Providence and the Problem of Evil

18 October 2008

In Providence and the Problem of Evil, the fourth book of his tetralogy on Christian doctrine, philosopher and theologian Richard Swinburne argues that God’s existence is compatible with the various types of evil in the world. In this academic treatment of the Problem of Evil, Swinburne attempts to categorize each type of evil and demonstrate that there are potentially justifying reasons why God may permit that kind of evil. He contends that two characteristic human vices- short term thinking and short distance thinking- compel us to view the Problem of Evil as more threatening to rational Christian belief than it really is. Moreover, our culture predisposes us to underestimate the great values of free will and being of use, and to overestimate lesser values like the goodness of mere pleasure.

Unlike many contemporary Christian theologians, Swinburne argues strongly for the need for a Christian theodicy (defense of God’s existence despite the evil in the world). Swinburne has famously advocated the Principle of Credulity- which states that we must accept as true what initially seems to be the case, all things being equal. Therefore, we cannot hide behind ignorance of God’s ways to allay the Problem of Evil, because without a theodicy it does seem, on the face of it, that the world is full of unjustified evil.

In the second chapter, Swinburne looks at different strains of theodicy in Christian tradition. He argues that two very important ideas here are the free will defense and the Fall. While he does not take a strong stand concerning original sin, and denies that any subsequent generations can actually be guilty for Adam’s sin, he does defend an historical Fall. After his brief treatment of historical theodicies, he lays out a detailed account of the various possible types of good and evil. Among the list of good things are beauty, thought, feeling, action, and worship.

When it comes to explaining the existence of moral evil, Swinburne opts for a traditional free will defense. However, he develops a more detailed account that helps overcome some of the traditional objections. He categorizes four types of free will:

Very Unserious Free Will- Involves the choice between equally good alternatives.

Unserious Free Will- Involves the choice between alternative goods.

Serious Free Will- Involves a choice between good and bad.

Very Serious Free Will- Involves a choice between right and wrong.

He also distinguishes between three types of temptation;

1.) Desire to do a less good action.
2.) Desire to do a bad but not wrong action.
3.) Desire to do a wrong action.

Swinburne argues that, while all types of free will are good things, serious and very serious free will are particularly good. Obviously, the more serious the free will, the more chance that it will be used wrongly for bad. Likewise, overcoming temptation is a good thing. It is good for people to overcome all three types of temptation, but it is particularly good when people overcome a very malicious or a stronger version of temptation. I think that Swinburne’s detailed analysis of this issue is right on target, and demonstrates the viability of the free will defense.

Swinburne’s Principle of Honesty is another concept of great importance to his theodicy. This principle states that “God has an obligation not to make a world in which agents are systematically deceived on important matters without their having the possibility of discovering their deception.” This principle is very important for understanding moral evil, because it implies that God cannot simply give us the illusion that our choices have important consequences when if fact they don’t, without violating His character.

The Principle of Honesty also helps us to understand a great deal of natural evil that might be otherwise inexplicable. For example, William Rowe asks what could possibly justify the suffering of a fawn who dies slowly in a forest fire, even though nobody is around and nobody knows about the animal’s plight. It seems entirely gratuitous for this animal to suffer in such a way.

However, Swinburne points out that we have a dilemma on our hands if we suppose that the helpless never suffer. If it is true that the helpless never suffer, then we either know that this is true or we don’t know that it is true. If we know that it is true, then we will have no motivation to help. Why should we seek to prevent forest fires that kill fawns if we know that God will not allow a helpless fawn to suffer and die in that fire? On the other hand, if we don’t know that the helpless don’t suffer, then God would be deceiving us on a massive scale (violating the Principle of Honesty).

The Principle of Honesty is thus a very important concept for a full-fledged theodicy. In my article on the Problem of Evil, I pointed out that, for all we know, fawns don’t suffer excessively in forest fires unless we know about it. However, I noted that this answer, while technically true, seemed contrived and implausible. I think this is because it violated the Principle of Honesty that Swinburne defends.

After developing his theodicy in detail, Swinburne defends God’s right to use the suffering of one for the benefit of another. He argues that it is permissible to use someone for the good of others if, on balance, you are their benefactor, and if they were in no position to make the choice for themselves. The important consideration in this case is whether, on balance, individuals have objectively good values. This brings Swinburne into the final chapter, where he considers the balance of good and evil in the world. While he admits that we must simply make a judgment call concerning this issue, he thinks it is plausible to maintain that life is significantly more good than bad. He notes, in defense of this position, that very few people choose to commit suicide, which is a tacit admission that life is worth living.

Swinburne’s writing style can be dry at times, with long, complex sentences. However, his detailed and rather technical treatment of the Problem of Evil offers some great food for thought, and ultimately is a successful attempt to develop a strong theodicy. He does not hide away from the challenge of evil, but rather directly confronts and addresses the problem for Christian theism. At the same time, he raises our awareness of the role that cultural prejudices and the vices of human thought play in our understanding of the problem. While he has certainly not put the issue to rest, Swinburne does offer a strong contribution to the literature in Providence and the Problem of Evil, which I would highly recommend for those readers who can handle Swinburne’s detailed treatment.

  1. have you ever read or heard Dr. Bruce Little speak on evil?

    Alastair Blake    Sep 12, 08:31 PM    #
  2. Hello Alastair, I have not heard him, do you have a recommended resource for me to check out?

    Kyle Deming    Sep 13, 08:33 PM    #
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