Category Archives: Problem of Evil
N. T. Wright on why the secular hope of progress failed:
The myth of progress fails because it doesn’t in fact work; because it would never solve evil retrospectively; and because it underestimates the nature and power of evil itself and thus fails to see the vital importance of the cross, God’s no to evil, which then opens the door to his yes to creation. Only in the Christian story itself—certainly not in the secular stories of modernity—do we find any sense that the problems of the world are solved not by a straightforward upward movement into the light but by the creator God going down into the dark to rescue humankind and the world from its plight.
N.T. Wright, Surprised By Hope
We have spent the last entries taking a cursory look at the Problem of Evil. I have made what I feel were the necessary distinctions in order to approach the issue in a more precise manner. The warning was made that in addressing these various forms of the PE, we ought never to think we have removed all the mystery, and indeed terror, of the misery and suffering that people endure everyday in this broken world. Exhaustive answers as to why God has deemed it proper to allow sin and evil into His good creation are not forthcoming. Also, while I have denied the possibility of fully explaining God’s ways, I have defended the belief that the PE, in the multiple variations in which it appears, does not invalidate the rationality of Christian belief in God. In the process of defending this claim, we’ve looked at a handful of forms of the PE and found them wanting.
Lastly, we’ve turned the tables on the detractors of Christianity, and defended the notion that evil is actually indirect evidence for the God of Scripture. The dilemma of evil is addressed on every page of Scripture. Redemption itself is about the manner and process through which God delivers His creation from the misery brought about by the entrance of sin and evil into His good work. God does not address the “problem” in the way we would expect, and more often than not, our questions about particular occurrences of evil are left unanswered. But God has demonstrated His character in Scripture and calls us to trust him through the pain.
When we view reality from the perspective given to us in the Bible, we find that it presents us with no philosophical Problem of Evil. That is not to say that, according to the Bible, our difficulties with evil do not arise from the suffering we endure living in this fallen world. There is a real sense in which the ”problem” lies in our emotional and psychological state. This, of course, is not to trivialize the traumatic impression made by encounters with evil.
The pain of losing a loved one often may cloud our judgment regarding God’s character. Likewise, the blinding emotional outrage of witnessing the killing fields of Rwanda can temporally disable us from thinking clearly about the truth-value of Christian theism. Yet, I’m not saying that the touch of evil only disables us. The Bible abundantly shows us a world filled with pain, and evil. We may be tempted to ignore the suffering of those outside of our own circles diminishing the intensity of their pain. But when we personally feel the sting of pain, suffering, and evil, our malaise is placed in proper perspective. As C. S. Lewis noted that evil is God’s megaphone to a morally deaf world (see his The Great Divorce, New York: Macmillan, 1946.) Evil cannot be ignored or denied.
The intensity of our experience of suffering is typically advanced by the fact that while we may believe in God, often our prayers, and answers in response to the “why” question, are not answered (at least not in the manner in which we desire). There is the mysterious “wait” and “dialectic” between evil and good (I got this notion from John Frame). We are called to trust God, though many times it seems as if He does not answer. Likewise, the dialectic reminds us daily that the righteous do not always prosper nor do the wicked always suffer. These experiences raise the existential or pastoral PE, the “How Long, O Lord” cries of the heart. This pain may lead us to doubt God’s word. But here a severe caution must be raised. “Beware of becoming the thing that you hate.” It was the doubt of God’s word as sufficient to direct our lives that originally ushered sin and evil into our world (Gen. 3).
We could rightly say that from one perspective the entire message of the Bible is one grand-scale answer to the problem of evil. The thrust of scripture points to the notion that had God destroyed creation after the entrance of sin and evil, Satan would have won. What we find is that God is not in favor of redemption from creation, but rather the redemption of creation. He has decreed that He would not defeat evil unilaterally, but from within the created order, by the seed of the woman (Gen. 3:15). As salvation history unfolds, the seed is identified with Abraham, then Judah, and finally with King David. In Christ, sin and evil do their worst, only to be conquered and made a spectacle of (Col. 2:15). The cross is indeed the “victory of God.” The ultimate triumph over evil came through a man, Jesus Christ (the Son of God).
