Monthly Archives: May 2015

The Real “Problem of Evil” is Not How to Understand it but How to Escape it!

In this fortieth essay in my series on “Is Christianity True?” we continue to consider the challenge to Christian belief that arises from our experience of evil.  In the three previous essays devoted to this challenge, I claimed that the argument from evil to atheism fails rather dramatically and that what we call evil is disorder and conflict rather than an actual concrete thing or force. Today I want to build on this foundation.

The two main contemporary forms of the argument from evil are the “logical argument” and the “evidential argument.” The logical argument contends that the classical divine attributes of omnipotence, perfect goodness and omniscience are logically at odds with the proposition that evil exists. If God were omnipotent, God could prevent all evil. If God were perfectly good, God would want to prevent all evil. And if God were omniscient, God would know every instance of evil and how to prevent it. But evil exists. Therefore God is either omnipotent but not perfectly good or perfectly good but not omnipotent.

Such Christian philosophers as Alvin Plantinga have argued that the logical argument is not as logically impassable as it seems to be. Even if God could prevent all evil, he could have a morally sufficient reason for allowing some evil. Suppose that a world containing free beings, even if those beings can do evil as well as good, is a greater good than a world without instances of evil but also without freedom. And suppose further that God cannot create this better world without allowing the possibility for evil to occur, since a creature’s act cannot be both free and determined at the same time. Hence asserting the three classical attributes is not logically inconsistent with the admission that evil occurs.

The evidential argument from evil gives up the idea of a logical contradiction between the three classical attributes and the admission that evil occurs. Admitting that God might have a good reason for allowing some evil, the advocates of the evidential argument contend that there is too much horrendous evil  in the world for any greater good to justify God for allowing it. In my view this argument is much harder to make and refute. The reason is simple: it attempts to quantify how much evil could justify any possible good outcome. We have no perspective from which to make this judgment and no scale on which to weigh present evil against future good. The debate goes nowhere and turns quickly into an appeal to emotion and an attack on the character of the believer.

It is important to note that neither of these arguments (logical or evidential), even if you accept them, concludes to atheism. They merely point to an alleged contradiction or difficulty in the classical doctrine of God. And it should be obvious that our inability to articulate a perfectly coherent doctrine of God should not count as strong evidence for the nonexistence of God. Such a demand would be considered ridiculous in almost any other area of science or philosophy. If you have other compelling reasons for believing in God or affirming the classical doctrine of God, the challenge of the problem of evil need not defeat this belief even if you cannot resolve the difficulties completely.

For Christianity, the present tension created by sin, suffering and death cannot be resolved by rational arguments that attempt to balance accounts between good and evil. The resolution will occur in the future resurrection and redemption of creation and is grasped in the present only by faith in God through Jesus Christ. The Bible gives no rigorous rational account of the origin of evil or why God allows it. True, sin, suffering and death are roughly associated with freedom (Gen 3 and Rom 5:12-21), and sometimes suffering is said to produce good things in the long run (Rom 5:1-5; Heb 12:7-11; and James 1:2-4). But for the most part, New Testament authors take our existential situation for granted and focus on the salvation achieved by Jesus Christ in the cross and resurrection, they encourage living in the present in the faith, hope and love given by the Holy Spirit and they look to the future resurrection and judgment to correct all wrongs and make all things new.

For Christian theology, the most pressing problem of evil is not the disturbing question of why God allows suffering. It is existential fact that we are sinners, unable to clear our consciences or change our behavior, and that we are dying along with the whole creation. The cross is the ground and hope for forgiveness and deliverance from sin, and the resurrection is the ground and hope for death’s defeat and life’s eternal triumph. When the real problem of evil is finally dealt with the question of why God allowed suffering will be forgotten.

What Would Saint Peter Say to Your Church? A Sermon on 1 Peter 2:1-6


I’ve always loved 1 Peter. In graduate school I took a semester-long course devoted to it; and I’d like to take another!  Except for the names, places and vocabulary it could have been written to this congregation yesterday. The world Peter describes is our world, and the problems he addresses are our problems. And his answers are still the right ones for our time.

In chapter 5, Peter calls himself an elder and addresses the elders among his readers. He tells them to “shepherd” the flock—which of course means to protect, teach and guide them. I was ordained an elder in the spring of 1995; so it’s been twenty years. And this experience shapes the way I read 1 Peter. When I read it I hear the voice of a shepherd. And it is with this in mind that I want to let Peter, the elder, the shepherd, speak to you today.

Before we examine chapter 2:1-6, we need to get before us the big picture of Peter’s message in this letter. So, I want to take on his voice to say what he might say if he were with us today:

What Peter Might Say

“Remember what you were before God called you into this new life! Don’t forget how you thought and lived. Like most people, you lived an empty life. You spent your energy in a futile search for happiness, grasping first here, then there, at things that have no real value. Your heart moved back and forth between happy sadness and sad happiness, never settling in one contented place. Orphans in the world, you searched for home but could not find it.

“Don’t forget that most people are still there, lost among idols and illusions. Their hearts are empty and restless. They boast, curse and lie. Envy, malice and greed drive them toward self-destructive behavior. They live for pleasure and will do anything for excitement. They compete with each other over looks and clothes and possessions and worldly accomplishments.  They envy those who have more and look down on those who have less. They measure everything by appearances. They think, judge and value only on a worldly scale. They barely believe in God and have no real awareness of him.

