Philosophy against Misosophy



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Why Does God Permit Evil?

Keme asked*: If there is God and he is almighty why then do we suffer evil in the world?  

I accept Keme’s factual assumption.  We do suffer evil in this world.  (Perhaps some philosophers would argue that evil is an illusion.  But their allegedly veri-dical grasp of that illusion—an evil—makes me wonder if their perception of other evil is illusory.)

To his factual assumption Keme links a moral pre-supposition, which we can explicate as follows. All things being equal, a moral agent who is able to pre-vent excessive suffering from befalling another—suf-fering from which good is neither expected to come nor can conceivably come—is morally obligated to prevent it if he can.

The strength of this obligation varies with circum-stances.  They include the risk to himself, his loved ones, or his property that the prospective preventive act may expose them to.  (This does not hold for those who profession it is to incur risk in order to res-cue others in danger.)  Generally, however, as risk rises, obligation weakens.  (We regard as heroes those who perform their rescue obligations without regard to risk, especially when risk is significant.) Ob-ligation is strongest where ability is great and risk is minimal.

In the case of God—at least the deity of classical theism (that of Eastern and Western Christian ortho-dox theology)—ability is infinite and risk is zero.

And thus Keme’s implicit problem.  For the exis-tence of great power alone does not by itself make the occurrence of excessive suffering a puzzle.  Many powerful men have made people suffer greatly, but their victims never wondered how it could be so.  What would have made them wonder, and curse, was that anyone would praise their tormentors for being morally good.  Keme omitted to mention God’s moral character.

Neither has Keme specified what he means by “al-mighty” or even by “God.” We may ascribe to God great creative power without ascribing to him a mo-nopoly of power, as does classical theism.  In the latter philosophy, beings other than God do have power, but only by his leave.  They have no power in-dependently of God’s decreeing that they have it, which power God can withdraw at will.

There is an alternative theism, however, wherein God exercises the power of persuasion.  God “lures” (Whitehead’s term) other subjects of experience into arrangements that afford more intense experiences for them and for God.  God does that, according to this alternative scheme, by providing each subor-dinate agent with an initial aim, which the agent may accept or replace with its own.  In such an alternative theism, God is not unilaterally responsible for the metaphysical situation in which each agent (including God) finds himself.  Neither is God unilaterally res-ponsible for the actual cosmic order that results from the decisions and actions of all agents.  God is a ne-cessary, but by no means a sufficient factor in the actual world order.

In the alternative theism, whose ultimate cohe-rence and adequacy to experience we cannot assess here, evil results from the collision of subjective aims.  Collision is perfectly compatible with the exis-tence of a universal end-coordinating God.  Without God, there would not be any coordination of aims.  There would, therefore, be no intelligible world with someone in it asking how evil is possible.  Given a world that God can shape but not unilaterally deter-mine, God cannot obliterate evil any time God wishes to.  The classical theistic God can. But classical the-ism cannot satisfactorily explain why God apparently wishes to so rarely and selectively, especially when the demand for God to do so is so excruciatingly urgent.

Given our moral presupposition, then, the God of classical theism cannot be morally good.  Yet classi-cal theism affirms God to be precisely that.  Classical theism is therefore incoherent.  The reasonable per-son rules out the incoherent.  One theism’s incohe-rence, however, does not necessarily rule out every other.  The God of the alternative theism we have been entertaining, in so far as this God is the uni-versal lure to the better, does all within God’s power to promote the realizable good in every situation.  This God is therefore morally good.  What God cannot do, however, is push gross matter around, as we can.  Such pushing is, however, often what pre-venting excessive and pointless evil requires.  God cannot be morally blamed for that inability.

If some kind of being recognizable as God is neces-sary for there to be a world, then the occurrence of excessive, pointless suffering does not disconfirm the existence of that God. On the supposition of the latter, however, we see how there can be “exces-sive,” “pointless” beauty.

Anthony Flood

*This was first posted on 

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