Christians often muse how different it would now be had Adam and Eve not tasted fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Had they not succumbed to this temptation, they could have dwelled perhaps forever in that idyllic garden of Eden created for them by the Lord God. Alas, such thoughts are no more than wishful thinking. Neither Adam and Eve, nor it seems, anyone since them has been able to exercise such stringent self restraint, nor avoided suffering the consequences. Who is to be blamed? Should we fault Eve alone, or Adam as well? Or, does every individual who subsequently erred bear responsibility? Or perhaps we should accuse the serpent? Certainly this third option is most tempting, because it frees us of personal guilt,. But beware of temptation! Behind this serpentine allurement lies a deadly trap which may severely test our faith. For if we blame the serpent we may as well blame the serpent’s master. And, having gone so far, we may as well ask why an all-knowing and all-loving God made such a crafty creature at all. With full knowledge of human foibles, why did God set in motion such a doomed cause-and-effect situation which has led today to “suffering, inequality and injustice, disaster and death,” in short to the “human hurt and wickedness that confronts us on every hand?” To continue on such questioning may even lead one to doubt the very existence of God. Yet human reason impels those thirsting for the truth to seek answers to these questions. Those who take such risk may find the tender creepers of their devotion strengthened by the ordeal that reason demands.
Let us join M. Peterson, et al as they explore these issues in Chapter 6 of Reason and Religious Belief. We shall examine the logical and evidential forms of the problem of evil, and the typical theistic approaches to theodicy. Finally, we will look at the ancient texts of India which may help Christians and those of other persuasions to reconcile the reality of evil with the existence of God.
Any precise definition of evil will tend to favor one particular theory of evil over another. To avoid such prejudice, we may specify two broad categories of evil: moral evil and natural evil. Moral evil includes the wrongful acts and bad character traits of free human beings, while natural evil covers the physical pain and suffering resulting from either impersonal forces or human actions. With these commonsense notions in mind, let us now proceed to compare and contrast the logical and evidential problems of evil.
Critics of theism such as John Mackie have underscored what they consider to be a basic inconsistency in believing, on the one hand, that an omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good God exists, while on the other hand, admitting the existence of evil. For Mackie, the problem is not that religious beliefs lack rational support, or even whether or not they are true or false; what concerns Mackie is the apparent illogic of simultaneously asserting two conflicting propositions. If God is all-capable, and if evil is unwanted, then evil should not exist.
This nontheistic assertion of inconsistency has been most strongly rebutted by Alvin Plantinga’s Free Will Defense. Plantinga wishes to demonstrate the consistency of the two propositions by finding a third statement which is consistent with the first, and in conjunction with it, implies the second. The statement need only be possible, because determining consistency depends upon demonstrating the logic which exists between the statements, not necessarily the truth of any one or all of them. The third statement Plantinga has selected hinges on God’s creating creatures with the freedom to choose moral good. This freedom allows creatures to choose evil as well. Thus, it is not within God’s power to create a world containing moral good but no moral evil. This is Plantinga’s third statement which, along with the assertion that God exists, implies that evil also exists.
Mackie and Antony Flew have challenged Plantinga by asking why a God who is all-powerful could not have created a world containing free creatures who always abide by moral good. Plantinga responds by insisting that God not be subjected to illogical expectations. As God cannot bring about married bachelors or square circles, neither can he create a world of free creatures who always act morally. Having given creatures that freedom, it is their prerogative, not God’s. Plantinga’s detractors, however, are not easily satisfied. They argue that free will and determinism are compatible–God could create a world in which all persons could have chosen to perform moral actions, although all of their choices were determined. Plantinga seems to put this compatibilist argument neatly to rest with the following precise definition of significant freedom: “‘A person is free with respect to an action A at a time t only if no causal laws and antecedent conditions determine either that he performs A at t or that he refrains from so doing.’” This Free Will Defense, with its incompatibilist view, appears overall to be a strong response to the logical problem of evil.
