“Christian theology is incompatible with the facts of the world: a loving, all-powerful God simply would not permit the tragic losses and terrible suffering that happen every day on an inconceivable scale.”
I. The Observer
The kids are in the kitchen, eating breakfast. The mother walks into the bathroom. She sets her baby on the floor and starts to fill the tub. Her three-year-old son comes in and sits on the edge of the tub. He looks at his baby sister. “Mommy, are we gonna take a bath today?” he asks. She continues running the water. When she turns it off, he asks again. “Mommy, are we gonna take a bath?” Instead of answering, she silently lifts him into the tub and submerges him. Some sort of primal panic takes hold of him. His tiny heart is pounding. He thrashes and squirms, sucking instinctively for air. But there is no air, there’s only water. It pours into his mouth, his throat, his nasal passages. It fills his lungs. His mother holds him down until he stops moving. He is as still as a stone at the bottom of a creek.
His mother lifts him out of the tub. She pulls his dripping, lifeless body to her chest. She carries him to the bedroom and lays him face up on the bed.
By the time she returns to the bathroom, her two-year-old son has wandered in. Without a word she lifts him into the tub and pushes him underwater. She works with deadly determination. The last thing the child sees on this earth is his mother’s face, cold and implacable. She holds him down until the spark of life leaves his eyes. Before she can even lift him out, her five-year-old walks in. She drowns him too. The two bodies bob against each other in the water. The mother carries them to the bedroom. There are now three dead kids lying face up on the bed. The five-year-old is clutching a strand of his mother’s hair.
Then the baby, six months old. She’s the only one who doesn’t struggle. Just flaps her arms a bit.
The last child, seven years old, walks into the bathroom. He sees his baby sister floating lifelessly in the tub. “What’s wrong with Mary?” he asks. His mother tries to grab him but he gets away. She runs after him. She catches him. She drags him back to the bathroom. He’s screaming, trying to yank his body free, trying to pry her fingers from his arms. She lifts him into the tub and forces him into the water, face down. He thrashes like crazy. His body bangs against the sides of the tub, making muffled metallic sounds. Mary’s body is bobbing wildly beside him. The splashing is fierce. The floor become slippery with water. Twice he comes up for air. The second time he says, “I’m sor—” before she forces his head back in the water. His thrashing reaches a crescendo, then slows, then stops. His mother leaves him face down in the water but carries his sister to the bedroom. She places her daughter on the bed, face up, in her brothers’ arms. Froth is dribbling out of their mouths and noses. The mother lays a sheet over the children. Her hair and clothes are soaked. She phones the police.
* * * * *
But suppose that wasn’t the whole story. Suppose that in the ensuing days we learned that Andrea Yates and her five kids weren’t the only people in the house that morning. Suppose someone else was there—a strong, healthy adult. Perhaps a neighbor stopped by just as the mother was filling the tub, and one of the kids let him in. And suppose this person saw it all—the methodical killings, the bewildered children, the gradual accumulation of bodies—but chose to do nothing. Didn’t grab the mother, didn’t tell her to stop, didn’t get the kids out of the house—nothing. He watched the events closely, but with the keen, dispassionate eyes of an entomologist. Later, after being pilloried in the media, he fought back. “Look, it wasn’t my place to intervene. I’m not the bad guy here. I didn’t do anything. I was strictly an observer. I don’t interfere in people’s lives.”
What would we say about the moral stature of such a person? What would we say about his actions, or rather, his inaction? What characterological conclusions would we draw about a person who watches a deadly parade of terrified children, and has the power to stop it, but chooses not to? How would we evaluate him as a moral being?
* * * * *
When philosophers and theologians refer to the problem of evil or the argument from evil, they mean something like this: if God is all-good, he would want to eliminate all evil, and if he is all-powerful, he would be able to; but clearly, great evils occur in the world; therefore, an all-good, all-powerful God does not exist. Evil, in this context, includes anything that harms sentient beings; it refers not only to moral evils like violence and dishonesty, but also to natural evils like disease and drought. People who believe in an all-good, all-powerful God acknowledge that the world is full of evils, but contend that God has good reasons for permitting them.
Despite their disagreement, the two sides of the debate have a common starting point. They proceed from a concept of God that is in accord with both Western theological tradition and the beliefs of most churchgoers. God, on this view, is a person (not an impersonal force; he possesses consciousness and acts with purpose), and he created the world. He is also omnipotent or all-powerful (he can control the things he created); he is omniscient (he knows what’s going on in the world); and he is all-good or perfectly good. What the two sides disagree about, of course, is whether such a God actually exists.