Though most who raise the PE desire a top-down answer (some form of God waving a magic wand and making every evil go away), in this regard, God’s answer, the Biblical answer, is bottom up. God has deemed history, families, dominion, and ultimately the work of the Savior valuable. This is no gnostic answer to the PE. This is a gritty, hands-in-the-dirt God, who in the second Person of the Holy Trinity knows suffering like no other knows it.
Next I’ll wrap up this series with my conclusion…
THE NON-CHRISTIAN PROBLEM OF EVIL
So far, we have looked at several forms of the PE, and have provided responses to demonstrate that they do not accomplish their goal (i.e. discrediting the rationality of Christian theism). This has been a defense of the coherence of theism, and primarily a negative apologetic (with the goal of removing road-blocks to Christian faith). Now I turn to an offensive apologetic, one that seeks to question the validity of the challenger’s position.
As we examine the charges against Christian theism, we can now ask if the unbeliever’s outrage at the evil in this world is an expression of personal distaste or whether the recent Virginia Tech shootings were objectively evil. If they object to this line of questioning, or deny that there exists objective ethical laws (laws which Cho Seung Hui violated) the Christian may respond, ”what has become of your original objection?” If evil does not exist, then it cannot be marshaled against the Christian conception of God.
Recall that in every form of the PE presented above, in some fashion it was posed that the existence of evil disproves the existence of the Christian God. The goal has been to show that this is not the case. Here we are faced with a linguistic problem for the non-Christian. We are left to ask, exactly what constitutes evil in a non-Christian framework? Without the infinite-personal God of the Bible, how do we define it? In fact, we are only left with two alternatives: either the non-Christian appeals to:
1) an individual subjectivist response, and
2) a collective subjectivist response.
For the sake of handling the various possible replies I have distinguished the alternatives. However, as we will soon see, both alternatives reduce to subjectivism and skepticism.
Individual subjectivist responses. If the non-Christian claims moral justification is found in what one chooses to do, we are left with no standard by which we can condemn the worst types of behavior. Pedophilia, rape, incest, bestiality, and murder, and all morally acceptable. Why? Because for those that commit such acts, they were the products of active volition.
Collective subjectivist responses. The term “collective subjectivist” may strike some as paradoxical at best and oxymoronic at worst, yet such a title is fitting for “society says” moral relativism. According to this position, morality is, in a weak sense, objective in that the individual is not free to create moral norms from scratch. They are to live within the ethical structure of societal consensus. Such an ethical standard is collective. Yet, on the other hand, it nevertheless remains a subjectivist position on meta-ethics. What makes the collective approach ultimately subjectivist and indeed relativist is that each society determines it’s own moral norms, and accordingly, one culture (or sub-culture) cannot condemn the actions of another.
The problems for this approach are equally evident. If indeed no supra-cultural definition of evil (or good) exists, how can two or more cultures or sub-cultures with different standards of ethics co-exists. Consistently applied, the collectivist subjectivist model prohibits us form labeling the crimes committed at Auschwitz evil. In fact, it becomes even more problematic because not all German citizens would have approved of the war crimes and genocide of the Nazis. So, what we are left with is at least two moral sub-cultures in WWII Germany, those that would call the Nazi actions evil, and those who participated in those actions and condoned them. But any system that strips us of the ability to make moral distinctions is highly counter-intuitive. A paradigm that seeks to explain our “moral motions” must respect the moral outrage we feel at events such as the holocaust.
