The Problem of Evil: Solved?
Much ink has been spilled on that one.
After all, shaking one’s fist at the sky, shouting one’s disgust at a God who allows all that unspeakable suffering and evil to happen in this world, seems to be a timeless motive. And for good reasons.
No doubt, in response, many theological treatments of the problem of evil have produced great insights. (For example, I like Peter Kreeft’s talk that tackles the problem from a traditional Catholic perspective.)
But it also seems to me that Christian thought has always been a little too hung up on the three premises of the problem and the logical minutiae surrounding them.
In other words, many theologians seem to be a) too married to these premises and b) a little too relying on what Iain McGilchrist might call left-hemisphere thinking: leaning towards sweeping assumptions that are detached from actual experience, and then wondering about the logical conundrums they produce.
But first, let’s define what the problem of evil, as traditionally formulated, is all about:
What is the problem of evil?
God is all-powerful
God is all-good
God is all-knowing
There is evil in this world.
God does not exist.
In other words, the question is: if God knows everything, can do everything, and is 100% good, he should stop evil in this world. Since he doesn’t seem to do this, God doesn’t exist.
Let’s have a look at the three premises and see if we can be so sure about them, and if we can say something about God that makes more sense.
The purpose here is not to define the nature of God, or to come up with ultimate answers, but to offer different and hopefully useful ways of approaching the problem.
1. God is all-powerful
There is no reason to think that God doesn’t work under certain constraints.
Traditionally, for example, it is often assumed that the law of non-contradiction holds true even for God. It is interesting that of all possible restraints God could be subjected to, theologians have chosen this.
But it doesn’t stop there.
For example: could God commit suicide? I find that hard to believe.
More generally, it seems to me God is restrained by morality: God has achieved the highest insight possible into what constitutes the Good, the True and the Beautiful. Yes, perhaps in a certain sense he also produces these qualities, maybe as a sort of attracting light, yet he also clearly embodies them in their highest forms—not in the sense that God has a body, but in the sense that he exemplifies the highest moral principles.
This means he cannot act otherwise than in harmony with these principles, whatever they may be.
Think of it this way: a human being who has achieved a certain level of moral insight will naturally do the right thing given a specific situation. Assuming, of course, that his insight is deep enough to understand precisely what he needs to do, and his self-mastery allows him to pull it off.
Now, this human being, in theory, could act differently in that situation. But in reality, he cannot. I think we can intuitively understand this.
(What seems to stand in the way of this observation is merely philosophy’s love affair with counterfactual thinking, logical necessity and so on. But in this context, that sort of thinking in my view represents an overindulgence in reality-chopping, i.e. death-by-analysis.)
Similarly, if we think in purely logical and theoretical terms, God could act badly. In reality, he can’t. Once a certain level of spiritual and moral development is reached, the moral act becomes both the best and the only option, and therefore a necessity.
In that sense, God is restrained by his own nature.
Something else to consider here is the idea of co-creation, or that intelligent life itself somehow participates in the creative process. In that view, we play our part in the creation of the cosmos and are part of God’s history, so to speak, because we participate in God’s being.
Accepting this view, we serve a purpose for God. And if we serve a purpose, God is constrained by our realm, small as this constraint may be, because our fulfilling of this purpose depends partly on us.
Finally, a lot of this all-powerful God doctrine seems to come from the weird idea of creatio-ex-nihilo, or creation out of nothing, which has been rightfully questioned by many thinkers and critics of religion.
If we step back for a second and think about it, this proposition seems absurd. It also likely was never part of any original Christianity, but developed in reaction to the 2nd century Gnostic Marcion.1
Mind you, I’m not looking at this problem from a modern materialist perspective. Whatever God “used” to make the world doesn’t need to be “material stuff,” as people today, including theologians, might presuppose. It just needs to be something: raw chaos perhaps, or patterns of consciousness, or information, or parts of God’s mind— I don’t know. But something!
So no, God is not all-powerful, at least not in the sense that he can do absolutely anything on a whim, and certainly not in the way a mere human with infinite super-powers would be all-powerful.
2. God is all-good
Yes indeed: God has achieved the highest possible insight into Goodness. God embodies moral perfection.
But perhaps “perfection”—the highest form of goodness—also implies the drive to always keep learning, to keep growing? Perhaps the “scale of forms,” by which one reaches ever-higher levels of insight into a concept such as goodness, thereby preserving each stage on the way one has mastered, knows no end?2
Indeed, as many thinkers have pointed out, the trouble with the proposition that God is all-good lies with the definition of “good.”
Think about it this way: if life is a spiritual journey where we (hopefully) learn our lessons and achieve ever-higher degrees of moral insight and goodness, then what constitutes good is subject to change: it evolves. This means we can only comprehend goodness from our current position in the cosmos, our current position on the “scale of forms.”
We are blind to forms of goodness higher than those we have currently mastered.
