Cancer and the Problem of Evil

This discussion and Dr. Swamidass’ work on cancer reminds me of what Stephen Fry said:
Gay Byrne: Suppose it’s all true, and you walk up to the pearly gates, and are confronted by God. What will Stephen Fry say to him, or it?

Stephen Fry: I’ll say, ‘Bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you! How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault? It’s not right. It’s utterly, utterly evil.’ Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?

In a discussion about cancer and evolution that brings in God’s guidance, you have to bring in the problem of evil. Either God can do nothing to stop cancer in children, or he doesn’t care to, or he doesn’t exist. God is either impotent, evil, or imaginary. Take your pick

Yes, as soon as one begins to argue that God allows mutations to happen or not happen, the problem of evil is staring you in the face. It can’t be avoided. Dance around it all you’d like, but it remains there front and center. It has nothing to do with atheism. All all-powerful, all-knowing gods have the Theodicy problem. It is not about YEC, anytime you add God to a natural process, the problem of evil arises automatically. You try to tip toe around it but it is not going to go away.

Perhaps someone will move this theodicy discussion to its own thread so that Patrick’s sub-topic can be pursued on its own. Meanwhile, here’s my response:

I could wish that I had taken more philosophy courses long ago so that I could better articulate the various reasons why my philosophy colleagues [including an atheist who chaired the department back in the days when I was asked to teach a cross-listed course in logic. Long story.] could explain to me, with a certain amount of justifiable condescension, why the theodicy problem is no longer considered a problem in modern philosophy. They told me that this kind of problem of evil decried by Stephen Fry and countless others is not some kind of “grand gotcha” at all and most professional philosophers no longer worry about it.

I don’t recall all that much of their explanations except this summary: Skeptical theism says that it is fully logical that an omniscient and omnipotent God could allow an evil (such as children dying of cancer)…

(1) … if God knew that allowing such an evil would avoid some greater evil or

(2) … if God knew that allowing such an evil would bring about some consequent result that produces a greater good.

Obviously, as to #1, we use similar logic all the time as parents. For example force our children to endure a painful needle injection in order to avoid the greater suffering and evil of getting dangerous childhood diseases which could kill them. (Those of us of the older generation well remember getting our smallpox vaccination, which was more like a painful branding. The torture device consisted of eight needles arranged in a circle and heated to a high temperature. The resulting burn resulted in a dime-sized disk of grilled skin gradually sloughing off in a few weeks time and leaving a life-long scar.)

I vaguely recall several over arguments which “retired” the theodicy question around a century ago but I can’t do them justice. They should be easy to find in some standard reference work, such as the philosophy encyclopedia published by Stanford, I think??

By the way, if someone thinks they can dismiss the above by saying “But God is omnipotent. He should be able to achieve such “lesser evil” or “greater good” without such terrible phenomena taking place.” That is another popular argument that was rejected by philosophers and theologians long ago. It fails because it misunderstands the definition of omnipotent. (Many people assume that omnipotent means “God is so powerful that he can do absolutely anything.” That pop-definition doesn’t apply to the God of the Bible and it doesn’t fit the standard definition of an omnipotent God in philosophy. I’m tempted to dive into the Systematic Theology of Divine omnipotence but my tangents have deviated far from the thread topic of Cancer and Evolution. For now, I’ll just say that Divine omnipotence means that God is never lacking in power to carry out the Divine will and the Divine will never contradicts or defies God’s other divine attributes.)

POSTSCRIPT: Keep in mind that there is nothing inconsistent or bizarre about an atheist philosophy saying that the theodicy problem is no longer an interesting problem. The above arguments simply maintain that there is nothing illogical or impossible about such a God potentially allowing extreme evil. The philosopher is not claiming that these arguments demand the existence of God or prove the existence of God. Obviously, the individual philosopher can and will continue to reach personal conclusions about whether or not such a God actually exists. My main reason for this post is to point out that plenty of atheist philosophers refuse to harp on the alleged “theodicy problem” because the logic was sorted out long ago and is no longer all that interesting (as my philosopher colleague used to say.)


This article on “Armchair Theodicy” by @jongarvey is relevant here, and might even merit its own post.

In his article he admits that survivors of such events may well ask, “Why does a loving God allow suffering?”, but adds that:

from the hundreds of survivors who I have interviewed from some catastrophic disasters, I have never heard a single participant voice that question to me. Nevertheless, theologians and moral philosophers wring their hands and spill gallons of ink hypothesising over that topic.

That “never” is quite astonishing, given the centrality of suffering to theological questions about God – or come to that, to allowing God a direct role in the creation of the species, lest it include parasites and predators. Those caught up in the stress of disasters speak from the heart, rather than from logical reflection – so it must be significant if the suffering heart so seldom finds room for blaming the God of creation for its upheavals.

