by Rob R
I wrote this as a response to Masoni and I am posting it over on the Barb wire as well. I know it is very long, but I figured that I could only write a coverage of this that had only two of the three qualities. It could have two of the three qualities of simplicity, thoroughness, and effectiveness, but it couldn't have all three. To help with the length, I have broken the article down into subsections so the reader could see the progression of thought at a glance.
The logical Problem of Evil
First, to make things clear, lets formalize the argument so we may more effectively analyze it.
1.a completely good being would eliminate evil to the extent of its ability (premise)
2.an omnipotent being can do anything (premise)
3.If God is completely good and God is omnipotent, then God would eliminate evil wherever it exists. (from 1 and 2)
5 Since evil exists, either God is not completely good or God is not omnipotent or God does not exist at all. (from 3 and 4)
I believe this is logically valid. That means that if all of the premises are correct, then the conclusion cannot fail to be wrong. It should be noted that while many atheists cite the logical problem of evil, it does not follow that the non-existence of God is the only possible outcome. One more thing should be noted about the scope of this argument. It is a means of expressing the logical problem of evil. Obviously, the logical problem of evil argues that it is logically impossible that there should be an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God in a world where evil exists. I have my reason for stating the obvious which will become apparent.
There are some theologians who have bit this bullet and decided that God is not omnipotent. I haven't read his book, but my understanding is that this is the approach of Harold Kushner in “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” I would suspect that even fewer would agree that God is not completely good, at least not many within the western theological tradition.
While this argument is valid, I do not believe that it is sound. That is I do not believe that the premises are true, thus the conclusion need not follow in light of the falsity of the premises upon which it rests.
First, a refinement is in order. I agree with the second premise. I hold that the definition of omnipotence is relevant here; omnipotence is the ability to do anything that is “Logically” possible. This limit is informative for this issue, and yet it is not a real limit. So if I were to deny that God could make a square circle or deny that God could make 2 plus 2 equal 3, I am not really denying any ability at all because those results don't constitute real actions at all. The descriptions of the logically impossible are nonsense and do not describe anything. The very utterance of square circle, when defined carefully enough (because we could easily overlap a square and a circle, but that is not what I'm talking about, I'm talking about one 2-dimensional shape that is nothing more than a perfect square and nothing more than a perfect circle at the same time in the same 2 dimensional plane) is ultimately nonsense. It doesn't describe anything at all.
Now, the solution to the problem of evil that I believe is the most fruitful is to deny the first premise. An all-good being does not necessarily eliminate just any evil even when it is within that being's power to eliminate that evil. Why? Simple. An all-good being may have a good reason not to eliminate that evil. And for me, that is the solution to the logical problem of evil. But there is of course the matter of what sort of reason that may be. I will get into the specifics of that in the next issue.
the Evidential Problem of Evil
Now, there is another argument regarding evil, and that is the evidential problem of evil. Instead of the broad sweeping claim of the first, that an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God as part of a world where evil exists is illogical, the evidential problem of evil merely suggests that evil could be so great that the chance that an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God is highly unlikely. To put it closer to the terms of our discussion, the degree of evil is such that it is very unlikely that there could be a good reason for an all-good, all powerful God to have allowed it. For that, we need to dig into the reason why God has allowed evil to the extent that he has.
Of course, the source of evil is free will. I was tempted to say that God's good reason for allowing evil is free will itself, but I'm not confident in that because I'm not sure that free will itself has intrinsic value, that it has value in and of itself. The justifications of allowing the possibility of evil and the source of that possibility are those intrinsic goods that free will achieves and makes possible.
Reasons for Free Will
There are several reasons for free will but the most important one that is usually mentioned is that free will is needed for love. God wanted creatures who would love him and love each other. Before elaborating on this I will go over other reasons. Free will also makes a quality of consciousness possible. Of course, consciousness is perhaps the most basic feature of personhood and the exercise of free will is not just a small part of it our experience of it. Also, free will enables a robust sort of creativity which adds a great depth and quality to our existence. Another part of God's intention for us is that we would act as caretakers of his world and would represent him to the world. So that our sovereignty in that task would reflect God's (as we are created in his image) free will is a part of that sovereignty.* I have once suggested that free will adds to the common ground that we share with God as creatures created in his likeness. I had reservations about asserting this because all of the other reasons work toward this end. But since all of the other reasons overlap each other anyway, I might as well mention this.