Next we’ll look at the problem with these approaches…
THE FREE WILL DEFENSE
The most common apologetic tactic taken by Christians in reply to the PE is known as the free will defense (FWD hereafter). This position was held by the earlier Augustine , defended by Alvin Plantinga in contemporary analytic philosophy, and expounded by Norman L. Geisler in popular evangelical apologetic works. In summary form, the FWD asserts that God cannot create “genuinely” free creatures and avoid the existence of evil. Now a word of clarification is necessary here. According to the point of view presented in the FWD “genuine” freedom is defined in terms of what is referred to as libertarian freedom. R. K. McGregor defines libertarian freedom as,
[T]he belief that the human will has an inherent power to choose with equal ease between alternatives. This is commonly called the “power of contrary choice” or “the liberty of indifference.” This belief does not claim that there are no influences that might affect the will, but it does insist that normally the will can overcome these factors and choose in spite of them. Ultimately, the will is free from any necessary causation. In other words, it is autonomous from outside determination. (Quoted in John Frame, No Other God: A Response to Open Theism. Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2001, 120)
The FWD argues that true love cannot be “forced,” but instead must be the response toward God by free creatures. Yet God also knows that in a world inhabited by free moral agents that evil is possible (recall that freedom, in the sense in which argument assumes, entails that a moral agent has the equal ability either to choose or refuse a given course of action). Since God has endowed humans with libertarian freedom, humans may choose to act in ways that are contrary to God’s intended purposes. In order for God to enter into personal, loving relationships He must preserve this freedom even though, through its misuse, humans are capable of monstrous evil.
Therefore, if God is to preserve libertarian freedom, the possibility of evil must remain. According to proponents of this theodicy, God’s goodness is preserved, and our freedom is maintained. In the words of Geisler,
God then is responsible for the possibility of free choice, but we must bear the responsibility for the actuality of it. (Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, pg. 219)
A critique of the FWD. While at first glance, and especially on Plantinga’s model, the FWD sufficiently addresses the logical PE, I find it to be inadequate. Why? The difficulty rises when we realize that we are looking for more than merely logical answers, but rather true answers. As discussed earlier, in order for a defense to be presented as a true Christian defense, it must be:
- derived from the texts of scripture, and
- be logical and rationally defendable.
Unfortunately, the FWD presupposes a libertarian view of the human will, which not only is philosophically implausible , but more importantly, unscriptural and in opposition to cardinal Christian doctrines (original sin, the inspiration of Scripture, etc). If libertarian freedom doesn’t really exist, then in what meaningful way should we present it as a true rebuttal to the PE?
[For a short and incisive critique of libertarian freedom, from both theological and philosophical perspectives, see John Frame, No Other God, 122-131]
Libertarian free will also rules out a robust doctrine of God’s free and sovereign rule over all of His creation (cf. Eph 1:11). Thus, the FWD, in an attempt to defend the Biblical God against the PE has actually diminished the power, wisdom, and goodness of God at the cost of appeasing the unbeliever. God’s control over His creation in limited by will of the creature. His goodness is lessened in that by not making the display of the full array of His attributes the ultimate object of praise for His people He thereby diminishes their ultimate joy. And His wisdom stifled by creating a world in which so much purposeless evil occurs that could have been avoided.
The Deductive Problem of Evil (hereafter DPE) is probably the most well known form of de jure objections to Christianity, i.e. it challenges the very rationality of our faith. The classic presentation of this argument is from the pen of David Hume,
Why is there any misery at all in the world? Not by chance, surely. From some cause, then. It is from the intention of the deity? But her is perfectly benevolent. Is it contrary to his intention? But he is almighty. Nothing can shake the solidity of this reasoning, so short, so the clear, so decisive… (Quoted in Platinga, God, Freedom, and Evil, pg. 10.)
