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Apocalyptic Love and Goodness

By Jeff Dickson

While much attention has been given to the conquest narratives in the Old Testament (which skeptics commandeer to disprove a loving and good God) and how Christians can responsibly advocate for divine love in lieu of these episodes, one potential issue has gone relatively underappreciated and therefore unanswered—How is God’s love witnessed in the eschaton in which His wrath is existentially poured out on the world? Would a loving God really destroy a world and the majority of its people, sending them to an eternal lake of fire, and only preserve those who follow Him? Or, as has been popularly promulgated, does love win in the end and everyone eventually receive a reward in glory?

The book of Revelation seems to argue that God’s love does win in the end—God’s special love for his people—and this, as will soon be argued, seems to be an argument in favor of divine goodness. However, to understand this appropriately, one must appreciate at least one important image that is employed throughout the Canon to illustrate the love and goodness of God—marriage.

Both God and the God-man have been portrayed as a husband for thousands of years. However, God is never portrayed in Scripture as being married to the world. Instead, he is said to have been and is depicted as married to Israel in the Old Testament (Isa. 54:4-8; 62:1-5; Jer. 3:14; 31:31-33; Hos. 14:-20) and to the church in parables (Matt. 22:1-14; 25:1-13), comparisons (Eph. 5:22-33), instructional material (2 Cor. 11:2), and prophecies (Matt. 26:26-30; Mk. 14:22-31; Lk. 22:14-23). The marriage image is even revisited at the very end of Revelation itself as it describes the much anticipated marriage supper of the Lamb.

“Let us rejoice and be glad and give the glory to Him, for the marriage of the Lamb has come and His bride has made herself ready It was given to her to clothe herself in fine linen, bright and clean; for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints. Then he said to me, ‘Write, “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.”’ And he said to me, ‘These are true words of God.’” (Rev. 19:7-9)

These passages not only portray the love exchanged between God and humans, but something of its exclusivity. To be sure, theists believe that God loves the world (John 3:16; Rom. 5:8). However, these same theists also affirm that God’s love is not applied in the same way to everybody. Instead, as depicted above, God appears to especially love certain groups (see passages above). This special love, applied to Israel in the Old Testament and the Church in the New Testament, is ultimately and in part a product of God choosing (volitionally) those who have pleased him (upon his evaluation) and will persevere in a relationship with him that will continue to the end.

In fact, “choice” is something engrained in the very semantics of “love” as it appears in the Scriptures. For instance,  אהב seems to involve choice in the context of Malachi 1:2-3 when it says, “Jacob have I loved and Esau have I hated.” Not only that, but the New Testament suggests that in order to follow the Lord one must choose Him over one’s family and oneself—signifying superior love for the former, “If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple” (Lk. 14:26). Most agree that “hate” in both these contexts is not equal to disdain as much as it is comparable to allegiance in relationship. In other words, Jacob was chosen and therefore involved in a special relationship with God and, in that relationship, and object of God’s special affection. Similarly, Luke 14:26 suggests that anyone hoping to be a disciple of Jesus chooses Him over and above all others, thereby entering into a relationship with him that does not compare to anyone else.

Nowhere is this most appropriately encapsulated than within the context and image of marriage. In a marriage, a groom has chosen a bride above all others to remain with him until death. He does so in the best of situations, not under compulsion, but because his wife is pleasing to him and within the context of their marriage, he knows that she will consistently bring delight and affection into their home. Most, even in today’s morally deprived world, agree that a man who loves his wife in special and exclusive ways can be called “good.” If he loved every woman in the same way, he would otherwise be labeled a reprobate and/or womanizer.

The same is true of God as witnessed in Revelation. God’s hatred and wrath poured out over a world that has rejected him (witnessed in John’s graphic apocalyptic and prophetic presentation) indicates not only his holiness and justice, but his incomparable love for His wife—the church. God’s love, and by proxy, his goodness, might be called into question if he showed the same love and granted the same rewards to everyone in the end—even those who never responded positively to his constant overtures.

Therefore, one might say that “love wins” in the end, but not in the way it is popularly promoted. God’s love for his bride wins in the end and this is an eschatologically significant consideration pertaining to His goodness. If love for all wins, God’s love would not be particularly special or meaningful—God would not be as good as the faithful husband he is presented as through the Scriptures in general and in the book of Revelation in particular.

Image: “Jesus” by x1klima. CC License. 

“Good Persons, Good Aims, and the Problem of Evil,” A Lecture by Linda Zagzebski

Philosopher of  religion, Dr. Linda Zagzebski, gave a lecture at the Contemporary Moral Theory and the Problem of Evil Conference held at the University of Notre Dame. In this lecture, Dr. Zagzebski analyzes the nature of the problem of evil and how it is usually framed. She discusses what makes some state of affairs intrinsically evil and suggests that perhaps we should use a virtue theory to explicate goodness and badness instead of considering states of affairs in isolation from the agents that bring them about. It’s a very creative and insightful lecture; well worth your time if you’re interested in the problem of evil or the application of virtue ethics.

