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SOME THOUGHTS ON THE PROBLEM OF EVIL
Win Corduan

The following is a compilation of a number of entries from my blog that I posted in November of 2013. I had been meaning to write an entry or two clarifying some of my views on responses to the problem of evil anyway, but the specific catalyst was a question to me from a friend. As always, I have attempted to edit out errors and unintelligible sentences, but have also sought to maintain the more informal tone that goes with a blog rather than a formal article. Some questions and comments came in while the series was in progress, and I wove my responses to them into the entries as best as I could. I am also including some interaction with subsequent comments. Finally, I shall continue to entertain questions or criticisms as long as you're nice and rational about it.

ENTRY 1

The question below is not the one that triggered this series, but it is the question that I've meaning to respond to for a few years.

Question: Why don't I use the Free Will Defense on the Problem of Evil?

Answer: Because if I did, I might just be the only living person doing so.

And looking through the past, the only name I can come up with of someone who may have used a pure free-will approach to "evil" is Jean-Paul Sartre in The Flies (Les Mouches).

Zeus

Orestes and Zeus are confronting each other.

    Orestes: “You are the king of gods, king of stones and stars, king of the waves of the sea. But you are not the king of men.”

    Zeus: “Impudent spawn! So I am not your king? Who, then, made you?”

    Orestes: “You. But you blundered; you should not have made men free.

    Zeus: “I gave you freedom so that you might serve me.”

    Orestes: “Perhaps. But now it has turned against its giver. And neither you nor I can undo what has been done.”

In this scene, the explanation that human beings have a free will is sufficient to account for whatever people do, particularly in light of the fact that there are no normative moral standards outside of the decisions by human decisions of who and what they choose to be. (“Existence precedes essence.”) In the play God (Zeus) made human beings as free creatures, and now, as Sartre says, God is stuck with whatever people choose. Not that Sartre actually believed in God. His point was that human beings are free to create their own “morality” because there is nothing outside of them to endow their free actions with moral worth. (Please note that this position is very different from that of Albert Camus.)

Some such application of a pure free will approach in the context of apologetis could take this form (I'm not representing any single writer, just laying out a pattern):

  1. God made free creatures, including human beings.
  2. Human beings used their freedom to do evil.
  3. Therefore, God is not responsible for the acts of free creatures, who alone bear the blame for the evil.

I should think that line 3 is being made to carry a much heavier load than it should. Since the common understanding of God usually includes omniscience, omnipotence, and perfect goodness ("omnibenevolence" from here on out), it stands to reason that creating free creatures that have the ability to bring evil into the world, does not by itself take God off the hook, so to speak. In fact, in the light of his foreknowledge, if God had no good reason to make these creatures, one could argue that God bears full responsibility for what ensued, in the same way as a person who lets a known vicious dog loose in a crowd is responsible for any damage the dog might do.

An Additional Factor

I'm pretty sure that no Christian who cares about a biblical world view would go this far in letting the whole problem of evil ride entirely on the simple idea that human beings are free to make their choices. Whether it's stated outright or implicit, at a minimum, the first premise is bound to carry the additional information:

  1. God made free creatures, including human beings, because he thought that would be a good thing to do.

Or, much better, let's turn things around and say that a premise at least implicitly included in a Christian theodicy would almost certainly be:

* God would not have created free creatures that brought evil into the world unless he had an overriding reason to do so.

My assertion is also born out by observation based on the literature on the problem of evil produced by Christian thinkers (by which I mean orthodox Christians who accept the Bible as true). We find that invariably, a Christian free will defense ties into some other idea in addition to the proposition that God created humans with a free will. This additional item more often than not is the tenet that God did not just give human beings a free will for no particular reason, but that our freedom carries with it some higher value than would be possible apart from a free will.

Here is a typical argument (again representing a basic scheme, not a particular author). In this case, the argument rides on the relationship that God desires to have with his creatures. God, by his very nature, would only create the very best things, and those would include beings who are capable of an authentic relationship with him. That’s us humans. Unless we had a free will, our relationship to God would not really be a genuine one. More specifically, the idea is that God wants us to love him, and in order for our love to be real, it has to be freely offered to him by us. If it would simply be determined by God that we should always love him, it would not really be love, but a coerced set of actions that we perform towards God while God pulls the strings. God wanted a mutually reciprocal relationship with human beings that would be of a higher value than a mechanical, forced relationship. So, in order to create a world with the potential for this state of affairs to obtain, he had to give us a free will. The bottom line is, then, that giving us a free will was the necessary price that God had to pay in order to have an unconstrained relationship with us human beings. He knew in advance that people would misuse their free will and rebel against him, but it was still worth it in contrast to merely programming robots to do whatever he says. Thus, people who argue along this line, may be making use of the idea of a human free will, but their solution to the problem of evil would not mean a whole lot were it not simultaneously tied to a “higher value” defense.

To summarize:

    1) The God of theism cannot create a world that contains a lesser amount of good than is maximally possible for him.
    2) A maximally best possible world for God to create is one in which there are free creatures with whom he can have an authentic relationship.
    3) Thus, God created human beings with a free will, knowing that
      a. only those creatures would give him the kind of relationship he desired, and
      b. the freedom that he gave them would also lead them to disobey him.
    4) The disobedience of the free creatures is worth the price of other free creatures having an authentic relationship with him.

Excursus on Alvin Plantinga

Since Alvin Plantinga's "Free Will Defense" is well known among philosophers today, it might be helpful to make some observations concerning it. Plantinga stands out to a certain extent because he stays away from the idea that his solution to the problem of evil actually has to coincide with what can be shown to be real. (See his God, Freedom, and Evil [Eerdmans, 1974] and his Nature of Necessity [Clarendon, 1974].) Plantinga’s “free will defense” has a more limited goal under the assumption that all one needs to do is to eliminate an apparent logical inconsistency, namely the one between the two propositions that

    1) “God is omnipotent, omniscient and all-good” and
    2) “Evil exists.” (For metaphysical reasons, I would prefer to say that evil “is real,” but Plantinga isn’t big on Thomistic metaphysics.)