The best known contemporary formulation was argued by J. L. Mackie. According to Mackie, “…it can be shown, not that religious beliefs lack rational support, but that they are positive irrational, that the essential parts of the theological doctrine are inconsistent with one another.” ( “Evil and Omnipotence,” in The Philosophy of Religion, ed. Basil Mitchell. London: Oxford, 1971, pg. 92) This is a serious charge. And if true, it undermines the very credibility of the Christian faith at its very core. But what is the DPE, formally stated? According to Ronald Nash, “[t]he problem arises because of a supposed contradiction that lies in the following six propositions:
1) God exists
2) God is omnipotent
3) God is omniscient
4) God is omnibenevolent
5) God created the world
6) Evil exists”
(Taken from “The Problem of Evil,” To Everyone an Answer: A Case for the Christian Worldview. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004, pg. 214)
There is said to be something contradictory about one individual holding all these points at the same time. The argument has also been formulated in this way manner:
1) If God is good and loves all human beings, it is reasonable to believe that He wants to deliver the creatures he loves from evil and suffering.
2) If God is all-knowing, it is reasonable to believe that He knows how to deliver his creatures from evil and suffering.
3) If God is all-powerful, it is reasonable to believe that He is able to deliver his creatures from evil and suffering. (Taken from Nash, Worldviews in Conflict. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992, pg. 94)
But Alvin Plantinga has pointed out that nothing in the syllogism constrains us to believed that Christian theism is rationally unwarranted. Nothing here leads us to believed that Christians hold to a contradiction. Perhaps if the proposition “God must stop evil as soon as it happens” is inserted the atheologians goal is achieved. But no Christian holds this.
In order for the non-Christian objector to successfully argue the DPE, they must insert a proposition that contradicts the others, and one that Christians affirm. Plantinga has found a proposition that all Christian affirm, and that once and for all precludes the possibility of the DPE hitting its mark. The proposition is “God created a world that now contains evil and had a good reason for doing so.” The DPE is now solved:
1) God exists
2) God is omnipotent
3) God is omniscient
4) God is omnibenevolent
5) God created a world that now contains evil and had a good reason for doing so
6) Evil exists
Christians affirm all these points and find no contradiction. In light of Plantinga’s treatment, Mackie himself conceded that the DPE “does not, after all, shows that the central doctrines of theism are logically inconsistent with one another.” (The Miracle of Theism. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982, pg. 154)
Next we’ll look at a standard Christian response to the PE, the free will defense…
Unfortunately, several authors have conceded that an “answer” to the Problem of Evil (PE) is not possible this side of heaven (such as John Frame in his Apologetics to the Glory of God). Since we cannot provide a reason or rationale for why God allows particular evils, we need to admit that the reality of evil is a mystery for Christians as well as non-Christians. Scripture does provide us with enough to trust God’s character and plan until we know more on the issue. Also, the Holy Spirit gives us a new heart in order to trust God’s purposes through the gospel.
My chief contention with this position is that it has implicitly accepted an enormously large burden of proof. A sufficient manner of addressing the PE need not be an exhaustive answer; such a standard is much too high. Here I do not purpose to close all doors to the PE, for to do so would undermine my true goal.
DE FACTO AND DE JURE OBJECTIONS
We have seen that the PE can rightly be broken down into two forms, the theoretical, and the practical. Now, let’s look at another distinction within the theoretical PE, the de facto objection, and the de jure objection. Those who raise the de facto objection seek an answer as to why God allows evil in general, and the multiplicity of evils in specific. Plantinga defines the de facto objection as, “objections to the truth of Christian belief.” In contrast, the de jure objectors question the very rationality of Christian theism in light of evil. Does the presence of evil rule out the Christian definition of God? Again, Plantinga defines for us the de jure objection,
these are arguments or claims to the effect that Christian belief, whether or not true, is at any rate unjustifiable, or rationally unjustified, or irrational, or not intellectually respectable, or contrary to sound morality, or without sufficient evidence, or in some other way rationally unacceptable, not up to snuff from an intellectual point of view. (Warranted Christian Belief. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, pg. viii)
My goal here is to address the de jure PE and briefly touch upon the de facto. So this piece is mostly defense, with a touch of theodicy-lite.
While it is important to distinguish between these forms of the theoretical PE, we must carefully steer clear of neatly separating them. The de facto objection often poses such a serious crisis of faith in many, that it may cause some to question the very rationality of Christian truth claims.
