Are there any good reasons to believe God, being all-good and all-powerful, may still choose to allow “physical” evil, such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and disease? I believe there are. I’ll offer an argument in support in this week’s post.
The “Greatest Good” Theodicy
We begin with the first premise from our earlier argument: God’s purpose in Creation is to create the most moral universe, which most reflects his character. Anything less would be “beneath” Him. This seems obvious. However, the implications may not be so obvious.
One implication is that the most moral universe would include all forms of good. When we think of the type of moral goods that would exist in the most moral universe, some obvious examples come to mind. It would be a universe with extravagant love. It would be a universe exhibiting justice. It would be a universe full of peace.
However, the most moral universe, including all forms of good, would also contain compassion, courage, and forgiveness. But notice these can only exist in the presence of some pain or suffering.
For instance, compassion can only exist if someone is suffering, and we are able to come alongside him or her and be a comfort. The root words are “passion” (“suffering”) and “com” (with), so “compassion literally means “suffering with.” A universe with compassion is a more moral universe than a universe without compassion. Yet, it is logically impossible for compassion to exist without evil. Therefore, evil must be allowed for compassion to be expressed, and for this to be the most moral universe.
Courage is another example of a true moral good. A universe with courage is a more moral universe than one without courage. Yet again, courage can only be expressed if there is real danger and the threat of pain or suffering. Only then is an act truly courageous.
Forgiveness is a third example. A universe in which there is forgiveness has greater moral goodness than one without forgiveness. Yet to forgive assumes a wrong has been committed. Once again, forgiveness can only exist in a universe containing some evil.
These are all examples of “second-order” goods. First-order goods are goods that can exist in a universe with or without evil (love, for instance). But second-order goods only exist if there are evils to be confronted.
The value of second-order goods runs contrary to the hedonism of our culture. We are constantly told through advertising that the goal of life is avoiding all pain and maximizing all pleasure. It is the basis of our definition of “success.” Steven Covey studied the lasts 200 years of books focusing on success. He found the first 150 years focused on character traits, many of which contain suffering (perseverance, for instance). The focus shifted around 1920 to external factors (such as image) with little mention of the importance of pain and struggle. (See here for a summary of his findings.)
Yet the fact is that, as the early “success” literature rightly discerned, certain character traits can only come about in the furnace of difficulties. It is only in such struggle that we are able to become fully mature and flourish to the greatest extent. Courage only comes about in the presence of fear. Patience only develops when there are long periods of waiting for the good hoped for. This point is made by Jesus in the Beatitudes: blessed are the merciful…the peacemakers…the persecuted (Matthew 5:1-11).
We intuitively know this to be true. Compare two people: one who is born into the lap of luxury and has everything given to him, the other who has to work hard and struggle to get ahead. In almost every case the person who has to face and overcome adversary is the person who develops greater character. He or she is the one we want to be like. (This theme underlies most movies, because we are drawn in and root for the one facing and overcoming difficulty).
This is what makes life vibrant. Our needs are not automatically met. We do not live lives as “kept pets” with every need provided by our Master. Rather, we must work hard and overcome obstacles along the way. God allows us to experience these difficulties so we can also experience the thrill of life. Victory is sweet because it is not guaranteed.
Pain and suffering not only shape our character and make life vibrant, they also help us know God more intimately. Only by experiencing pain and lack do we develop a greater dependence on God. In fact, God often allows suffering in our lives to obtain a greater good. As C.S. Lewis said, “What do people mean when they say, ‘I am not afraid of God because I know He is good?’ Have they never even been to a dentist?” (C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, [New York: Bantam Books, 1980], pp. 50-51)
In sum, these second-order goods make life and world a better place—they make for a more moral universe. However, they can only exist in the presence of first-order evils. Given that God wishes to create the most moral universe, it seems he has good reason to allow some first-order evils.
This argument (theodicy) may be summarized as follows:
God’s purpose in Creation is to create the most moral universe, which most reflects His character.
The most moral universe includes all forms of good.
There are two forms of good: first-order goods and second-order goods.
Therefore, the most moral universe includes both first order goods and second order goods.
Second order goods require first-order evils.
Therefore, evil is a necessary ingredient in the most moral universe.
Therefore, God allowed evil in order to bring about His greater good—the most moral universe.
Therefore, the existence of evil does not prove God does not exist or is not perfectly Good or Omnipotent.
Physical evil (such as tornadoes and diseases) are first-order evils that result in second-order goods. Therefore, God chooses to allow them, in order for the most moral universe to exist.
This is a second reason to believe it is logically possible for God and evil to both exist. Remember the atheist’s conclusion (“God, an all-powerful, all-good Being, does not exist”) is true only if all the premises are true. Thus the first premise leading to this conclusion is “If God is all-good, he would will all good and no evil. (He would desire to produce only good and prevent all evil.) But this first premise is only true if there are no morally-adequate reasons for God to allow evil.
We now have two reasons to believe God has morally adequate reasons to allow evil: providing freedom and allowing for second-order goods. This proves the atheists’ conclusion does not logically follow from the premises. Therefore this argument (the Logical Problem of Evil) fails.
Yet one objection remains: why so much evil? Couldn’t God accomplish his purposes without allowing the amount of evil we experience in the world? Doesn’t this call into question God’s existence, goodness, and/or power? I’ll address this objection next week. Until then, grace and peace.