How much evil is okay?

June 17, 2008    By: Jacob J @ 11:11 pm   Category: Ethics,Theology

Let’s assume for the sake of this post that God exists and that he’s good. In this context, the problem of evil starts to look rather like our complaining about how God does his job. This got me to thinking:

Just what do you think God should be doing? Specifically.

Obviously the answer will have something to do with preventing various evils which are currently allowed to occur. It is fairly easy to tell that I want God to prevent more evil than he does, but how much more? All evil? Well, that would seem to compromise freedom in a fairly significant way given that all of us perpetrate various evils on a regular basis. To prevent all evil God would have to either isolate everyone or severly limit our spheres of influence.

So, perhaps the standard argument about evil being necessary in bringing about the best possible world has some merit. If we were to draw a big circle representing all evil, I think most people will agree that some parts of the circle can be adequately accounted for by standard solutions to the problem of evil. (Which is to say, in the course of human existence we have been able to work out some partial solutions to the problem of evil.) But, I’m not sure how much of the circle we can color in. What do you think? How much evil would God have to put a stop to for you to stop complaining about the problem of evil?


  1. It’s not really the evil that’s the problem. It’s the suffering. Take for example the thousands of people who are losing their homes to 10 inches of rain in the midwest right now. Or Myanmar, or any natural disaster. It’s not evil, it’s just suffering.

    Evil is explainable by looking at our agency. Suffering is harder to grasp.

    I tend to borrow from the idea of hinduism\buddhism for that though.

    As an afterthought, the problem in the “problem of evil” seems to me to be not a matter of which evils are allowed and not, but rather the inconsistent nature in which they are allowed. I believe in and have seen miracles happen, but I’ve also seen the same situations where the miracles did not come. Even the scriptures are full of such, and all we have for an explanation is Alma saying it is so the wicked may have the blood of the good upon them. It’s beyond me.

    Comment by Matt W. — June 18, 2008 @ 5:09 am

  2. Even preventing “most,” or “a lot” of the evil in the world would compromise free agency.

    Miracles are actually a rather coercive method of winning allegiance, as the example of Laman and Lemuel amply demonstrates.

    Comment by Seth R. — June 18, 2008 @ 6:36 am

  3. Matt,

    I believe suffering is generally counted as one of the “evils” referred to by the problem of evil. For an easy example this Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article claims:

    An event may be categorized as evil if it involves any of the following:

    a. some harm (whether it be minor or great) being done to the physical and/or psychological well-being of a sentient creature;
    b. the unjust treatment of some sentient creature;
    c. loss of opportunity resulting from premature death;
    d. anything that prevents an individual from leading a fulfilling and virtuous life;
    e. a person doing that which is morally wrong;
    f. the ‘privation of good’.

    the problem in the “problem of evil” seems to me to be not a matter of which evils are allowed and not, but rather the inconsistent nature in which they are allowed.

    Again, this inconsistency is generally counted as its own form of evil, falling most easily under the category b. above (i.e. injustice).

    Comment by Jacob J — June 18, 2008 @ 9:24 am

  4. Isn’t your question basically revolving around the “barber shop fallacy” that we discussed in my recent theodicy thread? To quote Clark:

    I think this ends up being the barber shop fallacy in disguise. (Well if I can cut one hair without it making me bald surely I can cut an other and so on without being bald) The theist, after all, need only say that God does intervene and intervenes as much as he can. Asking why he doesn’t intervene in that case is like asking why that hair wasn’t the deciding factor of baldness.

    That is why I have concluded that in the end faith in Christ/God means faith that his level of intervention to prevent evil in the world is not too much, not too little, but just right.

    Comment by Geoff J — June 18, 2008 @ 9:39 am

  5. Jacob J: My point was more a response to your post as I understood it, rather than the whole problem of evil. I probably was unclear. I think Agency is a logical explanation for the problem of God allowing us to perpetrate evil in various ways, as you said in your post, but then there is the general issue of accidental evil or natural evil, which one could argue under mormonism are not created by God, but does God not have the power to stop?

