Meditations, Cants and Descants on God and Evil

All text © Michael Losonsky 2011, 2012

February 23, 2012

Tell me something good
A general strategy for dealing with the logical problem of evil is to defend this kind of conditional:
If something is good, then something is evil.
Since a good God does something good, then something is evil. So it is possible that there is both a good God and evil, and this means that there is no logical problem of evil.

As I wrote in December (see December 28, 2011), this conditional seems plausible to many people although I just can't see why this even seems plausible. Many of these people believe, as I once did throughout childhood, that there is a heaven, which is a place that is completely good and includes no evil whatsoever. So here's a place where this conditional is false. So if you think in heaven there is good without evil, why suppose that if there is some good, then there has to be some evil?

Of course, there were various 'falls' -- for example, evil angels forcibly removed from heaven -- and the reason for these falls is that something evil occurred. But heaven existed before these falls, and before these falls everything was indeed beautiful and good. Moreover, these falls were not necessary. The evil was the results of free choices made by Lucifer, Adam, Eve, and so on. So everything would have been all-good if these evil choices hadn't been made. After all, God does something good, and that doesn't imply that God does something evil.

What's necessary?
Maybe I'm missing something, so let me think more carefully about what it means to say that if there is some good, then there has to be some evil. What does it mean to say that there has to be some evil. To make a long story short, this may simply mean nothing more than that some evil is a necessary condition for there being some good or it may mean that it is necessary that some evil is a necessary condition for there being some good. Here's the first, the weaker, claim:
If something is good, then something is evil.
Here is the stronger claim:
Necessarily, if there is some good, then there is some evil.
The stronger claim is false. Mackie in his famous essay "Evil and Omnipotence" discusses this and, moreover, Plantinga's rejection of the logical problem does not rest on this and he grants that worlds that are all-good are possible. So there's no need to dwell on this issue, but I will a little anyway. Just consider this for a moment. Did God have to create anything? I think not. As I remember my catechism, I was taught to be very grateful to God for having created anything, not just me, because God didn't have to do any of that. No sunsets, no stars, no me, nothing. God could have decided to keep things tidy and so there is a possible world in which only God exists. Since God is all good, this possible world is all good. So put a big "NOT" in front to the proposition that necessarily, if there is some good, then there is some evil.

The weaker claim, however, is also false. I was cross-country skiing in Wyoming in January when I just noticed the full moon rising above the tree tops. There were lots of good things about that moment, but one was simply that I saw this and enjoyed the moment without thinking about anything else. A small, even minuscule good, nevertheless something good without there being something evil.

Something good and free
Maybe the problem is that this weak conditional is not specific enough. While there are many goods without evils, maybe there are specific goods that are not like that and in fact do come with evils. That's the initial idea behind the free will defense. Human freedom is such a good. A person having freedom, whether it is the freedom to will or the freedom to act, is a good thing, but with that freedom comes evil. If something is good and free, then something is evil. So assuming that God has good reasons for creating free beings, then something is evil, and there is no logical problem of evil.

Well, you might be tempted to conclude that, but hold your shovel for a bit before you try to bury the problem. Make sure you're not working with contraband necessities. As before, we need to distinguish a claim about necessary conditions and a claim about the necessity of necessary conditions. Here's the weaker claim:
If something is good and free, then something is evil.
And here's the purported necessary truth:
Necessarily, if something is good and free , then something is evil.
If the case against the logical problem of evil depends on this claim of necessity, then it has no bite because that's not at all necessary.

In "Evil and Omnipotence" Mackie argues that it is false as follows. A theist will grant that at least sometimes some person freely does some good without there being evil, and that on another occasion she can freely do some good again without evil. Well, "if there is no logical impossibility in a man's freely choosing the good on one occasion on one, or on several, occasions, there cannot be a logical impossibility in his freely choosing the good on every occasion."

This is fairly compelling, but in discussions I have felt the pull of skepticism about whether Mackie's conclusion follows. Maybe it is logically possible that a person freely chooses good without any evil on several occasions, but why should that imply of entail that this is the case on every occasion? Perhaps if a person is free, there has to be at least one occasion when this person chooses evil. Or, perhaps that person does not choose evil, but still there has some evil, perhaps a set of alternatives that includes some evil, even if the good is chosen.

