God and Evil — Part 1 (An Intellectual Approach)

See the introduction to the discussion on God and evil.

An Intellectual Approach

Herbert McCabe, in chapter 3 of God Matters (this chapter alone is worth the price of the book), calls this question a philosopher’s question and a trap or impediment for many trying to enter the mystery of God.

In the style of a court case as counsel for the defense of God against his philosophical accusers, McCabe sets out to answer this philosopher’s question and concludes that the mystery of evil is not logically inconsistent with an omnipotent and good God.

(My apologies for the length of this post and for liberally quoting McCabe. Explaining philosophy is not my strength. Any choppiness in what follows is my fault alone.)

The charges:

The prisoner stands accused of wreaking all kinds of murder and mayhem, of running a world full of misery and malice. Evidence for the crimes lies all around us, and the question is whether God is really responsible, whether he should be judged guilty and perhaps whether he should get off on a plea of diminished responsibility due to unsound mind or natural ignorance.

Following the sound principle of law, we will presume God is innocent until proven guilty. As McCabe points out, it is not our job to prove God innocent, that is, “why his activities have been good.” We will stick with refuting the charges against him.

At the end of this hearing I hope you will agree that God has not been proven guilty, but I expect you will be as puzzled as I am about his innocence. In other words I hope it will remain a mystery to you why God has done what he has done; but you will at least agree that what he has done does not prove his guilt.

Before the defense begins, McCabe points out three things. One, he is not going to say God is innocent because he is not omnipotent. Two, he is not going to question the evidence. Suffering and pain are all around us. Evil is real. And third, he will not argue “that at least some of the evil in world is not caused by God but by the free actions of people. God, this defense goes, can hardly be held responsible for what men do freely, and a great deal of the awfulness of the world is due to the viciousness of men and women.” As McCabe points out in chapter 2, “all free acts are caused by God, that I do not act independently of God”, and so God cannot be let “off the hook by putting the blame on someone else.” To summarize, “God is omnipotent, the world he made is full of evils and they were not put there by human beings independently of God.”

McCabe’s argument follows three steps:

  1. Everything good in the world is brought about by God.
  2. One kind of evil, “evil suffered”, is “a necessary concomitant of certain kinds of good, and God can only be said, therefore to have brought it about in the sense that he brought about that good.”
  3. Another kind of evil, “evil done”, also known as sin, is not brought about God at all. Although God could have prevented it, it does not make him guilty by neglect.

Let’s rephrase the charge. God made a bad world when he could have made a better one. What is meant by bad?

  • Badness is a property or quality of a thing such as redness.
  • “Whenever we say something is bad we are saying that it doesn’t come up to expectations”.
  • Badness is less specific than goodness. If we say a washing machine is good (McCabe’s analogy), we know it meets our expectations of cleaning clothes. If we say a washing machice is bad, we do not know in what ways the washing machine fails to meet our expectations, i.e. does it tear the clothes, or does not rinse out the detergent, or does it electrocute the user.
  • Badness is a negative quality. It is always a defect, an absence. “It is the lack of some positive quality in a thing”.
  • Badness is the “lack of precisely that positive quality which we think is to be expected of a thing.”

McCabes writes,

We call a person bad (or in this case sometimes, evil or wicked) just because he or she doesn’t measure up to what we think we can expect of human beings. Cruelty, injustice, selfishness, are just dispositions or activities that don’t measure up to our idea of what a proper human being should be like, they are not fitting to a human being. We may find it a lot harder to be clear about what is fitting to a human being than we are about what is fitting to a washing machine, because all a washing machine has to do, so far as we are concerned, is wash clothes properly; it is an instrument that we expect to function in a certain way. People, of course, aren’t instruments in that way; they are are not just good because they do some job well, and so the whole thing is more complicated. But it does not matter how we decide this matter and it doesn’t matter whether we disagree about what makes a human being a proper human being; the thing is that if we call a man bad we mean he doesn’t measure up to whatever it is that we expect of a man.

Furthermore, since badness is a defect, it is always “parasitic on good.” In other words, “you can’t have badness unless there is at least some goodness, whereas you can have goodness without any badness.” The two are not symmetrical: badness is a defect in goodness; goodness is not a defect in badness.

There is goodness in the world, and there are defects, or badness, or evil, in things of the world.

Next, there are basically two kinds of badness or evil. Exhibit A is the “badness that happens to people and things”, or “evil suffered”. The agent that brings about the suffering is separate from the one who suffers. Exhibit B is “the evil people do”, or “evil done”. This kind of evil is “not brought about by someone outside the agent but is self-inflicted, and this is moral evil or sin.” We sympathise with the one who “has suffered evil rather than as the one who himself inflicts it.”

Continued in part 2 for the discussion of exhibit A.


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