rambling on about someone or something, clearly more interested in his anecdote than we were, and my client hit him with the problem of evil. Eddie stammered for a bit, and my client elaborated a bit on the PoE. Eventually, Eddie more or less waved the question off by appealing to God's ineffability, alluding to the idea that God's ways are mysterious and in many ways beyond mortal comprehension.

Now, Eddie Van Halen is by no means a 'sophisticated' academic theologian, but is his answer really all that different than more educated theists? I mean sure, his answer was phrased crudely and not particularly well organized, but are academic theologians proffering the same answer dressed in more flowery language?

Well, yes, in my estimation they are.

To substantiate my thesis, I want to look at a few answers to the PoE offered up by some contemporary theologians. My general impression of the more 'sophisticated' responses to the PoE is that they essentially say that it cannot be demonstrated that God does not have good reasons to allow evil.

Randal Rauser seems to echo that position in a blog post:
[There] is no logical contradiction between God’s being omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent, and the existence of evil. All one needs to recognize is that God would have a morally sufficient reason for allowing any evil that occurs. Thus, the onus is on [the atheist] to demonstrate that no rational person could believe that God has such reasons.[1]
William Lane Craig seems to agree:
[We] can actually prove that God and evil are logically consistent. You see, the atheist presupposes that God cannot have morally sufficient reasons for permitting the evil in the world. But this assumption is not necessarily true. So long as it is even possible that God has morally sufficient reasons for permitting evil, it follows that God and evil are logically consistent.[2]
Alister McGrath offers a similar response:
Second, let us consider the logic of the problem posed by suffering. Let us return to the three propositions noted earlier.
a. God is omnipotent and omniscient.
b. God is completely good.
c. There is suffering and evil in the world.
At least one further premise must be added to this list if a logical inconsistency is to result. As things stand, there is no incon­sistency. There would, however, be a contradiction if either of the following were to be added to the list:
d. A good and omnipotent God could eliminate suffering entirely.

or
e. There could not be morally sufficient reasons for God permit­ting suffering.[3]
Alvin Plantinga offers a slightly different response, following in the footsteps of Augustine and C.S. Lewis — first arguing for free will as a rationale for moral evil, then offering it, by extension, as a rationale for natural evil by way of The Fall:
Here is a possible reason God might have for allowing natural evil:
(MSR2) God allowed natural evil to enter the world as part of Adam and Eve’s punishment for their sin in the Garden of Eden.
(Those familiar with Plantinga’s work will notice that this is not the same reason Plantinga offers for God’s allowing natural evil. They will also be able to guess why a different reason was chosen in this article.) The sin of Adam and Eve was a moral evil. (MSR2) claims that all natural evil followed as the result of the world’s first moral evil. So, if it is plausible to think that Plantinga’s Free Will Defense solves the logical problem of evil as it pertains to moral evil, the current suggestion is that it is plausible also to think that it solves the logical problem of evil as it pertains to natural evil because all of the worlds evils have their source in moral evil.[4]
John Polkinghorn argues that the natural world simply could not have been any different:
Exactly the same biochemical processes that enable some cells to mutate and produce new forms of life - in other words, the very engine that has driven the stupendous four billion year history of life on Earth - these same processes will inevitably allow other cells to mutate and become malignant. In a non-magic world, it could not be different, and the world is not magic because its Creator is not a capricious Magician. I do not pretend for a moment that this insight removes all the perplexities posed by the sufferings of creation. Yet it affords some mild help, in that it suggests that the existence of cancer is not gratuitous, as if it were due to the Creator’s callousness or incompetence. We all tend to think that if we had been in charge of creation we would have made a better job of it. We would have kept the nice things (flowers and sunsets) and got rid of the nasty (disease and disaster). The more science helps us to understand the process of the universe, the more, it seems to me, to cohere into a single ‘package deal’. The light and the dark are two sides of the same coin.[5]
I could go on, but I think most theists would agree this is a fair representative sample of some of the perspectives on the PoE.

