Could the Problem of Evil Become a Thing of the Past?

Students in one of my classes wrote about the problem of evil this semester, and some chose to do their final paper on that topic. For many of them, the problem of evil seems to be something simple. Sure, there may be suffering, but all the joys and pleasures of life make up for them.

It seems that for at least some modern Americans, sheltered from the experiences of poverty, famine, disease, war, and other catastrophes that have typified human experience down the ages, the problem of evil isn’t much of a problem.

On the one hand, this depresses me: are some Americans really that insulated from the realities that other people not only have faced but continue to face?

On the other hand, it makes me hopeful: could a day arrive when not only wealthy Americans but most people around the globe find the notion that meaningless suffering was once commonplace hard to imagine, something that could be part of an abstract philosophical thought experiment, but are almost inconceivable as part of real life?

We talked about related matters in my Sunday school class this morning. We had previously started a conversation about the meaning of “daily bread” and the implications of asking for it in a world in which we can simply go buy more than we need, while others would be better nourished than they currently are if they just had what the wealthy throw away. Today I started us off with the famous quote from Dom Helder Camara: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a Communist.” Such discussions in my class have the advantage of the presence of someone who lived most of their life in a Communist country. While it is clear that Communism as practiced in Eastern Europe was a failure, I question whether that means that the American model of capitalism should be embraced as “the lesser of two evils.” Who says that there can be only these two evils? Should we not be looking for third ways that balance justice and incentive to work in some way, rather than choosing between extremes?

We also talked about the fact that the real issues of poverty in the world are elsewhere, but even within the United States, they are not primarily on the street corner with a sign written on cardboard. They are checking you out when you shop at Wal-Mart, and making and picking the products that you buy at Wal-Mart (using Wal-Mart as but one example, and not as though it were the sole locus of the problem). We prefer cheap items to justice.

The sermon related this all to Christmas. This year alone, Christians will spend far more on presents for other people who have plenty, than it would cost to guarantee that everyone in the world had access to clean water. This doesn’t mean that we should not give presents. We can afford collectively to give the presents that we give and also get involved in providing greater access to basic necessities around the world. The problem is that we do the one but not the other.

Can the problem of evil become a thing of the past? I doubt that there will ever be a time when no one suffers undeservedly. But I think that we genuinely have it within our power to make the world a place where the suffering that has typified most human experience down the ages becomes atypical, where its universality or normativity becomes a thing of the past. It will just require that we actually put our time, money, and effort towards making it a reality.

If we can do that, so that it is not just wealthy Americans but the vast majority of human beings who are convinced that the overall positive experience of living counterbalances the pain we occasionally experience, then I won’t mind students considering theodicy to be a largely theoretical and abstract matter.

But until then, the fact that some can have that impression, while others suffer unimaginably, simply illustrates how serious the problem of evil is, rather than solving it.

  • Just Sayin’

    Then there is the intractable problem of animal pain and suffering.

  • spinkham

    I’d have to say if anything our increasingly good world makes the theological problem of evil worse: Why did we need to suffer so much for millions of years and animals for billions if things could really be much better?

    As society improves in many ways (we live massively longer and are healthier and richer then ever before, even the bad countries are better off then the rich ones 200 years ago) most of the traditional theodicies of why things had to be so crappy for billions of years seem more and more hollow…

    As for something like your “third economic way”, I highly recommend Economix for an excellent and highly readable history of economics that traces that 3rd way from Adam Smith to the present and explains why both supply side/”free market” economics and full communism are unlikely to lead to the best societies.

    • Glenn Peoples

      “why things had to be so crappy for billions of years”

      I know, corrections on little things can be a drag, but what kind of suffering do you think was here, say, two billion years ago?

      Some advice: Resist overstatement for rhetorical effect.

      • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

        No suffering, but it was still crappy.

      • guest

        Those poor old anaerobic microbes suddenly found the air was full of toxic oxygen and died screaming.

        It’s an interesting question. When did suffering first begin? What was the first organism to feel pain? I guess it must have been something like a flatworm, that had the beginnings of a spine and nerves. Deeper emotions, likesadness, would have been later, maybe when the first animals started pair-bonding and caring for their offspring? When did fear evolve? Before the first predators, or after?

  • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

    While it is clear that Communism as practiced in Eastern Europe was a failure

    -At what? The Soviet Union was, compared to the United States, a very equal society. There was no unemployment and little popular discontent. Isn’t that what the modern-day Left in the United States wants?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      If by “the modern-day Left” you mean the Communist Party, then presumably. If you mean everyone else from socialists all the way through to those who are “the Left” only by virtue of the fact that they are to the Left of Republicans but would in any other context still be center-right, then no.

      • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

        My complaint was that you didn’t clarify at what “Communism as practiced in Eastern Europe” failed at. By “the modern-day Left in the United States”, I do mean “everyone else”. Last time I heard, most modern-day leftists in the United States support greater economic equality and less unemployment. If you do not say at what “Communism as practiced in Eastern Europe” failed at, how do we know what your standards for success or failure are?

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          Less economic disparity and lower employment are widely held goals – indeed, I don’t know anyone who desires higher unemployment on the Right or Left. But unless the aim is to have the government control employment then one is advocating a solution other than Communism.

          Eastern European Communism failed at being Communist consistently, even in its own terms. Dictators like Ceausescu built palaces for themselves, and goods were often exported for the benefit of such individuals rather than the well-being of the populace. And even from an outsider’s perspective, Communism has failed to find a way to motivate hard work when there is no differentiation in pay. But one could have genuine opportunity to earn more as a reward for hard work, without allowing unlimited amounts of wealth to be amassed by the few. That option in any form would lie between the extremes of Communism and American Capitalism.

          • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

            Very well.

          • newenglandsun

            “That option in any form would lie between the extremes of Communism and American Capitalism.”

            It might be something resembling that of an anarcho-capitalism.

            The problem with communism (anarchist and Marxist) is that it thinks too highly of the human nature. The problem with American capitalism is that the government ends up praying on the disadvantaged.

            Neither are good situations. If we remove capitalism from the government, we end up something more like that of the Catholic Worker Movement.

    • newenglandsun

      I’ve played BTD5 with a person who was under the USSR regime (great things online gaming can do). Didn’t even want to talk about communism. Why? It was horrifying.

      • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

        Different people had different experiences with the system. Communism was not invariably horrifying for everyone. Many in the former U.S.S.R are nostalgic for it. Of course, the Soviet Communist system generally was inefficient and repressive.

        • newenglandsun

          So if some people can breathe that’s good enough for you?

          If you’re advocating for anarcho-communism though, they tried that in “Lord of the Flies”.

          • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

            It wasn’t just that “some people could breathe”; Soviet Communism was, in several ways, better than the crony capitalism that succeeded it, including in matters of corruption, economic equality, and unemployment. In any case, though I recognize that Communism was not all bad, I remain mostly, though not entirely, something of a libertarian. Over the years, I have realized that demonizing political enemies is typically wrong-headed and that one must approach political issues in a balanced fashion.

            • newenglandsun

              Libertarians are more like anarcho-capitalists. I’m a libertarian as well.

              I’m certainly not demonizing communism. It has way more flaws than does capitalism, that;s for certain. Both are utter failures though.

        • newenglandsun

          You should also re-read the article you linked. That is talking about how the fall hurt their countries, not that they want to go back to the Soviet Union.

          • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

            According to Gallup, some 18% in Russia do want to go back to the U.S.S.R.

            • newenglandsun

              Ooooh! Wow! Less than 1/5. The rest though?
              Most of those people also possess a strong anti-western bias (hence, would rather not have anything to do with western thus, the “lesser of two evils” argument invoked).
              The Soviet Union was horrible. As Euronymous once stated, “I’ve been very interested in communism for a while, especially the extreme countries like Albania, Kampuchea, North Korea and so on. I have to say that I have studied so much that I know that real communism would be the best possible system, BUT as I HATE people I don’t want them to have a good time, I’d like to see them rot under communist dictatorship. Ceausescu was great, we need more people like him, Stalin, Pol Pot too.”

    • guest

      No, that’s what the imaginary Lefty strawman in your head wants.

      • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

        Clearly, you didn’t read my other comments on this post and, consequently, misread my comment.

  • Michael Wilson

    this is a interesting dilemma. On the one hand our prosperous nation does insulate people from comprehending just how bad it is for those outside our boundaries of time and space on the other it makes the tragedies we do experience even more incomprehensible. People accepted death and aging a lot more when they were so common. I was watching the movie Elysium the other day and thought to my self, in a time when every disease and injury is curable will death seem even more unimaginable catastrophic an event?

