Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Problem of Evil

I posted the following comment over at Dubunking Christianity in response to an October 2006 thread regarding the supposed "problem of evil" (POE):

There is no problem of evil for the Christian; rather the problem of evil exists for the atheist.

The Christian God - as I presume most here are aware - is clearly attributed with BOTH absolute benevolence and absolute omnipotence by the Holy Bible which purports to be the very Word of God (i.e. self-testifying).

"The POE" is purportedly among the most difficult faced by Christian theists because of the apparent logical difficulty within the Christian outlook when juxtaposed against the personal perplexity which any sensitive human being will feel when confronted with the terrible misery and wickedness that can be found in this world. Man's inhumanity toward man is notorious in every age and even in the natural world we come across so much needless suffering and pain - birth defects, parasites, animal attacks, mutations, diseases, starvation, crippling injuries and natural disasters.

When an unbeliever looks at this unhappy situation he or she feels there's a strong reason to doubt either the goodness or omnipotence (or both) of God, or even His very existence. After all, logically if He were ALL good and ALL powerful He'd be doing something about the mess He's made, or He would have done it differently in the first place, right?

Evil is real. Evil is ugly.

But upon further analysis we discover that "the problem of evil" ends up confirming the Christian outlook rather than infirming it.

I'm encouraged when I see unbelievers who are taking evil seriously as opposed merely holding the casual position that evil is a matter of personal preference or convention. It's for this reason (outrage, indignation about evil expressed on the part of the unbeliever) that I realize it won't be difficult to show why the POE is not a problem for the Christian theistic believer - more on this later.

But back to the logical challenge at hand. At its root the POE is intended to be a serious challenge to the Christian faith. It amounts to the charge that there is a logical incoherence within the Christian outlook and this incoherence would itself render Christian faith intellectually unacceptable. The challenge is that a Christian cannot accept all three of these premises and remain intellectually coherent: God is all-powerful, God is all-good, and evil exists in the world.

At first glance the task seems daunting, even insurmountable. It appears to be an untenable position for the Christian to hold. But then one simply asks; "for whom is evil logically a problem?" It should be obvious that there can be no POE to press upon Christian believers unless one can legitimately assert the existence of evil in this world. The crucial point of this argument is that the unbeliever must assert that there is evil in the world - to point to something and have the right to evaluate it as an instance of evil. If it should be the case that nothing evil exists, or ever happens, then there is nothing inconsistent with Christian theology that requires an answer.

So what then does the unbeliever mean by "evil", or by what standard does the unbeliever determine what is "evil"? What are the presuppositions in terms of which the unbeliever makes any moral judgments whatsoever? Maybe "good" evokes public approval? Based on that basis the statement "The vast majority of the community heartily approved of and willingly joined in the evil deed" could never make sense. The fact that a large number of people feel a certain way should not rationally convince anybody that this feeling is correct. Ordinarily people think of goodness as something evoking their approval rather than approval constituting its goodness! Even unbelievers talk and act as thought there are personal traits, actions or things which possess the property of goodness or evil irrespective of the attitudes or beliefs or feelings people have about those traits, actions or things.

Is "happiness" good? Is "suffering" or "misery" evil? Philosophically speaking, the problem of evil turns out to be a problem for the unbeliever. In order to use the argument from evil against the Christian worldview he must first be able to demonstrate that his judgments about the existence of evil are meaningful - which is precisely what his unbelieving worldview is unable to do.

The complaint before us is that plain facts about human experience are inconsistent with the Christian's theological beliefs about the goodness and power of God. This complaint requires the non-Christian to assert the existence of evil in the world, but what has been assumed here? I believe there is evil. Both I and the unbelievers here insist that certain things are truly, objectively and intrinsically evil and not simply expressions of personal taste, preference or subjective opinion.

Now my question, logically speaking, is how can the unbeliever make sense of taking evil seriously and not simply something inconvenient, or unpleasant or contrary to his or her desires? What philosophy of value or morality can the unbeliever offer which will render it meaningful to condemn some atrocity as objectively evil?

