When something disastrous happens, like Katrina, "logic" says: so much the worse for a loving God. But for the believer, what comes out, instead, are things like "God never gives us more than we can handle" and "We have to praise the Lord, and thank him, that <i>we</i> are OK." Why? (Or is this just a psychological or sociological question? Or did I watch too much Fox news?)

If you are just wondering why people respond in such different ways,then perhaps your question is just psychological. But there are deeperissues here, too. Natural disasters raise, in a very impressive way,the so-called Problem of Evil. It goes like this. Suppose that God isomnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent. Then it would seem that Godwould had to have known what sort of suffering Katrina would cause,want to prevent that suffering, and be able to do so. But God didn't,so God must not be all those things. And if you think that, if Godexists at all, then God has to be all those things, then you get theconclusion that God does not exist.

It will not surprise you thatthe Problem of Evil has been much discussed. There is a very nicecollection edited by Marilyn Adams on it.

Ican't end this note,however, without saying one more thing, namely, that there are manydifferent ways "believers" respond to such events. It is true that thereactions you mention are commonly encountered, but they are not theonly options. I won't say more, though, as doing so would take us awayfrom philosophy and towards very practical questions of faith.

In late 1991 or early 1992 (I forget which semester), Alvin Plantinga, who has written much-praised super-analytic papers defending Christianity from the problem of evil, gave an informal talk in Budapest, sponsored by the philosophy department of the Technical University. I was fortunate to be in attendance. We sat around a large, beautiful wood table (don't ask me the kind of tree it came from, please). Maybe ten people came to hear him. After his presentation, which was on the problem of evil, I asked (roughly): "You've been trying to explain to us why an omnibenevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient being permits evil. But the point of the existence of what appears to be unnecessary, purposeless, needless suffering is that such a God cannot or likely does not exist. Why, then, are you searching for an explanation?" Plantinga replied (roughly): "I believe in that sort of God, and therefore there must be an explanation; the suffering must have a purpose." (I had heard that before.) I followed up with, "but why do you believe?" (Implication: especially in light of the POE.) Alvin did not answer that question. Does anyone know whether Plantinga has written somewhere why he believes in that sort of God? "Why" in either sense: his reasons, or the psychological/sociological causes.

I have to add a bit to Richard Heck's explanation of the "problem of evil. " There are actually two different problems that go by this name. One is the "logical" problem of evil: here the challenge to the believer is to show how the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly benevolent being is consistent with the existence of suffering in our world. I think this challenge can be met rather easily. all that must be done is to deny that suffering is a bad thing. This can be done in a number of ways: one can argue, for example, that we only regard suffering as bad because we fail to understand God's larger purpose in allowing suffering -- really, it's quite good, because it leads to greater wisdom than we'd obtain otherwise, or something. Or it can be argued that "suffering" is only a relative notion, and that if there is any variation at all in the amount of pleasure we experience, we will always regard the least amount as "suffering." I don't think either of these illustrative claims are very plausible, but they suffice to show that there's nothing incoherent about believing in God while acknowledging the existence of (what we commonly regard as) suffering.

But the second version of the problem of evil is very different. In this version, the challenge is to the reasonableness, rather than the mere coherence of, belief in an all-powerful, all-knowing, perfectly benevolent being. The question here is this: if we were to just examine the evidence objectively and dispassionately, would we come to the conclusion that the universe was created by such a being as the Judeo-Christian God, or would we come to some different conclusion? A conclusion such as: the universe was created by a perfectly benevolent being who had limited knowledge or limited power, or both? Or that it was created by a being who was completely indifferent to our feelings? Or that it wasn't created according to any intentional plan at all, but just "happened"? Thought of this way, the problem of evil is a challenge to the believer to show that evidence and reason supports belief in the Judeo-Christian God, and supports it above its competitor hypotheses.

It's worth noting in this connection that the argument for the existence of God that has the most popular support -- the argument from design (cf. the current tempest about the teaching of "intelligent design" in my state and others) -- can only show that the Creator is smart enough and powerful enough to have made a universe. It doesn't even purport to show that the Creator is morally good.

My own view is that there is no evidence whatsoever that the designer of our universe (if there was one) was concerned in the slightest about the welfare of the sentient creatures He/she/It was creating, and that there's mountains of evidence that He/she/It couldn't give a damn.