The problem of evil disappears if God is either all-powerful or all-good, but not both. For instance, if God is sometimes good, sometimes evil, then of course there will be evil in the world. On the other hand, if God is all-good but not all-powerful, then the fact that evil often prevails in the world is not surprising. So the flourishing of evil is problematical only for those who believe that God is both all-powerful and all-good. This, however, includes most followers of the Western religious tradition—certainly almost all Christians. And not without reason: neither a God who can be overpowered nor a God who has moral defects seems like much of a God.
Omnipotence, in particular, seems inseparable from our notion of a monotheistic creator-god. If God created the heavens and the earth—if every particle in the universe exists only because he willed it into being—his control over these particles must be absolute. Even the ways we refer to God—as the Supreme Being or the Almighty—presuppose that he is all-powerful. If he’s not—if he’s just another force or just another spirit, competing with other forces or other spirits who are just as strong and sometimes stronger—he’s not even God.
One way to approach the problem of evil is to assume, for the sake of argument, that a personal God does indeed exist, and that he is omnipotent and omniscient, leaving open only the question of his goodness. For the sake of convenience, let’s call this this presumed deity—this all-powerful, all-knowing being—the Almighty. Let’s assume the Almighty exists, then see whether, by looking at the facts of the world, we can draw any conclusions regarding his goodness. We can evaluate his moral qualities the same way we would a human being’s—namely, by looking at what he does in the world and, equally important, what he doesn’t do. Christians claim that the Almighty, besides being omnipotent and omniscient, is also good. This claim can be evaluated just as it could be if made about you or me—i.e, is this alleged attribute consistent with his behavior?
* * * * *
When we say that God is good, we are making a moral claim. We are not just saying that he is good at making stars, or that he produces the nicest sunsets, or that his design of the human eye was really ingenious. We mean that he is good as a person, as a moral being. When we praise a person, whether human or divine, for his goodness, we’re saying that he exemplifies the highest moral standards, that he acts according to the moral values we revere. Certainly if he didn’t adhere to these values—if he were cruel or uncaring or unfair—we would not describe him as good.
For Christians, being a morally good person means being a loving person. 1 John 4:7-8 exhorts us to love one another because it is through love that we are born of God: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” From Jesus (love thy neighbor) to Paul (but the greatest of these is love) to John (God is love) to the religious traditions they engendered, Christianity has always regarded love as both the highest moral good and the essence of the divine person. Love, as depicted in the parable of the Good Samaritan and as epitomized by the healings of Jesus and the service of St. Francis, involves a deep and abiding commitment to helping others, rooted in a fervent desire for their well-being. St. Thomas Aquinas said it succinctly: “to love is to will the good of another” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1766). Christians describe God’s love as infinite: in both its breadth and its depth, it knows no bounds. This is their spiritual bedrock, this is what gets them through their darkest nights—their assurance that God loves all his creatures, that he cares deeply and profoundly about each of us.
In considering the argument from evil, we are making the assumption that an omnipotent, omniscient God exists, then asking if, based on our observations of the world, he is also morally good. Given the Christian belief that love is the highest moral good, we can reformulate this question in a Christian context. Instead of asking the general question—is the Almighty morally good?—we can ask a more focused one: is he loving? Specifically, we can look at some of the things that the Almighty allows to occur in the world—then ask, is that the behavior of a loving person?
When we describe someone as a caring person or a loving person, that means something; it carries with it behavioral requirements. We make determinations of a person’s character traits based upon observed behaviors. In this case we are saying that the person’s behaviors conform to the meaning of the words caring or loving. To be described in this way, a person must manifest this quality on a consistent basis; certainly he cannot regularly act in a way that contradicts that claim. A person who constantly stumbles and often spills food on his lap cannot be described as graceful or elegant; a person who forgets to pay her bills, shows up late for appointments, and often misplaces important papers cannot be described as organized; and a person who frequently sees people or animals suffering, who has the power to help them but chooses not to, cannot be described as loving.
Jesus’s story of the Good Samaritan provides Christianity’s clearest description of what love looks like. Seeing a man who had been beaten half to death by robbers, other travelers on the road that day walked around him. But when the Samaritan saw him, “he was moved with pity.” The Samaritan tended to the man’s wounds, took him to an inn, and provided for his care. This is what love feels; this is what love does. Love is distressed at the suffering of others; love does not watch impassively; love steps in. This is what the story of the Good Samaritan tells us—that love intervenes.