    Comment by Matt W. — June 18, 2008 @ 11:29 am

  6. I think the natural human thought is that a life without hardship is the most preferable. The scriptures (especially the Book of Mormon) make it plain that the more hardships a group has the more humble that group is. Those hardships may come in the form of earthquakes, famines, poverty, pestilence, wars, or any other number of methods, but in the end they all make a person humble.
    For myself and everyone else I have ever talked to that has served a mission, the vast majority of people you teach are humble and have suffered significant hardships. The well-to-do folks are far less receptive to the Gospel. It all comes back to humility.
    Sure no one likes to see a person down on his luck, but in the end those may be the experiences that lead them to turn to the Lord.
    So sure I guess the Lord could stop all the disasters, but He would be doing us a great disservice.

    Comment by Jimmy T — June 18, 2008 @ 12:49 pm

  7. Seth,

    Can I conclude from what you’ve said that you don’t consider the “problem of evil” to be a problem? That is, you think that the evil in this world is adequately explained by our need for unbridled agency.


    I’ve written a few responses to your comment but deleted them all. I see my question as a way to combat the barber shop fallacy rather than perpetuate it. It is easy to look at some specific instance of evil and say God should have prevented it, but the argument surrounding any specific case is inherently unresolvable because we don’t know enough information to really be sure that it would have been better to prevent it. One thing I’d be interested in is whether there are entire categories of evil that people think God should be preventing.

    For example, if someone argues that allowing some rapes is required to create a the greatest potential for good, then we are left arguing about specific cases or whether God should fix more things than he does. This puts us squarely in the path of the barber shop. However, if someone is ready to say that God should be preventing ALL rapes, then I am interested in talking about how God would go about doing that.

    Another thing I’d be interestd in is if people have ideas about how they think God should be approaching his decision about whether to prevent something or not. What factors should God be weighing int he balance?


    So, if I understand you now, you are saying that the parts of the evil circle that are hardest to account for are (1) natural evils and (2) the inconsistency with which God prevents evils (allowing evil in one case, but not in another). Is that right?

    Comment by Jacob J — June 18, 2008 @ 3:02 pm

  8. Jacob,

    I’ll be interested in seeing who is willing to step up and start telling God how to do his job too. But I wonder how many takers you will get on that. The conclusion I have reached is that we theists simply are forced to trust (read: have faith) that God is 1) existent, and 2) supremely competent.

    I am a little confused by your response to Seth though. “The problem of evil” as I understand it is the problem of reconciling the existence of evil in the world with the claim that there is a all-powerful, all-good God running the show here. Your response to Seth seems to be more along the lines of “don’t you think evil is a problem?” That latter question is a different question entire that the reconciliation problem I just mentioned.

    Comment by Geoff J — June 18, 2008 @ 3:17 pm

  9. Jacob J: I think so, yes, in that prevention of (1) can not be shewed away by saying it violates agency without some some deep concessions to God’s power. and (2) is problematic because the scriptural record and personal experience shows violations of agency in multiple spots. thus, returning to your post, these would be the sections not colored in my circle.

    Comment by Matt W. — June 18, 2008 @ 3:27 pm

  10. I should add that I take for granted (on faith) in 1) and 2) that I have less data available to me than God and God is the best, most loving, etc etc.

    Comment by Matt W. — June 18, 2008 @ 3:33 pm

  11. Geoff,

    Not sure how I could make my response to Seth more clear, I specifically referred to the “problem of evil” (not to evil as a problem) and rephrased afterward to clarify that it sounds like he thinks evil is “adequately explained” (i.e. reconciled) by the appeal to agency. I was trying to ask your former question, not the latter one you thought I was asking.


    Thanks for the clarification, I see your point. I do think natural evils are difficult to account for. After all, I think most theists would argue that God could prevent the recent earthquake in China if he wanted to. That earthquake is causing untold suffering. There is no agency at risk in preventing it. In fact, it seems he could systematically make sure that there was no such thing as an earthquake greater than magnitude 3 if he wanted and we would never be the wiser. So there’s a potential suggestion for how God could do his job better: please prevent all earthquakes greater than magnitude 3 throughout all human history. Of course, this is directly related to Jimmy T’s comment in #6, but I’m not sure I buy his argument.

