A class on the problem of evil

February 3, 2011

Cliff Williams
Department of Philosophy
Trinity College of Trinity International University
Deerfield, IL 60015

The subject of the day was the problem of evil, which is the problem of how to reconcile the existence of a good, all-knowing, and all-powerful creator of the universe with the presence of pain and evil in it. On this day I read from a final exam a student had written over twenty years ago. He wrote, “As a Christian, these questions of the theist account of evil are disturbing to me. Often I find myself struggling with these problems without reaching any conclusions other than that God is very confusing. . . . I find myself angry at a God who throws us into the maze of life and then seemingly dares us to find him. . . . I see around me a world that is suffering, and I see man’s failed attempts to pull himself from this darkness. I would like to think that God is the answer to all of this, yet if he is the cause of it all, what value is salvation? If we are only actors in some sort of celestial drama that God allows to suffer so he can make a grand entrance at the finale, is he really the same as my Sunday School concept of an all loving God?”

I asked the class what they would say to the student. Blank stares. I asked what it would mean to be actors in a celestial drama. Someone said, “The actors could do what they wanted.” I nodded. Someone else said, “God would be the writer of the drama.” I nodded again, this time with more enthusiasm. “Okay, if God were the writer of the drama, the cosmic play, then all the actors would have to do just what God had written into the script, right?” A few enlightened faces. “Would you like that?” “No,” said Kaitlyn and Sean. “The actors have to be able to do what they want to do.”

“Well, then, what kind of play would you like for God to have written?” It turned out that a number of the students went for the “necessity thesis”—the idea that in order to exercise certain virtues, such as compassion and courage, you had to have pain and evil. There could not be any compassion if there were no suffering, and there could not be any courage if there were no real risks and dangers. And, moreover, when I asked whether there is more suffering than is needed to exercise compassion an courage, some students in the class said that you had to have high levels of suffering in order to have high levels of those virtues.

“So it looks as if God intended for there to be suffering,” I remarked.

“No, God does not want suffering.”

“But if suffering is necessary for compassion, and God wants compassion, lots of it, then God must want the suffering, lots of it, in fact.”

This didn’t sit well with anyone except Sean, who agreed with it by nodding his head and saying so when I called on him. “Yes,” he said, “God had to choose between a system in which there is compassion and suffering or a system in which there is no suffering and no compassion. And since there is more overall value in the first, then God chose that one.”

“So we are in a cosmic drama, after all,” I concluded.

Sean was happy with that, but the rest of the class spent the rest of the class period trying to figure out a different way to think of the matter.

I listened, and when the time was up, we stopped.

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