Folks are talking about the problem of evil. John Wilkins takes on the problem of the problem of evil and Darwin, arguing that, for theologies where the problem of evil is a problem, evolution probably does less to exacerbate the issue than basic physics, or physiology, or first principles of ecology. And he’s right.
But one sentence setting up this argument doesn’t work for me:
Evil exists, so if you believe in a “tri-omni” deity (omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent), you had better find a reconciliation.
This idea of an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent god is pretty common, but the more I consider those three properties, the harder it is to see how anything could be all of those at once. And for the problem of evil to be a problem, it’s really important that we assume an omnibenevolent deity.
Consider: Stating than an omnipotent, omniscient deity is also omnibenevolent essentially restricts what that deity can do: it can’t do evil. Which creates several problems. First, it’s a restriction on what the deity can do, so now the deity isn’t omnipotent. Evil actions are like kryptonite for Superman or the color yellow for (Golden Age) Green Lantern. A god who isn’t completely omnipotent has far fewer problems with the problem of evil.
But that objection (which is of the “can god make a rock so heavy even she can’t lift it?” family of objections) actually isn’t the biggest objection. The biggest issue comes from a form of the Euthyphro dilemma. To say that a god is omnibenevolent requires, after all, some coherent definition of good and evil. There are two basic approaches to that definition, one either says that acts are good because they are commanded by god, or they are good because they match some extrinsic definition of good. In the first case, a god clearly could not do evil, as its actions would be good by definition. On the other hand, if there’s an extrinsic definition of good, and an omnipotent god can’t modify that definition, then the god isn’t omnipotent, and anyway, why worry about the god? Why not focus on the extrinsic definition of good (and maybe on that definition’s origins)?
And if one drops the requirement of omnibenevolence, the problem of evil largely goes away. In that case, evil could exist because god wants it to, or because it prevents some greater evil, or because our sense of good and evil is hopelessly bound up in our finite existence, and the issues that concern an omnipotent, omniscient, infinite being don’t easily map onto the concerns of limited, finite meatbags (I explored some of these issues in the comments at Jason Rosenhouse’s blog).
It’s worth noting that a requirement of omnibenevolence is hardly the obvious conclusion to be drawn from the Bible. The Biblical God – whether the Jewish God or the Christian God of the New Testament – does all sorts of cruel things. Some of them can be argued to serve some good purpose (whether those are good arguments is a different issue), but some cannot. For instance, Job’s sufferings come precisely because he is blameless. Satan is hanging out with God right at the beginning of the book (this was written while Judaism was at least henotheistic, if not polytheistic). God says: “Check out my man Job. He’s totally righteous.” And Satan says: “Only because you treat him so well, dude.” And God says: “Wanna bet?” And Satan says: “Sure, you let me mess with him, and I bet he’ll curse you in no time.” They shake on it, and off Satan goes.
So Job’s family gets killed and his house burns down and his sheep get stolen and so forth. And Job sits on the ashes of his house, and his jackass friends prate at him about how this must be punishment for some sin, or perhaps chastisement against future sin, or maybe it’s all part of some plan that will ultimately work toward the greater good. But we, as readers, know that it’s just a bet between members of the pantheon. We know there’s no grand plan. But then God shows up and lectures Job out of the whirlwind, telling him how he has no right to question the infinitely wise plans God has drawn up.
And that’s how it ends. At some point, some jackass bowdlerized the text by slapping on a happy ending (it’s like a country song played backwards: Job gets back his wife and kids and house and dog and pickup truck), but we know the score. God’s speech out of the whirlwind is great poetry, but the omniscient narrator told us that it’s BS. God is lying to Job to cover his ass.
In college, I took a course on the problem of evil in Jewish thought, and Job was obviously a big part of the discussion. In one of the essays, I worked my way up to some dichotomy in which the authors of the text had to either envision their god as omnibenevolent, or as being capable of evil. I said something like, “we can disregard the latter possibility,” and I proceeded on the omnibenevolent assumption. The professor rightly dinged me for that choice, asking the question that seems central to this whole issue:
“What would happen if we didn’t disregard the possibility that god could do evil?”