Saturday, 12 November 2011

Defeating the “Problem of Evil”

The problem – intellectual and emotional – of why what we call 'evil' exists is age-old, and an issue that every human being, whether atheist or Christian, ultimately is confronted with. Philosophically and intellectually, it seems to be fairly easily overcome (as I will hopefully try to explain below) in a Christian worldview, but pastorally and emotionally, it can be a terrible struggle for us all, from atheist to devout Christian. My argument would then be that the Christian worldview, in fact, provides both a much more hopeful answer and decent solution to the pastoral issue, as well as coping intellectually with the problem.

We can start with the intellectual response, where we can split the 'problem' into three forms: logical, evidential and emotional/pastoral:

The 'Logical problem'

Firstly, there's the old form, the 'logical' problem. The notion of an 'inconsistent triad' comes to mind here: this is a form of the classical logical problem, which asserts that God's goodness, evil and omnipotence are logically inconsistent. This is, in reality, a very bold claim to make, since in saying that three propositions are logically inconsistent, it is saying that there is absolutely no way by which they can exist together. All we need to completely demolish such a claim of logical inconsistency is to find a single possible scenario in which these propositions can be consistent. In reality, this is actually relatively easy (as I will try to outline below), and hence this logical problem has actually become very weak in the modern field of the philosophy of religion, since the so-called 'inconsistent' triad is, in fact, not at all inconsistent.

So, all we need to find is a 'defence' (i.e. a possible scenario in which God's goodness, 'omnipotence' as properly defined and evil are compatible) in order to destroy completely the credibility of the logical problem of evil. It seems that such a defence is not too difficult to devise, also, with the help of other philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga, St Augustine and William Lane Craig, who have influenced this post.

For example, if we think about the issue more deeply, what do the terms mean? The inconsistent triad asserts that the following propositions: (1) God is 'good', (2) God is 'omnipotent', and (3) 'Evil' exists, are logically inconsistent (i.e. that there's no possible way whatsoever that they can be compatible). In this sense, we need to define the terms. For example, what does it mean to say that God is 'good'? To take the Christian perspective, "God is love" , and, in line with Jesus' teaching, 'love' (in the agape, selfless, definition) is hence the paradigm of moral goodness. A good definition of this love is then that such a being, if they are perfectly loving (as God is), they always freely will the flourishing of other beings. Thus, to say that 'God is good' means that 'God is fully and totally loving to the maximum possible extent' which means that 'God always freely wills the flourishing of other beings'.

Moving on, God as 'omnipotent' can be accepted to mean that God is able to perform any given action, where neither the action itself nor the performance of the action involves a logical contradiction. In this way, foundational logical laws (such as 'A does not equal not-A') are grounded in God's very nature, and hence God cannot act in such a way that brings about logical contradictions. If this is not accepted, and instead it is postulated that God can do anything including logical contradictions, then the 'logical' problem of evil naturally disappears because God can make the illogical logical, and sustain contradictions. However, this is not the definition of omnipotence that shall be used here: basically, I am using 'omnipotent' to mean that God can do anything where that does not involve a logical contradiction, which fits fine into Biblical theology.

Thirdly, we need a conception of 'evil'. In reality, it is here that an atheistic worldview is utterly deficit, since there is no objective morality that can be grounded in atheism (since we're basically (in objective and scientific terms) bags of chemicals on that view) by which the world can be judged to be 'evil'; hence, saying that 'evil exists' in fact requires theism in order for there to be an objective set of moral principles, grounded in God's loving nature. The logical problem of evil then becomes just an assertion that there is a contradiction present within a theistic worldview, and, if it succeeds in going against theism (which it does not), it throws out the idea that evil exists (or that good or any other moral reality exists).

However, anyway, we still need a definition of 'evil'. It seems that 'lack of good' (after St. Augustine) is a good working definition in this case, where, basically (since good is equated with agape love), evil is simply the act of being unloving (hateful or indifferent to others) and the consequent lack of flourishing of others.

So, having defined the terms, we can now move on to outlining a 'defence', which is a logically possible scenario in which the three propositions are compatible; doing this can then demolish the 'logical' problem...

So, to outline the defence (let's call it 'defence X'):

Let's consider what we, as human beings who are not ourselves omniscient, should think when considering the action of a Being who is omniscient: would we expect to be able to know everything? Taking it differently, when considering the action of a Being who is all-loving, would we expect such a Being to disclose information to us where such information is not for our benefit? I suggest that the answer to both of these questions ought to be a clear, 'No'.