What one has to do is to find a third proposition that is consistent with one, and to demonstrate that those two jointly imply the second one. So, he argues that the following scenario eliminates the potential inconsistency.

God cannot strongly actualize logically possible worlds in which states of affairs are brought about by human free decisions. He does state that one must assume that if human beings were not free they would not be able to make morally significant decisions. In less technical terms, God created the world and people who are free. He cannot coerce their actions if they are truly free, nor can he prevent the consequences of their actions. Thus, it is logically possible that they go wrong in their actions. What's more, it is conceivable that in every logically possible world where human beings exist, they will perform such wrong actions. Thus, it is possible that human beings suffer from this condition that he calls “Transworld Depravity.” It entails that both in the actual world and in all other logically possible worlds, people will go wrong. Plantinga concludes that there is nothing logically inconsistent in this idea. Consequently, there is no inconsistency between an all-good, all-knowing and all-powerful God and the existence of evil because it is logically possible that human beings not only have a free will, but also suffer from transworld depravity, which is beyond God's control. To summarize:

    1. God is omniscient, omnipotent and all-good.
    2. Evil exists.
    3. Evil is the result of free actions by human beings who are suffering from Transworld Depravity.

So, to complete the thought, Plantinga’s “free will defense” is not essentially a “higher value” defense, but it would not work either without the possibility of another additional idea, namely transworld depravity.

Any number of Plantinga’s critics have said that this is all very well, but, even if it does solve the logical problem of evil, people want to know whether what he is talking about corresponds to reality. Is there really such a thing as transworld depravity? Can we really assume that human beings have free will in the manner in which he attributes it to them? Plantinga replies that it is not necessary for him to answer those questions because all he needs to do is to show that there is no inconsistency. Logically speaking, he is right; and any even some atheists, e.g., William Rowe, have conceded that on those purely logical grounds Plantinga’s defense works and have invoked an “existential” or "experiential" problem of evil instead.

To summarize so far: A free will defense from a Christian perspective is never just that. It always involves a further factor, and thus becomes, for example, a "higher value" defense or maybe a "transworld depravity" defense."

ENTRY 2

Clarifications along the Way

Thank you to those who have liked and forwarded last night’s post as well as those who made comments in various locations.

JGH encouraged me to weave into the next installment: a) whether I accept transworld depravity; b) whether I think Scripture bears out the view 'that God couldn't strongly actualize logically possible worlds in which states of affairs are brought about by human free decisions' (her sense is that it doesn't); and c) why I built 'authentic relationships' into the traditional argument.

My point in the first installment was that positing human free will seems not to be sufficient for a Christian response to the problem of evil. Purely theoretically, of course, it seems that all one needs to say is: God made free creatures and they used their freedom to rebel against him. But, given the fact that the God of Christian theism (the only one that we’re really interested in) is supposed to be omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent, it seems to violate his nature if he simply created these creatures of whom he foreknew that they would create havoc. Remember the old dilemma:

    1. The God of theism must be all-good and omnipotent.
    2. If God is all-good, he will want to abolish evil. Thus, if there is evil, he must not be able to do so.
    3. If God is omnipotent, he is able to abolish evil. Thus, if there is evil, he must not want to do so.
    4. There is evil.
    5. Therefore, the God of theism does not exist.

We can also add Leibniz’s contribution to the issue, namely that God is omniscient and, consequently, he would know how to abolish evil. (Though in fairness we must remember that Leibniz did not think that a world without evil was the “best-of-all-possible worlds.")

Let me throw in here an important point, a part of which was magnificently highlighted by Marilyn Adams in her celebrated article, “God and Horrendous Evil.” For a Christian the problem of evil is generated by the apparent inconsistency between the God whom the Christian worships and the reality of the world. Thus, whatever the Christian believes about this God is permissible for her to use in establishing a solution. The Christian is not obligated to defend a concept of God that has been invented by an atheist, but is not part of what Christians believe. One thinks of the statement attributed to William James, “Gentlemen, as long as one lonely cockroach feels the pangs of unrequited love, this world is not a moral world.” (Robert D. Richardson, William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism: a Biography (New York: Houghton-Mifflin, 2006), p. 310). With all due respect to William James, this is a contrived standard for the goodness of the world. As I have argued on the subject of miracles multiple times, the atheist does not get to set the standard of what Christians should believe, and the same thing applies to the problem of evil. To quote Marilyn McCord Adams:

    It does the atheologian no good to argue for the falsity of Christianity on the ground that the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, pleasure-maximizer is incompossible with a world such as ours, because Christians never believed God was a pleasure- maximizer anyway. (Marilyn McCord Adams, “Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God,” in The Problem of Evil, ed. Marilyn McCord Adams and Robert Merrihew Adams (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 210.)

The point is that Christians who are concerned about the philosophical problem of evil may limit themselves to what they believe about God, including those properties and actions of his that they have learned from Scripture. Anything else may be interesting, but carries no urgency with it. Furthermore, the Christian is free to use whatever information about God is included in her world view in order to solve the problem.

Yes, of course the atheist does not believe in God, let alone the inspiration of the Bible. That’s what makes him an atheist and unbeliever, and so the Christian's solution to the problem of evil is highly unlikely going to satisfy him. Still, that fact is not relevant to the argument per se. The problem of evil for us is created by the tension between the existence of the biblical God and the reality of evil. The Christian derives her understanding of God from the Bible. It would be absurd for her to set aside what she has learned of God from the Bible and try to respond to the atheist without taking all that she believes about God into account.

