The Problem of Evil: A Brief Response to St. Augustine, Alvin Plantinga, and the Westboro Baptist Church

This essay was originally submitted as part of my studies at La Trobe University, hence its lack of rhetorical flourish or dirty words, and its extreme, intellectually constraining brevity.

The Christian god, referred to as YHWH from here on for brevity, as conceptualised by theologians is an all-powerful creative force, who possesses perfect and complete knowledge and wisdom, and whose essence is goodness. However, many find faith in such a god impossible due to the problem of evil1– the difficulty of reconciling the existence of evil with a wholly good, omniscient, omnipotent creator god like YHWH. I believe this disbelief is the most rational response to the problem of evil. I will seek to show why this is so in what follows, and will address some of the more effective theistic responses. I will use the terms Christianity and ethical monotheism interchangeably throughout this essay, though I realise the two terms are not truly equal. Likewise, when I use the term ‘theist/s’ I am referring to believers in YHWH, not any other god.2

The logical problem created for ethical monotheism is this:

  1. Ethical monotheism proposes a loving creator god YHWY who is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent.
  2. The world contains much evil.
  3. The creation and sustenance of evil is not compatible with goodness.
  4. Therefore, YHWY lacks either goodness, complete knowledge, or complete power – otherwise s/he would not allow evil to exist.

St. Augustine argues that, in fact, evil does not exist. YHWH made all things good so evil is just an absence of good, as darkness is an absence of light.3 There is an a priori intuitive problem with this line of thinking, it just doesn’t match with the experience of evil. The mother of a baby shot in the face4 would surely not agree that evil is a mere lack of good. There also seem to be two logical problems with Augustine’s argument.

Firstly:

  1. If evil is simply a lack of good then we should expect the introduction of goodness to dispel evil.
  2. This is not the case, in fact the opposite is usually true.
  3. Therefore, evil is not a mere lack of good but is itself an active force.

Secondly:

  1. Augustine’s argument relies on the premise that YHWH created all things good.
  2. This premise is accepted due to its being enunciated in the Bible.
  3. The truth of the Bible is only accepted if we believe in YWHW.
  4. The use of YHWH’s authority in an argument about h/er existence and/or nature is clearly question begging.

I think a more powerful response is that made by Alvin Plantinga, who puts forth a teleological defense of YHWH against the problem of evil. In Plantinga’s own words “a world containing creatures who are significantly free … is more valuable, all else being equal, than a world containing no free creatures at all.”5 I think this reasoning both overvalues negative freedom and shows a lack of imagination in imagining other possible worlds. The idea that YHWH’s goodness is saved because free will6 requires evil assumes that freedom from outside coercion is an absolute good. Many of the world’s most unfortunate may well argue from their graves or favelas that positive freedoms are more important. But even if we grant the importance of negative freedom, it is not easy to imagine that YHWH could have created a world where evil was less likely, or in which extreme evil was limited to the psychological but never manifested.7 As it is, evil actions are not only possible in this world but likely. Our evolutionary heritage predisposes us to selfishness, triablism, sexual voracity, and incredible aggression. When these factors are combined with an environment defined by a struggle for limited resources – including food and water – war, murder, slavery, rape, and oppressive systems of power are a near certainty. If you measure evil by the stricter standards of Christian morality, evil becomes an absolute certainty. As YHWH has infinite knowledge, s/he would be aware of this. A good god would not set a test for h/er creation which s/he knows they will fail, and then punish them in this life and the hypothetical next for that failure; YHWH knew all along we would eat of the fruit.

An even more fundamental problem with such teleological arguments is that they don’t account for natural evils such as earthquakes, bush fires, or disease. While we might argue that the ability of humans to commit evil acts is necessary for free will to exist, it is very difficult to come up with any noble purpose YHWH could have in allowing a small child to develop leukaemia or a family to burn to death in their home. One defence against this problem for theists is that of the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) that hurricane Katrina, for example, was the result of YHWH’s righteous judgement.8 The flaw in this argument is that the vast majority of those ‘punished’ are just ordinary people. The WBC would argue that entire nations can be punished just for allowing homosexuality, or for turning from YHWH, however this would certainly not meet most people’s standards for goodness. Such behaviour is more closely associated with a Hitler or Bin Laden than with any figure approaching the saintly.

I think the WBC’s justification for evil can be rejected out of hand by all but the most fanatical, and it would certainly be rejected by most thoughtful theologians. St. Augustine’s response is not so abhorrent but it does rather whitewash evil, and its flawed logic and circular reasoning render it fairly powerless against the problem of evil. Plantinga’s response is certainly stronger, and does show a way out of the purely logical conundrum posed for believers by evil. However, it us unlikely to convince anyone other than committed believers, relying as it does on the questionable assumption that this is the best of all possible worlds. For the true believer, there is something to cling onto in teleological defences of theism, as these do make the problem of evil less conclusive. It could be true that there are goods that could not exist without evil. I don’t think free will is a good enough candidate though, and most other goods are likely to be matters of faith themselves – heaven for example, or a glorious future world. For the undecided and the non-believer, however, the problem of evil is certainly strong enough – and the counter-arguments weak enough – to feel safely lump YHWH in with Zeus, Thor, Allah, and millions of others as just one more deity that is highly unlikely to exist.

1‘Evil’ shall be defined in this essay simply as those things in the world – whether willed actions or natural phenomena – that cause great harm and suffering to humans and animals. The broader question of whether there is any objective meaning to the term shall be left untouched here, though it is a very interesting question
2This may seem needlessly limiting, but the topic becomes impossible otherwise. A Hindu god like Kali, for example, would seem less likely to exist in a world without evil, so it would simply be too difficult to form any cogent argument against all theisms.
3St. Augustine of Hippo, Doctrinal Treatises of St. Augustine (Buffalo: The Christian Literature Co., 1887), ch. 11, <http://oll.libertyfund.org/?option=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php%3Ftitle=2273&chapter=213787&layout=html&Itemid=27>, accessed 1 April 2013.
4AP, ‘Two teens arrested in baby killing’, Age, World, 23 March 2013, para. 4-5, <http://www.theage.com.au/world/two-teens-arrested-in-baby-killing-20130323-2gm4i.html>, accessed 24 March 2013.
5Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1977), p. 30
6Whether free will really exists is a separate issue, for the purposes of this essay I am assuming that at least some level of free will does indeed exist.
7A world created in the right way – either through the physical design of agents, their psychological makeup, or other design factors – would not truly be limiting freedom, just as our inability to flap our wings and fly does not limit our freedom on this world; it is simply not something we can achieve.
8Westboro Baptist Church, ‘Thank God for Katrina’, WBC Chronicle, 31 March 2005, <http://www.godhatesfags.com/fliers/archive/20050831_thank-god-for-katrina.pdf>, accessed 1 April 2013.

 

Bibliography
AP, ‘Two teens arrested in baby killing’, Age, World, 23 March 2013, para. 4-5,<http://www.theage.com.au/world/two-teens-arrested-in-baby-killing-20130323-2gm4i.html>,accessed 24 March
Augustine, Saint, Doctoral Treatises of St. Agustine, (Buffalo: The Christian Literature Co., 1887).
Plantinga, Alvin, God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1977).
Westboro Baptist Church, ‘Thank God for Katrina’, WBC Chronicle, 31 March 2005,<http://www.godhatesfags.com/fliers/archive/20050831_thank-god-for-katrina.pdf>, accessed1 April 2013.

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