And this article on suffering and evolution is important too:

At most, these arguments would demonstrate that man-imaged theism and evolution are in conflict, however, they do not unsettle a Jesus-grounded faith. There is nothing in evolutionary evil more unsettling than this: that an all-powerful God would give His only Son over to suffering and death. I am no more disturbed by evolution than I am by this. That suffering might move us “from good to perfect” is not how we would make the world, but it is entirely coherent in light of the God we find by Jesus.

I agree, the theodicy problem is no longer a problem in modern philosophy and science because it is now known that nature processes (like evolution, cancer and hurricanes) are neither good nor evil. What is considered good and and what is considered evil are now defined by individuals, societies, and cultures and are ever changing. We look at a child dying of cancer and want to say that it is evil, but it isn’t. It is an part of the natural processes. All we can do is to research the cancer and through science and technology ease the suffering, lower the numbers, find effective treatments, find the causes, prevent the disease via the best method that mankind has ever developed - science and reason. Don’t pray for a cure, use science and reason to find the cure. To me what is evil today is not getting every child the very best in cancer treatment as soon as possible. Isn’t it time to put away ancient texts and come together to work on real problems? How do we eradicate cancer? How do we live better and more meaningful and purposeful lives? But sitting debating whether or not God guides evolution is taking time, resources, and collective brain power away from the problems right in front of us. Why don’t we all work to get Dr. Swamidass more research funding to solve the problem he is working on. He is on the front line of research. Support him. Look at Dr. Collins, he leads NIH. He is working to improve lives. He doesn’t run Biologos. He isn’t on the Board of Directors. He doesn’t chat. He works as a scientist who happens to be a Christian and the Director of the National Institute of Health.

I’m not sure the theodicy issue is no longer considered a problem in modern philosophy. I understand that there is still work being done on it. I think it’s one of the classic, unresolved issues in philosophy.

Whether one thinks a particular response is sufficient or not seems to track with one’s predisposition on related matters. So it seems there is no definitive argument on the matter.

I really wish philosophy could manage something like Gödel’s incompleteness theorems with regard to these perennial metaphysical debates, and establish that such resolutions are beyond logical proofs. Although it would make some philosophers and theologians look for careers in new areas, it would be an enormous time saver and reallocate efforts toward areas more likely to yield productive improvements.

It does appear largely agreed that Molinism solves the logical problem, vis a vis Plantinga. That is what even secular philosophers tell me right now. This is old news in philosophy.

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That would be helpful. This may be stunning, but about 50% of my time is spent writing grants to get funding. That is 50% of my time that would be better spent doing research.

Very good point too. I cannot imagine ever leaving my scientific work to do faith-science dialogue. The public conversation is important, but not at all in the same way my work is. The only reason I got sucked up into this was because I found there were a few critical things that needed to be dealt with that required a person my values and training. It was not going to be done otherwise.

I would also point out that this is, sadly, linked. When people do not trust science, they do not support science funding. Working through their misconceptions, so that they understand evolution is not just a big anti-religious conspiracy is important for science funding in the end.


Yes, that’s a defense demonstrating a possibility. It’s not a theodicy. That is, it does not create argument for concluding that evil must be present in the world. Sorry for not being clearer.

Personally, I don’t think the problem of evil makes much headway for or against the possibility of a God. I suspect that it’s “orthogonal”, i.e. something that doesn’t actually engage with any discernible nature of God. Which is to say that good or evil are not categories to which one can assign God. Of course, this is hypothetical, as I’m agnostic and not Christian. So, I’m pretty much working with the God concept of philosophy… Or the Ironic Designer. I think the theodicy issue is exactly what one should expect from an Ironic Designer. .:stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:


Medical research grants tend to do better, but it’s been tough all around since the '90s in many of the biological areas. What has taken real hits are Earth science, particularly related to atmospheric monitoring. There are a number of crucial, Earth observing satellites and related experiments that need to get funded. And don’t try get a research grant from a US agency to study gun-related violence…

And don’t get me started on the number of ‘big-science’ /slash/ money pits the national agencies have funded, which has helped choke off smaller, independent grants.


It certainly linked. When people put their beliefs ahead of the science, their thinking gets inverted. Faith tends to cloud reasoning. It takes courage to change your beliefs when your reasoning find an incompatibility or discontinuity.

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I tend to take more of an “anti-theodicy” view. I do not think God needs my defense. Have you read much of this work?

The real puzzle for me is not “How could a good God create a world with suffering in it?”, but rather the opposite question, “Why are we surprised and feel the world has wronged, when we encountered suffering in the world? Is this not what we expect?” That is the far more puzzling question for me.

