In a recent article, Edward Feser argues that the logical problem of evil rests on a category mistake regarding the nature of God and of his relationship to the world, and that a proper understanding of God’s nature and how he is related to the cosmos enables us to resolve this problem. To help his readers achieve a correct understanding of the Creator and his relation to creatures, Feser proposes an analogy between God and the author of a novel: God is “the necessary precondition of there being any natural order at all, just as an author is the necessary precondition of there being any novel at all.” I maintain that there are several fundamental flaws in the “author” analogy which render it useless as a tool for eliminating the logical problem of evil, whatever its other merits may be.
In an article titled, “The Thomistic Dissolution of the Logical Problem of Evil”1, written in response to James Sterba’s book, Is a Good God Logically Possible?2, Edward Feser contends that “when one properly understands what God is and what morality and moral agents are, it simply makes no sense to think of God as less than perfectly good or as morally obligated to prevent the evil that exists.”3 Feser’s central claim is that the “logical problem of evil,” which attempts to show that God’s perfect goodness is incompatible with his allowing the evil we find in the cosmos, “implicitly presupposes that God is himself part of the natural order, or at least causally related to it in something like the way that entities within that order are related to one another.” For classical theists, however, “God is utterly distinct from the natural order of things, creating and sustaining it in being ex nihilo.” Hence, concludes Feser, “the ‘problem’ rests on a category mistake, so to expose the mistake is to dissolve the problem.”4
In the essay that follows, I shall be subjecting Feser’s view to a thoroughgoing critique. However, I wish to make it clear at the outset that I am not arguing that the logical problem of evil disproves the existence of God. Rather, what I will be arguing is that the logical problem of evil is a very real one (as theistic personalists rightly appreciate), and that the Thomistic attempt to nullify the problem fails. For my part, I make no claim to being able to offer a neat solution to the problem. I can only suppose that God has reasons of his own for allowing horrendous suffering which we cannot comprehend, and which constrain what God can and cannot do. God is indeed “all-powerful,” but God alone knows what that term means, in practice.
Is God bound by the Pauline Principle?
Sterba’s argument against the existence of an all-good, all-powerful God hinges on what he refers to as the “Pauline Principle”, so-called because it is endorsed by St. Paul (Romans 3:8)5, which states that “we should never do evil that good may come of it.”6 Although the principle primarily applies to actions, there are at least some cases when permitting evil is itself an evil choice (especially where the evil suffered by the victim is a life-crippling one, with “especially horrendous … consequences”7), so according to the Pauline Principle, in such cases, we are morally bound to prevent the evil we can foresee will happen if we do nothing. Sterba maintains that God’s willingness to tolerate horrendous human suffering, despite being omniscient and omnipotent, clearly falls foul of the Pauline principle. Feser’s response is that God the Creator, being outside the natural order, is not bound by this principle; hence God cannot be blamed for allowing horrendous evils to befall his creatures:
Human beings are obligated to prevent … horrendous actions — and, more generally, are obligated to obey the Pauline Principle — because they are members of the community of rational social animals governed by natural law, of which the Pauline Principle is a part… But God is not a part of that community, and thus he is not governed by the natural law, and thus he is not subject to the Pauline Principle.8
According to Feser, it would be a mistake to regard God as a part of the community of rational social animals, for the same reason that it would be a mistake to consider him a part of the order of natural substances: namely, that as the Creator of the laws of nature, God is not bound by any of its laws, whether they be physical laws or the laws governing our actions (i.e. “natural law.”)
Now, it might be objected that even if God is not part of the community of rational social animals, he is still a member of the community of rational social agents. Feser rejects this argument as flawed on two grounds. First, he says, “the moral obligations we have under natural law follow from our nature as rational animals, specifically, not ‘rational agents’ generically.”9 Second, God is said to be rational not in a literal sense but in an analogical sense. Unlike human beings, God does not need to engage in any sort of reasoning process, because he is unchanging. And because God is simple, it makes no sense to attribute distinct thoughts to him. Clearly, God’s mind is very different from ours.
