I saw that it is indeed more worthy of God and more truly pleasing to him that through his goodness we should pray with full confidence, and by his grace cling to him with real understanding and unshakeable love, than that we should go on making as many petitions as our souls are capable of. See that I am in everything. See that I do everything. See that I have never stopped ordering my works, nor ever shall, eternally. See that I lead everything on to the conclusion I ordained for it before time began, by the same power, wisdom and love with which I made it.
How can anything be amiss? And this is what he means where he says, 'You shall see for yourself that all manner of things shall be well', as if he said, 'Pay attention to this now, faithfully and confidently, and at the end of time you will truly see it in the fullness of joy. If it seems to be accident or luck from our point of view, our blindness and lack of foreknowledge is the cause; for matters that have been in God's foreseeing wisdom since before time began befall us suddenly, all unawares; and so in our blindness and ignorance we say that this is accident or luck, but to our Lord God it is not so.
And it was as round as any ball. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it. And so have all things their beginning by the love of God.
But I do not agree with Hume that every evil is a problem about God. For some evils we can take in our stride, there being no cause for theological, philosophical, or even moral alarm therein, even though they offend our sentiments. So we should start by taking the existence of such evils out of the debate. For example: I know that others including my wife have different convictions than I do about the matter, but I have personally never had a theological problem with lions eating antelopes, though it is impossible not to feel sorry for the panicking beasts as they flee their predators in such wonderfully graceful leaps and bounds.
Lions lying down with lambs would of course be good news for lambs, but it would be terrible news for lions. Eating lambs goes with being a lion; being a lamb-eating machine is more or less what a lion is. And more generally there seems to be a rule here, in that nature seems to require a level of raw indifference in matters of tooth and claw.
If there is to be the variety and complexity of the natural world we know, including large carnivorous cats, the lambs, alas, are going to have to pay for it with their lives. It would appear to be the same with inanimate physical processes, for they sometimes impact unhappily, even tragically, upon human affairs. In the mid-eighteenth century an earthquake in Portugal killed thirty thousand people, and Voltaire lost faith in God. More understandable would have been a loss of faith in human beings. It was they, after all, who had built Lisbon on a geological fault line and seemed willing to blame any one or thing but their ignorance for the destructive outcome.
We today have far less excuse for continuing to build a San Francisco on the San Andreas fault line, and there seems to be something of a premodern and merely pagan superstition in supposing there would be a problem about God if some day soon San Francisco were to disappear for ever down an immense sinkhole, for we do know now that the prospects are high that in due course it will. And were it asked more generally why a good God who had alternatives available to him would create a world in which earthquakes are bound to happen, it is unclear what answer would meet the case either way.
It would seem that in asking that sort of question about earthquakes we are asking about sets of physical processes governed by laws that originate at a point in time in the order of 1 to the power of seconds after Big Bang. For obviously if God makes a world in which there are going to be predictable outcomes, that will be because God wants us to be able to understand that world.
But the world would become wholly incomprehensible to us if we could never know when physical laws were going to be suspended by God just to suit our particular preferences from time to time. There are those physical laws precisely so that, by getting to know them, we can learn to avoid building cities where earthquakes are bound to happen.
More challenging for some is the problem of physical pain. Hume, again, has taken the lead here. He seemed to think it obvious that a world in which no one suffers physical pain would be a better world than the one we have; and he asked why, if God is good, he should have chosen an alternative so obviously the worse of the two. Then he might not have been so easily convinced that bodily pain is altogether a bad thing, and he would hardly think that, overall, he was much better off for the want of it. But then, as if acknowledging that some pain has its purpose in animal life, and conceding the general principle that some pain may be necessary, Hume presses the point: Why, he asks, so much pain?
Why unbearable pain? Would not tolerable pain—or even some reduction in pleasure—serve the purpose of sending out the signals needed to warn of life-threatening courses of action? To which there is some sort of answer in the thought that pain cannot serve its purpose within the economy of human life if it occurs only at tolerable levels of mild discomfort.
For, when tolerable, pain loses its point. It fails to do its job if it is less than too much, and it would be still less effective if it were replaced by a simple reduction in one sort of pleasure relative to others. Of course, it does not follow from this that we should not try to reduce the levels of pain that visit us. Of course we should, but only so far as it is safe to do so, and a world in which analgesics were used to dull all pain to acceptable levels of discomfort would be a world in which, our bodies no longer serving with biological efficiency to warn us, we would always have to calculate how to avoid physically harmful forms of behavior.
Pain makes for an immensely more efficient warning device than sluggish brainpower with its capacities for self-deception. None of these forms of evil—if indeed that is what they are—have any tendency to pose a problem of the kind that Hume thinks we are all forced to face. You can guarantee safety for lambs only on condition of wimpishly vegetarian tigers and lions.
You can have an earthquake-free cosmos only on condition that there are no reliable physical laws to govern it. You can have a world free of physical pain only if it is also a world free of physical pleasure—in short, only if it is a world without nervous systems, which is to say, without bodies. Given the kind of world fit for bodies that we have, these pains are necessary evils where they are not necessary goods.
