What the hell was God thinking?: The Problem of Evil

John Hick, in his introduction to Evil and the God of Love, makes the following remarks,

One meets as an initial objection [to attempting to solve the problem of evil] the feeling that sin is so heinous and suffering so terrible that any attempt to think calmly and systematically about them must be lacking in either moral seriousness or human compassion.

At first glance, this definitely seems correct, for how can I gaze at the face of a lifeless, bloodied, and bruised Haitian baby’s face and begin to speak the words of theodicy? I cannot because empathy demands that I weep instead of speak…or does it?

After all, empathy could be the very thing that causes us theodicize in the first place. In fact, its likely that we would not be able to experience the suffering of others as evil if we did not have our various modes of empathic arousal. If it is the case, however, that theodicy is a project that is motivated by compassion, then is it addressed by that compassionate Galilean?

It doesn’t seem like it is. The problem of evil is a problem for those who are powerless, and Jesus is not presented that way in the gospels. To the natural afflictions that plague the residents of the ancient world, Jesus says, “Go away,” and they do. Problem of evil solved. Or Jesus seems to ignore the issue by talking about a life in the age to come in which the meek will inherit the earth. Even if a just state of affairs obtains in the eschatos, that doesn’t really solve the problem of evil.

I am guessing, however, that this philosophical point didn’t really bother the peasant congregants listening to “the sermon on the mount,” since presumably it was a comforting thought: all the suffering that you are going through now will result in your inheriting the earth. I have no idea what it means to “inherit the earth,” but its probably a good thing.

In a sense, we could view the subsequent philosophical treatments of the problem of evil as simply a repeating of Jesus’ words in the sermon on the mount, but with the following addition, “and this state of affairs is logically necessary for you to obtain this greater good.” But this seems to be pretty foreign to the text itself.

Were the ancient Palestinians even aware of the problem of evil in its current form? Was Jesus even aware of the problem of evil as we know it today? Did he have a solution to it?

There is another set of equally important questions that can be raised:

Is the current form of the problem the best formulation? Is it possible that, despite first appearences, Jesus’ statements more adequately address the real problem? And is it possible that we moderns have misunderstood the problem?

These are crazy questions. I am already inclined to answer “no” to both sets of questions. One obvious problem is that, it seems likely that the problem of evil didn’t arise in its current form for Jesus because his conception of God was distinct from the God of orthodoxy, i.e., it seems unlikely that Jesus thought that OT verses that spoke of God’s power meant something like, “God can do everything that is logically possible.”

I am a Christian, so I like to pay attention to stuff Jesus said and did, but Jesus, in this case, seems to be, contrary to the opinion expressed by those popular bumper stickers, more of a question than “the answer.”

Fine. Studying Jesus is bound to have some limitations for answering important questions. But let’s look at Love. That’s what Jesus is supposed to be the incarnate form of anyway. What does Love say about evil? Well, now we seem to be back where we’ve started because Love is precisely what gives rise to the problem in the first place.

But perhaps we aren’t. There’s an observation to made here: the love of Love is what gives rise to the problem in the first place. This is structurally similar to the remarks made at the beginning of this rant: empathy is what causes us to ask the question. We could put this in another way: love is what causes us to ask the question. There is a connection between what causes us to ask the question (love) and Love itself. Only insofar as we behave like Love, will the question be interesting to us…this actually only makes sense under what we might call a “reductionistic” conception of God, i.e., a conception that reduces God’s attributes to 1: Love, for if we included omniscience under the label of “attributes,” then the question could be said to be interesting only insofar as we do not “behave” like Love qua omnisceint deity…

Are there other ways that this “love” approach to theodicy might play out?

This is a mess…but its a wonderful mess. It is a mess that reminds me to have epistemic humility. It is a mess that sends me straight into the “arms” of Love. It is a mess that prompts that wrestling match between the Deity and I. It is a mess that makes this life eternal.

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