God, Suffering, and Evil
Gonzaga Socratic Club, Friday,
February 11, 2005
(remarks will be posted as they become available)
Introduction: David Calhoun, Philosophy
Remarks by Michael Cook, S.J., Religious Studies
Remarks by Eric Kincanon, Physics
Remarks by Michael Stebbins, Ethics Institute
Remarks by Michael Tkacz, Philosophy
God, Suffering, and Evil—An Introduction
David H. Calhoun
Not long ago, people across the world were riveted by dramatic stories
and images of the human toll of a cataclysmic earthquake and ensuing
tsunami. The shattering of a quiet Sunday morning by the violence
of nature was a stark reminder of the fragility of human life.
The questions posed by the disaster were especially compelling for
religious people, many of whom found it difficult to reconcile the
scope of death and suffering with the idea of a benevolent God.
I’m speaking, of course, of the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, which
occurred about 9:30 AM on All Saints Day, November 1. Many of the
casualties resulted from the collapse of buildings, including churches
where the faithful were gathered for worship. Those who survived
the initial tremor then faced wildfires that raged through the city’s
core. Some of those fleeing the fires and rubble-blocked streets
boarded boats on the Tagus River, where they were swamped when the
tsunami roared up the river. The death toll was estimated at
60,000 in the Lisbon area alone, though the effects of the earthquake
and flooding caused deaths and injuries across the southwestern coast
of Europe and even as far south as North Africa.
The Lisbon Earthquake was something of a watershed for theological
reflection in Christian Europe. Some Christians suggested that
the disaster was the retribution of a righteous God against the
sinfulness of Lisbon, but it is hard to see how Lisbon was
qualitatively more sinful than other areas of Europe at the time.
One critical effect of the Earthquake was to challenge the common view,
often associated with Leibniz, that the universe is optimally designed,
the “best of all possible worlds.” Some found this view
impossible to maintain in the face of suffering and death on the scale
of the Lisbon Earthquake, particularly in the details of a disaster
that seemed especially to target believers on a Sunday morning gathered
for worship and that hounded those who survived the first round of
disaster by fire and then flood. Most famously, Voltaire made the
devastation of the Lisbon Earthquake a key part of the argument of his
satirical novel Candide, which mercilessly ridicules the idea that such
an event could be part of a universe optimally designed by a benevolent
Just under 250 years later, people around the world were riveted by
mass media images of the aftermath of the tsunami that ravaged the
coastlines of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and other parts of South
Asia on Sunday, December 26, 2004. While reports in the media
occasionally used biblical metaphors to explain the scope of
destruction (as did the Washington Post’s Michael Dobbins in a
first-person report from Sri Lanka published the day after the
tsunami), many treatments in the popular press turned rather quickly to
the same questions as those raised by the Lisbon Earthquake. How
should people think of tragedy on such a scale, with deaths now
estimated in excess of 150,000? How might religious believers in
particular reconcile their theology with the images of devastation and
stories of great loss and suffering to the victims? Prominent
examples of reflections on these questions could be found across the
range of popular media, from New York Times columnist William Safire to
analysis articles in the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal.
As with the Lisbon Earthquake, some suggested (this time around in the
context of religious pluralism) that the Tsunami was divine punishment
for some human failure: the continued infighting among Muslims in Aceh
Province in Indonesia, insufficient religious devotion among Hindus and
Buddhists in the area, or the presence of unbelieving and morally lax
Europeans at holiday time on South Asian beaches. As with the
attempts to blame the Lisbon Earthquake on sinful inhabitants of
Lisbon, such arguments are likely to appeal only to a small group of
The problem of evil—the difficulty of reconciling the undeniable
reality of evil with theological claims of a powerful and benevolent
God—is a perennial issue for theists. There is evil and suffering
enough in everyday life: crime, violence, poverty, hunger,
disease. At the same time, it is doubtless true that evil and
suffering on a massive scale, such as world war, genocide, or the sorts
of natural disasters exemplified by the Lisbon Earthquake and South
Asian Tsunami, offer a significant opportunity to think about the
nature of evil and suffering, and to assess, in a clear-eyed and
reflective way, the role of evil in the world we know. Thus this
The Scots philosopher David Hume, did not, to my knowledge, ever in his
writings mention the Lisbon Earthquake. However, he worked on his
Dialogues on Natural Religion on and off from about 1750 until his
death in 1776. There is little doubt that the Lisbon Earthquake
shaped his thinking about theism and the problem of evil. In
explaining the problem, Hume borrows from the ancient philosopher
Epicurus: “Epicurus’ old questions are yet unanswered. Is he
[God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? then he is
impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then he is
malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?”