The moral indignation expressed toward evil by unbelievers doesn't comport with the theories of ethics which unbelievers espouse, theories which prove to be arbitrary or subjective, or perhaps merely utilitarian or relativistic in character. From the unbeliever's worldview there's no good reason for saying that anything is evil in nature, but only by personal choice, feeling or societal convention. Expressions of moral outrage or indignation is personal evidence that unbelievers know God in their heart of hearts since they refuse to let judgments about evil be reduced to subjectivism.

If the unbeliever argues that evil is, in the final analysis, based on human reasoning or choices - thus being relative to the individual or culture - then we find a logical incoherence within the unbeliever's worldview. On the one hand he speaks as though some activity is wrong in itself (e.g. child abuse) but on the other hand he believes and speaks as though that activity is wrong only if the individual or culture chooses some value which is inconsistent with it (e.g. greatest happiness of the greatest number).

When the unbeliever professes that people determine ethical values for themselves then the unbeliever implicitly holds that those who commit evil are not really doing anything evil given the values they've chosen for themselves. What we discover is that the unbeliever must secretly rely upon (or borrow from) the Christian worldview in order to make sense of his argument from the existence of evil which is urged against the Christian worldview! Antitheism presupposes theism to make its case.

The problem of evil is a logical problem for the unbeliever rather than the believer. As a Christian I can make perfectly good sense of my moral revulsion and condemnation of child abuse. The non-Christian cannot. This is not to suggest that I can explain why God does whatever He does or allows whatever He allows, it simply means that my moral outrage is consistent with my worldview. The unbeliever's worldview eventually cannot account for such moral outrage. It cannot explain the objective and unchanging nature of moral notions like good or evil. Unbelievers are required to appeal to the very thing against which they argue - a divine, transcendent sense of ethics - in order for their argument to be warranted.

By now the unbeliever is still demanding that even if he, as a non-Christian cannot meaningfully explain or make sense of the view that evil objectively exists, nonetheless there remains an unresolved paradox within the set of beliefs which constitute the Christian's own worldview. The unbeliever argues that regardless of the ethical inadequacy of his own worldview, the Christian is still - on the Christian's own terms - locked into a logically incoherent position by maintaining; God is all-good, God is all-powerful, and evil exists. However the critic here overlooks a perfectly reasonable way to assent to all three positions.

The Christian believes that God is perfectly and completely good - as scripture teaches and requires Christians to accept - then he is committed to evaluating everything in his experience in light of that belief. Accordingly the Christian when observing evil in the world can and should retain consistency with his belief that God is good by inferring that God has a morally good reason for the evil that exists. God certainly must be all-powerful in order to be God. And God is certainly good as the Christian will profess so any evil we find in the universe must be compatible with God's goodness. This is just to say that there are evil events occurring for reasons that are morally commendable and good from God's perspective.

To put it another way the apparent paradox created by the above three propositions is readily resolved by adding a fourth premise; God has a morally sufficient reason for the evil which exists. When all four of these premises are maintained there is no logical contradiction to be found, not even an apparent one.

The problem men have with God when they come face to face with evil in the world is not a philosophical problem, but a psychological one. It's often emotionally very difficult to have faith in God and trust in Him when we're not given any reason for why bad things happen.

The believer often struggles with this situation, walking by faith rather than by sight. The unbeliever, however, finds the situation intolerable for his pride, feelings or rationality. He refuses to trust God. He will not believe that God has a morally sufficient reason for the evil which exists, unless the unbeliever is given that reason for his own examination and assessment. To put it briefly, the unbeliever will not trust God unless God subordinates Himself to the intellectual authority and moral evaluation of the unbeliever. It becomes a question of ultimate authority within a person's life.

In conclusion it should not be thought that "the problem of evil" is anything like an intellectual basis for a lack of faith in God. It is rather simply the personal expression of such a lack of faith. We find that unbelievers who challenge the Christian faith end up reasoning in circles. Because they lack faith in God, they begin by arguing that evil is incompatible with the goodness and power of God. When they are presented with a logically adequate and Biblically supported solution to the problem of evil they refuse to accept it, AGAIN because of their lack of faith in God. They would rather be left unable to give an account of any moral judgment whatsoever (about things being good or evil) than to submit to the ultimate and unchallengeable moral authority of God. That's too high a price to pay, both philosophically and personally.

(HAT TIP: Christian Research Network and Greg Bahnsen)

UPDATE: At some point the comments section of the thread to which I posted was removed. Praise the Lord for the victory is His!