Why the Problem of Evil is Incoherent
There’s something economic about theodicies. “After calculating the costs and benefits, God decided that x was worth the price of y.” Plug in “free will” or “a habitable planet” for x. Plug in “murders” or “hurricanes” for y. There’s no money involved, but it still feels kind of crass.
This is not to say that theodicies aren’t important. They help us see that theism isn’t irrational, even if the attributes of God and the world seem to clash. But I think we can defuse the Problem of Evil without theodicies as they are normally understood. The question is whether we are willing to pay the price.
Here, in essence, is my argument:
- God is the creator of time because (a) God is the creator of the universe, and (b) the universe includes all of time.
- God is not a temporal being because (a) being the creator of time makes God independent of time, and (b) temporal beings are dependent on time.
- You can’t say God “allowed something to happen” or “did something for a reason” because (a) those are temporal concepts and (b) you can’t apply temporal concepts to a non-temporal being.
- The Problem of Evil fails to require an answer because (a) it tries to apply temporal concepts to a non-temporal being, and thus (b) it is nonsensical and/or meaningless.
I know. That all sounds rather odd. But if you will indulge me, I’d like to defend each of these four points in turn.
God Is the Creator of Time
The universe has a lot of stuff in it, and it has to keep that stuff somewhere. We call that somewhere, “space.” A lot, furthermore, goes on in the universe. Things are always happening—events always transpiring. We attribute this to “time.”
It is impossible to think of the universe, therefore, without thinking of its space and time. When we say that God created the universe, we imagine God bringing space and time themselves into existence.
This way of seeing the universe’s creation has been reinforced over the past century by the advent of Einstein. It is now standard in physics to see the universe as a “manifold” with four dimensions: (1) up-down, (2) left-right, (3) back-front, and (4) before-after. If God is the creator of the universe, then, God is the one who invented these dimensions. Without God, they wouldn’t exist.
God Is Not a Temporal Being
If you create something, it traces its origin and existence back to you. It comes from you, and thus it depends on you. It wouldn’t exist were it not for you. You, on the other hand, existed before it did and could have gone right on existing without it.
If God created time, therefore, time depends on God, rather than the other way around. God designed time and its rules, rather than being bound by the rules of time. Temporal creatures like you and me live from moment to moment. We can move through time in only one direction, and can’t jump outside it. But God is independent of time, like an author is independent of her novel.
The fact that God is independent of time, and doesn’t have to follow its rules, means that God is not a temporal being. God is not located in time like we are.
You Can’t Say Some Things about God
If you allow something to happen, this means you could have kept it from happening, but didn’t. There was a moment when you could have stopped it, but you let that moment slip by—and now there’s no going back. You are after the event now, and you can’t reach back in time.
Allowing something to happen, in other words, is a temporal thing. For a being who was non-temporal, who was beyond time, there would be no “allowing.” There would be no “being there before it happened,” “waiting too long to act,” and “not being able to go back and change it.” To describe a non-temporal being in those terms would make no sense.
If you do something for a reason, furthermore, this means you first had the reason for acting and then acted (in hopes of achieving what you wanted to accomplish). You have to be in the present, looking ahead to the future, and wanting the future to be different from the present.
Doing something for a reason, in other words, is also a temporal thing. For a non-temporal being who is not at any particular time (and not looking ahead to another time), there would be no acting for reasons. There would be no not-having-acted-but-wanting-to-act, and no achieving-what-you-wanted-now-that-you’ve-acted. To describe a non-temporal being in such terms would make no sense.
But God is just such a non-temporal being, so it would make no sense to describe God as allowing something to happen, or as doing something for a reason. Such claims would be incoherent. They would be trying to apply time-based (or time-bound) concepts to a time-independent (or time-free) being.
The Problem of Evil Fails to Require an Answer
If you’ve made it this far, you no doubt are beginning to worry about the costs of this argument. If you will indulge me for just a bit longer, however, I promise to try to get you a discount.
The Problem of Evil is usually stated as an argument:
- If God exists, then God is all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful.
- If God is all-good, God would want to eliminate all the evil God knows about.
- If God is all-knowing, God would know about all the evil there is, and how to eliminate it.
- If God is all-powerful, then God could eliminate all the evil God knows about and knows how to eliminate.
- However, evil still exists.
- Therefore, either God does not exist, or the God that does exist is not all-good, not all-knowing, and/or not all-powerful.
The heart of this argument involves:
- inferring God’s reasons for acting from God’s attributes, and
- the assumption that if God exists, God must be allowing the evil that occurs.
In other words, the Problem of Evil boils down to the question, “What reason could (an all-good, all-knowing, all-powerful) God have for allowing evil?” We are expected to answer, “There is none,” but we have already seen that trying to apply to God the notions of, “allowing something to happen,” and, “doing something for a reason,” results in nonsense.
