Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The problem of evil: the mathematics of humanity

One of the things I didn't think that Rowan Williams did particularly well in his interview with John Humphreys was deal with the 'problem of evil' in a very satisfactory way. The 'problem of evil' (POE) is an old chestnut which goes something like this:

  1. God is both all powerful and totally good/loving
  2. An all powerful and totally good/loving creator God would not make a world with evil in it
  3. Evil exists in the world
  4. Therefore there is no God

Now it is no.2 which contains the assumption where the argument falls down on a philisophical level because, of course, we humans have absolutely no way of knowing what an all powerful totally good being might or might not do. However, RW rightly recognised that in Humphreys' case, as with many people, the argument is not really a logical one so much as an emotional one. That is, at some point someone witnesses enough evil, or something so evil, that they find belief in a good God unconvincing. (Of course there are many other reasons for not believing in God but the POE is often reason enough for many people.)

What RW didn't do was to challenge Humphreys' on his acceptance of the emotional argument against God. For Humphreys' the terrible things he witnessed as a journalist led him to conclude that God could not exist, in particular the death of innocent children. The reason this needs challenging is that it betrays a rather wrong headed approach to the value of human life.

The emotional POE argument goes something like this,

  1. God is good, and God made the world which is good
  2. But something terrible happens
  3. If God made the world knowing that something terrible might happen then God cannot be good
  4. Therefore God is either evil, incompetent, or non-existant

What this argument basically says is that the genocide and the rape, the exploitation and the poverty, the war and the violence, in the world negate the goodness in the world, and so if God made the world he did it wrong, and so God is probably no god at all and just a figment of our imagination.

But I dont think that is right. Because the world that contain all that evil also contains much that is good. What we cannot do is try to calculate whether or not the evil outweighs the good. We cannot do this because it is absurd to say that because a child's life ends in violence that they should never have been born at all. That their short life, however full of tradgedy and pain it was, was somehow not worth it. But this is what the POE argument (in both its forms) says. It says that on balance there is so much evil as to render the world, if it has been created, a big mistake. That the world is not worth it.

It would be just as foolish to suggest the equation could be better done the other way, i.e. that there is enough good in the world to negate the evil. What we can say is that this world with all it evil is the only world in which you, me, the murdered child, and the rape victim could have existed in. In any other world, but especially one devoid of evil, we could never have existed. This is the world we live in, and if there is a God, God has decided it was worth it. For the love of you, me, the murdered child and every victim of every crime, God decided it was worth all the evil to bring us into existence.

To say that there is too much evil in the world for there to be a God is to say that our existence and the existence of all humanity is negated completely by the presence of evil in the world. Is that a judgement you are willing to make? Can you make that judgement on behalf of the victims of the world? Would they rather have never existed? Maybe some of them would rather that, but I dont think I would make that decision for them. I cannot calculate the worth of a life, no matter how short or tragic against whatever evil that might befall that life.

At the end of the day, if there is a God, only God can decide if it is worth it or not, because only God know the beginning from the end. And if there is a God then God has decided, and we (humanity) are worth it. But of course, if there is a God then God has an advantage over us, the big picture, where one day (if there is a God and if the Bible is God's word) God 'will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.' (Revelation 21:4) The Christian claim has never been that the good in the world outweighs the evil, or that things will somehow balance out in the end, but that God will one day comprehensively and decisively deal with evil and it (and its effects) will become a thing of the past. The answer to the POE, if there is a God, is that all evil however evil is only temporary, but all good will endure for ever in the eternity of God.

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