Evil Gods and Evil Men: Some Limits in the Debate

David Koepsell

I first became interested in the problem of evil (POE) after the death of my good friend and mentor Peter Hare. I was asked to write a chapter for an issu e of the Transactions of the Charles Peirce Society (with which Hare had long been associated) about Hare’s work on POE, which was well known and influential. I’ve expounded on Hare and his collaborators’ (mostly Edward Madden’s) detailed taxonomy and discussion of various theodicies and defenses in that article, so I will here venture off into my own new territory, sparked in part by a bit of their discussion and insights.

The POE is of course an analytical/logical problem. It cannot be resolved by any empirical means, and it is trapped in a sense by the leading nature of the terms involved. The term evil is loaded and provides me with a puzzle and an appreciation for the arguments on both sides. Proponents of various theodicies and defenses that attempt to solve the problem, as well as those who use the POE to argue for the nonexistence of gods, all beg the question about the nature of evil itself, which underlies and supplies the weak foundation for either side. If one wishes to use the POE to disprove the existence of some god, one must accept certain assumptions that should concern a nonbeliever—not only claims about the existence of gods and their natures but also moral claims about the existence of good and evil. In order to debate the POE and its impact on the question of the existence of gods, we must beg more questions than we ought to be comfortable begging.

Madden and Hare point to the departure I’ll take in this discussion when concluding their discussion of various “evasions” of the problem by their contemporaries Barth and Tillich. According to Protestant theologian Karl Barth and similar to the arguments of his contemporary Paul Tillich, natural evil is a “nothingness” that results whenever God creates something, and the nothingness continues to try to encroach on creation. Hare and Madden argue well that this redefinition is really just an evasion. They conclude their discussion of evasion with a hypothetical “problem of good,” wherein a mystical experience occurs to someone in which the all-evil nature of the true god is revealed. And so, with an all-powerful, all-evil god, we are forced to wonder about the existence of good in the world. They demonstrate that the problem of evil and the problem of good are isomorphic, meaning that they can be reversed and are logically equivalent to one another. This leads to two important conclusions.

  1. Evaders cannot fully evade the problem, since they would fail under the problem-of-good hypothetical. They should allow others to do unto them as they would do unto others.
  2. Because of the isomorphism of the problems of good and evil, the theist must choose and cannot avoid the consequences by so choosing.

Stephen Law, in his excellent article “The Evil-god Challenge,” notes that Madden and Hare first raise the basis for his own contribution through the discussion we have just considered, in which the tables are turned by supposing that, given an evil god, the problem of evil becomes the problem of good, as the problem is isomorphic. Law points out some asymmetries and argues for them while concluding along the way that his own arguments provide a more “nuanced and tougher” challenge to theism than previous attempts via the “problem of good.” Law’s analysis is excellent and thorough and probably the best to appear in the literature since Madden’s and Hare’s. It will serve as a resource in the debate for decades. What I wish to argue is from an entirely different perspective and to contribute by throwing a monkey wrench of sorts into the entire analytic problem itself by supposing a number of things.

  1. The terms involved and their associated concepts are insufficiently clear to allow for conclusions on either side of the debate.
  2. The POE cannot logically lead to dismissing theism.
  3. At best we end up with a sort of Whitehead-ian process theology by engaging in the debate at all. (Alfred North Whitehead was a collaborator with Bertrand Russell and a philosopher whose modern “process” metaphysics opposed the “substance” metaphysics of Aristotle and others. I’ll describe the impact on theology shortly.)
  4. If we must debate from the POE, the only conclusion we can reach is what I call the “Lovecraft Theodicy.”

What Is Evil?