But even if we grant that God’s infinite, simple and unchanging mind is radically unlike our very limited, ever-changing and complex human minds, it is not at all clear why this difference would lessen (let alone obviate) God’s obligation to assist people who are in severe distress. Indeed, one might argue that it increases the obligation, because God’s knowledge of human affairs is perfect, timeless, universal and infallibly correct, which means that he is not subject to any of the uncertainties that we are prone to as rational agents, when we are deciding whether we should offer assistance, whom we should offer it to, and under what circumstances. Nor does it get God off the hook to point out that people’s moral obligations follow from their nature as rational animals, as Feser does. Even granting for the sake of argument that Feser is right on this point, it simply does not follow that any rational agent who is not an animal has no obligations under natural law. For instance, Thomists such as Feser believe that there are angelic beings10 who are natural agents, but who belong entirely to the spiritual order, as they are intellectual agents without bodies of any kind. Do these beings possess moral obligations? Surely, they do: the obligation to serve God, and to obey his commands. Are these superior beings morally obligated to help humans in distress? The consistent teaching of Christian theologians down the ages is that some of them certainly are: we call them guardian angels11.
A Thomist could respond by pointing out that angelic obligations to assist humans in distress are nonetheless natural obligations, which God does not have, as he entirely transcends the order of nature, as its Creator and immediate Sustainer. But not all moral obligations are necessarily natural. Might it not be the case that God has a supernatural obligation to help us, whenever we are in special difficulty? As we’ll see below, Feser thinks otherwise, and he puts forward an analogy of his own – the “author” analogy – to justify his contention that God has no such obligation. Before I discuss the merits of Feser’s analogy, however, I’d like to briefly examine Feser’s positive arguments for his claim that God need not and should not prevent people from doing wicked deeds: first, a “free-will defense” which opposes regular interventions by God, as interferences with the natural order; and second, a “soul-making theodicy” which contrasts the finite duration of our earthly suffering with the infinite reward that God is preparing us for.
Can God thwart evildoers on a regular basis, without upsetting the natural order?
Feser excludes the possibility of God’s thwarting evildoers on a regular basis, arguing that “[f]or God to systematically prevent our choices from having their natural effects (as opposed to the occasional ad hoc miracle) would be to render this natural order pointless, giving us the power to shape our destinies without allowing us actually to do so.”12 But if God is averse to continually working miracles in order to block evildoers’ agency, he could still thwart evildoers without having to perform any miracles, by having recourse to angels, whose will is held by Christian theologians to be fixed in goodness, after having chosen to follow God when they were first created13. Consider the following scenario, which is loosely inspired by C. S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy14. Suppose that unbeknown to us, each planet harboring intelligent animal life-forms is protected by a guardian spirit whose divinely appointed responsibility is to ward off any attacks by intelligent life-forms from other planets, which explains why we’ve never been blown up by technologically advanced aliens. Perhaps the angel guarding our Earth has a way of deflecting incoming missiles, for instance. (Angels, according to Thomists, are naturally capable of moving matter by a simple act of will15.) It appears that Feser cannot rule out the scenario I have just proposed, as it involves no miracles, and the planetary guardian angel exercises purely natural powers, and yet it systematically prevents hostile aliens’ choices (to attack Earth) from having their natural effects. Does this render the natural order pointless? Surely not, any more than having a police force does. But let us go one step further. Suppose that each nation on Earth has a guardian angel whose job it is to prevent hostile attacks by armies from other countries. Does this constitute a nullification of the natural order? Again, it is hard to see why. (I might add that the belief that each nation has its own guardian angel is a very ancient one, in both Jewish and Christian tradition, and that Philo, Origen, Gregory Nazianzen, Augustine and Aquinas embraced it, among others16.) One could even take the argument further and imagine a scenario where each individual’s guardian angel has the responsibility of ensuring that person’s personal safety. If the foregoing argument is correct, God could eliminate all wars, murders and assaults without having to work a single miracle. So why doesn’t he? (One possibility, as I have argued elsewhere17, is that the notion of a spiritual creature being able to move objects by the power of its will alone is an incoherent one.)
The everlasting reward of the blessed in Heaven is also cited by Feser as a reason for God’s not preventing moral evils. As he puts it, “the good that God may produce out of the evil we suffer is not primarily to be found in this life but in our unending afterlife.”18 This argument would have a certain force to it, if the evils we suffered were all of the “soul-making” variety, required to mold us into better human beings. However, there are many evils we suffer – sexual abuse, rape and torture, for instance – which are soul-breaking, rather than soul-making experiences. These evils do not create better people; instead, they create broken people, who are scarred for life. This problem is especially acute for Jews and Christians, who believe that God is our Father. After all, what father would allow his own children to be abused, raped and tortured, if he could possibly prevent it?
