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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 here2.

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

Footnote 2.2: (Haiti and the Problem of Evil - TT Response to Sylvia)

From: Theo
To: Sylvia, Pete
Sent: Thursday, January 28, 2010 7:47 PM
Subject: Re: Haiti and the problem of evil

I think you misread my question as a pop at Christianity, which is not how it was intended. I wasn't really after a re-iteration of your own opinion, but your views (if you had time to express them) on the arguments in the paper and the comments it evoked. One thing that surprised me (as I indicated) was that no-one had suggested that Satan had anything to do with these calamities. Now I suppose that a certain sort of dispensationalist might deny this (as though God and Satan are off on some Cosmic coach tour for the duration) - but I was surprised that the only reference to Satan was the ludicrous suggestion that the Haitians were being punished for the sins of their fathers in worshiping him. Also, the whole tenor of the paper and the responses seems to be that it must be argued that these disasters are somehow good things, or allowed by God for their possible good consequences, rather than just some fall-out from Adam's error. The "proportionality" objection applies with even more force in that case. Is it silly, or just undispensational, to suggest that the Haitians are being punished for their fathers' sins, if the whole human race suffers because of Adam's sin? "Suffers", though not "punished" - not yet, anyway.

Follow this link3 for Sylvia’s Response

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

Footnote 2.2.3: (Haiti and the Problem of Evil - Sylvia's Second Response) (CORRESPONDENT)

From: Sylvia
To: Pete, Theo
Sent: Saturday, January 30, 2010 9:18 PM
Subject: RE: Haiti and the problem of evil

I guess I am just too simplistic! No, I didn’t think you were “taking a pop at Christianity”!! I just thought you were asking for “any comments on the problem of there being evil in the world”.

In the main I agree with one of the people whose response included the comment: “This is one of those questions that we could argue about all day and yet arrive at no answer.” I can’t see from Scripture that Satan works by creating natural disasters. I’m sure they have nothing to do with him at all, in the same way that they have nothing to do with God (except indirectly) – they just happen as a result of the way the world is now constructed. I certainly don’t think the Haitians are being punished for anything. Pete’s two questions are good ones. However, there is no answer to the first3 except that it will be made up for in eternal life, and we cannot be sure about the second4. Maybe God does intervene, but in such a way that only some are aware of it.

My response is here.

In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 3: Why did God construct the world (or allow it to change) in such a way as to include unavoidable suffering?

Footnote 4: Does God intervene to limit this suffering or direct it in some way towards the undeserving?

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 here4.

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 3.4: (Haiti and the Problem of Evil - TT Response to Sylvia & Pete)

From: Theo
To: Pete, Sylvia
Sent: Tuesday, February 16, 2010 12:16 AM
Subject: Re: Haiti and the problem of evil

I'll reply to both your emails in one hit. These questions always seem to turn out to be harder, and less fulfilling, than I first thought.