 

Photo: “Untitled” by S. Zamani. CC License. 

God, Evil, and the Human Good (Part 2 of 2)

By Jonathan Pruitt

(Thanks to Dr. David Baggett and Dr. Marybeth Davis Baggett for substantive feedback on this essay)

Evil and the Human Good

Continued from this post

How can Christians give a theodicy in light of Rowe’s argument and the specific cases he presents? The first step is to get clear on what we mean by “evil.” What is meant by the term “evil”? One way to answer is by ostension. We point to the Sue and Bambi cases and say, “Here is an example of evil.” But that does not do enough. We need to know what it is about the Sue and Bambi cases that makes them evil. Rowe will say that suffering is an intrinsic evil. The Bambi and Sue cases are evil because they involve gratuitous amounts of suffering.[1] But that just pushes the problem back a step. Why is suffering evil? What does it mean to say that suffering is evil? Perhaps Rowe could say that it is just self-evident that suffering is evil; we do not need to provide any explanation because we can just see it is the case. But this response confuses epistemology with ontology. What we want to know is not whether we are justified in taking suffering to be evil, but what makes suffering evil. Here, the naturalist faces a problem. As Mackie says, “Moral properties constitute so odd a cluster of properties and relations that they are most unlikely to have arisen in the course of events without an all-powerful god to create them.”[2] The point here is that there is no worldview-neutral way to talk about moral properties. Since evil is a moral property, it can only be meaningfully referred to from within a given worldview. Because the problem of evil is an objection aimed at Christian theism, the term evil must refer to something Christians will recognize as such.

So, then, what is the Christian view of evil? One well-accepted definition comes from Augustine: “For evil has no positive nature; but the loss of good has received the name ‘evil.’”[3] In this case, evil is a privation of goodness. On the Christian view, then, evil is not a substance on par with goodness. Christianity is not dualistic in this way. Evil is parasitic on the good. But parasitic in what way? Here Augustine is again helpful. Hick points out that Augustine thought of all God’s creation as good; Augustine “lays the foundation for a Christian naturalism that rejoices in this world… seeks to share it in gratitude to God for His bountiful goodness.”[4] Included in God’s creation is a God given telos. God makes the world and everything in it for a reason so that there is a way the world should function.[5] Augustine thinks that man’s telos is “to enjoy God as the end of all, while he enjoys himself and his friend in God and for God.”[6] Evil occurs in every case where a man loves for their own sake things which are desirable only as means to an end, and seeks for the sake of something else things which ought to be loved for themselves. Thus, as far as he can, he disturbs in himself the natural order which the eternal law requires us to observe.[7] It is evil when man acts in a disordered way, when he acts contrary to God’s intention.[8]This principle can be broadened so that evil, generally speaking, can be understood as disorder and malfunction.

With this view of evil in mind, let us now consider the nature of the human good and how it might help shape a theodicy. Scripture teaches us that the good for humans has to do with how God made us. For example, when Jesus was asked whether it was lawful to get a divorce, he appealed to how God made humans to justify his answer.[9] The first chapter of Genesis also shines some light on this topic. In 1:26, we are told that humans are made, male and female, in God’s image and that we are supposed to take dominion over all the earth. The biblical anthropology is very rich and drawing out all that it has to say would take a very long time. But all that needs to be accepted here is that mankind has a telos and that telos includes three dimensions. First, being rightly related to God as his image bearers. Second, being rightly related to other humans in community, and third being rightly related to the earth as its rulers.[10] That this is the biblical view is not a controversial point.

Now, in light of this biblical view of the human telos, I want to suggest the following principle:

T1: For an agent to achieve its telos, it must do so with internal integrity.

What I mean by “internal integrity” must be specified. Achieving one’s telos is not a matter of simply getting certain inputs to generate the desired outputs. In other words, being a good human person is about more than just behaving the right way or doing the right thing. It is about being a certain kind of person. This involves a transformation of the individual from one state to another. This transformation takes place through an individual’s development of character, accomplished by habituation and the practice of the virtues. Part of the human good is that humans achieve it as humans —this is not to deny the need for God’s grace as a necessary condition, but the process also requires some real element of free human participation in the process. To see why this is so, we can run a thought experiment. Suppose that very technologically advanced aliens abducted a human named Dale. They implant into Dale’s brain a microchip that will override Dale’s normally disordered desires and give him good desires. The result will be that Dale will now live as an ideal human should. But it seems there is something deficient about Dale’s story. The good for Dale is not merely that he act like a good person, but that he would actually become a good person on his own volition. It would be better if Dale would live as a good person, not because he was made to, but because he wanted to and thus, through a slow and difficult process, began forming his character to become a good person. The end matters, but so do the means to the end. C. S. Lewis makes a similar point in the Problem of Pain. Lewis points out that in the game of chess   

…you can make certain arbitrary concessions to your opponent, which stand to the ordinary rules of the game as miracles stand to the laws of nature. You can deprive yourself of a castle, or allow the other man sometimes to take back a move made inadvertently. But if you conceded everything that at any moment happened to suit him – if all his moves were revocable and if all your pieces disappeared whenever their position on the board was not to his liking – then you could not have a game at all.

