A Dialogue on Evil

*Friedrich and his friend Winfried are two philosophy students with differing outlooks on religion. Particularly, Friedrich is a Christian and Winfried is not. While Friedrich is watching the news about a recent local tragedy in his community, Winfried, while writing an ethics paper, turns around from his computer and listens intently on the tragic story.*

Winfried: That’s just awful. This happened just over by route 61? I used to have a friend who lived over there and I would go to his house all the time. That’s insane that a murder took place over there.

Friedrich: Well, you turned around kind of late, but there seems to be no need to catch the guy anymore.

Winfried: What do you mean? He shot a man and left him to die on his front porch. Did the police just get lazy?

Friedrich: No, that’s not it. The guy didn’t exactly get very far.  He shot himself just outside the neighborhood, for a reason that I don’t quite understand.

Winfried: My goodness. Why do things like this happen?

Friedrich: I don’t have a clue. They didn’t say anything about a motive.

Winfried: Well, Friedrich, why do you think it happened? We were discussing the problem of evil in our philosophy class the other night and I was wondering the whole time as to what your take on the issue was. How does evil make sense when you believe in God?

Friedrich: Would you suppose that the coexistence of evil and God doesn’t make sense?

Winfried: Well I would certainly maintain that it is either impossible or at best highly unlikely that God exists. Unless of course, you’d like to deny the existence of evil. In which case we need only rewind the television and demonstrate that to be false.

Friedrich: It seems to me that if that is the position you are going to maintain then it is not going to work out so well. The burden of proof in this case is on you, Winfried. Not on me. You see, in posing the challenge, “What explanation is there to be given for God’s permitting of evil?” the intellectual responsibility is on you to show that there is no explanation – if, at least, you hold that the coexistence of evil and God are impossible or unlikely. Which, you said is true. Why do you think this is so?

Winfried: I think a simple way to put it would be like this: God exists and evil exists. Both of these cannot be true. However, we know that evil exists. Therefore, God cannot exist. Some intelligent men like to add in the factors of omnipotence (or, all-powerful) and omnibenevolence (or, all-loving/good). Fair enough. If God is all-powerful, then he could create any world he wants to. If God is all-loving, then he would prefer a world without suffering. However, Friedrich! Remember when I said that God exists and evil as well? We know evil to be quite real! So, God cannot exist, less’ your God be finite!

Friedrich: Some heavy stuff, Winfried. First, I would say with respect to your point about God being all-powerful: God cannot create any world that he wants with the possibility of free will. It is logically impossible to make someone do something freely. Should free will exist, the claim that God could create any world he wanted to may not exactly be true.

Winfried: Aha! We have said that God is omnipotent. Why not say that he can do the logically impossible? He is after all, God. Maybe he could make free creatures do something.

Friedrich: Nice try, Winfried. Even if that were true, then the problem you raised would evaporate. For at that point God could bring it about that He and suffering both exist simultaneously, even though it is logically impossible, as you say.

Winfried: Hmm, that is a fair point. Even still, why do you use free will as a cop out?

Friedrich: It isn’t a cop out. Even if you didn’t believe in free will, and even if free will didn’t actually exist, it is logically possible that free persons in some other world could experience almost triple the suffering our real world is experiencing. My point is that this “logical possibility” eliminates out that “logically impossible” problem you raised. However, even if that didn’t satisfy you let us suppose another problem with your argument.

Winfried: What other problem?

Friedrich: You said that it was impossible or highly unlikely that God and evil exists. We have to be clear here, Winfried, to understand that those are two different arguments you’re using there. If you say that “God exists” and “evil exists” are logically inconsistent, then you have to show why those are explicitly contradictory. For right now at least, there is nothing contradictory about those two claims. So, in other words, why are they inconsistent?

Winfried: I believe I already said this. God, being all-powerful, could eliminate the evils in the world. God, also being all-loving, would eliminate the evils in the world. However, he hasn’t done so. Is God not all-loving that he is evil or malicious? Is God not all-powerful that he is weak, or is not God?

Friedrich: Perhaps I could offer you this alternative. Do you remember Gottfried Leibniz when we did that section on German philosophers?

