An earthquake in the theodicy doctrine

On April 6, a strong earthquake struck several Italian cities, causing hundreds of deaths and destroying thousands of homes.
Such violent and destructive  phenomena always arouse dismay and amazement. Many date the birth of modern atheism to the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. On that occasion Voltaire  wrote his  “Poem on the Lisbon disaster “ in which he  discussed the Leibniz theodicy, that is the problem of justifying the existence of evil and suffering in the world whilst believing at the same time in the  existence of  a good and omnipotent god.

Responding to Leibniz and Pope, Voltaire argued that the evil in the world cannot be the will of God, because in that case would not be a good and just god, but it cannot be someone else’s responsibility, because in that case it means God is not omnipotent.
From Voltaire’s perspective, to say that evil only seems to people to be bad when instead it is part of a universal good (as Leibniz and others argued) is a distortion of reality because it denies the suffering and it is also an insult to those who have been victims of natural laws.
Lisbon and Voltaire deeply shocked the precarious construction of theodicy, but the coup de grace arrived about two centuries later, with Auschwitz. There are many differences between natural phenomena and something so strongly connected to the human responsibility like the Shoah, but if the principal problem is the compatibility of an omnipotent and good god with the existence of evil, then some arguments can overlap. That’s why Hans Jonas in his “Mortality and Morality: A Search for Good After Auschwitz” talks about the Lisbon earthquake too. The Jewish philosopher argued that the Being who had let that slaughter happen had compromised forever belief in the doctrine that maintains that this Being is, at the same time, good and omnipotent.
But Voltaire’s goal was not to introduce a different explanation of god’s qualities, but to criticize a too optimistic approach to the problem of evil and suffering. He wanted to reject the idea that everything is good, and that this is the best of all possible worlds.
I thought about this when I read what the director of the Vatican radio said about the earthquake:
“God wanted that during this holy week before Easter, people living in those cities participated to the sufferance  of the Passion. The law of God’s mysteries is always very hard, but also in this tragedy we want to see something positive”
Voltaire wanted exactly to argue against this kind of optimism, and in the Preface of the Poem he writes “The author of the poem on The Disaster of Lisbon […] pierced to the heart by the misfortunes of mankind, wishes to attack the abuse that can be made of that ancient axiom ‘All is for the best’. He adopts in its place that sad and more ancient truth, recognised by all men, that ‘There is evil upon the earth’; he declares that the phrase ‘All is for the best’, taken in a strict sense and without hope of a future life, is merely an insult to the miseries of our existence”
The importance of hope is the relevant difference between Voltaire and Jonas, because Jonas believes that even after Auschwitz, is still possible to believe that good can overcome the evil.
It would be interesting to know if after these terrible events whether people seek refuge in the consolation of religion or whether they opt more for a Voltairian pessimism. In this kind of terrible situation, survivors must find their own way of coping, and whatever helps them to deal with the loss and devastation is to be welcomed.

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2 Responses to An earthquake in the theodicy doctrine

  • Dennis Tuchler says:

    There is much talk in the “new testament” and the epistles about God’s preordination of events. Nothing occurs but that God ordained that it occur. How can anything, then, be ascribed to the forces of evil? How can anyone argue that evil exists in the sense that it it other than God? On the other hand, there is much talk in the Christion bible about God’s adversary, Satan, who not only argues and plots with God (see Job) but in fact tempts us all to evil — something contrary to the will of God. With these two contrary strains in the Christian Bible, I don’t see how theodicy can possibly make sense.

  • Rob says:

    “…the problem of of the origin of evil haunted me as a thirteen-year-old lad: at an age when one has ‘half child’s play, half God in one’s heart,’ I devoted my first literary child’s play to it, my first philosophic writing exercise — and as to my ‘solution’ to the problem back then, well, I gave the honor to God, as is fitting, and made him the *father* of evil.”

    Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality, Preface, section 3.


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