27 January 2016

The Problem of Evil - Part 3


One can dislike God’s answer to Job, but no one can argue that He never answered. God’s answer, which spans from chapter 38 to 41, flings the question back at Job’s face, saying: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? I will ask you, and you instruct Me! Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? When the morning stars sang together, and the sons of God shouted for joy?”[1] God’s meaning is clear: I am God, I can do what I want. Again, we question whether this kind of God could possibly be good.


To answer this we need to accurately define what goodness is. There is a pattern in Western thought that paints a rather defusing portrait of goodness. It paints the “good guys” as feeble, submissive, conformist, watery-eyed rule-followers who walk around in a blissful illusion, unconscious of the dark realities of the world. It venerates the “naughty” kind—the dark, brooding, unpredictable man of the streets or the sexy, self-confident woman who isn’t afraid to flaunt her sexuality. Goodness is boring, safe, and illusory; evil is dangerous, exciting, and refreshingly “real”. 
However, I argue that the exact opposite is the case. Hitler was not in danger, but everyone who dared to oppose him was. In fact, one could argue that because Hitler was (in his context) the most evil, he was therefore the safest of them all. It was the good men who were tortured, the good men who knew “reality” and “adventure”, it was Hitler who lived in the illusion, who sat in a dull office and plotted facts and figures, detached from the real world. Goodness hurts like hell; evil is the heaven that protects us from it. Goodness is the real danger—it threatens to rip your soul apart, evil is the anesthetic that numbs the operation. Goodness is the unpredictable and elusive, it could emerge anywhere in any moment, evil is driven purely by the desire for power and self-indulgence.
I only say all this to disarm the assumption that we ought to know the intentions of a wholly good and powerful being. It is ridiculous to say “If God is good, He would do so-and-so” for goodness even in the observable world emerges in the most unlikely circumstances, and more often than not appears ugly and unpleasant.  What instance can you point to where a father’s punishment was painless, where his love did not hurt? To say that God’s goodness would necessarily result in the world being one way rather than another is, in the end, an emotional argument. To say “If God is good, he would run the world this way” is really another way of saying “This is how I would run the world if I were God” which, if we are honest with ourselves, is not an really an argument in the first place. How can we say what a wholly good and omnipotent being would or should do when we are neither good nor omnipotent?
Of course, there is a counter-argument to this. The agnostic may say, “very well, we are depraved. If that is the case, we have no way of knowing what goodness is in the first place. If our faculties are so flawed, then anything could be goodness, no matter how horrendous it appears to us.” This is a valid thought, but ultimately we know very well that there is a distinct difference between the pain inflicted by love and the pain inflicted through cruelty. Children know this instinctively. When they are mad at their parents, it is easy for them to mutter all sorts of terrible things about them, to say that they are evil and cruel to revoke their television privileges or lock them in their room. Many of us may remember doing this in our own childhood. But when the anger had subsided and our minds were clear again, did we really believe all those things we uttered in our misery? We knew deep down inside that our parents did not do these things merely to torture us.
According to the Christian doctrine, the misery in this life does end. The Apostle Paul writes in Romans 8:18: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” Paul is certainly not belittling or marginalizing the presence of evil, stating in verse 22 that “we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now.” Paul is saying that the goodness we will one day experience is so much greater that our present sufferings will seem like nothing. This is no testament to the insignificance of evil but of how much more significant the promised goodness will be.
The God of the Christian doctrine acknowledges that the evil in this world is very real and very terrible. In this sense we are in scenario B. However, the Christian God also promises a relief from that evil, a relief so great that the evil we experience now will seem inconsequential. In this sense we are in scenario A. The portrait of reality I wish to conclude with is certainly not easy to accept. It does not in any way leave suffering more bearable or God any less terrible. Lewis recognizes this in A Grief Observed, writing, “Aren’t all these notes the senseless writhings of a man who won’t accept the fact there is nothing we can do with suffering except to suffer it? Who still thinks there is some device which will make pain not be pain?”[2]  While our conclusion may be both beautiful and stinging, it is sound.

[1] Job 38:2-4, 7 NASB
[2] C.S. Lewis, “A Grief Observed” 

22 January 2016

The Problem of Evil - Part 2


This then is the question that everything hinges on: is the level of evil in the world so great that there is no way a benevolent being could be behind it?


