Thinking About Evil (1)

As part of my graduate work I spend a lot of time thinking about evil. It’s a big topic and it can sometimes seem pretty vague and abstract. Especially when its reflected in Christian circles in the classic formula.

1. There exist states of affairs in which animals die agonizing deaths in forest fires, or where children undergo lingering suffering and eventual death due to cancer, and that (a) are intrinsically bad or undesirable, and (b) are such that any omnipotent person has the power to prevent them without thereby either allowing an equal or greater evil, or preventing an equal or greater good.

2. For any state of affairs (that is actual), the existence of that state of affairs is not prevented by anyone.

3. For any state of affairs, and any person, if the state of affairs is intrinsically bad, and the person has the power to prevent that state of affairs without thereby either allowing an equal or greater evil, or preventing an equal or greater good, but does not do so, then that person is not both omniscient and morally perfect.

Therefore, from (1), (2), and (3):

  1. There is no omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect person.
  2. If God exists, then he is an omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect person.


6. God does not exist.

Taken from The Problem of Evil, which can be found here.

This deductively solid argument is often taken up as an example why God can’t exist and different philosophers and theologians argue over it. Its important but what I tend to be more interested in is the existential sense that evil exists and the affect that it has on how we make sense of the world.  Particularly how Christian’s make sense of suffering and evil and relate it to a good God.

Susan Neiman’s book, Evil in Modern Thought is a useful example of the second type. She argues that the existence of evil is actual the spur that drives most of modern philosophy, and by extension modern political thinking as well (particularly Marxist). It is not merely an abstract book, but attempts to grasp the meaning of significant events–the 1755 Earthquake of Lisbon and Auschwitz–in order to understand how these events seemed to call into question the intelligibility of the world. The question of evil thus stands at a nexus between the rational and the real, between morality and the intelligibility of the world.

The 1755 Lisbon earthquake has been largely forgotten, but the horror that it evoked shook European’s grip. The horrifying and fascinating event has shaped much of our modern world, and particularly our understanding of evil. It was almost the perfect chain reaction of disasters, which would be too outlandish to fit into a movie plot.

The Great Lisbon Earthquake occurred on November 1, 1755, All Saints Day. The estimated 8.5 – 9 scale earthquake lasted between three and eight minutes. Worshippers and those at home rushed to the port area so they would not be crushed by falling buildings and watched the sea recede. This ominous sign was followed by a three Tsunami waves which rushed up the Targus river.

What was particularly problematic was the timing of the earthquake with the All Saints Feast day. The candles that had been lit throughout the city were knocked down and a firestorm throughout the city raged for hours, asphyxiating people up to a 100 feet from the flames.

It was estimated that 30,000 to 50,000 people lost their lives and up to four-fifths of Lisbon’s buildings were destroyed, either by the initial quake or the ensuing firestorm. Philosophers such as Rousseau, Voltaire and Kant were shaped by this event, and their engagement with evil changed the way people thought about evil.

I have to admit that it seems like a very strange event to get worked up about. There have been many natural events in my lifetime, such as the 2004 Tsunami,  which have been far more devastating. As horrible as these events are, they do not seem to shake us in quite the same way. This however is the point. It demonstrates how differently early Europeans–even philosophers and proto-scientists thought about the world.

The most critical difference between our moment and the reaction of Lisbon was the connection between natural and moral evil. Almost everyone (“almost”) in the 18th century assumed a causal connection between natural evil and moral evil, natural evil were present to punish moral evil. It was an assumption that we do not share.

Yet one could imagine the challenge of Lisbon to such an assumption. On a pious feast day Lisbon’s moral evil was punished by God by a terrible natural event. But why on All-Saints Day? What could it possibly mean that the very celebration of All-Saints Days was the occasion for such a moral judgment? People gathered from all over Portugal to celebrate in Lisbon. Pious worshipper’s use of candles actually inflicted more pain and suffering on the worshippers who lit the candles.

A primary consequence was the largely severing of the connection between natural and moral evil as a mark of divine punishment. Rousseau retained much of the Christian history of the fall but naturalized it. Evil had a history, it exists and could be explained as the outworking of historical processes. For Rousseau theodicy was no longer a question that interested him–it was an assumption that the world was good and that human beings could learn to live within a good world with proper education and understanding.

It Lisbon was the beginning of a modern conception of evil, Neimann argues that Auschwitz brought about its end. She is helpful in that she explains a question which is perplexing to me: “Why do so many Christians not grasp Auschwitz as a significant challenge to the goodness of God, especially compared to many others within the West?”

Perhaps Auschwitz struck the modern philosophers so hard because of how they responded to events in Lisbon, and the resultant changes in the way they thought about evil, humanity and the world we live in, but that’s for the next article.

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