One reason that has been given for free will is that free will makes moral good possible. I'm actually not convinced that this in and of itself is a good reason. Perhaps I just don't understand it. I suppose that all the other reasons I've cited contribute to moral good or better yet, they are the content of that moral good. But I don't know by calling them morally good, that I've added anything to the debate. I've added a label that has a use in the context of the possibility of evil, but I just don't feel that the information and dimension of justification here has been expanded.
So why couldn't have God created creatures that would love out of necessity and not free will? Some theologians have stated that if God did that, it would have been like rape. I actually disagree with this comparison very much. First of all, the evil of rape has everything to do with the way that we are made to begin with. Animals rape other animals and it isn't some terrible moral crime since the sexual nature of animals is not sacred. The animal doesn't have a quality of self worth that is violated and disgraced deeply when another member of its species forces itself upon the “victim." To get closer to home, I would say that not all of our love that we experience is the result of immediate free decisions. I would say that, for example, a psychologically healthy mother does not choose to love her babies out of thorough and authentic free will. If she must willfully choose to be loving, then she is having a struggle with a mind that is slightly or even majorly out of order. Now free will plays an important role in this sort of relationship as there are decisions that are relevant to the relationship, but the direct act itself of whether to love or not is not such a choice. So it is conceivable even from our own experiences that God could have created loving creatures that were determined to be that way. HOWEVER, while I will readily admit that determined love is possible, I would contest that determined love cannot be of the same quality and perhaps even the same depth that is possible with love that is characterized by free will directly or even indirectly (as is the case with the mother and infant).
There may be other reasons for free will, but these are all that I can think of. Now that we have explored these, we can approach the question of why the possibility of evil should be allowed to reach the depths of tragedy that we know it to have reached by an all powerful, all-good God.
It happens that the closer we are in relationships, the more vulnerable we are to each other. So God, in desiring a close relationship with us opened himself up to vulnerability. This is not far from our experience at all. Divorce, of course, is very hard to go through and there are people who go as far as committing suicide when a loved one breaks off the relationship. But the risk of pain does not mean that loving relationships are not worth having. It actually demonstrates the opposite, that something was there that was very much worth having and now it's gone. (Of course, that isn't to say that there aren't inappropriate relationships, but I would say that these take advantage of our psychological features towards the wrong and even destructive ends. They take something that is good and put it in the wrong context which could lead to even more destruction).
So God created something that was so good that its absence is a tragedy; its destruction is terrible perversity.
So why couldn't God have just created creatures who could choose to love him or ignore him with little peril to themselves and others? Because God did not create a relation that was that flippant and unnecessary. We were created for God on a very deep and important level.
We have such potential to hurt each other because God did not just create us for himself but for each other. In creating beings that God could relate to on a deep and personal level, he needed to create us to reflect himself and part of that reflection is somehow based upon the community that exists in the trinity. So not only is God vulnerable to us (and we to him), but we are vulnerable to each other because of this potential and actual closeness.
One Matter of Consistency
Now there is at least one problem of consistency with this picture that someone might raise. If free will, which for us necessarily entails the possibility for evil, is also part of the image of God, why shouldn't it be possible that God may also commit evil and wicked acts? I believe that the type of love (and the type of moral goodness) that free will makes possible for us, that is also the same quality of love that God possesses is self determined love. God is self-determined but not free with respect to triune love (though he was free with respect to loving us since God did not have to create to begin with).
To get at this, I need to describe what I call a psychologically responsible view of freedom. Not all of our behaviors are free in the liberterian sense (meaning it is fully possible for us to act and and it is fully possible to refrain from that act). We find ourselves in situations where we act on autopilot; we act out of habit, strong preference and even addiction. Some of these actions involve some degree of freedom, and some of these actions are committed by us and in the moment. It doesn't occur to us at all that we might refrain, hence, psychologically speaking, such actions were not truly free in the libertarian sense. Some of these actions, some habits, though not free in the moment, were self-determined. The habits developed as a result of free actions in our past and through our free actions, we formed a predictable character. But, of course, even when one has a habit, though many actions committed out of this habit are not free, there are nevertheless occasions where the habit may be challenged (like when an addict's friends perform an intervention) and in those moments, he does face some free actions and may be able to take steps to change the habit or continue down the road in which he has been trapped.