There is an analogy between the integrity of a chess game and the integrity of the human pursuit of their good. Humans must “play the game” on their own if winning is going to mean anything. Humans as humans must achieve their good; there is no other possible way it could be. This is what I mean by “internal integrity.” For an agent to achieve its telos, it cannot be overridden by forces outside itself; it must pursue its telos by its own volition.

Another idea implicit in the notion of internal integrity is the reality of libertarian free will. This means our choices are, at bottom, self-determined and not determined by God. God is restricted by what libertarian agents would choose to do.[11] But what reason is there to think that we actually have this power? While this is not the place to develop a full argument, I will give at least one piece of evidence. Libertarian freedom is the commonsense view. We navigate our everyday lives under the assumption that we determine what we will do. Of course, our determinative powers are limited. For instance, I cannot will that I teleport to Mars and have it happen. But within the range of my natural powers (like the power to move my arm or not), I can will to do or not do certain things. It is only when we operate according to this presupposition that things like deliberation or weighing our options make sense. We deliberate because we think we will make an important choice, not that someone else has already made the choice for us. So we should accept that we really have libertarian freedom or pay the very high cost of saying our commonsense experience is completely mistaken.

Something very important follows from T1 and the biblical view of the human good that will allow us to say something about Sue’s case. Given that the human good includes relations with other humans, it follows that God must, as a general policy, not intervene in human interactions. If he were to intervene too often, he would compromise humanity’s internal integrity and short circuit our ability to achieve our telos. This is similar to the chess game. Once too many concessions are made, there is no point in playing the game. And, given the reality of libertarian freedom, sometimes humans may do things God does not want them to do. All things considered, it is better for humans for God to allow us autonomy and the possibility of achieving our good, even if this means that we inflict terrible evils on one another. It is better for God to do this because, if were to intervene too much, he would undermine any chance for humans to attain their good.

Some might object to what I have said so far on this basis: it is unjust for God to allow Sue to be murdered so that other humans have the chance of achieving the human good.  Such an act presupposes an “end justifies the means” ethic that is not acceptable. In response, I suggest that often there is not much difference between the way a consequentialist, “ends justify the means” ethic and a a deonitc ethic actually work out. If we imagine that a person has the moral duties to tell the truth and to protect human life, then we can easily construct thought experiments that show one principle  must be compromised for the end of keeping the other. Even in deontic ethics, there is often a means/end kind of justification for what actions ought to be taken. In the often cited “Nazi at the Door” thought experiment, we are asked to consider whether it would be right for a homeowner with Jews in the attic refrain from truth telling to the Nazi inquisitor at the door. The homeowner faces a dilemma. Should she fulfill her duty to protect human life or to tell the truth? A plausible way out of the dilemma is to say that because telling the truth would likely have a terrible consequence, she should take her duty to protect human life to override the duty to tell the truth. So the homeowner would be justified in refraining from truth telling .  Consequences matter to all plausible ethical theories and simply because a bad consequence is given as a justification for some action (or omission of some action) does not make a person an unacceptable consequentialist. In the case of Sue, the suggestion is that by allowing Sue’s murder to take place, God is justified because he is in a “Nazi at the door” type scenario. He cannot both save Sue and preserve the possibility of the human good, so he allows one thing to happen for the sake of protecting another.

Besides this objection, I suspect there is another objection forthcoming. Many today at least implicitly hold a view like this. Humans are autonomous and isolated from one another. Each man is a world unto himself. Whether or not he achieves his good is up to him and him alone. In fact, what counts as “good” is up to him, too. So people are like tiny ethical islands. Each person has his own rules and his own aims and so talk of the “human good” as a justification for why God allows evil will never work. There is no “human good” that includes all humans as a community. At best, there is a “human good” in the sense that there are states of affairs that some particular human desires. If people are islands in this way, then only integrity with respect to the individual needs to be maintained. God could, then, allow Sue’s abuser to think he was murdering Sue without actually murdering her.

Despite the fact that so many today hold such a view either implicitly or explicitly, this is not the Christian view. Nor has it been the view of most people throughout history. The view is a rather unfortunate result of The Enlightenment. Ancient thinkers, like  Aristotle, taught us that being a truly virtuous person is impossible to do on our own. We must live in the right kind of society – a society aimed at realizing the human good. Humans as islands will never flourish. Here Lewis is again helpful. In Mere Christianity, Lewis suggests that the metaphor of a fleet of ships on a voyage toward a particular destination captures the essence of the moral life: “The voyage will be a success only, in the first place, if the ships do not collide and get in one another’s way; and, secondly, if each ship is seaworthy and has her engines in good order.” Later, Lewis adds a third part: the fleet must have a specific destination if the voyage is to be successful. Lewis concludes,

Morality, then, seems to be concerned with three things. Firstly, with fair play and harmony between individuals. Secondly, with what might be called tidying up or harmonising the things inside each individual. Thirdly, with the general purpose of human life as a whole: what man was made for: what course the whole fleet ought to be on: what tune the conductor of the band wants it to play.

