Number Fifty-One

Tealiberasophoterianistic Perspectives

The Biggest Problem: Red Herrings and the Problem of Evil

By Joey Phillips

 

This is going to be a decently long post. I would encourage you to skip it unless you have time to read the whole thing. If you skip it, I will understand. The reason I am writing this is two-fold.

  1. Whenever Christians in a public forum offer a biblical perspective on any given issue (political, social, cultural or otherwise) the most common response from those in disagreement is not a counterargument. The most common response is “How do believe that when the Bible also says _________? “ What most often fills that blank is some reference to severe laws for the Israelites, or God ordering the Israelites to wipe out other nations etc. This article, albeit indirectly, will address that issue. For the purposes of this blog, it will allow us to not have to rehash a response every time somebody throws a red herring about the horrors of the Bible into a discussion.
  2. Despite what I just said, my topic for today is the most intellectually compelling argument against Christianity, in my opinion, and as such, I wanted to throw out some thoughts to see what you guys think about how we should answer perhaps the most common objection to our worldview.

If I asked you what the biggest problem a Christian faces in defending the faith from a philosophical perspective, what would you say? Is the existence of God a difficult question? For many, yes, but philosophically there have been great answers to that question for a long time now.  Answers that atheists have never adequately addressed. (Yes I know Dawkins and the others would have a heart attack if he/they read this, but it really is true. If there is nothing eternal, there is no logical explanation as to why anything would exist. There has to be an eternal uncaused cause.  An eternal Being by definition is self-sufficient. Once you establish the existence of a self-sufficient, eternal Being, the atheists and agnostics have already lost.) Is big, bad, evolution a big problem for Christianity? Even if you buy into the whole of evolutionary theory, it isn’t a big obstacle to Christianity as long as the historicity of Adam is maintained. (See how easily I dismissed thousands of years of debate over the existence of God?)There are other big issues, of course, but I would argue the most challenging argument against Christianity is the Problem of Evil.[1] It is the most frequently used argument against Christianity, and when stated well, a response is difficult to find.

Stated in its basic form, the Problem of Evil is this: If God is omnipotent (all powerful) and benevolent (all good) then why does evil exist? Either God must not be all powerful (so he created and was unable to stop evil from occurring, but fights on the good side) or he is not all good. This argument is the root of most attacks on Christianity and the Bible, in my experience. Unbelievers know that if they can demonstrate the inconsistency of believing, in the midst of an evil world, that God is all powerful and all good, then the God of the Bible is unbelievable. That gives them an excuse for their unbelief. So whether the argument comes in the form of ‘How can you believe in a God that orders the killing of people…or a God that sends people to hell?’ or ‘I can’t believe in a God that would allow me to get cancer’, the underlying assumption is that an all-powerful and good God would not allow bad things to ever happen.  

That is a quick and dirty, basic, formulation of the problem. I want to get into it a bit more in depth than that. In most arguments, quick and dirty is the extent of the objection, and so an answer may need to be in kind. But the actual philosophical issue is as deep as it gets, because it gets at our understanding of the nature of God, ourselves, and reality. So I want to present a more thorough description of the problem. Fyodor Dostoyevsky presents the problem in an utterly thorough and searing way. The passage below is long, but powerful and I think it provides the necessary weight to this particular issue.

“But I’ve still better things about children. I’ve collected a great, great deal about Russian children, Alyosha. There was a little girl of five who was hated by her father and mother, ‘most worthy and respectable people, of good education and breeding.’ You see, I must repeat again, it is a peculiar characteristic of many people, this love of torturing children, and children only. To all other types of humanity these torturers behave mildly and benevolently, like cultivated and humane Europeans; but they are very fond of tormenting children, even fond of children themselves in that sense. It’s just their defenselessness that tempts the tormentor, just the angelic confidence of the child who has no refuge and no appeal, that sets his vile blood on fire. In every man, of course, a demon lies hidden — the demon of rage, the demon of lustful heat at the screams of the tortured victim, the demon of lawlessness let off the chain, the demon of diseases that follow on vice, gout, kidney disease, and so on.

“This poor child of five was subjected to every possible torture by those cultivated parents. They beat her, thrashed her, kicked her for no reason till her body was one bruise. Then, they went to greater refinements of cruelty — shut her up all night in the cold and frost in a privy, and because she didn’t ask to be taken up at night (as though a child of five sleeping its angelic, sound sleep could be trained to wake and ask), they smeared her face and filled her mouth with excrement, and it was her mother, her mother did this. And that mother could sleep, hearing the poor child’s groans! Can you understand why a little creature, who can’t even understand what’s done to her, should beat her little aching heart with her tiny fist in the dark and the cold, and weep her meek unresentful tears to dear, kind God to protect her? Do you understand that, friend and brother, you pious and humble novice? Do you understand why this infamy must be and is permitted? Without it, I am told, man could not have existed on earth, for he could not have known good and evil. Why should he know that diabolical good and evil when it costs so much? Why, the whole world of knowledge is not worth that child’s prayer to dear, kind God’! I say nothing of the sufferings of grown-up people, they have eaten the apple, damn them, and the devil take them all! But these little ones! I am making you suffer, Alyosha, you are not yourself. I’ll leave off if you like.”

