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Blog - Haiti and the Problem of Evil

I sent out the email below in response to an article1 in the BBC News Magazine website (Link ( The immediate responses are here2, here3 and here4. Follow the links for these responses, my responses and any ensuing correspondence.

The discussion eventually fizzled out , but fizzed back to life briefly in another item further up the blog.

Of course, there’s been a lot written on this subject of greater rigour than the popular piece by David Bain. For instance:-

  1. "Rowe (William L.), Howard-Snyder (Daniel) & Bergmann (Michael) - Debate: Is Evil Evidence against Belief in God?", and
  2. "Howard-Snyder (Daniel), Ed. - The Evidential Argument from Evil".

From: Theo
To: Pete, Sylvia
Sent: Wednesday, January 20, 2010 10:10 AM
Subject: Fw: Haiti and the problem of evil

Any comment on the email / attachment below6? I couldn't find any reference - at the time of writing - to "an enemy7 has done this". Maybe the modern church thinks the problem of cosmic dualism / Manichaeism is worse than the problem of evil?

In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 7: Ie. Satan – this is a quote from .Matthew 13:28, the passage about the wheat and the tares.

Note last updated: 18/12/2010 19:58:05

Footnote 1: (Haiti and the Problem of Evil - Article) (CORRESPONDENT)

From: David Bain
Sent: Tuesday, January 19, 2010 6:44 PM
Subject: Haiti and the problem of evil

A short popularising piece on Haiti and the problem of evil: follow Link ( Text …

Why does God allow natural disasters? At the heart of Haiti's humanitarian crisis is an age old question for many religious people - how can God allow such terrible things to happen? Philosopher David Bain examines the arguments.

  1. Evil has always been a thorn in the side of those - of whatever faith - who believe in an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good God.
  2. As the philosopher David Hume (echoing Epicurus) put it in 1776: "Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?"
  3. Faced with this question, Archbishop of York John Sentamu said he had "nothing to say to make sense of this horror", while another clergyman, Canon Giles Fraser, preferred to respond "not with clever argument but with prayer".
  4. Perhaps their stance is understandable. The Old Testament is also not clear to the layman on such matters. When Job complains about the injuries God has allowed him to suffer, and claims "they are tricked that trusted", God says nothing to rebut the charges.
  5. Less reticent is the American evangelist Pat Robertson. He has suggested Haiti has been cursed ever since the population swore a pact with the Devil to gain their freedom from the French at the beginning of the 19th Century. Robertson's claim will strike many as ludicrous, if not offensive. And even were it true, it wouldn't obviously meet the challenge.
  6. Why would a loving deity allow such a pact to seem necessary? Why wouldn't he have freed the Haitians from slavery himself, or prevented them from being enslaved in the first place? And why, in particular, would he punish today's Haitians for something their forbears putatively did more than two centuries before?
  7. So what should believers say? To make progress, we might distinguish two kinds of evil:
    • The awful things people do, such as murder, and
    • The awful things that just happen, such as earthquakes
  8. St Augustine, author CS Lewis and others have argued God allows our bad actions since preventing them would undermine our free will, the value of which outweighs its ill effects.
  9. But there's a counter-argument. Thoroughly good people aren't robots, so why couldn't God have created only people like them, people who quite freely live good lives?
  10. However that debate turns out, it's quite unclear how free will is supposed to explain the other kind of evil - the death and suffering of the victims of natural disasters.
  11. Perhaps it would if all the victims - even the newborn - were so bad that they deserved their agonising deaths, but it's impossible to believe that is the case.
  12. Or perhaps free will would be relevant if human negligence always played a role. There will be some who say the scale of the tragedy in natural disasters is partly attributable to humans. The world has the choice to help its poorer parts build earthquake-resistant structures and tsunami warning systems.
  13. But the technology has not always existed. Was prehistoric man, with his sticks and stones, somehow negligent in failing to build early warning systems for the tsunamis that were as deadly back then as they are today?
  14. The second century saint, Irenaeus, and the 20th Century philosopher, John Hick, appeal instead to what is sometimes called soul-making. God created a universe in which disasters occur, they think, because goodness only develops in response to people's suffering.
  15. To appreciate this idea, try to imagine a world containing people, but literally no suffering. Call it the Magical World. In that world, there are no earthquakes or tsunamis, or none that cause suffering. If people are hit by falling masonry, it somehow bounces off harmlessly. If I steal your money, God replaces it. If I try to hurt you, I fail.
  16. So why didn't God create the Magical World instead of ours? Because, the soul-making view says, its denizens wouldn't be - couldn't be - truly good people.
  17. It's not that they would all be bad. It's that they couldn't be properly good. For goodness develops only where it's needed, the idea goes, and it's not needed in the Magical World.
  18. In that world, after all, there is no danger that requires people to be brave, so there would be no bravery. That world contains no one who needs comfort or kindness or sympathy, so none would be given. It's a world without moral goodness, which is why God created ours instead. But there is wiggle room.
  19. Even in a world where nothing bad happens, couldn't there be brave people - albeit without the opportunity to show it? So moral goodness could exist even if it were never actually needed.
  20. And, anyway, suppose we agree moral goodness could indeed develop only in a world of suffering.
  21. Doesn't our world contain a surplus of suffering? People do truly awful things to each other. Isn't the suffering they create enough for soul-making? Did God really need to throw in earthquakes and tsunamis as well?
  22. Suffering's distribution, not just its amount, can also cause problems. A central point of philosopher Immanuel Kant's was that we mustn't exploit people - we mustn't use them as mere means to our ends. But it can seem that on the soul-making view God does precisely this. He inflicts horrible deaths on innocent earthquake victims so that the rest of us can be morally benefitted. That hardly seems fair.
  23. It's OK, some will insist, because God works in mysterious ways. But mightn't someone defend a belief in fairies by telling us they do too? Others say their talk of God is supposed to acknowledge not the existence of some all-powerful and all-good agent, who created and intervenes in the universe, but rather something more difficult to articulate - a thread of meaning or value running through the world, or perhaps something ineffable.
  24. But, as for those who believe in an all-good, all-powerful agent-God, we've seen that they face a question that remains pressing after all these centuries, and which is now horribly underscored by the horrors in Haiti. If a deity exists, why didn't he prevent this?
  25. David Bain is a lecturer in the philosophy department of the University of Glasgow.
One of many comments posted on the BBC website:-
  • Having lost a sister to a brain tumour aged 49, and a close friend to cancer at the age of 30, and being a C of E priest, you might imagine this kind of matter has been a part of my own, and many others' formation. Archbishop Sentamu is right on one level; for the sake of those caught up in this tragedy we need to pray and act now, and think later. But for many of us there has already been much thought. John Polkinghorne and others successfully argue that free will is not just about humanity, it is also about the freedom of the universe to be what it is. It has to 'work' to make sense. In order for life to exist on this planet there simply has to be tectonic activity. Without the 'recycling' processes involved there would be insufficient carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and earth would become a lifeless snowball. It has to be a dynamic system and given the freedom to be what it is. Likewise, without mutation there could be no progressive evolution. Most mutations are dead-ends, some are useful and retained if they provide breeding advantage, and some are deadly. But you cannot have one without another, at least not if you want life. Could God have done it differently? Probably. But then if his hand was that obvious, would we have the freedom to choose whether to seek him out? Probably not. But back to Archbishop Sentamu's sentiments; the importance of what needs to be done now far outweighs the philosophy of why it happened.

