2002 – Evil and suffering answer

a) Outline the reasons why some beliefs about God mean that suffering poses problems for religious believers. [7]

The existence of evil and suffering is probably the single biggest obstacle to faith for religious believers. The problem is that it is very hard to justify the existence of God in the face of so much suffering and evil. It would appear easy for the objector to claim that any God worthy of worship would surely not allow his creation to suffer; how can suffering be an expression of love?

The essence of the problem lies in the classical definition of God as omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent. This problem identified by Aquinas, among others, clearly suggests that if God is all loving he should want to remove suffering: if He does not then he is malevolent (has evil intentions) and if He cannot He is all not all-powerful. If He is all knowing He must know of mankind’s evil actions and his suffering and therefore His failure to act implies his ignorance.

As a result a theist is left with a dilemma – whether to believe in God despite the incontrovertible evidence that evil exists or to qualify their understanding of God to fit the evidence?

Atheists like Hume surmised that all three attributes of God could not co-exist. He put it like this: either God is not omnipotent or He is not omni benevolent or evil does not exist. Since, as stated earlier, evil indubitably exists then God is either dead or does not exist. Even Aquinas saw the logic of this position expressed in this way, however he disagreed with the premises of Hume‘s argument and suggested that the argument only really works if part of the definition of God is the concept of infinite goodness and also that God’s goodness is of the same quality as humans goodness. If we can accept that God’s idea of goodness may be different from ours perhaps his allowance of evil may have a reason that we just are too limited, as Hume himself argued, to understand!

Logical Positivists would have objected to this position on the grounds that a believer will continue to believe no matter what the evidence but that God dies the death of ‘a thousand qualifications‘ and the God that is left is as good as no God at all.


b) Examine and comment on the success or otherwise of any two theodicies. [13]

To answer this criticism various theodicies, or explanations for why God might allow evil and suffering to persist, were developed.

Augustine‘s is centred around the Biblical evidence that God created the earth and everything on it ‘perfect’. This is based on the Genesis account of creation in which after each day’s work God ‘saw that it was good.’ Made in the ‘likeness’ of God, man was given the same moral autonomy as God and Augustine believed that it was man’s sin, in the form of the disobedience of Adam and Eve, that consequently led to all moral as well as natural evil. In the absence of any better explanation it is easy to see why this theodicy held sway for so many years but in more recent years evolutionary theory has led to a reappraisal and we cannot, today, accept that this ‘original sin’ could possibly have been the cause of natural evils such as earthquakes and floods as we now know for sure that these natural events predate man’s arrival upon the scene by many millennia. Moral evil on the other hand, particularly to a fundamentalist believer could possibly be excused on this basis, except that that same biological evidence has made it quite clear that we were not all descended from Adam and Eve and therefore could not have been ‘seminally present in Adam’.

In addition objectors would certainly argue that a weakness is that the Biblical account is self-contradictory in that it states that God created out of nothing. If there was nothing there and God created everything that is then it is logical to assume that God created evil too. But Augustine has an answer to this; he regards evil as not so much a thing but rather an absence of good and as such it was not created and therefore God cannot be held to blame. Again, evil was not part of God’s original plan but it has been turned to advantage by giving the opportunity for redemption through belief in Christ. This is a real strength of Augustine’s theodicy because it allows for evil and God to co-exist but for there to be a real redemptive purpose to suffering.

strength is that man is made clearly responsible for, at least, much of the suffering that occurs on the planet and is given a reason to work to alleviate it. However, salvation for the ‘few’ who believe in Jesus is unrealistic since it takes no account of other faiths and in particular those who die before the birth of Jesus.

Irenaeus propounded another theodicy. Where Augustine‘s idea had been that this life was for the purpose of soul-deciding; that is that the moral choices we make in this life are those which govern whether we go to heaven or not, Irenaeus saw this world as a ‘vale of soul-making.’ He believed that this world was not created perfect but perfectly created to develop our souls so as to gradually grow to be like God through the choices we make between good and evil every day. After all as he said, ‘How if we had no knowledge to the contrary could we have instruction in that which is good?’

As such evolutionary theory is able to fit right into this. Evolution and its tenets of survival of the fittest and adaptation to the environment can help to explain why there is so much evil and suffering in the world, although one of the weaknesses of his theory is the sheer scale of suffering, like the holocaust. But at least it does suggest that out of evil can come good and sufferers don’t have to feel that suffering is completely random, that there is purpose to it. One of these is to enable virtues like honour, justice, loyalty and altruism to arise, all traits which are not only unnecessary to survival but potentially fatal to survival.

One of the
strengths of this theodicy is that it puts the responsibility squarely upon man’s shoulders and explains why God remains at an epistemic distance such that we cannot know him directly and why he does not intervene to remove suffering – he cannot. Not and allow us true free will.

Another of Irenaeus‘ assertions is the necessity of heaven for all, which while it may be reassuring to those of us who fail daily to be perfect is perhaps a little too generous; after all most of us may not think someone like Hitler deserves a place! Furthermore, the detractors would argue that many evil people don’t suffer and many sufferers are dehumanised and embittered by the experience even to losing their faith.

Overall Augustine‘s does not seem to have stood the test of time; evolutionary theory is a severe test of it as is the apparent unfairness of the idea of all humanity being tainted with ‘original sin.’ What kind of God would conceive of Hell to punish His creation for making their free choice not to believe in Him? As Peter Vardy suggested in his parable of The King and The Peasant Girl: God has allowed man to make his choice freely and He now has to abide by that.

Irenaeuson the other hand, while being flexible enough to allow for more modern scientific understanding, still does not explain the overall unfairness of suffering. Perhaps from an objective point of view we might accept that it is all part of God’s plan, which we cannot hope to understand, but which will ultimately result in the end of all evil and suffering as we progress to final perfection in heaven, but to anyone acquainted with suffering at first hand, to the millions affected by the Boxing Day 2004 Tsunami, the Asian Quake of 2005, the on-going conflict in Iraq or the victims of crime of various sorts, it is cold comfort. Neither of these so called justifications or explanations really fully help us to understand why God exists and so does evil – do we change our view of God or cling blindly to faith in Him and His as yet unknown plans for us and our lives? But any theist must give this problem due consideration or be guilty of irrationality.



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