Consider the imaginary observer I introduced earlier, the man who stood idly by as five young children were drowned. Instead of stopping these killings, he chose only to watch. Had this actually happened, had we read this story in the newspaper, how would we have reacted? Some of us would be furious, some would be depressed, but all of us, I think, would be appalled. “What is wrong with this guy?” we would say. “What is his problem?”
There are many things we could say about my observer. That he showed no appreciation of the preciousness of human life. That he is in no way a moral paradigm; certainly he is not someone we should emulate. He didn’t care about the lives of those children; he wouldn’t lift a finger to help them. Not even the anguish of their final moments could spur him to action. He is the opposite of the Good Samaritan: in the face of great suffering, he refused to intervene. He is not a loving person.
And neither is God. Because everything I just said about the observer applies equally to God. God is simply my non-intervening observer writ large. Or more precisely, the Almighty is. The omnipotent, omniscient deity that Christianity posits, and that I presupposed for the sake of argument, is nothing more than the divine version of my observer. The observer saw exactly what was going on in the Yates household that morning—and according to Christianity, so did the Almighty. That’s what omniscience means. The observer had the power to stop the killings, and so did the Almighty—that’s what omnipotence means. Yet the observer chose to do nothing, and so did the Almighty. If the behavior of my non-intervening observer makes it impossible to characterize him as a loving person, the same is true of the Almighty. To put it more bluntly, the Christian God—all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving—does not exist. Because a loving person would not stand idly by while children were being killed.
The argument can be expressed syllogistically:
1. A loving person would not have allowed Paul, Luke, John, Mary, and Noah Yates to be murdered by their mother if he had the power to stop it.
2. The Almighty allowed Paul, Luke, John, Mary, and Noah Yates to be murdered by their mother even though he had the power to stop it.
3. Therefore, the Almighty is not a loving person.
Allowed, in this context, means the Almighty let something happen that he could have prevented. It does not imply that he gave Andrea Yates permission for her action.
The conclusion follows necessarily from the two premises. The second premise follows necessarily from the Christian conception of the Almighty as an all-knowing, all-powerful being. That means the only way a Christian can contest the argument is to dispute the first premise. The Christian, in other words, must argue that a loving person would have allowed these five young children to be murdered even if he had the power to stop it. But this requires a conception of a loving or caring person that is so at odds with the meaning of those words that it seems indefensible.
II. Catalogue of Evil
“No God who cared deeply about each of us would remain idly in his recliner, watching horrors day and night, letting them go on. That, however, is exactly what he does.”
The claim that the Almighty is not a loving person is of course based upon much more than one incident that took place in one city on one day. In terms of the argument, that incident can stand on its own, but it is also representative of a broad class of events. If we assume the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing deity, then every day there are innumerable instances of extreme suffering and immeasurable loss that he could have prevented, but chose not to. To get even a taste of the savagery and suffering that he allows is to go down a very dark hole.
In Wisconsin, an enraged father repeatedly slams his infant daughter on the ground, killing her. In Florida, a toddler stumbles onto an underground nest of wasps. They retaliate in a swarm so thick you can’t even see him. He is stung 432 times. Seven hours later he dies from the swelling of his brain. In South Africa, a three-year-old girl has AIDS. Her skin is loose and wrinkled, her bones tiny. She whimpers as a nurse takes blood from a vein in her temple. She suffers from tuberculosis, malnutrition, chronic diarrhea, and severe vomiting. All she has known of life is pain and sickness; and then she dies.
Another girl, Victoria Climbie, was a bright child, growing up poor in the Ivory Coast. When her great aunt offered to raise and educate her in Europe, Victoria was excited, and her parents thought it a blessing, a chance for their daughter to have a better life. Eventually she moved into a small London flat with her aunt and her aunt’s boyfriend. There she suffered almost nonstop abuse. The aunt and the boyfriend beat her with coat hangers, bicycle chains, and fists; burned her with cigarettes; poured scalding water on her head; and made her sleep in a tub in her own excrement. Much of the time she wore wet clothes while tied up in a cold, windowless bathroom. She started shivering and became severely underweight. After seven months she died of hypothermia and malnutrition—what the judge in the case described as “a lonely, drawn-out death.” It must have been a living nightmare: separated from the people who loved her, how frightened she must have felt, how utterly alone. An autopsy found 128 injuries and scars on her body. She was eight years old.