Some theodicies (attempts to justify or defend God against the problem
of evil) respond to Hume’s trilemma directly by denying that God is
omniscient or omnibenevolent or by denying that evil is real.
Others grant the reality of evil but try to defuse the argument by
suggesting that God has reasons for allowing evil to exist, for example
as a necessary correlate to human free agency or as a tool for the
spiritual development of human beings. There are advantages and
disadvantages to all of these approaches. Let’s see what our
panelists have to say about this matter.
“1755 Lisbon Earthquake.” The Earthquake Museum.
Broadway,Bill. “Divining a Reason for Devastation.”
Washington Post, Saturday, January 8, 2005, B09.
Dobbs, Michael. “It Seemed Like a Scene From the Bible.”
Washington Post, Monday, December 27, 2004, A01.
Hume, David. Dialogues on Natural Religion. Ed. Richard H.
Popkin. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1980.
Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI). “Tsunami Reactions
(3) - Saudi Professor Sheik Fawzan Fawzan: Allah Punishes Homosexuality
and Fornication at Christmas.” Middle East Media Research
Institute TV Project, 12/31/04, Clip #459.
Kozak, Jan T., and Charles D. James. “Historical Depictions of
the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake.” National Information Service for
Earthquake Engineering, University of California, Berkeley.
Safire, William. “Where Was God?” New York Times, Monday,
January 10, 2005, A19.
Michael W. Tkacz
A French journalist once asked Mother Theresa why certain people are
destined to suffer so much. Why, she asked, do I not suffer as do
those desperately poor and sick people with whom you work? Now,
the journalist later admitted that she was fishing for a political
answer: she wanted Mother Theresa to say something like "because
people living in wealthy countries do not care" or "because governments
are not responsible enough." What Mother Theresa actually said,
however, was "perhaps you do not suffer as they do because you are not
worthy enough." Needless to say, the journalist was left rather
To say that Mother Theresa's point of view is not one well understood
today is certainly an understatement. The reason why is suggested
in Dr. Calhoun's comment that the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 was a
watershed for Christian theological reflection. Why should it
have been a watershed? Christendom had seen many large
earthquakes and other natural disasters long before the eighteenth
century. So, what was so special about Lisbon? What had
The answer, of course, is that the people had changed. Unlike many
modern people, Christians of the early church would have found Mother
Theresa's understanding of suffering unsurprising and
unobjectionable. The idea that suffering is natural and,
therefore, good was a commonplace in their world in a way it certainly
is not in ours. If one accepts that there is a natural order to
reality and that order is good, then natural disasters are not evil and
pose no problem. Now, one can, of course, see such a disaster as
objectionable with respect to one's desires or expectations. Yet
this says nothing about the value of this event in itself. If the
earthquake shakes down my house and causes me hardship, I may be
unhappy with this and decide to respond by complaint rather than
acceptance. The earth itself, however, is simply tectonically
doing what the earth does and this is what it is supposed to do.
It would not be the earth it is, if it failed to do this. It
would not have all that earthly goodness--good even in limited human
experience--if it violated its nature.
If one lives with a worldview that takes natural order seriously as a
reality, then what is experienced by one as suffering is simply part of
what should be. If one understands reality as full of purpose,
then what is experienced as pain can also be understood as part of a
greater good. In such a world, even the disagreeable aspects of
something can be part of what we find good in that thing, as when we
enjoy the fruits of an achievement for which we have labored.
Without the effort of that labor, as painful as it may have been in
itself, the fruits would not be nearly as sweet.