Now, God does not want the faithful to be eternally free with respect to loving him. We make our choices to live life for God and our characters develop, and perhaps in this life, we may solidify that faithfulness, or in the next, God may act to develop our characters in consistency with the choices we made in this life. But the end result is that our behavior towards God will then on be self determined.
I believe that God never had to be free with respect to a similar quality of love and moral goodness that is found within the trinity because God's self determinism is based upon God's history of loving and morally good actions from an everlasting history. Attributes and actions that are self determined are attributes and actions the necessity of which arises from within the individual. The necessity of them does not come from outside. If God determined that we would love him, as we are temporally finite creatures with our creation originating from God, the necessity of our love would not have arisen from within us but from outside of us in God. The only way we can be self determined is through libertarian freedom. Not so with a being who's past extends infinitely. God's triune love and moral goodness has always arisen from himself.
Embodiment and the Natural Problem of Evil
What about the savage brutality that we see people commit against each other? What about torture and violent crimes? If the source of evil has to do with matters of the heart, why should evil be manifest in such physically brutal ways? Why should alienation from God and others involve these sorts of tragedies?
If we examine so much of the tragedies that we experience, if we look at many if not most of the most severe problems of the world, what is common amongst them is that they are problems of the body. Starvation, AIDS, teen pregnancy, violence, cancer, racism, child abuse, rape, malaria and so much more, all of these are problems surrounding physical embodiment. Another observation that is relevant to us is that not all of these problems involve moral evil. Here we see the natural problem of evil at work, and with that comes another puzzle. Much of Christian theology argues that evil has come upon the world through the abuse of free will and yet we suffer so many evils that have nothing to do with anyone's free choices as far as we can tell. Tragedy and evil just befall us naturally as even nature itself is against us.
I believe that understanding the importance and relationship of the soul to the body and environment is important to understanding possible solutions to the natural problem of evil as well the reason that evil has taken on the brutal forms that it has.
In Judeo-Christian theism, the body is very much a part of who we are. In describing the creation of man, a passage in Genesis is sometimes translated as saying that when God formed the body, he breathed life into it such that it became a living soul. Given the life that we know, much of that which is spiritual, even mental is expressed through the body. We are not creatures with a distinct crisp dualism of mind and body. The two are deeply intertwined and overlap each other. Your awareness, consciousness deeply involves the 5 senses of the body. Of course so much of human experience that we'd say was spiritual involves the body, such as birth, marriage, death, human expression such as we see in the arts and so on. God intended for us to have bodies, the Old testament law is very much concerned with the body as something that is sacred and in the New Testament and for many Jews in the inter-testamental period, it is not enough of a solution to death that the soul leaves the body and flies off to heaven. The expectation that confirms the goodness of God's original intention in creation is that we will be bodily resurrected or given new bodies.
It was not God's intention that human bodies should die, but when human kind rebelled, the soul was in a bad place, twisted into something it wasn't meant to be. Reading the Genesis narrative, it implies that it was possible for humans to live in this state for ever, but instead, God himself broke the created order putting nature and the human body under a curse. So in the Judeo-Christian narrative, even the natural problem of evil is tied to human free will. And the result is a dangerous harsh world where virtually all of mankind will experience suffering and death and a variety of hazards and tragedies.
But why would God do this? How could putting the body into the path of harm, and even grievous and unspeakable harm help when the soul is in danger of eternal death? I suspect that if the body's trials did not match the soul's problems, we might not care that there was a problem at all. But regardless, a cursed world where hardships are the norm and where terrible tragedies happen provides a context of redemption. It provides a context where we would find ourselves searching for help from God and from each other, where we would have reason to be compassionate. Of course free will isn't eliminated here either as so many do not use the opportunity for compassion but rather become predators coping with the world by oppressing others. Here, of course, free will is necessary in the process of redemption since it is, in our context, a part of what it means to enter a loving relationship with God.
