How is gratuitous evil compatible with a loving, good God? When we read of heartrending tragedies like the recent random knife attack in Taipei, Taiwan, where a 4-year-old toddler was beheaded in full view of her mother, we can only lament that this is evil, an act of an evil man. It is truly horrendous evil.
Michael Peterson writes, “Something is dreadfully wrong with our world. An earthquake kills hundreds in Peru. A pancreatic cancer patient suffers prolonged, excruciating pain and dies. A pit bull attacks a two-year-old child, angrily ripping his flesh and killing him. Countless multitudes suffer the ravages of war in Somalia. A crazed cult leader pushes eighty-five people to their deaths in Waco, Texas. Millions starve and die in North Korea as famine ravages the land. Horrible things of all kinds happen in our world—and that has been the story since the dawn of civilization.”(Peterson, Michael L. 1998. God and Evil: An Introduction to the Issues. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.p1).
Admittedly, the problem of evil is a multifaceted, complex issue. Even if we are finally able to climb the Mount Everest of the intellectual problem of evil, the personal problem of evil often challenges even the toughest, hidebound Christian soldier. When the problem of evil gets personal, it can emaciate the strongest of faith, and confuse the most logical of minds. And this personal problem of evil requires pastoral counselling and advice, not philosophical circumlocution and arguments.
In the following paragraphs, we are going to have a brief overview of the intellectual problem of evil, and thereafter, we would focus upon the problem of gratuitous evil. As for now, we would leave the personal problem aside for a while.
The problem of evil can broadly be divided into two philosophical problems – the logical or deductive problem of evil, and the evidential or inductive problem of evil (for example, the issue of gratuitous evil).
Popularly formulated by J. L. Mackie in the 1950s, the logical-deductive problem of evil emerges from four core propositions (Warburton, Nigel. 2004. Philosophy: The Basics (4 ed.). Routledge. p22):
1. An all-powerful (omnipotent) God could prevent evil from existing in the world.
2. An all-knowing (omniscient) God would know that there was evil in the world.
3. An all-good (omnibenevolent) God would wish to prevent evil from existing in the world.
4. There is evil in the world.
Atheologians insinuate that these core propositions would result in a logical contradiction, thereby rendering the non-existence of God a necessary truth. In the realm of philosophy, Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga seems to have conclusively rebutted the logical problem of evil (see Plantinga, Alvin (1977). God, Freedom, and Evil. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans). It is no longer a serious matter of disagreement amongst philosophers of religion. But from a theological perspective, his rebuttal still leaves a lot to be desired. From a Reformed, compatibilist understanding, Plantinga’s free will defence cannot be reconciled with a Christian anthropology which describes fallen man as having a will inclined towards sin and evil (i.e. total depravity). Plantinga’s defence presupposes libertarian, incompatibilist free will, which Reformed thinkers would reject.
An introduction to gratuitous evil from a Reformed perspective
The problem of gratuitous evil is not the same as the logical problem of evil. The logical problem threatens the Theist with the non-existence of God as a necessary truth. If the logical-deductive problem of evil succeeds, then Christianity is necessarily false i.e. it is false in all possible worlds.
The problem of gratuitous evil belongs to the evidential or inductive problem of evil, and it is at the center of ongoing philosophical debates. If the inductive problem succeeds, then it is highly probable that God does not exist. Although it is not a logical contradiction, it does make theistic beliefs less probable and/or irrational.
The philosophical problem of gratuitous (or pointless) evil can be formulated as such.
(1) Gratuitous evils occur.
(2) If God exists then no gratuitous evils occur.
(3) God does not exist.
The inference from (1) and (2) to the conclusion (3) is a valid argument. Therefore, the soundness of the argument is dependent upon the truthfulness of the premises. While (1) is the evidential premise, (2) is the theological premise. Premise (2) is supposed to follow from God’s omnibenevolence. A perfectly good God wouldn’t permit evil without sufficient justifying reasons, and hence gratuitous (or pointless) evil shouldn’t occur.
Quite recently, Alan Rhoda gives us a thoughtful definition of gratuitous evil:
“A gratuitous evil = A token or type of evil which God antecedently knew he could have prevented in a way that would have made the world overall better.
