During the summer of 2015, Ichthus staff writer Christian Schatz sent the following email to the Ichthus staff email list:

Christian: Hey friends! I wanted to ask for your guidance. A friend on the summer program I am currently at struck up a conversation with me about Christianity when she saw me carrying a Bible around. We talked about a variety of things, like the unreliability of the human mind in knowing a God and specifically the Christian God above others. She also asked about the problem of evil, and was interested in reading more about it. Do any of you knew of any concise essay that gives a typical and educated Christian response to this question?

We present an edited version of our discussion below. In addition to our own thoughts, we provide links to a wide variety of pieces on the problem of evil by professional philosophers. We hope this will help others better understand the problem of evil and responses to it.

Peter Hickman: I listened to a podcast on the philosopher Marilyn McCord Adam’s view that evil should be a problem for the atheist in a way it isn’t for the theist. Adams has a decent point, I think, and it’s food for thought, but it doesn’t really help with the problem of evil. I do think, though, that it’s a good way to encourage atheists to want to believe there’s a God who will set things right someday.

Stephen Mackereth: Veronica Wickline and I debated members of the Harvard Community of Humanists, Atheists, and Agnostics on this problem a couple of years back. It’s a thorny question. There are many ways of coming at it.

I wrote an Unapologetics column in the Harvard Crimson on the problem, which might be a good starting point.

The philosopher Alvin Plantinga has a famous free will defense that does some important work. See his little book God, Freedom, and Evil. But it leaves a sour taste in the mouth of many who actually care about the problem (not just as a debater’s problem, not just as a quick and breezy knockdown of Christianity, but who actually feel the weight of the evil in the world).

That’s the first thing to figure out, by the way–does your interlocutor actually feel the weight of evil? If so, then no Plantinga, and no Thomas Aquinas, and definitely no Calvinism.

I haven’t actually read Marilyn McCord Adams’s very famous work on the problem, but it’s on my infinite to do list. (I really like Marilyn Adams.) I skimmed Eleonore Stump’s Wandering in Darkness and I’ve also been meaning to revisit it carefully. (I also really like Eleonore Stump.) Stump’s book is really long though, so not a good recommendation.

The theologian David Bentley Hart wrote a very deep and important article on the problem, the only problem being his usual sassy supercilious writing tone, which shows just a bit at the start of the piece. That said, it is still probably the best short piece I’ve seen on the problem.

Siobhan McDonough: I’ll put in a word for Wandering in Darkness, too, though like Stephen said, you’ve got to be really invested in thinking about the problem of evil to want to read the whole thing. I’ve been pretty invested and still haven’t finished it, but really like her approach– she writes about understanding suffering through narrative (more than systematic theology).

Also regarding narrative, The Brothers Karamazov is wonderful, because many people who aren’t Christian have read it or want to read it because it’s great literature. Though it’s not a concise essay, its power is that you almost live these questions through the characters and story.

Obasi Shaw: Since we’re on the subject, I’ve had a question for a while that I’ve been meaning to ask someone smarter than me to answer. I read Hart’s essay and I think it perfectly embodies the common theodicy that I simply cannot understand.

My question is: Doesn’t Hart’s theodicy make God both weak and foolish?

Weak because He is against suffering, but seems unable to prevent or fight it. All He can do is sigh and cry with us and wish that someone could’ve done something about it. You’d think that the One who created the universe would be powerful enough to perform the miracle of redirecting a hurricane or even a bullet to stop His people from being hurt. But apparently not? If He did not approve of suffering and He had the power to prevent it in any case, then would he not prevent it? I understand that free will is a thing, but can’t he allow us to commit to our intended actions without allowing suffering? For example, he could have jammed the gun of the man in Charleston, but still let him carry out his intent by pulling the trigger.

Foolish because He created the universe and if “God had no need of a passage through sin and death to manifest His glory in His creatures or to join them perfectly to Himself,” then why did he design a universe in which sin and death play such an integral part? Didn’t he realize that Adam and Eve would mess up? Didn’t he realize that people would suffer in horrible ways and die? Didn’t he realize that this whole operation was probably a pretty bad idea? Apparently not?

