Sunday, November 19, 2006

Daniel asks a little theological question...

Michelangelo, Creation of the Sun and Moon
Detail of Sistine Chapel
Basically a nice guy?
(Image from Wikipedia)

Daniel, also known as "Herr Richter" -- and who has a fascinating blog of his own experimental writing -- has posed a simple question:

I've got a question. I've asked this question to a few people of various religious beliefs. Here it is.

If there is a god who is infinitely benevolent and infinitely powerful, why would he/she/it create a world with evil people? The question assumes that there are evil people, people who seem to have been made to do evil. So, the question isn't "Why would such a God make people who suffer?" but "Why would such a God create people who would cause suffering, because causing suffering seems to fulfill them?" I'm thinking of not just the obvious examples such as serial rapists or killers, but people who get a kick out of taking a stab at someone because they've noticed they're shy and therefore won't strike back. Why would such a God create evil people, and alongside them, a Hell, where they will suffer for eternity? Maybe they have chosen to be evil, but it doesnt seem to me that everyone chooses freely. Do you think people are really as free as Christianity claims?

And along with that, evolution. Why would such a God (infinitely benevolent & infinitely powerful) set up a universe where might makes right, where a species thrives based on how ruthless it is(the reason we have lions running around Africa is because they didn't hesitate a moment before sinking their teeth into their prey), and then expect his creations to act against the way they had been created to act. My question doesn't regard the injustice of this killing as much as it does, why would God create this universe, where might makes right, and then reveal to his creations in a book that he meant for the universe to run conter-clockwise, in a self-less manner instead of in a selfish manner, and whoever does not accept the truth of this book, against the evidence of the universe, shall be punished for eternity?

This is my question, or questions. I don't mean this as an affront to anyone's beliefs, I respect Christianity, and understand why someone would decide to adopt the Christian belief. I am simplifying the situation, but I will limit myself to: Christianity is based upon faith. If everything made sense, and it was clear what was right and wrong because God's voice thundered down from the clouds: "THOU SHALT NOT ETC", then many more people would obey the commandment, but there would be nothing special because it was obvious and straight forward. Who wouldn't obey a mysterious voice that thundered down from the clouds? You would have to be insane not to. My point is, faith is meaningful because of the ambiguity of the world.

However, this faith is not for me. I am at this point an atheist, not an atheist who believes there is necessarily no god, but an atheist who has not found any answers in religion that satisfy. I do not consider myself any more enlightened than the next individual, be he Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, or what have you.

Anyway, if you've got any thoughts regarding this question, I would be interested.
Okay, maybe that wasn't quite the simple little question that I announced above ... but I'm going to treat it as one.

One can take either of two serious approaches in responding to a question like this.

One can choose to pursue a fullscale theodicy and attempt to answer in detail all of the points posed and more -- a bit like Milton attempted in his great epic Paradise Lost. The problem with such an approach is that it presumes our ability to accomplish this, but doing so would require that we be God. Since we're not God and therefore lack the divine attribute of omniscience, we're bound to encounter severe epistemological limitations, both concerning things that are simply beyond our ken and things that are beyond our current knowledge, and thus fall into error -- perhaps ridiculously so. Thus, we might laugh at Milton's presumption about knowing God's mind in such detail or at some of Milton's now-outmoded views on astronomy, astronomy, and the interpretation of dreams.

Or ... one can choose to pursue a limited theological defense and offer possible answers in more general terms. For instance, one could consider the query above to be asking how God can be omniscient, omnipotent, and omni-benevolent and yet allow evil. A theological defense would turn the question back on the questioner and ask why these are considered mutually contradictory. The questioner is then burdened with the onus of explaining precisely where the contradiction is to be found. The point here is not to be difficult but to get the questioner to reconsider the basis for the assumption that a contradiction exists. God, in his omniscience, might have a good reason for allowing evil. The details might be beyond our comprehension. The reason might have something to do with free will, moral responsibility, spiritual growth, or other possible suggestions.

I suppose that reading Lewis -- as Richardson suggests -- might help one in considering such possible answers. I'd add such philosphers as Alvin Plantinga or Peter van Inwagen, who focus on theological defenses (and avoid theodicies).

