Friday, September 30, 2011

Is God Willing and Able to Prevent Evil?

Epicurus, the ancient Greek philosopher, stated the problem of evil thus:
Is God willing to prevent evil but not able?
Then his is impotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Whence then is evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?

This line of reasoning has been echoed by many throughout history, but it hinges on a mistaken premise. It assumes that a good God would not allow evil to continue. The reasoning underneath that premise goes like this:
1. We cannot think of any justifiable reason why God would allow suffering and evil to continue.
2. Therefore, God cannot have such a reason.
The logic does not follow. Why should there be no reason just because we cannot think of one?

Alvin Plantinga writes in Warranted Christian Belief, "Suppose the fact is God has a reason for permitting a particular evil... Is it even likely that we would wind up with plausible candidates for God's reason?... Given that he is omniscient and given our very substantial epistemic limitations, it isn't at all surprising that his reasons... [might] escape us." Plantinga also notes in Philosophers Who Believe, "Why does God permit all this evil...? Christians must concede that we don't know. That is, we don't know in any detail. On a quite general level, we may know that God permits evil because he can achieve a world he sees as better by permitting evil than by preventing it; and what God sees as better is, of course, better. But we cannot see why our world...would be better... or what, in any detail, is God's reason for permitting a given specific... evil."

In other words, if we have a God great enough to be angry at for not preventing evil and suffering, we must also have a God great enough to have a reason for allowing evil and suffering we cannot discern.

Moreover, if there is not God, people don't really have a good basis for being outraged at the existence of suffering. After all, nature is "red in tooth and claw." Death and destruction are perfectly natural. It is perfectly natural for the strong to eat the weak and "survival of the fittest" is a genetic principle. Someone can only object to injustice if they already believe in some kind of "supernatural" moral standard (i.e., some standard that comes from outside of nature and which judges some types of "natural" behavior as wrong). And where does such a supernatural standard come from if there is no God?

As I've said before, eliminating the God of the Bible because of the problem of evil does not do away with evil. It eliminates the only real solution for it.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Something Wicked This Way Comes

There is something very wrong with the world. The witch in Macbeth announced that "something wicked this way comes." There is no doubt that it has arrived. The existence of evil is undeniable. Many Christians, as well as others, have worked hard to provide answers for those who ask: Is God the author of evil or its helpless victim? Many have pointed to the thought of St. Augustine (354-430) for help in solving the vexing problem of evil.