Finally, what do we say to verses like 2 Corinthians 4:17, Job 1:21, Job 2:10, Exodus 4:11? These seem to clearly support the view that suffering is, in some sense, part of God’s plan for humanity.

Of course, I express a contrary theodicy in my essay in the Fall 2015 issue, but the fact that many people wiser and more thoughtful than myself accept this theodicy instead makes me feel that the answers to these questions may be so clear to the thinkers that they simply don’t feel the need to answer them in writing. So if anyone has any kind of answer, please share it.

By the way, I’m reading the Brothers Karamazov right now and loving every second of it.

Stephen: Excellent comments, Obasi, and I should say, there’s an excellent historical precedent for your style of theodicy — I think Hart mentions some of the big names in his article — including such diverse figures as St. Thomas and Calvin. (St. Augustine is very complex and open to many interpretations, but in my view, he’s closer David Bentley Hart.)

The classic way the problem of evil is posed is:

  1. God is omnipotent
  2. God is omniscient
  3. God is omnibenevolent
  4. Evil exists

But these are (allegedly) contradictory, so, pick which premise you want to deny, and, the thought goes, if you play up the cosmic warfare image too much, you have to deny P1. Even the free will defense and all these things might seem to deny P1.

My brief answer is that I think God’s attribute of omnipotence is difficult to define. A key question is going to be, “What does power mean in the Christian story?” Jesus is a king, but his kingdom is not of this world. His idea of power is not like ours. We do believe God created and sustains the universe in its very existence, but on the other hand, God is the gentle carpenter from Nazareth. So how do we put together these two visions of power?

(It may be that I here commit the Apollinarian(-ish) heresy of commingling the human and divine attributes of Jesus. After all, Jesus is also not omnipresent, etc. But I think there’s at least reason to suppose that God’s power is not absolute, unconditioned, or primary in Him; it’s secondary to His love, for one thing. (Barth makes this point in the Dogmatics in Outline.)

Deep and thorny issues, I know. I’m very open to changing my mind about these things.

Nathan Otey: thanks Stephen, I think you hit the nail on the head.

1 Cor 1:17-18: “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

(Also, see Mark 10:42-45 and a bunch of other passages I don’t want to dredge up at the moment.)

Obasi, it looks to me like 1 Cor 1:18-31 addresses exactly those two concerns (that the God of Jesus Christ is weak and foolish)–and says a rather shocking sort of “YES!” to both propositions. Christ crucified is the power of God and the wisdom of God (v. 24)! Holy crap.

Obasi: Thanks, Stephen and Nate, I appreciate the response.

Nate, I’ve never read that passage as saying that God is literally weak and foolish (I’ve always thought that it was referring to the simplicity, humility, and lawlessness of the message of Christ, not the actual foolishness of an actually foolish God), but that does answer my question. I do wonder, however, what this viewpoint does to our opinion of God. Certainly, He is wiser than men and stronger then men, but is He reliable? If we consider God to be the Creator of the universe, we find ourselves in a predicament.

jobIf it is true that his creation has gotten out of His hands, then we are justified in saying that the world is filled with suffering because of a grave oversight on the part of our benevolent Creator. This certainly keeps us from calling Him evil, but can we really trust such a God? What if He makes a similar mistake in the future? If His track record includes the most destructive accident in the history of the universe, am I sure I’ll be safe spending an eternity with Him? I certainly wouldn’t count on it. And maybe that’s where faith comes in. But I just don’t feel wholly comfortable trusting a God who has proven His ability to make huge mistakes. Of course, it’s not really my choice; God is who God is and no amount of willpower on my part will change that. But I just don’t see that God as biblical. Do you have a response to the verses I noted, which all seem to present suffering as part of God’s plan?
Stephen, thanks for pointing out theologians whose theodicies gel with mine. If Hart, in his dismissal of those theodicies, is referring to something like the theodicy I currently agree with, I disagree with his assertion that such a theodicy is not comforting. But that is a digression.