But a little reflection loosens the grip of that pull. Just suppose that there are only several occasions when someone freely chooses and on all those occasions what is chosen is good, or maybe there is only one occasion, and the choice on this occasion is simply between doing two equally good things. Nothing more is needed to show that the purported necessity is false. If it can happen once, then there is a possible world in which there is only one occasion on which something is done freely, and on that occasion something good is chosen, but nothing is evil. Perhaps a free person comes into existence in an all-good world, does only one thing freely and this is also good, and then passes out of existence. So something is good and free, but there is no evil.

There is an even clearer case that shows this purported necessity to be false: the case of God. God is free and God freely does only good things. As before, suppose that God chooses not to create anything. This is possible. So it is possible that something is free and good, but there is no evil. It's the possible world where the good God almighty chooses not to make anything. It is also possible that while God creates something, maybe God just creates a little stick figure, God does not create any free beings. Here again we have a possibility in which there is something free and good, but no evil.

So the burial work has to be done by the weaker claim: If something is good and free, then something is evil. This is a claim about how things are in fact, and together with what has just been shown, this is a contingent claim. In fact, there is freedom and freedom is good, but it is also true that people freely do something evil. When a person freely chooses evil, then assuming that freedom is good, something is both good and free, but something is also evil.

Is the weaker claim sufficient to bury the logical problem of evil? No, not by itself. Even if the weaker claim is true in fact, it is a contingent truth, which means that it is possible something is free and good, and nothing is evil. All things being equal, a world with good freedom and no evil is better than a world with good freedom and evil. So this is not the best of all possible worlds, and if God exists, does it not follow that this is the best of all possible worlds?

Something good and free, but it can't be
Enter Plantinga's very clever and strategy. He maintains that while Mackie is absolutely correct that it is possible that something is good and free, but nothing is evil, God does not have the power to create these better worlds, and instead God and the rest of us are stuck with worlds like ours in which the weaker conditional is true. Moreover, God lacks this power without losing an iota of divine lustre, even in the powers of omnipotence. At least that's a possibility, and hence there is no logical problem of evil. This is what I will start digging into next time. Is it possible that God almighty could not have done otherwise than create a world in which it is true that something is good and free only if there is some evil?

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January 30, 2012
Screaming Child Shanghai A good sense of evil
I found out over the holidays that I'm not alone in believing that anyone who gives a theodicy does not sufficiently appreciate evil. According to my son, Miro, this kind of view has been defended, and the easiest (although not the only) way to illustrate this is in terms of the expressive features of moral judgments. Compare the attitudes of two people responding to the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. One says: "The nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were horrific, and there is nothing that justifies what was done to those cities and its inhabitants." The other says, "The nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were horrific, but these horrors were justified or outweighed by greater goods." Obviously the first person thinks the bombings were a whole lot worse than the second person. Among other things, the first person has a much stronger negative attitude toward the bombings than the second one.

Moreover, whatever negative attitude the second person has toward these bombings, is outweighed or at least balanced by the positive attitude toward the good for which the bombings were necessary. Basically, the second person's attitude is that when all is said and done and properly weighed, the bombings were, taking everything into consideration, okay -- necessary evils, of course, but for some greater good that in context cancels the evil. This person is not tormented by what happened and is, all things considered, at peace with what happened. The first person is not and remains troubled that something like that happened without any expiation or justification.

Similarly, a person that believes that there is a divine accounting for evil, will believe that for any evil, there is something good that, all things considered, balances it out. Weighing all the factors, everything is actually for the best, no matter what atrocity you might consider from Auschwitz to Zunghar. Nothing is as bad as you think because God in fact has a grand vision or higher harmony in mind in which everything last atrocity has a proper place. That's the attitude Voltaire ridicules in Candide and the attitude that Ivan Karamazov 'arms himself' against -- an attitude that would believe that the child torn to pieces by the General's dogs is in the service of some higher harmony. "This is higher harmony isn't worth it because her tears remained unexpiated." Given the existence of those tears of "the tortured little girl who beat herself on the breast and prayed to her "dear, kind Lord" in the stinking privy" -- no matter what else happens -- there "can be no harmony". Her tears, her pain, her brutal torture remain, and nothing else that happens can render that not so bad after all, even if she were later showered with blessings by this God who allows this evil to happen so that she can be showered with rewards, or if her torturers are punished, or, the most ridiculous of all theodicies, if it is permitted so that the torturer has free will! This attitude fails to appropriately appreciation of evil. If you think the gas chambers of Auschwitz are somehow part of a higher divine harmony, you simply don't get the evil of Auschwitz.