Wow, I’ve been stacking again. Let me pop back to where I need to be. Why does what I referred to as the traditional free will defense bring in the idea of an authentic relationship between God and humans? In a nutshell the answer is that, if there were not a higher value connected to the freedom that human beings thoroughly misused, giving them a free will without a good reason would make God a monster. I mentioned the idea of the potential for an authentic relationship with God last night simply because that’s the one I hear used most often. It doesn’t seem to figure greatly in Plantinga’s approach. Another possibility that I did not mention, but will return to, is that evil is an essential aspect necessary to turn us into the kind of creatures we should be. Under the label of “soul-making theodicy” this theory has been advanced as far back as in the second century AD by Irenaeus and as recently as in the twentieth by John Hick as well as Jim Spiegel.

Compatibilist Freedom: What we perceive as our free choices are compatible with God’s direction of our choices.
Incompatibilist Freedom: A choice by a human is free to such an extent that it is not influenced in a determinative manner by God.

Transworld Depravity

The next question was whether I believed in transworld depravity. There’s a hitch connected to that question. Remember that Plantinga himself does not claim to present reality, but only a logically coherent framework in which the apparent inconsistency between God and evil vanishes. He brings that off by invoking incompatibilist human freedom and transworld depravity. In doing so he does not actually commit himself to believing in these concepts; he only needs to say that if those ideas represent reality, then there is no inconsistency.

Along with many other critics, I don’t think that Plantinga’s solution is ultimately sufficient. Truth and plausibility need to be factors. Let me illustrate my attitude with a silly example.

1. God exists as omnipotent, omnibenevolent, and omniscient being. Therefore, he will provide his creatures with the greatest amount of pleasure.

2. Evil exists.

So, we come up with the celebrated third proposition:

3. God loves his creatures so much that he gives them an unlimited amount of M&M’s.

Unfortunately, consuming an unlimited amount of chocolate candies will have deleterious effects on our bodies. That is an evil, but that’s not God’s problem. God fulfilled his role by being so nice as to give us all of that chocolate. The fact that we have abused his gift and thereby caused evil is not his fault.

Even if this argument were to work logically (and it would need a whole lot more refining), it certainly lacks plausibility. And, given the core of the problem of evil, even if the logic should hold water, the conceptual devices that we use must be plausible, or we have not done all that much good from an apologetic point of view.

I think that a defense based on transworld depravity, even though it is far more sophisticated than the M&M defense, still suffers from the same weakness. To be sure, it does hold more promise than the M&M defense, but, in the final analysis, it’s an artificial concept with its own plausibility issues. Plantinga says in Nature of Necessity that he was leaving as homework for his readers to compare transworld depravity with the Calvinistic doctrine of total depravity. Let me briefly do so:

    1. Total depravity is a doctrine believed to be true by those who hold it on the basis of biblical teaching. Transworld depravity is a concept constructed by means of modal logic specifically in order to solve the problem of evil. As long as it fulfills its purpose in the argument, there is no further need to believe it to be true. (One can also add that, since the Bible does not take recourse to contemporary modal logic, it does not teach transworld depravity, but we need to be careful not to think that we can come to the Bible having jettisoned all of our philosophical frameworks.)

    2. Still, whether stated in a modal manner or not, the Bible does not teach what I understand transworld depravity to mean. Specifically, it is the idea that in all logically possible worlds in which human beings exist, they are bound to go wrong. If I were to take transworld depravity as more than a convenient, but invented, tool of argumentation, I would be up against several apparent counter- examples. If we go along with Adam and Eve being created with incompatibilist freedom, then there’s no compelling reason to believe that they had to eat of the fruit. It would seem that there is a logically possible world in which Adam and Eve did not sin. Also, I would want to argue that heaven represents a logically possible world in which human beings will not go wrong.

So, as helpful as transworld depravity may be to Plantinga’s argument, I don’t think it’s consistent with the Bible, and I do not accept it.

However, my greatest disagreement with Plantinga comes at the point that he calls “Leibniz’s Lapse.” Leibniz, according to Plantinga, did not pay sufficient attention to human freedom. Consequently, Leibniz believed that God, given his omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence could create any possible world but would create only the best one, and, since he created this actual world, given his attributes, this world must be the best of all possible worlds. Plantinga alleges that Leibniz made a mistake in his thinking here because how a world turns out is not entirely in God’s hands. God created the actual world, and he could have created many other logically possible worlds. But there are also logically possible worlds that are beyond God’s ability to create, namely those whose features are actualized by human beings. Plantinga comes seriously close to Sartre’s view here (a thought that may give Alvin Plantinga the hives) because he seems to espouse the view that God, once having given freedom to human persons, cannot interfere with the actions that they actualize.

I do not think that his assertions in these matters are compatible with biblical teaching. You see, some of these points are first of all conclusions of theology. The content of a biblically based theology should not be overturned by a philosophical hypothesis. Sure, philosophy (the "handmaid to theology") can help undergird theology, but it may not correct it if it is based on divine revelation. The Bible teaches that God created this world, and he never let go of the reins. He had a plan, and he is carrying it through. Actions by human beings have been included in his plan. On our level of human experience we may think that those actions are “free,” and they may be so, but it is also possible that they are only "free" in a compatibilist sense, which means that what we choose is in line with God’s agenda. Over and over again throughout the Bible, we see God directly intervening in the world and causing various people to do certain things. True predictive prophecy, such as the prediction of Cyrus by Isaiah, would hardly be possible if God did not lead people directly to undertake certain actions and thereby strongly actualized the world as it became.

Calvinism AND Arminianism

And that thought takes us back to where we left off last time.

You see, God’s intention just cannot be left out of the total picture. God created the world in such a way that it could and would be beset by evil. Let me try to make the next point as carefully as I can and hope it doesn’t get lost in the rest of this flood of words. Thus, I will write what follows in short paragraphs for the sake of creating thinking pauses.

