Evil persists (for a while) so that it can be overcome
A reflection on theodicy, our defenses, violence, freedom, and the God who holds us in Being
Why is this article happening to you?
This is a fair question, and one that I can’t fully answer for you. But maybe this introduction will help a bit.
This article is, in one immediate sense, a follow-up to this one on the meanings of freedom, and how they relate to the problem of evil. There, I show why there’s a lot to be said for understanding freedom like this: free agents are embedded in relationships that give them choices among goods that they can actually achieve. It’s a short sentence, but each clause holds solutions to volumes of problems. So maybe that’s part of why you’re here?
Or maybe you raised some argument that I’ve heard hundreds of times and this article addresses it pretty directly, so I sent it to you. Maybe you are an atheist who is convinced that the problem of evil makes belief in God absurd. You might also think that the traditional Christian response that it is all for the sake of freedom doesn’t really withstand an appropriate level of scrutiny. If so, thanks. I hold your traditional atheist views. They are an important part of this discussion.
But maybe you’re a Christian who thinks that God must let us be free to suffer endlessly in sin, and without this claim one would become an atheist. If so, thanks. I hold your traditional Christian views. They are an important part of this discussion.
I hold both positions, and more. But wait, how can I hold two contradictory (oppositional, though not logically contradictory) positions? Because I don’t hold either claim like a warrior defensively holding ground, which is how we often seem to think of “holding a position” in these contexts. Don’t imagine this as a fight. How strange, to imagine discourse as a fight.
Instead, sometimes I hold up the atheist complaint so that I can slip some olives underneath, and then I set it back down so that it can press the oil out. The oil you’ll find here is what gets pressed out when the rock of that time-honored Christian tradition rests under the pressure of that time-honored atheist tradition. In this sense my mechanism contains (holds) both stones, holding them like a set that has both inside of it. This lets me make good use of both. I find this much more pleasant than being stuck in an endless and unproductive fight, lodged between a rock and a hard place.
So maybe this article is happening to you because you’ve asked me a question, or have leveled a traditional Christian or atheist accusation against me, and I’m grateful for it. One thing that can be said for predictable behavior is that it is predictable.
Or in a third immediate sense, I wrote this so I don’t have to type the same things over, and over, and over, and over, and over again. It’s hardly fair to you that I often feel impatient because I’m tired of repeating myself. Here, digitally frozen in form and so indefinitely reproducible, I can more easily be a more patient version of myself: this medium, at least, can seem eager and grateful for each question … even the ones I’ve hoisted up and set down so many times that their surface is warmed and smooth with the fresh memory of seasons preserved.
The problem of particular evils and The Problem of Evil
How could a good, all-powerful and loving God allow there to be a universe like ours, one that is so rich in heinous evil and suffering? This is the problem of evil.
Among plenty of Christian theologians, as well as many critics of Christian theology, there’s an overriding conviction that the wise only offer the most partial and tentative responses to this question. If they answer at all.
In one sense, I embrace this wisdom. Pastorally and in everyday relationships, even when people are talking about the problem of evil, they often need lived solidarity and friendship. Frequently they don’t really need a philosophical answer to the problem of evil. So it’s usually wiser, by far, to fight and pray and weep than to philosophize them to sleep.
On top of this, this wisdom reflects the fact that the most common Christian answers (evil exists so there can be freedom, and evil exists to teach us a lesson and form our souls) are catastrophically unsatisfying on their own. Often, evil constrains freedom in the most horrific ways. How can a good God constrain freedom because freedom is of such radical and ultimate importance? Also, evil routinely seems to warp our souls. Abuse seems to play a substantial role in fostering personality disorders which then feed into cycles of abuse. How can the formation of souls be served by something that routinely and systematically deforms them? Part of the trouble is that our most popular theodicies are easily pierced by simple observations, and so rigorous Christian apologists have generally backed away from what they term, “the evidential problem of evil”. In other words, they surrender in the face of a bit of empirical (and perhaps inquisitorially imperial) investigation and retreat to a more constrained effort, one that would at least show the common responses to be defensible in the sense that they are internally logically coherent, based on priors that aren’t absurd on their face. This is a very weak hand that the apologists are holding, and if you’re holding a weak hand it probably is best to just fold.
So maybe there’s some truth to these common theodicies, but they still can’t possibly explain all of the evils we see because so many of the evils we can observe plainly undermine the supposed goal. Clever children have been noticing this, and then feeling isolated from their religious communities because others seem to be unable to see the obvious, for a very long time.
