Mrs Scales has retired

To the readers of this site, Mrs Scales retired in 2017. She is enjoying her retirement by travelling around the world, gardening and playing (too much) Wii frisbee golf.

This site will remain online for many more years but no additional content will be added in the foreseeable future.

January 2010 Exam Question with Answer

2(a) (i) What may the problem of suffering signify to a religious believer. Examine one solution to this problem. [21]

The problem of evil and suffering is a major stumbling block to any person of faith but particularly to a member of the Abrahamic faiths. Since a key belief is that God has three main characteristics: omnipotence, omniscience and omnibenevolence it would seem illogical that this kind of God and evil could both exist. Indeed even Aquinas regarded it as completely logical that ‘there is evil in the world; therefore God does not exist,’ even though he didn’t believe this conclusion he could see how others could. Or as David Hume suggested: ‘either God is not omnipotent or he is not omnibenevolent or evil does not exist’; evil does exist therefore God cannot, in his opinion. To put it simply the problem is this: how if God is good can he possibly allow suffering to occur?

One of the solutions put forward to attempt to explain how God and evil can both exist was put forward by St Augustine. In his theodicy he argued that the world must have been created perfectly since after each day of creation ‘God saw that it was good.’ In his view therefore evil must have come about through that first act of disobedience of Adam and Eve and as a result all suffering stems from that ‘original sin.’ In addition he suggested that evil wasn’t so much a thing as an absence of something, in this case, of good.

He went on to say that man had been created ‘in the likeness’ of God [Gen 1:27] but that like God he had been created with autonomy i.e. the freedom to make choices; his desire to choose wrong and continue to choose wrong is what has lead to all evil whether it be moral or natural. Fortunately for mankind God foresaw this possibility and gave man a second chance by sending his son Jesus to redeem us from our sins therefore all who accept Jesus’ sacrifice, and gift, can gain access to heaven, while those who reject this final offer will go to hell.

While there are strengths to this solution for example the idea that we are responsible for our own destinies or that suffering is a direct consequence of someone’s sin, even if not our own, and it does seem to make the presence of evil not an original part of God’s creation, overall it does not answer some of the most basic questions. Such as: evil clearly occurs and is not simply a matter of something good not happening, so where did this come from if not from God? Also we know that natural evil has been occurring since the creation of the earth and to blame it on Adam and Eve’s sin is unscientific. Also although the idea of Jesus’ sacrifice is generous of God what about all those who died before or without knowing of this gift of salvation? Plus what kind of God not only punishes those who committed that first sin but every generation thereafter or creates a place like hell for the irredeemable to go to?

So if this isn’t a good solution is there a better one?

(ii) Comment on the view that an alternative solution to that examined in part (i) offers a better response. [9]

Another famous attempt at a solution is that proffered by Irenaeus. Living in the second century AD his theodicy seems rather more modern. He suggests that although God created man in his ‘own image after [his] likeness’ [Gen 1:26] what this meant was that man had the potential to grow into God’s likeness but that he had to have true autonomy and make the right choices in order to grow and develop into his potential like a musician has to practice to become great. Irenaeus regarded earth and life on it as a ‘vale of soul making’ wherein like a good sword is refined in the heat of the fire, so humans must become great and noble through hardship, suffering and practice. Because of this Irenaeus’s solution is a developmental or evolutionary one since it allows for both the natural and moral evil to be forces for good in the end; encouraging moral fortitude, charity and altruistic characteristics. And ultimately, in his view, the reward is that everyone will go to heaven even those who may not at first seem worthy of the gift, they may have to refine their souls in purgatory but in the end all will be rewarded. After al he said ‘how if we had no knowledge to the contrary could we have instruction in that which is good?

One of the most understandable aspects of Irenaeus’s idea is that of the ‘epistemic distance’ that God is honour bound to keep. This is the fact that God cannot intervene in mankind’s history in order to prevent even the worst atrocities because he has given man true free will. This then makes us all responsible for doing the right thing and makes us more accountable for evil doings by everyone. No longer can we stand by and let others do or say something, we must all accept our collective responsibilities. As Swinburne put it ‘a situation of temptation with infinite chance sis no situation of temptation at all.’ Things have to be allowed to go wrong.

However although this theodicy has many merits such as the value of free-will and an understanding that evil does indeed have a purpose which can even lead to good, one can wonder if the ends really do justify the means? And can the suffering of so many e.g. in the holocaust, really be a lesson to learn from? Plus there are many who seem not to suffer at all despite long lives of crime. How can a good God allow these miscarriages of justice to occur? Even the idea that evil can lead to good is misguided because as many are embittered and dehumanised by their suffering as are refined and learn by it.

Ultimately it is obvious that neither of these solutions really stands up to close scrutiny; both have strengths and both have their weaknesses but neither is of any comfort to someone who is actually suffering. In addition the faith of a believer is unlikely to be shaken even in the direst of circumstances like Job in the Bible who lost everything except his belief that God loved him. In such cases the problem is no longer a problem, but for the atheist the problem has not been surmounted. It has not been and cannot be, explained to his satisfaction – but then, this is the nature of faith.

To give Swinburne the last word ‘… 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.