Let us agree (for the sake of the argument) that God gave human beings a free will. Let us also stipulate that he did so because a greater good would be attained by means of a human free will than would be possible without it. Is it possible that God could have brought about the same higher-order good without the lower-order good of a free will, which also engendered the lower-order reality of evil?

Let me phrase the question a slightly different way. A reflective biblically-oriented thinker will not think that God gave people freedom for no good reason, but that he had a particular goal in mind that is so wonderful that it would exceed the problems caused by free creatures. Can he bring about that goal without people having a free will in the incompatibilist sense?

It’s at this point that I’ve been misunderstood at times, possibly because I didn’t state the matter clearly enough in No Doubt About It. It is not my intention here to argue that humans do not have a free will. We can have a big free-for-all on that topic some other time when we discuss that particular item of theology.

Purely descriptively now, Calvinists, such as your bloggist, do not believe in an incompatibilist free will. They do believe in a human will. They do not believe in free moral choices. They do believe in significant moral choices. Again, the basis for either side should not be how well it plays in an apologetic context, but what its adherents accept as true based on the proper formtion of a theology beginning with the Bible. (See my site, "How to do Theology." And both Calvinists and Arminians believe in the same sovereign God, who will bring about his purposes as revealed in the Bible. How important is that distinction for the problem of evil?

My contention is that Christian thinkers who take recourse to the notion of free will do so for all the best of reasons, namely, 1) because they believe that human beings possess it, and 2) because in this specific context they see it as an essential aspect for God to carry out his plans and to attain his goals for the universe.

By contrast, attributing similar good motives to them, Calvinists 1) do not believe that human beings have an incompatibilist free will, but 2) attribute the same plans and goals for the universe to God, and 3) believe that it is sufficient for people to make compatibilist morally significant choices to attain those goals.

To reiterate: My point is not to debunk the modified free will defense per se. What I am getting at is that, with or without free will, one still needs to realize that free will has never been an end in itself. For those who accept it, it would be a tool that God uses to work out his purposes in the world. For those who do not, they believe that God can work out his purposes in the world without that tool. In no way should God in any sound free-will based system be pictured standing helplessly on the sidelines, wringing his hands, so to speak, hoping that more people will come to him. On the other hand, God should never be seen as electing people to salvation against their will. And thus, Calvinists and non- Calvinists should come together again. Both groups see (or should see) that when God created Adam and Eve in their state of innocence, he already knew of their future sin, but he also knew already that the end result would be a glorified state in the future that vastly exceeded anything that Adam and Eve experienced.

ENTRY 3

Triage

I had been mentioning in the personal sections of these blog entries that I had started to feel a great amount of pain, which was apparently a side effect of a new medication. Sad to say, I had to stop taking it, but one has to take into account the benefits vs. the costs. One web page concerning this particular medication said something like, "Keep in mind that your doctor woud not have prescribed this medicine for you if he didn't believe that on the whole its benefits outweigh the side effects." Good point. But pain at levels 8 or 9 pushes the equation in the other direction. At that, I'm really thankful that, even though the PD symptoms are slowly progressing, I'm still at a stage where drastic measures regardless of side effects are not called for. Let me add this piece of nomenclature, leading up eventually to a clever segue: I guess this is kind of a personal "triage" situation.

"What is triage?" you might ask. Back when I used to teach ethics from time to time, I usually found myself at some point or other writing in big letters on the board:

"NOBODY LIKES TRIAGE!"

M*A*S*H"Triage" refers to the process of sorting out how to allocate limited resources in order to do whatever is best in a critical emergency. For example, if you run a military medical station like in the good old TV show M*A*S*H, and the helicopter shows up with "Incoming Wounded," you have to decide whom to treat first. Let's say that there are three groups of wounded:
Category 1. Those who have serious, but not life-threatening injuries. They definitely need help, but they're not going to die if not treated within the next twenty-four hours or so. We'll say that this is is the largest group.
Category 2. A relatively sizeable group of those who have serious, life- threatening injuries, but their chances of survival, given the proper surgery and medication soon, are fairly good.
Category 3. A few people whose lives hang in the balance. They are in highly critical condition, and it'll take an intervention on a grand scale to save their lives. It will require a massive effort in time and resources to save them, and even then it may be futile.
Whom do you treat first?

This is the part that everyone hates. Unsurprisingly, when I used to teach this course to nursing students at Indiana University Kokomo, the majority usually came up with a realistic answer. In other contexts, the heroic side of college students frequently manifested itself: "You have to save every life, and so you have to start with the most seriously wounded and then work your way down." Alas! Let me remind you that the stipulation is that, as is often the case in reality, your resources are limited. While you may be spending hours treating people in Category 3, who may still not even survive, the men and women in Category 2 may be dying on you. Resources in personnel and equipment may dictate to you that you are best off saving the lives of those in Category 2 first, hoping that as many people as possible in Category 3 will hang on. Then you should go on with the Herculean effort required to save their lives as well. As I said, NOBODY LIKES TRIAGE! It would seem that in the best of all possible worlds one wouldn't have to make such awful, almost dehumanizing, decisions. The issue has nothing to do with "playing God"; I assume that if God would intervene and dictate the decisions to them, the human beings who are saddled with making them at the moment would be delighted. These decisions are a very heavy burden to bear, and it seems to me that they are one of the many reasons that people come back from war psychologically tied in knots. Still, in the meantime, they have to keep trying to make the right decisions, perhaps hoping that God will forgive them if they made wrong ones. Similar consideration apply in huge civic emergencies or natural disasters.

Reconsidering the Dilemma

The reason that I carried on with describing the nature of triage above is that there are clear parallels to the problem of evil, namely the idea that what may be an evil in isolation, may bring about a higher good than would be possible without it, and that this higher good may be worth the price of tolerating such an evil.

