Horrendous Evils: Another Logical Problem of Evil?

I’m just going to ramble here because I’m bored… so here goes.

In my God and Evil class, we are currently reading through a book by Marilyn Adams called Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God.  In it, she complains that the classic answers to the problem of evil, most notably by Alvin Plantinga, are too abstract and therefore do not really address the problem of actual, “horrendous” evils:  Evils that, as she defines it, make it such that we have prima facie reason to think that that the participant’s life (either the doer or the victim or both) is not worth living anymore.  This represents a serious challenge to God’s goodness, because she believes that for God to be good, he must guarantee that the good in an individual’s life outweighs the bad.

Now, keep in mind that Adams is a Christian (though perhaps a liberal one at Yale Divinity School), and her answer to this problem isn’t exactly wrong because she seeks the answer in the goodness of God’s very character.  Fair enough.  However, not only is she a bit unclear on this new logical problem (often sounds more like an evidential problem of evil), her standard of God’s goodness seems to be way off.

Consider, first, the classical formulation of the logical problem:

[1]  God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent.
[2]  An omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent God would want to eliminate all evil, knows how to eliminate all evil, and has the power to eliminate all evil.
[3] Evil exists.

Back in the day when this argument was popular, the thought was that [1] and [2] lead to the idea [R] Evil does not exist, which obviously makes this all an inconsistent set because [3] and [R] are contradictory.  However, Plantinga showed convincingly that this was not the case because we can conceive of some goods, such as courage and perserverance, that may not arise unless out of an evil situation.  We can also conceive of how eliminating an “minor” evil, say scratching an itchy scab, could lead to a greater one, in this case an infection.  Furthermore, omnipotence is typically and more properly thought of as the power to do what can logically be done, or power that has no non-logical limits (so not even God can create a round square or a married bachelor).  All of this goes into an idea of God properly eliminating an evil:  An action that does not eliminate an outweighing good or cause a greater evil and can be logically done.  Thus, what we have is instead:

[1] God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent.
[2] An omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent God eliminates all evil that can be properly eliminated.
[3] Evil exists
[R*] There is no evil that God can properly eliminate. (from [1] and [2])

This is clearly not an inconsistent set, so the logical problem of evil fails.  Keep in mind that this does not prove that it is in fact consistent, just that critics have not shown an inconsistency.  This argument has been convincing enough that the logical problem of evil– when it comes to general Christian beliefs, at least–has been put aside.  Add Plantinga’s Free Will Defense in which he does try to show consistency (and has also largely been successful despite a few squabbles), and atheistic philosophers have abandoned this approach for others such as the evidential problem of evil, which does not purport an outright irrationality but argues that given all the evil in the world, God seems quite unlikely to exist.

In any case, Adams concedes that perhaps Plantinga has been successful on an abstract level, but he does nothing to address “real” evil, evil that threatens to destroy meaning in a person’s life.  And for God to be good, she argues, he must be good to every single person, which she further defines, as I said above, that God must guarantee that good outweighs the bad in each person’s life.  “Good,” in this sense, meaning that the person finds his or her life worth living; the person must come to know this.

Her book does not really lay out her argument, but it seems like it is like this:

[1]  God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent.
[2]  For God to be omnibenevolent, he must be good to every individual, meaning that he guarantees that the person sees good outweigh the bad in the context of his life and finds his life worth living.
[3]  Horrendous evils are that which destroy or can destroy meaning in someone’s life.
[4] An omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent God would want to, know how to, and have the power to eliminate horrendous evils.
[5]  Horrendous evils exist.
[R**]  Horrendous evils do not exist. (from 1 and 2)

Adams claims that Plantinga and others who employ free will theodicies fail to address something like this, so she sets out to do it herself.  However, it is doubtful that this poses as big of a logical problem as she claims.  I can see the evidential one; in fact, despite the subjective manner in which she defines horrendous evils (and she admits human beings are necessarily experts on value), I don’t think anyone wants to deny that there are some really horrible situations out there that boggle the mind and may make someone doubt God’s existence and the value of life.  That does not make it convincing as a logical case.

The key premise is [2]:  For God to be all good, he must be good to each person, guaranteeing that the good outweighs the bad in a person’s life, and the person must see this.  Such a definition drives her distaste for retributive justice and obviously for the concept of Hell.  However, even setting aside potential biblical problems, must we accept this definition philosophically?

Let’s take a serial rapist who terrorizes a community for a while.  Obviously, his participation in horrendous evils give us prima facie reason to think that his life is no longer worth living (to say nothing of his victims).  Say one day, the cops finally catch up to him, he gets into a gunfight, and the cops shoot and kill him.  Does the serial rapist see an outweighing of goodness in his life over his horrible actions?  I think most people would say no.  However, in what sense can we say that God was not good to this person?  Unless one wants to take some hardline deterministic stance on it and claim that God unilaterally set up and caused all of this evil himself, it seems bizarre to think that God, to be morally good, has to make sure this serial rapist sees “goodness” in his life when he continually chooses the opposite.  God may very well work good out of this evil:  Justice was done, the community feels safer, the victims learn perserverance, the community comes closer together, etc., but the rapist himself sees none of this and probably wouldn’t care to.  He might even view this all pretty terrible (he didn’t want to get shot).  So what?  Did God make him a rapist?  Is it God’s responsibility to shield every single person from the consequences of his actions?  Adams is right to find the answer in God’s character, but her extreme individualization threatens to undermine the goodness of God’s justice and holiness.  Not only that, it threatens to undermine God’s love, as if a loving God would simply treat an unrepentant serial rapist the same way as the rapists’ victims.

For God to be good, he must be consistent with himself and act in accordance with his own character, which is moral by nature.  That may mean that he gives out judgment and wrath to evil individuals, individuals who have lived a life that is not worth living.  To preserve the integrity of his creative choice of making free creatures, that also may mean that he tolerates evil done to others to a point.  None of this threatens God’s goodness and is in fact a product of it.  Thus, Adams doesn’t really show that there is a “new” logical problem to deal with here because her definition of God’s goodness is so suspect.  Few theists would find it convincing, and I think even many atheists would be skeptical.


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