A former student of mine has articulated an interesting and important set of worries about my posts on the so-called "problem of evil", and it occurs to me that the combox is not the best place to do justice to them, so I'm going to try to respond to him in a full blown entry using the stichomachea approach that I ordinarily hate when reading other blogs. I will reproduce the entire text of the comment that is relevant to the problem, quoting it in blue rather than indenting it. I will address myself directly to my student in the second person, rather than attempting some kind of value-neutral perspective couched in the third person.
I have always thought that you brush off the so-called problem of evil a little too easily. In particular, your responses seem to have little force for someone who raises the problem as an objection to believing in God in the first place, rather than for someone facing it as a difficulty for their overall understanding of God.
I will begin by noting that my own analysis of the so-called "problem of evil" [PE] is never intended to persuade or to serve as a form of apologetics, so I am not concerned about objections of this sort. Indeed, I believe I have said in several of my posts that the capacity to assent to the faith is not, strictly speaking, up to us, but is rather made possible by a supernatural act of divine grace. So in one sense, you are right that what I have to say is going to be of little use to someone who does not yet believe in God; it is directed principally to the person who already believes in God as an aid in making sense of what he already believes. Theological speculation, in my view, is principally explanatory in nature, and not rhetorical. It makes use of metaphor, allusion, analogy, and other devices to reverse engineer what the believer already believes is the case but would like to understand better.
This may not be true of all analyses of PE. Obviously, in a philosophical context what one is looking for is some sort of argument for or against the hypotheses that are said to follow from the initial set of beliefs (i.e., "God is omnipotent", "God is omniscient", "God is omnibenevolent", and "Evil exists"). In particular, someone who wants to have a look at what a philosopher might have to say about PE could do worse than to look at Evil Beyond Belief by my colleague, Prof. James Petrik (M. E. Sharpe, 2000), or indeed the various posts on the topic by Dr. Michael Liccione at Sacramentum Vitae. Particularly important contributions on his part can be found here and here.
So the point that you raise here, that my discussion has little force for the non-believer, is an interesting one, but I would have to say that if what is wanted is a different sort of response, namely, a polemical one, then what is needed is some reason to think that the problem of evil actually needs such a response. The way the problem is often stated, it does not strike me as a problem at all, so it's not clear why I should make a different sort of response. It won't do to say something along the lines of "Well, a lot of really smart philosophers think it is a problem", because that just opens you up to the obverse of the objection you made against me: "Just as my 'solution' is convincing only to somebody who already believes, so too your 'problem of evil' is only a problem for people who already don't believe in God". In the case of someone like Ehrman, who once believed in God and who now claims not to believe in God because of PE, things may be a little different, but we shall see.
I'm not really convinced by your arguments, in part because I'm not convinced by your claims about what is and what isn't good. You'll have to go a really long way down the neo-Platonic path of hating the flesh before you can honestly say that it is a matter of indifference that a person suffers from ailments that are genuinely debilitating, that rob the person of the chance to attain anything more than a semblance of the good.
I didn't say that it was a matter of indifference. I admitted that, of course, nobody likes to suffer pain or sorrow. Indeed, I know from my own sad experience that it can really screw up one's day to break a bone or lose a loved one or live in times when we witness the mass destruction of human life, whether as a result of natural disaster or of human intervention. So it's not that it's a matter of indifference. It's that I'm unwilling to equate moral goodness with a lack of suffering and moral badness with the presence of suffering. In short, I'm not a hedonist, and I don't see that the burden of proof lies with me to antecedently accept hedonism as a prior condition for the solution of PE. In short, my view is that shit happens, but the fact that shit happens is not a sufficient condition for proving that God does not exist or that he is himself indifferent to human suffering.
Pointing to the facts of biology doesn't do any good, because God is presumably responsible for those, whether he caused them or merely allowed them.
In which case I fail to see how it "doesn't do any good". Doesn't it beg the question to argue this way: "Look, God is responsible for the way we are structured, the way we are structured causes suffering, suffering is evil, therefore God is either evil or he can't design his way out of a paper bag." Why can't I just as easily argue this way: "God is responsible for the way we are structured, the way we are structured causes physical and emotional suffering, therefore physical and emotional suffering is not as 'evil' as people imagine it to be." I'm not really sure why the burden of proof is on me to accept a non-Platonic attitude towards physical suffering and then attempt to explain it in terms that I don't think genuinely apply to it in the first place.
