Evil: A Guide for the Perplexed is a remarkably concise and accessible introduction to the “problem of evil”. Meister summarises a quarter century of academic debate and philosophical reflection in a book that can be read in an evening. He also finds time to critique Hindu and Buddhist responses to evil, and to present a moral argument for Christianity based on the gravity of evil and suffering.
Mesiter leads with the logical problem of evil, which was presented most effectively by JL Mackie.
i) A wholly good being always eliminates evil as far as it can.
ii) There are no limits to what an omnipotent and omniscient being can do.
iii) So, if a wholly good, omnipotent and omniscient being exists, it eliminates evil completely.
iv) Evil has not been eliminated completely.
v) Thus, a wholly good, omnipotent and omniscient being does not exist.
So far, so reasonable. However, Alvin Plantinga provided a significant rebuttal to this argument with a free will defence which questioned premise (ii). There are limits on omnipotence; to create beings capable of achieving virtue God must give those beings the gift of free-will. An omnipotent God cannot force a free being to choose the good. So if God created beings with free will – be they humans or angelic powers – omnipotence could not prevent them from freely choosing evil.
Plantinga’s defence attributes earthquakes and famines to fallen angels; this seems a little implausible, to say the least. But a defence need not be plausible to be successful; remember, Mackie claimed that the existence of God and the presence of evil are logically incompatible. To rebut this charge the theist need only show that they do not entail a contradiction; any consistent scenario that reconciles the two propositions demonstrates that the “logical problem of evil” fails.
So it is widely accepted that the logical problem of evil has been answered. However, William Rowe has articulated an evidential problem of evil, which claims that a good, omnipotent and omniscient creator would eliminate every purposeless or gratuitous evil. Yet there are so many instances of intense suffering it is probable that at least one could have been prevented without losing some greater good. Therefore it is probable that God does not exist.
Meister counters that absence of evidence of a divine purpose is not evidence of absence. Humans have limitations that might prevent them from knowing all the goods that God is aware of. This is Stephen Wykstra’s famous “noseeum” defence. Consider insects so small that they are invisible to the naked human eye. If an entomologist were to tell you that your arm was covered in such insects, it would not be rational to deny this because you cannot see any insects. You are not in an epistemic position to detect these creatures with your eyes.
Similarly, consider the gap between God’s mind and ours. Meister argues that the gap is so great that God might have knowledge of values that we cannot detect. We cannot detect any good that would realised by certain instances of intense suffering. However it would be false to infer that no goods are realised by these instances of intense suffering. We are not in an epistemic position to detect all the goods that God knows of. Horrific evils might be necessary to bring about these greater goods.
However, I believe that there are dangers in leaning too heavily on this defence. As Meister acknowledges, if God knows of values that we cannot even conceive of, we cannot rule out goods that would justify God in permitting any amount of evil whatever. So, if human life was nothing more than a seemingly endless series of intense pains and emotional traumas we would not infer that there was good evidence that God did not exist. It would always be possible, given the gap between our mind and the divine mind that God could know of values that would justify even infinite suffering!
Furthermore, if no amount of suffering or dysteleology can count as evidence against God, it is difficult to see what could count as evidence for God’ existence. Theists often argue that there are contingent and valuable states of affairs – life, for example - that are best accounted for by God because God has the power and motivation to bring them about. If we concede that our grasp of what God values is very limited, then we have few grounds to claim that we know what God would desire to bring about. Design arguments could be undermined on this point.
It seems better, then, to challenge Rowe’s assumption that God must not create a world in which individuals undergo gratuitous evils. God created a world in which horrendous evils were possible; if he had not, we would have lost the great good of free will. In a world with free-will, gratuitous evils are inevitable. Yet suppose God ensures that anyone who desires a life with vastly more good than evil can have a life that contains vastly more good than evil. In that case, why could God not allow a world which contains instances of gratuitous suffering? Of course God would need an afterlife to provide goods which would overwhelm experiences of suffering. But Meister advances several arguments to show that belief in an afterlife is quite reasonable.
While we cannot imagine the greatness of heaven or the New Creation, we know that they will surpass our wildest expectations. Arguably, we can conceive of goods that would render the “noseeum” defence redundant. In his last chapter, Meister deals with horrendous evils. These are instances of suffering that seem to render a human life worthless; a person enduring such suffering could rationally claim “it would have been better that I had not been born.” Yet draws on Simone Weil and Marilyn McCord Adams, and points out that there are eternal goods which can overwhelm and redeem the most horrendous events.
The torture and murder of the innocent Son of God would seem to be a paradigm case of a gratuitous, horrendous evil. Yet, even after Jesus cried out to the Father who had seemingly forsaken him, he surrendered fully to his Father, placing his life into his hands. “In affliction,” argues Meister “we are at once both at the greatest distance from God but potentially as close as possible. The choice is ours – whether we receive the invitation of closeness, and so receive the amazing goods offered by God, or reject that invitation and so experience hell on earth.”
Furthermore, suffering can allow us to identify with Christ, who endured horrendous evils and suffering. And the experience of redemption will be all the sweeter for those who have endured the darkest exile. Intimacy with God is not a secular good, but a sacred and eternal value. It might not be a good that Rowe recognises, but it is certainly one that we can conceive of. It is also possible that some experiences of divine healing would not be possible without the existence of seemingly random and horrendous evils. The theist has good defences against the evidential problem of evil. Can we go further, and provide a complete and convincing explanation for evil?
Theodicies are rather different beasts than defences. A theodicy attempts to vindicate the ways of God in the world by providing a plausible explanation for the presence of evil. “Free-will theodicies” attribute the presence of evil to the human decision to rebel against God. Natural evil is, in part, the divine response to human sin. Meister rejects this response because science demonstrates that natural evil predated humans by millions of years. This is thin ground, to my mind, for rejecting a free-will theodicy. It is specifically human suffering - not animal suffering - that a good theodicy seeks to answer. Over-educated urbanites might get themselves into a rage over the suffering of Bambi and his mother. But I do not see that Big Macs demand a theodicy.
It is entirely possible that that close fellowship with God would have allowed humans to avoid natural evils, or to experience miraculous healing if they were encountered. When humans broke free from God they lost these resources. Or perhaps God would have created the New Heavens and New Earth if the first humans had remained obedient. Once they rebelled, God put eschatology “on hold” until he had brought the human race back to order. So the Augustinian theodicy retains its coherence. How does it compare to Meister’s preferred “soul building” theodicy, which argues that humans were born to suffer, so that we could learn courage and compassion?
No doubt humans can learn these virtues in a fallen world; perhaps this partly explains why God allows us to live in one. But when we encounter evil, we instinctively feel that this is not how the world was meant to be. Evil is scandalous; I am not sure that “soul building” theodicies can adequately account for that fact. It seems more likely that we are suffering the consequences of a fall; we have broken fellowship with a God of limitless love and power. In any case, evil is so chaotic and irrational, that I am not sure that we will ever develop a theodicy that will be entirely persuasive. The church will simply have to settle for good defences and offer good reasons to trust God when the darkness seems overwhelming.
My disagreements with Meister should not be read as criticism of his book; it is wonderful that such a thin volume could provide so much substance for debate and reflection. Meister has provided students, teachers and pastors with a robust response to some of the deepest questions that a human can ask. Why do I suffer? What can I do about it? Is there any help? Can I dare to hope?
Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer Graham Veale is Head of Religious Education at City of Armagh High School. With David Glass, he runs the apologetics group Saints and Sceptics. Their articles can be read at www.saintsandsceptics.org