By James K. Beilby
More ink has been spilled on the topic of the relationship between Gods existence and evil – the so-called “problem of evil” – than on practically any other apologetic topic. From 1960-1990 there were more than 4,200 publications in the English language alone, more than one publication every two-and-a-half days!1 And in recent years the onslaught has not slowed much, if at all. What is striking about so many of these publications is the relative lack of consideration of the nature of the question being answered. The assumption on the part of many Christian apologists seems to be that we have a pretty good understanding of the question and so the task at hand is to buckle down and answer it. I think this assumption has the rather significant disadvantage of being false. This essay is an attempt to consider (or maybe “reconsider”) the nature of the question or questions that comprise what has been labeled the problem of evil. It is not my goal to answer the problem of evil. While I will discuss what answers to the problems of evil might look like, I will not develop these answers in any detail; my interest is with the questions. Because this is my goal, I am not writing to non-Christians. Rather, I am seeking to answer the question: When Christians seek to answer the problem of evil, what question or questions are they actually answering?
The Difficulty of the Problem
There is a tendency in Christian treatment s of the problem of evil to downplay the ultimate significance of the evils in question. While there may be good intentions behind this tendency – the desire to remove false barriers to the faith, perhaps – this sort of move has profoundly deleterious implications for Christianity. When the ultimate significance of evil is downplayed, it becomes possible to give answers that have the appearance of adequacy but in reality miss the mark completely. Such “answers” are dangerous because they provide the illusion of a defense of the faith, while in fact leaving the real problem of evil – a serious challenge to the Christian faith – completely unanswered. Even worse, these “strawman” answers have the effect of dismissing the pain and suffering of victims of evil and allowing evildoers to rationalize their actions as “not being that bad.” Answers to the problem of evil that do not take seriously the profundity of pain and suffering do little more than, in the words of G. K. Chesterton, provide “easy speeches that comfort cruel men”2
Even when Christian apologists acknowledge the horrific nature of evil, they often fail to appreciate its personal depth. Often the Holocaust is used as an example of the sort of horrendous evil that motivates the problem of evil, and rightly so. In fact, for all its horrors the Holocaust is not even the worst example of genocide in this century. By some accounts, the Stalinist purges from the 1930s to the 1950s resulted in thirty million deaths, five times the number killed in the Holocaust. Nevertheless, even such gaudy numbers fail to affect us, probably because they are just numbers. What we all too often lose in these numbers is that each is associated with a person. The only cure for the tendency to dismiss the radical particularity of evil is to stare evil in the face. A powerful literary example of this approach is found in Nick Wolterstorff’s Lament for a Son.3 This simple little book is exactly what the title indicates: a lament for a son killed in a mountain-climbing accident. It is not an answer to the problem of evil, or at least not the sort of answer that is traditionally given. It is an expression of pain and loss that is so poignant, so honest and real, that it defies being dismissed with easy answers.
Beyond acknowledging the reality and profundity of the problem, if Christians desire to give an effective answer to the problem of evil, our first task must be to make sure that the question being answered is the same as the question that was asked. The apparent obviousness of this task is exceeded only by the rarity of its accomplishment. One barrier to answering the right question is a misunderstanding about the nature of apologetics. Apologetics is about “defending the faith,” it is said, and defending the faith is about answering questions. Of course, this is true, but it is only part of the truth. Defending the faith is first about listening, it is about building relationship s and trust, and yes, it is also about answering objections to the faith. But the latter is only effective when the former is done well.
The Problems of Evil
The conceptual difficulty of the problem of evil – like many other theological and philosophical conundrums, comes from the fact that there is not one question begging to be answered, but many. These questions interrelate and overlap in complex ways. Moreover, it is undoubtedly true that ones prior philosophical and theological commitment s affect how you view these questions and even whether you think these questions are coherent, appropriate, or answerable. There are, I will argue, not one but three distinct problems of evil. (Perhaps there are even more, but I am inclined to think that the additional problems of evil could be subsumed under the three I identify here. If so, it might be best to view these three problems as categories of problems.)
