While the two problems are very similar, they are also fundamentally different. In this post I’d like to consider the problems side-by-side, highlight both their similarities and their differences.
Epicurus offered a classic formulation of the problem of evil in the following terms:
Is (God) willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?Not long ago, Randy Olds articulated the problem of hell simply by retooling this epicurean argument :
Is God willing to put an end to the torments of Hell, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then how can Hell possibly last for all eternity?In both cases, there is an argument to the effect that belief in an omnipotent and perfectly good God is incompatible with something else—either the existence of evil, or the existence of an eternal hell.
Now, an enormous difference between the two problems rests in the following fact: The existence of evil is a matter of experience, whereas the existence of hell is a matter of doctrine. That is, all of us have encountered in our lives, either directly or indirectly, cases of cruelty, suffering, pointless death, and the like. There is no denying that children starve by the hundreds of thousands. There is no denying that bifurcating ideologies lead to gruesome atrocities. There is no denying that diseases cut promising lives short, that natural disasters bring untold suffering.
And so, to deny the existence of evil requires that we say of all of these horrors that they really aren’t evil after all. Some theists, confronted with the problem of reconciling evil with their faith in an almighty and benevolent God, do seem drawn to just such a move. When Pat Robertson blamed the Haitian earthquake on a supposed pact with the devil that Haitian rebels had made generations ago, we see the ugliest fruits of this kind of theodicy. Horrors are baptized. Victims are blamed. God is vindicated at the expense of doing violence to human dignity.
Denying the existence of hell requires nothing of the kind. And while some Christians argue that it requires denying the clear teaching of Scripture, even this is a dubious claim—as, I think, Robin Parry (writing as Gregory McDonald) has argued quite powerfully in The Evangelical Universalist.
Another enormous difference between the problem of evil and the problem of hell is that the problem of evil is posed in terms of finite, terrestrial evils—evils that, if God exists, do not have the final word in the lives of those who suffer them. If God exists and is infinite in power and benevolence, then there is reason to hope that even the worst terrestrial evils will being redeemed.
As Marilyn McCord Adams has so powerfully argued, there are really two problems of evil: One is explaining why God would permit evils in the first place; the second is explaining how God can be good to the victims of the worst of those evils, the ones Adams calls “horrors.” Adams offers a compelling account of how God might “defeat” even the worst finite evils, so as to make the lives of those who suffer them well worth living. Her account doesn’t solve the first problem of accounting for evil in the first place, but the point I want to make here is that eternal hell is by definition suffering and sin that endures eternally and so is never redeemed.
As such, it seems that the second problem of evil becomes, in relation to hell, seemingly insurmountable. In effect, the doctrine of hell holds that there are some evils that endure eternally, evils that God either cannot or will not redeem, and so remain forever as a blight on the divine creation.
Seen in this light, belief in the doctrine of hell seems to be a far more serious threat to belief in an almighty God of love than does the reality of any finite evil.
Nevertheless, there are those who seek to cling to the doctrine of hell and integrate it with their theistic faith. The main aim of That Damned Book (my forthcoming book co-authored with John Kronen) is to show that these efforts just don’t work.