Winfried: Vaguely. All I remember from that section was Hegel and Marx and none of it was particularly fun.

Friedrich: No one reads Hegel or Marx and thinks “fun.” One reads Leibniz, however, and encounters a possible solution. A solution that is worth looking at.

Winfried: Well, what did Leibniz say?

*Friedrich gets off of the couch and sits in a chair next to Winfried*

Friedrich: Well, Leibniz looks at three things to get his argument going: God is all-powerful, God is all-knowing and God is all-loving. First, if God is all-knowing, then he is familiar with all of the possible worlds he could create. He also knows which of those worlds would be the best. Secondly, God is all-powerful that he is able to make any of those possible worlds. Thirdly, God is all-loving. God would only make the best of all possible worlds. Leibniz concluded that with these three ingredients God would only create the best of all possible world, and that is the world in which we live. So, this must be the best of all possible worlds.

Winfried: That argument is a joke! No wonder Voltaire wrote his famous Candide! It was a response to Leibniz! If you were to suppose that a young man named “Candide” went through a treacherous journey of being flogged, mocked and ridiculed, would he come out the other end still declaring, “This is the best of all possible worlds!”? Of course not! And neither do victims of murder or of thievery, Friedrich! Surely, you can’t be serious in supposing that this is the best of all possible worlds.

Friedrich: You are using that objection as a finite creature and not as God. That leaves out the possibility of God having a morally sufficient reason for allowing the evils in our world to occur. It seems to me, as a matter of fact, that since there is evil in the world, it must serve the purpose of making the world better.

Winfried: So evil is meant to serve the furthering of the obtainment of the good? Then why call “evil” evil, if it is just a way of bringing us to the good? Giving charity, self-sacrifice, being honest; all seem to be different ways to the good, just like evil. Isn’t evil then a kind of good?

Friedrich: Not at all, Winfried. Evil must be a kind of unavoidable condition for the highest good. If this is so, then evil does not become the good, as you so claim. Evil carries out a function in facilitating the higher good. Think about it like this. Suppose you were to get a surgery where you had to be awake and experience all of the doctor’s procedure on you. Whatever this operation may be, it is going to cause you a lot of physical pain. However, when the operation is done correctly, it will save your life. In the same way, first-order evils could be used so as to facilitate a second-order good.

Winfried: I don’t exactly see where the justification comes in. There is evil because there is a higher good that it points to?

Friedrich: I think we can warmly welcome free will back into the discussion. In this kind of “free will defense” I think it would be appropriate to insert here the realization that evil is the unavoidable “price tag” (if you will) for freedom. Free creatures are free to obey or disobey God. I think there is good reason to suppose that God knew we were going to disobey him, and he was willing to pay that price in order to promote the higher good of freedom.

Winfried: But you still must see, Friedrich! God, in promoting this freedom has allowed evil into the world. Hence, God must have a reason for giving us this freedom in the first place. We are back to where we started! God still must have a reason for permitting evil to take place!

Friedrich: You are right, Winfried. And I think you are going to like where the argument is going. Rather than say that God created the best possible world, how about we say this instead: the present world must be the best way to the best world. Winfried, it all boils down to the poor objection you presented me a little bit ago. If God, being all-loving and all-powerful, would and could get rid of evil, evil would not exist. However, evil does exist. Therefore, God must not exist. I would pose you a similar problem: if you train a cat to eat all the mice in the house, and yet there are mice in your basement, does this mean that you don’t have a cat?

Winfried: I do see where this is going.

Friedrich: It would be correct (I think) to say that God will one day abolish all remaining evil in this world. This is a statement in the future tense and makes sense to put together the following claims: Given God’s nature, we can expect God to bring about the best of all possible worlds. Since the present world is not (yet) the best, we can count on God to bring about the best world in the future. Moreover, there is evil in the present world. This evil must serve the purpose (as we have seen) of facilitating the higher good. God did not create evil but permits it, and as one famous theologian put it, God is putting the world back to rights. It’s an interesting way of saying that God is making all things anew.


About Steven Dunn

A believer of the Gospel; a broken mind being reformed in grace.
This entry was posted in Dialogues, Philosophy of Religion and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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