A far better man than I for dealing with such philosophical concerns would be Bill Vallicella, whose blog -- Maverick Philosopher -- deals with such issues and who could suggest specific philosophical books and articles for reading.

Meanwhile, commenters are free to pose their own responses to Daniel's query.


At 9:08 AM, Blogger Hathor said...

May be God is all those things but doesn't care and has move on to some other creation. Or could it be that what God is or wants or does is man's creation. It would seem if Herr Richter has been looking for answers that there may not be any new answers. I think faith is something that just comes to some people. I don't what happens at the point, but I don't think it is intellectual. I also think there are some people that their brains are just not wired to believe. I may be one of them. I was immersed in the church until I became an adult. Raised as Presbyterian and went to Catholic school. Lived in the Bible Belt surrounded by Evangelicals. Nothing stuck. I hope I do not appear to making light of his questions, but since I am not a theologian or academic, this is the best way I can say what I've said.

At 2:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

An interesting entry, Jeffery. You always have fascinating entries, and I always admire the way you examine the views of those with whom you disagree.

To me, at least, it seems nonsensical to ask why an omnipotent, omniscient omni-benevolent power could be incompatable with the existence of evil and those who do it. It seems obvious that they are incompatible. Turning the question on the questioner in this case, in my opinion, simply will not work, and the onus to deal with this issue remains on the person of faith and not on the one who claims to have no answer. Incidentally, this issue is one of the main reasons why I, a former Baptist convert to Catholicism, am now a cross between a pantheist and an agnostic. While I do not discount the possibility of a divine principle in the universe (a principle probably not separate from the universe, but the universe itself), I do believe quite firmly that the various gods the main strata of Christians, Jews, and Muslims have conceived are impossible, as well as an affront to normal human ethics. That being said, I've also always said that there are as many gods as there are believers, by which I mean each person has his own concept of God (and if yours is anything like this blog it is likely wonderful, highly intelligent, warm, and with an inherent tension and ambiguity). As a digression within a digression, that is why I think it is simplistic for the three Abrahamic faiths to assert that they worship the same God, when it's not apparent that the practitioners of these religions have a uniform concept of God to begin with.

Suffice to say, I don't think any person of a monotheistic faith has yet given me a satisfactory answer to the Problem of Evil.

On another note, I read the Big Hominid's report of his time with you and your family, and I am quite envious!

At 2:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I guess I may have to drop the "pantheist" part of my label one of these days, since someone might ask me how pantheism solves the problem of theodicy. (If all is god, that means that there is no evil at all, which is subjectively contrary to experience and normal instincts.) On the other hand, I just subjectively "feel" something divine within the universe. The "agnostic" part of my little self-label is supposed to indicate that lack of knowledge. If that "something" were to be separate from the universe, finite, personal, omnipotent and all the rest, I would have to assume the classical atheist pose and shake my fist at the heavens for allowing the presence of evil when so clearly there was a moral obligation to avoid it.

On the other hand, maybe it's simpler and better if I simply use my other label: "post-Christian."

At 3:34 PM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...

On Theodicy

A somewhat revised form of the above 2001 (blogged in 2004) essay will appear in my book.


At 1:08 AM, Blogger Daniel said...

Unfortunately, I'm busy right now typing up a research paper, the majority of which I've put off until the day before it's due, that being today. I'll check out your links and read these comments more carefully later on in the week. Thanks to Jeffery and to everyone who has commented, -DR

At 1:29 AM, Blogger Conservative in Virginia said...

HJH, I am probably the dumbest person to frequent your blog, but I will, nonetheless, attempt to answer the question.

Love is worthless unless it is given freely. In order that love be given freely, beings must have the power to choose not to love. God created spiritual beings and gave them free will. Some of those beings chose not to love God (Who is Love), which equals evil. Then God created humans. They were given a perfect world where there was no suffering or evil. But they were also given free will. Adam and Eve did not choose to obey God, as was their right. Death and evil entered the world through their choice, not by God's will. God desires us to choose Love/Him, and if we do, we will again have the opportunity after death to live in a world without suffering and evil.

