Friday, January 12, 2007

Do you believe that evil serves the greater good?

David Hume: “Is [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence is evil?” [1]

In his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Hume presented what is widely considered to be the classical formulation of the Problem of Evil. The Problem of Evil addresses the question: "How is the existence of evil compatible with an omnipotent, omniscient, and omni-benevolent God?" Christian philosophers and theologians have posited a variety of different theodicies over the centuries to explain the paradox that arises from the fact of God's existence and the fact of evil's existence. The Greater-Good theodicy (G-G) is one such explanation.

When confronted with the questions "Why does evil exist?" and "What purpose does evil serve in God's creation?", many people will respond with something like the following: Evil serves the greater good, which is to say that God only allows evils that will result in the occurrence of a good that is greater than the evil in question. William Rowe, a self-professed atheist, stated the G-G theodicy in this way: "God would prevent the occurrence of any intense suffering He could, unless He could not do so without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse." You will no doubt notice that Rowe added the stipulation that God might also allow an evil as long as it is equivalent to any other evil that might occur at that moment or to prevent a worse evil from occurring. In other words, God might allow a beating if it would prevent a murder. Proponents of the G-G theodicy often quote passages of Scripture in support of their position. The two passages that I most often hear are Gen. 50:20, "As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result..." (NASB) and Rom. 8:28, "And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose." (NASB)

Personally, I am not a proponent of the G-G theodicy, and it is my intention to explain why. I think there are some very serious problems that arise when one approaches the issue from the greater good perspective; problems that are fatal to the theodicy as a whole. Because I am not trying to give a complete exposition of the G-G theodicy, and because I don't want this post to be overly lengthy, I will focus on my top three objections to the G-G Theodicy:

1. The G-G theodicy makes the actualization of certain evils a necessary pre-condition for the actualization of certain goods. Consider a situation where there might be at least two ways for God to actualize a certain state of affairs, S. Suppose that in one way he can actualize S by first actualizing a really good state of affairs that leads to S. In another, he can actualize a really bad state of affairs that leads to S. Face with these two options, doesn't it seem intuitive given what we know about the nature of God that He would choose option 1? Why would God use evil to bring about S when he could just as easily use good? What I am trying to convey here is the notion that if God uses some evil to bring about a good state of affairs, then that evil must be necessary in order to bring about that state of affairs. I think that we can only conclude that God is unable to actualize certain states of affairs without using evil, for if He could, He would qualify as a sadist. This places a limitation on God that I am not prepared to concede. Moreover, I have difficulty believing that any really good states of affairs owe their actualization to any really evil states of affairs.

2. The G-G theodicy does not account for certain instances of intense suffering that seem to be obviously gratuitous. In his attack on theism, Rowe cites the case of Sue as a possible instance of gratuitous evil. Sue was a five year old girl who was raped, brutally beaten, and then strangled to death on New Year's Day, 1986. Rowe's contention is that Sue's situation was an example of evil and suffering above and beyond that which was necessary to bring about any greater good. The degree to which Sue suffered was, in effect, overkill and therefore purposeless. If Sue's death was necessary to bring about a greater good, then surely she could have simply been shot in the head and died immediately rather than suffering the rape, beating, and strangulation. Moreover, if a greater good did actually occur, then who experienced it? Certainly not Sue who is now dead; her last earthly experience being the hands of a murderer clutching her neck and choking the life out of her. As Rowe contends, even if you could demonstrate the greater good that obtained in this case, you would be hard-pressed to demonstrate it for every horrific act of violence perpetrated against man and animals. This brings me to the third and final criticism of the G-G theodicy.

3. Quite often, proponents of the G-G theodicy expect the theory to be taken at face value due to their inability to answer the key question: What greater good state of affairs obtained as a result of this particular evil? When faced with this question, proponents of the G-G theodicy are often at a loss to provide a satisfactory answer. What greater-good came about as the result of Hitler's murdering 6 million Jews? Could God not have brought about the same good with only 5,999,999 deaths rather than 6 million? Wouldn't that be better?

In closing, please remember that I am not denying God's ability to make the best of a bad situation. As in the Joseph narrative, I believe that God can actualize good states of affairs in spite of the bad ones. I am simply denying that He intentionally uses evil states of affairs for the purpose of actualizing better ones. When one looks at the Problem of Evil through the lens of a G-G theodicy, evil appears to be a tool that God uses to accomplish His holy purposes; purposes He can only achieve by using evil. This is an idea that I have a very difficult time accepting, and an idea which I do not think that Scripture teaches.

[1] David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1989), 84.


Raborn Johnson said...

Excellent post! Well said. I was sent a link to this post by Alan Knox in the comments section of a post I just wrote earlier today, "Believing The Best About God". Great to hear some concurring voices on this subject. I am so tired of hearing of fatal car crashes, diseases, and even hurricane Katrina explained as being "God's will". It's refreshing to read someone's writing who seems to believe better things about our loving Father!

Anonymous said...

I feel that God has put us here on this planet to learn and grow, kinda like from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. I think he knew what would happen there. Just like any good father would know how there kids might behave any a given situation. So we are hear to learn and to choose right from wrong and to learn how to deal with all things we experience. We are free to choose right from wrong just as a kid in class is free to chose the right or wrong answer. Without evil we would not really have a choice. I don't think God "uses" evil per say , but in essence we are cut lose here and with the exception of divine intervention, we are left to chose right from wrong and deal with what ever happens "by chance" in whatever way we chose.