3 Arguments Concerning The Problem of Evil

The Problem of Pain probably isn’t the first title that comes to mind when people think of the author C. S. Lewis, but back in 1940, a decade before The Chronicles of Narnia, the erudite Brit was writing on pain and evil during a time when prisoners of war were being systematically worked to death, French villages were being blasted to rubble–destruction all around. The Problem of Pain runs the gambit of human woes to make sense of how an all-powerful, loving God could permit such atrocities, which, in short, constitutes the problem of evil. The following are 3 arguments concerning the problem of evil that Lewis covers in his 1940 volume. Note: This is intended to be a quick overview, and does not seek to provide a particular solution to the problem of evil aside from Lewis’s remarks. As far as solutions, hundreds and hundreds of books have been written on the subject with little consensus on the matter.

Simply Put: Good God, Bad World

1. If God is all-powerful and all-loving, then there should be no evil.

2. There is evil.

3. God is not (what we think God is).

This argument presents the classic problem of evil succinctly. Just to be clear, the conclusion does not entail that no divine creator exists, but it does challenge those who conceptualize God as all-loving or all-powerful. Perhaps the divine creator wants to intervene but cannot or perhaps the creator does not care, like a Greek deity indifferent to that affairs of humankind. However, for someone like Lewis, who does want to maintain that God is all-loving and all-powerful, is tasked with proving that God and evil can somehow coexist (to counter premise one) or that evil doesn’t exist outright (to counter premise two). This attempt to explain how God and evil can coexist is known as theodicy. To craft his theodicy, Lewis responds with two basic points: (1) What we mean by all-powerful is skewed AND (2) what we mean by all-loving is skewed.

Concerning divine omnipotence (all-powerfulness), Lewis contends that God can indeed do anything that is possible, but God need not do anything that is impossible, e.g. creating free creatures that don’t have free will, to remain omnipotent. Free will is the go-to response for why there exists evil in the world–humans cause it through their choices: choosing to steal instead of working hard, choosing to respond with violence instead of calmly talking something over. Since it would be impossible for God to give humans free will and also prevent them from being free, these problems persist even with an omnipotent God. Lewis entertains the notion that God might still intervene when humans choose evil, but, such intervention, he writes, negates free will.

We can perhaps, conceive of a world in which God corrected the results of this abuse of free will by His creatures at every moment: so that a wooden beam became soft as grass when it was used as a weapon. . . But such a world would be one in which wrong actions were impossible, and in which, therefore, freedom of the will would be void. (Problem of Pain 382).

By no means is this a solution, for God could still prevent the most extreme of evils and leave humans choice enough to do some lesser bad things. But the absence of extreme badness might jeopardize the presence of extreme goodness: without the evil of concentration camps, there would be no heroism for Schindler.  Extreme situations aside, Lewis’s point is that we must question what divine omnipotence means and whether we can really conceive of a possible world in which suffering does not exist.

Concerning divine benevolence (all-lovingness/goodness), Lewis essentially writes that we can’t confuse happiness with goodness. In the interest of our goodness, God might make us unhappy, just as parents might force their children to do things they don’t enjoy so that they will grow into good people. Suffering or pain, then, is God’s chisel which he uses to sculpt the marble of ourselves into beautiful statues worthy of love.

That might explain trials in our lives from which we emerge as better people, but what of evil that seems to improve no one at all? Is this the result of love? Lewis came face to face with this sort of evil when his wife (the Bronx-born writer Helen Joy  Gresham) succumbed to cancer, and, guess what? He wrote another book about it, A Grief Observed, which pours forth a torrent of emotion, pain, and questions about the suffering of losing a loved one. The solution, in part, is that God provides for us in the Kingdom of Heaven, and that reconciles the perceived evil on earth. The other part is that God must have a good reason for permitting even these kinds of evils that don’t seem to result from free will (childhood cancer, intense suffering before death that benefits no one). Maybe they make the good moments seem even more pure. Maybe they teach people as a whole about resilience and other powerful virtues. We just don’t know.

More Technical: The Logical Problem of Evil

1. God is an omnibenevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient being.

2. Evil exists.

3. There are no limits to what an omnipotent, omniscient being can do.

4.  An omnibenevolent being prevents evil as far as it can.

5. As an omnipotent being, there are no limits on what God can do. (1) and (3)

6. As an omnibenevolent being, God prevents evil as far as he can. (1) and (4)

7. As an omnipotent and omnibenevolent being, God prevents all evil. (5) and (6).

8. Evil does not exist.

9. Evil does and does not exist = contradiction

This argument essentially the same argument as the first, put spelled out a little more philosophically with the step ladder of premises: if God is all-loving, and all-powerful, wouldn’t he eliminate all evil or, heck, create a universe in which evil could have no chance of existing? Again, the problem here is that evil ought not to exist in a universe created by God as we understand Him.

To reformulate Lewis’ responses in premise form, he essentially replaces (3) with *There are no logical limits to what an omnipotent, omniscient being can do. *

More importantly, Lewis replaces (4) with *An omnibenevolent being prevents evil as far as he can, unless there is a good reason not to.* Effectively, this refigured premise negates premise (8), for evil can exist, so long as God has a good reason to permit it. Suddenly, there’s no contradiction, and the logical problem of evil falls flat.