At 11:21 AM, Blogger Malcolm Pollack said...

Or, if I may play the Devil's advocate: the simplest answer of all is to argue that God is naught but an appealing fantasy, and that the concept of "evil", which was meaningless - nay, nonexistent - ere we arrived upon the scene, is a purely human creation, the natural result of eons of biological and social evolution.

At 1:42 AM, Blogger Dave said...

If there is a god who is infinitely benevolent and infinitely powerful, why would he/she/it create a world with evil people?

Maybe God created natural people with an attachment to this fascinating natural world of conflicting sensations, who yet have the capacity to freely choose how to respond to it. Maybe the people you don't like have chosen unwisely, or maybe their parents have guided them unwisely; and they have become obsessed with certain natural sensations so much that they don't really care about other people, whom they judge to be evil and worthless.

At this point the ultimate arbiter of Good and Evil, the Judge of the Universe who knows the hearts of all people, their intents, their sins, their sufferings, and their destinies, steps in to pass judgment and say: "Thou Creator, thou hast erred in granting me both a natural world and a free mind. Thou art not Good enough for me, so I banish thee to the realm of myth. Leave me alone to sulk about the Evil world thou hast created."

Even as an atheist, the Problem of Evil never troubled me. Evil troubles me, but the "Problem" doesn't. The world is full of conflicting forces, and our happiness doesn't depend on either picking the winner or having everything go our way. It entails accepting the world as a realm of conflict and accepting responsibility for our own actions in that realm.

At 12:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Piper on Edwards on Theodicy:

Two Questions
And I pose two questions as an evangelical who is seeking the glory of God, and who longs for a Biblical, God-entranced world-view. 1) Is God the author of sin?
2) Why does God ordain that evil exist?

What are the answers that Jonathan Edwards gave to each of these questions?
1 Is God the Author of Sin?
Edwards answers, "If by 'the author of sin,' be meant the sinner, the agent, or the actor of sin, or the doer of a wicked thing . . . . it would be a reproach and blasphemy, to suppose God to be the author of sin. In this sense, I utterly deny God to be the author of sin." But, he argues, willing that sin exist in the world is not the same as sinning. God does not commit sin in willing that there be sin. God has established a world in which sin will indeed necessarily come to pass by God's permission, but not by his "positive agency."

God is, Edwards says, "the permitter . . . of sin; and at the same time, a disposer of the state of events, in such a manner, for wise, holy and most excellent ends and purposes, that sin, if it be permitted . . . will most certainly and infallibly follow."

He uses the analogy of the way the sun brings about light and warmth by its essential nature, but brings about dark and cold by dropping below the horizon. "If the sun were the proper cause of cold and darkness," he says, "it would be the fountain of these things, as it is the fountain of light and heat: and then something might be argued from the nature of cold and darkness, to a likeness of nature in the sun."
In other words, "sin is not the fruit of any positive agency or influence of the most High, but on the contrary, arises from the withholding of his action and energy, and under certain circumstances, necessarily follows on the want of his influence."
Thus in one sense God wills that what he hates come to pass, as well as what he loves. Edwards says,
God may hate a thing as it is in itself, and considered simply as evil, and yet . . . it may be his will it should come to pass, considering all consequences. . . . God doesn't will sin as sin or for the sake of anything evil; though it be his pleasure so to order things, that he permitting, sin will come to pass; for the sake of the great good that by his disposal shall be the consequence. His willing to order things so that evil should come to pass, for the sake of the contrary good, is no argument that he doesn't hate evil, as evil: and if so, then it is no reason why he may not reasonably forbid evil as evil, and punish it as such.