Is God doing Nothing?
Now sometimes the problem of evil is stated in such a way that it is questioned how God can be all good, all powerful, and yet stands idly by when there is evil. I did not state it this way above but there is a very important correction to be made here. God is not doing nothing but he is very active in confronting evil and dealing with it according to his wisdom and by a wise and measured use of his infinite power. God has already won the victory against evil by embracing it's strongest consequence, death and has risen undefeated by it. Of course, all though evil has lost the war, the final battles, which will ultimately be losing battles for evil continue as the world awaits full redemption and restoration. God is not standing idly by but he continues to suffer with the oppressed and with his people who are persecuted all throughout the world, but he is allowing evil and the brokenness of the world to continue so that the redemption may continue to grow and spread by his direction and through the work of his authentic followers.
This constitutes my answers to the problems of evil. In short, evil is not logically problematic for an all good all powerful God because God may have a good reason for allowing evil. God's good reasons for allowing evil stem from his reasons for creating us free. The reasons that God has allowed evil to get to the depth that it has is due to the depths to which God has created us for relationship and responsibility and the reason for the depths of the brutal and violent nature of evil have to do with the sacredness of the body and the brokenness of creation. The reason for the brokenness of creation is to create a context for redemption, and it is in this context where God is very active confronting evil.
I do want to highlight what I didn't say. Many Christians when confronted with evil say that there are no accidents and that God has a plan. What they mean is that the tragedy that happened (as are all tragedies) was ultimately God's will which he allowed for a specific reason. I do not accept this.
While I believe that there are general answers for why there is evil, I don't believe that there are always specific reasons and it is my estimation that such an approach is not completely in tune with what evil actually is. Evil is a perverse invasion in our world and so many of its specific manifestations are senseless and meaningless. But while I don't believe every tragedy and evil is an intricate part of, that does not mean that God cannot use the results of that evil. In Genesis, Joseph is sold to slave traders headed to Egypt by his brothers. When his brothers come to Egypt after Joseph becomes the second most powerful man in Egypt and they are confronted for the evil they have done, Joseph is conciliatory and tells them that what they meant for evil, God meant for good. What I believe to be the case here is that while God did not place the evil and jealousy within the brothers hearts, he sovereignly let it manifest in a way that would ultimately prosper his people and at the same time, confront them with their own treachery.
God is resourceful to use situations which he did not determine to bring about good, and some of those are evil situations. At the very least, even if there was no specific plan in place to utilize evil in a way that is ultimately against evil and for the greater good as we see in the case of Joseph, God can still utilize that evil or tragedy for those who suffer by giving them an opportunity to draw closer to him. And this is demonstrably true.
Many Christians who face terrible tragedies respond in three ways. I've personally known people and I know of more who have faith that the terrible loss they faced (the death of a loved one) is part of a plan for the better and that God has a reason. Of course there are those who face such evils that they find this idea so repugnant that they reject God. But there is a middle way as I have described and there are those who don't believe that a just God was responsible for their specific tragedy, but that God grieves with them. All three feel emotionally drawn to their view. The first can't bear the idea that God allowed this terrible thing to happen without a good purpose. The second can't get around the problem of evil and cannot forgive God for allowing this terrible thing to happen. The third cannot see and accept that certain evils could not be planned by a good God and see this as part of the problem that God is at work fixing.
I've known people in both the first and third groups and many of them experience a closeness with God such that even though they may give anything to have the tragedy they faced reversed, they wouldn't trade anything for the relationship with God that they have. I think that people in the first group are mistaken but God still meets them in a deep and new way.
There are in fact hundreds of millions of people who would answer the question of the evidential problem of evil if the depths of evil were worth tolerating with an affirmative, and those are the persecuted Christians around the world who suffer terribly for their faith. Richard Wurmbrand, who wrote “Tortured for Christ,” suffered under the Nazis and then the Communists for being both Jewish and a Christian. He stated that in the prisons and concentration camps, he had seen unspeakable evils, and yet in the midst of it, in his persistence in faith, God had shown him unspeakable beauties.
* This comment was added to my post in light of an observation made by Christian Apologist.