Tuesday, April 12, 2011

How Much Evil?

This article will discuss the amount of evil and suffering in the world as it relates to the ultimate playing-out of events, or the complete description of this possible world. While much could be written I chose to focus on the amount of suffering in light of character development.

Because each and every member of mankind is a sinner in need of redemption, evil exists (Romans , ). Most people intuitively believe this and will not deny it; when pressed, most will even admit they have committed a moral imperfection themselves. Because evil exists mankind must be saved. Jesus Christ provided this benefit as available to all men, and God’s “goal” as it were is to see every member of mankind accept Jesus’ sacrifice and be saved (1 Timothy 2:4). Of course, this will not happen. This accounts for the perseverance and scope of personal acts of evil done by the free will of man.

When coupled with natural evil (or essentially pain) we naturally wonder why God does not permit less of it (or even any of it!). As famously said by C.S. Lewis, “God…shouts to us in our pain.” Experiencing pain and evil is often character-forming. There are painful experiences in my life that helped shape me into the person I am today. While I cannot be sure, I quite readily imagine I would not have learned the lessons I did without those same painful experiences.

But couldn’t I have learned the lessons with a little less pain than I in fact did? If not me, then couldn’t someone else who has experienced a significant amount of pain have their character formed with less evil? There are a few problems with this. First, we have no way of knowing the counterfactual truths involved. William Lane Craig pointed out that even in the instance of a stubbed toe, we simply aren’t in a good epistemic position to say this evil is ultimately pointless (perhaps it is combined with other events that day which bring about an ultimate good, even if years off, which justifies that evil).

Lewis asserts, “suffering is not good in itself. What is good in any painful experience is, for the sufferer, his submission to the will of God.”[1] Geisler adds, “based on the fact that God is both all-good and all-knowing: It [pain and suffering] won’t be too long, and it won’t be too much.”[2]

I am reminded of an article about rules in sports I read recently. One comment that struck me as profound was the distance in baseball between first and second base: 90 feet. If it was 89 feet, the author asserted, there would be too many Rickey Henderson’s (for stolen bases). If it was 91 feet, there would be too few. How much was the distance in baseball between the bases? Just enough to accomplish the right amount of bases stolen. How much evil is permitted by God in this actual world? Just enough so that people have a way of responding to God and being rightly related to him. Just enough to form our character.

                [1] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan, 1944), 110.

                [2] Norman L. Geisler, If God, Why Evil? (Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House, 2011), 92.

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  1. I feel like the response that we can't know the counterfactual truths involved is a bit of a cop out. Think of the skeptical problem. We can't technically prove it wrong, but it doesn't seem at all likely, if our intuitions and experiences are relevant at all in such matters. I think the same could be said for much of the suffering that exists. It seems to border on appeal to ignorance, if not committing it outright. (Keith DeRose, for example, considers the skeptical paradox to be an argument from ignorance).

    Second, can we really say that it won't be too long or too much? Would you be willing to tell someone that who has lost a young child? I could only imagine such suffering and pain would be lifelong and way too much.

  2. Hi Mike, thanks for the comment! As to your first concern, it comes in the context of a response to the accusation from the problem of evil. Since we don't know counterfactual truths of what would have happened absent evil/pain/suffering X, it is pure speculation to say that therefore, X is unjustified. Because of this epistemic limitation, postulating such is literally an appeal from ignorance! :) We, on the other hand, even have a deductive argument (separate from the objection) for a justified account of evil: If God is good, then the evil and suffering permitted is morally justified. God is good. Therefore the evil and suffering permitted is morally justified. Now I am sure you can see why I say this is absent of the objection, but once the defeater is rejected via epistemic limitation, this deductive argument (further supported by the existence of objective moral values) allows the believer to hold with confidence that there is justification for suffering (to say nothing of empirical evidence all the time where we really do see fruits of suffering in ultimate good).

    As to the second, one must ask, "too much for what?" In the context, especially of the work I cited, it means "too much to bear" in life. Plenty of people have lost children to tragic circumstances, and the person who said that quote lost a daughter to suicide. It's nothing to shrug at, but neither is it something we can learn nothing from!

  3. Hi Randy. I actually just bought Geisler's book yesterday. I may have some more input after reading it, and I'll probably post a review on my own blog (although, I'm not sure when that will be).

  4. Great! I look forward to it. I may end up agreeing with several negative points you may have, as I myself did not agree with every last thing that he said. Fair warning: it seems to be written to Christians more than non-believers.

  5. I assumed it would be, but I find theodicy fascinating. And it's such an enduring problem too, from the apocalyptic writings of even before Jesus to today. I would imagine it's one of the more difficult subjects to deal with for believers of any kind.

  6. I'm actually presenting a paper at the ISCA conference in Raleigh later this month where Geisler will be in attendance. My paper topic: God's Moral Justification in Creating the Actual World, with a special emphasis on moral preferability among worlds, if there is a best possible world, etc. All chosen before I knew of Geisler's book (which just came out in Feb.) and generally the perspective he chose for the book lol. So who knows what he will think!

  7. I've been thinking a lot about this issue lately and I can't help but wonder if we as 21st century evangelicals have not perhaps become a bit embarrassed of the doctrine of angels and demons and so we don't really bring the subject up in the problem of evil.