Nor will it do to suggest that perhaps those individuals who are psychologically broken by the suffering they’ve endured in this life would have suffered an even worse fate (i.e. eternal damnation, caused by pride or some other deadly sin), had God not allowed them to suffer.19 For in that case, what are we to make of people – and you can find such individuals in any prison or psychiatric institute – who are raped, bludgeoned or tortured to death, and who cry out to God to console them with his presence in their final moments of agony (“God, help me!”), only to find that God has abandoned them, so that in their final moments of consciousness what they experience is unremitting fear and terror which is unbroken by any ray of divine sunshine? What is most scandalous about such deaths is that the spiritual evil these people suffer – a complete absence of God’s consoling presence in their hour of need – is one which requires neither a miracle nor the thwarting of an evildoer’s actions in order to prevent it. All it requires is grace, bestowed by God during a person’s last moments. To suppose that God withholds his own grace from a dying individual for the sake of some “greater good” is akin to supposing that you can feed a starving person by withholding food from them. We really are in the realm of contradiction here.
Feser’s “author” analogy
But even if the “free will defense” and the “soul-making theodicy” both fail to exonerate God, Feser still has one ace up his sleeve: the “author” analogy. In order to explain why a transcendent Creator is not vulnerable to the logical problem of evil, Feser proposes an analogy between God and the human author of a novel – an analogy which he acknowledges is “not exact,” but which he regards as “useful.”20 The kind of analogy Feser is envisaging here is what is commonly known as analogy of proportionality: A is to B as C is to D. Thomistic philosophers maintain21 that we may use such comparisons when talking about God, as Feser does when he writes that “the necessary precondition of there being any natural order at all, just as an author is the necessary precondition of there being any novel at all.”22 Existentially speaking, God is to Nature what an author is to his novel. Once we grasp this analogy, we can immediately see why God has no obligation to prevent evil, any more than an author is obliged to prevent his characters from getting into strife:
An author stands outside the novel altogether, and though for that reason he is not subject to the rules that govern characters within the novel, there are nevertheless distinctively authorial criteria by reference to which he can intelligibly be said to be a good author—such as skillful plotting, elegant prose, and the ability to construct a gripping story with a satisfying denouement. And an author who puts his characters through the wringer for a few chapters before reaching that denouement would be thought much better than one whose characters are boringly free of difficulty. God, for the Thomist, is analogous to such an author, having created a world whose order reflects his omnipotence and supreme wisdom, and which will culminate in the righteous living happily ever after and the wicked getting their just deserts.23
A proposal for identifying poor analogies for God
Before I proceed to explain why I think this analogy is an unhelpful one for resolving the logical problem of evil, it might be helpful for us to take a step back and ask ourselves: how good does an analogy have to be, in order to be useful? What I would suggest is that when we are dealing with a proportional analogy (such as Feser’s analogy of a human author) which purports to explain an entire class of phenomena (in this case, the evils occurring in God’s world), then in order for the analogy to count as a good one, it cannot be an improper analogy for any states of affairs that are presupposed by the phenomena it purports to explain. On the Thomist conception of evil as a privation, the evils that obtain in our cosmos presuppose: (i) the existence of contingent beings which are capable of instantiating defects; (ii) the agency of rational beings such as ourselves who are capable of failing to achieve their proper good (without which there could be no moral evil); and (iii) the passions (or feelings) of sentient animals, which are disturbed when something in their immediate surroundings is not as it should be, resulting in pain and suffering (which are commonly referred to as natural evils). On the proposal I am putting forward here, if it turns out that Feser’s “author” analogy is an improper analogy for creatures’ existence, agency or feelings, then we should reject it as an explanation for the evils occurring in Nature.
At this point, a Thomist may object that I am pushing Feser’s “author” analogy too far, by expecting it to hold in all these cases. After all, no analogy is complete, even within the natural world: for instance, physicists have to make use of two quite different analogies (that of a wave and a particle) when explaining the properties of light. Why, then, should we expect there to be a single, all-encompassing analogy which explains everything we could possibly have to say about God’s dealings with us? For my part, I am quite happy to concede the force of this objection. But what I am arguing here is not that if an analogy we apply to God is valid for explaining a class of phenomena X, then it should be able to explain classes Y and Z as well; rather, what I am arguing is that if we are going to apply an analogy to God in order to explain some class of phenomena X, then we should at least make sure that it’s not an improper analogy for those states of affairs (call them A, B and C) which are presupposed by X. If it turns out to be an improper one, then we should probably dispense with it. Of course, it may turn out that the analogy is simply non-applicable to A, B and C, rather than being an improper analogy for A, B and C. In that case, there is no need to throw it out.