The first kind of question is intellectual in nature. I call it the philosophical problem of evil because it is the form of the problem of evil that typically appears in the philosophical literature. This problem inquires as to why evil of any variety or amount exist s in a good God s creation. The “trilemma,” passed down to us from Epicurus through David Hume, is the classical statement of this problem.
If God is all powerful, he should be able to eliminate evil.
If God is all good, he should want to eliminate evil.
These three (“tri-”) statements constitute a problem (“-lemma”) for the Christian because the Christian desires to affirm each, but cannot do so because they are mutually inconsistent. The Christian therefore has two choices: give up one of the statements or retreat into irrationality by abandoning the logical system that provides the conclusion.
The second problem of evil is also intellectual in nature – it is a quest for explanation. It differs from the philosophical problem of evil, however, in that it addresses the existence of specific evils. It does not ask “why any evil?”, it asks “why this evil?” I call this the existential problem of evil because in addition to being a quest for explanation, it involves a crying out of the heart and a quest for meaning. The philosophical problem of evil is a question that can be answered unemotionally because it deals with evil in the abstract. The existential problem of evil cannot because its very nature is to look at particular instances of evil and suffering and to, with Job, cry out, “Why, Lord?”
Where the philosophical problem of evil focuses on Gods good creation and why evil would find a place in it, the existential problem of evil focuses on Gods providence. The question behind the existential problem of evil might be expressed like this: “Okay, the existence of evil doesn’t entail Gods nonexistence, but even if some evil is required, why this evil?” For many worldviews, there is no existential problem of evil, because there is no expectation that things would be different than they are. Given naturalism, for example, evil is an expected by-product of the evolutionary system. Even given Christian forms of deism, evil is expected because God does not intervene in human affairs. But the orthodox Christian worldview involves not only the idea that God created the universe, but that he actively combat s evil in it, that he intervenes for the good of his people. The existential problem of evil is therefore driven by the fact that there exist evils which seem to be such that they would be eliminated by an omnipotent God who is providentially involved in the world. Particularly horrendous evils and evils that occur despite the fervent prayers of committed believers fall into this category.
In the contemporary literature on the problem of evil, it is common to distinguish between the logical or deductive form of the problem of evil and the evidential or inductive form. The difference between the logical and evidential forms concerns the intended goal. While the logical form intends to demonstrate that God’s existence is logically incompatible with the existence of evil, the evidential form has a more modest goal: to suggest that the existence of evil constitutes evidence against God’s existence. I believe, however, that the logical and evidential forms of the problem of evil do not identify distinct “problems” of evil that – is, they are not at the same level of categorization as the philosophical or existential problems of evil. Rather, they are subcategories of the philosophical and existential problems of evil. One could, for example, raise the philosophical problem of evil either with a more aggressive goal (as in the case of the logical form) or a more modest goal (the evidential form).
The final problem of evil is the emotional problem of evil. Unlike the philosophical and existential problems of evil, the emotional problem of evil is not an intellectual problem. It does not involve a desire to explain a particular aspect of evil’s existence. It is a cry for help, a request for personal support. The goal is not an answer, but the removal of despair and the return of hope. However, it shares the concrete focus of the existential problem of evil because the emotional problem of evil is occasioned by particular evil events.
In summary, the dilemma that has been traditionally labeled “the problem of evil” arises from a complex set of issues and questions. Some of these questions are intellectual in nature, others are emotional; some address evil in the abstract, others highlight specific, concrete instances; and the goal of some of these questions is to demonstrate the incoherence of theism given the existence of evil whereas others are content to demonstrate the implausibility of theism given evil. When this set of questions is combined, the result is the range of possible problems of evil. These are as follows:
- The Philosophical Problem of Evil – “Why does an omnipotent, perfectly good God’s creation include evil?”
- a. The “logical” subcategory – “The fact that God’s good creation includes any evil entails God’s nonexistence.”
- b. The “evidential” subcategory – “The fact that God’s good creation includes any evil is evidence against God’s nonexistence.”