    While I love Dr. Craig, when he says we're not in a position epistemically to understand why S stubbed our toe in the middle of the night, or worse, why S's daughter died of leukemia, it seems implicit that in that statement that God does have a purpose for such an event to happen that is inscrutable to us finite creatures. If I'm putting myself in the shoes of the skeptic or non-believer, I'd say that's not really the God I want to give my life to.

    But we see in the person of Christ that Jesus calmed storms, healed the sick, raised the dead, cast out demons, fed the hungry multitude, etc. His disciples in the gospels and in Acts were to carry out this ministry. Peter and Jesus attributed sickness to Satan (Acts 10:38, Luke 13:11-16) So apparently they believed the devil and demons could affect and corrupt nature, matter. Paul talked about how Satan was the god of this world, and John said whole world is under the control of the evil one.

    I don't want Flip Wilson Christianity, or be the type of person that sees demons behind every bush, but it seems to me that when Alvin Plantinga floated the possibility natural evils to devils as a possible solution to the problem of natural evil, maybe he was actually onto something, no matter how implausible it strikes modern minds, because otherwise it seems we do have to resort to saying God did such and such evil thing for a mysterious purpose.

    It seems to make a little more sense to say that God could not have a world of free creatures without the possibility of war, in the human and angelic realm. It would make more sense of the urgency of prayer as well; that we have a "vote" of what goes on in the earth.

    Forgive my ramblings, I'm not an expert in theology or philosophy, I'm sort of thinking out loud.

  8. Thanks Erik, I appreciate your thoughts and comments! I happen to think either account is acceptable, and Craig's account does not preclude Plantinga's. That is to say, every instance of natural or non-moral evil could be ultimately attributable to demons and still God may yet have a purpose (cf. Genesis 50 and Joseph). Further, if we accept the skeptic's objection that God does not have a morally sufficient reason for the pain and suffering in our lives, it seems we also have reason to accept a further objection (based on the same principle): could God not stop these? After all, at the heart of both objections is God's permission. The answer to this second objection is the same as the first: God has a morally sufficient reason. Of course, one may posit God is unable to stop these angels, but that to me would be biblically unacceptable. :)

  9. Thanks for indulging my ramblings, Randy. I love this blog, BTW. Yours and JW Wartick's have quickly become favorites of mine.

    Getting to my point - Maybe it's not so much that God is powerless to stop these angels but that he chooses not to interfere. Why? Because his morally sufficient reason to allow these things isn't for an inscrutable purpose,(at least not in all cases) but rather we - to at least a certain extent - are the ones who choose to allow them. It's up to us to ask, or use our faith, and Satan will do all he can to blind us to our authority in prayer, or for those in "the know" - to find some way to keep them from acting (mark 4:17-19).

    Jesus speaks of the thief who is the one who comes to steal, kill and destroy. The NT also speaks of us resisting the devil. It seems plausible, biblically to say that God in a sense gave man power of attorney, so to speak, and that Adam lost such authority in the fall - only to have Christ restore it to redeemed man, in at least some sort of measure. (Genesis 1:26-28, Psalm 8, Luke 10:19, Romans 5:12-17, Ephesians 1:19-2:6, 4:27, James 4:7)

    Maybe the soul-making isn't so much enduring "thorns in the flesh" as we've defined them, but overcoming them through enduring faith. Maybe that within the parameters of the freedom God gives creatures, God will put up with evil, but not commission it. He's obviously not in the business of revoking the will of free creatures. As infinitely wise, He's able to accomplish his will within these parameters without compromising his integrity or limiting the potential of his creatures by taking back their free will.

    Is this a biblical idea? Well, I think so. It seems that in Daniel 10, God heard Daniel immediately when he prayed and dispatched Michael, who warred in the heavens for 21 days before being able to get Daniel his answer. In that sense, it seems almost as if Daniel's prayers had a say in events concerning Israel, and both good and evil angels had at least participation in helping/hindering the outcome of God's desired ends.

    So what I'm saying is that God isn't passive in the face of evil, but God works to thwart it with our cooperation as holders of power of attorney through Christ's death and resurrection, and should we fail, he will work to redeem it, that is attempt to bring something good out of evil. Caveat here - since we have libertarian freedom God cannot guarantee that we will actually benefit from our suffering for we may refuse his help.

    Admittedly, such a view doesn't fit well with the notion of meticulous sovereignty, so it may not sit well with everyone.

  10. Thanks so much for your kind words! I enjoy JW's blog also. These aren't ramblings; they are very important thoughts! It seems we agree God has a morally-sufficient reason for allowing evil, and I certainly wouldn't disagree that it's not the case that every person benefits from every evil. However, I do not think that in order to meet the condition of a non-gratuitious evil it must benefit every person to whom the evil was done. It merely has to contribute to an ultimate good which is itself morally justified (which is what you allude to). What I alluded to in saying we can apply both the objection and the defense to both arguments is that while God cannot override free-will choices, he can override their effects (and if it were not morally justified to allow an evil in one case it is not in another). But I largely agree with much of what you say! Thanks for commenting!


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