The problem of evil is a perennially baffling intellectual puzzle that has generated countless monographs, articles, and anthologies. It would be a grave oversight to dismiss these debates as academic exercises far removed from the real concerns of life and faith, because, as John Stackhouse, Jr. indicates in his title, what is at stake religiously and existentially is whether or not God can be trusted. Suffering and senseless tragedy raise the possibility that faith in a good God is a profoundly misguided thing, ultimately to be mocked by the harsh realities of life.
Though philosophically informed, Stackhouse’s project has a pastoral objective as well. He wants readers to engage these issues rationally before they have to face them emotionally. To accomplish this, he summarizes and reports on some of the best recent philosophical and theological literature on the problem of evil, stressing its practical implications. The first part of the book spells out the problems posed by evil in its various dimensions, while the second offers responses to these problems.
The classic form of the problem as formulated by skeptics such as David Hume is that there is a tension, if not contradiction, in believing both that there is a God who is all powerful and perfectly good, and that there is evil. For if God is both omnipotent and perfectly benevolent, then it seems He both could and would eliminate evil. The effort to justify God in the face of evil is the great project of theodicy.
As Stackhouse points out, the problem takes different shapes in different religions and worldviews. In some of these, the problem, at least as classically construed, disappears. Some definitions of God, for instance, dissolve the logical problem by denying either His perfect goodness or supreme power. Certain modern philosophies refrain from making any claims about the way things ought to be, reducing both good and evil to little more than matters of personal preference.
Traditional theists, whether Jewish, Christian, or Muslim, cannot evade the problem so simply, however. Their strong claims about the nature of God, along with their belief that good and evil are not matters of mere subjective preference, give the problem its distinctively sharp edge. Ironically, the stronger the claims advanced about God, the sharper the problem becomes.
Stackhouse begins his responses to the various “problems of evil” by looking at such matters as the crucial role of the afterlife in the Christian account of evil, and at the whole question of whether evil can be a means towards the good. As Stackhouse recognizes, the latter is a deeply ambivalent matter—although evil can serve as a means to character growth and development, it often also leads to even worse evils. As he puts it: “Grief can remind one of ultimate questions, but it can also dispose the heart to listen to the worst possible answers.”
Stackhouse asks whether this world, despite its numerous evils, might not be a good world after all. Clearly our world does not now embody shalom, the comprehensive wholeness in human relationships, both with God and with each other, that the great theistic religions affirm as the end for which the world was created. Just as clearly, we need to change before shalom could be realized. Although God created us to love Him and each other, we have chosen otherwise and have corrupted ourselves and our relationships.
Stackhouse explores this theme by summarizing one of the most celebrated pieces in contemporary philosophy of religion, namely, Alvin Plantinga’s Free Will Defense. The heart of Plantinga’s famous work is that it is possible, given free will, that God could not have created a world containing moral good but no moral evil. Plantinga has always been careful to stress that he was not proposing a theodicy, that is, an actual explanation of why God allows evil. His Defense has the more modest goal of showing that theism can be saved from the charge of internal contradiction advanced by those who maintain that a perfectly powerful and good God could surely create a world without evil.
Stackhouse ventures beyond the relatively safe world of this defense by pushing the free will theme in the direction of theodicy. The result is a free will theodicy with an Irenaean or “soul making” twist. The Irenaean theodicy, named after the Church Father and recently popularized by John Hick, sees our world as an arena of “soul making,” that is, a place where free but immature creatures can grow up into moral and spiritual maturity. As Stackhouse puts it: “A good world would be a kind of boot camp or training center—an obstacle course, and encounter group, and extended family, and pilgrim community all at once. It would challenge us every day, from every angle, to grow up—and would do so without allowing us to be so crushed by evil that we could not possibly complete the regimen.”
All of this sets the stage for the heart of the book, a chapter entitled “The Fork in the Road.” Recognizing that his arguments for a good God are far from conclusive, Stackhouse raises the question of whether there are “any more substantial grounds upon which to base one’s faith.” There are, he suggests, two options. The first is that God could provide us with a complete theodicy, that is, a detailed explanation of every evil we ever encounter. Stackhouse doubts whether our intellects could grasp such a theodicy—supposing God were disposed to give it to us—and he argues this point by way of a helpful discussion of the story of Job.
