Friday 4 December 2015

The Problem of Evil

It is interesting to note that in a recent interview, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, stated that following the aftermath of the Paris bombings he doubted the existence of god. What intrigued me was why this particular act should jolt the good Bish to question god's existence? History is resplendent with horror and atrocities, some of which were perpetrated by the Christian church. Now the Archbishop is an educated and supposedly intelligent man. If he is saying this sort of thing in public then his private thoughts must be a lot more settled. He seems to forget that he is the spiritual leader of the Anglican church and circumspection in speech and deed is probably prudent; he would not make a good politician. However, in secular Britain the Archbishop's comments will probably fluff few feathers outside the rarefied world of ecclesiastica although it might unsettle the 'Blue Rinse' brigade.

The problem of evil is a longstanding one and ably expressed by the Ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus:

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God

Therefore, we have to contemplate a deity who is unable to intervene to prevent evil or a deity who, although able to intervene, chooses not to and therefore, remains indifferent to our fate or takes delight in our suffering. Adherents of the Christian religion find this viewpoint highly unsatisfactory and over the centuries very clever minds have exercised their intellectual muscle to find a solution to this very real dilemma. In fact, this train of thought has spawned a whole branch of theology, called Theodicy. This is an essential extension of Christian thought especially as god is endowed with the quality of 'being all good', or omnibenevolence. The concept of god's 'all goodness' has been a notoriously difficult concept for Christians to defend especially in light of the portrayal of god in the 'Old Testament'. This ancient book makes no excuse for a rapacious, vicious and cruel deity: "I am the Lord and there is no other.....I make weal and create woe, I am the Lord, who do all these things". Not much theological wiggle room or ambiguity in this passage. I will not list the atrocities sanctioned in the Bible by the good Lord, for they are legion. It is fascinating to note that these passages are never read out in the pulpit by the Vicar on a quiet Sunday morn- might upset the old dears. And if you think that the god of the 'New Testament' is more enlightened then you have not read the words of the living god, Jesus. There are frequent instances where Jesus threatens the unbeliever with the eternal torment of hell.

Having established that theologians have a case to argue on behalf of their beloved deity, what approaches have they taken to circumvent god's responsibility for evil? One approach is to state that evil is illusory and therefore, evil simply does not exist. This viewpoint is not popular with theologians for the rather obvious reason: “If evil is really nothing then what is all the fuss about sin?” A popular argument is to state that evil is a consequence of man’s ‘free will’. Tis god's gift in order that we can exercise choice in our actions and thus act as free agents and not mindless automatons. If man chooses to exercise this right for evil then the responsibility for evil lies with man, not god. There is a problem with this approach: 'free will' is incompatible with another of god's characteristics, omniscience. God knows all and as a consequence every event, past and present, is known by god and therefore, there can be no such thing as 'free will' as everything is predetermined. This absolves mankind from moral responsibility as we cannot act otherwise- we are robots, after all. As god created man in full knowledge of what would unfold and as evil is part of the performance, god must take full responsibility for his creation. He could have made a 'benign' world where evil was non-existent, but he chose not to.

We all know that killing, robbing and stealing is wrong from a moral perspective. In a civilised society, there is a legal provision to protect the 'weak and innocent' from the evil that men do. However, god appears not to be willing to interact with the world, although capable of doing so, to protect the weak and innocent from the wicked. Some would say that god rectifies all in the 'afterlife'. The 'good' receive their reward and the 'bad' their just deserts. The appeal to justice in an 'afterlife' does not absolve god, morally. An evil act perpetrated in this life, or any other, still remains evil. And if god allows an evil act to occur, given his divine attributes, it follows that god is necessarily evil.    

This is but a simple exposition of some of Theodicy's arguments. The arguments can become philosophically sophisticated and technically convoluted. I will not continue in this vein as refutations should only be as complicated as is absolutely necessary to refute the opponent's stance.

 For all the sophistry and intellectual contortions, we have to ask how effective are the explanations absolving god from responsibility? All the special pleading, is just that, a desperate attempt to explain the unexplainable. If prodded sufficiently hard, most religious apologists will fall back to the default position: 'How can the feeble mind of man understand the majesty and workings of a supernatural god'? This is no explanation at all and relies on the concept of an inexplicable deity. Few outside the fusty cloister will find this a satisfactory riposte.

Of course, there is another solution never considered by theologians, except the Archbishop: There are no gods and we are alone and adrift in an indifferent universe. In that case, we would be better applying ourselves to the question- why are we as a species, so cruel? Humankind is responsible for evil in the world, notwithstanding evil due to natural disasters.  If we are to seek answers to human injustice we are well advised to seek them in our psychology and perhaps ultimately in our fundamental biology. It looks like god is off the hook, after all. 

Twat in a hat


  1. "...In a civilised society, there is a legal provision to protect the 'weak and innocent' from the evil that men do..."

    Our 'legal provisions' came into being primarily to protect the 'haves' and their property from the have-nots. Little has changed, except these provisions have widened to protect the state, its servants and their powers from those they are supposed to serve.

    Therefore our society cannot be said to be civilised.


  2. According to the Bible, and Christian teachings, Jesus died so that our sins would be forgiven - that is the sins we have committed, are committing, and will commit. So, according to this theory, you can be the biggest sh#t in the world yet once you have popped your clogs all your sins will be forgiven and you will spend eternity, sitting on a cloud, playing a celestial harp, next to Atilla, Vlad, Adolf, Stalin, Blair, and Piers Morgan. And they call that paradise!

  3. Surely Piers Morgan is totally beyond redemption...

  4. Sadly P Morgan isn't the most evil person on the planet. I think that accolade must go to the person who gets children to murder people for them.

  5. god is all-loving
    god is all-powerful
    evil exists

    All three statements cannot be true