This applies to those who reject the logical problem of evil. If you think there is a logical problem of evil, that is, if you think that there is an evil that is logically incompatible with the power, knowledge and goodness of God, then you have the strongest possible negative attitude toward that evil. There is nothing, certainly not freedom of will, that will expiate that evil. I believe that there are evils to which the only appropriate response is that this evil is absolutely Godless, and a world with God and this evil is completely incoherent. This requires no deep engagement with modal logic, but only a clear sense of right and wrong. With that in place, it is self-evident that God and evil are incompatible, as evident as the fact that something cannot be both round and square. Someone who doesn't find this to be self-evident lacks a developed sense of right and wrong.

So this is not an issue about which you need to suspend your judgment until you've at least worked through Hughes and Cresswell's introduction to modal logic, in much the same way that nobody needs to suspend their judgment about arithmetic and stop adding until she has studied Peano's Axioms. If someone declares loudly that 2 + 2 is less than 4, you can simply move on and ignore the disturbance. But maybe for some reason this is upsetting, and so you stop to try to get to the bottom of this nonsense. So it is with Plantinga's Free Will Defense, except that here more is at stake than addition, namely the proper appreciation of evil, and God, for that matter.

As announced last month, I had planned to examine a first volley against the logical problem of evil, namely the claim that if there is something good, then there is something evil. Well, that didn't happen. It seemed more pressing to repeat and explain the charge that those who reject the logical problem of evil are not adequately moved by evil, and emphasize the point that is easily overlooked that the sensed incompatibility of God and evil is as deep and intuitive as the theist's conviction that God exists or the adder's conviction that 2+2=4. But I'll get back on track next time.

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December 28, 2011
The Devaloka - Heaven

The logical landscape
In its simplest form, the logical problem of evil can be summarized with one claim or sentence:
This is not logically possible: (i) there is evil and also (ii) there is a perfectly good and powerful God that knows everything.
It can be rephrased or paraphrased in several ways. One way is to say that the existence of evil and the existence of a perfectly good and powerful God that also knows everything are logically incompatible or contradictory. Put in another way, a world with evil cannot (from the logical point of view) also be a world with a perfectly good and powerful God that also knows everything. Alternatively, a world with such a God cannot (logically speaking) be a world with evil. This is all because a world with God and evil is like a round square or something both less than and greater than ten.

Theists, or fellow-travelers, can draw on a broad menu of responses:

1) Hamlet's response to the rational Horatio:
And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
I think this is a response that aims to combine both religious and philosophical integrity (see entry for November 20, 2011). It enjoys philosophical integrity because it recognizes the soundness of the problem of evil and doesn't resort to sophistry to cover-up the problem. Religious integrity is preserved because it does not confuse faith and knowledge, does not turn religion into bad science or philosophy, and preserves the mystery and transcendence of God.

But this comes with a cost. You have to accept that reality is fundamentally beyond the scope of our ordinary standards of rationality. But a true believer sees this as a rational cost that is canceled or trumped by other considerations, such as those of the heart, of faith, of spirit, or of hope. Why deify rationality and its pursuit? Life, hope, the pursuit of salvation, or plain misery and affliction impose their own demands that make rational consistency appear to be a privilege of comfort and leisure.

If I had faith in God, this would be my response to the problem of evil. But I don't have faith in God and have no reason for welcoming and embracing the contradiction of God and evil.

2) There is no evil. In other words:
Everything is beautiful in its own way
Like a starry summer night or a snow covered winter's day;
Everybody's beautiful in their own way
Under God's heaven, the world's gonna find a way.
The utter stupidity of this song matches the stupidity of this response. If everything is beautiful, the woman burnt alive last week in an elevator in New York City by someone impersonating an exterminator was as beautiful as a starry summer night, in its own way of course. We shelter children from the world's evils as best we can and a child can be excused for believing that everything is beautiful, but a sane adult cannot.

