Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Problem of Evil: redux

The more we believe that God hurts only to heal, the less we can believe that there is any use in begging for tenderness. A cruel man might be bribed--might grow tired of his vile sport--might have a temporary fit of mercy, as alcoholics have fits of sobriety. But suppose that what you are up against is a surgeon whose intentions are wholly good. The kinder and more conscientious he is, the more inexorably he will go on cutting. If he yielded to your entreaties, if he stopped before the operation was complete, all the pain up to that point would have been useless. But is it credible that such extremities of torture should be necessary for us? Well, take your choice. The tortures occur. If they are unnecessary, then there is no God or a bad one. If there is a good God, then these tortures are necessary for no even moderately good Being could possibly inflict or permit them if they weren't.

Lewis "Grief Observed"

Kathy (a little girl): You know how he used to cure people? Jesus, I mean. He cured a blind man once, didn’t he.

Vicar: That’s right.

Kathy: And he could bring people back from dead, too.

Vicar: Mm Hmm. Lazarus.

Kathy: Only he must have let some people die, mustn’t he. Why did he let those people die?

Vicar: Well, uh...you see, uh, people...babies are being born all the time...and, uh...those of us who are here already have got to make room for them, haven’t we.

Kathy: Yes, sir.

Vicar: The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. That’s what the Bible says, isn’t it?

Kathy: Yes, sir.

Vicar: I mean, God has got more than us to think about. Not only people dying, it’s what we’re doing to the world, that’s what worries Him. You see, we hurt God much more than He hurts us. You don’t have to go very far to see people offending God. What about when you’ve got children taking guttering and lettering and I don’t know what from the church. It’s not only the value, it’s God’s house.

Kathy: But that’s nothing to do with Jesus.

Vicar: Well, it’s going to stop. I’m going to stamp this vandalism out, I’m not having it. I’m going to take very strong measures in the future.

Kathy: Yes, sir.

Vicar: So, you pass it around.

Charlie (Kathy's younger brother): He doesn’t know, does he?

"Whistle Down the Wind"


Anonymous said...

If there is a good God, then these tortures are necessary for no even moderately good Being could possibly inflict or permit them if they weren't.

Oh dear. I thought Lewis was usually a little less superficial than that. He might as well be saying that "all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds". Or "God is good therefore evil does not exist."

And yes I know that Lewis was a believer in evil, but he might just as well have reasoned the outward signs of it away along with the suffering with the same argument as that above.

To give up one's own judgement so completely as to see the world only in the way that one imagines it must be as a consequence of one's belief is astoundingly complacent. We have no evidence that pain is necessary, or at least not that the vast majority of pain is necessary. There is no logical reasoning that could show that those who lived on the shore in Indonesia were somehow and collectively more in need of suffering to attain their healing than those who live in Kensington, London. And yet Lewis can be confident that this is what was intended, merely from his contemplation of the nature of God.

"I don't know" is I suppose a barely acceptable answer to the problem of suffering. "There is no God" is in my opinion a rather better one. "It's there so it must be necessary" shows an unwillingness to make any form of judgement of your own about what the world is actually like, rather than an extrapolation from the axiom that God is Good, an expression which itself is hardly philosophically clear and comprehensible.

Andrew Rilstone said...



As you presumably know, Lewis wrote this a few days after the death of his wife. The three possibilities he presents: an evil God, no God, or necessary suffering -- were three real positions that he was seriously considering.

He couldn't persuade himself of the non-existance of God because he couldn't reconcile consciousness with materialism. He was convinced by the J.B.S Haldane "My brain is made of atoms..." argument, and thought that Berkley was unanswerable. (I don't even known what the question was.) But he took seriously the idea of a bad God.

Any preacher can come up with a dozen examples of an apparently inexplicable cruelty being "for our own good" -- child being forced to take nasty medicine, thorn being taken out of dog's paw, etc. You certianly can't say "Since suffering exists, suffering must be good for us" or "Since suffering exists, there must be a good God." But you can, I think, say "Since causing suffering is not necessarily inconsistent with loving someone, the existence of suffering is not necessarily inconsitent with the existence of a loving God."

You say correctly that Lewis has arrived at his conclusion simply from his contemplation of the nature of God. Contemplation being the operative word, I think. The Very Early Lewis believed that he had "proved" Christianity by a few simple logical steps involving "mind" and "the absolute"; reduced all world religions to two alternatives (Christianity and Hinduism) and rejected Hinduism for reasons which I can't quite remember. Q.E.D. It was now only a matter of "translating" Christian theology into the language that "common people" spoke, and, voila, a mass revival. The "Mere Christianity" broadcasts are the product of this approach.

