One of the arguments for God’s existence is the teleological argument (also known as the argument from design), which claims that the intricate design evident in the universe, from the microscopic to the cosmic levels, is proof that an omniscient and omnipotent God has created the universe. In other words, the order, purpose, and design that is obvious in nature shows that the universe is of a divine origin. This argument holds that the complexity, interrelatedness, and purposefulness of the universe could not have occurred as a result of chance or accident.
Among the counterarguments to the teleological argument is one that is known as “the problem of evil.” Observation shows that some incidents or conditions serve no discernable benefit but, instead, cause apparently unnecessary suffering. Examples are the suffering of animals, an infant with a birth defect, a toddler struck with cancer, an adult blinded or deafened or disfigured as a result of a natural catastrophe such as a fire, an earthquake, or a tornado. The problem of evil challenges the idea that a loving, all-knowing, all-powerful God has created the universe, for if he knows all and can do anything, how could he, if he is also loving, permit such evils as suffering animals, birth defects, diseases, and natural catastrophes?
Horror fiction is a means of exploring this philosophical problem. Although, like philosophy and theology, this genre of literature does not offer any definitive answer to the question, it does suggest some partial answers and is a concrete way of demonstrating, or dramatizing, these answers.
As we pointed out in another post, “Evil Is As Evil Does,” various writers in the horror genre have attributed evil to various origins, Nathaniel Hawthorne ascribing it to sin; Edgar Allan Poe, to passion coupled with madness; H. P. Lovecraft, to cosmic indifference to humanity; Dean Koontz, to humanity’s indifference to humanity; Stephen King, to threats to the local community; and Bentley Little, to bureaucratic and administrative indifference to individuals.
Some of these writers see evil as a consequence of individuals’ exercise of free will, whether individually or collectively (sins of commission), in part, at least, whereas others see evil as an effect of indifference, either by humanity to humanity (a sin of omission) or by virtue of humanity’s existence within a universe that is indifferent to it.
Of these writers, Lovecraft seems closest in his analysis of evil to the view of the universe that is implicit in the problem of evil. Lovecraft was an atheist. Had he been religious, he might have been, at most, a pantheist or a Deist. His understanding of a morally indifferent universe, however, would not have permitted him to be a Christian--or, at least, not in the traditional sense. For him, the idea of a personal, loving God who is active in human affairs would have been philosophically untenable. If free will is disallowed as the cause of all human suffering, one must admit culpability at the divine level, if one believes in a personal God. Either God is not loving (or he is actually sadistic), or he is neither all-knowing nor all-powerful. Otherwise, the existence of evil seems inexplicable.
Other corollaries also follow. For example, the teleological aspect of creation becomes potentially problematic. If God is too limited in either knowledge or power, or if he is not a God of love, there is no guarantee that the story of life, or the unfolding of the universe, so to speak, will work out as he has anticipated. Things may get out of hand.
Before Christianity, pagan religion posited a power above and beyond, or transcendent to, the gods. Even Zeus or Jupiter or Odin was subject to the power of the Moirae, the Parcae, or the Norns (that is, the Fates). To paraphrase Alexander Pope, the gods proposed, but the Fates disposed. It was only in Judaism and Christianity that God’s will became what is the equivalent of fate, and predestination entered the logic of theology. In Lovecraft’s world view, fate is equivalent not with God’s will but with blind chance. The universe is a great roll of the dice, and any notion of purpose or meaning is merely an illusion. The universe is indifferent to humanity.
Religious thinkers have offered refutations of the problem of evil, arguing that suffering builds character, that suffering is a result of the exercise of free will (making wrong choices), that suffering is a consequence of knowledge, and that evil happens when individuals do not act in accordance with natural laws.
Neither the argument from design nor the problem of evil is convincing to everyone, and the debate that is based upon the issues these arguments expound is likely to continue to engage both the faithful and the agnostic or atheist. Meanwhile, such writers as those we’ve mentioned (and many others whom we did not cite) will continue to explore both sides of the question. In the process, they will offer more ideas in defense of teleology and more ideas against teleology. In the process, the readers of horror fiction will continue to better understand and appreciate both the possibility of purposeful events and of the meaning, if any, of evil and human suffering.