I make no claim that the principle I am proposing here for evaluating the merits of theological analogies expresses an analytic truth; rather, it is simply meant to raise a red flag. As I envisage it, it serves as a warning that there are strong prima facie reasons for not using certain theological analogies, and that we would be ill-advised to do so.
Below, I shall argue that Feser’s “author” analogy is a poor explanation of (i) the existence of contingent beings, (ii) the moral agency of rational beings and (iii) the feelings of sentient beings. It also suffers from four additional defects. In the end, the “author” analogy turns out to be flawed on no less than seven counts, rendering it useless as a tool for dissolving the logical problem of evil.
1. The “author” analogy fails to explain the existence of contingent beings
In a 2011 blog article titled “Are you for real?”, Feser himself provides an admirably lucid account of why, on a Thomistic account of existence, his own analogy between God and the author of a work of fiction is totally inadequate to explain the existence of contingent beings:
…[T]here is an obvious difference between us and fictional characters: we exist and they don’t. Metaphysically speaking, we can understand the difference in terms of Aquinas’s famous distinction between essence and existence. To borrow an example from his On Being and Essence, a phoenix, unlike a human being, has no “act of existence” conjoined with its essence (if there is such a thing as the essence of a phoenix). That’s why there are no phoenixes – they are fictional creatures – while there are human beings. You exist because God conjoins your essence to an act of existence; phoenixes do not exist because God does not conjoin the essence of any phoenix with an act of existence. To regard ourselves as fictional characters in a story God has written would be to deny this obvious difference, and to make it mysterious what it could mean to say that God has created human beings but not phoenixes.24
Given this gaping hole in the “author” analogy, it is therefore puzzling that Feser continues to regard it as useful for explaining away the logical problem of evil.
2. The “author” analogy fails to account for moral agency
Much of the evil we encounter in the world is moral evil: the result of rational agents doing bad things, such as raping, torturing and murdering other individuals. In the above-cited blog article, Feser vigorously defends the “author” analogy as being “useful for helping us to understand why divine causality is not incompatible with human freedom”:
He [God] is … like the writer who decides that the characters will interact in such-and-such a way. And so His being the ultimate source of all causality is no more incompatible with human freedom than the fact that an author decides that, as part of a mystery story, a character will freely choose to commit a murder, is incompatible with the claim that the character in question really committed the murder freely.25
In his reply to Sterba, Feser invokes the same analogy when he writes that “knows the natural order by knowing himself as the cause of it, just as an author knows the story he has written by virtue of knowing his own mind.”26 Feser thus believes that God determines our choices, as the author of human history.
One thing authors cannot do, however, is reproach their own characters for failing to obey their commands. To give a simple illustration: while Harry Potter is perfectly entitled to reproach Voldemort for murdering his parents when he was little, Harry Potter’s author, J. K. Rowling, is not – precisely because she “transcends the story altogether as its source,”27 as Feser so aptly expresses it in his blog article. And even if (per impossibile) J. K. Rowling could converse with Voldemort and condemn him for his wicked deeds, would he not be perfectly justified in retorting, “I only did what you as an author made me do. Why, then, are you blaming me?”
3. The “author” analogy fails to explain our feelings
The concept of natural evil would make no sense unless there existed beings that were capable of suffering harm – and in particular, sentient beings capable of experiencing physical and psychological pain. (One might regard mildew attacking tomatoes as an instance of natural evil, as it damages living plants, but as no-one gets hurt in the process, I can’t imagine an atheist losing any sleep over such a case.) Human authors frequently describe the painful experiences of their characters in the novels they write. But here is the point: when they do so, they draw upon their own experiences as sentient beings. It is precisely because J. K. Rowling is a sentient being that she is capable of vividly portraying the effects of a Crucio curse inflicted by Voldemort upon Harry, for instance.28
One obvious problem that arises when we apply the “author” analogy to God is that according to the classical theism espoused by Feser and other Thomists (not to mention numerous Christians of all stripes), God has no feelings. He is Actus Purus, or pure actuality, and is therefore devoid of any potentiality for having experiences (whether good, bad or indifferent).
