22 January, 2010

More on the connection between evil, sin , grace and the Haitian earthquake

Fr. Michael Smith, a former philosophy professor and current pastor in Temiscaming, Qc (my next-door-neighbor... even though he's almost 60 miles distant) has offered the following  in response to my previous post on Epicurus' dilemma on the existence of evil. I thank Fr. Mike for the kindness of his response and trust that it might serve to prompt further comment on this subject. The italicized (not) is my addition to his message as I believe that it was omitted in error when he sent me his post.

I include my response to him at the end of his post.

I have read your appeal for help with the problem of evil. The whole argument is subject to a number of limitations:

1. If one grants, as Augustine does, that God would not permit evil unless a proportionate good could come out of it, the problem is that we have such limited knowledge that we cannot possibly know what good can come from some forms of evil (e.g., the Holocaust). Quite bluntly, we do not know why the earthquake occurred in Haiti, other than the natural causes at work (tectonic plates moving).
One thing is clear: Augustine’s argument does not mean that God uses evil as a means to an end.

2. If one grants the argument that a world where there is free choice, but moral evil, is better than a world where we are all good, but programmed to be so, this has nothing to say about natural evils such as earthquakes.

3. Another thing is clear: This life on earth does (not) give us any guarantees of safety from accidents, tragedies, and natural disasters. Miracles exist, but they are exceptional.

4. No explanation of evil could ever come to the point of a scenario where evil fits perfectly into the picture. As radical nonbeing, evil is that which, in principle, does not fit in.

5. To paraphrase Albert Nolan, to believe in God means to believe that good will ultimately triumph over evil. The problem, for each individual, is this: Given my necessarily limited knowledge of the grand scheme of things, can I trust God? Each of us spends his or her life living out the answer.



With regards to your 2nd point, can we not say that creation suffers from the imperfection of sin (Romans 8:22) and that such events as an earthquake is a manifestation of this imperfection? After all, when creation is renewed with the coming of Christ at the end of time, could we still expect that this new existence will still be prone to such events? If we can assume that there will not be earthquakes etc. in the renewed world, is it also not logical that we could find what exists (or is lacking) now which would explain the existence of natural disasters?

Further, if can conclude that what is different is the presence of sin, and if I can say that sin is a direct result of  the misuse of the gift of free will, can it not be said that then that it is sin which is responsible for the death and suffering of an earthquake?

Perhaps I am using at least one of my terms in an analogous fashion for I am tying this entire schema into our Catholic understanding of the preternatural gifts (with its perfect understanding of death as a normal phase of life by which we leave time and enter into eternity), gifts that were lost to us via the "original" sin.

I does seem to me that the key to comprehending of all of this is to understand "free will" as the penultimate gift of God - the freedom God gave us to chose Him (presence of God = grace) or not to (privation of God = evil).


  1. Bravo to you both

    Michael Brandon

  2. Fr. Michael Smith22 January, 2010

    Yes, I had forgotten the word "not". Thanks for the correction.

    With regard to your questions, I have trouble seeing how natural disasters have to do with sin, and hence free choice.

    Here is an alternative account: We are at least partly physical beings in a physical world. As such, we are limited, and so is the world. All living things die. Sentient beings experience pain, for reasons I don't need to mention here.

    Either the world of living things, destined for death, is redeemed, or it is not. If the world is redeemed, then we have at least the possibility of passing through suffering and death to the fullness of life. If the world is not redeemed, then everyone is heading toward nothingness in short order.

    Atheists will claim that the act of faith (that there is redemption) is not predicated on absolute certainty, yet the apparent certainty by which the atheist says, "There is no God", is just as much of a leap, and a choice, as the decision to believe in God. Each side of the debate can rightly ask the other, "What makes you so sure?".

    Each believer has a different set of personal reasons for believing in God. Without spelling out each argument premise by premise, here are my reasons:

    1. There are various spiritual experiences that I have had, and that I will not try to describe. I admit that such experiences are not publicly verifiable.

    2. I never cease to be in awe of the beauty of the universe, and more specifically the beauty of nature, and even more specifically the beauty of people. When I ask what the source of this beauty is, it makes more sense to me to affirm that God is the source than to say that all this beauty is uncaused or self-caused.
    The ugliness of evil scandalizes us precisely because it is a glaring exception. If we lived in a universe where beauty and goodness were the excepton, evil would not surprise or scandalize us.

    3. By extension, it makes more sense to me to affirm that God is the origin of all beings than to affirm that all beings are uncaused or self-casused. That there is anything at all, rather than nothing, calls for an explanation. I have yet to hear a better explanation than limitless being (God).

    Obviously, these reasons do not give knock-down evidence that God exists. They merely show that the decision to believe is a reasonable choice. If one believes, in other words, one is neither stupid nor superstitious nor absurd. The same is true of those who choose not to believe. I believe that nonbelievers' position is false, but that it is not a contradiction in terms. The nonexistence of God is a false belief (yes, belief), but it is not inconceivable. If it were, the idea of debating the topic would not enter our heads. Nonbelievers would also admit that the existence of God is not inconceivable, otherwise there would likewise be no debate.

    My purpose in making these points is not to convince anyone (because that is not how faith comes about), but rather to help people who might be struggling with obstacles to faith.

  3. Hi Tim and Michael,

    Thank you for your responses.

    I am pleased to see that Michael agrees with my view that natural disasters have nothing to say about human sin or free will.