Let us suppose, as many philosophers have, that the answer is no. C.S. Lewis, arguably one of the most assertive Christian apologists of the twentieth century, wrestled with this question after losing his wife to cancer. The pain of her death caused Lewis to consider a worldview much darker than both atheism and Christianity. Having decided long ago that God must exist, Lewis now wondered whether God was in fact a “cosmic sadist.” In his book A Grief Observed, Lewis writes: “I am [not] in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘so this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.”[1] Perhaps all these conceptions of beauty and goodness are part of a great cosmic joke, only to be snatched away when we have almost come to believe in it. In Lewis’s own words, “time after time, when [God] seemed most gracious, He was really preparing the next torture.”
Lewis eventually decided that the idea of a cosmic sadist was unlikely. Perhaps God provides the illusion of goodness only to snatch it away, but all illusions have a model. If God was truly evil, how could He have invented goodness in the first place?  The question is not whether our experiences of love and laughter are real, but whether a truly evil God could have conceived the idea of love and laughter in the first place. The Sheriff of Nottingham tortured Robin Hood by threatening to kill Marion. But no sane person would argue that the Sheriff invented Marion. Villains are notorious for their cruelty, but not for their imagination. If God is evil, he may “bait” us with pleasures, but he cannot have produced the bait itself.
It can be argued that the cosmic sadist theory is too extreme. We have accounts of artists and writers throughout the centuries who have led morally impure lives and yet still produced beautiful things. It is false to say that evil can produce goodness, but an evil being may have some goodness in him and therefore be able to produce it. Perhaps God has a mix of both good and evil in him. But we have already established that God is omnipotent. History shows us that only the people of great power are able to be great forces for good or for evil. The more powerful a person is, the more impossible it becomes for them to sit on the sidelines. When that person becomes the most powerful being in the universe, that possibility vanishes entirely. If God is truly omnipotent, He must be either wholly good or wholly evil. A sort of in-between God is not a viable option.
So far we have provided reasons for believing that God is omnipotent. We have also provided reasons to believe that God is good. And yet the evidential problem still remains: is it plausible that God could be both powerful and good and yet allow evil to the degree that we observe it? Are we in scenario A (the death of the lizard) where the amount of evil is trivial in comparison to the goodness that can come out of it, or scenario B (the suffering of a brother) where evil seems to have no redeeming value? The atheist would say that we are in scenario B. We have discussed their reasoning: allowing the suffering and torment of another rationally thinking human for the benefit of another is not only unfair, but cruel. I concede that is true, if that were the whole story. But there are several other factors to consider, which we will explore here. I will begin by saying that both scenario A and scenario B have elements of truth in them, but neither them are perfect analogies for the reality of the universe. If we accept the Christian God, then we necessarily accept what He has to say in His written word. Some argue that the Bible promises delusional happiness and does not ever address the problem of human suffering. This is simply untrue. The Bible addresses the problem quite directly; we reject it only because the answer is wholly unpleasant.
The book of Job tells the story of a perfectly righteous man who deserved no punishment and yet lost everything he owned. Job asks questions asked by Lewis and thousands of others. He asks why God does not punish the wicked: “Why do the wicked still live, continue on, also become very powerful? Their houses are safe from fear, and the rod of God is not on them.”[1] Job asks why God ignores the suffering of the innocent: “From the city men groan, and the souls of the wounded cry out; yet God does not pay attention to folly”[2]
One can dislike God’s answer to Job, but no one can argue that He never answered. God’s answer, which spans from chapter 38 to 41, flings the question back at Job’s face, saying: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? I will ask you, and you instruct Me! Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? When the morning stars sang together, and the sons of God shouted for joy?”[3] God’s meaning is clear: I am God, I can do what I want. Again, we question whether this kind of God could possibly be good.

Part 3 coming on Wednesday the 27th!

[1] Job 21:7, 9, NASB
[2] Job 24:12 NASB
[3] Job 38:2-4, 7 NASB

[1] C.S. Lewis “A Grief Observed” 

17 January 2016

The Problem of Evil - Part 1

I thought I would share some of the papers I wrote for philosophy class last semester--hopefully this series will be relatively interesting and not totally boring.  I'd love to hear any clarification questions or objections you might have--don't hesitate to comment :) I do love comments.


