The Problem of Evil and the Problem of God The Problem of Evil and the Problem of God

D Z Phillips
ISBN 033402966X (9780334029663)
SCM-Canterbury Press, 2004

Category: Doctrine and Theology

How can an all-powerful, perfectly good God allow the suffering that we see in the world as a result of evil? This question is one asked by most Christians at some point in their lives and has led to significant debate at both popular and academic levels by, amongst others, D Z Phillips. This book is his most sustained and fully worked through answer to this question and is aimed very much at the academic end of the debate.

In his first sections Phillips persuasively argues against many of the more simplistic answers put forwards in apologetics by arguing that many of the presuppositions brought to the question are incorrect. Drawing on his understanding of philosophy, in particular the ideas of Wittgenstein, he argues that concepts of 'all-powerful' and 'perfectly good' must be understood within the religious context in which they are expressed. When they are so understood they will be found to have a significantly narrower meaning than that often attributed to them. His arguments against this 'problematic intellectual inheritance' do not make comfortable reading but are generally well argued. However, in his attempts to do justice to the range of arguments set against him the full argument is prone to be lost in the detail and so requires repeated reading of some sections.

At one point his argument that a person choosing to do the morally correct thing is inferior to a person not even considering any other alternative seemed to be either incorrect or to be importing a standard by which to judge morality without fully explaining either the origin or authority of that standard. This point was not central to his argument but lacked his usual lucidity displayed elsewhere. Of particular note are the third chapter in which Phillips argues systematically against the range of reasons often used to justify the presence of suffering in the world and the fourth chapter in which he states that free-will is not some ultimate good that is so important that it outweighs the evil and suffering caused by it. In all of this Phillips' principal point that God is not subject, with humanity, to an external standard of goodness is well made and firmly established.

In the interlude between his first and second sections Phillips discusses where this leaves one's understanding of God. Under the criticised intellectual inheritance one is left with a God who is either capricious or weak and so unfit to plead in the debate. However, through an incisive and well-balanced discussion of Job, Phillips firmly establishes that the biblical portrayal of God is richer and fuller than the inheritance really allows.

The final section of the book, in which he constructs his alternative proposal for the way in which this question should properly be answered centres on principals such as:

  • Understanding our relationship with God not in terms of a contract with mutual obligations but rather as an eternal covenant;
  • The difference between the creation and the creator; and
  • The notion of dying to oneself in sacrificial living rather than seeking any reward for such a life.

In this argument Phillips becomes so entwined in answering his critics and surveying the whole range of opinions that the overall argument loses some of its structure and clarity. It is inevitably easier to demolish an existing framework than to construct a new one and, with rereading, it is likely that further insight into this debate will be gained.

Phillips provides an academic philosophical approach to the problem of suffering (rather than the problem of evil) that is a significant addition to the discussion. There are minor aspects that will annoy some readers, such as Phillips' eschatological perspective, but is a very helpful book for those wishing to seriously grapple with the problem.

SCM-Canterbury Press

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Dave Sunman, November 2005

Dave Sunman is the Pastor of Quaystone Church on the Isle of Dogs. A former barrister, he has an MA from London School of Theology and from Queens' College, University of Cambridge

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