    Comment by Jacob J — June 18, 2008 @ 4:58 pm

  12. Ok, I see what you mean Jacob. I think it is obvious that a “need for unbridled agency” doesn’t work as an explanation for the problem of evil unless one is a Deist who insists that God never intervenes on earth. But since Mormonism insists on an interventionist God that argument falls short.

    Comment by Geoff J — June 18, 2008 @ 8:00 pm

  13. Just what do you think God should be doing? Specifically.

    I’m surprised that no one has mentioned that God’s “job” or “work” as he defined it is to
    “bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” So if we assume that he is doing his job, perhaps living with evil and suffering is necessary for us to become immortal. Is this too simplistic an answer?

    Comment by Bored in Vernal — June 19, 2008 @ 1:04 am

  14. upon reflection, one could say that removing natural disasters does prevent agency because it predetermines our lack of response to their not being a natural disaster.

    The most difficult element is then still this idea of an inconsistent, occasionallt intervening God. It breaks such concepts as the lord being bound, subject to widtsoes law of cause and effect, etc.

    Comment by Matt W. — June 19, 2008 @ 4:59 am

  15. God is unable to see/predict future events. i think you established that on the “Yet Another Reason Why Foreknowledge Doesnt Help” thread.

    God instilled into each human a conscience. And with this conscience, God relies up on us, or the greater good of mankind, to act upon the those things that go against our moral values and tenents established by (most) Judeo-Christian religions.

    failure to deter/reduce crimes such as rape and genocide and to alleviate the suffering caused from natural and human induced disasters is not God fault, rather its ours.

    Comment by Bay — June 19, 2008 @ 8:30 am

  16. BiV,

    That definition of God’s work is in play here, sure. My earthquake complaint in #11 is implicitely questioning whether God really requires earthquakes to bring about our immortality and eternal life. As has been mentioned above, it is easier to see why evil perpetrated by free agents is necessary for the plan to work. It is not so obvious why natural disasters would be required. Isn’t there enough evil, challenge, and hardship in life without natural disasters?


    I’m don’t think so. In the first revision of earth, there were these “natural lasers” where under certain wind conditions, the clouds would form a lens of sorts and the sun shining through would come down like a huge laser, frying houses like ants under a magnifying glass. God fixed those on the next revision. Is our agency limited by the absence of natural lasers? Would our agency expand if there were more earthquakes?

    Comment by Jacob J — June 19, 2008 @ 8:40 am

  17. So if we assume that he is doing his job, perhaps living with evil and suffering is necessary for us to become immortal. Is this too simplistic an answer?
    No. This is probably the most direct. Case in point, had the Lord left the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil out of the Garden of Eden, would He have been doing Adam, Eve and all people a favor by preventing them from experiencing suffering? Indeed not, suffering is integral part to mortal experience and progression.
    As for the seeming randomness of some suffering is allowed while other is prevented, well I trust that there is method behind it though I cannot understand it. For any given suffering scenario there can always be a counterargument that more good happened overall (or less evil overall), for example one may say that the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki should have been prevented as it caused the deaths of >100,000 civilians. I have read that had the bombs not been used, the taking of a foothold on the Japanese main islands would have cost over 1,000,000 American soldiers lives alone. Hence a greater suffering was averted.

    Comment by Jimmy T — June 19, 2008 @ 8:56 am

  18. Jacob J. – Oh, how I miss Natural Lasers. Those were the days. That was back when God used to build giant dinosaurs and fight them for fun.

    Seriously, for my premise to work, it has to be contended that natural disasters are just that, natural results derived from the natural organization of matter, which goes back to the idea that God allowed things to organize in their natural pattern, and is himself bound by the natural order of things. He is not micro-managing the goings on of infinite numbers of quarks on our behalf, but is rather letting them bounce whither so ever they will to whatever cause and effect is begotten of it. He is doing this because if he micro-managed all the elements that went on around me (say in an “eden” type mythology) he would be determining my behaviour to the extent that while libertarian free will exists, it’s ability to be exercised is predicated on the environment within which it is placed. At least according to the premise I am tentatively putting forth.