Tragedies like these are unspeakable, almost unbelievable. I wish I’d had the power to stop them, to step in and save these kids, but I didn’t. According to the tenets of Christianity, however, God did, but evidently he preferred not to use it. “I don’t interfere in people’s lives,” said my non-intervening observer, and apparently God—this strange, detached deity—feels the same way.
The queue of tragedy goes on forever. One girl is gang-raped by soldiers, then hacked to death with a machete; another is gassed in the showers of Treblinka. Famines are among the deadliest disasters: whether caused by drought or by war, they kill babies and toddlers by the truckload, each bloated and emaciated body more haunting than the last. Or a volcano erupts, and a panic-stricken boy tries to run from the pyroclastic flow of superheated gas and rock, but it’s deadly fast, it catches him and knocks him down, and the heat cooks his flesh. The agony of his final moments is unimaginable.
All the examples I’ve cited so far have involved the deaths of children. The argument from evil in no way depends upon these; the world is rife with senseless tragedies among people of all ages. But I have focused on children because their stories hit us harder and make God’s inaction all the more unfathomable. We are deeply disturbed by the terror and the pain they must have felt in their last moments of life, and we are overwhelmed by the sadness of what might have been. The death of a single child makes a mockery of the presumed moral order of the world. But it’s not just children—any early death is a great tragedy, and intense, unredeemed suffering at any age is a great evil. And when intense suffering leads to early death—well, that’s about as bad as it gets.
Great evils often occur en masse. A natural disaster or war can bring death tolls in the thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions. Numbers are just data points, though; to say that millions died in this flood or that famine or that war tells us something of the scale, even while it distances us from the subjectivity of suffering. The pain and the fear and the despair are felt by each person alone. An account of the influenza pandemic of 1918-1920 might begin by estimating the number of lives lost, but encapsulating the event in a single statistic does not mean it was a single tragedy. The pandemic was actually millions of tragedies, because that’s how it was felt or experienced. If there is an omniscient God, he knows what is happening at every moment of every person’s life. During the pandemic, he saw deathbeds covering the planet, from Europe and Asia to Africa and the Americas. He watched the final moments of a son here, a daughter there, a mother, a father, he watched one heartbreaking story after another, tens of thousands of them a day. Like a moviegoer glued to his seat, he kept watching this spectacle of suffering until fifty million lives had been extinguished and the earth was awash in tears.
Earlier I said about my non-intervening observer that he showed no appreciation of the preciousness of human life. He didn’t care about the lives of those children and wouldn’t lift a finger to help them. If that’s true of a person who witnessed five deaths and did nothing, what should we say about the Almighty? He has witnessed countless atrocities from time immemorial, in such profligacy as is beyond human imagining; and though he could have stopped them, he chose not to. What should we conclude about his character? That he cares deeply and profoundly about each of us, or that he is indifferent to the suffering of others and unmoved by the tragic loss of life? Which conclusion is more plausible, which a more reasonable interpretation of his behavior?
When you think about the Almighty, think about what he allows. The Holocaust. The Gulag. The Killing Fields. Famine in Ethiopia. Devastating floods in China. Tens of millions of children killed by smallpox, measles, malaria. Animals beyond counting suffering agonizing deaths every day—dying of hunger or cold or disease, burning in forest fires or being torn apart by predators. Who among us, if we could stop these slaughters, would allow them to go on? Yet that is what the Almighty does. If an all-powerful creator-god does in fact exist, then it is not his love that is infinite, it is his indifference.
If we assume, then, that there is an omniscient and omnipotent God, the world provides ample evidence that he is not also loving. To be described as loving, he would have to consistently behave in ways that demonstrate a fervent desire for the well-being of all his creatures. But of course he does no such thing. Christian theology is incompatible with the facts of the world: a loving, all-powerful God simply would not permit the tragic losses and terrible suffering that happen every day on an inconceivable scale. I said earlier, while discussing the Good Samaritan, that love is distressed at the suffering of others; love does not watch impassively; love steps in. A loving God would be an intervening God; the abundance of his love would make the anguish of his children intolerable. Instead, the God that we have, if we have one at all, is a divine recluse, distant and unavailable. He is a God who lets us kill and be killed—a God who, instead of stopping the descent of the knife, merely observes it. No God who cared deeply about each of us would remain idly in his recliner, watching horrors day and night, letting them go on. That, however, is exactly what he does. Right now, somewhere in the world, a young child is being beaten to death—and God is watching, doing nothing.