Let's keep our minds clear on two points.
1. The very nature of the problem is based on the stipulation that God exists. One can, of course, immediately say that, since there is evil, the existence of God is not possible and leave it at that. However, in addition to the fact that such a judgment would not take cognizance of the many ways in which theists have shown that the existence of God and the reality of evil are not incompatible, it doesn't help. Declaring that God does not exist is to throw in the towel and concede that evil has won. By assuming atheism, one has not eliminated a single particle of evil. What one has done is to exclude oneself from the only basis on which there is any hope for the abolition of evil. The conceptual problem is caused by the concept of an infinite God whose attributes are unlimited. However, only by holding on to the reality of this same infinite God do we have any hope that evil will be eliminated.
2. We also should not minimize the reality of evil. This is where the analogy to a triage decision becomes the strongest. God hates evil, and he has endowed us with the capacity to recognize evil as repugnant. When we encounter evil and suffering, it is not some good in disguise. Perhaps some good may come out of it, but that doesn't mean that the evil has become good. Consequently, again, recognizing God's nature leads us, then, to believe that he will eliminate that which is unacceptable to him.

Please note that in the last sentence of the two previous paragraphs I have switched to the future tense. After all, isn't that the better conclusion to draw from the standard delimma concerning evil? Let's look at the traditional dilemma again and revise it somewhat so that it fits in with what we actually believe:

1. The God of theism must be all-good and omnipotent. 
2. If God is all-good, he will want to abolish evil.  
3. If God is omnipotent, he is able to abolish evil.  
4. If God is omniscient he knows how to abolish evil.
4. There is evil. 
5. Therefore, the God of theism wants to abolish this evil, is able to abolish this evil, and knows how to abolish this evil. Furthermore, given his attributes, he will do so in the best possible manner with the best possible timing.

Of course we're now looking at another huge question. And again, I have to say that this question stares with equal intensity at both those who believe in a free will and those who believe in a compatibilist significant will. Why doesn't God eliminate all evil right now rather than letting things carry on for millennia after millennia of people and other sentient beings suffering from evil?

The Need for a Process

Perhaps if I were truly wise, I should just say, "I don't know." But at least I'll try not to rush in.

From the perspective of a biblically-based theology, the answer has to be that God is demonstrating his sovereignty, both in judgment and grace. As I see biblical history unfold, it is a record of how God gave human beings the opportunity in various different settings to demonstrate that they could be righteous on their own: e.g., with no formal rules, with the Noaic covenant, under a patriarchal system, under judges, with and without a detailed formal set of laws, with and without a temple, with different political arrangements, with and without a priesthood, etc. In each case, the result for human beings was failure, and it led up to God himself reconciling us to him through Jesus Christ. Furthermore, the final end is the ultimate demonstration by God of his glory. Maybe we can expand this picture to the extrabiblial world in the context of general revelation and natural theology, though I think the point can hold its own without having to cram every detail into the scheme.

A Christian view of time is different from any other. Eastern thought tends to see time as cyclic. Western secular thought sees time as linear without a significant beginning or end (interesting tangential question: For a non- theistic person, did time begin with the Big Bang along with the physical universe or just the universe?) Western religions (e.g., Islam, Zoroastrianism) see time as linear with a beginning and an end. For Christianity, time is also linear with a beginning and and end, but the end is already determining the present. We live in the anticipation of future reality ("proleptically," as Pannenberg says).

Philosophically, that means that, even though this this may not be the best of all possible worlds, surely this must be the best possible way of taking us to the best possible world. If Leibniz made a mistake, it is not the "lapse" that Plantinga attributes to him, but the fact that he took a slice of time and said that this world right now at this moment is the best of all possible worlds. [See the discussion of Leibniz's theodicy by Jill Graper Hernandez, "Leibniz and the Best al All Possible Worlds" in Meister and Dew, God and Evil (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2013), 94- 105.)] His argument is sound, but there are concerns with the plausibility of his observation (see JGH, 105, the "feminist critique"), which may be more solvable if we add that this is the best of all possible ways to attain the best of all possible worlds.  

Now, why would there even be the need for a process? If there is a goal toward which God wants to take the world, why couldn't he have done so immediately? Couldn't he have taken that awful tree out of the garden so that Adam and Eve would have remained free creatures, but did not have to do anything contrary to God's will? Or could God not have forgiven them immediately afterwards, as Islam teaches, rather than taking us through this long scenario of history? For that matter, if in heaven we will be free creatures but never sin, coudn't God have brought about that state of affairs a long time ago?

There would be the need for a process if the goal that God wants to take us to logically requires a process.

So am I questioning God's omnipotence? Am I saying that God is limited in what he can do because I'm saying that God's goal may logically be tied to a process?

Not at all. At this point, the comparison to triage breaks down. God has unlimited resources. But he cannot but act according to his nature. See St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, vol. 1, question 25, articles 1-6.

Let me bring up a verbal distinction between "limiting" and "delimiting." "Limiting" means that something could have a greater range of options in the properties it may have or the actions it may perform, were it not for some kind of an external restraint. I'm "delimiting" something when I describe its properties so as to distinguish it from some other thing. When I say that a square has four sides, I'm not really limiting it; I'm delimiting a part of its definition. Furthermore, surely we are not placing a limitation on an infinite being by saying that it cannot be finite!

Similarly, when I say that God acts within the "bounds" of logical necessity I am not limiting God; I am delimiting what is a part of his nature. Since God is rational in his very nature, it would be contrary to his essence to do something patently illogical. God can neither cease being God nor exist and not-exist simultaneously.  Nor, for that matter, can he make a stone so heavy that he cannot lift it. In the same way, if there are some things that God wants to do that logically require a process, he will use that process. (I suppose I could say that he "has to" use that process, but, given what I just said, that would be a redundancy.)