Gregory Koukl, in his article Augustine on Evil states, "Augustine's approach was not just brilliant; it was practical. His insight is intellectually credible and emotionally satisfying in that it gives hope and offers meaning to the Christian trying to make sense out of life in a fallen world."
Two Aspects of the Problem
The problem of evil can be phrased in several ways. One approach addresses the origin of evil, prompting the syllogism (a series of statements that form a reasoned argument): 1) God created all things; 2) evil is a thing; 3) therefore, God created evil. If the first two premises are true, the conclusion is inescapable.
This formulation, if sustained, is devastating for Christianity. God would not be good if He knowingly created evil.
Augustine realized that the solution was tied to the question: What is evil? The argument above depends on the idea that evil is a thing (note the second premise). But what if evil is not a "thing" in that sense? Then evil did not need creating. If so, our search for the source of evil will take us in a another direction.
Augustine approached the problem from a different angle. He asked: Do we have any convincing evidence that a good God exists? If independent evidence leads us to conclude that God exists and is good, then He would be incapable of creating evil. Something else, then, must be its source.
If Augustine's approach is fair, it prompts a pair of syllogisms that lead to a different conclusion. First: 1) All things that God created are good; 2) evil is not good; 3) therefore, evil was not created by God. Second: 1) God created every thing; 2) God did not create evil; 3) therefore, evil is not a thing.
The key to success here, is the truthfulness of two premises. If Augustine can offer evidence through natural theology that God exists as Creator and also that God is good, making everything He created also good, then the conclusion--evil is not a thing--automatically follows.
This is Augustine's strategy. If evil is not a thing, then the case against Christianity stated in the original syllogism is unsound because one of its premises is false. The critical question is: What is evil?
Digging a Hole in Goodness
Central to Augustine's idea of goodness (and, consequently, evil) was the notion of being. To Augustine, anything that had being was good. God as the ground of being was perfectly good, along with everything he brought into being. This goodness was a property that came in varying degrees.
With this foundation Augustine was now prepared to answer the key issue: "Where is evil then, and whence, and how crept it in hither? What is its root, and what its seed? Or hath it no being?"[1] To this Augustine answered: "Evil has no positive nature; but the loss of good has received the name 'evil.'"[2]
Augustine observed that evil always injures, and such injury is a deprivation of good. If there were no deprivation, there would be no injury. Since all things were made with goodness, evil must be the privation of goodness: "All which is corrupted is deprived of good."[3]
The diminution of the property of goodness is what's called evil. Good has substantial being; evil does not. It is like a moral hole, a nothingness that results when goodness is removed. Just as a shadow is no more than a "hole" in light, evil is a hole in goodness.
To say that something is evil, then, is a shorthand way of saying it either lacks goodness, or is a lower order of goodness than what ought to have been. But the question remains: "Whence and how crept it in hither?"
Augustine observed that evil could not be chosen because there is no evil thing to choose. One can only turn away from the good, that is from a greater good to a lesser good (in Augustine's hierarchy) since all things are good. "For when the will abandons what is above itself, and turns to what is lower, it becomes evil--not because that is evil to which it turns, but because the turning itself is wicked."[4]
Evil, then, is the act itself of choosing the lesser good. To Augustine the source of evil is in the free will of persons: "And I strained to perceive what I now heard, that free-will was the cause of our doing ill."[5] Evil was a "perversion of the will, turned aside from...God" to lesser things.[6] 
Flawed Perfection
Augustine's solution has not been satisfying to some. Friedrich Schleiermacher snorted at the concept that God gave good creatures the freedom to do bad. If a being is perfect in its goodness, he held, it would never sin even if it were free to. Evil would then have to create itself ex nihilo, which is ridiculous.[7]
However, it doesn't follow that moral perfection necessarily entails immutability. That's a different type of perfection, a perfection in being. Schleiermacher's objection confuses the two. The fact that a perfectly beautiful vase is capable of being broken doesn't take away from its aesthetic perfections. In the same way, it makes sense to say that man was created morally perfect (morally whole or complete, at his proper level of goodness), even though he wasn't immutable in this perfection.
The objections raised by atheist philosophers J.L. Mackie and Antony Flew are more substantial.[8] Isn't it possible that God could have created man immutable in his goodness, yet still have the opportunity to freely choose in other areas? Won't man have immutable goodness in heaven? And will he not also have freedom to choose among certain options? Why not here on earth? Couldn't God construct man's nature such that evil simply was not an option?
Mackie and Flew are right in one regard. God could have created such a world. Freedom in the larger sense (the ability to make choices) does not require freedom in the narrow sense (the ability to make moral choices).
They miss the big picture, though: God would not have accomplished a second purpose. He not only wanted free creatures; He also wanted plenitude, that is, the greatest good possible. Plenitude--the highest good, the best of all possible worlds--requires more than just general freedom; it requires moral freedom, and that necessarily entails the possibility of evil.
Since all that God made is good, even those things which appear evil only appear that way because of a limited context or perspective. When viewed as a whole, that which appears to be evil ultimately contributes to the greater good.
For example, certain virtues couldn't exist without evil: courage, mercy, forgiveness, patience, the giving of comfort, heroism, perseverance, faithfulness, self-control, long-suffering, submission and obedience, to name a few. These are not virtues in the abstract, but elements of character that can only be had by moral souls. Just as evil is a result of acts of will, so is virtue. Acts of moral choice accomplish both. 
The Best of All Worlds
A world that had never been touched by evil would be a good place, but it wouldn't be the best place possible. The best of all worlds would be a place where evil facilitated the development of virtues that are only able to exist where evil flourishes for a time. This would produce a world populated by souls that were refined by overcoming evil with good. The evil is momentary. The good that results is eternal.
What good comes out of a drive-by killing, someone might ask, or the death of a teenager through overdose, or a daughter's rape, or child abuse? The answer is that a commensurate good doesn't always come out of those individualsituations, though God is certainly capable of redeeming any tragedy. Rather, the greater good results from having a world in which there is moral freedom, and moral freedom makes moral tragedies like these possible.
A Heavenly Twist
This observation reveals an interesting twist in this problem. If morality freely chosen can only happen in a world where evil is possible, then heaven will be a place where there will be no moral growth, where moral choices will not be possible because all the inhabitants of heaven will be immutably good. There is a type of soulish growth only available to inhabitants of a fallen world.
Two Scriptural observations lend credibility to this view. First, in recounting the great heroes of faith, the writer of Hebrews mentions that some were rescued by faith, but others endured by faith "...in order that they might obtain a better resurrection."[ix] (Heb. 11:35) Second, Paul tells Timothy that "...godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come." (1 Tim. 4:8)
Both of these verses indicate that conditions in this life affect conditions in the next. Bearing up under evil in this life improves our resurrection in the next. Godliness in this life brings profit in the next. These benefits are not available after this life or there would be little urgency to grow now; all eternity would be left in which to catch up.
It appears that a deeper, more profound good results when virtue is won by free, moral souls struggling with evil, rather than simply granted to them as an element of their constitution. 
Spoiled Goodness
Augustine knew that evil was real. Independent evidence (natural theology) was enough to convince him that God existed and that everything He created would be good. Evil, then, must be something real, but not a "thing" in the conventional sense. Evil is not a created thing, but spoiled goodness made possible by the free moral agency of rational creatures. Evil is not something present, but something missing, a privation.
The challenge that God could have created a world of free-will creatures immutable in their goodness is answered by the notion of plenitude, the greatest good. The possibility of evil also makes a greater good possible. God made a world in which true moral decision-making and development of virtues is possible in humans, manifest by persons whose character is formed through growth and struggle.
There's a sound reason why God has allowed evil. It doesn't conflict with His goodness. God is neither the author of evil, nor its helpless victim. Rather, precisely because of His goodness He chooses to co-exist with evil for a time.
Koukl asserts that St. Augustine's answer is the most intellectually credible and emotionally satisfying solution to the vexing problem of evil. Others have not been convinced. There have been many challenges to Augustine, and many other theodicies (good reasons why God allows evil) offered. We will consider more of both in successive posts.   

