“Should everything you read be fun?”
Students have trouble caring about the traditional Problem of Evil: whether God should have created an evil-free universe. And while discussions of free will do pique their interest, they distract from the truly motivating feature: the classical theological problem is really one of what we think our own lives should be.
1. The Traditional Problem of Evil
There shouldn’t be evil…or so the reasoning goes. If God is all-powerful, then God can get rid of evil, and if God is all-good, God wants to get rid of evil. Yet evil persists, both natural (earthquakes, famine, and disease) and moral (murder, genocide, and good old-fashioned fibbing). The Problem is an apparent incombatibility between these three claims:
a) God is omnipotent
b) God is omnibenevolent
c) Evil exists
So does that mean that God’s power is limited (i.e., God wants to get rid of evil, but just can’t)? Or that God’s goodness is limited (i.e., God could get rid of evil, but doesn’t want to)? Neither seems a good option. So the question becomes, “Could a good and powerful being want evil in the world?”
2. God’s Goodness and Free Will
People often think of free will as a possible source of evil: our ability to decide what to do unconstrained by external forces means that we are free to make colossal mistakes and bring evil into the world. If freedom of the will is valuable enough, then, we might deny that an omnibenevolent God wants to get rid of evil. Keeping free will in might just be more important than keeping evil out.
But students aren’t really compelled by the value of free will (most don’t think that their actions are determined and the ones that truly consider it are normally excited enough about science to feel like determinism [the denial of free will] is kind of cool). Besides, freedom of the will is at best a plausible explanation of moral evil alone (after all, what’s the connection between free will and tsunamis?).
Moreover, a discussion of free will is tangential to the Problem of Evil. On the free will view, evil is collateral damage. What students need, then, is a discussion of whether evil might be important, not as a consequence, but intrinsically. Otherwise it seems an omnipotent God could have created the truly valuable thing (the free will) without the bad consequence (evil).
3. Practical Evil and the Good Life
Ask students: is evil useful?
It does not take long for them to realize that pain, suffering, war, disease, and the like can certainly be useful. Pain helps us protect ourselves from damage. Infections build up our immune systems. Challenging circumstances do the same for our character: we find ourselves steeled after holding fast in the face of adversity. Rivalries amongst friends can also motivate us, even if they trace their origins to jealously or pride. And no group is ever as unified as when there is some moral or natural enemy arrayed against it. Evil can be useful, and that seems clear evidence that an all-good God might NOT seek to rid the world of evil.
But the problem is more gnarly than this. Even if evil is useful, one might worry that evil is only useful in a world where evil exists (a world with frustration, sickness, and betrayal: what good is a strong immune system in a world without sickness?). So the question isn’t whether evil could be good in some sense (it clearly is): it’s whether a world with evil can be better than a world without evil, full stop. Only that will tell us how we can understand what an all-powerful, all-good God should do.
To confront this question, students fall back on the difficulty and frustration in their own lives. They think about the difference between beating easy video games and difficult ones, between beating their little brother at chess (meaningless) and beating their older sister (profound!), between reading something easy (like the funny pages) and something difficult (like philosophy). To figure out whether they can make sense of an all-good God desiring evil, they must think about whether they’d rather live a life entirely of beating their little brother in chess, or whether it’s worth living in a world of getting whipped by their sister for years before they finally checkmate her king. The first world is stripped of evil, but it also seemed stripped of accomplishment (as everything is fun and easy). The second is, at times, frustrating, difficult, and painful. But it’s also got promise.
Suddenly, deciding whether God should have created an evil-free universe isn’t a mere theological problem: it’s the problem of which world we pick. It’s the problem of how we aim our own lives: at only fun and ease or (sometimes) at challenge and adversity.
So next time you discuss the Problem of Evil, ask your students:
“Should everything you read be fun?”