This dynamic plays itself out all the time: for example, at one point in our lives we may believe that helping others, no matter what, is always the right thing to do. As we mature and gain experience, we realize that it’s not so simple, and that sometimes “helping” others is actually bad, like financing a drug addict, or blocking someone’s growth by babysitting him all the time. As long as we are on the lower level, those who refuse help in such cases seem to be “bad” from our perspective; we are blind to their superior moral insight.
But here’s the tricky thing: we all must walk each step of the way.
That is to say, we must act morally as best we can from our current perspective. We cannot make excuses by saying that at some point, our values might evolve further, and therefore our current moral insights are worthless. There are no shortcuts. We must walk the walk, step by step.
To learn that helping others might not always be the right thing, we must first go out and help others, to gain experience. We cannot say, “oh, helping others can be bad, so why bother.” There is no cop-out.
A lot of the confusion about God’s goodness has its origin in this fundamental misunderstanding: that goodness always means the same, at every level of existence.
There is a great little book, Upside: The New Science of Post-Traumatic Growth, which recounts many moving stories of people who went through catastrophic events and massive trauma, but eventually came out on the other side radically transformed. They experienced horrible accidents, war, illness, etc., and managed to turn this trauma into something positive: they changed their lives, and often started making a huge positive difference for others.
Many of us know such stories, or have even experienced it ourselves. We all know the saying, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
But does all of that mean that we should stop fighting disease? Or provoke accidents to facilitate insights? Or embrace war as a growth-catalyst? Of course not. That would be the height of cynicism.
I think God’s goodness should be seen in this light.
From our vantage point, we should most definitely do our best to help people avoid evil, suffering, and trauma. But this is entirely compatible with the idea that at the end of the day, these things might serve some purpose in the grand scheme of things; that from a level of moral insight as yet inaccessible to us, these things do make sense.
As Goethe’s Mephisto said: "I am part of that power which eternally wills evil and eternally works good.”
Again, that does not legitimize Mephisto’s schemes in any way: our current moral perspective is valid, because we have to master it first before we can move on.
This way of looking at things also avoids the New Age trap of “accepting everything.” God may accept everything, in a way we can’t yet understand; but we are not God.
Here’s another way of looking at it: some thinkers have maintained that we should look at contradictions not merely as opposing poles, but as two parts of a whole serving a purpose.3 For example, a bow has two opposing poles, but the very fact that there is tension between the poles allows something “higher” to emerge: the shooting of an arrow.
Similarly, good and evil, being and non-being, truth and lies, beauty and uglyness, might be considered as sort of an engine that propels us forwad if we use it correctly.
However, to built a bow, we must first understand both poles. We cannot simply say, let’s accept evil because it serves a purpose. We cannot use the bow without understanding both goodness and evil—and for that, we need to strive towards the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. Only then can we get a clearer picture, and gain the wisdom necessary to consciously use the opposing force as a growth engine.
Understanding morality, then, is a practical matter: we need to work it out in the midst of it. The objective moral order is implicit in an unfolding dynamic process and cannot be rigidly defined as a set of rules.
It is a mistake, therefore, to try to distinguish between genuine goodness and things we might consider good, but that aren’t really good in the final analysis (from God’s perspective), as some thinkers have attempted. We simply have no idea what ultimate goodness looks like. All we can do is honestly strive towards it, and gain new moral insights in the process.
A process, again, that unfolds along concrete, specific situations, each of which may look different, and not by coming up with rules, or thinking in hypothetical scenarios and imaginary moral dilemata.
So yes, God might be all-good. But we cannot just take what we, at our current state of being, consider to be good, multiply it times 100, and then think we know what absolute goodness looks like. And we cannot go to the other extreme and ignore what we, at our current level, know to be good, in favor of an “all-accepting” world-view that gives evil free reign.
3. God is all-knowing
In one important respect at least, God is not all-knowing.
Imagine a general on a hill, observing and commanding a battle. He knows exactly what is going on in the battle, and he can exert his influence by issuing commands.
Now contrast that with the perspective of the individual soldier: he does not really know what’s going on, except in his immediate surrounding. And he has much less influence on the battle than the general.
However, the soldier has a unique experience that the general has no access to: the experience of “what it’s like to fight that battle.” That is, there is additional information in the soldier’s mind, even though the general knows everything about the battle and the soldier knows very little.
Similarly, God may “know everything” in a sense, yet he doesn’t know “what it’s like to go through it” from our human perspective.
You might object that God is so all-knowing that he must be capable of knowing “what it’s like to experience everything” as well. But that is impossible, since God does not operate within our human constraints: his morality is way superior, his knowledge is way superior, his self-mastery is way superior. Hence to truly experience what we experience, he would have to cut himself loose and become a fragmented existence, just like us, and hence cease to be God. And maybe in some sense that’s what happens.
But a better way of formulating it might be that while God cannot know our experience, he can participate in it. For that to happen though, the experience must be there in the first place!
And for that, there need to be finite creatures. Like us.
That way, through the infinite variations of experience, an infinite amount of new knowledge is generated. God is the beacon of light, but via the process of attracting us to this light and the experience that goes along with it, he learns, too.
