Over the past 20 years, I’ve listened to various apologetic responses to the atheistic argument from evil, which says that God’s existence is improbable given the fact of apparently pointless suffering in the world. Some responses have been more helpful than others, so I’d like to offer 3 tips on how an apologist can best approach the problem.
1. Take a Balanced Perspective
There are two extremes to avoid when replying to the argument from pointless suffering: hyper-theodicy and anti-theodicy. The first tries to provide a comprehensive explanation of all the suffering we see; whereas the second rejects any kind of theodicy on the grounds that humans are in no good position to be making probability estimates about the likelihood of evil vis-à-vis theism. However, both extremes are failures. Hyper-theodicy fails because specific kinds, amounts, intensities, and durations of suffering seem to fall through the cracks and defy explanation. Marilyn McCord Adams calls these “horrendous evils.” Anti-theodicy fails because the concept of God is instructive and provides human beings with (at least) partial insight into the kinds of worlds that God would prefer to make – i.e. given his maximal goodness, knowledge, and power. Therefore, I suggest that apologists take the middle road: theodicy helps us to explain some of the evils we see, but at most it provides a partial answer, never a completely satisfactory answer. This balanced approach respects the mystery of God because it refuses to say too much or too little about His reasons for evil.
2. Be Mindful of Ethical Theories
Some apologists are unaware that their preferred responses to the argument from evil rest on ethical assumptions about the permissibility of allowing serious harm to befall innocent victims for the good of others. The irony is that apologists usually adhere to a deontological moral framework that prescribes a deep respect for the claims of individuals – notably, their right not to be used as mere means for the benefit of others. This has immediate consequences for theodicy because it is not enough that God allow innocent suffering for outweighing goods that could not have been secured in any better way; it must also be true that God secures some outweighing benefit for the victim, as compensation for the harm, since otherwise God is made out to be a utilitarian! As you may have suspected, the task of satisfying the constraints of a deontological moral framework is a lot harder than for a utilitarian framework. This is especially true for theodicies that appeal to the goods of free will in contexts which secure little or no benefit to the victims of horrendous suffering – e.g. child torture. Now, for obvious matters of practicality, my advice is not that apologists publicly defend all the ethical presuppositions behind their arguments. Rather, they need to be aware of them and be ready to defend them. For more information on what an ethically informed theodicy would look like, read my three articles here.
3. Avoid Reductionism
It is fairly standard in apologetic circles to distinguish between the intellectual and existential problems of evil, if for no other reason than to limit the scope of one’s arguments. However, we need to show more empathy and pastoral concern about the risks of treating such an emotionally explosive topic with the cool detachment of a logician. My advice to apologists is as follows: first, remind your audience that you are not trying to use slick, philosophical techniques to explain away the scandal of evil or to dismiss the fact that many of them are suffering. Offer empathy and understanding to your audience first, and be sincere about it! But secondly, warn your audience of the dangers of reductionism – of reducing evil to something less than it is. As an existential issue, evil is a reality that cannot be fully captured, described, or addressed in intellectual terms. It is a reality to be fought against and counteracted by the forces of love and compassion, not merely argued about. But by emphasizing the existential aspect of evil, we must not ignore or exclude the intellectual component and thereby reduce evil to something only of personal concern. We are not forced to choose between the existential and the intellectual: both are real and relevant.