Next we’ll take a look at the Deductive PE…
In the first entry, I mentioned that speaking of just one Problem of Evil (PE) is problematic and should be avoided. A second problem with speaking of only one PE stems from the fact that evil poses us difficulty in a number of ways. There is the evidential problem of evil, the logical problem, and the pastoral problem. In fact, each of these aspects of the problem can further be distinguished and sub-divided in to smaller “problems.” However, this plurality of forms to the particular objection to theistic belief shouldn’t overwhelm us. Rather than providing an insurmountable obstacle for faith, dissecting the problem into many forms aids handling each form with meticulous attention.
For the sake of categorization, I will divide the various ways in which the pie can be cut down to a mere two: the theoretical problem (which consists of the evidential and logical problems of evil), and the practical problem of evil (which consists of the pastoral problem). The chief purpose of this essay is apologetic in nature and hence will not substantially address the practical dilemma of personal suffering.
Alvin Plantinga, in his book God, Freedom, and Evil, has helpfully made the distinction between theodicy and defense. The objective of a theodicy is to provide an explanation and rational for why an omniscient and omnipotent God has allowed evil into His good creation. By way of contrast, a defense is more modest in its goals. The objective of a theistic defense to the problem of evil, hereafter PE, is simply to demonstrate that the presence of evil does not rule out the existence of God.
As mentioned earlier, I hope to sketch out here what I believe is a faithful defense of the belief in the Christian God. Yet, this is not an easy task. Those convinced of the Bible’s truth are not (and dare I say, should not be) concerned with the defense of merely the belief in a god. Instead, the God whose existence we reject as incompatible with the presence of evil is the Trinitarian God revealed in both the Old and New Testament. Thus, we are in the precarious position of defending “whole-Bible” Christianity rather than generic theism. No response to the PE is acceptable that compromises the richness of Christianity’s doctrinal matrix.
Traditionally, in the study of the Philosophy of Religion, a dilemma has been raised regarding the coherence of theism called “the problem of evil.” This “problem” sets out to demonstrate that the existence, degree, and intensity of suffering and evil in the world make the existence of a loving, all-powerful, all-wise God impossible (or at least highly unlikely). Here in this series, I’ll address this objection to the Christian worldview.
One point must be noted early in our discussion. As John S. Feinberg notes in his work, The Many Faces of Evil, there does not exist simply one problem of evil. While we can safely speak of the difficulties that arise in our attempted reconciliations between our concept of God and the existence of evil in general, once we ask how specifically we are to define terms like “God,” “omnipotence,” “evil,” etc, we find that no one formulation of the “problem” fits all religious systems. A Mormon must reconcile the existence of evil (however they define evil) with their particular doctrine of God, and the same is true for the Muslim, the process theologian, the pantheist, the evangelical Arminian, and the classical Calvinist. So, one way of denying the existence of the problem of evil is to say that no two philosophical/theological systems wrestle with exactly the same dilemma.
Here I intend to address the problems posed by the existence of evil to distinctively Protestant and evangelical, and Reformed doctrine of God. My goal is both bold and modest. It is bold in that I hope to briefly discuss why I believe the various forms of the Problem of Evil (hereafter PE) covered here are no threat to biblical theism. The theist may confidently maintain their belief in God in the face of these challenges. Yet, my goal is also modest, in that I do not necessarily intend on offering a theodicy explaining why God allows particular acts of evil (other than in the broadest theological terms). Such I believe cannot be done and is, in fact, presumptuous. I merely seek in these next few (or not so few?) entries to do as many of the Church fathers sort to do with another mystery of the Christian faith, Christ’s incarnation. They realized that the mystery of how God come become man was just that, a mystery. Yet they also corrected errors taught by others that were not biblical. That is to say, they hemmed in the types of answers given to this question (How could God become man?), ruling out bad answers, but didn’t provide exact formulations for answering it.
Next we’ll look at various types of the PE.