God's less social side

Providence and the Problem of Evil
December 11, 1998

If I suffered any lingering temptation to embrace again a theistic form of Christianity, Richard Swinburne has saved me from it. Put in a nutshell, his conclusion is this: despite the presence of evil in the world, it is still coherent to believe in an all-powerful and all-good God, providing one is willing to regard as admirable in God intentions and actions that one would regard as horrible in humans. Personally I find that too high a price to pay.

As in his previous writings, Swinburne does not claim that Christian theism is a necessary belief, rather he shows that it is a coherent one. What he fails to do is to make it attractive and that is a fatal shortcoming. Any belief that is not necessary must be attractive if it is to win adherents.

The author sets out "the problem of evil" in the form of an argument that might be deployed by an atheist to prove that there is no God: n If there is a God, he is omnipotent and perfectly good.

* A perfectly good being will never allow any morally bad state to occur if he can prevent it.

* An omnipotent being can prevent the occurrence of all morally bad states.

* There is at least one morally bad state.

* So (conclusion): there is no God.

My own immediate reaction is to challenge the first premise. Process theologians have argued cogently that Christianity does not entail a God who is omnipotent in the sense required by this syllogism. Swinburne acknowledges this view but will have none of it. The only constraint he will allow upon God's power is that God can only do what is logically possible, eg God "could not make me exist and not exist at the same instant".

Swinburne challenges instead the second premise, claiming that under very carefully circumscribed conditions a perfectly good being might allow a morally bad state to occur for the sake of a higher good. In other words, "it is not always a bad act to bring about or allow to occur a bad state of affairs".

Crucial to his whole argument is the first condition he sets for the allowing of a morally bad state by a perfectly good being. This concerns "what God has the right to do". It is the paramount need to establish this condition that drives Swinburne to present such an unpleasant picture of God.

The discussion draws on the analogy of the rights and duties of parents and other "carers" in relation to their dependants. When carers make choices on behalf of incompetent dependants, it is widely accepted that they should choose what is objectively in the latter's best interests. Swinburne says that a carer who provides a life that is "overall good" for the dependant does have the right to cause some harm for the sake of a greater good. However, he stresses that this right is "a very limited one".

All well and good. The trouble comes when Swinburne applies these caring criteria to his omnipotent and omniscient God. First, he assumes that the gift of existence is itself so great a good that the creator God can allow his creatures to suffer a fair degree of harm and still keep the balance positive. This gives God a built-in advantage compared to any human carer when it comes to assessing whether he is providing a life that is "overall good" for his dependants. Second, Swinburne insists (a) that goodness and not happiness is the subject of these moral calculations and (b) that "useful suffering" is in itself a very good thing. By this breathtaking legerdemain he does not so much solve the problem of evil as dissolve it: all that suffering and pain you thought was a bad thing is now shown to be really a good thing. And third, if in spite of all this conjuring some poor individuals fail to register an overall good life on earth, then Swinburne's God still has a trump card to play. He can always make it up to them in the afterlife.

The net result is that the right to cause a dependant harm in the name of some higher good, which for human carers is "very limited", in God's case has virtually no limit. By similar special pleading, we are told that the bar on making unselfish choices on behalf of others, which is absolute for human carers, "has no application where the carer is God considering what sort of creatures to create". The argument here is that unselfish choices are those that lessen the dependant's well-being. Since until we are created we have no well-being, it cannot be lessened, whatever God chooses for us.

This whole line of argument I find distasteful and the portrait of God it presents unattractive. However, very near the end of the book, the author seems to sense the need for a more emotional appeal. Since we cannot make choices before we are born, he says, God has to do it for us and he "sometimes pays us the compliment of supposing that, if we had the choice, we would choose to be heroes".

Swinburne is a highly sophisticated and combative scholar. I shudder for any student or opponent of his who tried to clinch an argument with an ad hominem claim like that. But his own use of it gives me hope that he might yet show us more of his own humanity, and in the process offer us a more humane picture of God.

The Revd Anthony Freeman is a priest in the Church of England and managing editor, Journal of Consciousness Studies.

Providence and the Problem of Evil

Author - Richard Swinburne
ISBN - 0 19 823799 5 and 823798
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £ 35.00 and £ 14.99
Pages - 263

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