  1. I have two points with respect to Satan. The first has to do with what sort of malevolent activities Scripture portrays Satan as occupied with. It was good to be reminded of the facts by a rummage through an on-line edition of the KJV! In the NT these activities seem almost universally psychological - temptation, demon possession and all that, sowing the tares (assuming this is spiritual interference with ordinary human beings). I couldn't find much that indicates Satan has any physical power at all.
    • I'm not sure what Luke 10:18 (Satan falling like lightening) is supposed to mean (is it his descent to earth, or fall from power); and is it in response to the mission of the 70, or a recollection of some earlier event?
    • Luke 13:16 has Satan binding the infirm woman.
    • Paul's thorn is a messenger of Satan;
    • Acts 10:28 has healing those oppressed by the devil.
    • The devil is the one who had the power of death (Hebrews 2:14).
    • 1Thess 2:18 - "Satan hindered us" - but how?
    • Luke 13:4 - the tower of Siloam - is relevant to our topic, but doesn't attribute responsibility to anyone - though it's insistent that it's not punishment.
    • Otherwise, there's Job in the OT where Satan is given specific leave to do various things, including sending fire from heaven and stirring up a great wind.
    So, it doesn't look as though there's a lot of Scriptural warrant for Satan causing disasters. I never said he did, of course - only that I was surprised that no-one (present company excepted) had claimed such.
  2. The second point has to do with Satan's role, and the need for such a being. Sylvia puts down the woes of the universe to Adam's sin, but this has always struck me as a bit excessive. Are we to say that the laws of the nature were changed at that point? Isn't it possible (as is traditionally supposed, or as the gap theorists suggest) that Satan had already fallen and that there was already a blight on creation? That is, that the garden of Eden was a haven from the harsh realities outside, into which Adam was placed, and subsequently expelled? Presumably he needed (or would have needed) access to the tree of life even in the garden?
  3. If this is the case, and creation's blight wasn't Adam's fault, then whose fault was it? Is all this Paradise-Lost stuff (of the fall of Satan) - just myth (not that I've read PL, I'm ashamed to say)?
  4. Doesn't God (Christ in fact) uphold the creation? In that case, isn't he responsible for all the detail that goes on in it? Doesn't it leave God with cleaner hands if the "god of this age" is somehow responsible for the nasties? As Pete points out, this still leaves God ultimately responsible, but less directly implicated in the details? Or is this just the metaphysics (if not the soteriology) of Gnosticism or Cabbalism? But if it was, what would be wrong with it?
  5. I also quite like the final point of the comments on the paper - the Polkinghorne approach. So (though this isn't pointed out), instead of a literal fall of Adam, his fallen state has to do with his evolutionary ancestry - where evolution has, of course, cobbled things together by some random walk directed by the absorbing barriers of natural selection that eliminates non-starters, but allows through all sorts of fudges. So, you can't expect anything to work perfectly, however wonderfully made. So much for the human side of evil. The natural side is said to be a consequence of the earth being a natural system, with pluses and minuses. Then the whole thing of God's hand being hidden, so that we have the freedom to reject him. But the Gospels and Acts have it that God's hand was (at least selectively) manifest, and yet people still didn't believe. So, couldn't God have used softer gloves in the general case? Proportionality again. The issue isn't that there is suffering, but that there should be so much of it, and so (apparently) randomly distributed.
  6. Sylvia consoles herself with the thought that God will right all the injustices somehow, but is there any Scriptural warrant for this? I'm open to persuasion. Presumably, traditional Christianity took the view that if you were of the elect, it would all be made good, and if you weren't then all these disasters were merely a comparatively comfortable foretaste of life in the everlasting bonfire. The mystics - in particular Julian of Norwich - had the view that the universe was like a walnut in God's hand, and that "all manner of things will be well", which is all very comforting, but is it true?
  7. The idea behind the theodicy debate is explaining why the world is the way it appears to be, given that God is the way he is said to be - good and all-powerful. If you're on the "inside", then you're (theoretically, at any rate) proof against any eventuality; you already know and accept that God is "hands off" and that it's only in comforting comics that the good guys or the innocent get rescued rather than ending their days in ignominy, pain or farce. Nothing, however shameful, abhorrent or ludicrous that happens by accident to an innocent (ie. one not obviously deserving of this particular smiting) is a disproof that God is both loving and in control. Some think this is just ignoring the evidence. Darwin wasn't on the inside, and couldn't take what happened to his daughter, even though it happened (and happens) all the time to other people's daughters. He might have said it woke him up.
A bit of a jumble, but it's an attempt to keep the pot bubbling. You can let it go cold if you like.

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 here2 for my response.