“Nevermind. I want to suffer too,” muttered Alyosha.

“One picture, only one more, because it’s so curious, so characteristic, and I have only just read it in some collection of Russian antiquities. I’ve forgotten the name. I must look it up. It was in the darkest days of serfdom at the beginning of the century, and long live the Liberator of the People! There was in those days a general of aristocratic connections, the owner of great estates, one of those men — somewhat exceptional, I believe, even then — who, retiring from the service into a life of leisure, are convinced that they’ve earned absolute power over the lives of their subjects. There were such men then. So our general, settled on his property of two thousand souls, lives in pomp, and domineers over his poor neighbours as though they were dependents and buffoons. He has kennels of hundreds of hounds and nearly a hundred dog-boys — all mounted, and in uniform. One day a serf-boy, a little child of eight, threw a stone in play and hurt the paw of the general’s favourite hound. ‘Why is my favourite dog lame?’ He is told that the boy threw a stone that hurt the dog’s paw. ‘So you did it.’ The general looked the child up and down. ‘Take him.’ He was taken — taken from his mother and kept shut up all night. Early that morning the general comes out on horseback, with the hounds, his dependents, dog-boys, and huntsmen, all mounted around him in full hunting parade. The servants are summoned for their edification, and in front of them all stands the mother of the child. The child is brought from the lock-up. It’s a gloomy, cold, foggy, autumn day, a capital day for hunting. The general orders the child to be undressed; the child is stripped naked. He shivers, numb with terror, not daring to cry…. ‘Make him run,’ commands the general. ‘Run! run!’ shout the dog-boys. The boy runs…. ‘At him!’ yells the general, and he sets the whole pack of hounds on the child. The hounds catch him, and tear him to pieces before his mother’s eyes!… I believe the general was afterwards declared incapable of administering his estates. Well — what did he deserve? To be shot? To be shot for the satisfaction of our moral feelings? Speak, Alyosha!

“To be shot,” murmured Alyosha, lifting his eyes to Ivan with a pale, twisted smile.

“Bravo!” cried Ivan delighted. “If even you say so… You’re a pretty monk! So there is a little devil sitting in your heart, Alyosha Karamazov!”

“What I said was absurd, but-“

“That’s just the point, that ‘but’!” cried Ivan. “Let me tell you, novice, that the absurd is only too necessary on earth. The world stands on absurdities, and perhaps nothing would have come to pass in it without them. We know what we know!”

“What do you know?”

“I understand nothing,” Ivan went on, as though in delirium. “I don’t want to understand anything now. I want to stick to the fact. I made up my mind long ago not to understand. If I try to understand anything, I shall be false to the fact, and I have determined to stick to the fact.”

“Why are you trying me?” Alyosha cried, with sudden distress. “Will you say what you mean at last?”

“Of course, I will; that’s what I’ve been leading up to. You are dear to me, I don’t want to let you go, and I won’t give you up to your Zossima.”

Ivan for a minute was silent, his face became all at once very sad.