In our secular society, it often seems as the only real moral value is the first thing, staying out of each other’s way. However, on the Christian view, like other ancient views, humans cannot just stay out of each other’s way and expect to flourish. This is because of what humans are by nature. As mentioned earlier, humans are made for intimate fellowship with God, each other, and to rule over the earth. This telos cannot be realized on one’s own. It requires humans to cooperate together. It also means that the human good is objective and communal. What one person does has a real effect on others. Having very briefly laid out this ancient view, I commend  it to you as true. It is more robust and makes more sense out of the world than the other view. It also better explains our actual experience. Even if we like to imagine that a person’s flourishing is a matter of individual effort and ideals, history has shown us this is not the case. We are all in this together, like it or not.

Now I want to say how this view provides an advantage in explaining God’s justification for Sue-like cases. If the human good is objective and communal in the way just suggested, then, returning to the chess analogy, we are all playing the same game together. Or, perhaps a better way to make the point is to say that we are all members of the same football team. We each have different roles and abilities, but we share the same goal of winning the game. And this goal cannot be meaningfully reached if the rules of the game are compromised too much. If, for example, the referee counts any progress past the fifty yard line as a touchdown for us, then we may have the highest score at the end of the game, but we haven’t really won. This football analogy can also help us see why God might allow cases like Sue. We can think of Sue’s abuser as a particularly bad player on the team. He never shows up for practice, he does not know the rules or the plays, and he is out of shape. On game day, he racks up penalty after penalty. He breaks the rules of the game. Now, if we want to really win the game, then we cannot also want the referee to simply overlook these penalties. The rules of the game must be enforced, even though it hurts the team. It may seem like enforcing the rules makes winning the game more difficult, but actually it is required to make winning even possible. Similarly, God may be required to allow Sue-like cases if humans want even to have the possibility of attaining their good, even though there are very bad “penalties”  associated with Sue-like cases.

That said, I want to make two important clarifications. First, I do not intend to say that human life is a game. Being human is a very serious matter indeed. My analogy of human life to a game, especially in an attempt to explain Sue-like cases, may unintentionally communicate that I do not take Sue’s suffering to be very bad. That is not the case. The analogy to games is only intended to illustrate the principle of internal integrity that I have proposed. In no way should it be taken as an attempt to diminish the suffering of Sue. Second, even though the idea of the human good and internal integrity might help us make sense of why God allows even terrible evils as a general rule, we should exercise epistemic humility here. I do not mean to suggest that this is the reason God allowed Sue’s case. Alston is right; in most cases we cannot know what the actual reason is for God allowing an evil to occur. At best we can make some “theodical suggestions.”[12]

But how can T1 and the biblical notion of the human good help us make sense of a case like Bambi’s?  Here we must remember that the human good includes care of the earth. Perhaps God’s intention for human care of the earth is that we were to be so meticulous that we would prevent cases like Bambi’s from ever occurring. At first, this might seem absurd, but that may be only because we humans have strayed so far from God’s intention for us. In a world in which every human properly exercised his or her responsibility to care for God’s creation, I suspect there would be vastly fewer Bambi-like cases. And, once humans actually achieved dominion of the earth, perhaps no Bambi-like cases would ever occur. So part of the answer for why there are Bambi-like cases may be that humans continue to fail in their responsibility as care-givers of the earth. Another part of the answer comes directly from Scripture. Paul says that nature itself is “subject to frustration”[13] because “humanity’s fall into sin marred the ‘goodness’ of God’s creation.”[14] Human sin, then, is the cause of natural evil. And, given that the welfare of the earth is so closely connected with the human telos, God cannot, as a general rule, intervene in nature without compromising the internal integrity of humanity. Humans, if we ever hope to be what God intends, must willingly take on their responsibility as caretakers of the earth and its redemption and their redemption are inextricably linked.

If what I have said is correct, then God has good reason to allow Bambi and Sue cases. This undermines Rowe’s R1, and thus his argument no longer goes through. But before moving to the conclusion, let me consider two objections.

First, the atheologian might say, “All this talk of the human good and human responsibility is very noble, but couldn’t have God lessened the suffering of both Bambi and Sue and not compromise the internal integrity of humanity?” This objection presses an ambiguity in my argument, specifically the idea that God could not intervene as a “general rule.” If the rule is generally applied, then there is no reason God could not intervene in any particular case. But from this it also follows that God could intervene in Sue or Bambi’s case and not compromise human integrity. No particular case is essential to human integrity. However, if God intervenes too much, then human integrity will be compromised. So at least some evils must still be allowed. We can reason that those evils that occur must be allowed or else human integrity would be compromised.[15] So if God prevented Sue’s case or a Bambi-like case from occurring, there would be some evil equally bad or worse he would have to allow somewhere else. Therefore, this objection does not defeat the argument.

