This is a paper I wrote at OC addressing God's existence in the midst of suffering in the world.
Intro. J.L. Mackie states, “… that [if] good is apposed to evil in such a way that a being who is wholly good eliminates evil as far as he can, and that there are no limits to what an omnipotent being can do, then we do have a contradiction. A wholly good omnipotent being would eliminate evil completely; if there really are evils, then there cannot be any such being.” Mackie’s assertion is that, because evil exists in the world, then the God proposed by Christians cannot exist. This paper will address arguments both for and against this system of thinking.
Context of Arguments. Before any positions are firmly established, however, it is necessary to gain some semblance of a context for this question as it pertains to both sides of the argument. Philosopher Charles Taylor, in his book A Secular Age, identifies the time period in which sociological change that allowed questions like the goodness of God to be asked as “the anthropocentric turn”. Taylor defines this turn, saying, the “sense of God’s ordering presence begins to fade. The sense begins to arise that we can sustain the order [of the world] on our own.” He goes on to coin the phrase “immanent frame” and “buffered self” both of which refer to mankind’s newfound confidence in their own reason as a result of the enlightenment. Timothy Keller States, “But Taylor rightly points out that despite the discussions of philosophers, the argument from evil never had anything like popular appeal and broad attraction until some time after the Enlightenment. Things changed when Western thought came to see God as more remote, and to see the world as ultimately completely understandable through reason.”
Keller goes on to note, “One of the first places that the new, modern self came up against evil and suffering was in the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755, a famous example of what has been called “natural evil”— suffering caused not by human agents but just as part of the natural world.” Keller notes that questioning God in today’s world is a relatively normal circumstance, but, when this event took place, it was relatively new. “Of course people have questioned the ways and justice of God in human affairs since the book of Job and earlier. But virtually no one on record had previously argued that evil made the existence of God impossible… In earlier times, when suffering occurred, just because we couldn’t think within our own mind of good reasons for it didn’t mean there couldn’t be any.” In the Reason for God, Keller goes onto to turn this logic into an argument against assumptions by those such as Mackie. He says, “Just because you can’t see or imagine a good reason why God might allow something to happen doesn’t mean there can’t be one. Again we see lurking within supposedly hard-nosed skepticism an enormous faith in one’s own cognitive faculties. If our minds can’t plumb the depths of the universe for good answers to suffering, well, then, there can’t be any! This is blind faith of a high order.” Therefore, it is important to note that this questioning of God is actually a relatively new phenomenon and is a result of a greater faith in our own thinking, an inherent understanding in our culture that if one cannot perceive a reason for something, then there cannot be one.
Suffering prevents a good God from existing. There are several arguments for the evil’s existence and, therein, the implausibility of a Christian God. The first is David Hume’s, and he states, “The first Circumstance, which introduce Evil, is that Contrivance or the economy of the animal Creation, by which Pains, as well as Pleasures, are employed to excite all Creatures to Action, and make them vigilant in the great Work of Self-preservation. Now Pleasure alone, in its various Degrees, seems to human Understanding sufficient for this Purpose.” Hume is essentially stating the pain is unnecessary to accomplish the motivation which a Creator God might be inclined to do, so, since there is pain, there can be no God.
In his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion Hume generates another similar, but widely understood to be a more substantial argument. He says, “Epicurus’s old questions are yet unanswered. Is he 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?”
Suffering does not prevent a good/Omnipotent God from existing. Alvin Plantinga argues that, “the existence of evil is not logically incompatible (even in the broadly logical sense) with the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good God.” Plantinga’s argument goes like this: “I look inside my tent: I don’t see a St. Bernard; it is then probable that there is no St. Bernard in my tent. That is because if there were one there, I would very likely have seen it; it’s not easy for a St. Bernard to avoid detection in a small tent. Again, I look inside my tent: I don’t see any noseeums (very small midges with a bite out of all proportion to their size); this time it is not particularly probable that there are no noseeums in my tent – at least it isn’t any more probable than before I looked. The reason, of course, is that even if there we noseeums there, I wouldn’t see ‘em; they’re too small to see.” This is, essentially, a continuation of Keller’s argument from above.
