The man in Princeton asks his way to Columbia. “If I were you,” he is unhelpfully told, “I wouldn’t start from Princeton.” Alas, if Princeton is where you are, you don’t have that choice; you have to start from there willy-nilly. That is how it is with many problems, especially those of a philosophical sort. And so it is with the problem of evil: we must start where we are, in the thick of it.
Because we are in the thick of it, it can seem obvious that the starting point for the problem of evil cannot be God and God’s omnipotent goodness—Augustine’s starting point. No, the starting point must be with the manifest evil there is in the world, and with the problem of how a good God, who could prevent it, does not do so. This is the approach of the Scottish philosopher David Hume. When it is a matter of where to start in addressing the problem of evil, it seems that the boot is on the skeptical foot.
There are of course categorical, non-skeptical views on either side as to where discussion about God and evil ends. Namely, either that, in the face of evident evils, a theistic answer cannot meet the conditions of certainty and proof, and must therefore be rejected; or, the evils done by human free agency being unavoidable, their occurrence can be no evidence against the goodness and power of God. But if we leave aside these categorical solutions, it can seem as though evil is a problem of fact for belief in God. It can seem as if faith in God can never convincingly explain away the world’s evil, let alone justify it, so that it is from those evils that we must start. It was thus that in the late eighteenth century, David Hume formulated the classic statement of what we now call the “problem of evil.” And that has been where, more or less, everyone has started ever since. “Epicurus’s old questions are yet unanswered,” Hume writes in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. “Is [God] 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 is evil?”
But skepticism, or at least agnosticism, should be allowed to cut the other way too. For if Hume is right and there is no defense of theism that could demonstrate consistency between the facts of evil and the power and goodness of God, it is also worth asking whether we are any better placed to formally demonstrate inconsistency between them. Maybe the provable absence of such a demonstration is all that theism needs. As far as I can see, in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion Hume makes no categorical case to the effect that God and evil are formally inconsistent, and his Epicurean questions, though skeptical, should not be understood as establishing some sort of proof of atheism on their own. This is because the drift of Hume’s Dialogues is meant to show how it is impossible to settle those questions either way. That of course would not be a reason why we shouldn’t “start from there”—that is, skeptically. Far from it. It may even lend credibility to the proposition that we should do so, if only in a dialectical spirit and with a view to showing that the matter is unresolvable. Such a conclusion would at least cohere with the generally Pyrrhonian form of skepticism that Hume so often declared himself to favor: as he puts it (in the mouth of Philo, the most Humean of the dialogue partners in Dialogues) “a total suspense of judgment is our only reasonable resource.”
So in this article, I want to put forward the case for starting where Hume starts, but to go a little further than he does to argue that the reasons for doing so are not just tactical, apologetic, and dialectical, but ought to be accepted by theists too—and for good theological reasons of their own. At no point will I attempt to answer directly the question of how God could allow moral evil of any kind, let alone allow the extent of moral evil there is; we cannot prove any answer to that question one way or the other. In short, the matter is demonstrably undecidable—you can prove that you couldn’t know the answer to it. That is about as far as anyone, theist or atheist, can get with the problem of evil. To the question “How could an all good and all powerful God allow evil?”, the only answer is that it is impossible to say. And it is here that Julian of Norwich comes into the picture.
God and natural evil: Hume’s problem
How far may we go along with Hume? Every evil is a problem of some kind, if only the practical problem of how to cope with it. But I do not agree with Hume that every evil is a problem about God. For some evils we can take in our stride, there being no cause for theological, philosophical, or even moral alarm therein, even though they offend our sentiments. So we should start by taking the existence of such evils out of the debate.
For example: I know that others (including my wife) have different convictions than I do about the matter, but I have personally never had a theological problem with lions eating antelopes, though it is impossible not to feel sorry for the panicking beasts as they flee their predators in such wonderfully graceful leaps and bounds. Of course it is distressing that lions seem as unlikely as ever to get round to lying down with lambs, as Isaiah had hoped they would, but I cannot be troubled about God because they don’t. Lions lying down with lambs would of course be good news for lambs, but it would be terrible news for lions. Eating lambs goes with being a lion; being a lamb-eating machine is more or less what a lion is. And more generally nature seems to require a level of raw indifference in matters of tooth and claw. If there is to be variety and complexity in the natural world we know, including large carnivorous cats, the lambs, alas, are going to have to pay for it with their lives. “Did he who made the lamb make thee?” asks William Blake of the tiger burning bright. The question is rhetorical and the answer is yes: God did make tigers, and consistency would require of those who have a problem of this kind that they consider what alternative world they have in mind that doesn’t replace a problem for lambs being eaten with a problem for carnivores being starved for want of ovine nutrition.