In fact, it seems that the Christian must believe that God can create a world in which the facts of biology do not make for the kind of suffering that we see in our world--if you look forward to the resurrection of the dead, then what you look forward to is an embodied form of eternal life. But if an embodied form of eternal life is possible, then it is not beyond God's power to create a world in which biological necessity does not lead to suffering.
Possibly, but whatever the Christian believes about what God could have done, there is no reason why the Christian "must" believe that God ought to design the world one way rather than another, if the normative claim behind that "ought" boils down to nothing more than a hopelessly subjective "God ought to create a world in which I can think of nothing to object to". In fact, it seems virtually narcissistic to argue this way. However, as I shall suggest below, this objection actually makes an interesting sort of mistake: it confuses the temporal with the atemporal, and assumes that the temporal order of things that we are consciously aware of right now has the same extension as the atemporal, of which we have no knowledge right now. I will suggest below that God has, in fact, already created a world in which biological necessity does not lead to suffering, and that we are, in fact, already living in that world.
Similarly, Christians who try to fend off the problem of evil by claiming that a world in which God prevented all evil (or at least natural evils) would ultimately have less good in it should ask themselves what they think life in the new creation is supposed to be like.
The difficulty with this is that it has God preventing things, which begs the question against the Christian, who asserts (for good, theological reasons) that free will is an essential element in the goodness of the created order. A more promising line of argument, which is connected to your question about the new creation, asks why God can't create a universe in which human beings have genuine free will and yet choose only good things. It is worth noting that if the old creation had the same properties as the new creation, then there would be no difference between the old and the new creations, so this particular objection appears to beg the question against the Christian worldview. But a more interesting difficulty, I think, is that God did create a universe in which genuinely free agents choose only good things, but we (as in, folks like you and I) are not capable of experiencing it yet: it is the eschaton. We are temporal creatures trying to make sense of an atemporal order of being in which we participate, albeit very indirectly, so it seems strange to say that "there will be a universe" in which there is free will exercised only for the good, and that "future" universe is in fact the same as "this" universe in which free creatures obviously choose to do evil.
The only remotely convincing responses to the 'problem' that I've read are ones that seriously revise the conception of God that most theists and atheists alike assume -- immaterial being who controls everything and can do whatever he wants and supposedly loves us but nonetheless allows, if he does not in fact cause, babies to be born with diseases that lead them to devour their own flesh. The problem with these defenses, in turn, is that their vision of God ends up looking rather different from the sort of God that the New Testament talks about. So then one wonders whether the God that can escape the objections can possibly be the God of Christianity.
Here I just don't know what you're talking about. The conception of God that you are assigning to theists looks nothing like the conception of God that I have, and I count myself as a theist. I'm happy to admit that there are theists and atheists alike who have simplistic, naive, and cartoonish ideas of what God is like (the Harrises, Dennetts, and Dawkinses of the world come to mind), but I take it that PE is supposed to be a problem not for the cartoonish God but for the well-thought-out one. Nor do I have any idea what your alternative conception of God would be like or what reason one would have to believe in it. Quite frankly, if I were not a Catholic, I would be an atheist, because in my opinion religion generally is a load of crap, and I believe that I accept the truths of Catholicism only because I am moved to do so by an act of divine grace that aids me in assenting to those truths. If the God that I believe in does not actually exist, then what I am interpreting as divine aid is just some psychological affect, and I am deluded--but not so deluded as to think that any other godlike being could possibly exist.
Don't get me wrong -- your criticisms of Ehrman et al. are right on target, if only because they take so much for granted without even stopping to consider them. I certainly don't believe that any arguments from evil establish that God does not or could not exist. Yet your own philosophical colleagues and co-religionists -- hell, your own scriptures --- do not agree with you that the problem of evil is nothing more than a stupid mistake made by idiots with no proper appreciation for what is really good or what God is really like.
There are two different claims here. One is that "philosophical colleagues and co-religionists" don't agree with me, the other is that my "own scriptures" do not agree with me.