    Michael seems to hint that some good may result from the apparent evil around us. He hints that our intellects may be too limited to perceive these goods.

    This is just a variation on the theists’ tired old claim that we cannot know the mind of god and that we must be satisfied to accept god’s mysterious plan of pain and suffering for us.

    I think Michael recognizes the unsatisfying nature of this claim, because he goes on to justify his own beliefs as having some basis in a personal or subjective experience. Subjective experiences are all well and fine, but they in no way explain, or fully compensate for the hiddeness and absence of god in the real world.

    If god’s love and justice are to be meaningful to, and recognized by us human beings, then this love and justice must in some way resemble human love and justice. This is not an unreasonable expectation since Genesis teaches us that we humans are made in god’s own image. When we look at the natural world around us we see nothing that resembles human love and justice. In fact, we often see the innocent punished and the wicked held blameless – the very antithesis of any notion of love or justice.

    What we see in the natural world is exactly what we would expect to see if god did not exist, or if god was totally indifferent to human suffering.

    If believers are to be treated no differently than infidels, then why does the church teach its children about the importance of intercessory prayer? Why does the church teach her children to look for miracles to verify the saintliness of those who have predeceased us?

    While in the seminary, we were often told not to fret about having doubts. We were told that this was normal and to be expected. What I realized much later is that we never encouraged to do anything about our doubts except to repress them. Doubts should not be ignored. One must use them as an impetus to learn about the world and to fearlessly follow the truth wherever it leads us.

    Faith, however, is the noise used to distract and drown out our doubts. It is the collective murmur we must immerse ourselves in so that gnawing and troubling doubts are kept at bay. Faith does not lead us to truth – faith only leads us to comfortable answers. It tells us what we have already decided to be true. Faith is comfortable, easy, lazy, and ultimately unsubstantiated.

    Unhappily, I see no marriage possible between reason and faith.


  4. Martin: You are unfair in your assessment of Mike's position. He expressly states that God does not use evil to bring about good. You imply the opposite and this is not accurate.

    As to rest of your comments to Mike, I leave it to him to respond if he wishes. I know he frequently these pages often and will no doubt see your response.

    Hope the weather is better where you are than here at my Quebec cottage. Here it's wet and slippery everywhere. Hopefully you are suffering the same.


  5. Fr. Michael Smith26 January, 2010


    I agree that our life on earth is unfair.

    May I make a few suggestions?

    -How about this thought experiement: Look at the life of Jesus as a microcosm of the human predicament (an unusual angle, but bear with me). Life was not fair to him. He made few disciples during his public ministry, and he was rejected by powerful people. He was condemned to death, and suffered a horrible, humiliating death. Gospel writers have him quoting the first words of Psalm 22: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" It would seem, Martin, that the Scriptures anticipate your complaint. But did the Father really forsake Jesus?

    -In practical terms, faith involves trust. Is trust really easy, or comfortable, or lazy? It is none of the above. It boils down to trusting what we do not see, and what our minds cannot--ever--wrap themselves around, and to trust that all will ultimately be well. Is that so easy?

    -Our concepts of God must repeatedly be distinguished from the reality. When we humans speak about God, we often imply that God is much like a human being, only bigger, perhaps stronger, but invisible. Who can blame us for thinking this way? Humanity is what we know best of all. Here is another way of looking at it: When I say "God", I don't have a definition in mind. I don't mean "a" being, but that which is at the origin of all being--including love, consciousness, goodness, wisdom, etc., etc. I do not know and cannot know WHAT God is, but I believe THAT God is. I can love God BECAUSE God is, and because God is God. Because of God, we are NOT headed toward destruction; good will triumph over evil; love will triumph over hatred; life will triumph over death.

    You will readily agree that there are times when this is not easy to believe.


  6. Hi Mike,

    I was too hasty in my rhetoric when I wrote that all faith is comfortable, easy and lazy. Upon further reflection, I should have said that some types of faith are comfortable, easy and lazy.

    I have to be honest, for thinking men such as yourself, faith must be incredibly hard work. I do not envy the struggle it must be to maintain such faith in the face of reality.

    You and Tim are great guys. I respect the fact that you get up every day and try to do the best that you can. I really believe guys like you try to make the world a better place than how you found it. Having said that, it is just unfortunate that so much of your energy is diverted to maintaining a faith that is so conflicted with reason.

    Nevertheless...I thank you for the civil exchange of views, and I sincerely wish you well in both of your ministries.

    I may drop by Tim's blog from time to time to say hello. In the meantime - take care.

    Best regards...Martin

  7. Fr. Michael Smith26 January, 2010


    Thank you for the compliment to me as a person, but I can’t let you go with the suggestion that faith is opposed to reality. Let’s define reality as “that which exists independently of the mind”, leaving open the question of whether that reality needs to be observable and measurable in order to be recognized as real.

    The evils you have catalogued are part of reality, but so is much goodness, which ought not to be given short shrift. As a believer, I also hold that God exists independently of my mind, or your mind, or anyone else’s mind. If faith is sometimes difficult, it is due to my ignorance and insufficient understanding, and not that I am clinging to something at odds with reality.

    At the same time, as I grow older, I am becoming more and more at peace with not knowing an answer to a question. Once one has done one’s best to bump up against the limits of understanding, there is no lack of integrity in honestly answering, “I don’t know”, and acknowledging that there is an infinity beyond the limits of one’s mind.

    Peace, Martin!



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