- The Existential Problem of Evil – “Why does an omnipotent, perfectly good God’s creation include this evil?”
- a. The “logical” subcategory – “The fact that God’s good creation includes this evil entails God’s nonexistence.”
- b. The “evidential” subcategory – “The fact that God’s good creation includes this evil is evidence against God’s nonexistence.”
- The Emotional Problem of Evil – “How can I survive this evil?”
Answering the Problems of Evil
So there is not a single problem of evil, there are three. This is not mere philosophical trivia. Distinguishing these questions is crucially import ant because a viable answer to one is not necessarily a viable answer to of evil, is not an answer to the other two. In fact, a perfectly good answer to one of these problems might be entirely inappropriate (either theologically or interpersonally) as an answer to a different problem. Of course, in this short article I cannot pretend to elucidate fully an adequate answer to even one of these problems. I will be content with a general discussion of what appropriate answers to these problems might look like.4
The philosophical problem of evil is a quest for explanation as to why evil exists at all in a perfectly good God’s creation. The difficulty of the philosophical problem of evil comes not from the fact that there are so few possible answers, but from the fact that so many of the answers are incompatible with orthodox Christianity. In order to remain orthodox, the Christian answer must steer between the Scylla of dualism where evil is metaphysically equal with God, and the Charybdis of divine determinism where God is the author of evil. Evil must, therefore, be such that God permits its existence because its existence is a necessary byproduct of something that he deems to be a greater good. While throughout the centuries Christians have disagreed as to the nature of this greater good, to my mind a compelling answer is “love.” Love, however, requires that there be moral agents whose wills are free to thwart Gods perfect will for his creation and thereby bring about evil.
This answer – commonly called the “Free W ill Theodicy” – is compelling as long as evil is considered in the abstract. But if it is specific, concrete instances of evil that are under consideration – in other words, if it is the existential problem of evil that is raised – then a different answer must be given. This is because even if some evil is necessary given the existence of the greater good – “love,” for example – that necessity does not transfer to any particular instance of evil. If the greater good is to be actual, all that is required is that some evil exist, but the proposition some evil exists is perfectly compatible with the removal or nonexistence of any particular evil – the Holocaust, for example. This is particularly true given the commitment of Christians to the idea that God is an active participant in the fight against evil, that he heals disease, and actively seeks to thwart the occurrence of evil in his creation. This is why the Free Will Theodicy, while effective against the philosophical problem evil, is not an answer to the question: Why does God allow this to exist? For an answer to that question in other words, for an answer to the existential problem of evil we shall have to look elsewhere.
Before seeking to answer the existential problem of evil, consider for a moment what an answer might look like. The question considers not only the mere existence of a particular evil, but God’s failure to prevent that evil given the fact that he could have done so. In order to answer this question, we would have to know not only the causal history of that particular evil, and not only the implications of that evil’s existence for a host of other logically or causally related goods and evils, but also God’s ultimate plan for human history . To call this question difficult is clearly an understatement of epic proportions. It is equally clear that when Christians purport to know God’s purpose with respect to a particular evil, their claims are at best bluster and at worst blasphemy. Confronting the existential problem of evil, therefore, requires copious amount s of intellectual humility. In fact, the only answer to the question “Why does this evil exist?” is “We don’t know.”
Is this really an answer though? Isn’t “I don’t know” the avoidance of an answer? Of ten it is, but in this case the Christian apologist can demonstrate that this answer is adequate. There is a category of theistic answers to the problem of evil called “Skeptical Theist” arguments.5 In response to the atheological claim that a particular evil is gratuitous and by virtue of that fact is the sort of evil that should not exist if a caring, providentially-involved God exist s, the Skeptical Theist responds that no human has the epistemic vantage point necessary to claim that any particular evil is in fact gratuitous. After all, the reasons by virtue of which God decides to permit a particular evil – call them “associated outweighing goods” – might not occur until far into the future. Consequently, the Christians answer to the existential problem of evil is not merely “We don’t know why this evil happened,” but “Because the human perspective is both finite and temporally-limited, we know that we cannot know.”