While Plantinga has curtailed the compatibilist view, critics have made issue over the evidential form of the problem of evil. These critics are not as concerned with theistic inconsistency as much as they are with its implausibility. For them, the problem is not one of illogic but more a question of whether theism provides a reasonable explanation of what appears to be the fact of evil. Wesley Salmon is one of the most articulate of such critics. Given that evil does exist in the world, Salmon argues that the statement that “An omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good God does not exist” has a much higher numerical probability than the statement “An omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good God exists.” Objections to Salmon’s reasoning have been raised by Plantinga as well as Nancy Cartwright. Salmon used mechanically created entities as a reference point for his proposition, since it was obviously impossible for him (or for that matter anyone) to assess the situation of evil that exists in all divinely created universes. But by doing so he begs the question in advance, as Cartwright correctly observes, comparing our universe with a mechanical model and thus insinuating that the universe has no divine origin. Cartwright further argues that statistical techniques are totally inappropriate when assessing metaphysical issues such as the existence of God. Plantinga’s objections are along similar lines. Modern probability studies, he points out, are troubled by assigning probability to one statement on the basis of another without any clear criterion. The method of presenting statistical information can also be prejudiced if critics have a wholly natural world view.
A number of critics have voiced what is perhaps the strongest objection based on evidence: granted that a reasonable amount of evil may exist, how are we to explain evils that appear utterly pointless or gratuitous? If an omniscient, all-powerful, loving and reasonable God truly exists, certainly he would not allow for pointless evil. Defenders of theism counter that no matter how severe the evil may seem, there is a purpose and even ultimate benefit from it.
Rather than allowing this argument to reach a deadlock, which would obviously favor the critics, some theists have been willing to concede that God may indeed allow for gratuitous evil. They contend that God’s granting humanity free will includes the risk of pointless evil. Theists hope that this accommodation will prevent the evidential argument from going through. [This writer would suggest that such an accommodation may easily leave the theistic deity open to severe criticism unless we are reminded that accommodation does not imply approval. Every theistic tradition could cite numerous instances of the deity attempting to prevent such evil occurrences.]
Plantinga and others have attempted to defend theism against the charge of inconsistency or improbability. But a defense is not the same as providing a true and reasonable explanation for why God actually allows evil. A theodicy, as Peterson explains, is “a systematic account of how various theistic beliefs about God and the moral venture shed light on evil in the world.” Theodicists have traditionally held to the classical theistic view of God in order to address the problem of evil. We will now consider a few of their most popular responses, concluding with the views of the process theodicists. As we shall see, this last group represents a major revisioning of classical theism.
One basic approach is to affirm that evil is a necessary contrast to the good; without evil we would have no way of assessing what is true goodness. An obvious response to this proposal is to question whether a much smaller dose of evil would not suffice to teach the same lesson. A second suggestion is that evil is God’s punishment for the sinful. As he rewards righteousness, so he condemns wrongful acts. Well enough, critics reply; but how may wholesale destruction of entire populations or the death of an innocent infant be explained?
Thinkers like Leibniz have postulated yet another view, that God deeply considered the value of evil before creating the best of all possible worlds, finding certain goods to outweigh their corresponding evils. Critics have assailed Leibniz on a number of accounts. First, the statement ‘best of all possible worlds,’ may be logically incoherent. How do we know that what we have is that best of all possible worlds? Second, ordinary moral judgment dictates that we always strive to improve our world; the Leibnizian proposal appears to deny this possibility. And third: why did God bother to create a world at all, if this is the best that he could do?
Yet another treatment of the problem of evil is the ultimate harmony solution, which has two distinct approaches: that all is well with the world from God’s perspective, or that all will be well in the long run. The supporters of this first approach theorize that only an infinite wise God can comprehend and see ultimate good in the totality of good and evil events, whereas we finite beings cannot. This approach is assailable on two accounts: (a) it frustrates human moral judgment, and (b) if the traditional Christian concept that humans are made in God’s image holds true, then it should also follow that humans are capable of reasonable moral judgments.
