The physics complexities which conspire to make a suitable environment for living beings (and which are also necessary if any kind of life at all is to exist) unavoidably have instabilities and other negative consequences, such as supernovae, earthquakes, tornadoes, cancer and influenza, which are experienced by life as “natural disasters”.
In other words, a system that is sufficiently non-linear to support any form of life is bound to exhibit occasional extreme behaviours which are catastrophic so far as that life form is concerned. It is therefore pretty much inconceivable for life to exist in a perfectly idyllic situation, where all its needs are reliably supplied and its continuance is never threatened. The self-same non-linearities which allow and support life necessarily threaten and subvert it.
Some forms of pain are inescapable aspects of life. The very concept of animal life implies the destruction of other life (that is, food) in order to construct and preserve itself. Even plant life is competitive and strives against other plant life to obtain resources. Nature is “red in tooth and claw” not because Nature wants to be so, nor because God chose for Nature to be so, arbitrarily; but because there is no other way for Nature to give rise to life.
According to St Paul, the present state of affairs is to be seen as provisional. It is a temporary subjection of created being to the process of evolution, with the purpose of bringing sentient life to birth. The painful process of struggle is justified by the end in view, its teleological hope.
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God. For the creation was subjected
to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits
of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. [Rom 8 19-23 RSV]
The temporary distancing of the human soul from God which is characteristic of mortal life on Earth has a similar justification. It too is painful, it too has a resolution: in the Beatific Vision.
Still, it can be objected: “This is all very well, but surely a just and loving God would take great care to arrange that everything worked out well for His creatures. The fact that things are not ordered so that suffering is avoided, or at least minimised, shows that either God is not real or else is callous or impotent. There is no conceivable divine purpose which could possibly justify the sufferings of as many people as it is well known have suffered, due to human wickedness or natural disaster.”
The only adequate rebuttal of this objection is that it be somehow shown to be absurd. No other response could do justice to its gravity and significance. Showing that it is absurd would not lessen the moral force that lies behind the objection: for I take it to be patently obvious that the suffering – as also the wickedness – of humanity is of a character that is truly abominable. The only basis on which such abomination could be tolerated by a just and omnipotent God is that there is absolutely no alternative to it, other than the entire frustration of the very great purpose of Creation itself; which would then necessitate its non-existence.
Must God’s reality be obscure?
To this end, I first observe that if God acted to systematically prevent all natural disasters, their absence would eventually be noticed and become an overwhelming proof of continual and direct divine intervention. On the assumption that it is vital that the evidence for the reality of God’s being is morally avoidable, this is unacceptable. The occasional (or even frequent) miracle does not have this effect, for any finite number of miracles can always be accounted for as coincidences, delusional episodes, mass hysteria, freak events and simple good luck.
However, it is not at all vital that the evidence for the reality of God’s being should be insufficient to necessitate assent. While it can be argued with some sense that it is necessary that God’s precise purposes and intentions be somewhat obscure, the same cannot be said for the basic reality of God. In fact, the Bible is quite clear that the reality of God is pretty much obvious, and that it is hardly less apparent that God is good and just.
Next, I concede that it is possible to conceive of a world that is pretty much like our own, except for the fact that God regularly intervenes in it to prevent anything (serious) from going wrong. This conceivable world would be replete with miracles, of course, and none would be able to doubt that God was both real and beneficent: the empirical evidence would be overwhelming. This knowledge, however, wouldn’t force any-one to love or respect God. In fact it might cause some individuals to resent such divine nannying; and with justification, for the effect of such continual and regular divine interference would truly be catastrophic.
In stark terms it would deny the very possibility of “knowing good and evil”. It would have this effect because no matter what any human did, things would work out well for them; because of God’s all-enveloping providential intervention. Hence there would be no possibility of wrong-doing; because all acts would have good outcomes, and hence no acts could possibly be bad ones.
The idea of personal responsibility and the notion that actions have consequences and that some of these are wholesome and supportive of life while others are perverse and morbid would be negated. God’s miraculous intervention would underwrite all human choices so as to eviscerate them of any possibility of negative outcome, and hence of moral significance. No human being would ever be able to realise that some acts were prudent and others imprudent; because, in fact, there would be no difference between prudent and imprudent acts. The very virtue of prudence would be made a nonsense.