Second, the atheologian might object because, he says, I have described a morally hopeless situation. Humans, as they are now, will never develop to the point where we would prevent Sue and Bambi cases. A long list of gross human failures even from the past thirty days could be easily produced. If T1 is right, then the hope of ever realizing a just world is absurd. We are like a terminally ill cancer patient who suffers tremendous pain and has no chance of recovery. Given the hopelessness of the situation, the only good we can reasonably hope for is that doctor would give us some drug to deaden the pain. So God should realize that since humans are in such a sad state, human integrity is not worth the suffering because it will never be realized. What is the point of allowing cases like Sue’s if it will never amount to anything? But, on this point the atheologian is mistaken. We Christians have yet more to say. Our plight is not hopeless because God himself has become one of us. God has done something dramatic and heroic on the part of creatures like Bambi, even more so for humans like Sue. In the person of Jesus, God has given humanity a way to be truly human and a way to end human and animal suffering. Through Jesus, God has acted to overcome human sin in a way that does not compromise the internal integrity of humanity because Jesus is fully human. And since Jesus is incarnate and fully human, he makes a way for humans to overcome the problem of sin as humans. Apart from him, humans are unable to achieve our God-given telos. But with him, we can become what God intends. In every way, Jesus has redeemed humanity from our sin.

Conclusion

In this essay, we have seen a promising way for Christians to respond to the problem of evil. We saw that God can allow some evil if it realizes a worthwhile good and that he is limited by what is logically possible. Further, we saw that allowing humans autonomy to achieve their good is worthwhile and that this entails that God cannot, as a general rule, intervene in areas of human responsibility. Finally, we saw that God, in Jesus, has acted in a way to solve the problem of evil while simultaneously preserving human integrity.

 

 Notes 

[1] Rowe. 3.

[2] J. L. Mackie, The Miracle of Theism: Arguments for and against the Existence of God (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982). 115.

[3] Augustine, The City of God, XI, CHAP. 9.  http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/120111.htm

[4] John Hick, Evil and the God of Love, 2d ed. (London: Macmillan, 1977). 45.

[5]See Etienne Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of Saint Augustine (New York: Octagon Books, 1983). 132.

[6] Augustine, Contra Faustum, Book 22, chapter 78.

[7] Augustine, Contra Faustum, Book 22, chapter 78.

[8] A similar point is made by N.T. Wright in N. T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2006). Kindle location 343. He says that evil in the OT is understood as “idolatry” or “dehumanization.” This is consistent with the idea that evil is disorder or malfunction.

[9] See Matt 19-1-6.

[10] These three relations are inspired by a similar list mentioned in John Randall Sachs, The Christian Vision of Humanity: Basic Christian Anthropology, Zacchaeus Studies Theology (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991). 17.

[11] Sometimes, defenders of libertarian freedom are accused of improperly limiting God. But this accusation is wrong for two reasons.  First, God is still fully omnipotent on the libertarian view. God can do whatever is logically possible for him to do. Second, to say that God chose to create agents with libertarian freedom does not mean that God has fewer options open to him at all. The opposite is true. The defender of libertarian freedom thinks that God could have determined everything; that is his prerogative. However, the defender also thinks God has the power to create finite, self-determining creatures. God has more options and not less on this view. It is the compatibilist that is, arguably, artificially limiting God’s power.

[12] William Alston, “The Inductive Argument from Evil,” in The Evidential Argument from Evil, ed. Daniel Howard-Snyder (Bloomington, ID.: Indiana University Press, 1996).103.

[13] Romans 8:22

[14] Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans, 1996). 515.

[15] This response is inspired by a similar discussion in David  Baggett and Walls Jerry L., Good God : The Theistic Foundations of Morality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). 144. Here they discuss an analogy from Peter van Inwagen aimed at showing that if God intervenes too much, he will defeat the law like regularity in a world.

 

Photo: “Struggle for Life” by Harpagornis

Link: Glenn Peoples and Stephen Law on the Evil God Challenge

Over at Unbelievable?, there is a great discussion between Christian philosopher Glenn Peoples and  atheist philosopher Stephen Law on the “Evil God Challenge.” The objection raised in the challenge is that we have as much evidence to believe in a good God as an evil one. Peoples responds with a moral argument. You can listen to the discussion here.

Photo: “Angry Gods” by deanoakley. CC License. 

Samuel James on “Brittany Maynard, Rachel Held Evans, and Not Giving Up”

Samuel James offers a thoughtful discussion on how to make sense of pain and despair in a world created by a good God. To make his point, James shines a light on the thinking of Brittany Maynard, who has chosen to end her own life rather than die from terminal brain cancer, and Rachel Held Evans, who views the God of the Old Testament as diabolical. You can find the essay here.

If the life of faith is anything, it is the holding of two truths in tension. The first truth is that pain and suffering and are real and grievous. The second truth is that hope has the final word in history and must be held onto. Despair’s temptation lies in its promise to relieve the tension, to grant rest to the one weary of waiting on God. It’s a temptation not just in seasons of cancer, but in seasons of spiritual crisis too.