A variant of the all’s-well position is that since God’s morality is so much higher than ours we necessarily are unable to apply the same perfect moral judgment in evaluating events as God would. Again, the weakness of this position is that it undercuts human moral judgment and, furthermore, since God’s morality is so much higher than ours, how could we ever understand it, let alone use it to solve the riddle of evil. As J. S. Mill rightly concludes, to accept the higher-divine-morality approach one might as well abandon reason altogether.
Advocates of the other division of ultimate harmony, those of the all’s-well-that-ends-well persuasion, claim that all evils will ultimately end in higher goods in the future, whether in this world, or in the next. This viewpoint is open to similar attacks as those made against the all’s-well-in-God’s-sight position. But there are some specific criticisms as well. For example, how can we accurately evaluate whether future welfare justifies the present occurrence of related evils? As Peterson succinctly analyzes, “It is quite a conceptual jump from the notion of a good outweighing an evil to the notion of compensating for an evil, and a very large jump to the notion of a good justifying the existence of an evil.” Defenders of this view fall back on the pat response that we limited humans will never be able to fully understand what God’s unlimited wisdom does. Many of the previous solutions address moral evil, but there is one important solution which specifically addresses the problem of natural evil. This natural law explanation states that God created a world which works according to a certain predictable natural ordering, one which supports a moral order in which free choice allows humans to make intelligent deliberations. But this natural system also allows for natural evil. Critics like H. J. McCloskey have argued that God could just as well reduce or eliminate all such natural evils by miraculous intervention or by creating a much-improved alternative natural system. Richard Swinburne has effectively countered by reminding such critics that a natural order implies that God should not have to often intervene. On the whole, God has created a good and natural system which does not require the need of adjustment from outside.
As the above philosophy specifically explains natural evil, so the free will theodicy is especially meant to address the problem of moral evil. While Plantinga’s Free Will Defense merely states that it is possible that God created creatures with free will, Free Will Theodicy states that God did indeed create morally free beings, knowing fully well that they would sometimes err, but nevertheless considering the investment of such freedom far more beneficial than were humans to be mere mindless puppets. As could be guessed, critics again question the incompatibilist assumptions, much as they did those of the Free Will Defense. And those critics who are willing to overlook this point still argue that God could have created free human beings with a stronger tendency to do right than wrong. Theists typically respond that God has created humans with the maximum rightness without altogether eliminating freedom of choice.
In addition to the above theodicies, certain responses to the problem of evil have incorporated a broader vision of the origin and destiny of humanity and are therefore called global theodicies. Peterson has described three of these–Augustinian theodicy, Irenaean theodicy, and process theodicy. We shall try to glean and succinctly state the essence of Peterson’s summaries of these philosophies.
For St. Augustine, the whole of God’s creation is good. Evil has no substantial existence independently of God, but is simply the absence of such goodness. Because the creation is mutable, goodness can be corrupted. It is the misuse of free will that allows the entry of sin or evil into human experience. This began with Adam’s transgression, bringing guilt and punishment upon the whole race. But believers can be redeemed by divine grace, leading ultimately to the establishment of God’s kingdom.
As Peterson rightly points out, the elements of Augustinian theodicy have pervaded Christian thinking to the present day, supplying much of the theistic defense for the coexistence of God and evil. But fifteen hundred years have provided ample time for critics to carefully scrutinize Augustine’s view. They charge that in light of God’s supreme majesty and sovereignty, evil could easily be liquidated. Still more serious is the question of how originally pure creatures such as Adam and Eve could have chosen to do evil.
The pre-Augustian Bishop Irenaeus offered a theodicy which modern-day proponents like John Hick still advocate. Iranaean theodicy explains that Adam and the original creation were not perfect; instead, they were innocent but immature. Humans are meant to mature by experiencing temptation and gradually overcoming evil. Maturing implies growth, an impossible conception were God to have created morally perfect beings from the start.