In your quick response to the four-premise formulation of the problem of evil, the “(allegedly)” is well-placed, as I see no contradiction in the four premises. I do, however, agree that, under a Hart-like theodicy, P1 seems to be the one to go. But I get the sense that we’d have to also deny either P2 or P3 for this theodicy to work, for the reason stated above in my response to Nate. If God is an omniscient Creator, He ought to have been wise enough to not create a universe that He could not handle. If His love for us truly means that He does not want us to suffer, then the only reason He would have made the universe in the way that He made it is that he simply didn’t know any better. If we posit that He did know how things would turn out, but did it anyway, I quickly become Ivan Karamazov and “respectfully return my ticket,” because this is no loving God. Let Christ reconcile all things, let evil be punished, but what of the tears of the suffering child? I would prefer a weak and foolish God to a God who does not care about the sufferings of children, let alone the rest of humanity. But, again, I don’t see either option as biblical.

In answer to the question of what it means for God to have power, a biblical definition of God’s power would seem to me to include not only the power to move a frightfully heavy stone, but also the power to move a frightfully stony heart. Also, I see Philippians 2:6-8 as the explanation of how Jesus’s carpenter status relates to the power of God. That “he emptied himself, taking the form of a bond-servant” means to me that he gave up the power of Godliness in order to take on the humility of humanity. That’s not to say that he became any less God, but it’s of course all very complicated, and it helps me to remember that the entire Son of Man mission was a painful and radical operation in which God the Son was sent to be utterly forsaken by God the Father. To say that the Son temporarily relinquished his power in order to do it does not seem like much of a stretch at all. In fact, Jesus was fond of praying to the Father and insisting to others that the only power he had was what his Father granted him.

As a semi-side note, considering God’s omnipotence as secondary to his love doesn’t seem to help in this case, since it’s assumed that the love of God is the reason that He desires to stop evil. Thus his love would never prevent Him from exercising His power to stop evil.

To summarize my points of contention:

  1. I don’t see 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 as necessarily saying that God is weak and foolish, though I don’t think that’s a poor interpretation of the passage.
  2. A God who is weak and foolish enough to mess up this badly seems highly unreliable and not like the sort of person I’d want to trust with my temporary or eternal life.
  3. What do we make of the verses which make it seem as though God is intentionally working through suffering (2 Corinthians 4:17, Job 1:21, Job 2:10, Exodus 4:11)?
  4. To accept such a theodicy, it still seems that we must give up P1 as well as either P2 or P3, and I think we perhaps cause more problems than we solve with each premise we give up.
  5. Heaven seems like a pretty cool place spend my eternity, and (considering that my options are severely limited) I realllllly don’t want to have to return my ticket.

Stephen: Good points. I now think that what I said before is exceedingly inadequate (even if it doesn’t commit the Apollinarian heresy, on which point the jury is still out). Even if we restrict our attention to the incarnate life of Jesus, we still find that Jesus heals the sick, calms the storm, multiplies bread for the 5000, casts out demons. He does have that kind of power over both the natural and spiritual world. So it’s incorrect to eviscerate God of that notion of power, sovereignty, Lordship. And it’s also true that our hope in Jesus depends upon the fact that He actually has the power not only to heal us, but also to keep us safe in the life eternal. God’s power had better work.

On the other hand, I don’t find that the classical theodical syntheses (St Thomas, Calvin, etc.) provide the right kind of hope. There is something fatalistically freeing about abandoning your own judgement and intuitions about evil, and just committing yourself to the course of history, que sera sera, it’s God’s will, it’s His mysterious hand at work, and who am I to speak against it? — but I don’t believe all of history can be God’s will. If our common, everyday concepts of good and evil are to be trusted at all, not to mention the many, many biblical assurances that God is against evil and unjust suffering, then we just have to say that there are some things that happen in this life which weren’t God’s will — or else God is not benevolent.

I think the classical theodicies take this vaguely fatalistic route, and ultimately end up denying P4. They make the evil less evil; they make it part of a grander design.