Photo: “Life” by Ragesh Ev. CC license. 

God, Evil, and the Human Good (Part 1 of 2)

Introduction

The aim of this series of posts is to give a theodicy. A theodicy is an explanation of how God and evil can co-exist in the world. In order to do this, we will first see why there is such a thing as “the problem of evil.” Then we will see how Plantinga’s response to this problem provides useful guideposts in constructing a theodicy. With these guideposts in place, I will argue that one reason for supposedly gratuitous evils is that they are required to realize the human good.

 

The Logical Problem of Evil

One powerful way to show that a worldview is false is to show that it contains internal contradictions. If, for example, we could show that Buddhism teaches that there are no such things as unified, human selves, but we can show that a real and unified human self is everywhere presupposed by Buddhist teaching, this counts as an internal contradiction. Buddhists are committed to two beliefs that cannot be reconciled together. This is the kind of challenge that the problem of evil poses to Christian theism.

Let us call the person pressing the objection to the Christian the “atheologian.” Now, the first the step the atheologian needs to take to show a contradiction within Christianity is say what two beliefs are supposed to contradict one another. The two beliefs in question are the orthodox view of God and the existence of evil. The next step is to spell out how exactly these beliefs contradict each other. The orthodox view of God is that he is maximally great. That is, he possesses all great-making properties to the greatest degree possible. Among these great making properties are omnipotence and omnibenevolence. By omnipotence, we mean that God has the power to do anything that is possible to be done. Being omnipotent does not mean that God can do what is logically impossible, like make a married bachelor.[1] By omnibenevolence, we mean that God’s nature is fundamentally characterized by love and goodness. As the Apostle John wrote, “God is love.”[2] Richard Swinburne says that God is “morally perfectly good… he always does the morally best action (when there is one), and no morally bad action.”[3] To say that God is omnibenevolent entails some important things about God. Atheist J. L. Mackie writes that “good is opposed to evil in such a way that a good thing always eliminates evil as far as it can.”[4] God, being maximally good, will be necessarily committed to following this principle.  However, God is also omnipotent. This means that God, being willing and able, should eliminate all cases of evil. But our everyday experience makes it plain to us that evil exists. Therefore, the Christian is faced with a problem. The dilemma is well expressed by David Hume. Concerning God, Hume writes, “Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”[5] So the atheologian thinks he has shown that Christianity has an internal contradiction. God and evil cannot coexist, yet Christian teaching says they do. Therefore, Christianity must be wrong about their view of God.

Certainly, if we Christians were to tweak our view of God, we could easily make this problem of evil go away. We can get rid of either omnipotence or omnibenevolence and escape the atheologian’s argument. If God is not omnibenevolent, then he will not always remove evil every chance he gets. But this solution fails. First, it contradicts clear biblical teaching. Second, a God who is not omnibenevolent is not worthy of worship. So, perhaps, we can get rid of omnipotence. This has been a more popular option among theologians. For example, Rabbi Harold Kushner says, “I would rather worship a God who is completely good but not totally powerful than a God who is completely powerful but not completely good.”[6] Some Christians could also be accused of making a similar move. The Open Theist movement takes a view of God as less powerful. Specifically, they say God could know neither in advance nor for certain whether some particular evil would occur. Evil is out of his control in a way it is not on other views of God’s foreknowledge.[7] This solution fails, too. If God lacks omnipotence, then God is not maximally great. If not maximally great, then he could not properly be called “God.” So the Christian must find a way to preserve both God’s omnibenevolence and his omnipotence in the face of the existence of evil. Fortunately, Alvin Plantinga has provided a way out.

 

Plantinga’s Free Will Defense

Plantinga’s defense begins with this central insight: If an agent is free in the libertarian sense, then not even God could determine what she would do.[8] That is, it is logically impossible for God to determine what an agent does or for the agent’s actions to be self-determined.[9] This is not a threat to God’s omnipotence because, as mentioned earlier, being omnipotent just means being able to whatever is logically possible. Given that this is the case, perhaps the reason that God and evil exist together has to do with human freedom. At least some humans chose to use their freedom for evil instead of good. Add to this thought about free will the idea that humans having free agency is an intrinsically valuable state of affairs. It is better for humans to be free and not automatons. In fact, human freedom has the kind of value that God would consider worth the risk of realizing even if it means some humans might do evil. Thus, this is at least possibly the source of evil in the world. This insight, by itself, does not get the Christian completely out of trouble with the atheologian’s argument. For one, the atheologian might argue that God could have created both free will and a world without evil. But this might not be possible. Perhaps, as Plantinga suggests, all humans (including all non-actual humans) suffer from trans-world depravity.[10] If a being is trans-world depraved, it means there is no possible world in which he does not commit at least one act of evil. Thus, possibly, there is no possible world in which free creatures exist and there is no evil. If this is even possibly right, then the Christian has escaped the logical problem of evil.