This is a fundamental truth that helps explain some perplexing things in the Bible, namely, that God often expresses his will to be one way, and then acts to bring about another state of affairs. God opposes hatred toward his people, yet ordained that his people be hated in Egypt (Genesis 12:3; Psalm 105:25 – "He turned their hearts to hate his people."). He hardens Pharaoh's heart, but commands him to let his people go (Exodus 4:21; 5:1; 8:1). He makes plain that it is sin for David to take a military census of his people, but he ordains that he do it (2 Samuel 24:1; 24:10). He opposes adultery, but ordains that Absalom should lie with his father's wives (Exodus 20:14; 2 Samuel 12:11). He forbids rebellion and insubordination against the king, but ordained that Jeroboam and the ten tribes should rebel against Rehoboam (Romans 13:1; 1 Samuel 15:23; 1 Kings 12:15-16). He opposes murder, but ordains the murder of his Son (Exodus 20:13; Acts 4:28). He desires all men to be saved, but effectually calls only some (1 Timothy 2:4; 1 Corinthians 1:26-30; 2 Timothy 2:26).

What this means is that we must learn that God wills things in two different senses. The Bible demands this by the way it speaks of God's will in different ways. Edwards uses the terms "will of decree" and "will of command." Edwards explains:
[God's] will of decree [or sovereign will] is not his will in the same sense as his will of command [or moral will] is. Therefore it is not difficult at all to suppose that the one may be otherwise than the other: his will in both senses is his inclination. But when we say he wills virtue, or loves virtue or the happiness of his creature; thereby is intended that virtue or the creature's happiness, absolutely and simply considered, is agreeable to the inclination of his nature. His will of decree is his inclination to a thing not as to that thing absolutely and simply, but with reference to the universality of things. So God, though he hates a things as it is simply, may incline to it with reference to the universality of things.

This brings us to the final question and already points to the answer.

2 Why Does God Ordain that there Be Evil?
It is evident from what has been said that it is not because he delights in evil as evil. Rather he "wills that evil come to pass . . . that good may come of it." What good? And how does the existence of evil serve this good end? Here is Edwards' stunning answer:

It is a proper and excellent thing for infinite glory to shine forth; and for the same reason, it is proper that the shining forth of God's glory should be complete; that is, that all parts of his glory should shine forth, that every beauty should be proportionably effulgent, that the beholder may have a proper notion of God. It is not proper that one glory should be exceedingly manifested, and another not at all. . . .
Thus it is necessary, that God's awful majesty, his authority and dreadful greatness, justice, and holiness, should be manifested. But this could not be, unless sin and punishment had been decreed; so that the shining forth of God's glory would be very imperfect, both because these parts of divine glory would not shine forth as the others do, and also the glory of his goodness, love, and holiness would be faint without them; nay, they could scarcely shine forth at all.
If it were not right that God should decree and permit and punish sin, there could be no manifestation of God's holiness in hatred of sin, or in showing any preference, in his providence, of godliness before it. There would be no manifestation of God's grace or true goodness, if there was no sin to be pardoned, no misery to be saved from. How much happiness soever he bestowed, his goodness would not be so much prized and admired. . . .
So evil is necessary, in order to the highest happiness of the creature, and the completeness of that communication of God, for which he made the world; because the creature's happiness consists in the knowledge of God, and the sense of his love. And if the knowledge of him be imperfect, the happiness of the creature must be proportionably imperfect.

So the answer to the question in the title of this message, "Is God less glorious because he ordained that evil be?" is no, just the opposite. God is more glorious for having conceived and created and governed a world like this with all its evil. The effort to absolve him by denying his foreknowledge of sin (as we saw this afternoon) or by denying his control of sin (which we have seen this evening) is fatal, and a great dishonor to his word and his wisdom. Evangelicals who are seeking the glory of God, look well to the teaching of your churches and your schools. But most of all, look well to your souls.
If you would see God's glory and savor his glory and magnify his glory in this world, do not remain wavering before the sovereignty of God in the face of great evil. Take his book in your hand, plead for his Spirit of illumination and humility and trust, and settle this matter, that you might be unshakable in the day of your own calamity. My prayer is that what I have said will sharpen and deepen your God-entranced world view, and that in the day of your loss you will be like Job who, when he lost all his children, fell down and worshipped, and said, "The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away. Blessed be the name of the LORD."

By John Piper. © Desiring God. Website:

At 3:56 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous, thanks for the Piper address. I wish that you'd summarized and linked, but perhaps some readers have benefitted.

Jeffery Hodges

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