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I saw that reference earlier but don’t have access to the paper. I know anti-theodicy comes up in post-Holocaust, Jewish contexts. I get a whiff of something akin to deconstructionist approaches. Maybe ‘deconstructionist’ isn’t quite the word I’m looking for, but something involving a modern inversion of the argument. It feels more like an emotive/psychological rather than an analytic/philosophical approach to me.

I also concur in suspecting that God doesn’t need a defense. I would expect mysteries and seemingly incoherent outcomes in any case. What needs ‘defense’ are specific theodicies and propositions about particular moral attributes of God. I’m not sure that anti-theodicy is a solution as it still connects to theodicy (if in opposition or question reversing). Perhaps “non-theodicy” or “a-theodicy” is better. My response to the questions about the moral nature of God (as reflected in the world) is: “mu”.

I am still turning the Molinism stuff over in my head, but my initial reply is much more visceral like Fry’s initial complaint. If God had had His way we would have had a cure for bone cancer in children 1,000 years ago instead of our way which is ag interests lobbying legislatures to keep legal pesticides which raise the incidence of bone cancer in children to nine times their “natural” levels.

In short, Fry wants a natural universe which conforms completely to God’s will while the humans in it flout and disregard God’s will. Well, he can’t have it both ways. Either chaos is permitted in the universe or it isn’t. Either God imposes His will or His will is done with our agreement (“Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”). And it either is or it isn’t. Stephen Fry does not get to instruct God as to what aspects of His will He is allowed to impose on creation and where He must refrain. That would make Stephen Fry God, and the real God more like his servant. So then has anything changed since the Garden?

This is a world in which God’s will is not done on a day-to-day basis, but one in which it can be done and ultimately will be done. In the meantime, Fry would be among the first to shake his fist at God and denounce Him as a tyrant if He tried to impose His will on all of creation- including human behavior. Fry’s outrage is selective in that he wants God to end the suffering that is not our fault but makes no mention of the atrocities and oppression which we impose on each other- like 60 million aborted babies in the USA alone. He sets himself up as the “decider” as to where God is permitted to impose His will on creation or not impose it. Fry does not get to choose, neither do we. Only whether or not we will accept that His will should be done in preference to our own, and its a total package. If we want to stay the boss, then neither God nor His people are responsible for cleaning up humanity’s mess, they have chosen their own way.

Isaiah 65:20 describes life as it could have been should we have listened to God, and as it shall be for a time when we do. "“No longer will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, Or an old man who does not live out his days; For the youth will die at the age of one hundred And the one who does not reach the age of one hundred Will be thought accursed.”

If we had reached that period by now maybe Joshua would not have to study how to fight bone cancer in children. He could use his medical talents curing erectile dysfunction in men over 500!

Hi everyone,

An excellent article on the logical problem of evil, which discusses Plantinga’s solution to the problem, objections to Plantinga’s solution, and other solutions that have been proposed, can be found here: Logical Problem of Evil (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

Last year, I wrote an article on the problem of evil, over at the Skeptical Zone: The Christian God and the Problem of Evil.


Plantinga does an excellent job going through all these objections. It is fun reading. It gets colorful too, with an odd fixation on Charlie Brown’s Pumpkinhead monster, and the Son of Pumpkinhead too.

He talks about something called “transworld depravity” too, which is important to understand. Very much worth reading about.

@vjtorley is a philosopher too, so he can set me straight if I missed something.


Realize that Stephen Fry is answering the hypothetical “Suppose it’s all true”. He gives his answer based on his view that God doesn’t exist. So he is not blaming God for anything.

As for mankind flouting God’s will, that is a load of religious nonsense. And unconstitutional. I am Constitutionally free to stick up my middle finger to God’s will.

Abortion is not a religious issue, it is a woman’s health and privacy issue. Women must be allowed to control their own bodies. It is a basic human right to control one’s own body. Government involvement in a woman’s health or reproductive decisions is unconstitutional.

So is it “unconstitutional” for the government to have laws against incest? That is clearly a reproductive decision. (And, obviously, it is a reproductive decision which can greatly impact other people.)

Obviously, those are not exclusive categories. What is your logic as to how some X being a health or privacy issues somehow prevents X from being a religious issue?

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No it is not unconstitutional for the Government to have laws against incest. The laws regarding incest are related to child abuse. Adults are free to have incestuous relations if consensual. Some states marriage laws will not allow marriages between first cousins, although Arkansas does allow marriage between first cousins.
The State has the obligation to protect children. In most of the United States, this is anyone under the age of 18. In NJ and NY it is illegal to get married under 18 even with parental consent. And if anyone over 18 has sexual relations with someone under 18, it can be prosecuted as statutory rape. In most states, girls under 18 have the legal right to both birth control and abortion without parental consent.