“Listen! I took the case of children only to make my case clearer. Of the other tears of humanity with which the earth is soaked from its crust to its centre, I will say nothing. I have narrowed my subject on purpose. I am a bug, and I recognise in all humility that I cannot understand why the world is arranged as it is. Men are themselves to blame, I suppose; they were given paradise, they wanted freedom, and stole fire from heaven, though they knew they would become unhappy, so there is no need to pity them. With my pitiful, earthly, Euclidian understanding, all I know is that there is suffering and that there are none guilty; that cause follows effect, simply and directly; that everything flows and finds its level — but that’s only Euclidian nonsense, I know that, and I can’t consent to live by it! What comfort is it to me that there are none guilty and that cause follows effect simply and directly, and that I know it? — I must have justice, or I will destroy myself. And not justice in some remote infinite time and space, but here on earth, and that I could see myself. I have believed in it. I want to see it, and if I am dead by then, let me rise again, for if it all happens without me, it will be too unfair. Surely I haven’t suffered simply that I, my crimes and my sufferings, may manure the soil of the future harmony for somebody else. I want to see with my own eyes the hind lie down with the lion and the victim rise up and embrace his murderer. I want to be there when everyone suddenly understands what it has all been for. All the religions of the world are built on this longing, and I am a believer. But then there are the children, and what am I to do about them? That’s a question I can’t answer. For the hundredth time I repeat, there are numbers of questions, but I’ve only taken the children, because in their case what I mean is so unanswerably clear. Listen! If all must suffer to pay for the eternal harmony, what have children to do with it, tell me, please? It’s beyond all comprehension why they should suffer, and why they should pay for the harmony. Why should they, too, furnish material to enrich the soil for the harmony of the future? I understand solidarity in sin among men. I understand solidarity in retribution, too; but there can be no such solidarity with children. And if it is really true that they must share responsibility for all their fathers’ crimes, such a truth is not of this world and is beyond my comprehension. Some jester will say, perhaps, that the child would have grown up and have sinned, but you see he didn’t grow up, he was torn to pieces by the dogs, at eight years old. Oh, Alyosha, I am not blaspheming! I understand, of course, what an upheaval of the universe it will be when everything in heaven and earth blends in one hymn of praise and everything that lives and has lived cries aloud: ‘Thou art just, O Lord, for Thy ways are revealed.’ When the mother embraces the fiend who threw her child to the dogs, and all three cry aloud with tears, ‘Thou art just, O Lord!’ then, of course, the crown of knowledge will be reached and all will be made clear. But what pulls me up here is that I can’t accept that harmony. And while I am on earth, I make haste to take my own measures. You see, Alyosha, perhaps it really may happen that if I live to that moment, or rise again to see it, I, too, perhaps, may cry aloud with the rest, looking at the mother embracing the child’s torturer, ‘Thou art just, O Lord!’ but I don’t want to cry aloud then. While there is still time, I hasten to protect myself, and so I renounce the higher harmony altogether. It’s not worth the tears of that one tortured child who beat itself on the breast with its little fist and prayed in its stinking outhouse, with its unexpiated tears to ‘dear, kind God’! It’s not worth it, because those tears are unatoned for. They must be atoned for, or there can be no harmony. But how? How are you going to atone for them? Is it possible? By their being avenged? But what do I care for avenging them? What do I care for a hell for oppressors? What good can hell do, since those children have already been tortured? And what becomes of harmony, if there is hell? I want to forgive. I want to embrace. I don’t want more suffering. And if the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price. I don’t want the mother to embrace the oppressor who threw her son to the dogs! She dare not forgive him! Let her forgive him for herself, if she will, let her forgive the torturer for the immeasurable suffering of her mother’s heart. But the sufferings of her tortured child she has no right to forgive; she dare not forgive the torturer, even if the child were to forgive him! And if that is so, if they dare not forgive, what becomes of harmony? Is there in the whole world a being who would have the right to forgive and could forgive? I don’t want harmony. From love for humanity I don’t want it. I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering. I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong. Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it’s beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket.”

“That’s rebellion,” murmered Alyosha, looking down.

“Rebellion? I am sorry you call it that,” said Ivan earnestly. “One can hardly live in rebellion, and I want to live. Tell me yourself, I challenge your answer. Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature — that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance — and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth.”

“No, I wouldn’t consent,” said Alyosha softly.[2]

When I was a freshman in college taking my first philosophy course, this passage from The Brothers Karamazov was our reading assignment one day in class. The assignment was to read that passage, and then write a two paragraph response to this question: If you were a Christian, how would you respond to Ivan’s last question? I remember sitting there for 10 minutes, not having a clue how I could respond. First of all, I had never read or heard the problem of evil presented so powerfully, and the weight of what was being said was hitting me. Secondly, I couldn’t see a way around Alyosha’s response, but I knew it was the ‘wrong’ answer for a Christian. So I sat and didn’t write anything for awhile.

How would you respond? How do you answer someone who has been through, or is going through, incredible suffering and is asking why a good God would allow this? What do you feel if, like John Piper had to do, you walk up to a man sitting in the street looking at the tarp-covered body of his daughter who just slipped by him and into a street and was instantly killed, and he is just sitting there, staring blankly saying “I didn’t mean to. I didn’t mean to.”[3] Obviously you feel brokenhearted for him, but how do explain this reality in light of what we believe about God?

One of the more popular responses to the problem of evil among theists, is to turn the question back on those asking, and ask them how they even justify having a category for ‘evil’ apart a moral code established by the character of God. So the acknowledgement of evil becomes a problem for the atheist, not the believer. This is tricky of us, but of course it doesn’t actually address the problem.