    This puts forth a rather deist sort of God though, like Geoff has said, and like I said previously, the question seems to be, if this logic is valid, why is God able to intervene when he does? If he’s able to intervene at those points, why not more often?

    Bay: I don’t think Jacob said God couldn’t predict or see future events. I think he meant God couldn’t predict or see all future events. Humans can predict easily some future events, so it is reasonable that God can as well.

    Also, the issue I’ve had with the conscience point which Jacob has at the center of his atonement theory. (see the side bar) is that not everyone’s conscience tells them the same things are wrong (racism, homophobia, sexism, etc, are perfectly acceptable in some cultures and times), and not everyone has a conscience(Sociopaths). I haven’t studied up on the workings of the human conscience, but I don’t think we can blame all evil in the world to people not being in tune with Jimminy Cricket…

    Comment by Matt W. — June 19, 2008 @ 10:42 am

  19. Bay,

    Welcome. I definitely agree you are onto something when you say it is our reponsibility to alleviate suffering. However, I am not sure how natural disasters are our fault.

    Comment by Jacob J — June 19, 2008 @ 2:42 pm

  20. That was back when God used to build giant dinosaurs and fight them

    Indeed, seems like there is probably a good youtube link possibility here. If only I were younger and hipper.

    Comment by Jacob J — June 19, 2008 @ 3:05 pm

  21. if you were any hipper, you’d have three legs.

    Comment by Matt W. — June 19, 2008 @ 5:48 pm

  22. This is a timely topic for me. As a matter of fact, I’m going to shoot a low-budget independent murder mystery called “The Problem of Evil” in Rexburg, this summer.

    So here’s my personal Book-of-Mormon-driven theodicy:

    1. The greater your knowledge of God’s laws, the harder it is to repent when you break one of them.

    2. If there had been no veil of forgetfulness and we lived with a perfect knowledge of the existence of God and his laws, any sin on our part would never be completely forgiveable, the atonement notwithstanding.

    3. Therefore, God has set up a careful balance in life, with mountains of faith-promoting phenomena on the one hand (the Holy Ghost, scriptures, miracles, testimony, etc.), and an equally powerful set of faith-destroying things on the other (natural disasters, adversity, inhumanity, atheistic arguments, etc.).

    It’s a delicate equilibrium. If there were too many faith killers in life, we’d all lose hope and never make it back to our Father. Likewise, if God directly and clearly intervened every time someone casually prayed for something, it would be too obvious that he exists, and even minor sins would be almost impossible to repent of.

    So the earthquake in China, the cyclone in Myanmar, the tsunami in Indonesia, and on and on, are all part of a master plan calculated to enable us to truly have to walk by faith, without which none of us would ever be able to return to God’s presence.

    Make sense? Your thoughts?

    Comment by Perry Shumway — June 19, 2008 @ 8:44 pm

  23. perry, the problem with such reasoning is it makes me want to not pray, as I might be stealing some one in myanmar’s miracle by praying for myself…

    I think you have something there to the veil. I think that if we remembered everything pre veil, we’d be determined by that and thus less free.

    Comment by Matt W. — June 19, 2008 @ 9:34 pm

  24. Matt W –

    I believe my theodicy only makes your personal prayers “steal someone else’s miracle” in Myanmar if you’re not really praying for the right thing in the first place, right? I’ve long thought that a significant reason we need to learn to pray is so that we can figure out what we should truly be praying for, rather than mindlessly reciting what we’ve heard others say – no harm or accident befall us, everyone to make it home in safety and find all well when they get there, the food to nourish and strengthen us, and on and on.

    Have you read Rasmussen’s classic book, The Lord’s Question? It’s excellent on this topic.

    Comment by Perry Shumway — June 20, 2008 @ 8:18 am

  25. so it is praying for the wrong thing to ask for things for yourself and those you know and love?

    Comment by Matt W. — June 21, 2008 @ 10:57 am

  26. Certainly could be. Depends on what things you’re asking for, compared with what God wants you to ask for. Even if it’s for those you know and love.

    Comment by Perry Shumway — June 22, 2008 @ 12:29 am