God, Evil, Love, and The Devil

By C. D. C. Reeve

In honor of World Philosophy Day here is what I hope will be a somewhat provocative take on topics of perennial philosophical and human interest.

Temptation of Christ Image

Evil and the Existence of God
Most people, even those who don’t think there is a God, would agree that no one could be God unless he or she is:

  • (1) omniscient (all knowing)
  • (2) omnipotent (all powerful)
  • (3) omnibenevolent (all good)

Most people would also agree that:

  • (4) evil exists.

But these four things result in a deep problem, as the following argument shows:

  • (5) If God is willing to prevent evil, but doesn’t know about it, he is not omniscient.
  • (6) If he is willing to prevent it, knows about it, and is unable to prevent it, he is not omnipotent.
  • (7) If he is willing to prevent it, knows about it, is able to prevent it and doesn’t, he is not omnibenevolent.
  • (8) If evil exists, God doesn’t exist.
  • (9) But evil does exist, so God doesn’t.

So if this argument is valid, there is no God!

The Free-agency Response
But is it valid? We might think that it isn’t. We might think, for example, that it does not hold in a world in which there are free human agents and in which all the evil in the world is caused by them. Free-agency is so valuable, the story continues, that even with all its attendant risks of evil its value outweighs the disvalue of all the evil things it causes. And in order to enable free human beings to learn and come to know the difference between good and evil, God had to allow evil to exist, since having such knowledge is required for agency anyway on the part of cognitively limited creatures like human beings, who are bound to make some bad choices.

Reply 1
Let’s suppose that experience of actual evil is required in order to have and use the concept “good” (the idea being that to know good you have to know its opposite). Still we might wonder why there has to be as much evil in the world as there is to achieve this. Couldn’t we learn in a Matrix-like world where the only suffering is our own? Couldn’t we be born with the knowledge as a result of God having planted it in us? Why do beings who never learn this difference (newborns with excruciating illnesses that eventually kill them) have to have evil or bad things happen to them so that others can learn?

Reply 2
Why think that free human agency is sufficiently valuable to justify its high costs in terms of the evil done by free human agents? We limit the freedom of dangerous agents by putting them in prison or executing them or chemically castrating them, so we seem not to agree that their freedom of action is worth preserving at any price. On what grounds does God adopt a different policy?

Reply 3
Maybe God can’t prevent the actions of free human agents, but why can’t he prevent the results or consequences of such actions? The killer pulls the trigger; God stops the bullet from arriving, or stops the arriving bullet from killing the victim. Or if God can’t stop the consequences that way, why not put each individual human being in his own Matrix-like world in which he is real but—unknown to him—everyone else is virtual? He thinks he tortures, kills, and commits genocide. God sees that these are his intentions. But in fact no one, except him, is really harmed by his actions.

Reply 4
Maybe God can’t prevent the actions of free human agents once he has made them, but he didn’t have to make them or those among them that he knew would do evil things. Making something that you know will do evil, even if you do not make it do the evil, is itself evil. Consider a bomb triggered by a random number generator. The bomb goes off if a certain 10-digit number is generated. But it’s a chance matter whether that will happen. You plant the bomb in a crowded classroom. It goes off and kills 200 students. Try persuading the authorities that you’re not to blame for their deaths since you didn’t make the bomb actually go off. Making free human agents that you know will do evil seems even worse than planting such a bomb.

Bad Things
Leave evil and free will aside. Replace the Argument from Evil with the Argument from Bad Things. Bad Things include, for example, natural disasters such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and tidal waves that are not caused by free human agents, but that are responsible for enormous human suffering. But if there is a God, there should be no bad things, since these apparently cannot exist in a world in which there is one.

Earthquakes and so on would not cause human suffering if human beings did not freely choose to live in earthquake zones, near oceans or volcanoes, and so on.

Not all bad things are geographically isolated. Think of the Black Death (Bubonic Plague) or the great influenza epidemic of 1918–19, which killed more people than the First World War, including an estimated 675,000 in the U.S. Where on Earth is safe from meteorites of the sort that supposedly led to the extinction of the dinosaurs? A volcanic eruption in Indonesia 74,000 years ago put enough ash into the atmosphere to so affect the world’s weather that all but 20,000 or so of our hominid ancestors perished, even though they knew nothing about volcanoes and were not living near any.

Biting One Bullet: Evil and Bad Things Are Illusions
There is in fact no evil nor are there any bad things.

Reply 1
But we can see that there are evil things and bad things in the world.

We think we see, but we are under an illusion. All bad and all evil are illusory: nothing is really bad or evil.

Reply 2
First, could I really be wrong that I have a terrible headache now? Or wrong about its painfulness? Second, isn’t it evil to allow people to be under the illusion that there is evil and badness? Can’t we really suffer because, for example, we think (falsely as it happens) that our beloved is being tortured by the secret police, or has betrayed us with someone else? Third, if evil and badness are illusions, is goodness too an illusion?

Biting Another Bullet: Evil and Bad Things Are Justified
There are bad things and evil things, but they exist only because they have to exist in order for the world to be as good as possible. They are bad or evil necessary means to overall good ends. In that sense, evil is a sort of illusion, if by evil we mean real or overall evil, or unredeemed evil.

Finite agents like us often have to take bad, sometimes even evil, means in order to achieve good ends, but it is less clear why infinite agents like God have to do this.

Biting a Third Bullet: God’s Values Are Mysterious
God is good, but in terms that are largely or perhaps wholly inaccessible to us, so that our grounds for thinking things are good or evil can only be that God has commanded us to consider them so. Parts of the Bible (supposing that it accurately describes God) suggest that this may indeed be the case.

Leviticus 18:22 Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind; it is abomination.