From this, it follows that the question at the heart of the Problem of Evil is meaningless. The terms of which it is constructed express incompatible concepts. Expecting an answer to the Problem of Evil—whether positive or negative—is like expecting an answer to, “When did left become louder than pointy numbers?” There are no answers to such questions because such questions are not even questions. They are simply strings of words with question marks tacked on.
Discounting the Cost of This Argument
The argument I have just presented differs from normal theodicies because it denies that the Problem of Evil poses a question that needs to be answered. But the cost of taking this approach might seem rather high.
- It requires us to say that whenever people give voice to the Problem of Evil, they are actually talking nonsense without knowing it. And,
- It seems to require us to give up talking about God, since most—perhaps all—of our predicates will be time-based.
I would like to discount this price, however, in two ways.
First, I want to insist that people are not wrong to find evil troubling, or wrong to feel a tension between evil and God’s nature. All my argument entails is that this trouble and tension—this turmoil in the soul—cannot be turned into a logical argument from which conclusions about God’s existence or non-existence can be drawn.
Second, I want to insist that rather than requiring silence, my argument requires metaphor—or what Saint Thomas Aquinas called “analogical predication.”1 Where literal descriptions are unavailable, analogies and metaphors are essential and can be enormously enlightening. (Scientists use them all the time.)2
If and when Scripture’s descriptions of God cannot be literally true, then, we assume it gives us the best and most revelatory analogies and metaphors of which human language is capable.
Why Can’t Atheists Buy at the New Price?
If I’m going to sell my solution at this discount, however, why can’t atheists buy as well? If metaphors are so enlightening, why can’t atheists use them to prove that God doesn’t exist?
The answer to this is that metaphors lack the precision required for logical proofs. Once analogy enters, certainty is out the door.
“But won’t that mean that proofs for God’s existence will also be illegitimate, if you’re right?”
Perhaps so. It all depends on what predicates and concepts they require us to apply to God. We’ll have to work through them, case-by-case.
“Nevertheless, aren’t you still trying to have your cake and eat it too? Aren’t you trying to make God-talk just enlightening enough for your purposes, but not so enlightening that it’s also useful for atheists?”
I don’t think so. The God-talk in Scripture isn’t trying to prove God’s existence, and the God-talk I used in my argument above is either literal (e.g., “God is non-temporal”), or can be defined in such a way as to eliminate the residue of time. (For instance, God’s being the creator can be rephrased in terms of the universe’s ontological dependence on God.)
What my atheist friends should do, then—in addition to looking for flaws in the structure of my argument, or untruths in its premises—is to show that the Problem of Evil can be reframed in non-temporal terms, and that theists should agree with those non-temporal descriptions of God.
It may be, furthermore, that someone will help me see that my argument entails costs that I have so far missed. There is a long history even within theism of critiquing theistic arguments. (Think of Aquinas’ attack on Anselm.)3 I’ll then have to ask whether I am willing to pay for my argument at its new price.
For the moment, however, I am willing to buy the argument above because:
- The idea that much, perhaps all, of our talk about God must be analogical or metaphorical is actually rather normal in theology—and has been for a very long time.
- I think my argument follows directly from the idea that God is the creator of the universe—an idea I find enormously compelling.
- The argument clarifies for me the sense I have long had that the available theodicies are not fully adequate. The reason we have been unable to find a complete answer to the Problem of Evil, my argument has it, is that the question it is asking is incoherent.
Evil is still a problem, of course, but the solution to some problems—as people often note—is practical rather than theoretical. We answer evil by eliminating what parts of it we can, redeeming what parts of it we can’t, and filling the world with good.
There may be ways around my argument, of course, as I mentioned above. If William Lane Craig, for instance, is right about God’s relationship to time,4 I suspect my argument would fall apart. And perhaps I will one day be convinced by Dr. Craig’s account. As a temporal being, bound to the present, I will have to wait and see.
1. Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles I, ch. 34; Summa Theologica I, q. 13. Cf. Ashworth, E. Jennifer, “Medieval Theories of Analogy,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2013 Ed.), ed. Edward N. Zalta http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/analogy-medieval/#6. (Back to text.)
2. Gutting, Garry, “Does Evolution Explain Religious Belief?,” interview with Michael Ruse, in “The Stone” series on “Opinionator,” The New York Times, July 8, 2014. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/07/08/does-evolution-explain-religious-beliefs/. (Back to text.)
3. Aquinas, Summa Theologica I, q. 2, a. 1. (Back to text.)
4. Craig, William Lane, Time and Eternity: Exploring God’s Relationship to Time (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2001). See also “God, Time, and Eternity,” Reasonable Faith, http://www.reasonablefaith.org/god-time-and-eternity, as well as other posts on the topic at http://www.reasonablefaith.org. (Back to text.)
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