Belief and the problem of evil
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In a review of two books on theodicy in a recent Times Literary Supplement, John Polkinghorne opened with:
We live in an ambiguous world. Reflecting on its nature and history we see that it is both fruitful and wasteful, beautiful and cruel. How do these perceptions square with the theological claim that the world is the creation of a good and almighty God? The problem of evil and suffering is surely the one that most perplexes believers and holds many people back from religious belief. Theodicy is theology's attempt to respond to this challenging question.
Let's look at the second last sentence in that paragraph: The problem of evil and suffering... holds many people back from religious belief.
I don't know how true that is. It is quite possible. But it does not seem a particularly logical reason for abandoning religious belief in general. The only religious belief that the problem of evil puts into question is the religious belief that the world is the creation of a good and almighty God. There are numerous forms of religious belief that don't involve an all-powerful completely-good Creator God. The problem of evil is essentially a problem for most, though not all, varieties of Christianity. It is not even that significant an issue to the other two major monotheistic faiths.
The problem of evil is not really an issue if
- god is good but not almighty
- god is good, but a bit of a bumbler
- god is a mixture of good and bad
- god is a practical joker
- god is malevolent
- god is evil
- god is constrained in its range of actions
- god is not overly concerned with what goes on in this world
- god is totally apathetic
- god has gone missing
- there are multiple gods with multiple characteristics
Religions have been built around all of these types of gods.
So, when Polkinghorne writes that the problem of evil drives people away from religious belief, he really means Christian religious belief. It's an easy mistake to make when you are focussed on Christianity.
We should take care not to fall into the same trap. The problem of evil is a legitimate argument against a Christian God, but it is not one which can be generalized to all gods and all forms of religion.
- Pelican Heaven, John Polkinghorne, p31 Times Literary Supplement April 3, 2009