ENTRY 4

John Wesley and Charles Simeon

Thanks to all those who have made comments on FB on this series, which I didn’t realize would become a series. The conversation is quickly turning to the topic of Calvinism versus Arminianism, which probably cannot be helped. But this is not where I’m intending to go with these blog entries. I’m not arguing for Calvinism here, but simply stating that it’s my position. (See my little piece Calvinism: Celebration of God’s Grace, where I take a somewhat more polemical stand, but even there, my real target is not Arminianism, but the semi-Pelagianism that continues to inflict itself on Christianity.) If you read this and are an Arminian, I’m not trying to change your mind right now. Instead, where I want to head is that, in the final analysis Arminians and Calvinists have to face some of the same issues and use some of the same resolutions when it come to the problem of evil. Don’t get me wrong; I do think that this is an important issue, but it can also be a distraction when the focus should be on something else. Whenever a discussion gets to this point, I like to quote an incident that J. I. Packer mentions in his book Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (IVP, 1961, 13- 14).

Packer says: "It is instructive in this connection to ponder Charles Simeon’s account of his conversation with John Wesley on December 20, 1784 (the date is given in Wesley’s Journal)."

John WesleyplaceholderCharles 

Simeon

[I happen to own Wesley’s Journal, and, as is true for many items in his entries, the meeting receives just the barest mention, but is highlighed with an exclamation mark. The numerals refer to the time of day:

4 Prayed, Lev. xix. 17, select society, tea; 7 chaise; 10.30 Hatfield, M[iss] Harv[ey] chaise; 2.30 Hinxworth; 3 dinner, Mr. Simeon! writ society, tea, conversed; 6.30 Gal. vi 14! 8.30 supper, converse, prayer: 9.45.

John Wesley was clearly an "early to bed and early to rise" kind of person. I do not have a copy of Simeon’s journal, but I believe we can trust Dr. Packer's accuracy. He opens his excerpt as Simeon is addressing Wesley.]

‘"Sir, I understand that you are called an Arminian and I have been sometimes called a Calvinist; and therefore I suppose we are to draw daggers. But before I consent to begin the combat, with your permission I will ask you a few questions.… Pray, sir, do you feel yourself a depraved creature, so depraved that you would never have thought of turning to God, if God had not first put it into your heart?"

"Yes," says the veteran [Wesley], "I do indeed."

"And do you utterly despair of recommending yourself to God by anything you can do; and look for salvation solely through the blood and righteousness of Christ?"

"Yes, solely through Christ."

"But, Sir, supposing you were at first saved by Christ, are you not somehow or other to save yourself afterwards by your own works?"

"No, I must be saved by Christ from first to last."

"Allowing, then, that you were first turned by the grace of God, are you not in some way or other to keep yourself by your own power?"

"No."

"What, then, are you to be upheld every hour and every moment by God, as much as an infant in its mother’s arms?"

"Yes, altogether."

"And is all your hope in the grace and mercy of God to preserve you unto His heavenly kingdom?"

"Yes, I have no hope but in him."

"Then, sir, with your leave I will put up my dagger again; for this is all my Calvinism; this is my election, my justification by faith, my final perseverance: it is in substance all that I hold, and as I hold it; and therefore, if you please, instead of searching out terms and phrases to be a ground of contention between us, we will cordially unite in those things wherein we agree."’

Having said that, I do need to get polemical for just a moment here, though again, the point that I want to make is that if we are genuine Bible-believing Christians, even if we differ on such an important topic, we still have more in common than not. [Does that really need to be said?]

Does God really want to save all people?

Two verses that Arminians frequently cite in order to refute the Calvinist version of the doctrine of election are 2 Peter 3:9, and 1 Timothy 2:4.

"The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9 NIV). 

"[God our Savior] wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth." (1 Tim 2:4 NIV). 

But think about it. Arminians who don’t want to invoke the Calvinist view of unconditional election still have to recognize that God proceeded to set up a system (one that involved free will) which God knew would not suffice for a large number of people to come to a saving knowledge of him. One can say, of course, that God has given every person an opportunity to decide for or against him, but initially at least, one must question how many people actually do get the opportunity to hear the gospel message clearly and coherently, presented in such a way that they can make an informed decision, understanding all of the consequences, to receive Christ as their Savior.

But wait! Surely there are ways of understanding these verses so that they do not clash with an Arminian theological perspective!

Of course, there are. My point is simply that verses such as these belong both on the Arminian as well as the Calvinist doorstep. If you prefer to maintain the Arminian line, that’s fine with me for present purposes, but please do not think that God’s sovereign plan for the universe has no role to play in a sound interpretation of verses such as those. It is awfully easy to deduce a skewed theology from too limited a base.

The Logic of the Process

What follows is to a large extent a summation of Corduan and Geisler, Philosophy of Religion, 2nd ed., now available from Wipf & Stock, and in my No Doubt About It.

This is how far we have come in the present discussion: The incompatibility of God and evil is best understood as something that, if it has not yet been resolved, will be dealt with in the future. In the meantime, there is no question that there is evil in the world, and, thus, given God’s attributes, it stands to reason that such evil must serve to bring about a secondary good of a higher order than would be possible without it.

Another question immediately rears its head: Doesn’t that turn evil into something good? No. We need to differentiate between the nature of something and the purpose it may serve. By its very nature, evil can never be good (metaphysically it’s a privation of some essential good), but it can be seen as functioning in bringing about a good, or (with St. Thomas) it can be an unavoidable secondary consequence of bringing about a higher good. Either way, it is never good.

So, here are a couple of illustrations of the logic of how this process is supposed to work. If God, due to all of his properties, will create the best creatures, then some of those creatures need to manifest the highest virtues. For example (and this is really just a microcosm at best), God wants creatures who display altruistic love. But that is a virtue that, by its nature, must be learned. And, as Norm Geisler puts it, God cannot "learn" people anything. God can provide the opportunity for them to learn it. However, to acquire the virtue, people need to go through circumstances in which they can acquire it. Such circumstances, in turn, must have some kind of deficiency for such specific virtues. In other words, a certain amount of evil is necessary for human beings to acquire such virtues as altruistic love, benevolence, pity, and so forth.