“Instead of confronting the dreadful finality of death, the afterlife theodicy posits a fantasy land where the bliss is never-ending. As Joe Hill mockingly put it, ‘You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.’”
The argument that I’ve presented here could be termed characterological—that is, it draws inferences regarding God’s character based on his actions. It asserts that an alleged attribute of God’s is inconsistent with his behavior. Specifically, his penchant for nonintervention, his refusal to help those who are in desperate need, is inconsistent with the love that is attributed to him.
In discussing the syllogism presented earlier, I said that belief in a loving God requires denying my first premise. Christians, in other words, must argue that a loving person would have allowed Paul, Luke, John, Mary, and Noah Yates to be murdered even if he had the power to stop it. In fact, this is exactly what Christians believe about God: that he allowed these kids to be murdered, but he is still a loving person. And he allowed 800,000 people to be slaughtered in the Rwandan genocide, but he is still a loving person. And he has allowed incomprehensible numbers of animals to suffer excruciating deaths for hundreds of millions of years, but he is still a loving person. And so on. These are the sorts of counter-intuitive claims that must be defended by any Christian who wants to provide credibility for her core belief.
Christian philosophers have tried to do this by developing the concept of greater goods. They claim that even a loving God might permit certain evils in order to obtain certain goods—goods that are so great they outweigh the evils, and that could not be obtained without allowing the evils. Tradeoffs like this are common in daily life; people often permit some evil to occur in order to secure a more important good. When a mother takes her young son to get vaccinated for diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis, she is allowing some minor evils—the fear and pain her son will temporarily feel—but she does this to obtain a much greater good: protecting him from dangerous diseases.
Philosophers who believe in a loving, all-powerful God argue that he too may have compelling reasons for allowing evil—what they call morally justifying reasons. Their argument then branches off in one of two directions. On the one hand, if the philosopher thinks she can discern at least some of God’s reasons, she will articulate them; she will provide a theodicy. On the other hand, she could say that God may have good reasons for permitting evil, but that the disparity between God’s understanding and our own is so great that we are incapable of grasping those reasons. Because the latter approach emphasizes the limitations of human understanding, I call it modest theism.
The first approach, the theodicy, often focuses on moral or spiritual development. Philosophers like John Hick and Richard Swinburne have argued that evils, including suffering, are necessary if people are to develop morally. For example, hardships can make us stronger and more persevering; danger can elicit courage and self-sacrifice; and the distress of one person can bring forth sympathy and help from another. Qualities like perseverance, courage, and caring are spiritual goods of the highest order, and it’s in the struggle against moral and natural evils that they arise. Eliminate pain and suffering from the world and you also eliminate the opportunities for bravery and compassion. So if God intended this world to be a place where each of us can develop as a moral being, he had to allow the existence of evils.
All this argument shows, however, is that some evils are necessary in order to elicit certain virtues; it doesn’t show that the sheer destructiveness of many of the world’s evils is necessary. We see instances of perseverance, courage, and caring in the course of everyday life; their existence doesn’t require tragic, irreparable losses. A dancer works tirelessly to gain admittance to a ballet company; a teenager risks ridicule in befriending a classmate that other students avoid; a neighbor brings soup to an old man who lives by himself—acts like these go on all around us, all the time. Moral development requires challenges and adversity, not torment and devastation.
Many evils, far from being conducive to personal development, actually preclude it. When malnutrition leaves a young child so weak and emaciated she can barely move, before slipping silently, almost imperceptibly, into death—how does this promote her moral development? Her suffering will undoubtedly evoke compassion in others, which this theodicy regards as a great good; but that can in no way make up for a much greater evil, the extinguishing of a young life. If God intended this world to be a place of moral growth, as Christians claim, then certain hardships and adversities might play a constructive role, but the decimating evils that he allows do not. On the contrary, they result in the ruthless destruction of human lives and the utter waste of human potential. When young children die from malnutrition and diseases—as millions of children under the age of five do every year—their opportunities for moral development are over. You can’t develop morally when you’re dead.
