Stewart Sutherland

Si Deus Justus, unde malum?


Epicurus' old questions are yet unanswered. Is he 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 evil?

(David Hume)

Listen: if all have to suffer so as to buy eternal harmony by their suffering, what have the children to do with it—tell me please? It is entirely incomprehensible why they, too, should have to suffer and why they should have to buy harmony by their sufferings. Why should they, too, be used as dung for someone else's future harmony?


More than a millennium separates Boethius and Hume, and yet they both identify the same point of pressure to theology applied by the recognition of the presence of evil in the world: that point of pressure lies at the heart of the theological enterprise, viz. The very idea of God. Is God good? Is God powerful? All-powerful? Is God just? Does God know how things are here on earth? Does God care? Dostoevsky, through the towering figure of Ivan Karamazov, gives particular form to these last two questions, and in so doing identifies the mixture of weariness and despair, which characterizes the responses of some in our century to the answers which theologians have given to these questions.

There are two initial points which I wish to make at the outset before embarking on more detailed and systematic discussion. The first is that the problems, for there are many, associated with the presence of evil, pain and suffering in this world, have a very long history indeed. They are not, as is occasionally hinted, a product of the Enlightenment, nor of the particular horrors of this century—Auschwitz and Hiroshima. They are not simply the consequence or product of monotheism, for puzzlement about the lot of human beings is to be found in cultures other than those which are monotheistic—as classical Greek tragedy makes plain. Nonetheless, the character or articulation of the problems does vary from one period to another, and so inevitably does their impact on theology.

My second general point is that amidst all the complexities which we shall find, there is a radical difference between two very different sorts of approach to the issues at stake. On the one hand, there are those who argue, and in that sense at least believe, that there are possible intellectual resolutions of the problems, however difficult it may be to reconcile oneself to the pain and suffering which may be endured by self or others. On the other, there are those for whom no such intellectual resolution is possible. For them, if belief in God remains, theology will have to take a radically different shape from that developed by forms of theology based on philosophical arguments from world to God.

In the context set by these general points, the discussion will cover a variety of different but always related issues. Initially, the focus will be upon those treatments of the problems of evil, pain and suffering which are structured by the attempt to find the most reasonable answers that we can to those deeply puzzling issues. If in the course of the ensuing multi-stranded discussion there is a single underlying question, then it is this: If there is a conflict between theological affirmation and moral perception, which has the priority? As we shall see, most attempts to confront the issues at stake can be seen as being— or at least implying—an answer to this question.

The very idea of theodicy implies an attempt to reconcile human moral perception with the ways of God, for it is quite literally the attempt to justify the ways of God to human beings. The implication is that human moral perceptions of evil, suffering and pain are not to be discounted or set aside, but rather that some further explanation will show how theological affirmation and moral sense can be reconciled without one or the other having to be jettisoned in the interests of consistency. For a believer that is to attach very considerable weight to our moral perceptions.

The problem of evil in its traditional formulations arises just because human moral perceptions are seen to be capable of creating an intellectual difficulty for any religious system that holds that God is omnipotent, omnibenevolent and omniscient. Taken with the statement that God exists, these claims appear to imply or entail that there should be no evil in the world. God, being omnipotent, has the power to remove evil; being omniscient, he has the knowledge of how to remove evil; being omnibenevolent, he will want to remove evil. Yet God, it appears, cannot have the power, knowledge and motive sufficient to guarantee that he will remove evil from the world, if our perception that evil is a monstrous reality is at all reliable.

Theodicies of a speculative kind typically seek to remove the intellectual problem outlined by offering an account of God's power, knowledge and motive which will remove the expectation that they imply God should wish to eliminate evil. They work by endeavouring to discover a morally sufficient reason for God's creation or permission of evil. A good God will try to remove evil so far as he can, but perhaps evils exist as unavoidable parts of a yet greater good, such that not even God can have this good without allowing/ bringing about the evils we see around us. A prime example to illustrate this possibility is free will. It may be that the good of creating free creatures can only be brought about by God at the cost of allowing human sin into the world, and it may be that this good is deemed to outweigh sin and its consequences. Theodicy then asks us to contemplate the possibility that all evil is, in a technical sense, 'redeemed'. Given the premise of God's omnipotence, the link between evils and any outweighing good would have to be a strong one: these evils would have to be logically or conceptually unavoidable parts of a greater good. Speculative theodicy then gets to work, filling out the account of evil's nature, its relation to good and the character of divine motives and plans: all with a view to showing how evil might plausibly be part of a divine scheme for the creation of over-arching goodness. Following the example of Hick (1977:210-11), it is customary to divide Christian-based versions of speculative theodicy into two types: those which see evil as the unavoidable consequence of the creation of good ('Augustinian' theodicies) and those which see it as the unavoidable preparation for good ('Irenaean').

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