Theodicy and Schadenfreude

Theodicy – why bad things happen to good people – and Schadenfreude – taking delight in the suffering of others – have fascinated people since time immemorial.

Writing around 300 BC the Greek philosopher Epicurus framed the problem this way: God is believed by most people to be infinite in his power and also in his goodness and compassion. Now evil exists in the world and seems always to have existed. If God is unable to remove evil, he lacks omnipotence. If God is able to remove evil but doesn’t, he lacks goodness and compassion. So clearly the all-powerful, compassionate God that most people pray to cannot be real.

While theologians can argue until the cows come home that it is human beings who are the source of pain and suffering – or “moral evil” for want of a better word – they are at a loss when called upon to explain the existence of natural evil, or more accurately, natural suffering – such as those deadly Chinese quakes and the 2004 tsunami.

Christian apologists such as CS Lewis have attempted to account for natural disasters by showing how they draw people together, or how they provide moral instruction to the survivors, or how they turn our eyes to God – that all too familiar “what won’t kill you will make you stronger” and “it’s all part of God’s grand plan” argument.

But seriously, couldn’t God have found better ways to achieve these worthy objectives? I think we must reject as implausible and offensive the usual responses to innocent suffering!

A fresh way of looking at the problem of natural evil and suffering comes from Rare Earth, a book by Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee that traces the myriad conditions required for life to exist on any planet.

In a sense, the authors – an eminent paleontologist and an astronomer at the University of Washington in Seattle – are discussing the “anthropic principle,” which specifies the degree to which our planet appears fine-tuned for complex life. The concept is often used in Christian apologetics to show that our intelligently designed universe seems to point to an intelligent designer.

Ward and Brownlee ask: Why do natural disasters such as earthquakes, seaquakes, and tsunamis occur? All three are the consequence of plate tectonics, the giant plates that move under the surface of the earth and the ocean floor. Apparently our planet is unique in having plate tectonics. Ward and Brownlee show that without this geological feature, there would be no large mountain ranges or continents.

While natural disasters occasionally wreak havoc, our planet needs plate tectonics to produce the biodiversity that enables complex life to flourish on earth. Without plate tectonics, earth’s land would be submerged to a depth of several thousand feet. Fish might survive in such an environment, but not humans.

Plate tectonics also help regulate the earth’s climate, preventing the onset of scorching or freezing temperatures that would make mammalian life impossible. In sum, plate tectonics are a necessary prerequisite to human survival on the only planet known to sustain life.

Some people may not find this convincing. They might ask, “Why didn’t God devise a world that didn’t require plate tectonics and consequently one that wouldn’t have to put up with earthquakes?” In other words, surely God could have made a universe that operated according to a different set of laws.

Ward and Brownlee’s answer to this is as simple as it is devastating. Such a world could have produced life, but it surely could not have produced creatures like us. Science tells us that our world has all the necessary conditions for species like Homo sapiens to survive and endure.

Isn’t this the same old “what won’t kill you will make you stronger” argument again?

We’ve come back to square one haven’t we?

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