The Problem of Evil
As I often do, I’m going to use my Sunday column to divert us from the concerns of the moment. Rest assured, tomorrow Logarchism will return to 24–7 coverage of the upcoming election. View today’s article as the final pit stop before the political equivalent of the Indianapolis 500 roars to its end.
What I offer today is a perspective on a question at the root of all our politics, all our culture, all our social structures. From a single comment buried in a heated political debate, there is cosmic significance. We can use it to consider how the perilous issue of rape and abortion relates to the nature of our very selves. From there, we can perhaps return to the questions of the moment, with a new and larger sense, and reconsider our direction as individuals, as a society, as a nation — perhaps as a species.
Last Thursday, in response to an article by Monotreme, one of our Gentle Readers provided a link to a blog post at National Review Online. I thought the article wrong on all counts, but particularly theological ones. It gave me an excuse to write an article I’ve been intending to do for a long time.
The immediate topic was a comment by Indiana Republican Senatorial candidate Richard Mourdock on the thorny issues of rape, pregnancy, and abortion, and the relationship to politics and theology and individual conscience. Though I profoundly disagree with Mourdock’s answer — and, as an unashamed partisan, I would gleefully take advantage of it — as a theologian I need to admit it was a thoughtful and considered response. There also are further depths here to explore, depths which reach to the heart of everything related to politics and social justice, economics and freedom.
As background: In a televised debate, Mourdock was asked a question about whether a ban on abortion should include an exception in the case of rape. He answered, in part,
I struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize life is that gift from God, And I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.
Understandably, Democrats seized on his answer and made some good political hay over it. Some Republicans distanced themselves from Mourdock. The incident was a minor embarrassment for Republican Presidential candidate Willard Mitt Romney, who had made it a point to endorse Mourdock the day before. I’m not going to dwell on the political implications of his remark. My interest here is greater.
There is a very deep philosophical problem that Mourdock raised, which is known in its most general form as the “Problem of Evil.” One way of stating it is like this: If God is All-Good, and All-Knowing, and All-Powerful, why does He allow Evil to exist? Clearly, an all-knowing and all-powerful God could banish all suffering and all evil with no more effort than a single snap of His mighty fingers. How can a God that is All-Good avoid doing this? What kind of sadistic God, who has it in His power to erase Evil, would allow suffering to continue?
This question matters in a political sense. It relates ultimately to how we view geopolitical rivals, how we deal with criminals, how we address people of a different race or party. How do we, as a nation, respond to natural disasters or to personal misfortune? How dare we incarcerate a criminal, if the evils that crook did were nothing more than carrying out divine decisions? If suffering is ultimately the Will of God, are we thwarting that Will when we try to help those less fortunate than ourselves? If we are sympathetic to those who have committed heinous crimes, is that in accord with the Will of a loving God, or in contradiction to the dictates of a God of Vengeance? And should any of these questions be allowed to infest our politics?
There are many approaches to the Problem of Evil, many attempts to explain why the God of the Bible would allow Evil to exist. Most of them have to do with the definition of “God”. He is said to be omniscient, omnipotent, and supremely Good. If any one of these three attributes is false, the Problem goes away.
Perhaps God is not All-Knowing. That is, perhaps there are at least some evils of which He isn’t aware, and, therefore, can’t stop. Or perhaps not All-Powerful; there are maybe limits on what He can accomplish. Some evils are beyond His capabilities. Or perhaps He is not All-Good. Perhaps he wants humans (at least, some humans) to suffer. Clearly, if any of these three commonly-assumed attributes have limits, then Evil is allowed within the cracks thus revealed.
One usual form of answers to the Problem involves Free Will. Perhaps God allows humans to make evil decisions, because He wants us to have the freedom to select our own fate. He therefore chooses to allow Evil. This is the equivalent of knowing that someone else is planning a theft — or a murder, or a terrorist attack, or a genocide — and does nothing to stop it.
In the Real World, we put people in prison for these sorts of things, perhaps even execute them, and we often consider such silent partners to be as guilty as are the actual perpetrators. Yet, somehow, the believers in Free Will give God a pass. If we are justified in punishing people for such outrageous sins of omission, should we not also view God as equally guilty of these evil acts?
This particular attempt to resolve the Problem of Evil is, therefore, the same as saying that God is not All-Good. He shares in the guilt and responsibility for all suffering, all evil, all injustice that exists in the world, because He chooses not to act. Some Christian theologians refuse to accept this. Many of them, therefore, also refuse to accept the existence of free will, because allowing humans to decide to commit crimes implies that God allows humans to commit crimes. The only alternative is to say that no one really makes any decisions at all. Everything is predestined and fore-ordained. The future is already fixed, and we can’t change it.
This leads down another rabbit hole. It implies that no one is responsible for anything they do, because it was all preordained. Not only did the criminal have no choice but to commit the crime, but we have no choice in whether or not we punish him for it. Our lives are a story already written, and we are mere passengers witnessing the tale.
This is the essence of Calvinist doctrine. A moment’s reflection shows that this must be so, if you believe that God is All-Knowing. If He knows everything, that means He already knows what’s going to happen. That means nothing can happen that isn’t already known. The future is already written. We cannot change it. There is, therefore, no such thing as free will. There is also no such thing as personal responsibility — or national responsibility. Everything from petty theft to genocide to electoral failure or success is already woven into the fabric of Reality.
This is a rather bleak view of the human condition. (It also is consistent with Newtonian physics and Skinnerian psychology. Perhaps we’ll explore that in a future article.)