[1] Augustine, Confessions, VII: [V] 7.
[2] Augustine, The City of God, XI, CHAP. 9.
[3] Augustine, Confessions, VII: [XII] 18.
[4] Augustine, City of God, XII, CHAP. 6.
[5] Augustine, Confessions VII: [III] 5.
[6] Ibid., [XVI] 22.
[7] Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 3, 138.
[8] See J.L. Mackie, "God and Omnipotence," Mind, April 1955, and Antony Flew, "Divine Omnipotence and Human Freedom," New Essays in Philosophical Theology, 1955 (referenced in Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 3, 138).  

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Death of Satan

On April 8, 1966, Time's cover declared that God was dead. Bill Hamilton explained the phrase he coined for popular culture, "The death of God is a metaphor. We needed to redefine Christianity as a possibility without the presence of God."

 It is interesting to note that Hamilton came to this conclusion after years of wrestling with the concept of God. When he was a teenager his friends had been building pipe bombs. The two Christian friends died. And the third, the son of an atheist, emerged without a scratch. How, Hamilton wondered, could a just God allow this? Why do the innocent suffer? Does God intervene in human lives?

 "Theodicy came to dwell in my 14-year-old head that Sunday," he says.

 Hamilton wrote out his two choices: "God is not behind such radical evil, therefore he cannot be what we have traditionally meant by God" or "God is behind everything, including the death camps — and therefore he is a killer."

 Hamilton didn't see an active God anymore. But the theologian was not an atheist. And he didn't want to let go of Jesus, as the example of how humans should treat one another.

 Now 40 years later, Andrew Delbanco puts a spin on Hamilton's phrase and uses it as the title of his book, The Death of Satan. Delbanco traces the history of the concept of evil in America, and shows how it has all but disappeared in our day. He writes, “In this world emptied of metaphysical meaning...our insurance policies may still include clauses covering (or more likely, exempting) ‘acts of God’ as well as storm, fire, flood, and the like; but the fact is that such events are regarded by most people as inscrutable misfortunes.” He continues, “there seems to be growing agreement that there was once such a concept as sin – broad and capacious but still meaningful – and that it has faded.”

Delbanco concludes his study with these words: “My driving motive in writing...has been the conviction that if evil, with all the insidious complexity which Augustine attributed to it, escapes the reach of our imagination, it will have established dominion over us all.”

 Dismissing the God of the Bible because of the problem of evil doesn't do away with evil, it leaves us without a sure remedy for it. Denying or downplaying the reality of evil (in our own souls and all that springs from it) doesn't do away with it either. As Delbanco points out, being deluded into denying evil shows that you are being dominated by it.

 Over the next few weeks, I'd like think through the reality of and remedy for evil. More to follow.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Theology Is Worthless

In an interview about his biography on Bonhoeffer, Eric Metaxas makes a startling and stinging statement about what we can learn from the pastor and theologian who gave his life standing against the Nazi regime in his native Germany.
The main thing it to realize that on some level, theology is worthless unless we live it. This is a particular challenge for us as evangelicals--you can say, "I believe this and this," but at some point God says, "If you're not living it, I don't want to hear about it." Sometimes we can worship an idol of theological correctness. It doesn't mean that theology isn't extremely important, and anyone who says it isn't is wrong. At the same time, it's not everything, and Bonhoeffer challenges us to understand that the two have to be one--our life and what we say we believe. You can't fool God with a statement of theology.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Weeping over America