Hick labels this “soul-making” theodicy, and states that in the face of real challenges, there is always the risk of evil–of failure and ruin, suffering and injustice. In fact, he even states that it is important that the world appear as if there is no God. Ultimately, God lends his helping hand, leading to the final result of universal salvation. Critics of Hick like G. Stanley Kane argue that such great challenges–severe moral and physical evils–are not required to induce faith nor to conceal God. The same could have been accomplished with much less pain. Neither does empiric evidence substantiate Hick’s claim of soul-making. The endless list of human failings seems enough to bury his theory. And again, even if there were sufficient successes, are these enough to justify the degree of hardship and suffering required for their success? Hick seeks to skirt this last charge by granting each human the right to decide whether the price of salvation is worth it.
Certain philosophers, while rejecting the approach of non-theistic critics, have found the range of theodicies so dissatisfying that they have formulated what has come to be known as “process philosophy.” Persons like Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne have rethought in striking ways the relationship between God and the world, emphasizing change, development, and evolution–not only in finite creatures but in God as well. God has two aspects: his primordial nature which contains all eternal possibilities for how this world may advance, and his consequent nature which contains the experiences and responses of creatures to the possibilities of how they may act in this world. As God’s nature responds to such changes, he is said to change or be in process.
This is certainly a radical departure from traditional theistic belief. No longer do we have the divinely omnipotent, infinite Godhead. The ‘traditional’ God of old now shares his power. The ‘process’ God is powerful, but not all-powerful; creatures, too, have power of their own which makes their decisions truly free. The process God is persuasive rather than coercive, and, as David Griffin states, cannot single-handedly eliminate evil because he “‘cannot unilaterally affect any state of affairs.’” Finally, process thinkers conclude that as God “‘include[s] in himself a synthesis of the total universe,’ . . . all positive and negative experiences are conserved and reconciled in God’s own conscious life.” The certainty of ultimate universal salvation is now replaced by a positive hope for such a triumph.
Not surprisingly, process concepts have come under attack from both classical theists and nontheists alike. Theists have objected to what they term as a caricature the process concept of divine power. They suggest the process exponents could as easily have justified the distinction between coercive and persuasive power by using terms such as “productive power,” or “sustaining power,” or “enabling power,”rather than prejudicial terms such as “totalitarian” and “monopolistic.” Classical theists also defend their own view, that God’s all-powerful nature does not exclude others from also having power. They have also criticized process thinkers for debasing divine goodness by giving it an aesthetic rather than moral orientation. If the principle purpose of undergoing suffering is to attain a richer and more variegated life experience, and if it is God who either caused or allowed such suffering in the first place, then God’s ultimate morality is brought into question. Can mere aesthetic aims justify so much suffering? They do, reply the process theists, for aesthetical values are a more inclusive category than moral values. But, as Peterson’s incisive conclusion highlights, “hanging on the issue of whether God is morally good is the related question of whether he is worthy of worship.”
The above three global theodicies offer divergent views of the dilemma of evil in relationship to God and humans. Another vision with unique characteristics is presented in the Vedas, the ancient texts of India, and may be called the monotheistic Vedic theodicy. The great saint Citraketu has summarily expressed the tenets of this theodicy at the time of receiving what was apparently a most unjust judgment for a minor indiscretion. Though destined to return back to the kingdom of God, he was condemned instead to take birth as a great demon opposed to God’s servants. Here is his response recorded in the Bhagavata Purana, Canto 6, Chapter 17, Text 21-24:
The Supreme Personality of Godhead is one. Unaffected by the conditions of the material world, He creates all the conditioned souls by His own personal potency. Because of being contaminated by the material energy, the living entity is put into ignorance and thus into different conditions of bondage. Sometimes, by knowledge, the living entity is given liberation. In sattva-guna [goodness] and raja-guna [passion], he is subjected to happiness and distress.