A very similar response is that we don't know, or that we can't be sure, that there is evil. Maybe what we think is evil is actually something good, etc. Again, this response is frivolous or childish. If we don't know that, then we also don't know that anything is good either, including God. True, if there is no evil, or if we can't know that there is evil, then there is no problem of evil. But by the same token, if there is no good God, or if we can't know there is such a God, then there also is no problem of evil. Evil is not more difficult to know or recognize than good.

3) If there is some good, then there has to be some evil. Since a good God does some good, there also is some evil. So it is possible that there is a good God and evil, and this means that there is no problem of evil.

In my experience, many people are inclined to assume that there is some good only if there has to be some evil, and so feel this is a plausible reaction to the problem of evil. This puzzles me very much because I don't find any of this plausible. My childhood religious education included a concept of heaven, which was a place that was completely good and included no evil whatsoever. This was why heaven was such a good place to go and given the alternatives, it was the only place you'd want to go given that you had to go somewhere after death.

Of course, there were various 'falls' -- the evil angels forcibly removed from heaven by the Archangel Michael and the banishement from Eden of poor Adam and Eve -- and the reason for these falls is that something evil occurred. But heaven existed before these falls, and before these falls everything was indeed beautiful and good. Moreover, these falls were not necessary. The evil didn't have to happen. The evil was the results of free choices made by Lucifer, Adam and Eve. So everything would have been all-good if these evil choices hadn't been made. But even given these evil choices, heaven itself remains a place with good and no evil. So why assume that if there is some good, there has to be some evil?

So this is the response I want to examine more closely to see how it is supposed to solve the problem of evil. What does it mean to say that 'there has to be some evil'? Which good is it that has to come with some evil?

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November 24, 2011
Munch, The ScreamThe experience of atheism
In addition to logical and evidential problems of evil, there is an experiential problem that is mostly overlooked by theists. Just as there are religious experiences, perhaps even basic ones, that ground faith in God, there are also experiences, basic ones if there are basic religious ones, that ground disbelief and faithlessness. In much the same way that for some people certain experiences of the sublime beauty of nature are religious experiences of reality imbued with a fundamentally powerful, good and loving being, there are experiences of cruelty and suffering that are experiences of a Godless world lacking any fundamental or overarching goodness or love. This experience of atheism is not completely unrelated to the logical problem of evil. Just as we have what appear to be direct experiences of distinctness, for instance, the distinctness of two colors or two sounds, the experience of atheism is an experience of reality as fundamentally distinct from one that would include a God. I experience a wholly Godless world.

Still, I have also experienced the world with the heart and mind of a theist. My theism was intellectual and phenomenal. I felt the presence of God, God's love, and even God's forgiveness and mercy. I've had religious experiences and if anyone has had a basic belief in God, I have. But I now see the world through the eyes of an atheist, and my atheism is not only intellectual, but also phenomenal. I have felt and experienced the complete absence of God. If there are basic beliefs in God, then now I have a basic belief that there is no God.

So much, then, for my basic experiences and beliefs about God, and so much for anyone else's basic experiences and beliefs. But insofar as experience is relevant to a theist, it should not be forgotten that there are experiences of atheism, and some of those are experiences of evil. If experience is sufficient to ground theism, then it is also sufficient to ground atheism. But I believe that faith and reason are in fact co-dependent. Following Aquinas, they are like the walls and flying buttresses of a Gothic cathedral, both necessary to sustain a cathedral's height and its thin walls. In the same way, the experience of atheism is insufficient by itself and requires the buttressing by reason to explain and analyze the sensed incompatibility of God and evil in the experience of atheism.

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November 20, 2011
Holbein the Younger: The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb

The theists only valid response
My mother's response to the problem of evil is the only theistic response that has both philosophical and religious integrity. She recognizes the despairing reality of human cruelty and suffering. It was a personal reality for her that included the death of her 3-year old son after his long bout with leukemia in 1958, but also the Nazi disintegration and occupation of Czechoslovakia, transports of neighbors to Terezín, midnight arrests, escaping through the Iron Curtain across the Morava River in 1952, living in a refugee camp in Salzburg where I was born, or finding out about her father's death from a 3-word telegram the same month her child died. Life is a dog and we're its tail, she taught me, and at the same time she taught that we were lucky because it only gets worse.

