Book on the Problem of Evil and Suffering

Peter Vardy, The Puzzle of Evil (HarperCollins 1992)

Back at the weekend I put up a piece about some of the books I’d read about God and religion, which might be useful to anyone wishing to explore these issues for themselves. This was in response to a request from Jo, one of the great commenters on this blog, who asked me a couple of questions about them. This is another book, which I think might help people with one of the most difficult problems in theology: the problem of evil. To put it simply, this is the question how a God, such as the one Jews, Christians and Muslims worship, who is wholly good and omnipotent, can allow evil and suffering. The counterargument frequently made is that as evil exists, God is either not all-powerful, or not good.

Peter Vardy is the lecturer in Philosophy of Religion at Heythrop College, University of London, and the book is written from a Christian perspective. It has the following chapters

Part 1 – The Problem of Evil

1. The Problem Stated
2 A God’s Eye View
3 the Free Will Defence
(i) The Free Will Defence Outlined
(ii) The nature of freedom
(iii) The utopia thesis
(iv) The FWD defended
4 Natural Evil
(I) The Devil and natural evil
(ii) Its this the best of all possible worlds?
(iii) Matter as evil
5 Is it all worth it?
6 Conclusion to the Problem of Evil

Part II – The Mystery of Evil
7 Introduction
8 The Euthyphro Problem
9 Albrecht Ritschl – Absolute Value Judgements
10 God Almighty
11 Can God Act in the World?
12 Animal Suffering and Physical Evil
13 Moral Evil – Job and Ivan
14 The Devil and All His Works
15 The Challenge of Freedom
16 Conclusion.

Vardy goes through and analyses and critiques arguments and attempted solutions to the problem of evil from Irenaeus, St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas to modern theologians and philosophers. He finds many of them inadequate, but in his conclusion fully asserts the Christian response to suffering. This is that meaning and purpose for human beings can only be found in the love and fellowship of God, that God does indeed act in the world and answer people’s prayers, but that such actions are rare and sparingly used, and that a world with less suffering could not have been created. This last is qualified with the statement that this is a matter of belief, and cannot be justified. He also states that there are forces of evil deep in the human psyche, and may be a real, independent force of evil outside of us. Which sounds very much like the Devil to me. However, that force cannot do more than persuade. It cannot take away human’s freedom. He also states ‘I am convinced that the power of evil is very real and that it needs to be fought both within us and in the world around us.’ On human free will, he states

Human beings are free to take responsibility for themselves as individuals, no matter what their circumstances, and to respond to God or not. I accept that the price for doing this will be high and that the road may be one that few will be willing to follow.

This last statement of what he considers should be the Christian attitude to evil concludes with

I accept that I could be wrong about all the above statements but am ready to stake my life on the “if” that I am right. I cannot do more. (pp. 203-4)

He also makes it very clear that Christians have a moral duty to fight evil. He writes

Augustine’s position, “I believe in order that I may understand”, rests on an opening judgement which cannot be proved, but once this is accepted then many things make sense which would not otherwise do so. The faith position is an altogether more positive and optimistic one than the assertion of meaninglessness. It maintains that although evil is a terrible reality 9it can be overcome and one of our main tasks as human individuals is to fight against it. Indeed the problem of evil is not at heart an intellectual one so much as an existential one – the presence of evil should call us to engage with it and to fight against it. As soon as we are overawed by evil’s power and allow it to have mastery we will cower beneath it in fear and trembling. We may have many excuses for doing this, we may hold that it is none of our business, or consider ourselves too weak or think that as we are not too badly affected it does not matter. Evil, however, spreads and unless it is combated its power will grow. We cannot stand idle and watch it increase – we have to face it now no matter how great the personal cost may be. Some may consider us foolish and certainly fighting evil wherever we find it (particularly in ourselves) can be a lonely and heartbreaking business. However the choice is simple: submit and be overcome or stand and fight and find freedom. This is a choice that needs to be lived out and so this book is, at the end of the day, a call to action. (Pp. 202-3)

Warning: in some places, this is not an easy book to read, as Vardy illustrates how pressing the problem is, and the terrible power of evil, with examples from ordinary life, such as the accidental death of children, to the sadistic acts of vile regimes. This includes the guards in the Nazi death camps throwing Jewish children alive into the quicklime that was used to destroy the bodies after death. He doesn’t dwell on these examples, but uses them to show that this is far more than an academic exercise.

On the other hand, he also uses the works of Tolstoy, and in particular The Brothers Karamazov, to explore the problem of evil, as well as the Book of Job in the Bible. Regarding the chapters on ‘natural’ and ‘moral’ evil, this is a distinction theologians and philosophers make between humans and the natural world. ‘Natural evil’ are disasters like earthquakes, plagues and so on, which bring terrible suffering, but the forces themselves don’t actually have free will. ‘Moral evil’ refers to humans, who do have free will, and are free to choose whether they pursue a particular course of action, or commit a crime or an atrocity, or not.

I’m very much aware that not all the readers of this blog are Christians by any means. I hope, however, that this might help those wishing to explore the problem of evil from the Christian tradition, and am aware that other religions have their own.

But I also hope that whatever our personal religious or philosophical views, we can all agree that, as human being, we do have freedom and a moral duty to fight evil and suffering.

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