In the light of [the above definition], the theological premise becomes
(2*) If God exists then there occur no tokens or types of evil which God antecedently knew he could have prevented in a way that would have made the world overall better.” (see Alan R. Rhoda. “Gratuitous evil and divine providence.” Religious Studies, Volume 46, Issue 03. September 2010, pp 281-302).
In his paper, Rhoda discusses the various existing definitions of gratuitous evil, and finally conclude that the aforementioned definition is one that should be acceptable to all for the purpose of ongoing philosophical dialogue.
Evidently, Reformed theists are theological determinists, and as such, “affirms that God is the ultimate sufficient cause of all events and that God exercises meticulous providence in virtue of his strongly actualizing a particular possible world, one which includes a unique and complete history.” (Rhoda, 2010).
Put simply, “theological determinism is the view that God determines every event that occurs in the history of the world. … Contemporary theological determinists also appeal to various biblical texts (for example Ephesians 1:11) and confessional creeds (for example the Westminster Confession of Faith) to support their view.” (see http://www.iep.utm.edu/theo-det/)
Rhoda correctly observes that theological determinists must resist the evidential premise (1) in his defence. For “theological determinists don’t believe God actualizes evils for their own sakes, but rather for the sake of goods to which those evils contribute.” (Rhoda, 2010) Given the perfect goodness of God, gratuitous evil should not exist. He further comments, “Given their limited options for theodicy, we might expect theological determinists to rely heavily on the sceptical response to the evidential argument.” (Rhoda, 2010).
If God is necessarily good (for example, see Charnock, Stephen. The Existence and Attributes of God. Sovereign Grace Publishers. Lafayette, IN. p548), then the theological premise (2) must be accepted, for a perfectly good God wouldn’t allow pointless evil. It follows that, for a successful theodicy, the evidential premise (1) ought to be rejected or denied by Reformed thinkers. Alternatively, a defeater can be offered for the evidential premise.
Richard Swinburne, in his “Greater Good” theodicy, categorically rejects the concept of gratuitous evil (the evidential premise). He believes that, for God to allow this much evil, He will bring about a greater good whether in this life or the next (see Swinburne, Richard. 1998. Providence and the Problem of Evil. Oxford: Clarendon Press). He discussed possibilities for the allowance of evil, including “the good of being used” and “evil as a teaching aid.” (Swinburne, 1998, p44).
“The good of being used” relates to the possibility that God permits evil for a person so that another might benefit from or be spared of the evil. As for evil as a teaching aid, Swinburne believes that God desires Man to learn the making of morally good choices, and that “the evils of the kind and quantity we find around us are required if humans are to have the power to choose between doing good or evil of varied significant kinds to their fellows.” Swinburne, Richard. “Some Major Strands of Theodicy,” in The Evidential Argument From Evil, ed. Daniel Howard-Snyder. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. 1996, p32.)
The central weakness of Swinburne’s theodicy is his reliance on the unproven concept of libertarian free will, which Reformed thinkers reject. But libertarian free will, according to reformed theology, occurs in the Pre Fall state of Man (posse peccare, posse non peccare). And it is only after the Fall that Man’s will is in bondage to his sinful nature (non posse non peccare). Perhaps the Reformed understanding of anthropology, particularly the state of Man before and after the Fall, would help us develop a theodicy which is compatible with the compatibilist view of Fallen Man, while at the same time, takes into account the libertarian free will Man has prior to the Fall.
“Free-Fall” theodicies usually state that Divine Goodness would never deliberately or directly introduce evil into the world. Indeed, God’s creation was very good prior to the Fall. Augustine believes that sin and its resultant evil and consequences are not necessary for the perfection of the created universe. But for God to create the best-of-all-possible-worlds, free creatures (including humans and angelic beings) are of necessity an integral part of the Divine perfectness. Hence, these free agents are responsible for the evil that their creaturely freedom allows, and are directly responsible for the evil that ensues. God does not intend evil, but rather allows it through His free creatures.
A Defeater for Gratuitous Evil
In the ongoing discussion about gratuitous evil, Marilyn McCord Adams – an Episcopalian – brings into the debate a breath of fresh air. She defines gratuitous or horrendous evil as “evils the participation in (the doing or suffering of) which gives one reason prima facie to doubt whether one’s life could (given their inclusion in it) be a great good to one on the whole.” (Adams, Marilyn McCord and Adams, Robert Merrihew eds. The Problem of Evil. Oxford University Press. 1990, p211). Or rather, more explicitly: an evil E is horrendous or gratuitous if and only if participation in E by person P gives everyone prima facie reason to doubt whether P’s life can, given P’s participation in E, be a great good to P on the whole.
