Monday, February 16, 2015
The Problem of Evil Quantified
The problem of evil has been a problem for philosophy and philosophers from the time that philosophers and philosophies began to exist. This can be seen in the ancient philosophers and across the history of philosophy up to present day. Now, the idea of evil falls within the branch of philosophy commonly referred to as ethics. For centuries now, philosophers have attempted to obtain at a rational understanding of ethics. Beginning with Homer, and even earlier, the struggle to rationally comprehend ethics, right and wrong, good and evil, has been and continues to be obviously elusive, and in some cases, plainly offensive. The cause for this struggle is really quite plain. Human morality is an experience so pervasive in human experience that it demands explanation. Hence, the constructive task of philosophy has an unquestioned obligation to account for the human experience of morality that is both, intelligible and intellectually satisfying.
We see in Homer an attempt to wrestle with good and evil. But Homer places undue stress on the needs of the individual. For Homer, even the hero has a primary selfish interest in serving the good of others. It is this primary motivation that moves the hero to action, not sincere care for those he is responsible to protect. What Homer misses is the conflict that self-interest of individuals creates with other individuals and eventually the society as a whole. Such competition is indeed the cause of much evil and suffering in the world. Surely if we are going to do something with evil, we must also find a way around self-interest.
The naturalists attempted to solve the human dilemma by creating laws and comparing them to natural law. Just as natural law ruled over nature, creating order and harmony, so the laws of the city would do the same with its citizens, or so it was thought. However, this did not answer the question as to why any individual should sacrifice his own selfish good for the good of his neighbor. There seemed to be no positive, intrinsic reason for why I should be willing to look out for another at my own expense. Inevitably, the lack of such intrinsic motivation would leave the problem of ethics unsolved. It is not the purpose of this paper to trace the entire history of ethics in philosophy. But I do think it worth pointing out that the subject with which this paper deals is indeed one that has a long and difficult record over the course of the history of philosophy.
Philosophers are not the only group that has attempted to define evil. Another group, Christian theologians, has also put forth a theory of evil. This theory is a bit more interesting since its source is claimed to be divine revelation. According to Christian theism, God has revealed to human beings a precise definition of evil and has ensured that we all may recognize it when we observe and experience it. Scripture informs us in Genesis 3:11 that the beginning of evil in the world is linked to man’s decision to do exactly what God had commanded that he not do. In other words, it is wicked and foolish to reject God’s divine command. In that same section of Scripture, the serpent is cursed, along with man, because both disregarded God’s proscription due to a fondness for their own respective agendas. This behavior is clearly characterized in Christian Scripture as wicked and evil. The specific evil that man engaged in at this event was his decision to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, even though God had unequivocally expressed that this particular tree was off limits.
This is considered the first act of evil committed by man. The word for evil as it appears in the text is rāʿ. The Hebrew word rāʿ appears 299 in the Hebrew Scriptures. The essential meaning of the root can be seen in its frequent juxtaposition with the root ṭôb. The Hebrew word tôb is the word translated good. The word rāʿaʿ often designates experiences that entail physical pain. However, in terms of moral evil, the verb very often denotes activity that is contrary to God’s will. And hence, it is this definition of evil that Christian philosophers and theologians denote when they talk about evil. Evil, in Christian parlance, is that which is contrary to the nature and will of God.
Since ethics deals specifically with the rational understanding of morality in human experience, the existence of evil poses different challenges for different philosophies. The basic presuppositions of a particular worldview will determine to a large degree how evil is defined and accounted for by that system. The issue each system of thought must grapple with is accounting for morality while at the same time remaining logically consistent with the other basic presuppositions offered up by that particular philosophy. The intent of this paper is to discuss the problems that objective evil presents to Christian theism. In addition, I aim to show how two of the more common non-Christian arguments, that charge Christian theism with inherent contradiction between two essential doctrines, or basic presuppositions, miss their target.
Christian theism makes the bold claim that God, as God, is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect. Moreover, God created the world and all that it contains. In addition, Christian theism claims that objective moral and, physical evil exists in the world as human beings experience it. Immediately, the non-Christian thinker asserts that this set of beliefs contradict one another. How could God, being omniscient, omnipotent, and morally perfect, create a world that includes evil? This approach to the problem of evil is what we might call the internal problem of evil. The approach attempts to expose an internal contradiction within the Christian system. It is this approach we are most concerned to treat in this paper.
David Hume put forth what is probably the most sophisticated philosophical dialogue in English when he penned Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. In this project, Hume alleged that the claim “God exists” and “evil exists” are logically incompatible. Since we know that evil certainly exists, then it follows that God does not exist. But is this claim, as Hume alleges, really logically incompatible? Hume’s argument takes the shape of Epicurus as Philo, in the Dialogues points out: “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? The Christian has an obligation to answer this charge. We are called to destroy speculations that contradict the teachings of Christ (2 Cor. 10:5). Rebellious men must be silenced (Titus 1:11). The Christian must be able to silence the ignorance of foolish men (1 Peter 2:15). Hence, the problem of evil and it’s charge that it serves as a blatant contradiction in the Christian system must be answered and if it is to be answered effectively, it can only be answered biblically.
