Saturday, November 12, 2011

Book Review: Providence and the Problem of Evil by Richard Swinburne

“In order rationally to believe that there is a God, despite [evil], we need either strong positive evidence for the existence of God, or a record of discovering with respect to many apparent bad states that a theodicy works with respect to them, or a theodicy for each kind of bad state which seems to count against the existence of God.”1

The problem of evil is considered by many to be the greatest challenge to theism.2 Richard Swinburne offers a defense against this problem in his work Providence and the Problem of Evil.3

Swinburne first develops an account of goods within creation. His account includes beauty, actions, thoughts and feelings as various goods. Given the existence of God, he also argues that worship is a great good.4 Human freedom is necessary for many goods. With freedom, humans can bring about all types of great goods.5 The freedom of persons also allows for great evils. These goods are not just goods for people, but they are states which God would be expected to desire to bring about.6 By developing this account, he is able to turn towards various types of evils.

First, there are moral evils. Moral evils are essentially those bad states of affairs which persons bring about. Swinburne argues that some moral evil is going to be necessary, because it is simply a fact that there are good states of affairs which are logically incompatible.7 Second, there is natural evil—evils which occur without direct causation by persons.

These sections of the book are largely made up of background, yet Swinburne interweaves his theodicy into the chapters on evil. Central to Swinburne’s account is the idea that for every evil, there is some reason that it occurred. There is, in other words, no evil which is superfluous, no evil which is gratuitous. For every evil mentioned, Swinburne provides a possible reason for God’s allowing it to occur. What reasons could God have for allowing evils like the holocaust, or animal pain? Swinburne sums up his view concisely as follows:
“Every moral evil in the world is such that God allowing it to occur makes possible… the great good of a particular choice between good and bad… Every pain makes possible a courageous response... and normally the goods of compassion and sympathetic action… And all animal pain gives knowledge and opportunity for compassion to animals and humans if they know of it.”8
Swinburne’s view is that for every evil, there is a reason. The reason can be knowledge: when people (or animals) observe animals dying in forest fires, they learn to flee from the fires, and thus save themselves and others.9 Choice is a great good, but in having choices, people can choose to bring about great evils. Horrendous evils like the Holocaust are not just the result of choices in the present, but are the consequences of a long series of evil choices.10

Importantly, Swinburne also argues that God is under no obligation to make everyone’s life equally good. “[I]f [God] gives to some ten good things, and to others twenty good things, no one is wronged; nor has he failed to be perfectly good. He has been generous, and, more so, he has made it possible for us to be generous.”11 God’s providence is good to everyone. There is a level of inequality in the gifts received—but to any and all, gifts are given. The way people choose to use their gifts is what leads to extreme inequities.

Finally, Swinburne argues that God has the right to allow evil, largely due to the extreme dependence people have upon him.12 Not only that, but God has brought about a world in which every person has the possibility of the nearly infinite good of being with God forever. Thus, Swinburne concludes that God has provided people with a choice between the good and rejection of the good. The responsibility for that action is upon the person, not God.13

Throughout Swinburne’s account are several theses many readers may find implausible. He rejects original sin14 and denies that God knows the future free actions of creatures.15 These theological points do not undermine his main theses, however. It is undeniable that Swinburne has provided a lucid account of a “greater good theodicy.” He does provide possible reasons for allowing any type of evil to occur.

The key point of divergence with readers will be whether they are willing to accept these reasons in conjunction with his later conclusions. God has reasons for allowing every evil, and he provides for people to have extraordinarily good lives with the afterlife, but there remain those who will reject these goods. Swinburne’s account is cumulative: the reasons provided for allowing evils do not stand on their own. Rather, they stand together and in unison with God’s providence and direct goodness to all persons through maintaining the world, creating them, and providing them with choices.

Those interested in the problem of evil would do well to read Providence and the Problem of Evil.  Usage of the “greater good theodicy” is on the wane. Many theists today only provide versions of the “free will defense” in relation to the problem of evil. In doing so, they cast aside a powerful philosophical tool for theism. While the “greater good theodicy” will not convince everyone, it can at least provide a strong cumulative case when joined with other defenses against the problem of evil.

Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer J.W. Wartick is a graduate student in Christian Apologetics at Biola University. His greatest interest is philosophy of religion--particularly arguments for the existence of God and the polemics against atheism. He frequently writes on these topics (and others) at

1 Richard Swinburne, Providence and the Problem of Evil (New York, NY: Oxford, 1998), 29.
2 See Swinburne’s thoughts on this on pages 4ff.
3 He also believes that we have strong positive evidence for the existence of God, but he focuses upon theodicy in this work. See his The Existence of God for a case for the existence of God based on positive evidence.
4 111ff.
5 105-107.
6 45.
7 125.
8 217.
9 176ff.
10 151-152.
11 149.
12 223ff.
13 251.
14 36-41.
15 127ff.


Kyle Essary said...

Good review J.W. I have a couple questions:
1. It used to be not that Swinburne denied original sin, but specifically that he denied original guilt. He is Eastern Orthodox after all. Has his position changed?
2. Does he given any arguments to support libertarian freedom (which seems necessary on his account), or is that assumed throughout?
3. Does he do any biblical exegesis? Historically, this has been Swinburne's greatest flaw. He's usually strong on philosophy, and strong on those issues in systematic theology that overlap his philosophy, but weak on exegesis. Has he improved in this regard?

Patrick said...

Another concept that may be supportive of the idea that there is no gratuitous evil is God’s perfect justice. In the following I’m presenting a theodicy, called “Theodicy from divine justice”, based on this concept:

- God’s perfect justice prevents Him from relieving people with unforgiven sins from their sufferings (see Isaiah 59,1-2).
- Unlike God Christians are not perfectly just. Therefore, unlike God, they are in a position to help people with unforgiven sins. By doing this they may make those among them who haven’t yet accepted God’s salvation receptive of it (Matthew 5,16, 1 Peter 2,11-12, and 3,1-2), which in turn frees these persons from suffering in the afterlife.
- The greater God’s beneficial power due to His love, the greater God’s destructive power due to His justice (see Matthew 13,27-29). Striving to prevent as much suffering as possible God can only interfere to such a degree that the beneficial effect of the interference is not neutralized by the destructive effect of it.
- Someone who dies before he or she reaches the age of accountability, i.e. before he or she can distinguish between good and evil (see Genesis 2,16-17, Deuteronomy 1,39, and Isaiah 7,16) faces no punishment in the afterlife, as he or she would not have been able to commit sins. So, God may not be inclined to prevent such a person’s death.
- A person’s suffering in this life may have a redeeming effect (Luke 16,25) and consequently contribute to a decrease of the respective person’s suffering in the afterlife; the amount of suffering in this life is so to speak subtracted from the amount of suffering in the afterlife. So, God may not be inclined to relieve this person’s suffering.
- A person’s suffering in this life may make the person receptive of God’s salvation (Luke 15,11-21), which in turn frees this person from suffering in the afterlife.
- There are degrees of punishment in the afterlife depending on one’s moral behaviour (Matthew 16,27, 2 Corinthians 5,10), one’s knowledge of God’s will (Matthew 11,20-24, Luke 12,47-48), and, as mentioned before, one’s amount of suffering in this life (Luke 16,25).
- Those people who suffer more in this life than they deserve due to their way of life are compensated for it by receiving rewards in Heaven.

As for the concept of original sin and Swinburne’s view about it, the following link is very informative:

From the link: “Swinburne analysed what he calls “the full doctrine of original sin” and identified it as having three distinguishable components.
1) Humans are prone to sin, there is a kind of “original sinfulness” in human beings.
2) This proneness is the result of Adam’s fall.
3) The third is the doctrine of “original guilt,” Adam’s descendants are guilty of Adam’s sin and can be held accountable for this sin.
Swinburne notes these three components are logically distinct. It is possible to accept some of them and not others. In fact, the Eastern Orthodox tradition has an understanding of original sin, which rejects the notion of original guilt.”

Anonymous said...

@G. Kyle Essary-

Regarding 1, thank you for pointing out something really important. I come from a Lutheran background so when I say "original sin," embroiled in that concept is the concept of original guilt. Swinburne does not deny "the original sin" but he definitely rejects doctrines of guilt related to that sin. Thanks for helping me clarify that point.

Regarding 2-
Swinburne does little to argue that humans do, in fact, have free will. In fairness, this is the 4th book in a series (which don't need to be read in order by any means), and Swinburne argued extensively for free will in the first book, "Responsibility and Atonement."

Regarding 3-
Swinburne makes use of Scripture about as much as he does in the other books in this series--which is to say, not very much. His is definitely a work of analytic theology as opposed to systematics. In fairness to him, he does cite Scripture in many relevant places, but he does not elaborate on it.

Hope that answers your questions!

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