She aptly observes that “the debate was carried on at too high a level of abstraction.” (Adams, Marilyn McCord. Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God. Cornell University Press. 2000, p3). She continues to lament that, while proponents from both sides of the issue persist to adhere to William Rowe’s understanding of “restricted standard theism,” the important uniqueness and distinctive doctrines peculiar to historic Christianity have been ignored.
She continues, “It does the atheologian no good to argue for the falsity of Christianity on the ground that the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, pleasure-maximizer is incompossible with a world such as ours, because Christians never believed God was a pleasure-maximizer anyway.” (Adams, 1990, p210). On the other hand, God cannot be described as good or loving if the positive meaning of the lives of His created persons are overwhelmed by and/or defeated by evil.
She reminds us of the historic Chalcedonian Definition, where the two natures of Christ come together into one person and one hypostasis. (Adams, 2000, p164). The divine nature is eternal and necessary, while the human nature is temporal and contingent. She appeals to God’s goodness to every person, and that this goodness is demonstrated by the Incarnation and Christ’s passion on the cross. Rather than taking the route of “Greater Good” theodicies or the likes of Irenaean “Soul Making” theodicies, she turns her attention to God’s goodness to every human person He has created. She contends, “At a minimum, God’s goodness to human individuals would require that God guarantee each a life that was a great good to him/her on the whole by balancing off serious evils.” (Adams, 2000, p31). Thus, for Adams, the defeater for gratuitous evil is God’s “giving [evil] positive meaning through organic unity with a great enough good within the context of” a person’s life.
How is gratuitous evil compatible with a loving, good God? Historic Christianity answers this question unashamedly,“But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. (Isa 53:5). Adams contends that God “takes the… approach of joining us in our defilement.” (Adams, 2000, p98). God indeed through the Incarnation suffered horrendous evil on our behalf, “For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit (1 Pet 3:18).”
Through this self-defilement and passion on the cross, God demonstrates His love and goodness by “being good to all created persons–that is, in seeing to it that each gets a life that is a great good to him/her on the whole, one in which any participation in horrors is not merely balanced off but defeated.” (Adams, 2000, p126). Central to Adam’s theodicy is the understanding that God provides the defeater for gratuitous evil by guaranteeing that every person’s life is a great good.
Reformed thinkers would object to her scope of redemption, which “is universalist in insisting that God be good to each created person.” (Adams, 2000, p157). Although Adams borders upon Universalism, Reformed thinkers can approach this thesis with the concept of Common Grace, and that God provides the possibility of such good to every person (i.e. an atonement that is sufficient for the world, efficient for the elect).
So instead of directly denying the existence of gratuitous evil (the evidential premise), Adams’ thesis furnishes a defeater for such horrendous evil using the central tenets of Christian theology. She continues, “I do claim that because our eventual post-mortem beatific intimacy with God is an incommensurate good for human persons, Divine identification with human participation in horrors confers a positive aspect on such experiences by integrating them into the participant’s relationship with God.” (Adams, 2000, pp 166-167). She concludes that from the vantage point of eternity, the “incommensurate” goodness of the beatific vision viz a viz direct fellowship and intimacy with God would furnish the ultimate defeater for horrendous evil in this present world.
As Christians, we can only lament with the Apostle Paul (Rom 11:33) that we do not know the reason for every specific evil in this present world. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts (Isa 55:8-9).”
The story of Job relates human participation in horrendous evil and suffering, but God does not give Job His reasons for the evil, and implies that Job is not smart enough (cognitively, emotionally, and/or spiritually) to understand them. God’s thoughts are indeed higher than our thoughts, and His secret decrees are unfathomable. But “these unsearchable paths of God—the thick, dark, heavy mysteries of Providence — are not absurdities; they are not meaningless. Their meaning is, however, largely opaque to us now. The morally sufficient reasons for these evils may be inscrutable, but they are not gratuitous. Nevertheless, God promises his redeemed children that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). (Groothuis, Douglas. (2011). Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith. Downers Grove, IL; Nottingham, England: IVP Academic; Apollos pp 643-644).