A response to a request to address theodicy, or “the problem of evil.”
I have had a request to address the topic of how a good God could allow evil. It’s a topic I would not have selected myself; to quote C. S. Lewis, “I will not indulge in futile philippics against enemies I have never met in battle.” The problem of evil is one I have never been troubled with, nor have I interacted closely with many who have seemed troubled with it. However, a request has been made and I feel I do have a few thoughts I can share.
Usually when relativism is applied to matters of morality and religion I find myself feeling that the application is misguided. However, I think there is some benefit in considering relativity in regards to evil. Let us approach it from a few case studies.
Part of my profession involves creating problems for my students to solve. I create buggy, incomplete, and poorly documented code intentionally to provde my students with a chance to repair it. If my students were to do what I do (intentionally introduce errors into code) they would be doing wrong (and be graded accordingly), but it is not wrong for me to do what I do. Wherein lies the difference?
One reason my actions as a teacher are not wrong is that their scope is constrained to the course itself. Problems I create for my students will end. But the same may be said for the errors my students create in the course as well…
Another reason could be that my objective is the instruction of my students, not the creation of working code. But that reason is also not the real crux; after all, my students objectives are also their learning and the code they write is also not intended to be used for any real purpose.
Maybe it is because I am intentional in my creation of problems, where students are accidental in theirs? But this, too, fails: if a student were to mimic my actions quite closely, consciously creating bad Etymonline’s entry for bad describes it as “a mystery word”, a phrase it uses only four times, the other three being to describe the Old English bræs, the Latin apis, and the Spanish perro. Dog is the only “great mystery” it identifies, despite hundreds of words described as being “of unknown origin”. code and other problems for the other members their team to solve, I would not be pleased.
The difference, I posit, is one of scope and perspective. A teacher is generally assumed Asumed, not trained. It is impressive to me how much of what teachers are expected to know and do they are never taught to know or do; much of it is never even identified as part of their job. to have the understanding to know the difference between challenging and detrimental and the power to prevent detrimental activities from continuing. Students generally lack both aspects of this; a lack of perspective conflates their perception of learning vs time-wasting activities and a lack of influence and knowledge impedes their ability to remove the cruft and misleading from the kernel.
Children like to play in groups. If allowed to do so with minimal interference, they will be mean to one another. Physical and emotional anguish will result. There will be times when the children are convinced that the pain they feel is beyond all compare and some of them will react by wishing complete pain and destruction on the perpetrators of their wrongs. They will lash out in fury, say as mean things as they are able, and generally do all in their limited power to harm body and soul.
And then they’ll get over it, move on, and it will happen again, and they’ll get over it, move on, and so on.
Why would a well-meaning parent Given the diversity of parenting philosophies there are probably some that would never permit any form of harm or pain, however slight. I assert, without proof or evidence of any kind, that all such parenting styles will evetually be discredited. ever allow this to happen? Why not intervene as soon as things get even slightly heated so that the level of offense and anger and pain never results? Because the parent’s perspective is fundamentally bigger. They know that the pain that to a child seems impossibly bad and to last forever and a day will not only pass but actually be forgotten. They know that the reactions of rage are not signs of deep-set evil but rather small minds struggling to understand and master a confusing world. The best parents know when to intervene, when to respond with affection and love, and when to let the experience ride.
But could any parent explain this to the children? How do you tell the child wailing in pure anguish that this problem is of little consequence? They lack the perspective and memory to understand the concept. They may well grasp the general idea that “my parents will keep me safe,” but getting them to understand the specifics of how that combines with “and they send me to school where the bully hurts me” is generally not even feasible.
This difference in perspective also creates a difference in what is good and bad. There are times when the right thing for a parent to do is to step back and let a childish injustice play out, while the right thing for a child to do is intervene and play peacemaker. The context by which parents and children interact with the same event is so different that the same moral compass can point in very different directions.
A central tenant of the view of deity that my philosophy classes termed the “Judeo-Christian God” is that God
is aware of everything that occurs in the universe at all times
is able to intervene in any of it in any way at any time
desires good for all people (or at least all innocent people; what God’s intentions for “wicked” people might be does not seem to be a matter of consensus between the various religions in question)
…leading to the following question:
Why does God allow children to be born into families with abusive parents?
There are, of course, many other versions of that question, as many as there are evils in the world, but that one example is, I think, a sufficient one.
To which I reply: God has a higher perspective than we.
God is not more fond of abuse
I am not trying to say that abuse is not as bad as we think it is; on the contrary, I think it is far worse than the general public treats it as being.
Rather, I am trying to say that humans are not as weak and breakable as we think we are.
Children heal quickly, at least from the perspective of adults. I am convinced that God calls us children for more reasons than one. than a parent is fond of bullying or a teacher is fond of bad code. But God’s perspective sees a boundary between bad and irreparably bad that is invisible to us, God’s children, and intervenes to prevent the second.
“But,” I seem to hear some of my readers say, “God doesn’t prevent irreparable bad! Children are abused until they die, or so much that they are warped inside and become thereafter incapable of proper human interaction, either becoming abusive themselves or shell-shocked and withdrawn. Why doesn’t God stop that from happening?”
My answer is summed up in one word: “eternity.” Death may remove mortals from the view of other mortals, like the child removed from the classroom, but it does not end them from God’s perspective. Abuse may build terror or rage in someone that lasts for decades, but God’s perspective stretches for millennia. Our moral obligation, the right thing for us to do, is to attempt to make the world as good a place as we can. God’s goal is the same, but with a perspective that enables a different approach, one we neither can nor should attempt to mimic.
As an aside, there are many religions that believe in the Judeo-Christian God but do not believe in a model of the post-mortal life that is consistent with the explanation I’ve given above. Indeed, the majority seems to subscribe to some form of “you are judged and consigned to your eternal state based on who you are when you die.” To me that has always seemed a bit like saying “any child who is throwing a tantrum at 11:45 today will be sent to Hell.” Mormonism is one of the few that teaches that we continue to grow and develop spiritually even after death, and hence one of the few for which my explanation above works.