Let's pose another question: is it, then, possible that an omnipotent (as defined) and all-loving being would choose to create a world in which temporary evil (lack of love) if every single instance of such evil ultimately promotes, for every single individual who experiences it, a much greater amount of flourishing and good and love in a future reality? I suggest that God would not be as loving if He did not plan things the way that they are, and hence that the answer to this question is, 'Yes'. This 'greater good', to clarify, is not in a manipulative utilitarian form, but, in line with Kant's second categorical imperative of treating humans as ends in themselves and never solely as a means to an end, it is where God chooses to create a reality in which suffering is allowed so that everyone ultimately gains from it, which may take place during or after their physical lifetime on Earth.

In this sense, we have a moral justification of how God could allow temporary evil, whilst still remaining completely good. Also, we have a reason why we, as human beings, may not be able to fathom the exact plan which God has for allowing such evil; this could be postulated to be because God has good reasons for not revealing to us, at the moment, His exact plans. In this suggestion, God would in fact be less loving is He had chosen to reveal His plans to us now.

Therefore, we have a scenario in which evil is allowed and God is still completely good whilst retaining (as defined) His whole omnipotence, since it is perfectly plausible that the good that God brings about by allowing evil is not obtainable by other means without implying a logical contradiction. Thus, we have a possible and perfectly plausible way by which propositions (1), (2) and (3) are compatible without implying any logical contradiction.

Hence, it is categorically untrue that there is any logical contradiction here (and hence there is no inconsistency in the triad), since there is a possible way by which the triad is consistent. Thus, the logical problem of evil is swiftly defeated.

The 'Evidential problem'

To continue, having dealt with this problem, we turn to the evidential problem of evil, which asserts that the presence of evil counts as evidence against the goodness of God (but not asserting that there is a logical incompatibility).

One of the problems with this argument, however, is that (as discussed above) humankind is not in a position by which it can judge whether God's plans are likely to be fulfilled by the observed phenomena. The defence that was outlined above (i.e. that God has loving reasons to every single individual for allowing evil (lack of good) in order to produce much, much greater love and flourishing in the future) cannot easily be judged to fit to reality or not, except by the One who put it in motion. This is analogous to a familiar scenario in which a beginner chess player observes a grand master playing - they cannot, due to their relative lack of chess insight, judge the strategy of the grand master. Much greater is the deficit in human knowledge in comparison to that of the omniscient God! Thus, the argument is ambiguous in what it achieves; the outcome is little more than neutrality since it cannot establish anything due to the lack of data.

Regardless, I would argue that there are good reasons why the defence offered above is very plausible, and that it can fit reality coherently without difficulty. This is emphasised, again, if we consider the implications of eternal life for such a defence: it puts the whole scenario in perspective where a world is created where a temporary period of evil (lack of good) is allowed in order to create a greater amount of love and flourishing for every single individual that is unending (lasting for eternity). In this, evil, in spite of its terror in the present world, is shrunk literally to an infinitesimally small magnitude in the context of eternal happiness. Thus, the presence of evil within the current world has very little impact indeed for the plausibility of the defence, since, relatively (from a purely intellectual point of view), it is shrunken to infinitesimally small magnitude. In this sense also, then, the evidential argument from evil fails when confronted with the defence outlined.

This is then combined with another blow to this argument, which is its counterpart: the evidential problem from good. This argues from the presence of good in our world, that this increases the plausibility of a defence such as the one mentioned above (let's call this Defence X from now on). We have already discussed how any argument from evil against this defence X fails to be convincing because of how the eternal flourishing involved in it shrinks any evil levelled against it to (in intellectual, detached terms) infinitesimally small magnitude. The argument from good then helps remove any remaining threat to defence X by observing that any good and positive events that happen in the world count positively towards the defence. This is because any good fits well into the expectation of defence X, helping to overcome any of the problems posed by evil; it could even, in some cases, be argued that the good effectively neutralises, or even overbalances, any threat from evil. Hence, the threat of evil to defence X is both reduced to infinitesimally small magnitude and balanced out by this similar argument from good, and, in this way, defence X is not made implausible, and hence is able to succeed at preventing evil from presenting any significant evidential challenge to theism.