What About Bambi (On Fire!!!)?

With the possibility of justified evil and God as we understand Him coexisting, the real problem of evil is whether there exists evil that simply cannot be justified, that seems to have no instructive, virtue-building, life-valuing purpose at all. Philosopher William Rowe formulates this problem of evil as follows:

1. If unjustified evil exists, God (omnibenevolent, omniscient, and omnipotent being) doesn’t exist.

2. Unjustified evil probably exists.

3. God probably doesn’t exist.

The inclusion of probably is important here because there are so many possible unjustified evils with so many possible explanations that Rowe intends to show only that it’s more likely that God would have no reason to permit evil.

While plenty of human evils can be explained by free will, natural evils pose a particular challenge when it comes to explaining how they could be justified:An earthquake flattening a city or a tsunami obliterating a power plant–all of the newsworthy horrors that leave common citizens agape. However, these events aren’t intrinsically evil. Only when people are caught in their path do we have any qualms. Maybe the blame can be cast on humans. However, Rowe’s prime example doesn’t involve humans at all, just senseless animal suffering. Consider a fawn caught in a forest fire–the whole Bambi predicament. The harmless creature does not die immediately, but lingers for days in horrific pain. Why doesn’t God relieve the poor woodland critter of its suffering?

For Lewis, the resolution stems from the other less-discussed quality of God, his omniscience. What we perceive as animal suffering might not be evil at all–it’s really all out of our intellectual grasp.

We must never allow the problem of animal suffering to become the centre of the problem of pain; not because it is unimportant. . . but because it is outside the range of our knowledge. God has given us data which enable us, in some degree, to understand our own suffering: He has given us no such data about beasts.

Here, Lewis strikes at the heart of the Rowe’s formulation–it expects that we as humans should have knowledge of God’s reasons for permitting evil. But God, as an all-knowing being, would necessarily possess a much greater capacity to know how evils that we perceive might be justified. Just because we can’t perceive of the reasons doesn’t mean they aren’t out there. That, in part, is what Lewis suggests: our limited knowledge, our lack of foresight, is the flaw here.

***

Whether or not there are good reasons for God to permit evil, the suffering and pain remains. While I find these formulations fascinating, I don’t expect people who have endured the loss of loved ones or struggle though disease ad injury to think, “hmm. I guess God has His reasons. I ought not to complain.” In my mind, the problem of evil is not so much a problem with God’s benevolence as it is a problem with our ability to endure evil. Believing that pain shapes us, as Lewis does, and hoping that the greatest of sufferings will be alleviated  in God’s Kingdom. These things cultivate a spirit of optimism that eases the burden of suffering that we will inevitably endure.

Cum Caritate,

CDUCEY2013

Video for Those Who Prefer not to Read but Also Prefer to Be Frequently Confused and to Spend Time, Which Could Be Better Spent Baking, Cleaning, and Singing, Scrolling Through the Youtube Seeker Function Only to Find that Buffering Means Waiting an Additional Stretch of Time, Which Could Be Better Spent Baking, Cleaning, and Singing (Which Come to Think of It Are not Activities that Necessarily Should Be Undertaken Simultaneously, Lest One Wants One’s Lemon Meringue to Actually Taste Like Lemon-Scented Pledge)–and, By the Way, It’s 26 Minutes Long

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2 thoughts on “3 Arguments Concerning The Problem of Evil

  1. This is a good breakdown of the problem of evil. I really like the Bambi picture.

    One thing that I would like to point out is the idea of omnipotence. You say, “Concerning divine omnipotence (all-powerfulness), Lewis contends that God can indeed do anything that is possible, but God need not do anything that is impossible.” Are you saying that God could do something that is impossible, but he doesn’t need to?

    I think the conflict of omnipotence and evil can be resolved by having a proper understanding of the word “omnipotence.” Some people assume that if God is omnipotent, that means that he can do anything that we might think of. Therefore, one might object by asking the question, “can God create a rock bigger than he can lift?” This question is a meaningless contradiction. It is literally asking, “can God do something he can’t do?” The answer is no. Not that God isn’t all powerful, but the statement is meaningless. This would fit under the philosophical principle of the law of non-contradiction (something cannot both be and not be in the same sense at the same time).

    The problem lies within the definition of “omnipotence.” It does not mean the power to do any action that comes to mind, but it means the power to do anything that is possible. This works with what you point out that it would be impossible for God to create free creatures, but then to prevent them from being free by denying their evil decisions. Good post.

    • Thank you for the explanation, Chad. You articulated Lewis’ essential argument, which got a little lost in my own wording: yes, God’s omnipotence entails that God can do any possible task. When I wrote that God need not perform impossible tasks to remain omnipotent, I just meant that performing impossible tasks is not a necessary condition for omnipotence. As Aquinas writes and Lewis quotes, “Nothing which implies contradiction falls under the omnipotence of God.” Asking God to perform an impossible task, such as creating a two-sided triangle, is just non-sense and doesn’t challenge God’s omnipotence.

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