Philosophy

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:

  1. God is the creator of time because (a) God is the creator of the universe, and (b) the universe includes all of time.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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:

  1. If God exists, then God is all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful.
  2. If God is all-good, God would want to eliminate all the evil God knows about.
  3. If God is all-knowing, God would know about all the evil there is, and how to eliminate it.
  4. If God is all-powerful, then God could eliminate all the evil God knows about and knows how to eliminate.
  5. However, evil still exists.
  6. 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.

  1. It requires us to say that whenever people give voice to the Problem of Evil, they are actually talking nonsense without knowing it. And,
  2. 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.

Conclusion

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.


 

View Sources
Previous post

Thirty

Next post

Weekly Reads (January 31)

Micah Tillman

Micah Tillman

Micah is the host of the Top 40 Philosophy podcast. He has a B.A. in computer science (Messiah College), an M.A. in philosophy (West Chester University of Pennsylvania), and a Ph.D. in philosophy (The Catholic University of America). He taught philosophy at universities in the Washington, DC area for 9.5 years, and is now on what he thinks of as a sabbatical.

  • Micah

    According to what you have said here, it seems that creation would also be a temporal concept. For that matter, it would seem that any action has a temporal component. I think this is what is doing the work behind your support of premise 3 in your argument. It’s not clear to me that anything about reasons require that they exist temporally before what they recommend (though, they often do). If this is the case, then it must be that the temporal aspect of acting on reasons comes in because of action. This might be because of some notion of a causal relationship between reasons and the action, where causation is a temporal relation; or it might be because actions themselves imply causation. Perhaps an action is necessarily spread out over time. My question, then would be the following: can we not ascribe any actions to God? Can we not attribute any creative acts to God?

    • micahtillman

      This is an excellent, excellent point! If “to act” for God means literally the same as what “to act” means for humans, then — according to the reasoning in this article — it doesn’t make sense to say that God acts. And yet the data of the Scriptures show pretty clearly that we can talk about God acting. So, if we are to reconcile philosophy with Scripture, we’d have to say that “God acted/did x” is meaningful, but in an analogical way.

      If we are to speak literally, we might have to limit ourselves to speaking in the passive voice of God’s creation (“The world was created by God,” rather than, “God created the world”). However, we can go even further, if we want to. As I said in the article, for example, “God’s being the creator can be rephrased in terms of the universe’s ontological dependence on God.” To say that God created the world is to say that something happened akin to our creating things (though not exactly like our creating things), such that the world would not exist were it not for God (while God’s reality does not depend on the reality of the world).

      Thanks for this response! It’s the kind of thing we need to have “meaningful dialogue across Christian traditions,” rather than just one-sided articles!

      • Kenneth O’Shaughnessy

        Do we avoid this by saying, rather than that “God created the universe”, “God is the Creator”? In other words, everything with God is seen as a present state of being, rather than an action. As such then, for us in the “temporal” world, there is only one point in time and space: here and now, the place in God where we live and move and have our being.

        • micahtillman

          I like that approach! It focuses on who God is, which is easier for us to understand atemporally.

  • Benjamin Winter

    I really like a lot of what you’re doing here. In fact, I don’t have any qualms about your principles and assumptions, provided (as you categorize the article) they are made from a philosophical perspective.

    I do want to raise an issue of “cost,” since you invite such probing in your conclusion. Does the heavy focus on God’s transcendence somehow eschew the fact that, for Christians, God did indeed become susceptible to time and capable of making choices? Or, put more abstractly, shouldn’t our theology about Christ (the God-man) impact what we can say philosophically about the divine being? I feel like your essay keeps God in the realm of the Unmoved Mover rather than acknowledging that God is also the One in whom we live move and have our being. You may retort that natural reason cannot know this immanent God. But Paul did not think this to be the case, given the way he argues in Acts 17. I think it’s a big mistake to limit natural theology to the five ways–these simply don’t account for all the ideas people can come to, without the express aid of a Christian theological framework, about God

    Now I do see that you recognize the need to account for Scriptural metaphors which speak of God’s interaction with humankind. Excellent. I completely agree and would point to the first chapters of Denys’s Divine Names as great expositions of how human language can speak of God. I also agree that all language ultimately falls short. But if you are going to use Scripture in your article as an authority (leaving the strictly philosophical realm), must you not also account for the narratives in Scripture that place God in the context of human existence–par excellence the narrative of Christ?

