Evil and Suffering a sample answer

a) For what reasons may suffering cause philosophical problems for a religious believer? [10]

The most major hurdle any religious believer has to overcome, when his faith is criticised by a non-believer, is that of the existence of evil in the world and the fact of suffering. It does not seem to fit with the idea of a God who is good.

Classical theism has defined God as having three essential attributes: first that He is omnipotent, that is that He is all powerful; second that He is omniscient: that is that He is all-knowing and third that He is omni benevolent: that is that He is all-good. God to be God has to be the embodiment of these three characteristics.

The classical argument against the existence of God has been defined by David Hume: ‘Either God cannot destroy evil, or he will not. If he cannot, he is not all-powerful and if he will not, he is not all-loving.’ And if God is not one of these attributes then he is not the God of classical theism and does not exist.

Even Thomas Aquinas agreed that it was logical to conclude that, ‘There is evil in the world, therefore God does not exist,’ even if he himself did not accept the conclusion.

The trouble with the problem of evil and suffering is that it challenges the nature of God and as Swinburne has said a believer must have a satisfactory answer or his faith is ‘less than rational‘. Yet Anthony Flew in his critique, ‘The Death by a thousand qualifications’ scathingly suggests that in qualifying their faith believers diminish God, make him less than he must be, that they remake God’s nature rather than accept that there is a serious problem here. There is a conflict that must be reconciled. Evil does exist so what does this say about God?

Part of the problem lies in the fact that two types of evil exist: moral – manmade evil, including all those barbarous acts perpetrated by man upon others and natural – including all those random acts of devastation, earthquakes, floods, famine which are not (usually) directly caused by man’s actions. A believer needs to try to work out why God does not remove suffering when he could or even should e.g. the 6,000,000 Jews who died in the Holocaust; why this world contains the possibility of death through other causes and why this God is still worthy of worship.


b) Outline TWO solutions to this problem and comment on their success. [10]

To answer the above problem theodicies have been developed which are attempts to justify both the existence of God and the existence of evil. They suggest that there must be very good reasons why God does allow suffering to occur and evil to exist.

Augustine‘s theodicy stems from his belief that evil arose out of man’s abuse of the free-will God gave him on creation. Man disobeyed God and as a consequence of that sin all evil stems. After all in the creation story each thing God created, he looked at and ‘saw that it was good,’ therefore this suggests that the evil wasn’t there in the first place. And if God didn’t create it then it can only have come from the only beings created who had free-will. Importantly he also sees that evil isn’t so much a thing as an absence of it, i.e. a lack of goodness.

The emphasis in Augustine’s view is on man being made a truly free agent and choosing to do the wrong thing. Evil therefore wasn’t made by God although he foresaw its arrival as the result of man’s wrong choice, but only by giving man that free choice could man make a true choice to love and obey God, just as in Peter Vardy‘s analogy of the King and the Peasant Girl, where the king chooses not to force her to marry him but instead to woo her so that her decision to love him will be genuine.

Of course there are some problems with this view. For example JL Mackie felt that God could have made beings who would have chosen right and yet been truly free but John Hick rejected this on the basis that they’d still be little better than robots.

Another is that this view doesn’t take account of evolutionary theory wherein we have only got where we are today through selfishness, survival of the fittest. Evolutionary theory isn’t wholly proven but even so it is eminently clear that the world has never been a perfect place – man doesn’t predate volcanic eruption or earthquake movement so certainly can’t be held responsible for the suffering caused by those!

Does it also fit with a loving God that all mankind are tainted by the original sin of Adam and Eve and that ultimately those making the wrong choices out of free-will will suffer eternal torment in Hell? How can a good God create a place like hell? Perhaps Irenaeus‘s theodicy might give us a better answer.

The thrust of his argument is that God didn’t make either us or the world a perfect place, this theodicy acknowledges that without free will we would be nought but robots, so we were created imperfect in order to grow into God’s likeness, rather than made in it as in the Genesis story. The world also had to be imperfect in order to give us the chances for making choices. If the world were perfect then there would be no choices to make and no harm could occur; we even had to be created as finite beings because immortality would mean no choice however bad would ever be permanent or result in actual harm.

All this seems very harsh but as Irenaeus said the world is a ‘vale for soul making.’ We will develop eventually, if we make the right choices, into the perfect beings but we must have the genuine opportunities to make the wrong choices. Evil; can therefore be beneficial in enabling us to understand what good is: ‘How if we had no knowledge of the contrary could we have instruction in that which is good.’

One real positive aspect of this argument is that our choices count and believers must stand up and be counted; we can make a real difference and must not let apathy replace our decision making but on the negative side one wonders whether the ends can justify the means in this case; for example can the suffering of the six million Jews ever be justified or reconciled with a God who is good?

As Swinburne concluded, ‘a generous God will seek to give us great responsibility…to make our lives valuable…The problem is that he cannot …without allowing much evil on the way.’
This answers the problem of why God doesn’t intervene; he cannot without removing our free-will. So ultimately we must take responsibility for the Holocaust which is probably only right and proper!

To conclude as Bishop Richard Harries said: ‘so far as we can see – this world where we are vulnerable and prone to accident is the only world there could be for the emergence of beings with and genuine freedom of choice in relation to God and one another.’


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