The problem of evil is stated as follows: How can God be both wholly good and wholly omnipotent in light of the existence of evil in the world? This argument is divided into two categories: the logical problem and the evidential problem. The logical problem is more rigorous, claiming that it is theoretically impossible that God can be both all-loving and all-powerful given the existence of evil.  The evidential problem states that, given the fact of evil, it is highly unlikely that an all-loving, all-powerful God could exist.  Given the complexity of this subject, I will not spend much time here arguing for the existence of God, since assuming that He exists presents enough problems for one paper.
Presupposing the existence of God, there are three possibilities to consider: 1) God is good, but for some reason cannot prevent evil, 2) God is all-powerful and evil, or 3) God is both good and powerful and the evil that we observe is part of His divine plan. A common theistic argument is that God, because He is all-loving, must allow humans beings the freedom to choose good and evil. The philosopher J.L. Mackie argues that God cannot give humans free will without limiting His omnipotence. He asks the question, “can an omnipotent being make things which he cannot subsequently control?”[1] and claims that this is a logical error that Christians constantly make about God. Love, by definition, demands the surrender of control; control, by definition, falsifies love. Perhaps God is loving, then, and it is his love that prevents him from being all-powerful.
However, if God is not the most powerful being in the universe, than it follows that there is some force out there more powerful than God. What is that force? We have no way of knowing, and for all our purposes we might as well call it God, and we are back where we started. If we allow that God exists, we must allow that he is all-powerful, or it undermines the definition of God. I will agree with Mackie, however, that it is impossible for someone to be both loving and controlling. But there is a difference between controlling and being in control, which is not only what the Christian doctrine claims but a verifiable truth. Consider this example:
Let us suppose a young boy catches a lizard out of the woods and decides to keep it as a pet. After a few months, the boy’s excitement wanes, and he begins to neglect the lizard. The boy’s father notices this and suggests that it is time for the boy to return the lizard to the forest. But the boy does not want to let go of his prize. At this point, the father has total power to intervene and order his son to release his pet. However, he decides to hold back and let the boy make his own decisions. A few weeks later, the lizard is dead. The boy is devastated to lose his pet, but the father uses this opportunity to teach his son that he cannot hold onto something that wants to be let go.
There are several questions I wish to pose from this example. First, do we agree that the father did the right thing? If the answer is yes, then it can be allowed that the father is good, at least in this isolated case. Second: did the father have total power to prevent the death of the lizard (which is guilty of no fault against the boy or the father) if he wished to do so? I think we can agree that the answer is yes.  From this example we can see that it is not impossible for a person to have the power to prevent suffering, abstain from preventing it, and yet still be good.
From this example we can see that Mackie’s problem of omnipotence is not the real issue. For the logical problem of evil claims that a wholly good and wholly benevolent being would want to eliminate evil in every instance, but it can be logically maintained that certain level of suffering is necessary, even if one had the power to prevent it. But one may argue that the lizard analogy is incongruous to the true nature of reality. Suppose again that a father sees his son abusing and neglecting his own brother. Seeing that both boys are his own offspring, how could we possibly say that the father is justified in allowing the abuse for the education of the abuser?  Many would agree that in this instance the father ought to intervene.
So perhaps our true situation is not God allowing the suffering of a lower organism (such as a lizard) for the benefit of a higher one. We will call this scenario A.  It appears that our actual situation (scenario B) is that God is allowing the suffering of an equal organism (a rationally thinking human) for the benefit of another rationally thinking human. This is where a line is drawn between the logical problem and the evidential problem. It is logically possible that the human condition is akin to scenario A: God could prevent the suffering, but it is a necessary predecessor to a greater good. However, the evidential problem states that we are in scenario B: the degree of evil that exists is so great that it is highly improbable that God could be justified in allowing it.  This then is the question that everything hinges on: is the level of evil in the world so great that there is no way a benevolent being could be behind it?

Tune in Friday for Part 2!

[1] J.L. Mackie “Evil and Omnipotence”