It is not fully true that my "philosophical colleagues and co-religionists" do not agree with me. Some of them do not agree with me, others do agree with me. It is, perhaps, the case that more of those who have published their views do not agree with me, but I think that if you were to read more of those published views you would find that the extent of my disagreement with them is actually quite limited, and if you were to read around among those who agree with me you would find that PE, as it is commonly stated, is really a mere philosophical puzzle, not a deep theological problem for real theists. If it were really as bad as you make out, smart people would abandon Christianity for good--or do you assert that only "idiots with no proper appreciation for what is really good or what God is really like" are still Christians these days?
As for the scriptures not agreeing with me, well that is just question-begging. I'm putting forward a view about evil and its place in God's created order, and of course I believe my view to be consonant with what the Scriptures say, or I would not put it forward. My view depends a very great deal on other things I have written about the Scriptures and my view about God's justice, and it is certainly not intended as a merely ad hoc response to a problem that I never really thought about before. So you can't just point to the very same Scriptures that I'm using as a basis for my view and say, triumphantly, "Look, that text proves you wrong." Instead, it would be more helpful to have specific texts cited, along with reasons given for thinking that they contradict me, that I could usefully respond to. I will admit, of course, that my view does reflect the fact that I am not yet convinced that there actually is a problem of evil, though of course I admit that evil exists. It would be helpful for me, too, if somebody could explain in greater detail why it has to be the case that the existence of evil as we experience it is a problem for the Christian. It simply isn't very convincing to just be told that there is an insuperable logical puzzle in which omnibenevolence and omniscience do not get along all that well with omnipotence and evil. As Wittgenstein once remarked, it is pointless to use the language of logic when talking about issues that are only communicable in the language of the heart.
On my view, there are two sorts of phenomena that are named "evil" for the purposes of PE (and I think it is worth noting that there are other contexts in which "evil", as a concept, has applications, contexts in which nothing about the existence or nature of God is entailed by its existence): (a) pain and suffering, whether physical, psychological, emotional, or what have you; and (b) the ill-formed intentions of human agents that bring about phenomena in the category of (a). There is a third type, which seems to me largely irrelevant to PE, but may be worth mentioning for the sake of completeness: (c) deliberate turning away from God's will that does not result in phenomena in the category of (a). In this category would fall such acts as unjust hatred of one's neighbor, even though one never has any interactions with one's neighbor and never does anything to harm one's neighbor in any way.
Category (a), as I have already pointed out, can only be counted as "evil" for the context of PE if one antecedently adopts a form of hedonism that begs the question against the Neoplatonist. In addition, to count such phenomena as "evil" completely ignores the success of evolutionary biology in explaining the origin and function of material processes such as physical and emotional pain. In short, to say that such phenomena are "evil" in their own right (and again, in the sense required for PE) is to say that nature itself is "evil" and reflects a pre-modern worldview that, quite frankly, isn't worth taking seriously. The argument that claims that God "could have" created a natural order in which we biological entities have all of the same properties that we have now only without pain and suffering is desperately ad hoc and continues the naturalistic fallacy of assigning moral predicates to natural phenomena.
Category (b) is a little more worrisome, but only a little more. Once it is realized that the phenomena in category (a) are hardly "evil" in the sense required by PE, it is not difficult to show that phenomena in category (b) are fully explained by the doctrine of free will.
Now, all of this is not to say, as you put it in your initial worry, that the Christian is "indifferent" to human suffering of a physical kind. In fact the Christian is called to alleviate suffering wherever he finds it, and this is not a mere bowing to convention. Surely this needs some explanation. My view is, of course, a distinctively Catholic one in the sense that I regard all of human experience as in some sense sacramental. That is just a fancy way of saying that everything in our experience is shot through with a deeper meaning that is not the same as the surface, or empirical, meaning (and this is why I am not a global empiricist). Pleasure, for example, is every bit as puzzling as pain, and yet nobody seems to regard it as a problem for religion. Why do we experience pleasure? Why does sex feel so good? Why is food so satisfying? Why do we have conscious awareness at all? One can imagine beings such as ourselves in every respect only without any sensation at all, no need to experience the pleasures of sex or eating or indeed being consciously aware. Materially, there is a perfectly adequate explanation for why we are the way we are in reality rather than this fantastic aphenomenal sort of creature, but the explanation is a contingent one: we just happened to develop this way because, for whatever contingent set of reasons, our set of properties had the effect of granting us differential reproductive success in our environment, but we could easily have been quite different.
