A talk I gave at Houston Oasis on 12/16/12:
I recently heard an interesting take on the “problem of evil”, also known as theodicy, which is the question of how the notion of an all-powerful and loving God can be reconciled with the evil and suffering we see in the world. It’s a problem that philosophers and theologians have struggled with since the very beginnings of organized religion, and which after thousands of years and countless hours of contemplation, nobody has yet to find a satisfactory answer for.
As the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus pointed out over 2,300 years ago:
Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?
Well a philosophy professor named Stephen Maitzen recently pointed out how this problem, taken to its logical conclusion, not only undermines the notion of an omnipotent and loving god, but actually subverts human morality as well, and eliminates the most obvious and clear reasons we have for showing kindness and benevolence towards others. The argument goes something like this:
If God is truly good and all powerful, he would not, and could not, subject a person–particularly an innocent person such as a small child–to needless or morally unjustifiable suffering. So what exactly would fit under that definition?
Well one of the stock responses you’ll often hear is that an innocent person’s suffering might be for the greater good of others, or for the benefit of society overall. So when a child is experiencing a terrible disease, someone might say that it will result in the the parents being drawn closer to God, or that it will somehow make the parents better people. In other words, somehow that child’s suffering is ultimately justified as part of some greater plan. But that justification fails, because it means that the innocent child is effectively being exploited, by God, for the benefit of others. Which would be inherently immoral and thus not an act that is reconcilable with the notion of a perfect and loving God.
It also doesn’t work to say that the suffering child will be compensated in some way later, in order to make up for the suffering being experienced now. Because to compensate someone for an injustice being done to them doesn’t mean the original act wasn’t wrong. If anything it’s an admission that it was wrong.
So what we’re left with is the conclusion that the suffering of an innocent child is only morally justifiable if it is for the direct benefit of that child–for example, if the child’s suffering draws that child closer to God, or if by undergoing that suffering, it results in some long-term benefit to that child later in life which comes about as a direct result.
But that leads to an even more problematic conclusion. Because if the suffering must be for that child’s direct benefit, then it means the worse a child is suffering, the more it must be for the child’s own good, and the less reason we have for trying to end or alleviate it. In essence it turns morality completely upside down, and means that even the most obvious examples of compassionate morality cannot be reconciled with the traditional theistic concept of “God”. And if such acts cannot be reconciled, it’s hard to imagine how any acts of moral behavior can be reconciled, unless one is to discard traditional theism entirely and adopt a secular worldview based on rational, humanistic moral principles.
Towards the end of her life, Mother Theresa actually received a great deal of criticism for her openly-stated stance on the issue of suffering (for example when she made comments such as “the suffering of the poor is something very beautiful”, or when she referred to suffering as “the kiss of Jesus”) as well as for not doing more to utilize the vast resources at her disposal to help alleviate it. But perhaps she wasn’t being indifferent to the plight of those who suffer, as her critics alleged, but was simply taking her traditional theistic worldview to its logical conclusion. After all, if suffering truly brings people closer to God, what right does anyone have to prevent it from happening?