I: The Problem of Evil
Every year in the United States an average of 37 children die after being left in a hot car by their parents. We can assume that, in most of these instances, there was no passerby who was in a position to help get the child out of the car. If ever there was such a passerby and this person did nothing to help, most of us would agree that the person would have acted wrongly. Given that such events occur, we also know that God does nothing to prevent them. The problem of evil is the problem of accounting for why God refrains from preventing such horrible events.
Let me say a bit more about what it means to say that a person is in a position to help:
Person P is in a position to help prevent some event, E, just in case (a) P is aware that E is occurring or will occur, (b) P has at least those capacities the exercise of which stands a reasonable chance of being sufficient to stop E’s occurring, and (c) there is no action or course of action A such that, (i) P should do A; (ii) by doing A, P will be unable to stop E from occurring; and (iii) P’s failure to do A either is or will result in something equally bad or worse than E.
I will say that a person who satisfies at least (a) and (b) is situated so as to prevent E.
When we think about the obligations we have to help prevent horrible events, we should assert
(M) If a person, P, is in a position to prevent some bad event E and P does nothing to prevent E, then P has acted wrongly.
(L) If a person P is situated so as to prevent some bad event E, then the only morally sufficient reason for P to fail to prevent E is that, for P, there is some act that satisfies (i), (ii), and (iii).
(L) captures the intuition that the only good reasons for failing to prevent something bad from happening are that you didn’t know that it was going to happen, didn’t have the ability to prevent it, or else had obligations that conflicted with your acting to prevent it.
We know that there are countless bad events that God fails to prevent. If God exists, then he is morally perfect and so we also know that the consequent of (M) can never be true of God. For any evil event, God is always situated so as to prevent it. Thus, given (L), the only morally sufficient reason for God to refrain from preventing some evil is that there is an act or course of action that satisfies (i), (ii), and (iii). That is, If God exists, then for all actual instances of evil that occur, it must be the case that there is some act such that (i) God should do it, (ii) by doing it, God will be unable to stop the evil from occurring, and (iii) God’s failure to do it either is or will result in something equally bad or worse than the evil that actually occurs. Further, since God is omnipotent, “God will be unable to” in (iii) must mean “it is not logically possible for God to.”
It is reasonable to observe that, given everything I said in the last paragraph, it is very difficult for us to think of reasons for God to fail to prevent the suffering and death of a child in a hot car, not to mention all of the other evils that people have witnessed over the course of human existence. If you disagree with this assessment, perhaps you can stop reading now and offer your favorite examples of such reasons in the comment section down below.
These horrible deaths are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to instances of evil that God does not prevent. Every year in the US approximately 15,000 children are diagnosed with cancer, most of them undergo treatment that involves significant pain and suffering, 12% do not survive. In 2015 nearly 800 million people across the globe were malnourished. Tens of thousands of people die every day from hunger and malnutrition. Between 6 and 11 million people were brutally murdered during the Holocaust, most of them after suffering for months or years from emotional distress, fear, malnourishment, and incomparable mistreatment. While exact figures are difficult to calculate, the best estimates say that around 230,000 people died in the tsunami that struck the Indian Ocean on Boxing Day in 2004. The Black Death killed 40-50% of the population of Europe during a four-year period in the middle of the fourteenth century; in total, this plague killed between 75 million and 200 million people across Eurasia. The list of horrors goes on.
If you think that we can partially account for God’s failure to prevent some of this senseless devastation by pointing out that God rightfully desires his creatures to possess and exercise free will, consider the following: There is no credible view according to which respect for free will entails that it is always wrong to interfere so as to prevent the effects that a person freely tries to bring about. That Hitler was exercising his free will when he chose to pursue the Final Solution does not entail that any person, God included, is morally justified in refraining from doing whatever they can to prevent the genocide of European Jews. Imagine if FDR or Winston Churchill had said, “I’d like to prevent the Nazis from dominating Europe and committing mass genocide, but the problem is that, if we went to war, we would be undermining Hitler’s freedom. Given the value of free will, we better just sit back and let the Nazis have their way.” Respecting free will does not mean that, once a person has freely decided, we must sit back and allow his plans to come to fruition. Given the unimaginable horror of the Holocaust, we must look elsewhere for God’s reasons for failing to prevent it.
Nor should we think that some version of a soul-making theodicy can fully explain God’s reasons for failing to prevent the horrors I’ve described. Again, imagine that, in 1939, Winston Churchill had said the following: “While it is true that the devastation, suffering, and death that the Nazis are likely to inflict on the European people is incomparably worse than anything we’ve seen before, we must remember that such horrors will provide the victims of the Nazi campaign with opportunities for character development that would not otherwise have presented themselves.”
While it is true that God is in a superior epistemic position to Winston Churchill, this is irrelevant to whether the value of soul-making can justify a decision to refrain from intervening to put an end to the Nazi regime. The point is that the value of soul-making is not worth the devastation brought about by the Nazis. People would have had plenty of opportunities for character development even if Hitler had never come to power and the Holocaust had never happened (because, e.g., God prevented it). Again, we must look elsewhere if we are to account for God’s decision to not prevent the Holocaust.
I do not have the time or space to consider every possible reason someone might think of to account for God’s failure to prevent such horror. Nor would such a task be particularly enlightening. If we are not already convinced that it is exceedingly difficult to understand why God would allow such evil to occur, there is very little room for productive conversation. Instead, I want to consider a different issue. Many people, both atheists and theists, who have thought carefully about the problem of evil have concluded that we cannot come up with a complete and compelling account of the reasons that God has for not preventing the kinds of horrors I have described. I want to talk about some of the consequences of this conclusion.