The David Bentley Hart theodicy (if it can be called that) also denies P4, but not because the evil is caught up in a grander design. Rather, evil is completely unintelligible. Evil has no cause, because for it to have a cause there would have to be a reason for its coming to be, and all rationality is grounded in God; but God does not will evil.

A million questions now arise (e.g., if evil just comes out of nowhere, then do we have any guarantee against a second Fall? This is why I said that this is hardly a theodicy; in fact, it’s barely clear that it even makes logical sense), but this approach at least plants a flag in what I think is the view that must be defended: God is not the cause of evil, and evil happens, and God Himself is on our side, fighting against the evil in us and around us; and our God won the decisive victory in that battle when they nailed Him up to die on Calvary Hill. What kind of victory was that? God only knows.

A few other notes:

  1. The Job story is difficult to interpret.
  2. It’s not obvious that my bottom line — “things happen in this world that are simply evil, and God Almighty is not their cause and has set Himself against them, and they still go on happening” — is applicable to the case of natural disasters. (Natural disasters are always the Achilles heel of any theodicy.) St. Thomas and others just bite the bullet and say that God is totally responsible for having established the laws of nature in such a way that natural disasters happen, and so we have to conclude that they’re not evil.
  3. Everyone should check out Flannery O’Connor’s collection Everything that Rises Must Converge, and also the poetry of David Jones.

Obasi: “A million questions now arise” seems to me to be one of the best theodicies I’ve ever heard. I’ll definitely check out the Flannery O’Connor collection and David Jones.

Also, I want to apologize if what I’ve been saying has sounded appallingly blasphemous. I mean to launch no attack against God, and I do believe that God is doing an outrageously fine job with our universe. But I also happen to be an incurable skeptic and I’ve learned over the past couple of years that God seems to prefer that I seek truth honestly than pretend everything makes sense to me (cf. pretty much all of Job). I also recognize that there are many answers that I will not find, or that will not satisfy me, and I’m okay with that. Where’s the fun in heaven if we figure everything out before we get there?

Nathan: Obasi, thank you so much for your thoughtfulness and honesty! I don’t have much time right now to give this discussion the careful treatment it deserves, but, briefly, my main response to your objection about how we can possibly trust God if He is weak/foolish/”made a big mistake”–which is also my main objection to theologies/theodicies that (even implicitly) attribute suffering and evil to God–is this: If God is any way shape or form the author of evil or responsible for it, then how in the world CAN you trust him? If He’s in the business of smiting and visiting trouble on people, then how do you know you’re not next in line? Really terrible, nasty, awful stuff happens to lots of really good (much better than me!), God-loving people (and to really bad people!) If God is behind this, then I have no reason to trust him at all–nor would I want to (“I respectfully return the ticket”). Firstly because he is downright mean to lots of other people (so I can’t fall in love with Him because I don’t find his character attractive) and secondly because I could be next to get smacked!

greifI think the only way I (we) can possibly have good reason and sufficient motivation to trust God in this broken, twisted world is if I (we) can lean absolutely on his loving, gracious character in general and his merciful love toward me (us) in particular. And I think the New Testament goes to great pains to point out that this is exactly what Jesus’ life and death reveal about God.

John Acton: Does anyone actually buy that natural disasters aren’t in some way evil though? Or at least the cause of evil or a necessary effect of evil?

Greg Scalise: Good question, John. It seems to me that any theodicy which justifies human mortality should justify natural disasters. If we accept it was right for God to punish mankind for the Fall with mortality, we shouldn’t get upset when we see it on a mass scale. I feel like I’m not seeing something you guys are here.

Obasi: John, I do think natural disasters aren’t evil! I don’t know exactly how to respond to your question, because I don’t know why you see natural disasters as obviously “in some way evil.” I see them as causes of great suffering, but I do not equate suffering with evil. I see natural disasters as a deeply integral part in God’s plan to allow us to suffer in this temporary life so that we may experience true joy in the next life. If we have an eternal viewpoint, I think we can appreciate these light and momentary troubles as sad but necessary growth points for us, so that we can experience heaven as it is meant to be experienced. Of course, I elaborate more on this in my article. But if you have a rebuttal, please share.