In summary, the evidential problem of evil fails on a number of accounts: a) humankind's understanding of the world is insufficient to make reliable judgements against defence X on the basis of evil (lack of good) in the world, b) intellectually speaking, any evil is dwarfed to an infinitesimally small magnitude by the eternal life present as part of Christian Universal Reconciliation mixed with defence X and c) a similar argument from good plausibly is able to neutralise or overcome any of the remaining evidential power from evil. In such a way, the evidential problem of evil fails to significantly count against a defence such as defence X and hence utterly fails to count in any significant way against the goodness of God.

To recap, the defence X is the idea that every single instance of temporary evil (lack of good) in a world created by God is allowed in order to ultimately promote, for every single individual who experiences it, a much greater amount of flourishing and good and love in a future reality than would have been otherwise obtainable. In light of this defence, we can see that the problem of evil, in both its main intellectual forms of logical and evidential, crumbles heavily under analysis, and hence poses no decent challenge against the breadth of positive evidence for the Christian worldview in theistic arguments and the good historical case for the Resurrection.

We can even go further than this, and, in fact, even give good positive evidence for God's goodness which directly and powerfully counters any remaining remnants of conclusions from evil. An introduction to the argument from the resurrection of Jesus Christ is on another post on this blog, and on this bedrock of literal resurrection, the goodness of God (as well as Biblical inspiration) can be established. This is because such a momentous event as the resurrection, which would occur only by direct and intentional theistic intervention, points heavily towards the truth and authenticity of Jesus' life and ministry and reveals the character of God. With the help of a few basic spoken phrases of Jesus (e.g. about loving God and one's neighbour) together with His actions (e.g. willing crucifixion, welcoming to children and openly compassionate), and with the confirmation of the resurrection, an excellent argument can here be made for God's goodness. Such an argument provides a steadfast case hence for God's love for all humanity, along a different branch of thinking.

The 'Emotional and Pastoral problem'

Moving on, we have now passed through the two forms, logical and evidential, of the problem of evil that are often said to pose a challenge to theistic belief. Through a little analysis, they are both found to fail to provide any credible intellectual challenge. This leads us to the third, and quite different, form of the problem of evil, which we can label the pastoral or emotional problem of evil. Indeed, this is not any intellectual challenge to Christian theism, but presents a very real challenge to the individual who is suffering which must be taken seriously.

Now, I am an amateur when it comes to approaches to help in such a situation, but I would like to emphasise that all people are presented with this problem (whether atheist or Christian), and all respond to it in some way. In this case, since we have moved on from the failed intellectual challenges, I focus now on the existential issues of human flourishing, where I would like to argue that Christian theism has the potential to provide the best existential approach to the emotional and pastoral problem of evil. Once again, I emphasise the wonderful image of all creation, and everyone, being reconciled, forgiven and changed and living in complete harmony, happiness and flourishing, through the work of God in Jesus Christ; this outcome is then the product of all the terrible suffering and evil of the present time. Revelation 21:1-4 has wonderful imagery for this:

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Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

(Revelation 21:1-4)

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One approach that I particularly like is to emphasise God's dear love for every single person, of such magnitude that Jesus was willing to die for humanity, and, I would say, even mean that God chooses to suffer with everyone, and empathise deeply with them. God is never far from anyone: He remains with people through life, pain, happiness and death, and is steadfast amongst a world of unpredictable change. All this is evidenced and steadfast in, for example, the excellent historical case for Jesus' resurrection:

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No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

(Romans 8:37-39)

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“God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them." (1 John 4:16b)
“God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.” (part of 1 John 1:5)

These are, indeed, wonderful declarations, and beyond our visualisation of what they entail. If God is light and God is love, there need be no conflict between light and love; love is bright, and God is light, and in God “there is no darkness at all”, and hence in God it seems fitting that nothing exists that is in conflict with the fullness of love. God's free choice of agape, self-giving, even unconditional love for all of humanity far transcends that which is present in even the closest and tenderest of any of our relationships.

If we say that God is love (not only loving to some extent, or quite compassionate, or mainly caring), God has the quality of being the very example, nature and reference of love in all its fullness and tenderness, to the maximum and not compromised. Hence, God is the source of all the goodness and love and compassion in any human relationship or endeavour; “God is love” can be understood as meaning that God is the Source of all love.