As a boy she would take us to peer across the Iron Curtain. We would hike through Bavarian fields and forests to an elevated edge of a forest so that from behind the trees we could see into Czechoslovakia, past the lookout towers and barbed wire fences. She would point and tell us that's where our Babička and Strejda Pavel lived, a day's drive away but beyond our reach. We lived in an apartment building in Munich, Germany full of exiles, some with blue serial numbers tatooed on their forearms from Auschwitz, another in a wheelchair from experiments suffered in Dachau, others who had known Stalinist jails and interrogations. Still others had breakdowns and committed suicide or were committed to asylums. In a family that was particularly close to us because they had a daughter my age and my mother and her mother became good friends, the daughter turned out to suffer from syndromic mental retardation, the mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia in her early thirties, and the father and husband was a self-centered and cold man who institutionalized both of them -- his wife ending-up across the ocean in Indiana in the Richmond State Hospital for the mentally ill. My Czech teacher -- pán Bumbálek -- had to be confined for years to the mental asylum in Haar, south of Munich, and after his release he committed suicide. His very last act one autumn was to carefully place all his belongings, including the furniture he could carry, across a wide, grassy clearing in Munich's English Gardens.

My mother never glosses human cruelty and suffering with some debilitating explanation that it is all for the best, that some truly greater good will come of it, that it's part of God's glorious plan, or that we're just too stupid to understand its point. For her, such explanations betray a dullness and lack of sympathy for the depth, cruelty and senselessness of real and specific cases of suffering. Very little good, if any, comes of it and whatever does come of it we could have had without it, we understand all too well how pointless it is, and, for God's sake, don't say that God would contrive such cold, dreary, and loveless plans.

While understanding human life as a vale of tears, her faith in God has always been boundless, personal, absolutely constant and unshakeable. She was raised in the faith of the "Bohemian Brethren" (Čeští bratři), and the personal and private piety that is a defining feature of this church, developed in part as a survival tactic in response to the Counter-reformation, marks her everyday life. For her, the existence of both God and evil is a fundamental mystery built into the very nature of God, who also becomes a suffering human in Christ. This is not a mystery that further knowledge will demystify. There is no argument that will show that it's all for the best. A god that would try to rationalize evil would be some salesman or bureaucrat and a false god. The mystery of the holy trinity includes the mystery of God and evil, and it is part of the nature of true faith to accept the contradiction of God and evil. Attempts to somehow rationalize this are insults to both God and those who suffer at the hands of cruelty, including God incarnate.

I cannot accept this mystery for I do not share her faith in God, but her's is a serious religious position that combines, as Ivan Karamazov does himself, the despair that is the proper response to human cruelty and a concept of God worthy of respect. A good God is not a casuist, who succeeds only by abstracting from the individual case. A good God does not abstract from the individual case for the sake of some theoretical principle, nor would God use individuals as a mere means for some other greater good. Only a cruel God would rationalize a burning child, a victim of war, in terms of some other good, even if these are the rewards of some heaven. This would be a cruel and heartless monster, not a being worthy of love and worship, and such rewards are completely banal. I am quite certain that my mother would turn away with disgust, like Ivan, from a god who rationalizes the suffering of war with some abstract argument. Certainly that's how she responds to philosophers' theodicies, including Plantinga's free will defense. The bottom line for her was that these were not expressions of real faith, but rational fetishes alien to the God of her faith.