So, even leaving the question of Free Will aside, God’s knowledge is not complete, and even he keeps on learning.
So what about Free Will?
The least we could say is that free will serves as a catalyst for knowledge-generation. Our conscious and unconscious deliberations as to what to do, how to think, and so on, produce a powerful feedback loop between Reality and our decisions. By not being a mere observer, but an active force and an observer at the same time, we can test ideas and actions and get feedback from the world around us, and ultimately, from God.
This generates infinite variations of experience.
However, if God knew all our actions and decisions in advance, learning would be greatly diminished from his perspective. Assuming that learning and knowledge-generation are a part of God’s goal, it would make much more sense to create a free-will universe.
To my mind, the question is not whether we have free will or not (we obviously do have some degree of it), but how precisely it works, what its limits are, and how we might gain more of it.
In any event, I think it’s best to look at the problem of evil as it relates to God’s knowledge from the perspective of learning. God may know all the evil acts going on, but he does not know our experience—and as a consequence, how we define it, how we react to it, how we deal with it, how we let it fester, and how we learn to stop it, in our particular circumstances.
And maybe that’s the point.
Can We Say Anything about God?
So far, I have made it clear that I think we can’t just pretend God is like your average human being, only all-powerful, all-good, and all-knowing.
It is quite absurd if you think about it: given our experience with power, goodness, and knowledge, what would an infinite amount of these qualities look like? It is unknowable. The so-called classical attributes of God are a pure abstraction; they live in an imaginary void, decoupled from reality.
The question, then, is this: can we say anything at all about God, as I have done here?
Although we must be very careful indeed, I think it is possible and useful.
What we need is some kind of minimalist assumption as a starting point. Based on our own experience as thinking, living, and feeling beings faced with Reality, it is perhaps safe to say that there exist patterns and principles that are valid even on higher levels.
Hence the hermetic maxime, “as above, so below.”
And what unifies the reality we do know? Conscious experience.
Think about it: what humanity remembers is experience. On our deathbeds, we are looking back at our lives and extract the most potent experiences, good and bad, achievements and missed opportunities.
Any growth that happens in our lives is based on experience, generated by circumstances and the knowledge/attitude we bring to the situation. Other people, and other life in general, experience our impact, and so what we give to life (or take), our good and evil deeds, live on.
Even in biology, experience is passed on via genetics and other principles we only begin to understand.
In light of this, let’s look at something Alfred North Whitehead wrote about God and evil:
The revolts of destructive evil, purely self-regarding, are dismissed into their triviality of merely individual facts; and yet the good they did achieve in individual joy, in individual sorrow, in the introduction of needed contrast, is yet saved by its relation to the completed whole. The image—and it is but an image—the image under which this perative growth of God’s nature is best conceived, is that of a tender care that nothing be lost.
The consequent nature of God is his judgement on the world. He saves the world as it passes into the immediacy of his own life. It is the judgement of a tenderness which loses nothing that can be saved. It is also the judgement of a wisdom which uses what in the temporal world is mere wreckage.4
God loses nothing: he cares tenderly about preserving everything that can be saved. And that is experience. The evil in this world will perish; what will be saved is the bigger picture of experience generated, in part, by evil. This experience flows back to the Source, to God.
We will look back at our lives one day and, if we gained some wisdom, forget about the forces of evil that acted upon us; but we will always remember what it was like to go through it: the suffering, yes, but especially the transcendence of that suffering in the pursuit of something nobler, and the visceral knowledge gained in the process.
And so it is with God: he saves the experiences of this world, if they can be saved.
The most profound questions about evil remain:
What precisely is evil? How exactly does it operate? How to get away from it, grow out of it? What does it do to our minds, hearts, and souls? If we can learn something from dealing with it, how does this work in each specific situation?
In contrast, the “problem of evil” as traditionally formulated, seems to be entirely self-inflicted: it is based on extremely far-reaching claims and pretending that we have a firm grasp of concepts like perfect goodness, perfect power, or perfect knowledge.
This is the kind of over-abstract thinking that Iain McGilchrist described as left-hemisphere thinking. It leads to playing little games of logic, unhinged from experience, and then to concluding that God doesn’t exist—or, as a reaction, to defending the premises while getting entangled in irrational abstractions.
The God as he is often dreamed up to be in the context of these three premises might not exist; that’s all.
See David Ray Griffin, God Exists But Gawd Does Not: From Evil to New Atheism to Fine-Tuning, Process Century Press, 2016, p. 20ff
See R. G. Collingwood, Essay on Philosophical Method, Oxford At The Clarendon Press, 1933, p. 83 (Reprint by Martino Publishing, 2014)
Examples are discussed in Iain McGilchrist, The Matter With Things, Perspectiva Press, 2021, p. 813 ff.
Alfred North Whitehead, Process And Reality: An Essay in Cosmology, Free Press, 1985, p. 346
Thanks for reading. Subscribe for free to receive a new post every Sunday.