Dostoevsky, by Vasily Perov

This is part argument, part request for information. I’m researching theodicy. Why does a good God allow suffering?

One of the classic texts is Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan describes a five-year-old girl being deliberately tortured by her parents. It is an emotional description which makes no attempt to spare the reader’s feelings. Then he says:

Do you understand why this infamy must be and is permitted? Without it, I am told, man could not have existed on earth, for he could not have known good and evil. Why should he know that diabolical good and evil when it costs so much? Why, the whole world of knowledge is not worth that child’s prayer to ‘dear, kind God’!

The traditional ‘free will defence’ of God’s goodness is that God allows us to perform evil acts because the freedom to choose between good and evil gives us the option of becoming good. Without the option of being evil, any apparent goodness on our part would not be real goodness at all. In some versions of this theodicy, the time will eventually come when we all do turn away from evil and become perfect – either in this life or a future one. Some theologians argue that this future harmony will justify, or compensate for, the sufferings people endure now. Ivan Karamazov replies:

Too high a price is asked for harmony; it’s beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return Him the ticket… Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature – that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance – and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions?

I’m not familiar with the literature on this specific text, but it has been immensely influential as an argument against the ‘free will defence’ of God’s goodness. However it doesn’t seem to me to add up. Ivan argues that the torture of just one child is too high a price to justify humanity’s ability to distinguish between good and evil. A necessary condition of saying this is that Ivan himself does distinguish between good and evil. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t be bothered about children being tortured. So it seems to me that his complaint, for all its emotional force, is self-refuting. If anyone can point me to literature which handles this point I’ll be grateful.

My own position is that a good God and a ‘free will defence’ is the only way to protect two principles which matter to me. The first is that the difference between good and evil is real. Good and evil are not just qualities invented by individual humans to decorate their personal preferences. (What is good in one situation isn’t necessarily good in another, but that’s another matter.)

The second is that the future isn’t fated. When we choose good over evil we really do chip in our little bit to make the world better than it would have been. So it matters.

However I’m not convinced by John Hick’s argument that a perfect outcome is guaranteed by God. I am more convinced by F R Tennant’s argument that what matters is the good we do as we go along, not a future perfect state. Nor am I convinced that eternal happiness in life after death will necessarily compensate for the injustices and sufferings experienced in this life.

I am more inclined to think that if we do reach a perfect state after death, one feature of it is that we shall let go of our individualism and become part of each other in a much more real sense than we are now. But I haven’t been there to have a look, so I don’t know.