Book Review: Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God

Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God by Marilyn McCord Adams, Cornell University Press, 1999.

Adams' book seeks to evaluate existing commentary on the problem of evil and construct a solution involving clearer understandings of what makes evil so horrible and calling on the unique resources of Christianity in the incarnation of God who suffers with us, and the defeat of evil by atonement.

The author focuses on some useful topics: that the strongest form of the argument from evil is not that life has suffering or pain, but that there are horrendous evils, monstrosities on a massive scale, or horrors on a personal scale that threaten to ruin whether a person’s life as a whole has meaning or value. Too many debates start with atheists stating that any suffering at all argues against God. In order to defeat this, all that we Christians have to do is show that some sufferings are either beneficial or simply justifiable. Since this is easily accomplished, the original complaint is satisfied and the discussion ends. So the misstatement of the problem causes both parties to leave the discussion dissatisfied because not all evils have been accounted for by the argument.

The author also strives to expand the topic of good and evil beyond evaluation in terms of moralism alone. She explores good and evil also in terms of purity/defilement, honor/shame, and aesthetics. The section on aesthetics is not as convincingly or rigorously developed as the others.

The focus of the book being horrendous evils, it does not give much attention to the fact that evil is not an isolated thing that happens to just a few unfortunates, but something that touches everybody. For example, Adams argues that a nuclear bomb exploding over a populated area, or death by starvation, constitute horrendous evils. But if that is the case, then we’d have to assume that death itself is a horrendous evil, and therefore horrendous evil is not an isolated thing but a universal one. The various theodicies that popped up after last year’s tsunami tended to share this oversight: while they focused on the catastrophe of so many deaths in a single day from a single cause, they turned a blind eye to the fact that everybody now in the world will eventually die, and that every person born is faced life-long with the certain prospect of death. Against this, the Christian answer for God’s goodness is Jesus’ teaching of a general resurrection in the future, and the proof of this is the historical fact of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. As a side note, I’d also have to mention that death does not necessarily ruin whether a person’s life as a whole has (had) meaning or value and so is not properly in the "horrendous evils" category as Adams defines it, though very much a proper part of a discussion of good and evil in general.

Overall, the book is a worthwhile read and covers ground that many theodicies leave untouched. Written primarily for philosophers in the sense of people who study or teach philosophy at the university level, readers who are not comfortable with the writing style of the academic halls are likely to despair of the book before finishing the first chapter. I do not agree with the author on every point, and think that she leaves some important ground uncovered as far as exploring evils and the goodness of God. While she has many valuable insights, the philosophy still stops short of many a Christian’s comments on their own endurance of horrendous evils: "I’m going to be a monument to the power of God."


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