The later, post-Joy Lewis recongised that "conversion" is based on some kind of mystical intuition. "If you are a certain type of person", you feel an overwhelming sense of God; but if you are not that sort of person, you don't feel it. "It all depends on the seeing eye." Theological beliefs follow from that intuition; they don't lead to it. Jung said something similar, I think.

Lewis quoted Julian of Norwich with approval "all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well..." Julian reached that belief as a result of mystical contemplation of God ("revelations of divine love").

This may have been all Rev. Giles was trying to say in the article I started from. You can't use "problem of evil" arguments to argue someone from materialism into theism, and would be silly to try. But equally, it is silly to point a believer at some instance of suffering and expect him to regard that as a compelling argument against his faith.


Anonymous said...

No, I didn't know about Lewis's wife; it does put an interesting perspective on things.

I find your final paragraphs rather depressing though. If all you have is unshakeable divine revelation and a certain degree of justification after the fact then there seems little point in theology except as a kind of club handbook.

Of course I don't seriously expect people to be reasoned into or out of faith on a daily basis but to deny the possibility of such implies that you have two (or as many as there are faiths plus one) congregations all talking at cross purposes forever, creating their own independent networks of reasonings about the universe based on their own postulates.

It would be nice to think we could at least have a conversation.

Andrew Rilstone said...

No, I didn't know about Lewis's wife; it does put an interesting perspective on things.

Eek! I sort of assumed that everyone on earth had seen Shadowlands. Twenty-seventh greatest love story of the millennium, if I recall correctly.

Anonymous said...

If my interpretation of post-Joy's position is correct, does this mean that there are people who are inherently unable to feel that "overwhelming sense of god"?

If this is the case then it makes the "Hell is the absence of God" concept that I've encountered elsewhere make somewhat more sense to me; it's no torture to the "theology-blind" sorts, since they never felt a need for God's presence anyhow, but it's terrible for the "theology-capable" sorts because they're aware of what they're missing and what they've lost.

Anonymous said...

Trying to judge the nature of God from the nature of the world leads in a Christian context directly to Gnosticism, in my opinion. The problem isn't even human evil, which I suppose can always be explained away on the grounds of free will. The problem is that the universe is made so that people inevitably get sick, suffer from accidents, get old, and die -- there is no free will involved at all.

You can make up, or accept as doctrine, any number of ideas about how this must be for some good reason. Or how this doesn't matter because good people go to Heaven later -- like the torturer unstrapping the broken victims from the rack to throw them a surprise party. But direct observation really doesn't help.

In a Jewish context these kinds of observations tend to lead to the theological approach that Blumenthal wrote about in _Facing the Abusing God_, which I on the whole prefer.

Anonymous said...


I think the traditional Christian teaching is that everyone in Hell feels the pain caused by the absence of God even if they were not aware of a need for God in life. Indeed, the article on Hell in the old Catholic Encyclopedia states, rather oddly, that those who hate God most suffer most from his absence. In any case, there is always the physical torture of Hell for everyone.


I think you are unfair to Lewis. He surely never thought, and I do not suppose that anyone has ever thought, that it was possible to prove Christianity by means of deductive logic. He thought the existence of God could be proved, or rather that it could be shown that God must exist if human reason can rightly be considered trustworthy, but it is a long way from the existence of God to the doctrines of Christianity. I don’t remember exactly what Lewis said in ‘The Seeing Eye’ but I wonder if it was more than what he said, way back in 1952, in ‘Is Theism Important?’ In that article he distinguishes between faith in God as an intellectual assent to the proposition that God exists and faith in God as a trust in God and in God’s goodness. Religious experience of some sort causes people to trust in God but theological beliefs about his existence or his nature can be brought about by intellectual arguments and such beliefs come before the trust.

Of course you cannot argue someone from materialism to theism by means of the problem of evil. How could you? A convincing answer to the problem of evil, however, might move someone who believed in the existence of God to a belief in his goodness.

Pointing to a particular instance of suffering as an argument against the goodness of God will not work because believers, unless they have led lives as sheltered as the Buddha’s, already know that such suffering occurs. That does not mean that the problem of evil is not an important intellectual problem for believers. It certainly is and there must be countless numbers of people who have abandoned religion because of that problem. I am quite certain that, if there is a God, he has no concern for us as individuals and probably not as a species either and it is the evil in the world that has convinced me of that.