To explain why God might allow even extreme forms of human evil, theologians often turn to the best known of all theodicies, the free will theodicy. The moral and spiritual qualities that we value all involve the element of choice; a person chooses to be honest, or to behave compassionately, or to forgive others. Indeed, good actions have moral value precisely because they are chosen rather than dictated. But we can choose goodness only if we also have the option of choosing evil; we must have the power to be not only honest, compassionate, or forgiving, but also deceitful, cruel, or vindictive. Moral freedom therefore entails the possibility of evil. So if God wanted our lives to have a moral dimension, he had to give us the power to choose, which in turn implies the power to do evil. Even if we commit great evils, he cannot stay our hand without sacrificing the benefits of free agency.
The idea that God’s intervention in the face of extreme evil would undermine human freedom is based upon a false dichotomy. The free will theodicy regards freedom of choice as all or nothing: you either have it or you don’t. Once God gave us the freedom to make choices, then intervention on his part, even in the face of great suffering and profound loss, was no longer an option; he had to adopt a hands-off policy. But this is no more required of God than it is of civil society, which grants certain freedoms even while imposing limits on their exercise. And with good reason. For one thing, restrictions upon freedom are often essential to its preservation. If a would-be killer is restrained, this protects, rather than destroys, free choice: it allows potential victims to live, to shape their own lives, and to make their own moral choices. In addition, however great the value of free choice, it does not trump all other values; both morality and compassion demand that the implementation of certain choices be prevented. Given a freely chosen act that would cause irreparable harm to innocent persons, the sanctity of free agency is a feeble justification for the failure to intervene.
The free will theodicy elevates free choice to the point where it seemingly becomes the supreme value—and the justification for allowing all manner of horrors. Earlier I recounted the story of Victoria Climbie, isolated and abused for months, then dying at age eight of hypothermia and malnutrition. What would the free will theodicy say about her suffering? First, that the people responsible, the aunt and the boyfriend, were free agents; and second, that Victoria’s torment and her tragically brief life were costs that God was willing to pay to keep free agency pure and unadulterated. But what kind of God would pay such a price? Not a loving God, certainly, not a God who cared deeply and profoundly about Victoria’s well-being. A loving God would not have allowed this to happen to her. Instead, this theodicy implies a God whose commitment to nonintervention exceeds his concern for individual persons; a God who will sacrifice anyone, even children, on the altar of free agency; and a God who cares more about the freedom of the assailant than about the protection of the innocent.
The moral development theodicy and the free will theodicy are the two most prominent examples of greater goods arguments, by which Christian philosophers and theologians try to address the problem of evil. When presented theoretically, the theodicies have a certain plausibility; but they become less convincing when applied to the real-world events that the problem of evil is concerned with. Greater goods arguments depend upon a weighing process: the goods thus generated must exceed, must outweigh, the concomitant evils. In the mother-son vaccination scenario I presented earlier, the good of preventing a serious, even deadly, disease clearly outweighs the child’s temporary fear and pain. The argument works in this case because the goods are significant and enduring while the evils are modest and short-lived.
But the serious evils in the world are nothing like that. The 1918-1920 influenza pandemic undoubtedly elicited from some people greater courage and compassion than they had exhibited before, but did these spiritual goods outweigh the physical pain, emotional suffering, and catastrophic loss of life that precipitated them? Whatever moral virtues the pandemic brought forth, they could not begin to make up for the loss of fifty million lives. Again, the good that is inherent in allowing Victoria Climbie’s guardians to freely choose how to treat her—does that good outweigh the extreme evils that are a product of their choices: her intense and prolonged suffering, both physical and emotional, as well as her death at a very young age, which carries with it the permanent erasure of everything that she otherwise might have felt and thought and done? To answer in the affirmative implies a grotesque hierarchy of values, in which the unfettered freedom to destroy is of greater value than all the goods that are thereby destroyed.
According to the theodicies, behind every tragedy there’s a silver lining. Even the deaths of young children from either natural or moral evils have served to advance God’s greater goods: in response to the children’s suffering, the people around them may have become more selfless and more caring; and for both the protectors and the persecutors of children, God has preserved their freedom to make their own moral choices. As for young victims, well, they are the sacrificial lambs for God’s utilitarian goals. They are the unfortunate expendables, the regrettable but unavoidable collateral damage of a divine plan for eliciting all these alleged greater goods. Whatever we may think of such a God, loving he is not, because love—that fervent desire for the well-being of every one of these children—would never sanction such tradeoffs.