Extremely intelligent people like Alvin Plantinga expend enormous effort trying to construct even a minimal defense of these claims: the order of the day among people who try to discuss this seriously is to argue that at least the claims aren’t obviously incoherent on their face. These efforts have helped prove that Alvin Plantinga is very good at analyzing logical models. Some people have even been convinced of the extremely narrow and minimal points he has made with extreme rigor. So if you spend a lot of time working through it all, you might be able to say something like this with a certain measure of intellectual authority, “Alvin Plantinga shows how a free will defense against the problem of evil is internally coherent. So that’s something.” Now is this the sort of thing you say to someone whose mother has just died after slipping into horrifying dementia when they turn to you and ask, in anguish, “How could God have let this happen?” How do you suppose that lands after they’ve watched in agony as this precious soul’s personality slipped away, after the whole family system was brutalized by the horror of watching a confused paranoia slowly smother the one who gave them life? They may, at least, have the enormous fortitude that is required to politely nod instead of screaming at you. In situations like this, or if you happen to live in a world like ours where the Shoah and many other genocides have occurred, then discretion is the far better part of valor.
If that’s where you’re at, I’m not going to rush in with any easy answers, which also suffer from how powerfully they enable bypassing. If you need someone to grieve with you, or to otherwise join you in the work of surviving and resisting evil, what really matters is that people join you in this grievous work. We always need more than consolation, especially the small consolations of philosophy, such as they are.
Every once in a great while, the problem someone is dealing with is not some particular evil. At least once or twice in the history of the world, I suspect that someone really was mainly wrestling with the philosophical problem of evil itself. In these cases, the grievous work at hand really is philosophy of religion, or theology. The rest of this article is written for those freakishly unusual situations.
Will I sound too casual about the reality of suffering and evil? I’m afraid I will, at least to some ears. The little that I can do to soften how grating this will sometimes sound is to clarify that my approach is rooted in an overriding desire to orient us all to the work of overcoming evil. The clarity and simplicity of this response, then, is not a strategy for trivializing or bypassing the real problems of particular evils. Just the opposite: my hope is that if I manage to show the philosophical problem of evil to be surprisingly simple to resolve, as philosophy, that this can help prevent us from bypassing the real work at hand. Too often, I think, work on the philosophical problem of evil falls into the same kind of bypassing that a lot of the easy answers provide: instead of joining in the work of overcoming evil, at least by coping with it together for now, we can also sit and wring our hands oh-so-very-seriously over the philosophy. Performing our own seriousness about the insuperability of the problem of evil is also, I suspect, prone to the same problems that the other answers suffer: it, too, is a shoddy substitute for the real work in front of us.
With that, let’s rush in.
A surprisingly powerful, simple, and generative response to the problem of evil
I don’t mean to bury the lede here. In fact, I’m mostly just going to repeat the title of this article. It happens to be the heart of the philosophical response to the philosophical problem of evil that I’m advocating. I’ll even give our discussion a touch of formality, to help everyone save space in any discussions of the few core claims here. This makes it easier to constructively critique the argument, or to fail to do so.
This is the core claim:
(O) A truly good God could allow evil to persist (for a limited time) so that it can be completely overcome.
The range of priors (definitions, assumptions, context and background) here are enormous, but I’d like to draw out two possible prior claims that warrant special attention and scrutiny in our context:
(GG) It can be good to allow a temporary evil if the primary intention is to serve a greater good, and the evil is an unavoidable secondary effect of the primary objective.
(This sort of double-effect greater good argument is common in these discussions. On multiple levels, it carefully avoids implying that the ends justify the means, even as it allows for the sort of moral complexity that characterizes all kinds of real moral dilemmas and situations in life.)
(O>∅) A universe in which evil has been completely overcome is better than one in which it never existed.
(The implication is that there’s something good about the process of overcoming evil itself. The point of the argument is that a state in which evil has been completely overcome is a good that can only logically be realized if evil is allowed to persist for a limited time before being ultimately defeated/overcome.)
I won’t lay out all of the logic here, a task that I think is strictly impossible. I also won’t explore the semantic range of the language here in much depth. I will register that I personally think that (O>∅) is morally compelling, and that thinking about this does help encourage me in my own practical work. Others might respectfully disagree, and I respect that in turn. However, I don’t think (O>∅) can be credibly ridiculed, which makes it substantially better than it’s main rivals. If someone grants it, the rest is really pretty darn tight: if (O>∅) and (GG), then (O).
In fact, (O>∅) deliberately takes on more than (O) requires. For example, someone might also hold that a universe in which evil has been completely overcome is just as good as one in which it never existed. Or they might argue that a multiverse containing both types is at least as good as one that doesn’t. These would also lead to (O). Some of these softened positions would also allow sin to be a matter of divine indifference, at least temporarily: in other words, it would articulate a logically coherent way for God to be truly free with respect to temporal evils, allowing created beings to temporarily fall, or not, depending on their choices.
I’ve deliberately tried to hold more than (O) needs for a variety of reasons. One of them is that this allows us to theologically articulate a logical domain of grace that exceeds what would be comprehensible, defensible and logically possible for God to permit. Another is that it is nice to prove more than is needed, to demonstrate the full strength of the argument. It isn’t hard to do a little bit more than is needed, so why not? Imagine a world where theodicy can easily do more than it needs. I think that’s the world we inhabit.
The logic here could all be bolted down a lot more, but today I’ll mainly explore the broader implications of this argument. In what remains of this article I’ll address some common objections and misconceptions. Then I’ll articulate more about why this matters and how it fits into theology and the philosophy of religion more broadly. This can then provide an outline for further work on both the core argument itself and its implications.