All of these considerations, by the way, come from David Hume's incomparably wonderful work Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. It's available on the web at


Check it out.

One final observation: believers often like to have it both ways. One person will thank God for sparing him, while telling the neighbor whose home's been demolished that it's not God's fault. But this doesn't make sense. If God actually intervened to save the first person's home, then shame on Him for not doing the same for the second person's. And if the reason that He didn't save the second person's is that the poor bugger's homelessness was part of some unfathomable Divine Plan, then the first person shouldn't take things personally either. The only way out of this dilemma that I can see is to say that each person deserved what they got -- i.e., bad things don't happen to good people. If anyone says this, they have, in my view, left the company of decent people.

Let me start by thanking Louise for her contribution, and especially for mentioning Hume's Dialogues,which remains my single favorite philosophy book. Hume's dismantling ofthe argument from design probably should be cited as often as possiblein the current climate.

Having said something nice, I'll now proceed todisagree with Louise on one point. But I'll then agree with her aboutanother.

It is not entirely obvious that there is any such thing as the'Judeo-Christian' conception of God. The various Problems of Evil,logical and "evidential" (as I've seen the one Louise emphasizescalled), attack a particular combination of claims---omnipotence,omniscience, and benevolence, typically---that, to be sure, has figuredsignificantly in Christian theology but whose relation to Jewishthought is really quite unclear. Moreover, even within Christianthought, there are many conceptions of the divine, and not all of themwould subscribe to those three claims. Nonetheless, it probably is truethat most people who call themselves Christians would subscribe to sucha conception of God, and I would agree with Louise myself that theevidential PoE is essentially fatal to that conception. It can beevaded, to be sure, but only at very high cost, such as leaving thedecent (and, sadly, there are many who take that route, to be sure). Isuppose there are other options, too, actually: Self-deception,compartmentalization, cognitive dissonance, and generalhead-in-the-sand-ness.

That said, the challenge the PoE poses for a person of faithbrought up in the Christian tradition is to articulate an alternativeconception of God that is consistent with the world as we find it. As Isaid, several have been on offer over the centuries, but none hasachieved the sort of dominance the conception that is the target of thePoE has. I do not know of any that fully satisfies me. I sometimesthink about trying the view some Gnostics seem to have held, that Satancreated the world, and God is still trying to sort it out. But then Idon't believe in Satan, so there is that little problem.

Louise's remarks in her last paragraph strike a chord with me.I think the deepest challenge the PoE poses is to what one might callan interventionist conception of God, that is, a conceptionaccording to which God from time to time intervenes in the world tosave children, cure illnesses, end droughts, and the like. Even absentomnipotence and omniscience (note that Louise doesn't even have tomention these to get her worry going), God's apparent failure tointervene a whole lot more often calls into question God's benevolence,and that, it seems to me, is a feature of the traditional conceptionthat absolutely cannot be abandoned. Views of the sort Louise mentionsat the end of her posting are available here, to be sure: Jones gotsaved because he was good, or it fit into God's plan, or what have you;I guess Smith will just have to suck it up, poor guy. In short, Godplays favorites. But such a being does not seem to me to be one worthyof worship or even of respect but only of fear, and I take it to beanother non-negotiable feature of the traditional conception of Godthat God is worthy of worship and an appropriate object of love.

Sothe question with which I find myself faced is: How should I think aboutGod (and, more importantly, about my relation to God) if I have abandoned theinterventionist conception?

A modernized "translation" of David Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion can also be found here.

Can one retain a commitment to divine benevolence even if one has abandoned the interventionist conception of God?

It is a standard feature of early modern thought about God that "the time of miracles has ceased," and that God no longer directlyintervenes in the natural world, or acts to bring about events in the world by particular volitions (i.e., God does not will that a particular house be destroyed). Rather, God governs the natural world by means of general laws, and all particular events in the natural world admit of natural explanations in terms of laws of nature. As for why natural evils befall one man rather than another: this is due to the operation of natural laws, not to God's particular volitions, so God is not directly responsible either for the destruction of one house or for the fact that another house was spared.

This does not imply that God has withdrawn from the world: He sustains the world in existence, and it is in virtue of His power that natural events take place, although He does not directly will that those events take place. Of course, these natural events are all subordinate to God's providential plan, which does not admit of natural explanation.

Early modern philosophers believed that such a God was a worthy object of love precisely because He could accomplish so much with so little, without directly intervening in the natural world in order to fulfill His own providential plan.

