The logical problem of evil can be dealt with, and so the skeptic might decide to retreat to the probabilistic problem of evil – that is, given some of the instances of gratuitous evil in the world, we would expect an all-powerful and all-loving God to render such evil impossible. Given that such instances of (seemingly) unnecessary evil do happen, we can be reasonably confident that God does not exist.
For example, three women escaped this year after a decade of captivity. Their abductor allegedly* raped them repeatedly and deliberately caused the death of one of their unborn children (another child made it to full term and was six-years-old at the time of the report). The three women later gave statements for a publicly released video.
I don’t know what this does to you. It evokes in me the first stages of a murderous rage.
I once heard a story from a priest who presided over the funeral of an infant. The child’s parents were in jail. The infant had essentially been abused to death: There were burn marks from cigarettes all over his body, scalds from being immersed in hot water. I don’t know what else the child suffered. I think my ears refused to hear it.
What does this do to you, you of limited potency? If you knew exactly where such things were happening, and that they were happening right now, what would prevent you from rescuing that child? What would keep you from breathing compassion on him, even if he was breathing his last? What would you do with the parents?
What does it mean, then, that God permits this?
I confess that I have bled over into the “emotional” problem of evil, but I think this is all the power that the probabilistic problem of evil has. By itself – academically, if you can stomach the term here – the probabilistic problem of evil can be dealt with. How shall we proceed?
Let’s be academic first, because then it will be out of the way.
The failing of the probabilistic problem of evil is that we must presume to know…well, much, much more than we do. Consider: In order to say that the kidnapping and rape of those women in Cleveland was “gratuitous,” we would have to say that there was no possible purpose for it, no possible good which could at least balance the scales of justice (let alone, produce more good than evil). What great good could come about such that God would be justified in permitting the kidnapping and rape of these women?
We just don’t know.^ This is why the probabilistic argument fails – the skeptic cannot say with certainty that any instance of evil is gratuitous. How would he know? It might seem gratuitous, he might see no purpose in it at all – well and good, and ultimately we can all identify with this stance.
But to say that, in all probability, God does not have a purpose behind a given instance of suffering? This requires some kind of reasonable certainty. We just don’t have that.
This, no doubt, is unsatisfying to the skeptic. No doubt, even among believers, it does not do much to allay the emotional power of the problem of evil. It is an academic answer, which, as far as I can see, does address the argument and shows how it fails (at least among we mere mortals).**
Can we attempt an answer, though? Can we attempt to peer into the mind of God? I leave this to another post.
Rather, as long as we’re being academic, let’s bring in the analogy of the author.
Our author is writing, and the conflict in act two is that her main character is imprisoned, and being tortured. The torture scene goes on, and the suffering of the hero is profound. The torture is so ruthless that we, the readers, begin to wonder how the hero can survive. But survive he does, and he escapes, and we’re on to act three.
Now, especially in the moment of the suffering, we might wonder whether all of this torture is really too much, in the context of that world (not to say, according to our tastes, but according to whatever possible purpose it might have in the story). We might think the hero has been needlessly impaired, or the suffering has been so profound and humiliating, and has offended the dignity of the character so completely, that we cannot imagine what purpose it might serve for the author. These, at least, are among the things we see when we encounter seemingly gratuitous suffering in our world.
Now, I have been just short of superlative here, in describing the suffering of our hero. The question is, is there any possible purpose for this suffering, any possible good which could justify this great evil?
The hero, obviously, might have no idea how to answer these questions. Other characters, like friends of Job, might speculate and provide entirely unsatisfying answers – or admit that they can’t see what the purpose is. Does this fact alone render the author non-existent?
Of course not. Still further, does it mean the author actually has no possible purpose for the suffering? Again, no. Moreover, because we are speaking of a fictional character, I dare to suggest that you might already have conceived of some reasons for the suffering. When emotions aren’t involved, it becomes something like solving a riddle. There’s no need for me to speculate here – I invite you to propose answers to the riddle.
*I don’t know if anyone expects such thoroughness of investigation from me, but can a dead man be tried and convicted? Anyway, the “allegedly” appears a formality, but I am in no position at all to be sure either way.
^Far from being a cop-out, this is also the failing of utilitarianism.
**This raises the question – on naturalism, does it make sense to consider anything “gratuitous”? Doesn’t gratuitousness depend on a purpose, and the means for accomplishing that purpose being over-indulged? On naturalism, whom would we charge with the crime of being gratuitously evil? If it’s the fault of humans (as in genocide, perhaps, or sadism in torture), isn’t that always the fault of humans? How can we even blame God for that on theism? So must we only speak of natural events being gratuitous on naturalism? But the charge here seems especially weak, since we can (now more than ever) see how any given instance of natural evil actually plays a role in the grand purposes of our world (e.g. – an earthquake, no matter how devastating, is only the cause of tectonic activity, which plays a role in recycling nutrients and therefore making life possible. Isn’t it better that life on earth exists, rather than not at all? Isn’t this better, even at the cost of occasional disasters?)