And so it is hard to see why the existence of them is to be regarded as providing rational evidence against God. Indeed, they seem just as plausibly to be evidence for a providential benevolence within creation. In any case, there is no need to bring God into the picture at this level, and it is no part of my argument that one should, since evolution will do as a perfectly good explanation for the emergence of the species we have, both lions and lambs, and for the fact that we animals all have diets disadvantageous to some other living species, and nervous systems that register pain.
But if, like Hume and some fundamentalist Christians of our own time, you insist on bringing God into it one way or the other, the evidence from the natural world points at least as strongly against a skeptical conclusion as in favor of it. Ours seems to be just the sort of natural world you might expect a good and wise God would bring about were God to bring about any world at all. Here, at least, we might reasonably think that you have to start in Princeton—that is, with where we actually are, even if we should not be there. For here there really is a problem, and Hume gets half way to an answer.
He manages to show that there is no way of formally proving even the de facto consistency, never mind the truth, of the three-way conjunction: God is all good, willing no evil; he is all powerful, hence able to prevent any evil; and yet there is evil. A mere possible compatibility is not sufficient. You must prove these pure, unmixed and uncontrollable attributes from the present mixed and confused phenomena, and from these alone. For Hume there just is a problem of evil—anyone who is not a philosopher with an ax to grind can see that—and Philo challenges Cleanthes to make the case for God that, in face of the manifest evils of life, seems quite counterintuitive.
If he cannot do that, then like it or not he will have no choice but to start with Philo from Princeton. I am not sure this makes Hume an atheist. For certain it makes him a Pyrrhonian skeptic. Let us leave Hume there for the moment, because I now want to draw attention to a surprisingly different time, place, and style of reflection on the problem of evil—that of a fourteenth-century English theologian, Julian of Norwich. Unlike Hume she believes categorically in the existence of a good and all powerful God. That said, she shares one thing with him: she is quite baffled at the quandary that is caused by the quantity of sin there is and at the viciousness of some of it.
She confesses that she does not know why a good and almighty God should have created a world in which there is evil. You might find the parallel between this fourteenth-century woman recluse and the worldly Scottish enlightenment skeptic to be surprising and unlikely. But setting Hume and Julian alongside one another may, I hope, shed some light on a distinction that is often hard to grasp, and often misunderstood.
This is the distinction between a Pyrrhonian skeptic like Hume, for whom it cannot be known whether there is an answer to the problem of evil at all, and a theologian of the apophatic persuasion like Julian, for whom there is an answer, although it is unknowable. Both claim not to know, but their differences show that not-knowing can come in very different kinds. Julian herself, at the age of eight or nine, had survived the Black Death, which in the space of two years took the lives of one third of the population of England.
You cannot sweep away the evil with some gesture toward the compensating goodness of God. Sin, she says, is real and inexplicable: it may be the source of—or may consist in—all sorts of illusions about ourselves, our fellow human beings, indeed about God. It may be the reason we fail to relate to others and ourselves as we should. But there is no sort of unreality in the fact of our failing to relate properly.
For Julian as for Hume, it is a question that demands that she hold on to the dilemma without eliminating one of its horns. The omnipotent and unfailing love of God and the existence of sin are both undeniable. How, asks Julian, if we cannot deny either, can we assert both and hold the two in tension? Mansfield and Me. Meet Me in Cockleberry Bay. Mission Possible.
Julian of Norwich Quotes (Author of Revelations of Divine Love)
Moods of Future Joys. News of the World? Riding the Outlaw Trail. Riding with Ghosts. Smoke in the Room. Soft Courage. Spring Mischief. Squirting Milk at Chameleons. Ten Lessons From the Road. The Aladdin Trial. The Antipodeans. The Beat of the Pendulum. The Boy Who Biked the World 1.
Classic: 'To Kill a Mockingbird' by Harper Lee
The Boy Who Biked the World 2. The Boy Who Biked the World 3. The Cinderella Plan. The Corner Shop in Cockleberry Bay. The Exphoria Code. The Good Life.
The Good Life Gets Better. The Gospel According to Luke. The Hopkins Conundrum. The Hurtle of Hell. The Industry of Human Happiness. The Iron Chariot. The Lake Forest Mystery. The Mating Habits of Stags. The Mind Thief. The Oshun Diaries. The Participation Revolution. The Pinocchio Brief. The Shifting Pools. The Story of Trojan Records.
24 books that will make you a more well-rounded person
The Weight of a Human Heart. Their Brilliant Careers. Thunder and Sunshine. Time of Lies.
The Will to Be Well
Tips from a Publisher. Touch the Sky. Touching Tibet. Walking Back To Happiness. Wolf Country. Abi Silver. Alastair Humphreys. Antony Johnston. Ash Dykes. Caroline Kington.
Catherine Chidgey. Diane Esguerra. Dorian Amos. Douglas Board.