Now, I want to point out here that while some of my readers would undoubtedly disagree with me, I think Plantinga's defense of moral evil is a good argument, and I'm satisfied that the best possible world for humans is one in which we are able to choose to act kindly or cruelly. I've actually argued that one of the problems with Heaven is the idea that it is a world, much like those posited by Plantinga's critics, in which we supposedly are 'free' yet always choose good — as described by Randal Rauser in his book on Heaven [6]. I'm not particularly concerned with moral evil, but with natural evil. I can't see any reason why an omnipotent God would sit idly while people of all ages indiscriminately die of starvation, famine, disease, disasters, predation, and exposure. But is the fact that I can't perceive a reason mean that there can't be one?

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Polkinghorne's argument seems to be a concession that God is not all-powerful. I certainly cannot conceive of any logical reason why a world in which life was spontaneously created (as many a creationist argues is in fact the case) and in which there is no indiscriminate suffering or survival of the fittest is not possible, rather than a world in which creatures evolve over billions of years and struggle on a knife's edge of survival. Richard Dawkins put the issue concisely in an old article for Scientific American:
The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.
Polkinghorne seems to think that God is somehow constrained to make only this world and no other, but he doesn't offer any reason for why this should be so — likely, I think, because there isn't any such reason. If God is all-powerful, he can create a world without evolution, without cancer, with different laws of physics and different principles of biology.


Plantinga's response, by contrast, is so infantile as to barely merit a response, and frankly I often wonder why someone with a history of conjuring up some of the worst arguments for theism in existence is revered as a sophisticated thinker by many believers. The simple fact is that there is absolutely, positively, no reason whatsoever to believe that Adam and Eve were real historical figures or that "The Fall" is anything more than a fabrication of Judeo-Christian mythicism. Scientific inquiry has revealed that suffering has been around as long as life on Earth, and didn't just spontaneously enter the world at some arbitrary point in human evolution.

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I think it's safe to turn my attention toward the type of response offered by Craig, McGrath, and Rauser. It should be clear that my terse summary is perfectly accurate: God has his reasons. It doesn't matter if we cannot know what those reasons actually are — after all, as McGrath and Craig note, our feeble human minds are so limited in scope that we couldn't possibly hope to understand the reasoning of an eternal, all-knowing, all-powerful being. Quoth Craig:
As finite persons, we are limited in time, space, intelligence, and insight. But the transcendent and sovereign God sees the end from the beginning and providentially orders history so that His purposes are ultimately achieved through human free decisions. In order to achieve His ends, God may have to put up with certain evils along the way. Evils which appear pointless to us within our limited framework may be seen to have been justly permitted within God’s wider framework.[2]
At its core, how is this really any different than the crude, off-the-cuff response given by 'Eddie'? Could not all these responses be fairly summarized as something like, God has his reasons. Our feeble moral minds may not be able to comprehend them, but the atheist can't prove that God does not have good reasons for allowing natural evil

Some theologians like to take a few guesses at what those reasons might be. They may suggest that no matter how awful something is in our mortal lives, in an eternity of happiness they'll seem — as Craig suggests — 'infinitesimal'. But most theologians will not take the guessing game too far, since they'd start to step on their own toes; instead, they'll simply retreat to God's ineffability.

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There's a simple way to respond to these claims about God's ineffability, since all such claims do is push the problem of evil back a step. If God has morally justifiable reasons for allowing natural evil, then it follows that he is doing so to some greater end — sometimes called the 'Divine Plan'. The question, then, is simple: Could God accomplish his end without natural evil? If the answer is 'no', then one is taking the path of Polkinghorn and claiming, illogically, that God must have made the world precisely as it is — full of pain and suffering and mass extinctions, unfolding over billions of years through cosmic and biological evolution. This is a tacit concession of the first horn: God is not all-powerful.

If the answer is yes, that indeed God could have accomplished his plan without natural evil but chose not to, then clearly the theist has conceded the second horn: God is not good. He could have created a world without natural suffering, but did.

The theodicies above provide neither a logically coherent response to the problem of natural evil, nor do they elevate themselves above the crude and predictable responses offered by pastors, clergymen, and believing laypersons everywhere: We can't understand God's reasons; we just have to accept that it's his will. Appealing to God's ineffability is a cop-out, a tacit concession that there is no real conversation to be had — that belief is held by faith alone, not through reason and indeed often in spite of reason.

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