Why Evil? Why Anything At All?

July-August 1995By Brendan Sweetman

Brendan Sweetman is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Rockhurst College in Kansas City, Missouri.

Evil and the Evidence for God.  By R. Douglas Geivett. Temple University Press. 276 pages. $18.95.

Why do evil events occur? It is this "problem of evil" which R. Douglas Geivett sets out to explore in this well-written, insightful, and wide-ranging discussion.

It is the apparent irreconcilability of three propositions typically held by religious believers that gives rise to the philosophical problem of evil: (1) that God is all-powerful, (2) that God is completely good, and (3) that evil really exists. Given that the last proposition is true, the religious believer seems to be faced with denying at least one of the other two propositions, which he is not normally prepared to do. Of course, some have argued that the fact of evil is one of the strongest reasons not to believe in God. But, as Geivett rightly points out, denying the existence of God will not help at all in explaining the fact of evil; indeed, for the atheist, it is not only evil that is ultimately gratuitous and arbitrary but everything, including human life and the existence of the universe. Geivett, who has previously edited an anthology in the philosophy of religion with this reviewer, argues in this work that it is possible to reconcile all three propositions.

Geivett has two main concerns. First, he suggests that an adequate response to the problem of evil depends upon the positive reasons one might have for believing in God. In short, Geivett's view is that if one has strong and independent reasons for believing in the existence of God before one is faced with the problem of evil, the problem is then one which has to be dealt with within theism. And although evil undoubtedly still presents a problem, the need for a theodicy is now much less pressing; for if we have strong reasons to believe that a good God exists, then we can conclude that God must have a good reason for allowing evil, even if we cannot discern that reason. Secondly, Geivett wishes to defend the view that the traditional Augustinian solution to the problem of evil is philosophically and theologically preferable to a currently fashionable view advocated by well-known philosopher of religion John Hick, among others.

One of the most interesting features of Geivett's book is the section on natural theology, in which he argues in a very convincing manner that there are independent reasons that prompt us to believe in God before we come to face the problem of evil. Speaking generally, his argument is as follows: There are good philosophical and scientific reasons for believing that the universe had a beginning. Geivett presents several intriguing arguments to show that the notion of an actually infinite universe is unintelligible, and argues that it is more reasonable to believe that the universe had a beginning than to believe that it did not. Further, he argues that it is much more reasonable to believe that this beginning was caused than to believe that the universe just "popped" into existence. This latter belief seems absurd. There is also good evidence, according to Geivett, to support the view that the cause of the universe is nonmaterial, powerful, intelligent, personal, and morally good. Geivett develops these arguments in detail, his aim being to show that it is more probable than not that God exists, and that, taking all relevant evidence and issues into account, theism provides the best overall explanation in answer to the crucial question: "Why is there something rather than nothing?"

One of Geivett's most forceful points, against those who reject natural theology in favor of justifying belief in God by means of religious experience, is that natural theologians are not obliged to factor the reality of evil into their preliminary case for the existence of God. Yet he points out that it is hard to see how any philosopher who holds that belief in God can be justified exclusively on the basis of religious experience can avoid factoring the reality of evil into his understanding of these experiences. This is because human experience is always inclusive of pain and suffering. But when evil is factored into these experiences, Geivett argues, an affirmation of God based exclusively on human experience seems quite shaky, and certainly more shaky than a belief in God which begins with natural-theology-type arguments.

A second notable feature of Geivett's book is his defense of the traditional Augustinian explanation of evil over the theodicy of John Hick. Geivett argues for the Augustinian view which holds that since evil has to be explained within theism, the most reasonable explanation is that free will is responsible for both moral evil (evil done by human beings) and natural evil (evil which occurs naturally — e.g., earthquakes). Free will is responsible for the first kind of evil because humans are free to choose evil as well as good, and free will is responsible for the second kind of evil because such evil occurrences are, according to St. Augustine, best explained by the activity of Satan, who is a free being. The doctrine of the Fall of humanity from an initial ideal state is a crucial part of this view.

Geivett's position is in opposition to Hick's modernist view which holds centrally that God's divine purpose for humanity is "soul-making," which means that God's purpose involves creating finite persons who are like immature children who will grow in grace through the experience of living in the world. Natural and moral evil assist in the task of soul-making by producing a hostile environment which is crucial for the development of our moral nature. However, every person will be reconciled to God in the end, and therefore there is no place for the doctrine of eternal damnation. It is clear, however, that this reconciliation will not take place for many in this present life, so Hick is forced to introduce a very speculative theory of reincarnation to solve this difficulty. Hick's perspective is partly motivated by the rejection of the traditional arguments for the existence of God, by the desire to repudiate the doctrine of Hell, and by a dissatisfaction with the traditional metaphysical elements of Augustinian theodicy.

Geivett takes this view to task on all of these points. In particular, two difficulties he raises seem to me to be on target. First, he argues that if everybody will be saved in the end, human beings are not really free to reject God, and evil people will go unpunished. Secondly, it appears in the modernist view as if God actually wants evil as part of His soul-making purpose, and this too seems unsatisfactory.

Overall, Geivett's book is a strong defense of traditional theism. It serves too as an excellent introduction to central questions in the philosophy of religion.

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