To continue with these initially trivial- sounding illustrations, one cannot learn courage without danger; one cannot learn humility if there is no opportunity for pride. And to take a big leap forward, one cannot experience God’s glory in hissovereign grace apart from sin. God manifests his glory in taking us to a state of glorification, and this cannot happen without a process that takes time or that can be attained apart from evil in the world. [Remember my comment in a previous post that God is not simply restoring us to Adam and Eve's state of innocence.]

Now, I’ve stated that these examples are illustrations of the logic involved. In the microcosm in which I've displayed them, most of them do not go very far because they appear to be trivial. But, just in case we need reminding, God is omniscient; we are not, and so we are limited in our understanding of how precisely God is carrying out this process. Even though I believe in "meticulous providence," that does not mean that I have "meticulous omniscience" and can identify for each individual evil how God may be using it to bring about which particular good. In fact, much of the time I’m really bothered when people try do that in cases where, from my perspective, the evil I see is still a whole lot worse than whatever puny good people may claim to be its outcome. Events and their consequences are interlaced in complex patterns. I’m not omniscient, and I need to trust God, not my personal rationalizations.

But the argument does not depend on my having "meticulous omniscience." God, given all of his attributes, must have chosen the best of all possible ways to take the universe to the state of being the best of all possible worlds. The best of all possible ways must include an encounter with evil because without permitting evil the results that God is bringing about would not possible. The ultimate goal is God’s glory, and that’s not just an abstract term because God’s glory includes our glorification, having passed through a world infested with sin and evil.

I'm still not quite there with the "worst of all possible worlds," and I don’t want to rush it. In the meantime, let me address one further concern that’s been voiced. How can I get a decent apologetic out of this?

It’s actually pretty straight-forward because it is God-centered. The problem, as I have stated, is that there is a conflict between God and evil. I don’t need to engage in soft- pedaling the problem here and talk about an inconsistency, let alone an apparent inconsistency, between two propositions. God and evil are in conflict. If I do not affirm that reality, I’ll never get anywhere with any theodicy. However, it is precisely the reality of the conflict that also entails the possibility of a resolution. If God does have all of those attributes that are incompatible with evil, then these corollaries must follow:

1) God will abolish evil.

2) God is allowing evil for a time in order to bring about a world that is better than it would be without allowing for evil.

3) Statement 2) is plausible. We can see its logic illustrated in the fact that, for example, certain virtues could not be learned by human beings unless there were some evil that catalyzes the learning process.

But why so much evil? Why this particular evil? Why is God letting the process go on for so long? Next installment.

ENTRY 5

Summary So Far

Maintaining my resolve not to let this series be a polemic on the theological correctness of Calvinism or Arminianism, I shall continue with the problem of evil. Due to the turn that the FB discussion has taken, I should also mention here that, despite the fact that we have somewhat different theological views and differ in the terminology we use to identify our positions, Dr. Norm Geisler and I are in basic agreement on the structure of this “Best Way” theodicy.

Please let me remind you of the points so far:

1.  Just because someone is including human free will in their approach to the problem of evil does not mean that they’re actually using a “free will defense.” The free will defense by itself is neither adequate nor actually used very often (if at all). Those who include a free will component for the most part actually use a “higher value” defense by clarifying that human free will is necessary to attain a higher value than would be possible without it. It is not possible (at least for a Christian) to say that God gave us a free will without making reference to the greater plan of God. God would not have given human beings a free will if he did not have a good reason for doing so.

2.  At this point those who believe in either a compatibilist or non-compatibilist view of the will should come together again because both groups should agree that ultimately it is God, not we, who will take us to the best of all possible worlds.

3.  In the meantime, we are experiencing the process, guided by God, to which we can refer as “the best of all possible ways to take us to the best of all possible worlds.” From our temporal perspective this process has to take time because it involves bringing out virtues that we have to learn. Furthermore, given the undeniable fact that there is evil in this world, apparently that process must also include the presence of evil along the way. Regardless of whether you believe that free will is a necessity for this process or that stipulating a morally significant will is sufficient, logic bears out that in order to realize some higher-order goods in us, it is necessary to experience some lower order evil.

4.  Still, we know that God, given who he is, will achieve his end, which will be a world much better than the one experienced by Adam and Eve.

What I Don't Know

I ended the last installment by mentioning the questions: But why so much evil? Why this particular evil? Why is God letting the process go on for so long?

And, of course I have no answers to those questions. But if I’m firmly committed to believing in an infinite, omniscient God, I can trust him to do exactly what is necessary. If I don’t believe in an infinite, omniscient God, I don’t have a problem of evil either. So, as I said before, the problem engenders the solution. In fact, the greater we understand the incompatibility of God and evil to be, the stronger the inference will be that God is taking us along the right path and that evil will be abolished. If you cut back on your understanding of God by diminishing his omniscience, omnipotence, love, holiness, etc., or the more you consider him out of control (e.g., by denying meticulous providence), the more you are also diminishing your assurance that God is implementing his victory. A drastic example of the result of such a reduction can be found in the works of some of the “open theists” (e.g., John Sanders), for whom God is actually working with contingency plans, not knowing (by his own choice) what the future will bring. I love the song by the Cathedrals, “I’ve Read the Back of the Book and We Win.” Let me quickly clarify, though, that obviously we don’t decide on the degree of divine sovereignty, and that we need to learn about God’s nature from his revelation (both general and special), not from our wishful thinking. Still, the Bible presents us with a God who holds his attributes without limits.

Why this particular evil? In most cases, if not all, I really can’t say. I know that the total evil in the world contributes to God’s overarching plan, but if you ask me why this or that particular person came down with cancer or whatever, I do not know. As a matter of fact, there are times when I think it verges on the offensive when people come up with some trivial rationalization of what strikes me as a pretty horrible amount of suffering.