If Kierkegaard is right, and God, if there is such a being, is of necessity not capable of being known, but only an object of faith, then what Plantinga and many other prominent analytic theists have is a belief in the existence of a false God. To equate faith in God in some reasonable and 'proper' basic belief produced by real cognitive faculties, on par with my belief that I see a hand before me, is neither to have faith in God nor to have an idea of a God worthy of worship. I believe that in some cases this belief was primarily an interesting theoretical move into a logical space that for analytic philosophers in the late 1970s and early 1980s was free for the taking and in order to build a career. I don't believe that Plantinga fits this profile, but there is at least one prominent analytic theist for whom this was just a convenient career move, following the advice of the late Richard Taylor who recommended that the pursuit of unconventional positions with clever arguments is a road to success in philosophy, and that this is completely appropriate on account of the Gorgian nature of philosophy. Perhaps there is some truth to this, but it certainly has nothing to do with religious faith.

In sum, there is a solution to the problem of evil, namely to accept the inconsistency of God and evil as a contradiction of existence that is at the core of the mysterium tremendum that is essential to religious faith. This is a serious and thoughtful response to the problem of evil that I also find very moving. My opposition is to positions that are an apotheosis of reason, which reason itself abhors. The existence of an omniscient, omnibenevolent, omnipotent God is logically incompatible with the existence of evil. The only alternatives are to deny this God's existence, deny the existence of evil, or accept that reality is logically incoherent. Of course, quietism is another option, at least in what you say and write, but quietism in thought only is difficult to sustain in this case unless you just don't care about God and evil. I will turn to some logical issues next time, around winter solstice, God willing.

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October 30, 2011

I have been worrying about the problem of evil since childhood, but an early philosophical flashpoint was in graduate school when I was assisting in a class on the Philosophy of Religion, and the professor's response to one of my objections after class to the Free Will Defense was that I should go ask my pastor, accompanied by a smug and condescending smile that I have come to associate with academic philosopher-theists. The pastors and chaplains I've known don't smile like that. I drew the conclusion that the philosophy of religion is a snake's pit and except for an early article defending Socrates' critique of the Divine Command Theory, I spent my energies on other philosophical concerns. However, sometime after 9/11 I couldn't take it anymore that Alvin Plantinga's Free Will Defense came to be accepted as a definitive knock-out blow to the logical problem of evil, even by atheists such as Michael Tooley. The way I saw it was that the foul wind of Reaganism, a wind that blew in the religion, culture and values of fundamentalism and dogmatism, had also changed the contours of academic philosophy.

So I decided to put all other projects aside to work on determining what exactly was wrong with Plantinga's Free Will Defense, but I needed to work together with someone on this. Heimir Geirsson and I had earlier worked very well together on several projects and we shared the same gut reaction to both the content of the argument and the smugness of its bearers. We worked on it intensively and incessantly for almost two years and the collaboration was exhilarating. We would send drafts back and forth, sometimes on a daily basis for months, hammering out every detail between the two of us, and enjoying the sense that we were making genuine philosophical progress. But when we had a draft ready enough for comments, we started to run into that smugness that graduate school had taught me to appreciate. An outstanding example of this was Alvin Plantinga's initial refusal to even acknowledge receipt of our draft. When he finally deigned a nod our way, it was to suggest that we send it to one of his graduate students for comments. Nevertheless, the article, which we called "What God Could Have Made" was published in the Southern Journal of Philosophy and we are grateful to the independence of thought of its editors and reviewers.

But our case received no significant replies, at least none that I am aware of. Perhaps Heimir has received some private responses since he is listed alphabetically first on the article, but as far as I can tell the essay is merely a tombstone to our efforts, buried I am sure with some smug pastor-like blessings. In the meantime, Heimir and I have lost touch with each other, I think this was due to a very serious disagreement we had over Spain's style of play in FIFA World Cup in South Africa. I guess some things are more important than philosophy...

Or maybe not, because this site is an attempt to resurrect our case, in time for Halloween, when the dead come to haunt the living.

The drawing of Mark Twain reconnoitering seems appropriate because it was three nights ago that I tossed and turned all night obsessing after a bout of grading of metaphysics tests that included a question about Mackie and Plantinga about the logical problem of evil. I tossed thinking of writing another paper and then I tossed the other way thinking about what a colossal waste of time that would be and then tossing again, hating the thought that there's no voice in the philosophical wilderness proclaiming that the emperor or perhaps the pope of the philosophy of religion has no clothes. So here it is, on the world wide web, where you can find any opinion that you'd like to find, my intellectual and spiritual monthly diary devoted to God and the logical problem of evil.

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