    Of the ironies of cheap vs just is that ii is our poor that take the most advantage of Wal-Mart. But for many of the people providing Wal-Mart’s cheap goods the choice is between low wages and no wages. Wal-Mart’s Chinese made goods might be made with labor that is forbidden to seek a higher price by the Chinese government, but from the governments perspective, those workers are making a sacrifice for the good of the rest of the nation, a foundation of their ideology.

  • http://jwayneferguson.wordpress.com/ Wayne Ferguson

    It helps to distinguish between pain (that any animal may experience) and the compounded suffering to which we human animals are subjected by virtue of our power of reflection and the temporal dimension opened up in (or by) our imaginations. With regard to the latter, Spinoza provides an important clue:

    “[All evils] seem to have arisen from the fact, that happiness or unhappiness is made wholly dependent on the quality of the object which we love. When a thing is not loved, no quarrels will arise concerning it — no sadness be felt if it perishes — no envy if it is possessed by another — no fear, no hatred, in short no disturbances of the mind. All these arise from the love of what is perishable . . . But love towards a thing eternal and infinite feeds the mind wholly with joy, and is itself unmingled with any sadness, wherefore it is greatly to be desired and sought for with all our strength. . . . The chief good is . . . the knowledge of the union existing between the mind and the whole of nature” (Essay on the Improvement of the Understanding).

    Take up your cross–the kingdom of heaven is at hand!

    http://jwayneferguson.wordpress.com/2013/08/13/nowhere-to-run/

    • guest

      That sounds a lot like something the Buddha might have written.

      Spinoza seems to assume that other animals can’t love, which is false. Many other mammals form attachments to things, places and people, and grieve when they lose them.

  • newenglandsun

    Having worked alongside people in poverty in the past, I would have to state that quite often, these people who suffer evil the most, are the ones who end up with the greatest amount of faith (and actually do something because of it).

    That said, I would argue *against* your proposition that Americans are so deep-seated in their own desires that they simply dismiss the problem of evil and the need to explain it. I would instead argue that these Americans are the ones with the most limited concept of faith. In other words, Bart Ehrman probably has more faith than these Americans for actually taking the issue seriously.

  • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

    I do think that responses such as “Sure, there may be suffering, but all the joys and pleasures of life make up for them.” will become ever more common around the religious world as the world gets richer and healthier.

  • guest

    I would like to think it’s possible but there are new dangers that we have to face, like climate change and antibiotic-resistant diseases, which may cause new levels of suffering, or the return of old levels.

    Also, even if everyone was fed and watered and we could cure all diseases and make life for people with every type of disability bearable, it doesn’t actually fix the problem of evil, because the problem is that if God is all-powerful and completely compassionate, there shouldn’t be any suffering at all. If Heaven if real and people have free will there, then suffering shouldn’t exist. It’s a problem with God’s qualities as claimed by many of his worshippers. If God is really the most powerful, all-knowing, loving creator concievable, we should all be living in paradise right now. The only logical conclusion is that God doesn’t have one of the qualities claimed- he isn’t all-powerful, or only loves a few of us, or has no idea how we suffer, or doesn’t exist.

  • David_Evans

    Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels describe a society with much less undeserved suffering, and much more widely distributed pleasure, than we have here. I don’t see why that would not be possible, given the technology. Of course there are a number of challenges along the way…

  • Marta L.

    James, it would be interesting to see if their opinions change as they get older. If the students at your school are anything like the students at my school, they likely haven’t had much experience (as a group) with genuine suffering: death of people aside from grandparents after a long life, professional rejection, ruined marriages or even the realization that societal/international problems can’t be solved in a news cycle The kind of suffering that drives concern over the problem of evil isn’t restricted to natural disasters and intractable poverty, I’d say. I wonder if this isn’t a sign that students are more sheltered for longer, rather than that the problem of evil is going away.

    On the other hand, I’m not sure it should go away. we shouldn’t only be moved by the genocide but by the fact that even a single person goes through the hell (speaking idiomatically here!) of a love one’s suicide, cancer diagnosis, loss of a job, etc. These things should make us question what we mean by goodness and why we think the God who rules this messy world allows things to go on as they are.

  • Heidi K.

    Evil and sin are rampant! We are living in the end times and the Lord GOD is soon going to deal with those who don’t belong to Him.
    GOD bless

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      This short statement really does not help in this context. Since we have eliminated and reduced a number of evils, why do evils in the world now make you think that it is “the end times” to a greater extent than in the past? And what does “soon” even mean after 2,000 years? As a Christian, I find your brief statements which ignore Christian history to be unhelpful.


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