God, in summary, eagerly pours upon His gifts of love, care and grace, according to how people are willing to receive. He does not force His relational character upon people, instead looking to humankind to come into a relationship through trust in Jesus Christ, His gift to the world in the reconciliation that He has chosen to accomplish through Jesus Christ, and hence receive the fullness of God's gifts. In this relationship, it seems that there is the ultimate answer to the emotional and pastoral problem of evil; we can cast our cares to God, where He cares for us and remains steadfast with us. Once again, all of these hopes are confirmed and steadfast in the good historical backing behind the resurrection of Jesus Christ:

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If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.” For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

(Romans 10:9-13)

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

(Philippians 4:4-7)

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So, in all this, it seems that the Christian worldview provides, in addition, the most existentially satisfying answer to the pastoral and emotional problem of evil, as well as standing up and being victorious over the intellectual problems. Hence, it is both rational and satisfying; a relationship with God through trust in, giving ourselves over to, and calling on for help, Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, God incarnate, alive and raised from the dead is truly a wonderful thing.

2 comments:

  1. Hi Elliot
    I wish to respond to your statement that an atheist definition of evil is deficit. Although I am not Atheist, I strongly disagree with the common Christian statement that those who do not believe in God have no moral foundation for their lives. More often than not this statement comes from people who have never experienced life as an intelligent adult atheist, and therefore 'fill the gaps' by looking at life from a Christian perspective minus God. THat is not the way it is. For anyone outside of anarchist circles, morality ultimately exists in the principle of MOTIVATION. I wont walk up to my friend and tell him to F-off, because then I will lose him as a friend and I dont want that. I wont cheat on my wife because then I will lose her and I dont want that. I wont take drugs because I could get hooked and completely derail my (possibly) only shot at life. An OBSERVABLE morality like this is in many ways much stronger than the Christian morality, because it is usually easy enough to explain WHY you hold something as ethical, whereas the common Christian answer 'beacuse the bible says it' is thoroughly deficient for most non-christians.
    Jimmi

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  2. Hi Jimmi,

    Thank you for your comment! Feedback is useful!

    The idea of morality finding no 'grounding' in atheism depends on what 'grounding' refers to. Defining it correctly changes the meaning of the statement drastically:

    If 'grounding' refers to 'motivation', then I agree with you that the statement that 'morality finds no grounding in atheism' is completely and utterly incorrect, since undeniably atheists are certainly motivated to be moral, by factors such as those you discuss. Therefore, I agree completely that it is totally false to think that an atheist will not want to be moral; certainly, atheists can have very great motivation indeed to be moral, and can be very virtuous individuals indeed. This clarification cannot be over-emphasised.

    If 'grounding' refers to knowledge, so that 'morality has no grounding in atheism' implies that the atheist is not able to know about moral values without theism, then the statement is again, completely and utterly false, since it is blatantly obvious that both atheists and theists have significant knowledge of moral truths. As you mention, morality at least appears to be largely, from both a Christian and an atheist view, intuitive or obvious.

    However, 'grounding' in this sense refers to neither of these ideas; it is not a question of epistemology (knowledge) of moral truths, or of motivation, but of ontology (existence). In fact, what 'grounding' refers to here is whether moral facts are real or an illusion, objective or subjective; is there a standard by which a perfect moral code can be attained, or is morality subjective, so that one moral standard cannot be judged as objectively better than another? For example, would it still be the case that the statement 'racism is immoral' is true even if (hypothetically) every individual human alive on the planet believes that racism is, to the contrary, commendable, and that to not be racist is immoral? Moral objectivism would answer a 'Yes' to both of these questions, since it subscribes to a moral law, which transcends human opinion, by which moral standards can be compared to one another and the objectively 'better' standard discerned. After this, hence, 'grounded' can be defined as, 'made objective'.

    I would say that the majority of people are at least partially objectivist in this sense in relation to morality, and can thus judge the morality that we see prevalent in the past because of a subscription to the idea that some moral standards are objectively preferable to others.

    In relation to this post, the implication is that there is the potential for morals to be objectively grounded in God's nature, whereas, on an atheistic view, little way in which objective moral truths can exist. If they are grounded in human opinion, then they are subjective rather then objective (since they are mind-dependent). If they are grounded on human intuition, this can vary and is arbitrary, coming from the result of unpredictable influences and social bias. If they are grounded in emotion, this is again too variable. These views effectively do not allow one standard held by one group of people to be judged effectively against another standard held by another group of people, and so does not allow objectivism.

    Therefore, the statement is not about motivation, or knowledge of morality, but about whether moral values are 'real' and 'objective', with the implication that such objectivism is difficult to ground without some form of transcendent reality.

    Thank you again very much for your comment,
    Elliot

    ReplyDelete






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