The final problem of evil is the emotional problem of evil. I hope it is patently clear that the answers offered to either the philosophical or existential problems of evil are inadequate as an answer to the emotional problem of evil. The philosophical and existential problems of evil are quest s for intellectual explanations, but the emotional problem of evil, if it is a quest for anything, is a quest for hope and solace and especially the hope and solace that can be found in agape -love relationship. It is certainly not a quest for a rational explanation.
With respect to the emotional problem of evil, the atheistic worldview provides scant resources. Given atheism, quite literally, life sucks, then you die. In fact, given atheism, it is even difficult to label the death of a loved one (or even a million loved ones) as “evil.” Death is simply “what happens” in an atheistic universe. It is the result of the mechanisms of evolution. One can complain about it or even rage against it, but there is no meaningful sense in which death and suffering are metaphysically inappropriate.
Notice how different the Christian worldview is with respect to the emotional problem of evil! Given Christianity, evil and suffering have a context – they are temporary. That is because evil and suffering have a conqueror: Jesus Christ. In Jesus we see that God shares our suffering, undergoes tremendous suffering himself, and undergoes it for our sake. This is why the cross is the center of the Christian answer to the emotional problem of evil. This theodica crucis is, of course, not an intellectual explanation. It is rather the ultimate demonstration of love and solidarity with those who are suffering. Happily, Jesus’ story does not end on the cross, and because it does not our story does not end with the death of the physical body. The cross and the empty tomb tell a story that begins and ends with love and whose message is hope. This story constitutes, I submit, the single most powerful answer to the emotional problem of evil.
In this essay I have sought to distinguish between different problems of evil. These distinctions, however, are conceptual tools. In actual apologetic situations with actual skeptics or suffering questioners, it is rarely so nice and neat that a person is raising one and only one of these problems. Sometimes the questioner is raising, even if inchoately or unclearly, all three of the questions all at once. Understanding the nature of the different problems of evil makes it possible to start to unravel their questions and to start leading them toward appropriate answers. But it must also be acknowledged that there are times when it is impossible to answer appropriately and coherently all of the questions being asked. Often, in such cases, since giving an answer will do more harm than good, the best apologetic response is a mournful silence that expresses solidarity with the sufferer.
James K. Beilby is Assistant Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at Bethel College in St. Paul, Minnesota.
1 Collected in Barry L. Whitney, Theodicy: An Annotated Bibliography on the Problem of Evil: 1960-1990 (New York: Garland, 1993).
2 From G. K. Chesterton’s hymn “O God of Earth and Altar”; cited in Nicholas Lash, Theology on Dover Beach (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1979), 21.
3 Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987).
4 Here I am ignoring an additional complexity—the distinction between a theodicy and defense. A theodicy is a statement of God’s purposes with respect to a given evil (or evil in general) whereas a defense is a statement of a possible state of affairs that, if actual, would explain the existence of evil in the world. The answers I discuss could be presented either as theodicies or defenses.
5 Notable examples include William Alston, “The Inductive Argument from Evil and the Human Cognitive Condition,” Philosophical Perspectives 5, Philosophy of Religion, ed. James Tomberlin (Atascadero, CA: Ridgeview, 1991): 29-67; and Stephen Wykstra, “Rowe’s Noseeum Arguments from Evil,” in The Evidential Argument from Evil, ed. Daniel Howard-Snyder (Indiana University Press, 1996) 126-150.
Want to Read More About the Problem of Evil?
The Roots of Evil by Norman L. Geisler (Probe)
The Many Faces of Evil: Theological Systems and the Problem of Evil
by John S. Feinberg (Zondervan)
The Evidential Argument from Evil ed. Daniel Howard-Snyder (Indiana)
God, Freedom, and Evil by Alvin Plantinga (Eerdmans)
Surprised by Suffering by R.C. Sproul (Tyndale)
Christian Faith and the Problem of Evil ed. Peter Van Inwagen (Eerdmans)
The Enigma of Evil: Can We Believe in the Goodness of God? By John Wenham (Zondervan)