The most popular response is the introduction of free will, and the scaling back of God’s sovereignty, which gives us the opportunity to say “God gave us the choice of whether there would be evil, and we chose evil. He created the potential for evil when he created being with free will, and that decision was best because otherwise we would have been robots. So he is not responsible for evil, he is simply responsible for giving us free will, and we bring the evil on ourselves.” I think this answer introduces an aspect of the correct answer (our responsibility in all this) but I think it fails on a couple levels. 1) Part of omnipotence is omniscience, so God knew what we were going to choose, knew the evil that was going to result, and created us anyway. So evil and suffering have always been in the plan of God. Ivan understood this, and his question to Alyosha reflects that. Unless omnipotence and omniscience are removed from the equation, introducing free will is only part of the answer. 2) In our efforts to defend God against the charge that He directly created evil, we need to be careful we don’t make him into a God of our own choosing. What I mean is, denying God’s omniscience or omnipotence is incompatible with Scripture, and while it would be convenient to say that God elected to curtail his own sovereignty in order to give us “genuine” freedom (which, again, is noble in its attempt to defend God), it simply isn’t an idea found in Scripture and creates all sorts of problems. Not the least of which would be that freedom of the type that releases us from the sovereign control of God’s plan would be simply trading in God’s sovereignty for the slavery to our own sin and the random chance of circumstances. If your perspective is that God’s sovereignty interferes with our freedom, then God would have to remove Himself from our lives for us to be truly free. This isn’t a path we want to go down.

So I think that the free will argument hits on part of the answer, but it’s typical formulation creates more problems and ultimately isn’t compatible with the God of the Bible. Another way of answering Ivan would be to dismiss the idea of evil as a positive reality at all, and say that evil is simply deprivation of good. Like darkness is simply an absence of light, so evil is absence of the good. In order for God to create anything, it would have to be other than himself, and the separateness from Him would necessarily create a deprivation of His complete goodness. So evil is not a problem for Christianity, it is a logical necessity based on the character of God and the nature of reality. Despite the appeal of this type of argument on paper, it is hard to translate in real life. Is the lord who set his dogs on the serf boy simply experiencing the natural lack that comes with his separation from the good, which is God? Or is he willfully exercising a positively evil will that counts his own amusement and petty, prideful vengeance as more important than the life of a small boy? The beauty of Dostoyevsky is his refusal to let us off the hook with an answer that doesn’t address the horror of sin. Evil isn’t (only) the deprivation of good. It is the corruption, and the willful destruction of good.

Another argument that uses the idea that evil is a logical necessity would be the Best Possible World argument. I won’t embarrass myself with much of a discussion of this argument in case Joe Anderson happens to read this. The basic idea is that because of the fact that God is all powerful and benevolent we know that he has created the best of all possible worlds, and so any sin or ‘evil’ contributes to this best possible world. This sort of thinking is exactly what Ivan was getting at with his question at the end of the passage I cited. “Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last” Imagine, in other words, you are creating a reality that ultimately is greatest thing imaginable. Because no one argues it’s best right now…no one tries to justify the problem of evil by saying “Evil, what is that? You are making up a problem that doesn’t exist.”[4] Always we are pointing to the bigger picture. The tapestry being woven by God whose beauty is dependent on the different colors of its threads; sorrow and joy, fall and redemption, sin and forgiveness, wrath and mercy, heaven and hell. All working towards a glorious conclusion where God’s ways are revealed and harmony is achieved. But Ivan’s question nags. Is it worth it? Is Alyosha simply wrong? How do we reconcile what the Bible says about God’s character, with His choice for the foundation of His glory to be built on a world full of suffering?

This is what I wrestled through that day in class. I scrambled for a reasonable Christian answer and was coming up empty. A minute or so before the class was going to end and I had to turn in a two paragraph answer, I thought about the most basic Christian answer to everything. Jesus. I immediately began writing. It wasn’t well written, and it wasn’t two paragraphs. I didn’t have time and I’m not that good a writer. But I remember what I said.

I could never answer Ivan’s question, because I am not God and cannot see the whole picture. However, I know that the God who chose to create a world in which evil and suffering exists is also the God that sent his own Son to take the worst of that evil on himself, to be tortured himself, to be ravaged himself, so we don’t have to experience the full effects of our sin and we can trust God for what we don’t understand.[5]                        

At home that night I didn’t sleep. It is the only night I can ever remember staying up all night in bed (not working or studying) and not sleeping. I knew my answer was partially right. I was just struggling to believe it. The problem of evil is the most difficult problem for Christianity because it is unanswerable. Only God knows and understands why evil is necessary. We know parts of the answer. We know that we can trust him because he is sovereign and he demonstrated His commitment to the destruction of evil at the expense of His own Son. We know we can’t approach the question as victims because we choose evil ourselves, and He never has. We know that God did not spare His own Son from the effects of evil, and so accusations of injustice are foolish.  

So although we can’t answer the question fully, we can answer it confidently. The funny thing about that class assignment was that the passage ended right before Dostoyevsky gave an answer. Very tricky of the Professor. Here is the part directly after our previous passage ended.

“And can you admit the idea that men for whom you are building it would agree to accept their happiness on the foundation of the unexpiated blood of a little victim? And accepting it would remain happy for ever?”