John: So if we agree that death is in some way evil (which I think we all must, since it is not only the enemy but “the last enemy to be destroyed” by our ultimate resurrection) and that life is good (also, I think, pretty straightforward) then anything that unnaturally (and I get the irony of using that word here, but you know what I mean) accelerates death at the expense of life is particularly evil. Anything that does this on a mass scale and that is particularly difficult for the most vulnerable and innocent of society to survive would be more or less the most evil thing possible. Which pretty much leaves genocide and natural disasters as our top two “things that should not exist in a world without evil”.

And to Greg, I get some of that line of reasoning, but I think it’s the type of thing that seems like it might work on paper but clearly fails in practice. For instance, if natural disasters are a form of God’s judgement, then to try to prevent them, warn people about them, or relieve the effects of them would more or less be trying to correct God. Yet none of us believe that sending relief to natural disaster stricken regions is undermining God’s just wrath.

The same logic works for diseases, which Christians have always been at the forefront of treating and which Jesus dedicated a massive amount of his time and energy to fighting. I’m fairly certain Christians ought to hate natural disasters with as much ferocity as we hate cancer and AIDS and heart failure, and work to predict, prevent, and mitigate them whenever possible.

Peter: First, to revisit a few points earlier in the discussion

  1. I like Stephen’s Unapologetics article, and the comment exchange below it.
  2. David Bentley Hart is definitely too snarky for my taste, too. Also, he doesn’t answer why we have this cosmic battle between good and evil in the first place. Why did we need to have a fall? Couldn’t God have prevented that? Perhaps his response would be that God couldn’t have prevented the fall without giving up human freedom, and human freedom is a very valuable good. Personally, that sort of free will defense actually makes decent sense to me.

Now, to the current topic of discussion: natural disasters. Natural disasters are hard to understand with a simple free will defense. I tend to think, though, that human failing, on one hand, and the failure for humans and the world to live in good harmony, on the other, are tied together. Romans 8:20-22 says, “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself would be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning in the pains of childbrith until now.”  While I don’t grasp everything in that passage, I see in it a connection between creation’s evil and human evil. The reason humans and the world aren’t right with each other is that humans aren’t doing what’s right. When, as C.S. Lewis put it, the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve return to sit on the thrones of Narnia, ruling over creation as righteous human beings, creation will be right, as it was intended to be.

Stephen: Peter, you’re asking exactly the right question. Where did evil come from, in the beginning? Within the Christian story, it is frankly very mysterious.

How did Adam and Eve fall from paradise? “The serpent deceived me, and I ate” (Gen 3:13). But God was right there in the garden! What was the serpent doing in paradise? (Cf. the future hope of Revelation 21:27: “no unclean thing shall ever enter there”. Why was an unclean spirit allowed to be in the garden of God, if God has the means to keep such things out?)

How did Satan fall from heaven? How did it enter his mind, as he stood there in the presence of God Almighty enthroned in heavenly glory, to rebel against the Almighty, and sin against the king of peace?

Could there be another fall, in the New Jerusalem? We are assured that there will be no serpent in the New Jerusalem. But surely Satan fell from an entirely innocent state; nobody deceived him, and he fell anyway. Could that happen to us? For a long while I thought “no,” based upon texts like Isaiah 65:17-18, 25, which says, “Behold I create a new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create…. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain”. And upon recently hearing Revelation 21:5, I am certain that there can be no second fall for the saints: “the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.”

All of this naturally raises the question, if God is able (by His presence, by His light) to restore humankind to a state of innocence and make it the case that humankind will never fall again, why was there ever a fall in the first place?

This is the awkwardest question that the free will theodicy has to answer. Even if, as Aquinas argues in the Summa Contra Gentiles II.46, the creation is brought to perfection by there being creatures in it who resemble God (bear His image) by being endowed with individual intellect and free will, and who thereby know Him and freely love Him; nevertheless it is possible for God to arrange things in such a way that these creatures never sin. He promises to do just that.

And so the free will theodicy seems in trouble.