All of the contributors to the debate noted above, and others yet unmentioned, must assume for the purposes of the debate some definition of what amounts to “evil.” In most cases, some version of “suffering without reason or justice” is assumed to be evil. Harder to define is the “good,” which makes for a problem when flipping the debate as Hare, Madden, and Law do, into the “problem of good.” There are two perspectives I am wont to adopt that cause me to doubt the usefulness of these terms and, thus, the foundations for both the POE and the problem of good (POG). One is a naturalistic stance, in which all there is is nature, and questions about social objects such as “the good” or “evil” must somehow be accommodated into a naturalistic worldview. The other is an existentialist stance, in which all there is is “existence,” and existence precedes essence, such that when we claim there is some moral essence to something we experience, we necessarily project our own biases and assumptions, wrapped in the context of some social, cultural, or historical milieu.

The social categories of evil and good are necessarily fluid, and history demonstrates that over time and from culture to culture they change. Admittedly, there are some very compelling examples to which most ascribe, and we generally agree when we wish to point to something “evil.” There are outliers, of course, to each of these agreements, with no perfect overlap for any population about the objective nature of any instance of evil. This is either a problem with the judging of subjects or one of the categories themselves. I remain skeptical about the objective nature of evil and good, and one can make arguments for even the most stark and apparently clear examples simply by choosing a different ethical theory as the basis for judgment, as indeed philosophers often do. I am trying very hard to be a moral realist, but the lack of good evidence that would compel me to be so makes it very difficult. Unfortunately, both the POE and the POG depend upon moral realism. Without an objective good or evil, the use of either the POE or POG to either prove or disprove theism becomes pointless.

There could indeed be some objective good or evil, or we could decide to accept, as seems more likely, that these categories are useful and real social objects created by some collective intentionality. In either case, there are limits to the manners in which the objects themselves exist, and they appear to be in both cases tied to human existence rather than to either that of gods or other creatures. Holding nonhumans to account for actions or intentions we call either “good” or “evil” is not warranted by observation, even from a theistic perspective. This is in fact one of the dodges employed by defenders of the POE (and by logical extension, the POG). Categorizing the acts of non­humans according to human categories is simply inappropriate.

The Logical Problem

A significant limitation for the POE depends upon the self-sealing nature of the definitions involved in the analytic argument. Related to the problem of terminology and no objective categories is the issue involved in the logic of the move from the existence of evil to the impossibility of a god. In fact, one can easily still accept the existence of evil gods, or at least gods who are perfectly willing to tolerate evil and perhaps even sometimes cause it. I believe that Law´s treatment of the evil-god challenge is thorough and convincing, but it does not entail in the end a challenge to all possible forms of theism. Rather it challenges only to the sort of theism generally accepted by the Judeo-Christian tradition: that is, asserting a benevolent (etc., etc.) type of god.

Even assuming the existence of some objective evil, this merely implies the nonexistence of benevolent gods, absent the theodicies and defenses. Yet the notion of benevolent gods is not universal, and it is not necessary for the existence of a religion. As Hare, Madden, Law, and others note, the reverse problem, the POG, is isomorphic to the POE, and working through its implications leads us eventually to doubt not the existence of all gods but only benevolent ones. Once we alter the premises of the POE to match our experience—that there is evil or things we call “evil” and that these are perfectly acceptable to the omniscient and all powerful Zeus or whomever—then the POE no longer becomes an argument against theism. It is not even a very convincing argument against Old Testament–style theism, given Jehovah’s propensity to tolerate or commit evil against any but his chosen people.

The Fellow-Sufferer Exception

Both the POE and POG might well convince someone to adopt the perspective of process theology, in which the notion of a god is altered from some all-powerful coercer to an immanent persuader. For Whitehead and other process theologians, the notion of a god is not undermined by the POE at all. Rather, God—who is all-present and all-knowing—is a growing, changing entity immanent in all of creation, participating in its evolution and nudging us through our knowledge of his presence to do good. Even when we do evil, which is contrary to his will, he participates in it and suffers from it and is, as Whitehead calls it, “a fellow sufferer who understands” rather than a coercer, punisher, or judge.