“No, I can’t admit it. Brother,” said Alyosha suddenly, with flashing eyes, “you said just now, is there a being in the whole world who would have the right to forgive and could forgive? But there is a Being and He can forgive everything, all and for all, because He gave His innocent blood for all and everything. You have forgotten Him, and on Him is built the edifice, and it is to Him they cry aloud, ‘Thou art just, O Lord, for Thy ways are revealed!’

The next time you encounter someone who is struggling with the problem of evil, whether they are bitterly attacking your beliefs in a blog forum[6], or brokenheartedly questioning goodness of God at the hospital while a loved one dies…you may not have all the answers…but you have the only one that you, or anyone you ever meet will ever need. His name is Jesus.

 

 

 


[1] Obviously this whole section would need to be expanded if I was seriously trying to establish in this post why I think the problem of evil is the biggest problem. I would need to show how prevalent the argument has been historically (it’s all over the place). I would need to more thoroughly show why the existence of God is not a big problem philosophically. I would need to actually defend my statement that evolution isn’t really a big problem etc, etc. Suffice it to say I think I could defend this position if I needed to. Let me know if I need to.

[4] Well…idiots do that. We are talking about reasonable folks.

[5] My professor gave me back my sheet of paper the next class with a comment that it was the best Christian response he had ever gotten. I was very proud. Of course, I decided to major in Philosophy after that class…and never got that sort of compliment again.  

[6] Here is the tie-in to the comment I made at the beginning of the article. Though usually irrelevant to the actual topic at hand, the reason people throw out comments attacking the character of the Christian God so often is because they think that Christians don’t realize that the Bible portrays God as being extremely severe at times. And he is. The part that escapes them is that the Bible never shies away from that fact, because sin always deserves a severe and thoroughly wrathful response from God. The surprising thing shouldn’t be that God occasionally exercised judgment against rebellious people. The surprising thing should be that he, with great patience, endured the insolence of man and stood by His plan of redemption.  

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Written by Jake Phillips

July 5, 2011 at 1:40 pm

30 Responses

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  1. Excellent. Loved the ending.

    Jake Phillips

    July 5, 2011 at 2:09 pm

  2. I am cying…this was amazing.

    Janelle Phillips

    July 5, 2011 at 3:32 pm

  3. *crying…apparently I can’t spell when I do that 🙂

    Janelle Phillips

    July 5, 2011 at 3:33 pm

  4. haha thanks

    Joey

    July 5, 2011 at 3:43 pm

  5. Great stuff, Joey, and thank you, Josh, for posting it to Facebook so I could find it. 🙂

    If a person asks this question objectively (they are not experiencing suffering/pain/trauma) the “answer” can be offered. If asked subjectively (I have cancer/my close — died/my leg needs to be amputated) then the answer is cold and non-caring. The first is asking a real question; the second is really asking for comfort and the answer simply isn’t comforting while in the midst of pain.

    My objective, non-comforting answer is: We are in the need of a Savior because left to our own we are evil–we pursue our own agenda at the expense of others. And yet, many of us don’t really. Civilization and society have put governors on our personal evil. We are “good” because to not be “good” will deprive us of what we want. And so such evil actors as the dog master and the inhuman (yet really human) parents, should remind us of what we are truly capable of without a Savior.

    Chief response to evangalization is “oh, I’m not THAT bad.” And yet we are human, and what other humans do we are each capable of. “Oh, I could never be a Hitler!” Yet thousands of his soldier carried out his orders. I believe it takes a move of the Holy Spirit to make me realize I am, indeed, one of them, no matter how society has restricted me. Evil exists to demonstrate our need for our Savior.

    The subjective answer to someone in dire straits is, “because it’s a fallen world, but our Savior has suffered as you are and longs for you to turn to His embrace.”

    “Why do bad things happen to good people?” is a corollary; the answer, “there are no good people” in that the evil visited upon us is less than we deserve. Hard to credit in case of children, but it must be so. Hell is what we deserve apart from Christ. If it were undeserved, then God would be evil, which we He is not.

    Rob Swanson

    July 5, 2011 at 3:54 pm

  6. Rob,

    I appreciate your thoughts, thanks for contributing…understanding what folks are really asking is very important. The most difficult folks to answer are the ones where trauma has led beyond simply seeking comfort to seriously questioning the goodness of God.

    Joey

    July 5, 2011 at 4:02 pm

  7. CS Lewis and others have offered up the innate desire to do good as a proof of God. Good and evil, where does it come from? These unknowables are often attributed to supernatural origns, just as many things once were in our observable reality, now explainable. The origin of God as a concept can simply be seen as 1) a result of human frailty, the unanswerable questions, and 2) the overwhelming awe of ourselves… believing we are extraordinary – and we certainly are, as far as we can see.

