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The Problem of Evil

The assignment for this essay mentions only that God is omnipotent and all-loving, and omits the other traditional attribute, of omniscience. Therefore let us first consider how the debate goes if we allow God’s ignorance of the suffering as His excuse for not stopping it. This approach gains some legitimacy thus: There are passages in the Bible where God is ignorant, such as Genesis 3. ix, where Adam is hiding in the bushes, “And the Lord God called Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou? “. Of course, for every such passage in the Bible there is a theological theory that reconciles it with God’s omniscience.

In this instance, we could suppose that God is asking a rhetorical question, for the purpose of inviting Adam to give an account of himself. Nonetheless, for the purpose of this essay, the fact that there is biblical evidence of God’s ignorance lends support to our taking the time to see how divine ignorance might solve the problem of evil. St Thomas Aquinas, in his “Summa contra Gentiles”, argues at length that God knows particular facts, not just universal truths. We may infer that God’s omniscience was not universally acknowledged by medieval theologians.

Many theological theories arise in reaction to criticism of existing doctrines. Therefore it would be in keeping with the traditions of theology if one were to hold the belief that God is not omniscient just because it offers a solution to the problem of evil. Having thus gained some legitimacy for considering a non-omniscient God, we could formulate a hundred hypotheses to explain God’s ignorance. Here are just five: God stands aloof from the world, and so cannot observe what happens in it. This might be put forward in conjunction with Boethius’ theory that God is ‘outside time’.

Suffering is a private mental phenomena, which no other being can share. It might be argued that it is logically impossible for one mind’s experiences to be known by another, and so even God’s omnipotence could not give Him access to human suffering. God’s only source of knowledge of the world is human prayer. This would be supported by numerous anecdotal claims that God intervenes in the world only in answer to properly made prayers. We could speculate that God created this arrangement in order to encourage people to pray and thereby become virtuous.

God knows about the world only through the angels’ reports. Since they are not required to be perfect, they might be inaccurate or too slow in reporting on human suffering. As the world’s population swells, we could reasonably expect the angelic bureaucracy to be swamped. Without the benefit of electronic computers, so they must still be relying on manual, or even oral, methods of data processing to handle information on the suffering of four billion human souls. Satan is temporarily deceiving God about what is happening in the world.

Given the traditional acceptance that Satan exists and does evil deeds, we may speculate that he has made God oblivious of human suffering. God’s omnipotence is not a difficulty for this theory, for we may suppose that Satan has done his work so thoroughly that God is oblivious of Satan’s trickery and therefore cannot use His omnipotence to stop Satan doing it. Countless conjectures are possible along such lines. Against these conjectures is the fact that mere mortals are aware of human and animal suffering.

Since we know about suffering, it is somewhat surprising that God, who is infinitely more powerful than we are, is unable to acquire this intelligence. In each of the above conjectures, though, a good reason is given to explain how this paradoxical position could arise. Divine ignorance and the Problem of Evil Superficially, God’s ignorance of human suffering would be the perfect alibi. It would therefore solve at once the Problem of Evil. There are, however, certain drawbacks. God is the author of the universe, and He is therefore responsible for creating a situation in which human suffering could take place without His knowing about it.

And He is omnipotent, so He could remove barriers to this flow of information. Therefore, if God’s ignorance is due merely to a failure in the transmission of information from our world to Him, then God must take the blame for it. If He created such a world knowing, or reckless as to whether, there might be suffering unbeknown to Him, then He is evil. This contradicts the traditional premise that God is all-loving. So then divine ignorance would not be a solution to the Problem of Evil after all.

On the other hand, suppose that God’s ignorance were due, not to some obstruction in the flow of information, but to a logically impossibility of God’s knowing our suffering. One theory that is in keeping with tradition is as follows. If God is ‘outside time’ in some sense, or if His mind operates outside Kant’s categories of time and space, then it is plausible to suppose that the concept of suffering simply cannot occur in His mind. Pain might be unthinkable for God, because a necessary element of the concept is the desire for the pain to end, which can be comprehended only by a being in time.

This seems to offer a neat solution to the problem of evil: God is not remiss in allowing us to suffer, because He does not know what it is like to suffer. Nor does Jesus’ excursion to our world necessarily remove this ignorance. Granted the traditional view that Jesus suffered on the cross, and that he was in some mysterious sense as one with God. But, if God’s mind cannot support Kant’s categories, then Jesus must have relinquished his knowledge of suffering upon his re-establishing his full union with his heavenly father.

That is to say, as soon as Jesus got back home to Heaven, he completely forgot all His suffering. Even this neat solution will not quite work. There is ample evidence in the scriptures for regarding God as a volitional being: He forms intentions to act, and acts in accordance with those intentions. (Indeed, it is difficult to see how divine ‘omnipotence’ could mean anything if God were not engaged in intentional acts. ) But it is well known that God’s omnipotence is not a licence to do all things that can be articulated. Famously, He cannot make a stone so heavy that He could not lift it.

Therefore, the concept of frustrated intention must be accessible to His introspection; that is, He should be able to form the concept of a being who wants to do something but cannot do it. Now, He can apply this concept to His human creations. For, although we are assuming that God is not omniscient, nevertheless it seems likely that the architect of the universe would have an extensive knowledge of the workings of His created world, and should be able to infer that humans may have intentions, which may in turn be satisfied or frustrated.

Hence, He ought to know that the misadventures to which mankind is prone may frustrate our intentions, even though He has no concept of our pain and suffering. We can thus sustain a weaker, but still potent, form of the Problem of Evil: namely that an omnipotent and all-loving God allows human intentions to be frustrated willy-nilly by the vagaries of natural and man-made disasters. Moreover, even though God is not omniscient, it would be plausible to suppose that He knows enough about us to be aware that we often put a great deal of effort to bring our intentions to fruition.

For instance, consider a mother who intends to rear her child to adulthood, but the child is killed in a road accident at the age of fourteen. Even though God may be unable to imagine the grief, He could still realise that that is a major blow to the mother’s intention. And that, I submit, is a sufficient contradiction of God’s love for the force of the Problem of Evil to hold. One possible defence against this criticism would be to suppose that God is so aloof from the world that He does not even know that human intentions are being thwarted.

So remote a God, however, would not be capable of loving mankind in the normal sense of the word, for He would not be able to conceive of anything’s mattering to humans. Conclusion: Assuming that God is not omniscient does not solve the Problem of Evil. For such a God must still possess at least the mental wherewithal to apprehend that human aspirations may be crushed by misfortune, and He is therefore culpable for failing to inform Himself of human misfortunes.

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