Guideposts for a Theodicy

One important aspect of Plantinga’s argument here is that it is a defense, not a theodicy. All he aims to do is show how, possibly, God and evil might co-exist.[11] Plantinga is not arguing that his view is true, only that it is possibly true. If what he said about free will and the kind of restrictions it places on the worlds God could actualize is even possibly true, this means that the Christian is not uttering a contradiction when she affirms that both God and evil exist. But what we are after here is not merely a defense, but a theodicy. We want a true explanation of why God allows evil. Despite the difference in my aim and Plantinga’s, his argument is still useful for a couple of reasons. First, he has turned back the atheologian’s first attempt at refuting the Christian position. The atheologian must now revise his argument and try again. Second, it is likely that something like Plantinga’s account is true. Or, at the very least, certain features of his account are likely true. In spelling out my theodicy, I intend to deal with both these points, but let us first look at the true (and not merely possibly true) features of Plantinga’s free will defense. These will provide the guideposts of my own theodicy.

The first true principle is this:

P1: God can justifiably allow some evil if it realizes some worthwhile good that would not otherwise be possible.

But should we think that P1 is true? To get at that, we first have to be specific about what P1 is committing us to. One idea that believing P1 commits us to is that there at least some goods that cannot be realized without allowing some evil. This is not a new idea. Virtues like courage, compassion, and empathy all require evil in order to be realized. How can one be courageous unless he has some menace to conquer? Or how can we be compassionate unless there is some wrong in need of righting?  Another plausible idea is that the presence of good free moral agents requires at least the possibility of evil. It may be that, given a world with more than a handful of people and with genuine opportunity to do evil, all worlds like this would have at least some evil in them. Still further, as Plantinga argues, there is the tremendous good of the Atonement of Jesus which requires human evil as a precondition.[12] I take all of these as sufficient for establishing that some goods require evil to be realized.

Another idea P1 commits us to is that God will allow evil if the good it realizes is worthwhile. In Plantinga’s free will defense, he assumes P1 when he says, “A world containing creatures who are significantly free (and freely perform more good than evil actions) is more valuable, all else being equal, than a world containing no free creatures at all.”[13] To this principle, someone might say that this makes God into a consequentialist of the worst kind. Anything God does is acceptable so long as it gets the right kind of results. Kirk MacGregor writes, “If God permits evils to bring about greater goods, then God operates according to the principle that the ends justify the means, despite that he explicitly denounces this principle as unethical in scripture and punishes humans who act in precisely the same way he presumably does.”[14] One way to respond to this objection is to point out that God’s status as creator gives him a wider range of morally good actions to choose from than his creatures. For example, it would be wrong for a mere human to decide another’s eternal fate. However, a human’s Creator would be within his rights to make such a weighty judgment. Similarly, there is nothing inconsistent in saying that God could act as a consequentialist while simultaneously commanding his creatures to be deontologists or virtue ethicists. The apparent contradiction regarding what counts as right action could be reconciled by an appeal to a deeper story about the nature of the good.[15] But another way to respond to MacGregor is to suggest that he has too narrow a view of the greater good.

MacGregor seems to think that a principle like P1 can only be understood in terms of cold, utilitarian calculation. The variables in the equation do not matter so long as in the end, the good outweighs the bad.[16] But there is another way to understand the “greater good.” For example, we could say that God follows a principle like this: It is always good to create worlds with free creatures. [17]  Now, it may be, as Plantinga suggests, also true that no world with free creatures will be devoid of evil. But the deontologist is not primarily concerned with the consequences of an action, but with whether the act is good to do regardless of the consequences. In this case, God is like the man who tells the truth about who is living in his attic when the Nazis knock on the door. Protecting those under his care is important, but the “greater good” is fulfilling one’s duty by telling the truth, despite the consequences. God creates a world of free creatures even though he knows they will commit evil acts because the greater good is to create a world with free creatures. The upshot is that the truth of P1 is compatible with a wide array of ethical accounts. The compatibility derives from the fact that even the supposedly consequence-neutral, normative ethical theorist, like the deontologist, is committed to pursuing the greater good of fulfilling one’s duty instead of settling for the lesser good of happy consequence.  The bottom line is that P1 is a likely true principle.

The second true principle is this:

P2: God cannot do the logically impossible.

Not much needs to be said in defense of P2. It is a widely accepted theological principle, even if there are a few Ockhamists who disagree. What is worth pointing out, though, is that there are real limitations on how God relates to evil. He cannot magically make evil go away and preserve the goods that necessitate it.

With these guideposts in mind, let us return to the atheologian’s argument. The logical problem has been turned aside, so the atheologian must regroup and try another tack. William Rowe presents just such an argument. His argument has two premises:

R1: There exist instances of intense suffering which an omnipotent, omniscient being could have prevented without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.

