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The Table Video

William Hasker& Gregg Ten Elshof

Pastors, Philosophers, and Evil

Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, Huntington College
CCT Scholar-in-Residence and Executive Board Member / Professor of Philosophy, Biola University
February 7, 2013

William Hasker (Huntington College) distinguishes pastoral from philosophical versions of the problem of evil and offers thoughts on both.


You’ve done a lot of writing and thinking in the area of philosophical theology. You’ve thought deeply about the problem of evil and about God’s providence and his ability to know the future. Anybody who’s been bothered by evil and who believes in God presumably has been bothered by the fact that God knows that all of this awful stuff is gonna happen and yet he’s purposed to bring the world off in just the way that he does. How would you orient somebody who’s just beginning to think about these issues to that discussion?

Well, I think one thing that I think is probably important to understand at the beginning is the difference between the philosophical problem of evil and what might be termed the pastoral problem of evil. The pastoral problem of evil is something that hits most of us at one time or another and some people harder than others but when some serious tragedy has happened that affects us personally, some loved person has cancer or has died suddenly or all sorts of things can come in here, then it’s the problem for that, for such a person to feel hopefully some sense of comfort, some sense of encouragement and not to feel that they’re abandoned by God and so on. And that’s a very deeply personal problem, it’s a problem that ministers have to and counselors have to cope with that hopefully one can ask for the help of the Holy Spirit in one’s own life and in other people’s life. What philosophy can do at that point is pretty limited. I mean, a person’s who’s trial has just started does not want to hear a treatise on the problem of evil, right?

And so, I think we certainly have to respect that and not go as philosophers go, charging in at a situation where we may do more harm than good. But there’s also a philosophical problem of evil and that is the intellectual problem of how can we understand the fact that there is so much evil in our world that is created and governed by we believe a loving God and how is it that those people aren’t right and certainly there are many of them who just quickly dismiss the whole idea that God could be in control of the world on the basis of the world’s people. Do they have cogent, compelling reasons behind their feeling, well, there just can’t be this kind of God when there’s so much evil in the world and that I think Christian philosophers can address and we need to address. It takes more than a few minutes as you know. Yeah. I think one thing that’s important here is that we not begin by claiming too much. A famous example of this in history was the philosopher Leibniz who has you know promulgated the idea that this is the best of all possible worlds. God who is wise and good has made the world and he would not have made it less good than it could possibly be so since God has chosen to make the world like this, and not some other way, this must be the best possible world. He was very sincere in this I’m sure. But it sets you up for a pretty devastating rebuttable and in history, well, one thing that sort of tripped things up was the great Lisbon earthquake that resulted in the deaths and devastation for that city in Europe and in aftermath of that Voltaire, the skeptical philosopher Voltaire wrote his little novel “Candide” in which you have a group of people who are traveling around and meeting one inconceivable disaster after another but one of their group is the philosopher, Dr. Pangloss, obviously representing Leibniz who in each case carefully explains how if this terrible thing had not happened something else much, much worse would have happened instead and so, he’s able to reconcile all of these incredible disasters with the idea that this world is as good as it could possibly be. This is not a good way to go. It’s not a plausible thing to claim and I think it makes the task, I mean, if you could really believe it, I suppose it might be somewhat comforting but the task of justifying that claim is I think insurmountable.

But another claim that some people do defend even today is that every thing bad that happens to a person, any kind of suffering possibly excepting suffering that is the punishment that they deserve because of something they’ve done but any innocent suffering as we say is something that is beneficial for that person. That’s not quite as extreme as saying that this is the best world that there could possibly be but it’s still pretty tough to defend. Think of cases, Hurricane Sandy or the tsunami in Japan, cases where suddenly in a very short period of time with little or no warning, certainly in the case of the tsunami, vast numbers of people are killed or seriously harmed, maybe virtually every person in a particular area. It strains your credulity I think to think that every individual in a group like that was in such a state that he or she would be benefited by that sort of devastation coming to them. This is really hard to believe and if it’s true of all those people, then perhaps it’s true of all of us. And of course with death as part of the picture there, that it might be that almost all of us at almost any time are in such a state that we would be benefited if were to die instantly. Nobody believes this, right? It’s really not and there are just too many situations where it seems that people are suffering and it really does make their life less good and while okay, sometimes there may be some hidden reason why it truly ends up being beneficial, it’s very hard to believe that this is always the case. So, again, and I’m not saying these things to be negative, I’m saying it to make the point that we shouldn’t begin in discussing this problem of evil by making a claim that is too strong and too optimistic and ends up being too hard to defend because that ends up discrediting our belief instead of affirming it.