Why so much evil? I will come back to this point, but I’m appalled at the amount and the kind of evil there is in this world. It’s never easy for me to come to grips with the holocaust, the present persecution of Christians, or the many kinds of suffering that people undergo. I don’t understand it. But that’s not where I start. I begin by knowing that there is a God in charge who has demonstrated his trustworthy nature to us by sending his son to die for our sins. So, even when I do not understand why God is allowing as much evil in the world as he is, I still know that his powers outstrips mine by an order of infinity.

Sustaining that kind of faith is not easy for me, and it should not be easy for you. God has made us to be greatly troubled by evil, and he hates it just as much as, or actually more than, we do. But he is God, and, consequently, if I’m serious about believing in him, I need to accept that his plan even includes such horrendous evils. It takes a lot of trust, and I can only trust a truly sovereign, infinite God, and even then it doesn’t always come easily.

Are we there yet? Or, why is it taking so long? For one thing, we can point to 2 Peter 3:9, which says that God is putting the world on reprieve, so to speak, to allow people to come to repentance. Beyond that, I cannot say why, from our vantage point, God is taking millennia to bring about the best of all possible worlds. It is the case, of course, as Peter points out in this context, that time for God is not what it is for us. If we understand God’s eternity to be timelessness, as we should, then the problem of duration is actually only one of our perception. But that doesn’t help because the problem of why we have this built-in perception of the duration of evil is no different from why there is evil. We’ve only moved things back from the reality of evil to the evil perception of evil.

The Worst of all Possible Worlds

What I can conclude by bringing all of these thoughts together is that this is, in fact, the worst of all possible worlds. And I find comfort in that thought. Let me explain.

I’m convinced that God exists, and I can’t possibly deny that evil is real. I can’t make evil go away with a cogent theodicy, nor can one eliminate God, if he exists, with an anti-theistic argument from evil. God and evil are both here, and so, to repeat this point once more, God will eliminate evil once it has served its purpose. God will not allow any more evil in this world than is absolutely necessary, nor will he simply stop some evil if it serves his purpose. Those conclusions are unavoidable given his nature. In short, God is allowing the world to be as bad as his plan calls for, but no worse.

So, when I say that this is the worst of all possible worlds, I’m clearly not invoking a “possible world” along the lines of modal logic. I can conceive of worlds that are much worse than this one; so, what is logically possible in that sense is not the point. What I’m focusing on is the metaphysical aspect. God will not allow any more evil into this world than is necessary for him to use. There is a limit to it, both in the amount and in the time for its infestation of the world that he created. Thus, speaking metaphysically, this world is as bad as God could possibly allow it to be. Or, the best of all possible ways to take us to the best of all possible worlds must be the (metaphysically) worst of all possible worlds.

Why is there any value in this statement? What, other than engaging in a clever semantic exercise, have I gained by saying that this is the worst of all possible worlds? It gives me a different perspective on confronting the evil that I see in the world.

1.  I can recognize evil for what it is. It allows me to come to terms with the fact that, yes, whatever evil and suffering we encounter is not just something that someone slipped in when God wasn’t watching.

Let me illustrate this point with the preface that sometimes when people have gone through a lot of problems, it can be a relatively small matter that serves as the last straw to send one’s ability to cope crashing.

Quite a while back now, one of our sons had some pretty drastic medical issues. We needed to do a lot of driving to hospitals, doctors, and a few times to some special medical supply stores. Our car at the time was pretty old and worn. Towards the end of that particular time period, it was not worth a whole lot any more, with engine problems and a sagging undercarriage that was likely to drag on bumps in the asphalt of uneven country roads. Unfortunately bad country roads were really the only option for us to drive on because there was no way I could venture onto a real highway with that vehicle any longer. The financial situation, needless to say, was problematic as well. In short, things were not looking very good one day when we needed to drive to Muncie, a nearby town, in order to pick up some item or other from a medical supply store. On our way there, using the back road, we suddenly came up on a “Road Closed” sign. I thought I knew a different way to go that would avoid that obstacle and drove a long semicircle of many miles, only to wind up at that very same place again. So, I thought things through, and thought of another way to go, and this time we did not get back to that earlier “Road Closed” sign. Instead, we wound up at a different “Road Closed” sign.

For a moment there I came close to an internal meltdown. I am happy to say that I did not, but my psyche did hit a rather serious low point. And we did get to where we needed to go and made it home safely as well.

Afterwards June and I talked about the events of the afternoon, and it was she who reminded me of my philosophical idea that I was forgetting to implement. She said, “You know, as much as we don’t like it, we should keep in mind that, after all, this is exactly what we should expect if this really is the ‘worst of all possible worlds,’ and there’s no reason not to trust God as we’re going through this time.” Or words to that effect. As strange as it may sound, I really had not made the connection between my nice theoretical idea and its practical application to this scenario in our real life. Of course, she was right, and, thus, what started out as a point of philosophy I had written a year earlier became a moment of comfort. Recognizing God’s plan, we can see the world realistically and don’t have to explain away the problems that we have to deal with on a daily basis. This is not to say that we can ever take any evil or suffering lightly, let alone just cover it up by invoking a phrase or an idea. Still, the reality of evil does not mean that my faith in our sovereign Lord is misplaced.

2.  It reminds me that there is a limit to evil. Logically, the world could be worse. Logically, there might never be an end to suffering. But, if I may quote myself from somewhere, “the worst of all possible worlds is still so good that someone as astute as Leibniz could confuse it with the best of all possible worlds.” I can experience whatever pain and suffering may come my way, accept it for what it is without rationalization, and know that I’m still in the hands of a loving God, who has already won victory over evil and is merely now in the process of implementing it.

A free will defense on its own (which is an exceedingly rare thing to find), could only explain why it is beyond God’s responsibility that there is evil in the world. A theistic theodicy gives us at least a hunch why God may have permitted evil, and it also provides us with a foundation for counting on God to eliminate all evil.

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