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

Footnote 4.2: (Haiti and the Problem of Evil - TT Response to Pete on Kant)

From: Theo
To: Pete, Sylvia
Sent: Tuesday, February 16, 2010 2:43 AM
Subject: Re: Haiti and the problem of evil (Kant)

I'm not a great fan of Kant either, but isn't he completely antithetical to the Utilitarians? He has unconditional imperatives, while for a Utilitarian, anything goes if the sums work out right. I'm a consequentialist myself, holding that actions are good or bad according to whether their likely consequences are good or bad. The trouble with deontology, it seems to me, comes when you press it - just why is X good or bad? Just because it IS (said in a LOUD VOICE). Why is going round shooting people at random bad? Not because God has placed an arbitrary ban on random shootings (as though he might have allowed them) but because random shootings have bad consequences. Dying is painful and horrid, and deprives the deceased and his friends/family/dependents/etc of good things. It's bad (in normal circumstances) for you, and society generally, if you or others are shot. The badness has nothing really to do with the badness of the shooter - the bad effect this evil act has on his poor soul. No doubt he doesn't feature highly in the virtue-ethics stakes, but that's not the core issue - which isn't him and his rotten self, but the consequences his rotten actions have. Presumably, though, some selves become so rotten that they habitually cause mayhem (when they have the power) on a massive scale. Then their rottenness is of consequentialist concern in its own right. But if confined somewhere out of harm's way, they can be as rotten as they like.

I'm obviously supportive of Kant's view that we shouldn't use others as means to ends that aren't their own. But why? Surely it's not a principle plucked out of the air, but something that - if violated - in general has bad consequences.

I suppose consequentialism is open to counter-examples - situations (usually imaginary) where a consequentialist (as a moral human being) would want to say that something was bad even though the principles he espouses don't allow him to say that. Usually, the response on the part of the consequentialist is that the consequences of an act are wider than might at first be thought, and some nasty act that in isolation might seem to have good consequences overall, in fact has bad ones when you think of precedent and such like. But you may be able to dream up scenarios (eg. involving secrecy) where there are no wider consequences at all. Eg. the scenario where there's one healthy person whose bits are cannibalised to cure ten unrelated sick people, so instead of ten dead people and one live one, we have ten live ones and one dead one.

The usual answer to this counter-example would be that the general deleterious effect on the good of society if anyone could be legally snatched and cannibalised would exceed whatever one-off gain there might be. But say it was done secretly, so there were no insidious consequences? I'm attracted by a form of rule utilitarianism, whereby general principles are chosen because of their generally beneficent results, and these principles are in general binding. But I claim that they can (and must) be overridden if the stakes are high enough. If boiling that baby really is the only way to save the whole of humanity from a similar extermination by those ruthless aliens, then the terrible act is not just permissible, but an urgent duty, sad to say. However, the stakes aren't high enough in the cannibalisation case, though there are certain circumstances where it might be rational - you know, where the crew eat the cabin boy when cast adrift. But only as a last resort, mind you.

What does this have to do with Haiti? Well, not a lot Scripturally, I don't think. True, God is said to raise up certain people to do wicked things, but those people seem to have thought that they were acting autonomously (as we all do, whether we actually are or not). But the notion that God might be using lots of unfortunates' predicaments to improve the souls of those who are in a position to rescue them would seem to abuse everyone concerned if God was in a position to call the whole show off. It fails the Kantian test - the victims aren't willing participants, and the helpers are themselves duped, in that they think they are acting purely to help others, when the show is put on for their own benefit. It also fails the Consequentialist test too - how could the good accruing to the altruists' souls outweigh the bad done to the victims they don't quite manage to rescue? Though, if you have a divine rewarder dispensing eternal goodies on a whim, then the sums might work out any which way you like: but if that was the way things were, then our intuitions of right and wrong, and good and bad, would need to be re-tuned. Presumably, that was the delusion the more warm-hearted Spanish Inquisitors were suffering under. If you really could save someone from eternal frazzling by giving them a brief frazzling now, then it would be a loving act to do so. You just have to be a bit more sure of your facts than they were.

No doubt you'll put right any errors in the above in the next round, you being a certified Christian Ethicist and all that.

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

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