    • micahtillman

      You make vitally-important points here. My article is all transcendence — never properly acknowledging immanence — and a philosophy that cannot account for the immanence of the Incarnation cannot be a Christian philosophy. Amen! I’ll have to write an article on the Incarnation soon, but for the moment, let me say this: if “we philosophers” are right about the transcendence of God, then we also have to acknowledge the immanence of God. Transcending space and time means not being limited by space and time, and not being limited by space and time entails not being excluded by space and time. So, if God chooses to be present to space and time, then God is free to do so precisely because of being “beyond” space and time. And the Bible seems to me to say that God chooses to be present to all of space and time. Thanks for the helpful qualifications!

      • John Cox

        A lot depends on how we parse our understanding of immanence. In Christ, God certainly does become a subject of time, passibility, etc.. He acts immanently as Theanthropos. Moreover, we often speak of God acting immanently after Christ’s ascension. We speak of these events as “miracles.” But these interventions in the immanent frame are no historical in the usual sense but eschatological and theophanic. They are the Kingdom to come breaking into our temporal experience, revealing God to us. They are not, therefore, subject to the kind of scholarly inquiry historians and logicians are interested in. The Gospels underscore time and again that having access to the immanence of God, in the person of Christ, did not cause the disciples to see and understand who Christ was. The one time a disciple, Peter, successfully answers the question, “Who do you say that I am?” Christ says that this was a revelation of God, not a result of physical observation. Similarly, Luke and Cleopas do not not recognize Christ on the road to Emmaus until he opens the scriptures and breaks the bread. This kind of immanence is of another quality. Access to the historical person of Christ, God’s immanence conceived in the most literal way, does not grant access to God. His acts are always a theophany, a revelation, and thus a matter of faith. When they occur our bounded world yields for a moment to the true, eternal world of God. It is less like God acting here and more like here becoming, for a moment, there.

        • micahtillman

          When I think of God affecting the physical/temporal world, I like to rely on the metaphor of sending a letter. The letter shows up “here,” even though its sender is still “there.”

          However, I really like the last sentence in your comment. (Which is not the say the rest isn’t great as well.) “Here becoming there.” What a great way to think of the coming New Creation.

          I definitely need to talk about the incarnation next time. The orthodox doctrine of Christ’s two natures should help reconcile God’s transcendence and immanence.

  • C.T. Casberg

    While God, being outside time, lives in an eternal present (my favorite way to think of this is that he sees the Fall and the Resurrection at the same moment), he is still sovereign over a temporal span. In our experience, time proceeds linearly; cause and effect is the fundamental story of life. I agree that it doesn’t make sense to ascribe temporal language to God in his eternity and omnitemporality, unless by metaphor. For example, God doesn’t predict or forecast a future event in the same way a weatherman does, for God is already there at that moment.

    It seems to me, though, that as he orchestrates the linear span of our temporal reality, using temporal terms as more than metaphor when describing our universe isn’t incorrect. When God interacts with time, cause and effect come into play. His interaction, or lack thereof, at time A will affect point B. Evil in our reality is predicated on causation. Adam at an apple. David sent a letter. Judas took a side job. These events had evil consequences, and God could have altered reality in such a way these things never occurred. We’re left with the fact that in our human perspective, evil things have occurred as the result of past actions and evil things may yet occur again as the result future actions. By virtue of God’s interaction with temporal reality, cause and effect truly do come into play. He may be above time, but he chooses to shape it in a way that some things happen and some things don’t.

    The Problem of Evil asks why our spatial-temporal universe is ordered in such a way that things we know to be evil occur. It’s not a question that tries to confine God, really; it tries to figure out why we are so limited.

    • micahtillman

      I like the way you’ve put this! If the Bible is right about God (and my hypothesis is that it is), it is important for me not to let my philosophical speculations push God so far beyond space and time that I end up a deist. So, it’s a challenge to keep our language philosophically precise (for example, perhaps we should always speak of God by speaking of God’s Creation in the passive voice — e.g., “The world is affected by God at all points in space and time”) while speaking in a theologically faithful way.

  • Daniel Norman Richwine

    I like to think of one of the problems of evil in terms of sin. Children starve to death and people blame God. And yet God created a world which can easily feed the world. So can we blame Him for our own neglect?
    And yet He created us, and we allow these evil things to happen. So isn’t He responsible? This is where he reflect along with the old theologians about what God is trying to tell us. Genesis can be read in terms of understanding this problem of evil. God allows us to make our own choices, which means we can abuse His trust, just as a child might his parents trust.

    • micahtillman

      An excellent point. I think some theodicies (e.g., the ones that compare God to a parent) can help us understand why it would make sense to allow us to make our own choices. And one thing this article completely leaves out is the “immanence” of God (the “God with us”/”I will be with you to the end of the age” aspect of God’s relation to us/our world). So, much is “left up to us,” but we aren’t abandoned. 🙂