Another attempt to resolve the Problem of Evil is to say that whatever happens serves a Higher Purpose that we mere humans can’t comprehend or appreciate. Everything that happens — absolutely everything, no matter how it seems to us — is part of God’s Plan.
This is often what’s told to grieving members of a family when someone dies, particularly when that person perishes in a particularly tragic or unexpected or untimely way. How many times have you heard someone say, “I know how sad and hard it is, but you must understand — it is part of God’s Will. There must be a reason He wanted young Dylan to be with Him in Heaven.”
In this formulation, God is indeed All-Powerful, All-Knowing, and All-Good. Things seem “evil” to us only because we can’t see the greater good they serve. For example: the doctor gives a tetanus shot to an infant. The baby screams in pain, but a greater pain is averted. A parent slaps the wrist of a child about to burn herself on a hot stove. A vast and bloody war is waged, but millions of slaves are freed. Millions die in a world war, but nations are created and America becomes a world power. Who is to say that the Ultimate End of even the most dreadful suffering doesn’t serve a far greater purpose?
In this way of thinking, Richard Mourdock was absolutely correct. Rape is a terrible thing. But if in the end it brings forth a new life, who can deny that child the right to live? Perhaps he or she will grow up to find a cure for cancer, or a solution to world hunger. Or, motivated by the horror of the circumstances, perhaps even that child will find a solution to the drives of sexual predators. Even if not — is there a justification for preventing an innocent life? (I say “preventing” rather than “destroying” in order to sidestep the question of when life begins — clearly, at the moment of conception, the potential exists.)
In this mode of thought, Mourdock should have doubled down on his statement, rather than backing away or apologizing or softening it. Other thinking Christians should have as well. If God is All-Knowing, then He must know when a rape is going to happen. If He is All-Powerful, then He must be able to prevent it. If He is All-Good, then, in some sense, the rape must also be Good, even if we don’t understand why. After all, everything that happens in the universe, from the birth of a star to the fall of a leaf, must be part of God’s Plan.
Which means that the rape — and, if it happens, a pregnancy that results from the rape — must be part of God’s Plan as well. This is another way of saying that God planned it.
In the end, there is no getting around this basic problem with the Christian view of God. An omniscient and omnipotent and all-good God means that reality must be as it is, and cannot be otherwise. There is nothing which isn’t in accord with His Will, and there cannot be. Likewise, there is nothing which isn’t, ultimately, Good.
We really have only two ways to approach this Problem. I am not going to advise anyone on the proper approach, because in the end, the truly “proper approach” is something rooted in the very nature of Reality Itself. I don’t know the answer to that.
We can accept that all of reality, all of history, all of our decisions, are predestined. This doesn’t mean we do nothing. It means we can joyfully participate in the ecstasies and pains of the world. Like a raucous bar fight or a rowdy Irish wake, we dive in and pretend we believe in free will, because, after all, God also put that particular conceit into our heads. For whatever reason — one we cannot fathom — God wants us to accept the false notion that we can influence our own fate. Play the game, therefore, and throw ourselves into relationships, politics, business, ethical matters, and the illusion of life.
Or reject the definition of God. Reality is not a still life already painted. If a god or gods exist, he, she, it, or they are not all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good. There are limits to what can be known, what can be done — and, therefore, there are limits to our safety and our assurance of being right. Bad Things are going to happen — not because a sadistic or uncaring or above-it-all God made them happen, but because Reality includes randomness — and, therefore, the possibility of free will.
There are ways in which both of these paths are comforting, and both are terrifying. For the first, we can reassure ourselves that whatever happens, happens for a Reason. For the second, we can act with the knowledge that we truly can influence our own Fate. But for the first, we are helpless before a Consciousness beyond our comprehension. For the second, we are on our own, and responsible for what we do as well as what we don’t do.
How does this relate to Richard Mourdock, and rape and abortion — and to the upcoming election, and the future of our nation? Here is how I see the question:
Christian theology leads inevitably to Mourdock’s formulation of rape and abortion. But that also implies we may not look down on anyone who draws government benefits or pays no taxes. If God gives the gift of a baby to a raped woman, doesn’t that mean the 47 percent who don’t pay taxes are merely doing God’s will? If we want to insist people should take responsibility for themselves, what does that do to theologically-based notions of abortion or same-sex marriage?
Here are some questions to discuss:
- If we reject the notion that a rape-induced pregnancy was the will of God, how much of the rest of Christian theology must we also reject?
- What are the implications for notions of punishment vs rehabilitation in our prisons, or “natural rights”, or freedom of religion?
- If America is a “Christian nation”, then can we disagree with Mourdock’s statement?
- If we disagree with his statement, then for reasons of practicality as well as consistency, should the religious right have sway in American politics?
And, in the end, what do we do about it?
- Mourdock, God & Rape
- Day 3: The Problem of Evil
- If a good God exists, then why is there so much evil in the world?
- The age-old problem of theodicy is injected into the American political discourse in a way that God is allowing to happen for reasons unknown.
- A Brief Point on Evil and Free Will
- God, are you logically and evidentially there? (Part 1)
- The Problems of Evil
- Rape as God’s Will, by @DavidOAtkins
- Illinois Family Institute reacts to Richard Mourdock
About dcpetterson (186 posts)
D. C. Petterson is a novelist and a software consultant in Minnesota who has been writing science fiction since the age of six. He is the author of A Melancholy Humour, Rune Song and Still Life. He lives with his wife, two dogs, two cats, and a lizard, and insists that grandchildren are the reward for having survived teenagers. When not writing stories or software, he plays guitar and piano, engages in political debate, and reads a lot of history and physics texts—for fun. Follow on Twitter @dcpetterson