C.S. Lewis also argues against these notions. He writes, “My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust?... What was I comparing the universe with when I called it unjust? Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if i did that, then my argument against God collapsed too--for the argument depended on saying the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my fancies. Thus, in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist - in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless - I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality - namely my idea of justice - was full of sense.” Lewis asserts that a sense of “evil” and “wrongness” surrounding suffering cannot be explained via any other narrative except a religious one.
Theodicies. Aside from the defenses by Lewis and Plantinga, there have been offered, over the years, a great many number of theodicies which attempt to not only defend God’s goodness in the midst of an evil world, but show the process by which his existence and permission of suffering is possible. One of these theodicies is presented by John Hicks, who suggests that the purpose of this world is solely to develop souls. If one holds to this view, then suffering in the world can be explained as a process by which spiritual development may take place. Hicks says, this is done by “meeting and eventually mastering temptation . . . rightly making responsible choices in concrete situations.” Timothy Keller points out the problem with this theodicy when he states, “However, the soul-making theodicy suffers from some glaring weaknesses. First, pain and evil do not appear in any way to be distributed according to soul-making need. Many people with bad souls get very little of the adversity they apparently need, and many with great souls get an amount that seems to go far beyond what is necessary for spiritual growth. Also, this theodicy does not speak to or account for the suffering of little children or infants who die in pain, or even for the suffering of animals.”
Peter van Inwagen notes another common theodicy for suffering in the world. He states, “The omniscient God knew that, however much evil might result from the elected separation from himself . . . the gift of free will would be, so to speak, worth it. For the existence of an eternity of love depends on this gift, and that eternity outweighs the horrors of the very long, but, in the most literal sense, temporary period of divine-human estrangement.” Essentially Inwagen suggests that free will makes suffering and pain worth it. Keller also questions this theodicy when he says, “Is it really true that God could not create free agents capable of love without making them also capable of evil?... But the Bible presents God himself as sovereign and free (Ps 115: 3), and not just capable of love but the very fountain and source of all love. Nevertheless, he himself cannot be evil. He cannot lie or break a promise (Num 23: 19; Titus 1: 2), he cannot be tempted by evil (James 1: 13), he cannot deny or contradict his perfectly righteous and holy character (2 Tim 2: 13; 1 Pet 1: 16). If God has a free will yet is not capable of doing wrong— why could not other beings also be likewise constituted?"
Conclusion. All theodicies eventually hit some fatal end such as these. Because of this Plantinga concludes, “I must say that most attempts to explain why God permits evil— theodicies, as we may call them— strike me as tepid, shallow and ultimately frivolous.” Both Plantinga and Keller assert that Christians are not to come up with a reason for suffering, and, therefore, must take a defensive position. They conclude that it cannot be proven that a good God cannot exist with the state of the present world.
Hick, John, Evil and the God of Love rev. ed.; Harper, 1978,
Hume, David, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, ed. Richard Popkin Hackett Pub, 1980
Hume, David. "Why Does God Let People Suffer?" Twenty Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy. Boston,
MA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2011
Inwagen, Peter Van, The Problem of Evil: The Gifford Lectures Delivered in the University of St Andrews in
2003 (Oxford University Press, 2006).
Keller, Timothy. The Reason for God. New York, New York: Dutton, 2008.
Keller, Timothy, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. Penguin Group US. 2013.
Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. Harper-Collins
Mackie, J.L. The Miracle of Theism: Arguments for and against the existence of God. Oxford: Clarendon Press
Plantinga, Alvin, The Nature of Necessity Oxford University Press.
Plantinga, Alvin, Profiles, Ed. James E. Tomberlin and Peter van Inwagen, 1985.
Plantinga, Alvin. Warranted Christian Belief. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000
Taylor, Charles, A Secular Age. Harvard University Press, 2007