Common Objections and Responses
Doesn’t this imply that we should also create evils so they might be overcome?
Not necessarily: it might only imply that we should allow free beings to make mistakes. But furthermore, even that only really applies if we happen to be perfectly omnipotent beings who can guarantee that the end of overcoming evil will be achieved (possibly in a variety of ways).
The overcoming theodicy nicely explains why God’s power puts God in a different moral category than us on this question: because God alone can guarantee that any evil that is temporarily permitted to persist will be overcome.
Where’s the evidence?
What would constitute evidence for this theory, and what would constitute counter-evidence for it? Unlike freedom and soul formation theodicies, we can’t point to evidence of a process that seems to contradict this: we can’t point to an evil being completely overcome in a way that produces more evil, because that would imply that the evil wasn’t completely overcome.
Ultimately, the claim can only be evidentially proven or disproven from the standpoint of a completed universe. In this sense, it doesn’t meet a criterion that some people claim is needed for science: i.e., although it is subject to evidential evaluation in principle, we can’t evidentially prove or disprove it from our vantage point right now.
However, this just clearly illustrates that the problem here isn’t with the answer but with the question. We have chosen to work on a question that can’t be satisfyingly answered with the evidence available to us. This nicely explains why the question warrants epistemic humility. It isn’t that we aren’t allowed to inquire. We are allowed, and we should explore this topic. It’s just that inquiry shows that the question lies beyond the limits of evidential determination until the universe is complete.
Is this position opposed to freedom and soul formation theodicies and defenses?
No. The overcoming theodicy holds forms of these theodicies within itself, like “color” holds both “green” and “blue”. After all, freedom overcomes the particular evil of unfreedom and soul formation overcomes the particular evil of soul malformation, and both may have their own more narrow secondary effects.
However, if the overcoming theodicy is taken to hold these other approaches, then it explicitly articulates a teleological generality that is otherwise lacking from some forms of these arguments. In other words, it helps sharpen the point of these other arguments. Far from competing with them, it completes them.
Why couldn’t God create a cosmos in which evil is completely overcome, without allowing evil to persist for a time?
Because then it wouldn’t be there to be overcome.
There is a degree of logical tightness to this argument that is lacking in other theodicies, so responses that plausibly work against them don’t work against it. This is one of its central logical strengths. Its logical coherence is quite plain and easy to demonstrate, because it is a very tight argument.
The theodicy of overcoming in Christian theological context
While there is something relatively novel about my particular approach to this question, it certainly has deep and extensive precedents in Christian tradition and in scripture. The theme of God overcoming evil through loving presence, especially in the person of Jesus Christ and through the work of the Holy Spirit, is the enduring center of the tradition.
Similarly, because this theodicy isn’t opposed to freedom or soul formation theodicies, it can take up those arguments within its broader framework along with others. In this sense the argument is deeply catholic (universal), including with respect to our own past as Christians: it picks up the traditional arguments and carries them forward instead of fighting with them.
Why has this argument been underappreciated in the long history of Christian thought, then, if it is so compelling? I suspect part of the problem may be because it has strong Christian universalist implications, and because it works especially well from that standpoint. That isn’t to say that the argument only has merit if someone first grants a patristic universalism, like that advocated by Saint Gregory of Nyssa. Insofar as someone can make sense of an ideal creation in which some people are endlessly tormented in sin, calling this a perfected Creation with a straight face, then they might also argue that this constitutes a complete victory over evil. This doesn’t sound terribly convincing to me, but the problem wouldn’t be the fact that they’ve appropriated this argument in particular. The problem is that whatever endless torment touches turns pointless, being deprived of a proper end. From here, some work could be done on Saint Nyssa’s resolution of problems with Origen’s approach to apokatastasis, the restoration of all, through his concept of an “infinite end” in which finite beings journey ever-deeper into the love of God. You’ll find a bit on that here. But that is work for other days.
Here, I’ll close by simply noting that an overcoming theodicy interacts lovingly and respectfully with the tradition of Christian thought on these topics. And then it carries us forward together on our journey in time, like good theology should.
The real threat that this approach poses, I suspect, is that it removes the many excuses we make for failing to follow the loving, powerful, restorative and transformative way of Jesus. If even God must ultimately run out of patience, shouldn’t we as well? (Here, I’m using ‘patience’ in the sense that includes active non-violent resistance, as Alan Kreider discusses in his book Patient Ferment of the Early Church.)
All of the illusions and empires we’ve built on taking his name in vain do suffer a blow if God, through enemy love, will ultimately overcome all evil in the end. What if evil only persists now, for a time, so that we can participate more fully in overcoming it? To live as if we are in a universe like that would mean that a great deal must change, and that we don’t have excuses for our greed and cruelty and impatience. From that standpoint it might seem better to imagine that we live in a worse universe, one where some peoples’ failures to walk in God’s grace and freedom are inevitable. I think we live in a better sort of universe than that, because I think it was made by a good God.