Quotation from Epicurus

This is one of the big religious questions, perhaps the biggest of all.

There is a huge debate about it. The technical term is ‘theodicy’. If God the creator is good, why does God allow suffering and evil? The problem is highlighted if we take seriously the principle, which Christians and Muslims have inherited from Jews, that the divine creator is all-powerful, all-knowing and perfectly good. So it is not surprising that, since the Holocaust, Jews have been in the forefront of debating the question.

I had a chapter on it in a book published 15 years ago, and although I would have put it differently now my views haven’t really changed. The position I take is the one outlined by the late departed John Hick, usually described as the ‘free will’ theory. He called it ‘Irenaean’ after the second century theologian, though patristic scholars think Irenaeus wasn’t consistent.

The point is that God provides a good world, and part of the goodness is the free will given to humans. There are lots of things we are enabled to do, some of which we morally ought not to do. It is human misuse of free will that causes evil.

The main criticisms are:

  1. Not all suffering is caused by human actions. What about earthquakes and cancer?
    I don’t find this a knock-down refutation because all specific examples are debatable. It is political and economic oppression that causes people to build inadequate buildings on earthquake zones. As long as we carry on pumping carcinogens into our air and water we can hardly blame God for cancer.

  2. Some evils are too great to have been performed by humans. Something else is going on. What Hitler did bespeaks a greater evil.
    I just don’t believe this. We con ourselves that we are better than we are.

  3. The innocent suffer for the sins of others.
    Indeed they do. This is why the gift of free will is such a big and dangerous one. If wrongdoing only affected the wrongdoer we would all be models of perfection. The reason why the moral task is a real one is that the individual can benefit by harming others. Without this dimension the moral responsibility we have been given would be a sham, and there would be no possibility of humans growing into holiness.

These points are not original. Others have made them often enough. However there is another point which I haven’t come across elsewhere. It’s what happens when you compare the free will theory with the alternatives. A great deal of the discourse supposes that the problem of evil only occurs for people who believe in the omnipotent, omniscient and good God of the Abrahamic religions, and doesn’t arise if we abandon belief in that kind of god. I think this is mistaken. If we abandon belief in that kind of god the problem, far from being solved, gets worse.

There are two kinds of alternative.

Alternative A: life is tragic.

Many recent theologians, Jewish and Christian alike, have responded to great evil by redefining God. Either there is an evil as well as a good side to God or God has limited power or limited knowledge. Whichever one of these options we plump for, the implication is that evil is built into the way things are, the way God created the universe. By exonerating ourselves we make evil inescapable.

You might think this is realistic. However, when we think it through the implications are devastating. Modern society is committed to the idea of progress. The dominant discourse is that we are in the process of solving our problems: by economic growth, by medical technology, by greater surveillance of criminals. Of course many of these activities are not really solving anything, but if Alternative A is true then there are no real solutions at all and progress becomes impossible.

This position is best illustrated by the ancient Greek tragedies. The plots explore what life is like when there are no good answers. You obey one god and thereby offend another, who wreaks vengeance. You unknowingly commit a crime, like murdering your father and marrying your mother, because it was fated – but you still get punished. Some of the early Christians had a similarly pessimistic view. Life was a vale of tears. Logically enough, they concluded that the best thing to do was for all of us to stop having children. This theory, far from solving the problem of evil, tells us there is nothing we can do about it so there is no point in trying. This makes it worse.

Alternative B: we create our own values.

This is characteristic of atheist thought. Values cannot exist unless some mind creates them, and if human minds are the only minds only humans can create them.

Again there are many accounts. At the materialist end of the spectrum, our values are the products of our feelings, our hormones, which themselves result from our evolution. At the idealist end we are freer to adopt the values we choose. Wherever you are on that spectrum, if we create our own values then evil is a concept created by humans. It only ‘exists’ in the sense that we believe it to exist. Thus evil gets deconstructed. Nothing is evil unless you think of it as evil, so why not change your thoughts?

The issue is accentuated if you add in determinism, as many do. Determinism claims that the reason why your husband left you, the house got burgled and a computer hacker emptied your bank account all on the same day is that nobody has free will. These events were the inevitable result of the way atoms have been pushing each other ever since the Big Bang. If everybody’s actions are determined in this way, treating some of them as evil seems quite arbitrary, a mere expression of the way your hormones made you feel.

However, even if there is free will and people are responsible for their infidelities and burglaries, as long as we think we create our own values the very idea of ‘evil’ is a human invention. We could train ourselves to think of our misfortunes differently. Or to think of them as not misfortunes at all. Evil exists because, and only because, we choose to invent the idea.

So when we think through the implications of Alternative B, like Alternative A it requires a massive change in the way we normally think of reality. Also like Alternative A, it advises us not to resist evil.

This is why I think the free will theory, for all its problems, must be the right one. Believing it comes at a price: we humans are responsible for all that is wrong. The reward we get for paying the price is even bigger: if we want to, we can make the world a better place.