19:19 Thou shalt not sow thy field with two kinds of seed; neither shall there come upon thee a garment of two kinds of stuff mingled together.

And, of course, there are all the various dietary restrictions listed in Leviticus 11:

The camel, because it chews the cud but does not part the hoof, is unclean to you. And the rock badger, because it chews the cud but does not part the hoof, is unclean to you.

We might think we can see what’s good or bad about some of these (male homosexuality is an obvious though clearly controversial case), but about others we are completely in the dark: what’s wrong with a garment woven of two threads, or eating rock badger?

If God is good in a way so mysterious that his goodness is compatible with allowing terrible things to happen to innocent newborn infants, we might wonder how we can be sure that the “rewards” he provides for those who keep his commandments and the “punishments” he metes out to those who break them will be what we call rewards (pleasure, etc.) or what we call punishments (pain, etc.). We might wonder, indeed, how we can be sure that his “justice” will be sufficiently like ours to be what the faithful want a God to provide. “‘Why doesn’t God alleviate our suffering?’ ‘I’ve often wondered,’ said Peter. ‘Because he doesn’t see it as suffering.’ ‘Clearly he’s less bright than one imagined.'” (Edward St. Aubyn, On the Edge: A Novel.)

Biting a Fourth Bullet: Fideism
We’ve simply got to trust God, have blind faith in him. If reason could tell us what to do, we wouldn’t need faith. God shows us how inscrutable his values are so that we’ll be inspired to faith. Evil exists for the same reason. Credo quia absurdum est. I believe because it is absurd.

A representative of any religion could make the same response on behalf of quite different values. And according to some estimates there are some 4,200 religions in the world, and of Christianity alone 33,800 denominations. Each of these religions, we may for simplicity suppose, represents God or the gods as having a certain nature, as valuing or commanding certain things, and as disvaluing or prohibiting others. Suppose, as is true, that they differ in their representations. Then, if one is correct, the others are incorrect, so that the so-called God or gods they worship are not the real God or gods, but idols. The problem for a defender of fideism, then, is of showing that his religion is alone the non-idolatrous one. This is a very hard problem.

A New Approach: Love
If God is to explain why the universe exists and why human beings like us exist in it, we have to have some answer to the question of why an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent being would create such a world. The Christian answer is that God wanted to be loved by free beings. In fact, the Gospel of John (4:8) goes so far as to tell us that “He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.” At the very least, then, God’s essential nature, as John thinks of it, involves love (loving others and wanting to be loved by them) in such a way that his other attributes—omnipotence, omniscience, omnibenevolence—are subordinate to it. And this allows us to reconceive these attributes in a non-artificial way. Take omnipotence, for example. God recognizes that love cannot be commanded, coerced, or forced. It can only be freely given. So since he wants to be loved, he wants there to be free beings that can recognize him and love him for what he is. These beings represent limitations on God’s powers, but he accepts these limitations as limitations required by love. Now turn to omniscience. Loving another involves recognizing and respecting their privacy—their otherness. They determine how much of themselves they show us. We mustn’t read their e-mail or journals or look at them in private moments—for example, when they’re in the bathroom. God recognizes this, and so, since he loves us, he doesn’t try to look into the private recesses of our souls unless we bare them to him. Next consider omnibenevolence. Gifts can be unwanted and can seem like attempts to buy love. Real love recognizes this, and recognizes the importance of a kind of equality in giving and getting. More importantly, though, love recognizes that what is good does not always seem so to the other, so that a balance has to be reached between doing what is really good for him or her and respecting his or her autonomy and judgment. God recognizes and accepts this limit even on his benevolence. Though these limits don’t seem to affect God’s ability to create the universe, they do seem to help with the problem of evil.

The Incarnation
Another, and different, contribution to that problem is provided by the again distinctively Christian doctrine of the Redemption and Incarnation: Jesus becoming a human, suffering for our sins, and thereby somehow redeeming us. Here is how St. Paul expresses it in Colossians 1:13–14: “He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have our redemption, the remission of our sins.” And what these sins—these evils and sources of evil—are, are failures of love, turnings away from God, conceived of as a being whose essential nature is love. What the Incarnation and the Redemption are intended to show us is that God himself in the person of Jesus suffers all those evils himself, and yet finds them worth suffering for the sake of love. (Since God exists in all worlds, this is true even in the individual Matrix-like worlds we made use of earlier.) This casts the evils and those who suffer them in a new and redemptive light. For love is not susceptible to the criticism we made of freedom as explaining evil. For even though we restrict the freedom of evildoers, we do not think it equally appropriate to exclude them from the ambit of love—especially potentially redemptive love.

The Devil
It turns out, then, for reasons that are now perhaps pretty obvious, that the problem of bad things may actually be harder than the problem of evil. Unless, of course, all bad things are evil, because done by a very powerful malevolent agent of the sort that The Devil—Satan—is taken to be. If so, The Devil may be an essential part of the story. If there is a God, even a loving one, and there are bad things, there has to be someone like Satan to explain them.

C.D.C. Reeve
C. D. C. Reeve

Hackett Publishing Company is proud to celebrate World Philosophy Day 2017 with this post by C. D. C. Reeve, Hackett Publishing author and Delta Kappa Epsilon Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Hackett’s history with publishing books and translations in philosophy goes back to the company’s founding, including publishing G. M. A. Grube’s translation of Plato’s Republic in 1974, a translation later revised by Professor Reeve in a second edition published in 1992. In addition to his own widely acclaimed new translation of Plato’s Republic published in 2004, Professor Reeve has authored, translated, and contributed to over seventeen Hackett books and is currently working on a new translation of Aristotle’s Physics, due to be published in 2018 as the fifth volume in The New Hackett Aristotle Series.