The Supreme Personality of Godhead is equally disposed toward all living entities. Therefore no one is very dear to Him, and no one is a great enemy for Him; no one is His friend, and no one is His relative. Being unattached to the material world, He has no affection for so-called happiness or hatred for so called distress. The two terms happiness and distress are relative. Since the Lord is always happy, for Him there is no question of distress.
Although the Supreme Lord is unattached to our happiness and distress according to karma, and although no one is His enemy or favorite, He creates pious and impious activities through the agency of His material potency. Thus for the continuation of the materialistic way of life He creates happiness and distress, good fortune and bad, bondage and liberation, birth and death.
O mother, you are now unnecessarily angry, but since all my happiness and distress are destined by my past activities, I do not plead to be excused or relieved from your curse. Although what I have said is not wrong, please let whatever you think is wrong be pardoned.
Before we can evaluate correctly Citraketu’s humility and surrender to supreme destiny, it behooves us to firmly grasp the philosophy behind his response. A verse from the Bhagavad-gita’s fifth chapter, fifteenth text may elucidate the matter more fully: “Nor does the Supreme Lord assume anyone’s sinful or pious activities. Embodied beings, however, are bewildered because of the ignorance which covers their real knowledge.” In his commentary to this verse, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada fully unpacks the essential aspects of the Vedic theodicy. He writes: “The Sanskrit word vibhu means the Supreme Lord who is full of unlimited knowledge, riches, strength, fame, beauty and renunciation. He is always satisfied in Himself, undisturbed by sinful or pious activities. He does not create a particular situation for any living entity, but the living entity, bewildered by ignorance, desires to be put into certain conditions of life, and thereby his chain of action and reaction begins”.
Here, the Supreme Lord is portrayed as an all-powerful, omniscient being, who dwells undisturbed beyond the created universe. Each creature’s particular condition is not determined by God but by the creature itself. The living entity freely selects its own situation; the wrong choice or desire which will lead to eventual suffering is due to his own ignorance.
One may ask how this ignorance arises. This is now explained. “A living entity is, by superior nature, full of knowledge. Nevertheless, he is prone to be influenced by ignorance due to his limited power. The Lord is omnipotent, but the living entity is not. The Lord is vibhu, or omniscient, but the living entity is anu or atomic. Because he is a living soul, he has the capacity to desire by his free will.” The soul, the true essence of each entity, shares God’s superior nature. But unlike the infinite Godhead, the individual soul is atomic. Hence, though the soul is constitutionally full of knowledge, it is prone to being covered by ignorance due to its limited power.
How does the transcendental soul become embodied? By misuse of its free will. But how, one may ask, can a pure soul which shares the same nature as God become so confused? Though godly by nature, the soul is not omnipotent. Bewilderment causes the soul to become embodied and identify with the circumstantial material body and the temporary misery and happiness of material existence. Again, could not the omnipotent God arrange to influence the soul to choose right instead of wrong and thus avoid suffering altogether? Prabhupada answers this critical question: “The Lord is the constant companion of the living entity as Paramatma, or the Supersoul, and therefore He can understand the desires of the individual soul, as one can smell the flavor of a flower by being near it. Desire is a subtle form of conditioning for the living entity. The Lord fulfills his desires as he deserves: Man proposes and God disposes. The individual is not, therefore, omnipotent in fulfilling his desires. The Lord, however, can fulfill all desires, and the Lord, being neutral to everyone, does not interfere with the desires of the minute independent living entities. However, when one desires Krsna, the Lord takes special care and encourages one to desire in such a way that one can attain to Him and be eternally happy.”
