God’s Omnipotence And Sovereignty – Part Twelve
One further facet of the problem of evil, which has received a good deal of recent attention, focuses on the apparent fact that God’s existence is not manifest. The problem of divine hiddenness can be construed as an argument for God’s nonexistence or an “existential concern” problem for theists. In the latter form, its focus is not so much on God’s existence but instead on his nature or the nature of our relationship with him. It is a problem for theists in trying to reconcile their beliefs about divine power, knowledge, and (mostly) love with the fact that, at many times and for many people, God is “silent” or “hidden.” To say that he is silent or hidden is to say that his existence, presence, or self-disclosure- especially concerning his reasons for some evil that he has allowed to occur- is indiscernible or inscrutable.
The problem of divine hiddenness is practical, for it is often the impetus-or at least a contributing factor to an individual’s crisis of faith. Has God not promised that all who seek would find? Why, then, does he not reveal himself plainly, at least to everyone who earnestly and diligently seeks to know him? Surprisingly, God’s hiddenness is something of a leitmotif in scripture, especially in the Old Testament, explored most famously in the book of the job but also scattered throughout the psalms and the writings of the prophets. It is, as the problem of hell, a problem very much internal to orthodox theism.
The problem is closely tied to the problem of evil, for divine hiddenness is most productive of suffering. Such persons’ inability to perceive God or his purposes intensifies their suffering for those already suffering. By making it feel as if God does not care, or their sufferings are meaningless, God has forsaken them, not loved them, and so on. It is especially true in cases of horrendous evils we have discussed. (The Problem of divine hiddenness is, not surprisingly, a prominent theme in post-Holocaust Jewish theological literature.)
Divine hiddenness also intensifies the problem of evil by seeming to undermine a common strategy in theodicy, namely, treating God’s actions concerning his creatures as analogous to how loving parents act toward their children. It is often claimed that just as loving parents sometimes must subject their child to some painful experience for the child’s good, but that the child is unable to understand, so God sometimes allows us to experience suffering for similar reasons. Divine hiddenness complicates this response because we expect loving parents to make special efforts to comfort, reassure, and otherwise make their presence and love known to their children during their ordeal.
Most Importantly, when the parents know that the ordeal involves suffering whose ultimate, beneficial purpose the child cannot understand. The question naturally arises, Why doesn’t God always do the same for his creatures in times of intense suffering? Of course, many individuals report feeling the presence and love of God most clearly amid their trials, but it must be admitted that many others do not share this experience. Again, why doesn’t God always make himself known in such circumstances?
As a problem internal to theism, divine hiddenness is indeed perplexing. However, some contend that the problem of divine hiddenness is best construed not as a puzzling feature of theism but as an argument for theism (which is not surprising, given the ties between divine hiddenness and the problem of evil). A simple version of such an argument runs as follows: a perfectly loving God, were he to exist, would reveal himself to everyone who earnestly seeks God finds him; therefore, a perfectly loving God does not exist. Both premises of the argument are open to challenge, however. Some theists contend that God has sound reasons for not revealing himself to everyone who seeks him, and different theories have been developed as to what God’s reasons might be. Perhaps, for example, divine hiddenness is a necessary condition for God is evoking from us a free and loving rather than coerced response of obedience and trust. Other theists insist that God does reveal himself to everyone who earnestly seeks him; they then offer some account of why things appear otherwise. One common approach along those who fail to perceive God must not seek him earnestly, contrary to appearances.
It is time to take stock. We have seen that the problem of evil comes in various forms, with the most challenging forms seeming to arise from within the teachings of orthodox theism itself. Nevertheless, it is not clear that these versions of the problem of evil are insurmountable. Both the logical and evidential forms of the problem of evil can be rebutted. Problems generated by divine hiddenness and the traditional doctrine of hell call not for the abandonment of theism but rather, at most, the reassessment of the crises of faith often faced by those amid severe trials. Moreover, suffering demands wise spiritual guidance and counsel-but, whatever rational evidence the problem of evil provides against theism, it falls short of being compelling.
Faith and Reason:
Our contemporary religious situation differed markedly from that faced people a few hundred years ago. In Europe before the Reformation, the idea of being faced with a plurality of religious beliefs from which one had to choose was foreign to most people. Religious beliefs were passed down from generation to generation. Indeed, individuals may have had questions and doubts, and people were faced with them, but those doubts and choices still presupposed a specific framework that could be taken for granted.
In today’s world, many people do not enjoy such a situation. Daily contacts through education and, perhaps most powerfully, through mass media bring us the existence of radically different religious options. For example, Christians face the in-house Reformation and many other world religions, as well as the secular mentality, which opts for no overt religious belief. As a result, many people are not content to hold their beliefs simply because they were passed on to them by their parents or local church. Many are troubled by the idea that their faith is a mere provincial bias or historical accident; they want to know whether they have grounds for thinking their beliefs to be genuinely true.
The Evidential Argument from Evil – William Rowe[i]
William Rowe (b. 1931) is a well-known exponent of the evidential argument from evil. Although God has a morally sufficient reason for permitting the evils in our world, it is logically possible. Rowe develops the case that it is not likely to be a morally sufficient reason for some, perhaps many, evils of which we are aware. For a deity who is perfect in power and goodness, a morally sufficient reason for a given evil is that its occurrence is necessary to obtain a greater good or prevent an evil that is comparably bad or worse.