Anonymous said...

"To the Greek or Occidental thinker Andrews 5 statemetns pose a problem because they contradict. To an Oriental thinker, like the fellows who wrote the Hebrew Scriptures and some of the Christian stuff too, the five points are all true AND they all contradict."

Perhaps I'm just playing the cynic, but I'm not sure that "there exists some other way of thinking in which it does not matter that these statements are contradictory" is any more useful a response to the Problem of Evil than the more usual "it's something to do with free will" or "it is not for us to question god".

My personal take (for what it's worth) is that Andrew's five statements actually presuppose a sixth, somewhat less punchy statement, to the effect that "a good being will prevent bad events, insofar as it is in the power of that being to do so". There are also about six different ways you can define omnipotence which can further complicate matters.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Does the idea of "holding two contradictory ideas in your head" imply "to try and see how they might not contradict each other after all"? As in "when faced with two mutually exclusive alternatives, always pick the third one?"

In this sense, holding the ideas that "God is Male" and "God is Female" in your head might be perfectly sensible. Your head might then come up with ideas along the lines of: "Well, maybe God is male on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays but female at weekends" or "Maybe God is an hermaphrodite" or "Maybe human genders are both reflections of different aspects of God's personality." (People usually tell a story involivng some visually impaired Indian chaps and a heffalump at this point.)

But if "holding two ideas in your head" means saying "Masculinity and Femininity are Mutually Exclusive, and God is both" then I think you are talking nonsesne. Saying "God can make two mountains without a valley between them" is equivilent to saying "Wibble."

It may possibly be that you can seriously believe in God and seriously believe that "Wibble" is the only thing you can say about him. The "negative way", and all that. God is fundementally unknowable. All the imagery we use to refer to Him is false by definition. It may be a crutch for the least spiritual believers, but it's an obstacle and a barrier to true knowledge of God. If you can clear your mind of all these false concepts, then there is some chance that a ray of light from God may illuminate the darkness.(Er...of course "ray" and "light" and "darkness" are also images.) Holding onto two contradictory images and trying to believe that both are true, or, indeed, saying, "wibble", may be of some help in the mind-emptying process.

Mysticism of this kind seems an odd approach for Christians to take, given how many pictures, metaphors and parables there are in the Bible. But I know that Christians have taken it.

Andrew Rilstone said...

The "free will polluted creation" story has always made literary-poetic-mythological sense to me; in the same way that the "god died on the cross to purify his polluted creation" story has always made literary-poetic-mythological sense to me. Those stories are what I mean when I talk about "Christianity".

Anonymous said...

Charles Filston: "Yet what can you say to this? What answer can you possibly give except that any God that is, must be cruel and heartless?"

To the problem of evil, you mean? I'll give it a shot if you like. Incidentally I freely admit that what follows is gratuitous use of a slippery-slope argument, but it outlines my general reaction to the good old P of E.

First of all, let us assume that "good" implies "fair", at least to some degree. If a Good god would prevent a particular Bad thing from happening once, then it follows that he would stop it from happening every time. It also follows that he will have to prevent every other event of similar Badness.

Following this logic, we then need to find the level of Badness at which God has to either step in and intervene, or lose his "Good" status. This is where the slippery slope argument comes in. If God should have prevented the Asian Tsunami, where several hundred thousand people died, then he really has to prevent any other event (or - slippery slope alert - set of events) that cause a similar amount of suffering. Cancer kills far more people than tsunamis, so do cars for that matter (although since they're man made, they're arguably covered by the traditional free will clause). It isn't long before you have to decide that a Good And Loving God would not allow people to die prematurely by any means whatsoever.

From there (I warned you that this was a slippery slope), you have to realise that death isn't the only Bad Thing in the world. Following our initial assumption, that if God prevents one Bad Thing he has to prevent all other things of equal Badness. Really he should eliminate all sickness, all incapacity, all pain (because really, if I stub my toe, how does that further the cause of good in the world).

Essentially, if you follow the argument through, you wind up with two choices. Either you have a world where people will suffer and die, and will go on suffering and dying, often for stupid, pointless reasons. Alternatively, you have a world where nobody has ever suffered. Perhaps I'm just a bit too close to my inner goth, but a world in which nobody has ever suffered does not appeal to me. Perhaps this makes me cruel and heartless, I don't know.