Significant free will requires a substantial degree of independence. God does not interfere with the living entity’s choices. But critics may judge God harshly for failing to give sufficient wisdom to the soul. How can an all-good and compassionate God remain aloof while the creatures he created undergo such severe suffering? This crucial question is covered by the Vedic theodicy with its conception of God as the indwelling witness or Supersoul that accompanies the individual soul throughout its journey in material existence. Much as the Holy Spirit of Christianity pervades and sustains the faithful, the Paramatma [Supersoul] is the Vedic expansion of the Godhead who responds internally to the individual’s needs. God in his kingdom may thus continue his sublime existence while his expanded representation personally looks after the created beings so long they are within this universe. Through scriptural guidance, saintly association, and divine inspiration from within, the individual is gradually led back to the path of goodness, to be eventually freed from the law of karma and the cycle of rebirth. Once purified of all mundane desires, the soul is free to return back home, back to Godhead.
Prabhupada summarizes: “Therefore the embodied soul, by his immemorial desire to avoid Krsna consciousness, causes his own bewilderment. Consequently, although he is constitutionally eternal, blissful and cognizant, due to the littleness of his existence he forgets his constitutional position of service to the Lord and is thus entrapped by nescience. And, under the spell of ignorance, the living entity claims that the Lord is responsible for his conditional existence.”
We return now to our story of the saintly Citraketu, hopefully, with a better understanding of the philosophy that underlies his response to an unjust curse. A pure devotee of the Lord like King Citraketu is never afraid or sorry. Rather, he addressed the female judge as “mother,” a sign of utmost respect, and accepted the curse thinking himself faulty. He never uttered a word in retaliation. Parvati, (the lady judge who actually condemned Citraketu), was the consort of the exalted Lord Siva. Upon observing Citraketu’s exemplary behavior, Lord Siva remarked that the condemned king had actually excelled the glory of the auspicious Parvati’s beauty and power. She and her excellences were all defeated by Citraketu’s pure devotion. Lord Siva exclaimed [Bhagavata Purana 6.17.28]:
Devotees solely engaged in the devotional service of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Narayana, never fear any condition of life. For them the heavenly planets, liberation and the hellish planets are all the same, for such devotees are interested only in the service of the Lord.
Parvati might naturally have inquired how devotees become so exalted. This verse explains that it is due to their total dependence upon and surrender to God. They do not mind reverses in life, no matter how severe or unfair. Rather, such reverses are seen as a boon, for they propel the devotee towards the Lord. Queen Kunti, the mother of Arjuna [who directly heard the Bhagavad-gita spoken by Krishna], remarked to Lord Krishna: “I wish that all those calamities would happen again and again so that we could see You again and again, for seeing You means that we will no longer see repeated births and deaths.”
Vedic theodicy thus takes a greater-good approach to why God should allow suffering in this world. Elevated personalities like Citraketu and Kunti can recognize the value of such suffering as inducements for total surrender. Others may have to learn ‘by the school of hard knocks.’ But, if the cause of suffering is misuse of one’s own free will, and if, due to ignorance, one is unable to recognize one’s mistake, what possibility is there of becoming knowledgeable? It may be suggested that undergoing punishments is itself a learning experience. It makes one search for the causes, and it is often humbling. Humility and inquiry can prepare one for finding ultimate solutions. And what of those who suffer what appears to be pointless evil? The Vedic response is that nothing happens by chance: one’s actions in this life or in past lives are all noted and judged according to the laws of karma. The task of accounting for every minute action of each and every living creature may boggle our finite brains, but for the unlimited and all-knowing Godhead, everything is possible. The death of an apparently innocent infant or the devastation of an entire town’s population may thus be explained.
The Vedic theodicy, along with other theodicies and defences, presents a powerful case that evil is necessary to achieve a greater good. Whatever may be one’s theistic persuasion, inquiry into the nature of evil is neither a useless endeavor nor one to be feared. As theists throughout the centuries have demonstrated, there is ample reason in believing that God has substantial moral grounds for allowing evil to exist. Rather than lessening our belief in God, such inquiries can strengthen our faith.