Another glaring disanalogy between God and human authors, when it comes to suffering, is that the suffering experienced by the characters in God’s story is real, whereas the suffering of the characters in a novel written by a human author is not – simply because the characters are not.
We have seen that the “author” analogy fails dismally to describe the fundamental phenomena underlying the evil that occurs in the world: namely, the existence of contingent beings, the moral agency of rational beings, and the feelings of sentient beings. I would therefore ask: if the analogy is inadequate to account for the facts which underlie the occurrence of evil, then why should we bother using it to explain evil itself?
4. The “author” analogy and divine freedom
There are further flaws with the “author” analogy, including one relating to divine freedom. To illustrate this point, let us imagine that God mentally composes a very complex story about a very selfish individual who happens to be the same individual as me, who is mean to everyone around him, and who is damned for his many faults, after his death. Let’s call this individual “possible-me,” since so far, we are only talking about a story within the mind of God. The question that Thomists like Feser need to address is: is it possible for God to mentally compose a story about possible-me, with my many personal flaws, that is complete in every detail, without actualizing this flawed character (i.e. without actually making me)?
If Feser would answer “yes” (as I believe he would), then the “author” analogy fails to exonerate God for the evil we find in the world, as there was nothing compelling him to make it in the first place. The harm done was therefore avoidable. God could, for instance, have written a story depicting the damnation of “possible-me” in the most graphic way imaginable, without there being any “actual-me” who is damned. But if Feser would answer “no,” then that would be tantamount to saying that whatever stories about possible worlds God composes in his mind, he has to realize. In other worlds, all possible worlds are real, and God has no freedom to refrain from creating a world that he has imagined in full detail. Taken to its logical conclusion, the “author” analogy thus entails a Spinozist metaphysics which no self-respecting Thomist – indeed, no Christian – would want to defend.
Feser himself is fully aware of the theological perils of pushing the “author” analogy to its logical conclusion, pointing out in a blog article that it leads to pantheism:
If we and everything else in the universe are, in effect, mere ideas in the mind of a divine Author, then the distinction between God and the world collapses. The universe would be “in” God in the same way that the story an author has come up with is “in” the author’s mind. But pantheism is unacceptable both from the point of view of philosophical theology (since the traditional arguments for God’s existence entail that the First Cause is utterly distinct from the world) and from the point of view of dogmatic theology (since pantheism is unorthodox). Hence any view that entails pantheism – as the suggestion that we are fictional characters arguably does – is doubly objectionable.29
5. The “author” analogy is at odds with the declaration of both the Bible and Christian tradition that God is our Father and that we are His children
An additional major flaw with the “author” analogy (at least, as far as Christian philosophers like Feser are concerned) is that it runs counter to the Bible and Christian tradition in an important respect, by completely ignoring the fatherhood of God. To be sure, the “author” analogy appears to have some Scriptural basis: there are numerous passages in Scripture which speak of God, or his Son, creating and sustaining things by the power of His Word. Taken alone, these passages might appear to suggests that (from the perspective of creatures, at least), God enjoys a relationship with the world akin to that of an author to the novel he is writing. On day one of creation, for instance, God declares, “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3) and the Son is described as “sustaining all things by his powerful word” (Hebrews 1:3). However, when it comes to the relationship between God and human beings, it is noteworthy that the Bible nowhere describes us as mere characters in God’s great Book of Nature, but rather as His own children. Acts 17:28 resoundingly declares, “We are all His children,” while Malachi 2:10 rhetorically asks, “Do we not all have one Father? Did not one God create us?”
The same picture emerges when we examine the Christian tradition. While it is true that for over 1,500 years, Christian theologians30 have consistently referred to Nature as God’s Book, alongside the Book of Scripture, I know of no Church Father or Doctor who ever referred to human individuals as characters in God’s book. The point is a vital one, since the evil in the world relates to the characters, rather than the setting they occupy. Although the Church Fathers say relatively little about the place of animals in God’s world, they repeatedly affirm that human beings are God’s children, made “to know Him, to love Him, to serve Him in this world, and be happy with Him for ever in Heaven,” as the Baltimore Catechism puts it.31
As I see it, the key theological point at stake here is as follows: when we call God our Father, do we mean nothing more than “God is our Author”? If so, then it is abundantly clear that God has no moral obligation whatsoever to protect us from the various evils that may befall us, any more than a human author is obliged to rescue his characters when they are in distress. But if the word “Father,” as applied to God, means something more than “Author,” then the problem of evil returns in full force. To return to the question we asked earlier: what father would allow his own children to be abused, raped and tortured, if he could prevent it?