In making their case for the goodness of God, the moral development theodicy and the free will theodicy have another serious shortcoming: they don’t explain the suffering of animals. Animals are not moral beings; they cannot reflect upon right and wrong, then make choices based upon that reflection. So even if God did allow human suffering for reasons related to moral development or free agency, that wouldn’t explain the agonies he allows animals to endure—and not only now, but for hundreds of millions of years before man even appeared on earth. Philosopher William Rowe, in his formulation of the argument from evil, considers the case of a fawn who is badly burned in a forest fire, then dies, alone and in great pain, over several days. The example, by its very nature, is fictitious, but it’s representative of the intense suffering that permeates the animal world. Think about what countless animals endure every day—death by predation, by starvation, by disease. Think about the young of every species, all the undersized runts and clamoring fledglings and weakened cubs and pups that die just as their lives are getting started—losses that are tragic and heartbreaking and nearly limitless. Christianity asserts that God is all-powerful and infinitely loving. But would a loving God create a natural order that is as cruel and heartless as this? Would a loving God allow his beloved creatures to suffer and die like this?
So difficult is it to reconcile the brutalities of the world with the notion of a good and loving God that his defenders sometimes turn from the earthly sphere altogether. The afterlife in heaven, they suggest, is the ultimate greater good, so great that it far outweighs the pain that precedes it. This theodicy, like the two preceding ones, ignores the issue of animal suffering; but in regard to human suffering, the afterlife functions as a sort of theological ace in the hole. If we can’t understand our earthly suffering—well, in the afterlife we will. If the suffering of many seems unmerited and extreme—well, the afterlife will make up for it a million times over. After all, what are a few days of torments, or even a few years of torments, compared to an eternity of bliss?
The afterlife theodicy is a defense of last resort; it has intellectual desperation written all over it. It relies upon a beatific vision that is simultaneously soothing and unfounded. Christian apologists begin with the dubious claim that the afterlife exists at all; but what I find really remarkable, they actually know what the afterlife is like. Apparently what the afterlife doesn’t have, at least for the blessed, is hunger and sickness, suffering and grief. Apparently what it does have is communion with God, engendering a happiness so sublime we can hardly imagine it. And to top it all off, this happiness will last forever. But there’s no reason to believe any of this; the Christian vision of eternal life is nothing more than a wish list. Instead of confronting the dreadful finality of death, the afterlife theodicy posits a fantasy land where the bliss is never-ending. As Joe Hill mockingly put it, “You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.”
In response to the terrible suffering of the terribly young, Christians offer hollow words of hope. They make a promise they cannot keep: “Your compensation is coming.” For a three-year-old girl dying of malnutrition and AIDS, perhaps a vision of life in the clouds—a place of joy, free of hunger and pain, surrounded by her family—would provide the consolation she so desperately needs and deserves; but the rest of us should see this for the fairy tale that it is: invoking a state for which there is scant evidence, then endowing it with the most delightful attributes. Wishful thinking, no matter what theological veneer you cover it with, is still just wishful thinking.
IV. Modest Theism
“It borders on incoherency to claim that a person is supremely good although he allows many terrible things to happen for reasons we can’t imagine.”
A number of contemporary theistic philosophers agree with me on at least one point—namely, that theodicies haven’t worked, that they don’t explain why an all-good, all-powerful God would allow the decimating evils we see in the world. As a result, there has been a gradual shift from theism defended on the basis of theodicies to theism defended on the basis of human cognitive limitations—what I previously called modest theism. Instead of offering reasons why a loving God would permit atrocities, the modest theist says we don’t know what God’s reasons are because, intellectually, we aren’t up to the task. The disparity between our limited, fallible human intelligence and the intelligence it would take to fashion the universe is so great that our inability to grasp his reasons is not surprising; indeed, it’s what we should expect. God’s reasons, according to modest theists, are beyond our ken.
God allows great evils to occur in the world. Does our inability to discern any morally justifying reasons mean that God has no such reasons? Not according to philosophers like William Alston, Alvin Plantinga, and Stephen Wykstra. They argue that if we can’t see something, we can conclude it isn’t there only if it’s the kind of thing we have the ability to see. From the fact that I don’t see any gorillas on my couch right now, I can conclude there are none—because if a gorilla were on my couch, I’d see him. On the other hand, the fact that I don’t see any dust mites on my couch doesn’t mean there aren’t any—because I couldn’t see them even if they were there. Modest theism contends that given God’s omniscience and our own limited intellects, God’s reasons are more like dust mites than like gorillas: even if he had them, we couldn’t see them.