Nonetheless, Stackhouse says, if God calls us to trust Him, and such trust is not to be a matter of blind or arbitrary faith, it is necessary that God provide us “with some other intellectually satisfying grounds.” This leads Stackhouse to a broad- ranging discussion of “sufficient warrant” for Christian belief. Noting that even Christian philosophers rarely discuss Jesus Christ and appear to reduce the theodicy debate to the generic alternatives of theism or atheism, Stackhouse wonders how this difficult problem “might be affected by bringing Jesus squarely into the picture.”
Quite profoundly, it seems. For a start, this moves us immediately beyond generic theism into the rich and complex world of Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, and Resurrection. Stackhouse demonstrates this by sketching the Christian story of things from creation and fall to redemption and eschatology. He shows that Christianity provides a compelling picture of our world and human existence that can account plausibly for the origin and nature of evil and offer hope for its ultimate resolution and defeat. He argues that intimacy with Christ provides satisfactory answers to both the religious and existential dimensions of the problem of evil. For instance: “Yes, God can seem remote and impassive when we read about a tragedy in the newspaper or experience suffering ourselves—but can we imagine Jesus Christ not near and caring, not doing all he can and should to help, however mysterious that help might be to us? We can respond properly to evil in our lives because we know that God is all- good and all- powerful because we know Jesus.”
At times Stackhouse’s argument takes on an evangelistic tone. Thus he can say: “I don’t want to give up Jesus. And I don’t want you to miss him, either.” Some may see this as inappropriate in a scholarly book, even one that aims at a more popular audience. I would argue, however, that such material is simply a matter of coming to grips with the truth claims that are the subject matter of the book. As Stackhouse observes, for example, anyone who wants to confront Christianity seriously must decide whether or not he believes the Resurrection actually occurred. Either way, enormous ramifications are involved.
There are a few criticisms worth noting. In the first place, Stackhouse appeals to the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination to illustrate the point that sometimes believers must learn to trust in the face of mysteries they cannot understand. He does not commit himself to the doctrine and apparently does not believe it, given his view of free will, but he does see it as a useful example of the nature of religious trust. As he notes, both Calvin and Luther had difficulty with the doctrine that God unconditionally elected some but not others to salvation, yet both believed it because they were convinced Scripture taught it. The problem for trust in this case is that nothing can compensate for the unrelieved evil and misery of eternal damnation. There is always consolation amidst the evils of this life, no matter how severe, if one affirms an eternity that can bring healing and resolution. But if God himself unconditionally consigns persons to eternal misery—persons He could just as easily save—there is no conceivable way for such an evil to be rectified. To believe God could be good despite such unconditional election requires an act of blind faith, not a good model for the rational trust Stackhouse wants to commend.
Similarly, it is unclear how to square his claim that “evil can have no lasting place in God’s creation” with his affirmation of the possibility of eternal damnation, which, as he concedes, entails “that some evil cannot be reclaimed, that some losses can never be recouped, that some evil remains just evil.”
Also, Stackhouse overstates the case when he claims, in his discussion of the nature of faith, that we cannot know anything certainly. No doubt Cartesian certainty eludes us on most of our beliefs and much of what we know cannot be proven to everyone’s satisfaction. But as Plantinga has argued at length, it does not follow that we cannot know many things and be reasonably assured of them.
Finally, Stackhouse’s careful avoidance of all masculine pronouns for God results in several notably inelegant passages. In any case, this is not simply a matter of style; it raises theological questions. Does Stackhouse believe we can depart from traditional language on this matter without significant loss? Might the traditional pronouns for God consistently employed in revelation involve more than patriarchal custom, even if we cannot be altogether sure what that is? Perhaps more humble trust in the given language of revelation would be appropriate at this point.
None of this detracts significantly from the value of this book. Stackhouse has succeeded admirably in producing a broadly accessible work that is religiously sensitive and offers for the reader a reasonable argument that it is rational to trust God even in the glaring face of evil.
Jerry L. Walls is Professor of the Philosophy of Religion at Asbury Theological Seminary.