There is also an extremely vexing question concerning God’s freedom, which was raised by the brilliant Geoff Kristof after the debate Veronica and I had with HCHAA. The free will defense typically argues that libertarian freedom is necessary for love. Libertarian freedom requires that, for any action I perform, that “I could have done otherwise.” But God loves us (indeed He is the paradigm of love). And God could not do otherwise than love us. There is no possibility of Him ceasing to love us. So, what gives?

I currently have no solution to these questions.

adam_eveAs to the discussion of natural disasters, John, I think Greg’s point was not that natural disasters are, like, specific acts of God’s wrath targeted against particular groups. Rather, I understood Greg to be arguing: if, because of our sin, we all deserve to die, then is God to be called unjust, simply because a lot of people all died at once? Who, exactly, has He wronged? (Compare Luke 13:1-5, where Jesus Himself seems to make this very point!)

Of course the question of how, exactly, death is a consequence of the Fall is a tricky one (and this would be my question for Peter and Greg): like, what about the second law of thermodynamics? What about animal death before humans evolved? Etc. If you’re interested, see my piece “A Religious Animal?” that I wrote a couple of years ago for the Ichthus.

The conversation went quiet for two weeks, when Stephen appeared with a resource.

Stephen: Peter King is an excellent mediaevalist, and I just stumbled upon his paper on the question that I called hardest of all:  how Satan fell from heaven.

Then, three days after that…

Stephen: I drank my tea too late last night and couldn’t sleep till 5am. So, I read about the problem of evil instead. It turns out that my two favorite philosophers on this question, Marilyn McCord Adams and Eleonore Stump, take opposite viewpoints!

From Marilyn Mccord Adams, the best articles I could find were “Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God” and “Horrors in Theological Context.”

M. Adams represents something like the viewpoint Nate and I were expressing:

(1) We cannot conceive of any “reasons why” God would allow horrendous evil that do not make God a moral monster.

(2) Any kind of “reasons why” God allows horrendous evil to occur cannot justify individual suffering in terms of the good of the universe as a whole, nor can they appeal to some abstract good thing like free will. Rather than asking whether free will is a great enough good to outweigh the evil that results from it, Adams will ask, “Good for whom?” And in particular, is free will (or whatever) going to be a good enough thing in the life of the individual sufferer, so as to make their life worth living?

(3) The right question to ask is not, “Why?” but, “Can God be good enough to created persons, despite their participation in horrors, by defeating those horrors within the context of that individual’s life, and giving that individual a life that is (on the whole) a great good for her?”

(4) By “defeat”, she means something like redemption.

From Eleonore Stump: In “Knowledge, Freedom and the Problem of Evil,” Stump responds to the account the philosopher Richard Swinburne gives of natural evil within his overall free will theodicy. Eleonore Stump is giving a revised Thomistic answer to the problem of suffering. She is going to say that we do have the “reasons why” God permits suffering. And they’ll answer to Adams’s demand: they’ll be reasons why suffering will (in the end) work together for the good even of the sufferer. Stump’s account is deeply fascinating. Everyone should go buy her book.

I also like Stump’s articles “The Problem of Evil and the History of Peoples: Think Amalek” and “Aquinas on the Sufferings of Job.”

Notice that neither Stump nor Adams subscribes to the free will theodicy.

And, in conclusion:

Christian: Thank you all for the discussion! I sent Stephen’s article as well as the David Bentley Hart piece to my friend. She read both and said she has plenty of questions to ask me. If you don’t mind, Obasi, I think I will also send her your article as it gives a very gospel-centric theodicy, which is something I think she needs to hear (our whole discussion started over “what are the core truths of Christianity” so seeing how the Gospel is a base for our worldview is important. Also, her previous ideas of Christianity definitely did not include the Gospel, so I would like to show the good news wherever I can).

As I finish up the last two weeks of this program, I expect I will be asked more and more questions about Christianity, as all the people here are very comfortable with each other at this point. If you could pray that I have the spiritual acuity to approach these questions as the Spirit would lead me I would greatly appreciate it! Also, I will definitely be emailing you all if some other deep questions come up.

If you’d like to join the discussion, email ichthus@hcs.harvard.edu.