Hume contends that the only way out of this contradiction is to fall into skepticism regarding the attributes of God. Specifically, how can we say that God is benevolent in any sense of the word as we understand it since we would never, as God has, allow for the kind of evil that God obviously does. In this sense, God is benevolent in a way that is so remarkably distinct from human benevolence that we cannot even begin to understand divine benevolence. This move pushes the Christian into the grips of skepticism and represents a stroke of brilliance on Hume’s part. How is the Christian to respond? One response could be that the Christian redefine what he means when he speaks about God. He could surrender divine power and goodness to human freedom as some philosophers have attempted. This has proven ineffective to say that least, not to mention that it creates more theological problems than it solves. The Christian could change the argument and remove the logical tension altogether. As it stands, the argument is as follows: If God were omnipotent he would be able to destroy evil. If God were omniscient he would know how to destroy evil. If God were morally perfect he would destroy evil. Evil exists. Therefore, there is no God who is at the same time omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect. Christianity is proven false. As one can see, this argument represents a very serious challenge to the Christian claim about the existence of God and evil. However, all one must do as a Christian, to retain evil and validity in the argument is to change the conclusion. If we insert “Therefore, God must have a morally sufficient reason for the existence of evil,” we have preserved the Christian claim that God exists and so too does evil. One must keep in mind that we are solving a logical problem in this argument. That problem is that Christianity involves a contradiction. If we can reshape the argument so as to avoid the supposed contradiction, we have succeeded in refuting the claim that Christianity is contradictory. What then do we do with Hume’s skepticism? Hume’s method would require complete and perfect knowledge on the part of any human in order for any one to possess any genuine knowledge at all. It does not follow that we must be able to attain a perfect understanding for the existence of evil in the world in order to defend God’s divine plan to include it without compromising His divine attributes. We do not need to know the reason for divine action in order to accept the fact that divine action is what it is and God remains what He has revealed Himself to be. Revelation serves as the basis for human knowledge rather than autonomous fallen logic. Scripture serves as our standard for what is true and what is false rather than autonomous human reason. God is under no obligation to reveal all His reasons for why His plan is what it is in order for us to accept it and trust that it is wholly free from any irrational elements.
A softer approach to the problem of evil seeks to justify rational belief in atheism based on the existence of evil in human experience. This position asserts that, given the state of affairs as they are, atheism is a rationally justifiable position. The argument proceeds as follows: 1) There exist instances of intense suffering which an omnipotent, omniscient being could have permitted without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse. 2) 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. Therefore, there does not exist an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good being. My response is that (1) seems to me to require omniscience on the part of the author. Simply put, how does the person making this assertion really know that (1) is actually true. It seems that such an assertion would have a seemingly insurmountable task in front of it, if it is to show that (1) is actually true. Additionally, (2) fails to consider the possibility that an omniscient, wholly good being could have a morally sufficient reason for evil. A parent that disciplines their child may have a morally sufficient reason for the discipline even though the child experiences pain. Moreover, I may deprive my child of certain privileges for his own good even though, in his mind, such restrictions are evil on my part. It does not follow that I have to disclose my reasons to my child in order to avoid the charge of being immoral. It has been said by proponents of this argument that there can be no morally sufficient reason for the existence of evil. However, such a universal negative is much easier to say than it is to prove. In fact, to show that evil can have no morally sufficient reason one would have to be omniscient. Hence, this argument also fails to show any logical inconsistency within the Christian system given our insistence that we define our terms in Christian parlance. Additionally, it fails to show that atheism has a rational basis so long as it portends to accept the terms of good, evil, omnipotent, and omniscience as they are defined within the Christian system. And this is precisely what must be done with any internal critique. We conclude then that this argument fails in both respects.
The problem of evil is a logical problem for the Christian. It is a problem presented to the Christian that asserts that Christianity involves unavoidable and unsolvable contradiction. As we have seen, this is only true when we define the terms used to describe God and evil using non-Christian definitions. When we take the argument at face value, using Christian terminology, we readily see there is no contradiction at all.
In the end, the atheist thinks he has judged God and satisfied his own mind by accusing and holding God accountable for the evil that is present in the world. What he fails to realize is that for all his work, it is the atheist who will stand at the final judgment and be judged for the evil he has actually committed while existing in the world.
 G. Herbert Livingston, “2191 רָעַע,” ed. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999), 854.
 Baruch A. Brody, ed., Readings in the Philosophy of Religion: An Analytic Approach, 2nd ed. (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, ©1992), 270.
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