R2: An omniscient, wholly good being would prevent the occurrence of any intense suffering it could, unless it could not do so without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.[18]

From this it follows that “there does not exist an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good being.”[19]This argument is logically valid. And R2 is a true principle. Therefore, the Christian must reject R1. However, Rowe has some evidence to present in favor of R1. First is the case of Bambi. The second is the case of Sue. The Bambi case is a hypothetical scenario in which a fawn (Bambi) is slowly burned alive in a forest fire.[20] Even though this is only an imagined scene, we know that cases as bad as or worse than Bambi’s must occur frequently. In the case of Sue, Rowe narrates the true story of a little girl (Sue) who was brutally raped and killed by her mother’s boyfriend.[21] Both cases are meant to show examples evil that are completely senseless, especially cruel, and that God could have easily prevented without “thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.”

Having now laid out the guideposts for a theodicy and the evidential version of the problem of evil, I can now give an argument that shows why God must allow some evils in order for the human good to be possible. This next piece of the argument will be posted later this week.

Notes

[1] Thomas Aquinas said something similar: “everything that does not imply a contradiction in terms, is numbered amongst those possible things, in respect of which God is called omnipotent: whereas whatever implies contradiction does not come within the scope of divine omnipotence, because it cannot have the aspect of possibility.” ST I Q 25 A 3. Available here: http://www.newadvent.org/summa/1025.htm

[2] 1 John 4:8.

[3] Richard Swinburne, The Coherence of Theism, Rev. ed., Clarendon Library of Logic and Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993). 184.

[4] J. L. Mackie, “Evil and Omnipotence,” in The Problem of Evil, ed. Marilyn McCord Adams and Robert Merrihew Adams (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 1990). 26.

[5] http://www.gutenberg.org/files/4583/4583-h/4583-h.htm#chap10

[6] Sarah Price Brown, “Q & a with Rabbi Harold S. Kushner,” Jewish Journal 2006.

[7] It is important to add here that many, if not most, Open Theists would not see their position as weakening of God’s omnipotence. God still has the power to do whatever is possible. But, on their view, it is not possible to know the truth of counterfactuals of creaturely freedom in advance. Thus, God still is able to do whatever is logically possible to do. Further, Open Theism is often not a response to the problem of evil, but to problems created by human libertarian freedom and certain perceived problems with God’s knowing some agent’s action in advance and that agent being genuinely free with respect to that action. There is a good discussion of these issues in Jerry L. Walls’ Hell: The Logic of Damnation, Library of Religious Philosophy (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992). 33-56.

[8] Alvin Plantinga, “God, Evil, and the Metaphysics of Freedom,” in Oxford Readings in Philosophy, ed. Marilyn McCord Adams and Robert Merrihew Adams (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 1990). 85.

[9] This is similar to the definition of libertarian free will offered by Bruce R. Reichenbach, Evil and a Good God (New York: Fordham University Press, 1982). 57. Reichenbach takes his definition from Anthony Flew.

[10] Plantinga. 101.

[11] If this were all Christians could say about the existence of God, that possibly he exists, Christian apologetics would be in a sad state. However, Plantinga’s free will defense provides a way out of the logical problem of evil so that Christians can now present a positive and cumulative case for the truth of Christianity.

[12] Alvin Plantinga, “Supralapsarianism, or ‘O Felix Culpa’,” in Christian Faith and the Problem of Evil, ed. Peter van Inwagen and Dean Zimmerman (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004).

[13] Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977). Kindle location 337.

[14] Kirk R. MacGregor, “The Existence and Irrelevance of Gratuitous Evil,” Philosophia Christi 14, no. 1 (2012). 169.

[15] My own view would be that God is not really committed to a particular normative ethical theory. I think something like natural law theory is true. Whatever God does is good because God always acts in the appropriate way given the nature of the object he acts upon and his relation to that object.

[16] MacGregor, “The Existence and Irrelevance of Gratuitous Evil.” See especially his discussion on pages 170-171.

[17] MacGregor takes a similar view in the end. He wants to defend the idea that there are gratuitous evils (he wants to show that Rowe’s second premise is false), but that these pose no threat to the rationality of the theist’s position. The basic thought is that, following Augustine, evil is a privation. Because everything God creates is less than God, “it is logically impossible for God to create a world without evil,” says MacGregor. In this case, evils, even especially heinous ones, are not part of some very tight plan according to which, if a person refrained from a gratuitously evil act, some very great good would be lost. So some acts of evil happen just because an agent willed it to happen and no other reason. In some ways, I am inclined to agree with MacGregor on this point. However, I think it is a mistake to call these evils “gratuitous.” God does have some greater goods in view when he allows them. At least one would be the greater good of respecting human freedom. MacGregor may be right when he says that certain evil acts are not essential to God’s plan, but they might still be essential to the integrity of human autonomy. This does not need to be spelled out in terms of consequentialism. Perhaps God follows the maxim: It is good to respect human freedom without considering the consequences. In that case, the greater good is following the maxim instead of intervening.

[18] William Rowe, “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism” in The Evidential Argument from Evil, ed. Daniel Howard-Snyder (Bloomington, ID.: Indiana University Press, 1996). 2.

[19] Ibid. 2.

[20] Ibid. 4.

[21] Rowe, William L. 1988. “Evil and Theodicy,” Philosophical Topics 16: 119-32.