This year in staff meetings we have been working our way through the book of Jeremiah. Although written over 2400 years ago, the parallels between his day and ours are uncanny. If God is still the same, his holiness hasn’t diminished, his standards for what constitute a good and just society haven’t altered, and our responsibility to hear and obey His Word hasn’t been negated, then the "weeping prophet" has a message for us. "If any nation will not listen, then I will utterly pluck it up and destroy it" (Jeremiah 12:17). Here is a sampling of the indictments Jeremiah made against Judah:
They "went after worthlessness and became worthless" (2:5). They "turned degenerate" (2:21) and wore themselves out sinning (9:5). They were so wicked that they even taught "wicked women" things they didn't know (2:33). They "polluted the land with [their] vile whoredom" (3:2). They were callous and unjust toward the poor (2:34). They repeatedly claimed that they had not sinned (2:35). They were greedy, conniving, unashamed, and self-deluded regarding their true status (6:13-15). They treated the Word as an object of scorn (6:10). They were incapable of speaking the Truth (7:28). They followed their own hearts and went after false gods even more diligently than their forefathers had (9:14). They broke their covenant with the Lord (11:1-13). They were not correctable: they would not listen to God's prophet (2:30; 5:3), and they would not obey His Word. They assured themselves that God would not judge them, that disaster would not fall (5:12).
They were wrong, of course, as history demonstrated in 586 BC when Judah was crushed by the Babylonians. Many have warned of a similar judgment pending against America. In Death in the City, written in 1969, Francis Schaeffer not only claimed that both Europe and America were even then under "the wrath of God," he also addressed the question of the contemporary relevance of Jeremiah:
We do not have to guess what God would say about this [question] because there was a period of history, biblical history, which greatly parallels our day. That is the day of Jeremiah. The Book of Jeremiah and the Book of Lamentations show how God looks at a culture which knew Him and deliberately turned away. But this is not just the character of Jeremiah’s day of apostasy. It’s my day. It’s our day. And if we are going to help our own generation, our perspective must be that of Jeremiah, that weeping prophet Rembrandt so magnificently pictured weeping over Jerusalem, yet in the midst of his tears speaking without mitigating his message of judgment to a people who had had so much yet turned away.
Diane Singer recently outlined what our response to the evil of our day should be:
We must, like Jeremiah, keep speaking the truth about human nature (17:9): “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick.” Unless people understand that they are sinners in need of a Savior, they will -- in the words of one bumper sticker I've seen around town -- tragically believe they are "Born OK the first time" and so don't need Christ. Evangelism becomes more difficult in a culture where people think they are basically good and where people reject the concept of personal sin. We must keep warning our fellow citizens that it is foolish to trust in man (17:5), but wise to trust in God (17:7). The corollary to this is that people must learn to trust what the Bible has to say about what has gone wrong with our world and what God has done to set things right. We need to promote a biblical worldview in all areas of life so unbelievers can see the futility of the man-made philosophies they have been clinging to, and suffering under, and instead embrace the Truth of God's Word as it speaks to issues such as marriage, the family, the right and wrong use of technology and science, the sanctity of human life, the proper role of government, and other "hot button" issues. We must pray that we will stand firm in these evil days, as Jeremiah did (17:14-17). And while Jeremiah was forbidden to pray for his nation (7:16), we have not yet reached that point: therefore, we must fervently pray for revival to come to America. We should, with the Cross in mind, pray for God’s judgment to fall on the unrepentant who are leading many others down the destructive path of sin and evil (18:19-23).
What does it mean to keep the Cross in mind as you pray for God's judgment to fall on the unrepentant? Singer provides a solid answer:
An imprecatory prayer must come from two intense desires: a longing to see God's holiness vindicated, and the desire to see sinners repent of their sin and come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. Sometimes a form of judgment which stops short of death can bring sinners back to God: that is God's primary desire, and it should be ours. However, sometimes God's judgment exacts the ultimate price. In such cases, we should feel a deep sorrow for those who have perished, all the while recognizing that only God knows whose evil has progressed to the point of no return, and whose harmful influence on others has become so great that it must be stopped.
Early in his ministry, Jeremiah admonished his fellow citizens to "Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls" (6:16). Our study of Jeremiah this year has shown us that taking time to consider those ancient paths is still a good thing to do. The only question is whether we will be like the people of Judah who refused to walk in those paths, or whether will we be wiser than that: Will we allow the words of Jeremiah to help us stay on the narrow way which leads to life (Matthew 7:13-14)? During our study of Jeremiah Jeremiah summer, we have become painfully aware of just how bad the situation in America has become; but it's also brought great blessing. Jeremiah reminds again and again that our God is gracious, loving, and patient: His greatest desire in warning us of impending judgment is to wake us up to reality so we'll repent and return to Him. He is ready to forgive and restore. So, we have a choice to make: we can face a future of devastating judgment (Jeremiah 1:16), or we can claim as our own these hopeful words written to the exiles in Babylon (Jeremiah 29:11-14): "For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the LORD..." Which path will we choose?