Theodicy is the branch of theology that attempts to cope with the problem of evil. One move is to point out that some values seem to presuppose pains. We can cheer up people in the mixed and spotty dormitory, by extolling the virtues of patience and fortitude – goods that require deprivation and difficulty to flourish. The difficulty with this is that we ourselves think that things are going better when the situations requiring those virtues lose some of their edge. The imperfections of the computer program Windows have no doubt led to virtues of patience or fortitude, but even Microsoft have never used that to defend the perfection of the product, and indeed that is why they continue to try and improve it.
Again, people sometimes try to defend belief in a genuinely good deity, good in a sense we can understand, against the problem of evil by what is known as the ‘free will defence’. The idea that god created a good universe, and out of his goodness created us with free will. But by misusing the freedom thus granted, we ourselves brought evil into an otherwise perfect world. The myth of the Fall and the expulsion from the Garden of Eden embody the idea.
There are many objections to this defence. First, it seems to depend upon a conception of free will that seems to be incoherent: the interventionist conception according to which something that is not part of the natural order (the Real Me) occasionally interferes in the natural order. For without this, if free will is understood in a compatibilist way, my decision-making is done with a natural endowment which is ultimately, for the theist, due to god. If god had not wanted Stalin to slaughter millions, he should not have created the nature that eventually gave rise to the decision-making modules of such a person.
Second, it is just not true that all, or even many, of the ills that afflict human beings are due to human decisions at all. They are due to disease, pain, want, and accident. They afflict the animal creation as well and human beings (no real difference there actually), and did so long before there were human beings; and long before humans had even invented the idea of god.
Third, even if the metaphysics of free will were accepted, a good god might be expected to protect some of the weaker from the misuses of free will of the stronger. A parent might recognise the value of letting children make their own choices, and give them some liberty. But if some of the older children show alarming tendencies to murder and mutilate the younger, the parent would be wise to put them under supervision, or to protect the younger by diverting the older from their plans. Unhappily, god does not do this in the world as we have it. There are no natural playpens, in which the weak are segregated from the strong. We have to try to create our own safe areas. This fact lies in stark contrast to the idea of god as caring.
Religious traditions are at their best when they back away from the classical virtues of god. God is elevated in some traditions to be above good and virtue, or in Hume’s down-to-earth phrase, has no regard to good above ill than heat above cold. In other traditions, he is by no means omnipotent, but subject to forces not of his own making. Each of these at least afford some kind of theodicy. But if we really were concerned to puzzle out the nature of god’s mind from the nature of his creation, we might look seriously at the idea that he (she, they, it) is a god with a twisted sense of humour. After all, as the Jewish joke goes, he led the chosen people round the desert for forty years just to drop them into the only part of the Middle East that has no oil.