Note last updated: 18/12/2010 19:58:05

Footnote 2: (Haiti and the Problem of Evil - Sylvia's Response) (CORRESPONDENT)

From: Sylvia
To: Theo
Sent: Tuesday, January 26, 2010 9:48 PM
Subject: RE: Haiti and the problem of evil

I’m sure you must already know my view on this! But here it is again:

  1. Unfortunately, we live in a world tarnished by sin – both in humans, and the world in general, as a result of the fall. It was originally created as “very good”, but was changed at the fall.
  2. Sometime in the future there will be a new heavens and new earth, when resurrected beings will enjoy an existence in perfection. Until then, we suffer the consequences of sin.
  3. So – we look forward to that time, and in the meantime we do the best we can. This includes coping with natural disasters, and imperfect people.
None of us understand God – if we did, He wouldn’t be God. So we don’t understand why He set things up the way He did. We are just asked to believe Him and trust Him. And maybe one day, if it is important enough, we will have some answers.

My response is here.

Note last updated: 18/12/2010 19:58:05

Footnote 3: (Haiti and the Problem of Evil - Pete's 'Satan' Response) (CORRESPONDENT)

From: Pete
To: Theo, Sylvia
Sent: Friday, January 29, 2010 10:29 AM
Subject: RE: Haiti and the problem of evil

Some random thoughts:

  • I’m not sure that the introduction of Satan would move the argument forward as you then move to asking why God allows Satan to exist or be effective, cf. Job. I suppose possibly Christianity differs from dualism in that God (the power of light) is actually the creator of and infinitely superior to the power of darkness (Satan). Also, I suppose that you might ask (a la CS Lewis) how natural disasters aid Satan if his objective is worship or distraction rather than being a pantomime villain?
  • Out of the contributions at the end of the article my first reaction was that the last2 one is the only useful3 one.
  • Finally, perhaps there are two intertwined questions:
    1. Why did God construct the world (or allow it to change) in such a way as to include unavoidable suffering?
    2. Does God intervene to limit this suffering or direct it in some way towards the undeserving?

My response is here.

In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 2: I only reproduced this single blog-response (for others see the website (Link ( – it’s at the end of the Note (Click here for Note).

Footnote 3: The idea being that for a functioning ecosystem, plate tectonics, and therefore earthquakes, are necessary. .

Note last updated: 18/12/2010 19:58:05

Footnote 4: (Haiti and the Problem of Evil - Pete's 'Kant' Response) (CORRESPONDENT)

From: Pete
To: Theo, Sylvia
Sent: Thursday, January 28, 2010 11:40 AM
Subject: RE: Haiti and the problem of evil

What do you think about the Kant reference? As you know I am not a big fan but I assume you are a crypto-Kantian/crypto-utilitarian. Doesn’t the Bible explicitly say that God did use some people as a means to an end – Pharaoh etc.? Also doesn’t this illustrate a problem with Kant’s absolutism? Wouldn’t a utilitarian accept that the greater good of the majority would allow this ‘abuse’ of the minority?

Click here for my response.

Note last updated: 18/12/2010 19:58:05

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