One of the most challenging issues in the philosophy of religion is the problem of evil. Put simply, the problem concerns the difficulty of reconciling the reality of evil—from immoral behaviors to diseases and natural disasters—with the existence of an all-powerful and perfectly good God. If God is almighty, then he can prevent evil, and if God is morally perfect, then presumably he would wantto prevent it. Yet evil exists—in massive doses, in fact. On its face, then, the problem amounts to evidence against theism, at least as traditionally construed. One way out would be to deny God is omnipotent, as Harold Kushner essentially does in his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Another route would be to surrender belief in God’s goodness. But these approaches contradict the biblical portrait of God. So, it seems, the theist is in a fix.
Since the ancient philosopher Epicurus first posed the evidential problem of evil, theists have proposed many ways of eluding its logic by contriving “theodicies”—explanations as to why God would permit sin and suffering in this world. Two of the most well-worn among these are the “free will theodicy” and the “soul-making theodicy.” Both of these aim to deny the premise that God would not want to allow evil. Each explains God’s permission of evil in terms of some greater goods that God wanted to achieve in this world.
According to the free will theodicy the greater goods God desired were the various goods that depend upon human freedom, such as genuine relationships and moral qualities. But, of course, we have misused our freedom and, well, now things are a mess. But the risk, so to speak, was worth it, or so say defenders of the free will theodicy. According to the soul-making theodicy, the greater goods God aims to achieve by permitting evil is higher or “second-order” virtues which can only be displayed in response to evil. For example, forgiveness requires sin to forgive, perseverance demands difficulty to overcome, and so on. Such traits as forgiveness, perseverance, patience, compassion, mercy, etc. are good and beautiful virtues, and well worth the price of evil to achieve. Or so say proponents of the soul-making theodicy.
I think both of these theodicies are helpful in dealing with the problem of evil. But is either one preferable to or more helpful than the other? This question has been occupying my mind a bit lately, as I will be giving a presentation on it at next week’s national meeting of the Evangelical Philosophical Society in Providence, Rhode Island, which will be held at the Rhode Island Convention Center. (Once it is finished, I plan to post my paper on this blog.) If you’ll be in the New England area from November 18-21, you might want to consider checking out this conference and hearing presentations by some leading lights in the world of Christian philosophy and theology. It’s not too late to register. And I also invite you to consider joining the EPS or its sister organization, the Evangelical Theological Society. In each case, membership is inexpensive and includes a subscription to the society’s journal (Philosophia Christi or the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society).