6. The “author” analogy renders objective criticism of God’s handiwork impossible
Feser insists that there are objective criteria by reference to which an author can described as a good author — such as “skillful plotting, elegant prose, and the ability to construct a gripping story with a satisfying denouement.” He adds that “an author who puts his characters through the wringer for a few chapters before reaching that denouement would be thought much better than one whose characters are boringly free of difficulty,” before adding that “God, for the Thomist, is analogous to such an author.”32
The problem with this analogy should be immediately apparent. For any human author, there are other people who can independently critique his work, whereas there is no-one who can independently critique God’s handiwork, as we are all his creatures, who depend on him at each moment for our very existence and whose aesthetic judgements simply reflect God’s authorial decisions about what we, his characters, will think and say in the story he is composing. God unlike a human author, has no peers. Hence He can never be judged “wrong” in the way He makes something. At this point, the insight captured in Wittgenstein’s private language argument comes into play: when it is impossible in principle for someone to be wrong about something, it is equally impossible for that person to be right. Similarly, if it is impossible in principle for God’s handiwork to be judged bad, then it is equally impossible for it to be judged good.
In any case, the criteria listed by Feser above cannot be used to evaluate God’s skill as an author, because he could possess the ability to write a story instantiating all of these criteria, while nonetheless choosing to compose a mediocre story instantiating none of them. After all, God is under no obligation to “do His best,” or even to “do a good job.” God might decide that merely adequate job will do.
7. Authors can’t insert themselves in their own books
In his book, The Unnecessary Science: A Critical Analysis of Natural Law Theory, Gunther Laird points out a fundamental inconsistency between the “author” metaphor and the Christian belief that Jesus is God made man:
If the world of our everyday existence is analogous to a story held in God’s mind, then wouldn’t the Incarnation of Christ be analogous to the author of a novel inserting himself into it as a character? But if you think about it, it is metaphysically impossible for an author to literally put himself inside a story. For instance, imagine if J.R.R. Tolkien wrote a story in which he was transported from his study into Middle-Earth and helped defend Minas Tirith. But Tolkien-the-author and Tolkien-the-character could not literally be the same person, because they are crucially different in both characteristics and actions. If they were the same, Tolkien-the-author would have to be yanked from his study at the very same time he was sitting down and writing about Tolkien-the-character being plunged into Middle Earth. Thus, we can conclude that Tolkien-the-author is essentially different from Tolkien-the-character, the latter simply being a representation of the former, a fictional character who might resemble in all particulars the author, but is otherwise a separate entity.33
The basic problem here is that an author, precisely because he lives on a higher plane of reality than his characters, cannot turn himself into one of them, as Christianity maintains God did.
What would follow if the “author” analogy were an appropriate one?
Finally, it might be asked: supposing the “author” analogy were an appropriate one, as Feser contends, would it solve the logical problem of evil? The answer I would suggest is: yes, but at an unacceptably high cost, for it would make God’s goodness compatible with the creation of any world, no matter how hellish. The following quote from Feser’s essay highlights the problem:
…[T]he good that God may produce out of the evil we suffer is not primarily to be found in this life but in our unending afterlife. And it includes the offer of the beatific vision, which infinitely outweighs any suffering we could undergo in this life, and which will be refused only to those who refuse the offer.34
The problem here is that Feser’s argument could be used to justify God’s subjecting us to millions or even billions of years of excruciating pain, in order to prepare us for Heaven. An author is perfectly free to subject his characters to whatever trials he sees fit for them to suffer, in order to reach their goal. What’s more, no degree or duration of suffering, no matter how immense, could ever count as evidence against the goodness of God, since on Feser’s account, to say that God is good means simply that “God is pure actuality, with no unactualized potentiality.”35 But in Christian theology, to say that God is good is to say that God is Love (1 John 4:16) – a word that curiously appears not once in Feser’s entire essay on the problem of evil. If God is essentially loving and empathizes with our suffering, we can rest assured that he will not impose more suffering on us that we can bear. However, Feser would reject such a picture of God as anthropomorphic – i.e. as an example of what he refers to as “theistic personalism.”