    For item #1, the problem is that humans can not accept the concept of infinity, infinite time, space, etc… We know no alternative to the assumption that everything must have had a starting point.

    For item #2, we are simply a very new species on this earth and, if we do not become extinct within a few million years (which is very possible), our technologies will evolve and our species will evolve so that we will see ourselves in a more accurate context and be much less grandiose in the belief of our exceptionalism.

    Answers of our origins and of the existence of life elsewhere is only a matter of time. We are still in the Dark Ages. Heck, we’ve barely been flying 100 yrs. Think about it.

    Religion was invented by mystics of ancient times. It fulfills a human need. In the future, I hope humanity will fulfill these needs by a more unifying philosophy, where the divisiveness of different sects will be left behind.

    Ellen

    July 5, 2011 at 6:28 pm

  8. Or… logic dictates that there must be an instigator and from first conception man has been aware of God’s existence. Certainly many religions are man-made, rough, crude and, by our lights, ridiculous. But man trying to explain God is severely limited. Judeo/Christian understanding is God revealing Himself to us. Yes, there is some limitation still, in that we don’t grasp all that well, hence you see the progression of early man to modern man in civilization and intellect. Some will use that civil/intellectual growth as a reason to puff up and consider themselves too wise to need/look/accept that God is much more grand and detailed entity than first understood.

    No matter how well we comprehend the universe, God has invited many of us to see that He is bigger and more impressive. That early crude worship was not in error, it was simply undeveloped. Any evolution as a species will be marked by greater understanding of God, not rejection of Him.

    Rob Swanson

    July 5, 2011 at 7:50 pm

    • “No matter how well we comprehend the universe, God has invited many of us to see that He is bigger and more impressive. That early crude worship was not in error, it was simply undeveloped. Any evolution as a species will be marked by greater understanding of God, not rejection of Him.”

      Rob,
      I don’t agree with the last part of this statement. You get it right when you say “Judeo/Christian understanding is God revealing Himself to us.” but then seem to turn it around to something else in that last paragraph.
      From a Christian perspective, we have a greater understanding of God due to his revelation of Himself (through His son and Spirit) and through His revelation of His mysteries. (See Romans 11 and 16). It has nothing to do with our evolution as a species but everything to do with His timing of revelation.

      Chris S

      July 6, 2011 at 2:36 pm

  9. I don’t think Rob was meaning evolution in the Darwinian sense. I think I know what he was driving at but will give him an opportunity to respond first 🙂

    Joey

    July 6, 2011 at 2:52 pm

  10. Joey,

    A few comments, while the article was interesting and well written, I think there are a few pieces I would challenge. You said

    “If there is nothing eternal, there is no logical explanation as to why anything would exist. There has to be an eternal un-caused cause”

    That is type of statement is known in logic as an argumentum ad ignorantiam or appeal to ignorance. You assume that since you cannot explain existence without referring to an “eternal” that therefore it must be a correct assumption that the eternal exists…but their is actually no support in favor of your proposition.

    Next, you say that,

    “Once you establish the existence of a self-sufficient, eternal Being, the atheists and agnostics have already lost.”

    While that may be true, that existence has never been established.

    Lastly,

    “Part of omnipotence is omniscience, so God knew what we were going to choose, knew the evil that was going to result, and created us anyway. So evil and suffering have always been in the plan of God.”

    I think there is a better way to get where you are trying to go. Knowing what someone will do, doesn’t make me guilty of their crime when they choose to do it. If I give you a gun for your birthday…but somehow, I know for certain that you will use that gun to kill an innocent person of your own, absolutely free will, do I share your guilt? If you say yes, then ask yourself, what if, knowing what you were going to do, I withheld the gun from you…better? Are you sure, because I think then God gets accused of manipulating our actions and trying to, via circumstances, to control what we choose…there goes free will.

    A better argument against God, would be that we have no free will, not as we understand it. A thought is nothing more then the result of a chemical/electrical reaction in our brains. We cannot control those chemical/electrical events, as they are the cause of each thought…you cannot have a thought until AFTER a chemical/electrical reaction takes place (that’s why dead people don’t think!). Therefore ALL of our actions are the DIRECT result of how God put us together in the first place…he becomes the ultimate source of evil.

    Karlton G. kemerait

    July 6, 2011 at 3:51 pm

  11. Pretty good piece. Of course, the best possible world theodicy is the right answer. But it is not a simple answer. Since God is perfect, this MUST be the best possible world. However, JUST saying evil is required to make this the best possible world doesn’t satisfy and seems unbelievable. And it doesn’t make it much more believable or consoling when when one adds that in this best possible world every evil action is punished and every evil suffered is either punishment or will be paid back with interest (to the point that the sufferer would choose the suffering with the reward). But when one sees that the sufferer gets to know God as her comforter in the next life, then we have such a great consolation.