If one believes that God exists, however, one must believe that God does have such a providential scheme, which, if we could only understand it, would make clear to us why bad things do sometimes happen to good people.

Professor Andrew Dole (Department of Religion, Amherst College)kindly provides the following response to a query of Alan Soble's above:

"In 1992 Plantinga wrote a ‘spiritual autobiography’, which is available online here. (I think this piece was published in Philosophers who Believe,edited by Kelly James Clark and published by InterVarsity in 1997; butI’m not sure about that.) The piece gives a fair impression of howPlantinga would answer Alan’s question. It also contains an extendeddiscussion of Plantinga’s position (then) on the problem of evil. Thiswas a number of years ago, but I have no reason to think Plantinga haschanged his position on the relevant subjects since then.

Ithink it would be fair to say that Plantinga would answer Alan’squestion as to why he believes in an omnipotent, omniscient andomnibenevolent God by pointing to his religious upbringing. That is tosay, he was raised to believe in God, and came to the ‘age of reason’with such a belief already in place. Further, it’s clear from what hesays in the autobiography piece that he has encountered nothing inadult life that has led him to change his mind about belief in such aGod; and that includes the challenge of the problem of evil. (Inperson, Plantinga would also make it clear that he thinks that holdingbeliefs on the basis of this sort of history is rational, and wouldproduce analogous examples that don’t involve religious beliefs).

Hedoes say, in the autobiography piece, that “of all the anti-theisticarguments, only the argument from evil deserves to be taken reallyseriously”; and he devotes several pages to the problem of evil. Here’sa relevant passage:

Why does God permit all thisevil, and evil of these horrifying kinds, in his world? How can it beseen as fitting in with his loving and providential care for hiscreatures?

The Christian must concede she doesn't know. Thatis, she doesn't know in any detail. On a quite general level, she mayknow that God permits evil because he can achieve a world he sees asbetter by permitting evil than by preventing it; and what God sees asbetter is, of course, better. But we cannot see why our world with allits ills, would be better than others we think we can conceive, orwhat, in any detail, is God's reason for permitting a given specificand appalling evil. Not only can we not see this, we often can't thinkof any very good possibilities. A Christian must therefore admit thathe doesn't know why God permits the evils this world displays. This canbe deeply perplexing, and deeply disturbing. It can lead a believer totake towards God an attitude he himself deplores; it can tempt us to beangry with God, to mistrust God, like Job, to accuse him of injustice,to adopt an attitude of bitterness and rebellion. No doubt there isn'tany logical incompatibility between God's power and knowledge andgoodness, on the one hand, and the existence of the evils we see on theother; and no doubt the latter doesn't provide a good probabilisticargument against the former. No doubt; but this is cold and abstractcomfort when faced with the shocking concreteness of a particularlyappalling exemplification of evil. What the believer in the grip ofthis sort of spiritual perplexity needs, of course, is not philosophy,but comfort, and spiritual counsel. There is much to be said here andit is neither my place nor within my competence to say it.

Thispassage indicates, first, that Plantinga thinks that neither thelogical nor the evidential challenge from evil are ultimatelysuccessful in showing theistic belief to be irrational (a position hehas defended at length elsewhere, but has some things to say about inthis piece as well); and second, that he admits that there is indeed asubstantial cost to be paid for such a belief in the face of theexistence of evil. The price is admitting that we don’t now understand,and possibly cannot understand, why an omnipotent, omniscient andomnibenevolent God would permit evils of this sort to occur. This hascome to be known as the ‘no-defense defense’; a detailed development ofthe position can be found in Stephen Wykstra’s article “The HumeanObstacle to Evidential Arguments from Suffering: On Avoiding the Evilsof ‘Appearance’”, in the Adams & Adams anthology. Marilyn Adams hasalso taken this position in her recent book Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God,in which she tries to advance the discussion beyond the ‘why-question’(i.e. why does God permit evil?) to the ‘how-question’ (given thatthere is evil, what is God going to do about it?)."

Plantinga writes, in the quoted passage, "what God sees as better is, of course, better. " Oh? Of course? Having solved to his own satisfaction the problem of evil, can Alvin also solve the Euthyphro-style dilemma that arises here? (1) A world is better because God sees it as better vs. (2) God sees a world as better because it is better.

Read another response about Religion