Would You Torture a Child to Bring Universal Harmony? The Rhetorical Argument From Evil

The most potent argument challenging belief is not an argument at all. The other two arguments from evil discussed in previous posts attempt to maintain a logical form and a rational tone. Not this one! It rehearses in exquisite detail the horrors of war, the ravages of sicknesses and the savagery of human cruelty. It speaks of holocausts and genocides. It places the believer in a completely untenable position. The suffering described is so horrible, so unforgiveable that voicing any hope for redemption or for any good to come from it makes you sound like you are trivializing it.

The argument is sometimes called the “emotional” argument from evil, but I think it is best labeled the “rhetorical” argument from evil. I prefer this designation for the argument because it attempts not to persuade believers but to silence them with sarcasm or nauseating descriptions of suffering. It pictures those who believe in a kind Heavenly Father who takes care of us as fools blindly following an optimistic theory in face of its obvious refutation or as unsympathetic listeners unmoved by the most horrendous human suffering. In this setting believers are placed in the dilemma of either remaining silent and giving tacit assent to the argument or speaking and sounding foolish or cruel.

Voltaire’s book Candide is the most famous example of using sarcasm to attack belief in that God allows everything happen for a reason. The book tells the story of the misadventures of Candide and his companions as they witness and endure terrible wickedness and suffering. Dr. Pangloss is a blind optimist who believes that everything happens for the best. His constant refrain is that “this is the best of all possible worlds and everything happens for the best,” which sounds absurd in the context of Voltaire’s description of the death, dismemberment and suffering they encounter. What makes Pangloss seem foolish is not his deep faith that God will work all things for good but his silly presumption that he can see this with his own eyes and his tactless voicing of this opinion.

The most famous example of using agonizing and nauseating descriptions of wickedness and suffering against belief is the conversation between Ivan Karamozov and Alyosha his novice monk brother in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamozov. Ivan explains to his younger brother why he rejects God’s world and plans to kill himself when he turns 30 years of age: “Yet would you believe it, in the final result I don’t accept this world of God’s, and although I know it exists, I don’t accept it at all. It’s not that I don’t accept God, you must understand, it’s the world created by Him I don’t and cannot accept” (p. 203, Norton Critical Edition)! Ivan tells story after story of innocent children tortured by heartless adults. But the most agonizing is the story of a little girl tortured by her own parents:

“These educated parents subjected this poor five-year-old girl to every possible torture. They beat, thrashed, kicked her, not knowing why themselves, turning her whole body into bruises; finally they reached the highest refinement: in the cold, in the frost, they shut her up all night in the outhouse, because she wouldn’t ask to be taken out at night (as though a five-year-old child, sleeping its angelic sound sleep, could be taught to ask)—for that they smeared her whole face with her excrement and made her eat that excrement, and it was her mother, her mother who made her! And that mother could sleep at night, hearing the groans of that poor little child, locked up in that vile place! Can you understand that a little being, who still can’t even comprehend what is being done to her, in that vile place, in the dark and cold, beats herself with her tiny little fist on her strained little chest and cries her bloody, unresentful, meek little tears to ‘dear God’ to protect her—can you understand that nonsense, my friend and my brother, my pious and humble novice, do you understand why this nonsense is necessary and created? Without it, they say, man could not have existed on earth, for he would not have known good and evil. Why should he know that diabolical good and evil, when it costs so much? The whole world of knowledge is not worth the little tears of that little child to ‘dear God.’”

Ivan concludes that no possible good that could be achieved is worth even one tear from that little girl. “I don’t want harmony, for the love of humanity, I don’t want it. I would rather remain with unavenged suffering. I’d rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unquenched indignation, even if I am wrong” (p. 212). Alyosha the believer is completely silenced. There is nothing to be said.

Ivan Karamosov is the literary expression of what came to be known in the mid-20th century in response to the Holocaust as “protest atheism.” Protest atheism contends that any effort to find meaning in horrendous events of suffering diminishes that suffering and dampens our enthusiasm to fight against evil. The “unavenged suffering and unquenched indignation” must be kept alive for the victims’ sake. Their suffering must not be made a means to a higher end.

As I said at the beginning of this essay, the rhetorical argument from evil is not a logical and rational argument. Now I think we can see what it is. It expresses agonized rebellion against forgetting and minimizing the suffering of the victims of the evil that human beings do to each other. And it expresses an irrevocable commitment to keep alive the determination to fight against such evil. Christian believers can and should share these concerns. We must. To believe that God will dry every tear does not mean that the tears were not cried or were cried in vain. No. Hope in God does not exclude weeping for ourselves and others who suffer. Faith that God will make all things right does not mean that we are relieved of the duty to denounce evil as evil and fight against it with all our might.

These thoughts are expanded greatly in the 25-page chapter (“The Rhetorical Argument From Evil”) in my soon-to-be published book, The Faithful Creator: Affirming Creation and Providence in an Age of Anxiety (InterVarsity Press, 400 pages). I will be saying more about his book when it is released this fall. Here is the Amazon.com link for the book:


2 thoughts on “Would You Torture a Child to Bring Universal Harmony? The Rhetorical Argument From Evil

  1. nokareon

    Ivan’s rejection of any attempts at theodicy or even harmonizing the existence of suffering has always interested me. It reminds me much of New Atheist rhetoric that suffering is simply purposeless and we just have to accept that. I was listening to a Veritas debate with Nicholas Christianfeld where he argued that keeping suffering as a purposeless entity is more meaningful, even satisfying, than arguing for higher purpose or theodicy. His reasons are much like what you described with protest Atheism–if we say suffering is part of a higher plan and has a divine purpose, then we become paralyzed to act to remove or exterminate suffering from the world, for who are we to meddle in the grand divine plan? On the other hand, if suffering is purposeless, we can choose to commit to eliminating it as part of being human, simply out of our biological empathy for other humans.

    But even with that line of reasoning on the field, I find it hard to believe that anyone would find it preferable for suffering to be utterly purposeless. On Atheism, Dawkins’ position that suffering is pointless and the overall outlook is bleak–but that is just how it *is*–makes much more sense.


  2. ifaqtheology Post author

    Logically, yes, but naturally no. Simply because something is logically possible does not mean that it must be left an open possibility for creatures with natures like ours whose end is God. God could make sure that we are always in such an epistemic position that we are never tempted to opt for evil but are always clear that God and his will are identical to our telos.



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