    While this may console the believer, it does nothing to make Christianity as a whole look probable. Faith is a gift from God given as the gospel is preached.

    (as an aside, one hopes that evil is not logically necessary in the best possible world defense. There are possible worlds that have no evil; they are just not as good as this world)

    Joseph Anderson

    July 6, 2011 at 4:07 pm

  12. To not believe in some greater guiding power in this universe would be arrogant. There is undoubtedly far more than we are aware of. The Universe may likely be infinite, our reach and understanding of the vastness and forces involved are infinitesimally tiny and limited.

    To believe that such a superior power that guides our universe has it’s roots in a human conceived ‘god’ as chronicled during the Dark Ages by ancient men (in numerous differing and similar accounts) is truly infantile, arrogant, and the product of culture and dogmatism.

    It reminds me of that Star Trek movie… where Capt’n Kirk reaches “God’ and everyone seems impressed until “God” says that he needs the Enterprise to spread the Word. Kirk responds… “What does God need with a starship?” Kirk is then attacked by God’s hellfire.

    I ask everyone here the question: what kind of a God demands and requires worship under the penalty of enternal torture and banishment to a ‘lake of fire’? Sounds more like an authoritarian regime bent on recruitment (the Great Commission) and rule by fear and guilt. And we are expected to believe these conditions and commandments “because He loves you.” Jesus/Christ/God, one of many human created gods, but not unique, as his ‘story’ has many nearly exact repetitions of previous religious ‘stories,’ particularly from ancient Egypt.

    People are so invested in this dogma, there is no thinking outside the box, just philosophical exercises to justify what they are invested in.

    In the words of one of the greatest thinkers of all time:

    “The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this. These subtilised interpretations are highly manifold according to their nature and have almost nothing to do with the original text. For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions.”

    — Albert Einstein, Scientist, Letter to Eric Gutkind (1954)

    Ellen

    July 6, 2011 at 6:30 pm

    • I’m not sure what part is childish. Is it the belief that God could communicate to us? Is it the belief that God would communicate with us? Or is it the belief that God had an expectation of how we should act and severe punishments if we didn’t meet that expectation?

      Joseph Anderson

      July 6, 2011 at 6:54 pm

    • Ellen,

      you said that, “To not believe in some greater guiding power in this universe would be arrogant.”.

      I don’t find it arrogant at all, actually I find it humbling to be able to stop where the data stops and simply acknowledge that I don’t have all the answers, but not to speculate on things for which there is no objective support.

      Karlton G. kemerait

      July 6, 2011 at 8:19 pm

      • I agree, but I am saying that any belief in ‘absolute certainty’ of knowledge regarding questions of human origins and existence of ‘God’ is arrogant, at this point. The point at which the data ends becomes a point where assumptions and dogma take over. In my opinion, it is baseless, arrogant and childish. I can’t imagine anything much more arrogant and self-aggrandizing than the belief that we humans are ‘created in the image of God’ and we are central to the entire Universe in our trial to the afterlife to see if we make the grade to get to heaven, or fail to acknowledge our God and worship him sufficiently and pay the penalty of being tortured eternally as punishment. If you step outside … really outside … perhaps a hundred million light years, you can see how ridiculous this becomes.

        That being said, the defense mechanisms of Christians will construct strawmen and claim that I am an atheist in league with the devil… actually, I support Christianity and have attended Episcopal church where it is a center of our community. Most see the value of the church as a force for good and a place to bring the community together. Most at my congregation see the Bible for what it is, a metaphor, not history, not divine, but as an inspirational education and guide that promotes goodness, charity, etc…

        Ellen

        July 6, 2011 at 10:45 pm

  13. Phenomenal article. Very thought provoking.

    Jesse P.

    July 6, 2011 at 7:17 pm

  14. Karlton,

    Thanks for the comments. As usual they are well put. I would ask, in lieu of your position that Aquinas’ first cause argument (so crudely summarized as it was) is argumentum ad ignorantium, is there any position regarding the origins of the universe that does not slip into that category?

    Your last paragraph is why I am not a hard determinist 🙂

    Joey

    July 6, 2011 at 8:00 pm

    • The real question is..is it because you disagree on some rational level with the reasoning or is it, like most, simply because you do not wish to contemplate the repercussions if it is true? 🙂

      I think true honesty requires a person to follow the data where it leads..however disturbing or contrary to what they’d like to believe is true.

      Joey, can you give me an example regarding origins so that I know specifically what you are asking..hate to go down the wrong track 🙂

      Karlton G. kemerait

      July 6, 2011 at 8:17 pm

      • I am referring to any explanation as to the cause of the universe. Big Bang, whatever.

        (I disagree on a ‘rational’ level with hard determinism because it is purely a physical explanation which doesn’t account for the spiritual soul. It would take sometime to go through my entire worldview to get around to my rational defense of all that..which may be another fun post.)