Another problem with Feser’s “author” analogy is that it may lead many thoughtful people to lose hope of their own salvation. According to Feser, God’s offer of the beatific vision “will be refused only to those who refuse the offer.” However, those who refuse God’s offer do so only because their proud intellects and depraved wills are corrupted, causing them to rationalize their pursuit of the vices into which they have fallen. And on Feser’s account, God knows events taking place in the natural order like an author knows the story he has written: by knowing his own mind. What that means is that all my thoughts and volitions – good, bad or indifferent – have been decided in advance by God. What guarantee do I have, then, that I will persevere in goodness, even if I am currently on the right path? For all I know, God may decide to fill my mind with proud and/or depraved thoughts tomorrow, thereby turning me into a wicked person who is eventually doomed to receive his just deserts in Hell, in God’s great story. To be sure, Feser insists36 that God does not “will or cause moral evil” as such (presumably because evil per se is a defect, and God only creates what is positive), but if God is the author of our thoughts and volitions, which often lead us astray, then it is hard to see how he can escape the charge of causing evil.
The “author” analogy would also rob of of any rational grounds for believing in our own immortality. Feser disagrees, insisting37 that “our rationality entails that our souls are incorporeal and thus do not perish with the death of the body.” But even an incorporeal separated intellect still requires information to process; otherwise, it will grind to a halt. The information which our rational human intellects are able to digest comes to us from our brains and nervous systems. The destruction of these vital body parts at death therefore leaves our minds with nothing to do. Arguably, an entity that does nothing, is nothing. It therefore seems to follow that in the absence of special intervention by God, we cease to exist at death. But if Feser’s argument that an author is under no obligation to rescue His characters from whatever evils they may suffer is correct, then a fortiori, it is also true that an author is under no obligation to provide his characters with a post-mortem lifeline by feeding their disembodied intellects with information about the world so that they are able to continue reasoning. Nor can Feser argue for immortality on the basis of our natural desire for it, since an author is in no way bound to satisfy the natural desires of his characters. In any case, natural desires are often frustrated in real life: only a lucky few animals ever get to mate and pass on their genes, for instance. Immortality might turn out to be a rare privilege, with the vast majority of human beings facing annihilation at death.
Additionally, the “author” analogy would rob us of any grounds for trusting an alleged supernatural revelation – for example, the Christian revelation that God is three persons or that God the Son became man in the person of Jesus Christ. Feser might respond that God would not – indeed, cannot – lie to us, but as an author, he could cause his characters to come to accept false revelations or reject true ones, simply by writing a story in which they engage in faulty reasoning, or in which they allow their passions or their prideful wills to cloud their judgements. The characters’ decisions would, on Feser’s account, be entirely free, even though they were wholly determined by God. No lying would be involved, as God would not be communicating with the characters who are misled in this way.
Finally, the “author” analogy would seem to entail radical skepticism about our own mental processes, except insofar as they relate to practical matters. If God is the author of our ruminations and ratiocinations, he could make us come to believe in all kinds of silliness – and we would be none the wiser.
I conclude that the “author” metaphor for God’s relationship with the world not only fails to dissolve the logical problem of evil, but actually exacerbates it, by depriving us of any grounds for hoping for a hereafter, let alone the Christian Heaven, and by leading us to question not only supernatural revelations, but much of our natural knowledge as well. Christian theologians and philosophers would therefore do well to jettison this metaphor, in their discussions of the problem of evil.
Aquinas, St. Thomas. 1920. Summa Theologiae. Second and Revised Edition. Translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Online Edition Copyright © 2017 by Kevin Knight.
Aquinas, St. Thomas. 1955-57. Summa Contra Gentiles. (Edited, with English, especially Scriptural references, updated by Joseph Kenny, O.P.) New York: Hanover House.
Catholic Church. “Heaven and Earth,” in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. Vatican: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2012.
Craig, William Lane. 2011. “What about Natural Evil?” Reasonable Faith podcast. URL: https://www.reasonablefaith.org/media/reasonable-faith-podcast/what-about-natural-evil/
Feser, Edward. 2011. “Are you for real?” (blog article). URL: http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2011/05/are-you-for-real.html
Feser, Edward. 2021. The Thomistic Dissolution of the Logical Problem of Evil. Religions 12(4):268. URL: https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12040268
Harris, Roger. 2007. The Private Language Argument Isn’t as Difficult, Nor as Dubious as Some Make Out. URL: https://www.sorites.org/Issue_18/harris.htm
Laird, Gunther. 2020. The Unnecessary Science: A Critical Analysis of Natural Law Theory. Onus Books.