The power of a process-theology god is relational rather than dictatorial. For process theologians, the capacity to persuade us through our knowledge of the god rather than to intervene directly and force us to do or not do things (including evil and good) is much more powerful and godlike than the actions of a puppet-master–type god. Great evils will and do occur because of our human failures to participate properly in god, rather than through some failing of a god who in fact lacks the power to alter nature or violate our volition on a mechanical scale.

Whether one believes, as many critics do, that the process god is somehow reduced from the traditional notion of a dictator/puppet-master god or not (as process theologians argue), this is a sort of god one could still accept in light of the existence of evil, which becomes in process theology no problem at all. Accepting a process god, or any other type of god who allows evil without contradiction, is not an evasion of the POE (or POG). Instead, it is a natural conclusion to recognizing that evil exists if one somehow believes in the existence of some “higher power.” While nothing necessitates that belief in the first place, arguing from the POE does not lead logically or materially to the necessity of denying theism entirely; it merely requires reassessing one’s notion of divinity.

Process theology is still quite influential, particularly with Jewish theologians as well as among the “New Thought” Christian theologians, who appear in many respects to be pantheists in a similar sense to Baruch Spinoza. Tillich himself has been described as a process theologian, as he argues a variant of process metaphysics in which God is the ground of existence rather than a separate, causal force.

Despite its attractiveness to both theologians and scholars interested in refining arguments against theism, the POE must be admitted to be a sort of shell game, a logic puzzle that falls apart upon inspection and upon the realization that the premises are so tenuous, so delicate, that altering them in any way renders the arguments on either side moot. This is why I took Law’s arguments and ran with them when I applied the evil-god challenge to one of my favorite gods, only partly tongue-in-cheek because it really is rather illustrative. Perhaps you’ve heard of Cthulhu? As it turns out, Cthulhu provides us with an example of how neither the POE nor the POG provide sufficient reason to reject his existence and indeed offers a more fitting framework for understanding the existence of suffering without warrant, especially from a naturalist standpoint.

The Lovecraft Theodicy

Dystheism, in which a malevolent god actively tortures humanity, abounds in literary works exploring the mystery and inevitability of unjust suffering. Perhaps no better, more brooding, and well fleshed-out modern dystheistic mythos is the Cthulhu mythos of H. P. Lovecraft. Instead of being taken as a literal mythos, Lovecraft’s own philosophy has been described as “cosmic indifferentism,” which followed from his mechanistic materialist metaphysics. I believe it is more or less existentialism, and so I used the Lovecraft theodicy that I wrote about in my online blog at the Center for Inquiry website as an opportunity to make the existentialist case for suffering. It is neither a theodicy nor an argument for or against theism but rather an argument from a roughly Lovecraftian view of the universe and the human place in it.

Lovecraft was an author of horror stories who never really achieved great success in his lifetime, but his work has heavily influenced modern science-fiction and horror. His writing style is often turgid, his prose is repetitive (count the number of times the word blasphemous appears through his work), and he is often sexist and racist. Regardless, he is now legendary. His influence on the culture comes, some have argued, from his standing uneasily between modernity and something quite premodern, almost ancient. Despite his penchant for horror, one could argue that there is very little “supernatural” about his works. The monsters that inhabit his universe are nearly all conceived of as having some natural basis. Mostly, they are vast and ancient aliens who existed long before humanity and care not at all for our puny existence.

Once we become accustomed to the notion of an utterly natural, unimaginably enormous universe of an age we can scarcely fathom, then the monsters that can be thought to inhabit it become nearly infinite. Lovecraft’s monsters are gods. The “great old ones” or “elders” that comprise his pantheon are physical creatures, very ancient, lost evolutionary dead-ends, and extinct races and creatures that may or may not have come from other planets but that humans worshipped as gods. The most well known of this mythos is Cthulhu, who is imagined as an enormous (hundreds of meters tall) creature with tentacles where a mouth should be and wings, flippers, claws, and the like. He sleeps now under the ocean awaiting his chance to return to the surface of the earth. The modern sci-fi equivalent might be something like the kaiju mythos underlying the Godzilla movies.