Although it is not true that “good requires evil in order to exist”, nevertheless for a moral agent to come to understand for themselves (rather than to be pre-programmed with the fact) that there are good actions and bad ones – and become able to distinguish between these, and grow in competence to evaluate and judge such matters – the real possibility of failure and of bad outcome is necessary. Otherwise, there is no possibility of “learning from one’s mistakes” and so coming to understand the difference between good and evil.
The mitigation of evil
Now it can be argued that God might still act so as to mitigate the harm resulting from human actions. God could have intervened to prevent quite so many Jews from being humiliated, from suffering and from being killed by the Nazi’s, for example. However, while it may seem obvious to us that God could have done more to ameliorate the extreme suffering of the Jewish people, as also the terrible suffering of many other individuals and groups; we should not be entirely confident of this, because we do not know the side-effects which would have resulted from further intervention.
Moreover, we do not know that God does not do a great deal to mitigate suffering. In particular, we do not have knowledge of a world in which God definitely did not intervene to mitigate the harm intended by Hitler and his collaborators. We only have experience of this world as it is, which incorporates whatever level of providential divine intervention is in fact actual. For all we know, without God’s providential intervention the entire Jewish race might have been killed. If this is the case, then the extent of God’s action to help the Jews and to alleviate their suffering was considerable – if to our eyes entirely obscure.
Furthermore, if God acted to “cap” the negative consequences of human acts (not bothering to mitigate minor bad consequences, so as to allow humanity to learn about good and evil in small matters, while preventing seriously malign effects) it would make minor acts of imprudence or hatred little different, as measured by the severity of their consequence, from heinous offences and so entirely distort the human perception of the relative seriousness of various vicious acts. No, if an accurate perception of what evil means is to be obtained, sadly, it is necessary for God to allow human wickedness to have indefinitely bad consequences in this world; though I suppose that God might screen us from the worst we might wreak by establishing a logarithmic relationship17 between the severity of the unmitigated consequences of every act and the severity of the actual consequences which providence allowed. For all that we know, this is exactly what God has done. Perhaps this is why the invention of the atom bomb has not, as yet, let to the annihilation of the human race.
A disincentive to learning
In a world where everything is down to God’s will, there is neither any possibility for human ethical maturity nor any motive for human initiative or effort; for everything is God’s act and negative consequences are of whatever magnitude God allows, according to whatever arcane criteria God might elect to apply. Moreover, in a world in which God routinely protected the innocent and ignorant from the consequences of their imprudent actions there would be a serious disincentive against getting involved in any ethical dilemmas – and also against learning anything whatsoever!
For example, as long as one didn’t know of the peril of living on the slope of a volcano, God would stop the volcano erupting – so as to protect the naïve and innocent; whereas if one did come to understand the threat and still, imprudently, persist in abiding in that danger, God would not do so – so as to enforce moral responsibility. Hence, as soon as one has a glimmer of this implication of knowledge, one should rationally avoid learning anything about the workings of the world and eschew all scientific and philosophical inquiry. Truly, ignorance would be bliss!
The subjunctive mode
For an understanding of “good and evil” it is necessary to have an idea of the subjunctive mode: the notion of “might have been, if only”. This allows the idea that what results is conditional on my action: that I am responsible for what happens: that my will is contributory to reality and that what I do matters, has significance and makes history. This isn’t quite the same as believing that “things could actually have worked out different,” but is the state of mind that understands that effects have causes and that outcomes are attributable to actions.
If God were to exercise an absolute sovereign will, so as to prevent all evil and suffering, the subjunctive would be a nonsense; for everything would then be God’s responsibility. Humans would be no more than the characters of an author’s plot, and impotent characters at that: plaster saints with sterile virtues, who do no wrong (not because they know what wickedness is and seek to avoid it, but because they have no idea of what good and evil are and in their naïvety do all manner of foolish and reckless things, but with no ill outcome) because God prevents them even from “dashing their foot against a stone.”