Although we don’t know why God permits great evils, he may have morally justifying reasons we can’t discern—that’s what modest theism says. It doesn’t claim that God in fact has such reasons; it says that he may, that we can’t exclude the possibility. Indeed, to show that God has such reasons, we would have to know what they are—which is precisely what modest theism says we cannot know. But the claim that God may have morally sound reasons leaves open the possibility that he may not. And if he doesn’t—if he permits great evils and great suffering without having moral justification for doing so—then he is not all-good, in which case the God of the theists, all-good and all-powerful, does not exist.
Theodicies make a strong claim: we can articulate God’s reasons for allowing great evils. Modest theism considers these explanations unsatisfactory, and so has formulated a fallback position: the fact that we don’t know God’s morally justifying reasons doesn’t mean he doesn’t have them. But neither does it mean he does have them. Since, according to modest theism, we cannot fathom the mind of God, we don’t know whether he has such reasons or not. But by leaving this an open question, modest theism allows for the possibility that his actions may be morally indefensible—thereby putting the existence of an all-good God in doubt. In short, modest theism, by the implications of its own position, drifts unavoidably into agnosticism.
Modest theists, of course, are believers, and would balk at the suggestion that they are somehow agnostic. Their goal is to put theism on a stronger footing by circumventing what they consider the weaknesses of theodicies. Nevertheless, the analogy they use most often in support of their position provides another example of how their arguments lead, unintentionally but inevitably, to agnosticism. Modest theism claims that in regard to understanding, humans are like an infant while God is like a parent. Indeed, our level of understanding compared to God’s may be much less than an infant’s level of understanding compared to an adult’s. And just as an infant is incapable of grasping her parents’ reasons for most of the things they do or allow to be done, so we are incapable of grasping God’s reasons.
But what are the implications of such an analogy? An infant knows so little about herself, the world, and the reasons for her parents’ actions that she cannot possibly determine whether her parents are responsible or negligent, selfish or unselfish, and so on. Not until she gets much older, and the cognitive gap between herself and her parents narrows, will she be able to make those kinds of character judgments. If our cognitive position is analogous to an infant’s, then we are likewise unable to determine whether God is good or bad, just or unjust, loving or indifferent. We don’t have the knowledge that would be required to make such determinations, and should therefore suspend judgment on all assertions regarding God’s character. In the words of modest theism, that subject is beyond our ken. The infant-parent analogy thus implies that we should reject claims like “God is good” or “God is loving” or “God is just,” and instead remain agnostic on such matters.
Modest theism is a contemporary philosophical formulation of a theology that is at least as old as the Book of Job. If, in the face of an untimely death, a mourner says, The Lord has his reasons or His ways are beyond our understanding, he is expressing, in an informal way, the beliefs of modest theism. Modest theists make two principal claims, but the two are incompatible with each other. To say, “I don’t know why God allows great evils,” is perfectly intelligible; but then to add, “but I do know that he is good and loving and just”—well, either we are in a position to evaluate him morally or we aren’t. Modest theists cannot have it both ways: they cannot assert that God has sublime moral qualities, then plead ignorance when confronted with his apparent moral negligence. It borders on incoherency to claim that a person is supremely good although he allows many terrible things to happen for reasons we can’t imagine.
There’s so little we do know, so much we don’t—that’s what modest theism wants us to remember. An omniscient God would know much more than we do about human goods, especially spiritual goods, and the conditions required for their realization. If we knew what God knows, perhaps we would see that certain great goods can be obtained only by allowing certain horrendous evils. Although in our current state of knowledge we are unable to identify these goods, and to explain why certain evils are their prerequisites, modest theism argues that this may be the case; and if so, that might explain why a loving God would allow these evils. If we knew what God knows, perhaps we would see that there are a lot of wonderful human goods that can be obtained only by allowing children to be beaten to death, starved to death, consumed by disease, or exterminated in gas chambers. If only we knew more about human goods, if only we weren’t so cognitively limited, perhaps we’d see that.
If that’s true, however, we should be thankful for God’s silence. Good people have enough trouble fighting evil without our heavenly father instructing us on the inestimable blessings that spring from the mass slaughters of innocent children.
Praise God for not bestowing his wisdom on us. May he keep his insights to himself.[Written 2000-2002. Revised 2019.]