Infrequent in Lovecraft is some reference to modern Christianity. Unlike the standard horror fare in which proper attention to Christian faith can protect us from devils, the Lovecraftian gods are utterly indifferent to humanity, except maybe when it serves as an often-accidental food source. While humans worship the great old ones, it isn’t clear that the Lovecraftian gods care whether they are worshipped or not, only that they are fed. In some way, the Lovecraft oeuvre is existential. The universe is too big, too impersonal, and utterly indifferent to our puny, human existences. Cthulhu and the old ones, the elders, and all the monsters of the universe are evil only by our interpretation, just as ants (if they could) might consider us evil in our daily genocides of their kind as we walk so carelessly down the street.

Existence Is All We Have

The universe itself is a harsh place. Stars explode, asteroids impact, species come and go, and its indifference is embodied by Cthulhu, an enormous tentacled, clawed, and winged monster who lies dormant now at the bottom of the ocean but still populates our nightmares. To us, nature’s indifferent destructiveness is horrible; it is evil. Perhaps this is just a matter of perspective, and we label too readily with terms delineating values things that occur without regard for intention. While humans can create such perspective, and choose to harm or not our fellow humans (and perhaps other sentient creatures), our perception of sentience itself might be limited. Cthulhu and the other Lovecraftian gods seem at times to barely even perceive us, going about their “lives” with little more regard for us than we have for flies or rocks. This is the Lovecraftian theodicy. The great big horrific universe has no regard at all for us, our sentience, our pain, or our short lives. Cthulhu has absolutely no problem with evil. That’s only something we should care about, not gods.

The Lovecraft theodicy is existential. It recognizes, as in existentialism, the “priority of existence to essence,” or in other words, the lack of any meaning to existence except that which we impose. In existentialism, there is existence, and there is us. We are superimposed on existence to give it meaning, which we are utterly free to do. Lovecraft recognizes that conceptions of divinity are matters mostly of scale, and we can see in his mythos the limits of philosophy in dealing with premises that are fragile and not prone to empirical verification or falsification and that are not helpful in understanding suffering. It is experienced, and it is in all respects pointless, but it is ultimately meaningless except to the extent that it casts a pall over our existence. We cannot understand it, because the universe cares not at all for us. It is up to us to pave our way through our suffering, and if we choose to do it with labels such as “good” and “evil” then we must face the logical consequences of doing so without expecting this to alter our suffering.

Further Reading

Cobb, John B., and David Ray Griffin. 1976. Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press.

Law, Stephen. 2010. “The Evil-god Challenge.” Religious Studies 46, no. 3: 353–73.

Lowell, Mark. 2004. “Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos.” The Explicator 63, no. 1: 47–50.

Madden, E. H. and P. H. Hare. 1967. “On the Difficulty of Evading the Problem of Evil.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. 28, no. 1 (September).

Madden, E. H. and P. H. Hare. 1968. Evil and the Concept of God. Springfield, Ill.:Charles C. Thomas.

Koepsell, D. R. 2015. “The Lovecraft Theodicy: Cthulhu has No Problem of Evil.” http://www.centerforinquiry.net/blogs/entry/the_lovecraft_theodicy_cthulhu_has_no_problem_of_evil/. August 13.

David Koepsell

David Koepsell is an author, philosopher, attorney (retired), and educator whose recent research focuses on the nexus of science, technology, ethics, and public policy. He has provided commentary regarding ethics, society, religion, and technology on numerous media outlets. He has been a tenured associate professor of philosophy at the Delft University of Technology, Faculty of Technology, Policy, and Management in the Netherlands, visiting professor at UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico), Instituto de Filosoficas, and the Unidad Posgrado, Mexico, director of Research and Strategic Initiatives at Comisión Nacional De Bioética in Mexico, and asesor de rector at UAM Xochimilc.

If we choose to pave our way through suffering with labels such as like “good” and “evil,” we should not expect this to alter our suffering.

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