Lewis, C. S. 2011. The Space Trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength). Simon & Schuster; Reissue edition.
Nicoletti, Michele. The Angel of the Nations. In: Theopopedia. Archiving the history of theologico-political concepts, ed. by T. Faitini, F. Ghia, M. Nicoletti, University of Trento, Trento 2015. URL: http://theopopedia.lett.unitn.it/?encyclopedia=angels-of-the-nations, http://theopopedia.lett.unitn.it/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/angels-Nicoletti.pdf
Rowling, J. K. 2000. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. London: Bloomsbury.
Sacred Congregation of Studies. 1914. The Twenty-Four Fundamental Theses Of Official Catholic Philosophy. (Commentary by P. Lumbreras, O.P., S.T.Lr., Ph.D. Latin translation of theses by Hugh McDonald.) URL: http://www.u.arizona.edu/~aversa/scholastic/24Thomisticpart2.htm
Sterba, James P. 2019. Is a Good God Logically Possible? Cham: Palgrave Macmillan.
Tanzella-Nitti, G. 2004. The Two Books Prior to the Scientific Revolution. Annales Theologici 18:51-83. URL: https://inters.org/tanzella-nitti/pdf/9.TwoBooks.pdf
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Torley, Vincent. 2020. An A-Z of Unanswered Objections to Christianity: F. Superhuman intelligences: angels, demons and aliens. URL: http://theskepticalzone.com/wp/an-a-z-of-unanswered-objections-to-christianity-f-superhuman-intelligences-angels-demons-and-aliens/
1 (Feser 2021).
2 (Sterba 2019).
3 (Feser 2021, p. 268).
4 Ibid., p. 269.
5 (Sterba 2019, p. 44). The verse reads: “And why not do evil that good may come? — as some people slanderously charge us with saying. Their condemnation is just.” (ESV)
6 Loc. cit.
7 Ibid, pp. 189-190.
8 (Feser 2021, p. 280).
9 Ibid, p. 282.
10 (Sacred Congregation of Studies, 1914, Thesis VII).
11 Catholic Church 336. “From infancy to death human life is surrounded by their watchful care and intercession.202 ‘Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life.’203 Already here on earth the Christian life shares by faith in the blessed company of angels and men united in God.”
12 (Feser 2021, p. 279).
13 See for instance Aquinas 1920, Summa Theologiae, I.62.5, I.62.8.
14 (Lewis 2011).
15 (Aquinas 1920, Summa Theologiae, I.57.2; Aquinas, 1955-57, Summa Contra Gentiles, II.99.4).
16 (Tanzella-Nitti, G. 2004).
17 (Torley 2020).
18 (Feser 2021, p. 278).
19 For a suggestion in a similar vein, see (Craig, 2011). On the subject of natural disasters, Craig writes: “I think that it’s not at all improbable that only in a world that is suffused with natural disasters would the maximal number of people freely come to know God and his love and find their entrance into God’s Kingdom. It’s not at all implausible that in a world in which there were no natural consequences of pain and suffering to anything we did that people would be spoiled, pampered brats who would forget God and would have no need of him whatsoever.”
20 (Feser 2021, p. 281).
21 (Sacred Congregation of Studies, 1914, Thesis IV).
22 (Feser 2021, p. 273).
23 Ibid., p. 281.
24 (Feser 2011).
25 Loc. cit.
26 (Feser 2021, p. 276).
27 (Feser 2011).
28 (Rowling 2000, p. 713). “It was pain beyond anything Harry had ever experienced: his very bones were on fire, his head was surely splitting along his scar, his eyes were rolling madly in his head, he wanted it to end … to black out … to die …” My point is that only someone who had suffered from severe headaches could have written a description like that of the effects of the Crucio curse on Harry Potter.
29 (Feser 2011).
30 (Tanzella-Nitti, G. 2004).
31 (The Third Plenary Council of Baltimore, 1885, Q. 6).
32 (Feser 2021, p. 281).
33 (Laird 2020, p. 298).
34 (Feser 2021, p. 278).
35 (Feser 2021, p. 276).
35 (Feser 2021, p. 280).
37 (Feser 2021, p. 278).