        Joey

        July 6, 2011 at 9:00 pm

  15. Joe,

    Thanks…can you elaborate on your last parenthetical thought? How would evil NOT be logically necessary in best possible world theodicy?

    Joey

    July 6, 2011 at 8:03 pm

    • Well, best possible world theodicies assume that there are more (logically) possible worlds than just this one. I suppose that one could believe that there are no possible worlds in which there are no evils, but that seems unlikely. For instance, it seems that God could have created a world where there were no conscious persons and no change at all. It seems that that world would have no evil. Also, it seems that God could have created a world where there are no natural disasters, where creatures never choose to sin (it may be that there is a world God could make where they freely choose not to sin), and where perhaps creatures are heartier, never having need of pain or suffering. At any rate, Leibniz takes it for granted that there are possible worlds in which there are no evils. If the world is possible, then evils are not logically necessary.

      Now, there may be a problem if God necessarily chooses to create the best possible world. If that is the case, then it really is the only possible world (and hence, every possible world would contain evil). But, surely freedom is a perfection that God would possess. And if that is the case, then his choice, while determined by his nature, is not logically necessitated. This, I think, is what is referred to as moral necessity.

      Joseph Anderson

      July 6, 2011 at 9:59 pm

      • That helps, thanks.

        Joey

        July 7, 2011 at 11:55 am

  16. Ellen,

    I misunderstood…then we pretty much agree. A movement which you might find interesting is Humanistic Judaism. They have basically jettisoned the idea of the supernatural but still maintain the stories, celebrations and traditions as the struggle and achievements of the Jewish people. I think it strikes a lovely balance. Wish all denominations could do that.

    http://www.shj.org/

    Karlton G. kemerait

    July 6, 2011 at 11:27 pm

    • The level of dogma for the ‘true believer’ provides only one way, that is not negotiable. For them, there is only one valid interpretation of God, and for many of them, the mentality is divisive: ‘with us or against us’ … ‘with the Lord or with the devil’ … ‘destined for heaven or for hell’ … etc… a level of absolute certainty where there is no capacity for learning or changing. All differing views are suspect, devalued, even seen as threatening. This fundamentalist viewpoint is beyond logic or reason, despite their best efforts to be open minded. They simply have bought into it, are invested, and refuse to even think they could be wrong. This is the mentality throughout history has caused people to live, die and even kill to defend their beliefs and worldview. The more people they can surround themselves with that believe similarly, the more people they can convert, the more secure they feel. Religious conflict is arguably one of the greatest sources of conflict in human history.

      That being said, whatever works for one person, may not for another. I respect the beliefs of fundamentalists that are not divisive or disparaging to others and feel secure enough in their own beliefs that they do not proselytize and instead, show the quality of their character by the example of their actions.

      Ellen

      July 7, 2011 at 12:48 am

      • Ellen,

        I appreciate that you recognize that we’re not all alike. While I believe evangelism is commanded by God, I certainly understand that other views have epistemological warrant (perhaps even more than my own). We fundamentalists should never forget that we are preaching good news and only preach out of love, continuing to love those who see our message as foolishness (which means not blaming their disbelief on stupidity or uncommon wickedness).

        Joseph Anderson

        July 7, 2011 at 1:14 am

  17. Joey,

    Seems a bit circular to me, you cannot include something spiritual (non-substantiated) in a discussion about determinism. But I’ll wait for the post 🙂

    to your second point, yes, I believe it is actually not that much of a problem. When you talk about the origin of the universe and causality, you have to remember that “time” is a dimension and property of THIS universe. If M-theory is correct, then an infinite number of universe may exist and owe their origins to membranes that exist outside of our space-time continuum. Once you leave the confines of our universe, time ceases to exist, and therefore the entire concept of “causality” is meaningless. Cause and effect only have meaning when you have the concept of time, or at the very least, it turns causality on it’s head, because without time, the effect can precede the cause, the effect can cause the cause, etc. It is only time that give it the orderliness we experience in our universe.

    Our universe may have a beginning and ending, but that does not mean whatever caused it, is bound by the same constraints…ahh the concept of eternity.

    Karlton G. kemerait

    July 6, 2011 at 11:34 pm

    • So you freely admit we don’t really know, but that there are other possibilities (that don’t require a Christian God).

      Joey

      July 7, 2011 at 11:58 am

  18. Well, it looks like I’ve said too much. My comments are now being moderated/deleted?

    Testing 1,2, 3….

    Ellen

    July 7, 2011 at 5:52 pm

  19. Ellen,

    We haven’t deleted anything, and moderation isn’t even enabled. Jesse is getting ready to make a couple changes to the site…hopefully that didn’t cause you to lose anything.

    Joey

    July 7, 2011 at 6:11 pm


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