Given that we are the way we are from a material point of view, the theologian seeks to understand why we are the way we are from a theological point of view. Pleasure, then becomes not merely a mechanism by which we are tempted to continue doing things that are objectively good for us, though of course they are also that at a material level. At another level, though, all pleasurable experiences also serve to direct our attention to God in a certain way. Whether they prompt us to feel gratitude, or engage in praise, or just feel joy and communion with something beyond ourselves, the point is that, if materialism is false, none of these attitudes towards pleasure need be reduced to the merely physical. The physical is merely a material correlate for something else, namely, a kind of closeness with God. The pleasurable stands as a sacramental sign of the possibility of the communion that is our end.
Similarly, pain and suffering are sacramental signs of our separation from God, but because Jesus Christ's sacrifice had the genuine ontological effect of altering the nature of that separation, even pain and suffering are not what they once were. Again, there is a perfectly reasonable materialist explanation for why we feel pain: it is a very useful mechanism, biologically. The more complicated problem is why we don't like pain, the other side of the "why do we like pleasure" coin. One can imagine somebody feeling pain without minding it. Indeed, even in our own case I'm sure you and I have had minor cuts and scrapes that we didn't particularly mind, but of course the more severe the injury the more we mind it, but some studies have suggested that different individuals experience these things in different ways (indeed, some studies have suggested that other species, such as Neanderthal, have had very high pain thresholds, beyond what we could bear), so it is no simple matter to simply make the equation pain=evil, and it is even more complicated in a world that contains masochists. In general, though, my view is that we don't like pain because any painful experience is a sacramental sign of our general alienation from God. In this sense, pain serves another useful purpose, though it's not a material purpose. It serves the other purpose of drawing us closer to God: just as pleasurable sensations can remind us to be grateful to God painful ones prompt us to turn to him in our suffering. The scriptures that you say contradict me actually are full of calls to us to turn to God and appeal to him in our times of trouble, he wants to be our solace and our shield, he wants to comfort us and take care of us. But because of human freedom, he cannot do those things if we turn away from him. We feel pain and sorrow when we turn away from God in just the same way that a heliotropic flower begins to wilt when you turn it away from the sun: God is our end, our source of life and being. It is difficult for materialists to grasp how an inner attitude can have a physical manifestation, but that is the beauty of sacramental religion.
It is tempting for materialists to claim that some pain and suffering is "undeserved". This is a utilitarian attitude that fails to grasp the genuine nature of pain and suffering in the order of things. It is true that, when an infant dies of starvation in Ethiopia, there is a utilitarian sense in which he did not "deserve" to die, nor did his parents "deserve" to feel the sorrow of his loss. On the other hand, it is tempting for some religious folks to answer this worry by saying that Original Sin means that nobody "deserves" anything or, in certain extreme forms of Calvinism, that we all "deserve" death and so that infant was actually getting what he did deserve. I am not attracted to these sorts of response, because they carry the real danger of accepting the utilitarian attitude towards pain and suffering, which I believe to be fundamentally wrongheaded. Instead, I would prefer to say that Original Sin means that we have a propensity to turn away from God and a corresponding propensity to fail to flourish. If we understand "deserve" in an Aristotelian sense, it is then fair to say that we "deserve" pain and suffering in the same way in which the heliotrope "deserves" to wilt when it is turned away from the sun: "deserve" just means "get what comes as a matter of the natural course of things given what you have done". You turned away from God, and you ceased to flourish. The infant, of course, did not deliberately turn away from God, but when he suffers he shares in the human condition in a unique way, whether he understands what he is undergoing or not. It goes without saying that he doesn't understand his pleasurable states, either, even though he doesn't "deserve" them in a utilitarian sense. He only knows that he likes them, and that he dislikes pains.
It's important not to conflate the two issues at work here: the biological and the theological. Biologically, it isn't in the least bit puzzling that an infant should feel pain, should be capable of starving and dying. The paternalists who expect God to jump into the mix and put a stop to such things, while permitting such things as pleasures and joys, have a very confused idea of what it means to live in a world that has meaning. Theologically, then, it is no more puzzling, once we comprehend that being is more complex than the merely physical.
So I stand by my analysis of PE: I continue to maintain that it is not a problem in the least for the Christian theist, and that the case against me has yet to be made.