II: Skeptical Theism and its Consequences
If we cannot think of good reasons for why God would be justified in allowing such horrors to occur, we might be inclined to say something like the following:
Skeptical Theism: Given our inferior epistemic abilities as compared to an omniscient being such as God, it would not be surprising if there are reasons of which we are unaware that would provide God with morally sufficient grounds for permitting such horrors, perhaps even reasons that we are incapable of being aware of. For all we know there are goods that are beyond our ken the promotion or preservation of which justify God’s failing to intervene to prevent horrible events.
I think that we should be very skeptical of the possibility that such morally sufficient reasons exist. As I have argued elsewhere, given the myriad opportunities that an omnipotent being has for realizing goods, it is highly implausible to believe that there are any goods that an omnipotent being cannot realize without necessitating the occurrence of horrendous suffering (such as the suffering and death of small children accidentally left in hot cars). However, in this essay I do not want to explore how likely it is that there exist some good(s) that God cannot realize while simultaneously causing a car window to break. Instead, I want to draw our attention to some significant skeptical conclusions that we will commit ourselves to if we believe that God has morally sufficient reasons to fail to prevent the kinds of horrors I have discussed.
If we believe that God has morally sufficient reasons to fail to prevent horrible events of the kind I have mentioned above, then we must also believe
(1) It is possible that there are morally sufficient reasons that justify God’s wanting some human being to kill several other human beings in the most agonizing way possible.
(2) It is possible that there are morally sufficient reasons that justify God’s inspiring human beings to write a book that is full of falsehoods about human salvation, but which will be widely accepted as divinely inspired.
(3) It is possible that there are morally sufficient reasons that justify God’s causing (or permitting some other being(s) to cause) many humans to falsely believe that Jesus of Nazareth died on the cross for the forgiveness of sins.
Some might respond to (2) and (3) by suggesting that God could never have morally sufficient reasons to lie. But this response ignores the fact that our moral reasons often conflict. Even if we suppose that God has very strong moral reasons to not lie, these reasons are only prima facie reasons. It is possible for God to occasionally be in a situation in which these prima facie reasons are overwhelmed by stronger moral reasons that point in the opposite direction. That one has a prima facie obligation to do X does not mean that one is always wrong to do X because there might be occasions in which, all things considered, one is obligated do what it is prima facie wrong to do. Even though lying is frequently wrong, most of us will agree that there are occasions in which lying is morally justifiable. Such occasions typically involve some significantly valuable end that can only be promoted via a lie. When the Nazis knock on your door and ask whether you are harboring Jews in your home, you ought to tell them that you are not doing so regardless of what the truth is. This is because your prima facie obligation to tell the truth is overcome by another, stronger obligation: the obligation to protect innocent lives. And so, all things considered, if you are protecting people from the Nazis, you ought to lie.
Thus, we cannot use the fact that God has a strong prima facie obligation to tell us the truth as a reason to think that (2) and (3) are not true. If skeptical theism is true, for all we know, there are ends that God cannot achieve except through some course of action that involves intentionally deceiving us about very important matters. And for all we know, these ends are so significant that, like the end of preserving the lives of the Jewish family hiding from the Nazis, promoting them would justify lying.
Further, even if we thought that it is impossible that God has morally sufficient reasons to deceive us, it would not follow that it is impossible that God has morally sufficient reasons to allow us to be deceived.
If skeptical theism is true, we must also believe
(4) It is possible that there are morally sufficient reasons that justify God’s being completely unresponsive to our physical, emotional, and spiritual needs, including our need to achieve salvation or any other soteriological end.
The problem is that most theists, including Christians, will deny that (2), (3), and (4) are true. The question is how such theists can be sure that God has morally sufficient reasons to fail to prevent great evils and also insist that God cannot have morally sufficient reasons to deceive us or allow us to be deceived about very important things (like our own salvation) or to be unresponsive to our most significant needs.
Given the assumption that God has morally sufficient reasons to fail to prevent the deaths of children in hot cars (and the many other horrors that we observe), what we should say is that we are not in a position to judge how likely it is that God has reasons to deceive us or allow us to be deceived about the Bible, the significance of Jesus, our own greatest good, and many other things. But, of course, most theists are not so humble when they speak about what God can do for us and the interest God has in our greatest good, nor can Christians admit that, for all we know, Jesus did not die for our sins.
What Christians ought to say, if they are skeptical theists, is that for all we know, God has very good reasons to allow us to believe that Jesus died for our sins even though he did not die for our sins. About these and many other very important matters, we could be gravely mistaken. We are just not in a position to know whether God has morally sufficient reasons to allow us to be so deceived. This implies, for example, that even if we had very good evidence that Jesus was resurrected from the dead, we would still not be in a position to know that Jesus died for our sins.
It is important to note that skeptical theists are committed to a much broader religious skepticism than is represented in (1) – (4). Given that it is possible that there are reasons for God to refrain from preventing horrors, it is also possible that God has reasons to allow us to be deceived about everything we might believe about God, what God wants of us, and our greatest good. This is the consequence of skeptical theism that I am drawing our attention to: skeptical theism implies a far-ranging skepticism about theological and religious matters.