This is the the twenty-ninth post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. Follow the link for more on the series and for links to other entries as they appear. The last post presented the evidential problem of evil, including five questions that deal with specific kinds or manifestations of evil thought by some to be evidence against the existence of God. This post begins a series of responses looking at answers to those five questions, starting with the first two.
A. The primary response to the logical problem of evil involves free actions of human beings. What about kinds of evil that aren’t the result of the free actions of human beings?
Two things have been suggested about what is sometimes called natural evil (i.e. evil not caused by human beings). Natural disasters, suffering in nature, and so on may not be the result of free human actions, but it’s possible that they are all the result of free beings. Alvin Plantinga has suggested that perhaps non-human, even non-physical, beings are responsible for all the evil that does not result from human choices. Some people might call these beings fallen angels or demons. Even if we do not consider that possibility likely, it remains a possibility that we cannot absolutely rule out. Should we believe that all such evil is caused by such beings? Probably not, but it remains enough of a possibility for theists that it means there is at least a possible explanation. If there is a possible alternative explanation for the existence of a kind of evil, then the claim that a good God would never be able to allow it seems wrong. There is at least one possible way that a good being would allow such things, and that is if other free creatures do it in a way that it would be wrong for God to stop them (thus mirroring the free human beings response to the logical problem of evil discussed in a previous post).
As it happens, most theists do not believe fallen angels or demons cause all natural evil such as the suffering from forest fires, tsunamis, hurricanes, or earthquakes. They might say something else, however. There seems to be no point to freedom if we cannot predict the consequences of our free actions at least to some degree. If I try to give someone a hug but cannot control my arms and end up giving them an uppercut to the jaw instead, that would be bad. For this reason we should expect a being like God to make the world in a way that is predictable and orderly. In other words, it should follow certain natural laws. These regularities would allow us to predict the consequences of our actions, thus allowing our choices to be genuinely free. However, they also might generate natural processes that lead to landslides, tornadoes, and floods.
It might be that natural evil is just the result of natural processes. It so happens that most people believe so anyway. But the point here is that a being like God should be expected to consider those natural processes to be crucial to free action, and thus we would expect God to allow them and their negative consequences because not allowing the world to be predictable and regular in its processes would have even worse consequences.
B. God might allow free human beings to make evil choices, but why wouldn’t God immediately restore things to the way they were so that the world would not continue to contain evil? That would seem to be the most obvious way to prevent as much evil as possible without violating people’s freedom. The choice would be allowed, but its negative effects would never arise.
Several difficulties arise when you think more fully about such a situation. For one thing, it would make God a deceiver. How could things be restored immediately if people could still remember what happened? So God would have to changed their memories, deceiving them about what happened. Would a good being do that? Some think not.
Second, it seems to count against freedom. If people freely choose to do evil, then what is God doing by wiping out the effects and memories of that choice? In effect, God allows them to think they are choosing, but such an act would remove the person’s ability to choose to do exactly that thing. The thing the person chose to do was not just the initial act but what it would be reasonable to expect it to lead to. If God prevents that, it seems unfree.
Third, wiping out the effects of people’s actions might bring things back to how they were before the first free choice to do evil, but it could happen all over again just as easily. If it is possible that allowing the consequences of evil to remain would eventually serve the purpose of preventing people from doing evil in the future, then it might be worth allowing evil and its consequences for a time in the light of the future that God will eventually move toward when people will not do such things and will freely choose not to do such things.
It might be worth mentioning here also that the idea of an afterlife also might minimize this objection to some degree. The evil we face is surely bad, but it is temporary. Eventually this life is over. If there is an afterlife, as many theists believe, then God might be more inclined to allow evil to go on for some time to achieve certain effects, and it might be worth it in the long run. After all, an eternity without end of no evil might count very strongly in favor of a situation that allows some evil if you contrast it with an eternity that does not guarantee the removal of evil at all.
Next: Questions C and D