Rowe cites specific cases of evils for which we can think of no morally sufficient reason- evils that an all-powerful, all-good God could have prevented without losing a greater good or allowing an equivalent or worse evil. In the following piece, he uses the example of natural evil: a fawn trapped in a forest fire and suffering for days before finally dying a horrible death. In other pieces, he has also used an example of moral evil: a small child beaten, raped, and killed by the mother’s drunken boyfriend. His essential point is that it seems pretty unlikely that all such horrible evils are necessary to bring about a greater good or prevent an even more monstrous evil. In Rowe’s argument, evil facts are marshaled as evidence against the claim that God exists. If an all-powerful, all-good God exists, then pointless evils (i.e., evils for which there is no morally sufficient reason) would not exist. Rowe concludes that it is more probable than not that God does not exist.
[i] Philosophy of Religion, 365
Evil and the Greater Good:
In the Greater Good Defense, it is contended that evil can be understood as either a necessary accompaniment to bringing about greater goods or an integral part of these goods. Thus, in a version often called the Free Will Defense, it is proposed that free creatures who are able to care for each other and whose welfare depends on each other’s freely chosen action constitute a good. For this good to be realized, it is argued, there must be the bona fide possibility of persons harming each other.
The free-will defense is sometimes used narrowly only to cover evil that occurs as a result, direct or indirect, of human action. However, those proposing a defense rather than a theodicy to cover other evils, which might be brought about by supernatural agents other than God, have speculatively extended it. According to the Greater Good case, evil provides an opportunity to realize great values, such as the virtues of courage and the pursuit of justice. Reichenbach (1982), Tennant (1930), Swinburne (1979), and van Inwagen (2006) have also underscored the good of a stable world of natural laws in which animals and humans learn about the cosmos and develop autonomously, independent of the certainty that God exists. Theists have used some atheists accord value to the good of living in a world without God and these views to back up the claim that God might have had reason to create a cosmos in which Divine existence is not overwhelmingly obvious to us. If God’s existence were overwhelmingly obvious, then motivations for virtue might be clouded by self-interest and the bare fear of offending an omnipotent being.
Further, there may be some good to acting virtuously even if circumstances guarantee a tragic outcome. John Hick (1978) argued and has developed what he construes to be an Irenaean approach to the problem of evil (named after St. Irenaeus of the second century). On this approach, it is deemed acceptable that humanity gradually develops a virtue, evolving into a life of grace, maturity, and love. It contrasts with a theodicy associated with St. Augustine, according to which God made us perfect and allowed us to fall into perdition, only to be redeemed later by Christ. Hick thinks the Augustinian model fails, whereas the Irenaean one is credible. Some have based an argument from evil’s problem on the charge that this is not the best possible world. If there were a supreme, maximally excellent God, surely God would bring about the best possible creation.
Because this is not the best possible creation, there is no supreme, maximally excellent God. Following Adams (1987), many now reply that the notion of the best possible world, like the highest possible number, is incoherent. Any world that can be imagined with such happiness, goodness, virtue, and so on can imagine a higher one. If the notion of a best possible world is incoherent, would this count against the belief that there could be a supreme, maximally excellent being? It has been argued that Divine excellences admit upper limits or maxima that are not quantifiable in a serial fashion. For example, Divine omnipotence involves being able to do anything logically or metaphysically possible. But does not require doing the most significant number of acts or a series of which there can be no more). Those concerned with the problem of evil clash over how one assesses the likelihood of Divine existence.
Someone who reports seeing no point to the existence of evil or no justification for God to allow seems to imply that they would see it if there were a point. Note the difference between seeing no point and not seeing a point. In the cosmic case, is it clear that if there were a reason justifying the existence of evil, we would see it? William Rowe thinks some plausible understanding of God’s justificatory reason for allowing evil should be detectable, but there are altogether gratuitous evil cases. Defenders like William Hasker and Stephen Wykstra reply that these cases are not decisive counter-examples claiming a good God. These philosophers hold that we can recognize evil and grasp our duty to do all in our power to prevent or alleviate it. But we should not take our failure to see what reason God might have for allowing evil to count as grounds for thinking that there is no reason. This later move led to a position commonly called skeptical theism.
Michael Bergmann, Michael Rea, and others have argued that we have good reason to be skeptical about whether we can assess whether ostensibly gratuitous evils may or may not be permitted by an all-good God (Bergmann 2001; Bergmann and Rea 2005; for criticism, see Almeida and Oppy 2003). Some portraits of an afterlife seem to have little bearing on our responses to the magnitude of evil here and now. Does it help to understand why God allows evil if all victims receive happiness later? But it is difficult to treat the possibility of an afterlife as entirely irrelevant. Is death the annihilation of persons or an event involving a transfiguration to a higher state? If you do not think it matters whether persons continue to exist after death, then such speculation is of little consequence. However, suppose that the afterlife is understood as morally intertwined with this life, with opportunity for moral and spiritual Reformation, the transfiguration of the wicked, rejuvenation, and occasions for a new life, perhaps even reconciliation communion between oppressors seeking forgiveness and their victims. Then these considerations might help to defend against arguments based on the existence of evil.
As one cannot rule out the possibility of an afterlife morally tied to our life, one cannot rule out the possibility that God brings some good out of cosmic ills. The recent work on the afterlife in the philosophy of religion focused on the compatibility of an individual afterlife with some forms of physicalism. Arguably, a dualist treatment of human persons is more promising. If you are not metaphysically identical with your body, then perhaps the annihilation of your body will not be the annihilation of you. Today, many philosophers have argued that even if physicalism is confirmed, an afterlife is still possible (Peter van Inwagen, Lynne Baker, Trenton Merricks, Kevin Cocoran). The import of this work for the problem of evil is that the possible redemptive value of an afterlife should not be ruled out (without argument) if one assumes physicalism to be true. (For an extraordinary, rich resource on the relevant literature, see The Oxford Handbook of Eschatology, ed. by J. Walls.).