How could a good God permit evil?

The following is quoted from Alvin Plantinga.

Sometimes evil displays a cruelly ironic twist. I recall a story in the local paper a few years ago about a man who drove a cement mixer truck. He came home one day for lunch; his three-year-old daughter was playing in the yard, and after lunch, when he jumped into his truck and backed out, he failed to notice that she was playing behind it; she was killed beneath the great dual wheels. One can imagine this man’s broken-hearted anguish. And if he was a believer in God, he may have become furiously angry with God–who after all, could have forestalled this calamity in a thousand different ways. So why didn’t he? And sometimes we get a sense of the demonic–of evil naked and pure. Those with power over others may derive great pleasure from devising exquisite tortures for their victims: a woman in a Nazi concentration camp is forced to choose which of her children shall be sent to the ovens and which preserved. Why does God permit all this evil, and evil of these horrifying kinds, in his world? How can it be seen as fitting in with his loving and providential care for his creatures?

The Christian must concede she doesn’t know. That is, she doesn’t know in any detail. On a quite general level, she may know that God permits evil because he can achieve a world he sees as better by permitting evil than by preventing it; and what God sees as better is, of course, better. But we cannot see why our world with all its ills, would be better than others we think we can conceive, or what, in any detail, is God’s reason for permitting a given specific and appalling evil. Not only can we not see this, we often can’t think of any very good possibilities. A Christian must therefore admit that he doesn’t know why God permits the evils this world displays. This can be deeply perplexing, and deeply disturbing. It can lead a believer to take towards God an attitude he himself deplores; it can tempt us to be angry with God, to mistrust God, like Job, to accuse him of injustice, to adopt an attitude of bitterness and rebellion. No doubt there isn’t any logical incompatibility between God’s power and knowledge and goodness, on the one hand, and the existence of the evils we see on the other; and no doubt the latter doesn’t provide a good probabilistic argument against the former. No doubt; but this is cold and abstract comfort when faced with the shocking concreteness of a particularly appalling exemplification of evil. What the believer in the grip of this sort of spiritual perplexity needs, of course, is not philosophy, but comfort, and spiritual counsel. There is much to be said here and it is neither my place nor within my competence to say it.

I should like, however, to mention two points that I believe are of special significance. First, as the Christian sees things, God does not stand idly by, coolly observing the suffering of his creatures. He enters into and shares our suffering. He endures the anguish of seeing his son, the second person of the Trinity, consigned to the bitterly cruel and shameful death of the cross. Some theologians claim that God cannot suffer. I believe they are wrong. God’s capacity for suffering, I believe, is proportional to his greatness; it exceeds our capacity for suffering in the same measure as his capacity for knowledge exceeds ours. Christ was prepared to endure the agonies of hell itself; and God, the first being and Lord of the universe, was prepared to endure the suffering consequent upon his son’s humiliation and death. He was prepared to accept this suffering in order to overcome sin, and death, and the evils that afflict our world, and to confer on us a life more glorious than we can imagine. So we don’t know why God permits evil; we do know, however, that he was prepared to suffer on our behalf, to accept suffering of which we can form no conception.

The chief difference between Christianity and the other theistic religions lies just here: according to the Christian gospel, God is willing to enter into and share the sufferings of his creatures, in order to redeem them and his world. Of course this doesn’t answer the question why does God permit evil? But it helps the Christian trust God as a loving father, no matter what ills befall him. Otherwise it would be easy to see God as remote and detached, permitting all these evils, himself untouched, in order to achieve ends that are no doubt exalted but have little to do with us, and little power to assuage our griefs. It would be easy to see him as cold and unfeeling–or if loving, then such that his love for us has little to do with our perception of our own welfare. But God, as Christians see him, is neither remote nor detached. His aims and goals may be beyond our ken and may require our suffering; but he is himself prepared to accept much greater suffering in the pursuit of those ends. In this regard Christianity contains a resource for dealing with this existential problem of evil–a resource denied the other theistic religions.

Second: it is indeed true that suffering and evil can occasion spiritual perplexity and discouragement; and of all the anti-theistic arguments, only the argument from evil deserves to be taken really seriously. But I also believe, paradoxically enough, that there is a theistic argument from evil; and it is at least as strong as the antitheistic argument from evil. (Here I can only sketch the argument and leave it at an intuitive level.) What is so deeply disturbing about horrifying kinds of evil? The most appalling kinds of evil involve human cruelty and wickedness: Stalin and Pol Pot, Hitler and his henchmen, and the thousands of small vignettes of evil that make up such a whole. What is genuinely abhorrent is the callousness and perversion and cruelty of the concentration camp guard, taking pleasure in the sufferings of others; what is really odious is taking advantage of one’s position of trust (as a parent or counsellor, perhaps) in order to betray and corrupt someone: what is genuinely appalling, in other words, is not really human suffering as such so much as human wickedness. This wickedness strikes us as deeply perverse, wholly wrong, warranting not just quarantine and the attempt to overcome it, but blame and punishment.

But could there really be any such thing as horrifying wickedness if naturalism were true? I don’t see how. A naturalistic way of looking at the world, so it seems to me, has no place for genuine moral obligation of any sort; a fortiori, then, it has no place for such a category as horrifying wickedness. It is hard enough, from a naturalistic perspective, to see how it could be that we human beings can be so related to propositions (contents) that we believe them; and harder yet, as I said above, to explain how that content could enter into a causal explanation of someone’s actions. But these difficulties are as nothing compared with seeing how, in a naturalistic universe, there could be such a thing as genuine and appalling wickedness. There can be such a thing only if there is a way rational creatures are supposed to live, obliged to live; and the force of that normativity–its strength, so to speak–is such that the appalling and horrifying nature of genuine wickedness is its inverse. But naturalism cannot make room for that kind of normativity; that requires a divine lawgiver, one whose very nature it is to abhor wickedness. Naturalism can perhaps accommodate foolishness and irrationality, acting contrary to what are or what you take to be your own interests; it can’t accommodate appalling wickedness. Accordingly, if you think there really is such a thing as horrifying wickedness (that our sense that there is, is not a mere illusion of some sort), and if you also think the main options are theism and naturalism, then you have a powerful theistic argument from evil.

When I ask myself, “How could a good God permit evil?” I hear another voice asking me back, “How could God come and Himself suffer evil?” I do not know why, but that’s the fact. God who permits evil is a God who Himself experienced evil, sufferings, even death for us sinners. The cross is the place where the heart no longer asks—not because she gets the answer—but because what she witnesses silences her, for she realizes that she is not supposed to ask. And how could God suffer and die, if He is not the Trinity? The existence of evil shows that the God we know from the Bible is the true God.


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