“But God delivered you from this empty life. You heard the message of Jesus Christ and believed it. You learned the truth about God; you were given a new start. It was like being born again! Jesus taught you God’s true character and will. Now you live in hope and joy. You have meaning, direction and energy in your life. No longer orphans and homeless, you have God for your father and Jesus Christ as your brother. You have many mothers and brothers and sisters.

“You learned a new way of living, not in greed, envy, competition and hostility but in contentment and sincere love; not in lust and drunkenness but in self-control and wisdom. God made you a new people and gave you a special mission: to be a living temple in dying world, to serve as holy priests in an unholy culture. You are a light in darkness, a warm place in a cold world, a harbor in the storm, hope in a sea of despair, clarity for a confused culture and a shelter of kindness in an uncaring world.

“Jesus Christ changed you so much that you feel like foreigners and exiles in your own land. You don’t wear different clothes, eat different food or speak a different language. You are not emigrants or displaced people. You would be foreigners and exiles in any land and among any people. You don’t think or judge or treated people like others do. You don’t live for what they chase after. Your bodies are temples to be used in God’s service and to his glory. You stand out in the eyes of the world because of the good things you do and especially because of the evil you refused to do. And in this you shame others and evoke their hostility.

“Yes, they think you’re strange when you refuse to join them in their drunken orgies, idolatrous ceremonies and shady business deals. You spend so much time together, love each other so much and are so free from the affairs of the world that your neighbors accuse you of being unpatriotic, inhuman and clannish. Don’t be surprised by this. Don’t be intimidated, and don’t retaliate. God has not abandoned you. Remember Jesus. The world rejected him for the same reason it rejects you. Know that the more you resemble him, the more the world will hate you. Remember that when he was cursed he blessed. He remained faithful despite all opposition. So, place yourselves into the hands of your faithful creator and continue to follow Jesus.”

I think that is what Peter might say to us. Notice how he draws bright, clear lines between the way of the world and the way of Jesus Christ, between God’s people and the people of world, between the way the world lives and the way Christians should live. Peter doesn’t mince words; he is not diplomatic or politically correct. For Peter, there is, there should be, and there always will be a stark difference between serious disciples of Jesus and those who follow the normal pattern of the world. And Peter’s one-word description of this difference is “holiness.”

I hope we will ask ourselves throughout this series on 1 Peter this question: “What would Peter say to us? Would he see a clear distinction between us and the world—or would he see a boundary fuzzy and broad? Would he commend us for carrying out our mission to be God’s holy people, holy priests who offer spiritual sacrifices to God? Would he see us doing our job of witnessing to the reality and true character of God?”

Peter is an elder, a shepherd. He’s not trying to please us. He is trying to protect us, to save us from spiritual danger and heartache. So, let’s take him seriously.

Now that we have before us the overall message of 1 Peter, let’s look a bit closer at the section chosen for today: 2:1-6.

1 Peter 2:1-6

“Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind. Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.

As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him— you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For in Scripture it says:

“See, I lay a stone in Zion,     a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him     will never be put to shame.”

General Observation: Activity

Notice the activity in these words, everything is in movement: Ridding, craving, growing, tasting, moving toward, building and offering. Everything is living and moving and active. Peter sees God at work in the world and among his people, and he urges us to keep alert and active.

I used to play tennis. When you’re waiting for your opponent to serve, you get on your toes, ready to react quickly. You don’t want to get caught flatfooted or back on your heels. As an experienced shepherd, Peter knows you’ve got to be ready for whatever comes your way.

1 Peter 2:1: Things to Leave Behind

“Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind.”

He begins the sentence with the word “therefore,” which means Peter is drawing a conclusion from what he said previously. When you look back at the preceding verses in 1:22-25 you see why:

1 Peter 1:22-25

22 Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart. 23 For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. 24 For,

“All people are like grass,     and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, 25     but the word of the Lord endures forever.”

And this is the word that was preached to you.

We’ve been born again by the word of God. Peter doesn’t think of this word as dead letters on a page or abstract ideas; it is alive because it is God’s active presence, full of his Spirit. The word of God can change you at the center of your being. Peter is speaking here of word of the gospel, which communicates the name, character and living reality of Jesus Christ into our hearts. No wonder Peter says, “Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind.” The living truth of Jesus teaches us to love each other deeply from the heart. There is no place for these things in a heart where Jesus lives.

And the more you live like this, the more you will feel like a foreigner and exile in your own land.

1 Peter 2:2-3: Growing in Salvation

Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.”

In verses 2-3 Peter builds on the metaphor of a new birth, which he used in the previous chapter. To thrive newborn babies need the right food. Being born is just the beginning. They need to grow up. The same pattern holds for the new life we have in Christ. It’s not enough just to be born again of the word of God. It’s not enough just to stay alive. We need to grow. And to grow spiritually we need the right spiritual food. As you can see in verse 3, the Lord himself is that spiritual food. And he is made real to us by the “word of God.”

Newborns crave milk. They demand it! Are we hungry for God’s word? Do we seek God and long for his presence? Do we beg God for his Spirit and yearn for fellowship with Jesus? This is the food we need to grow in the spiritual sense.

What does it mean to become spiritually mature, to grown up in salvation? The answer is obvious: it means to become like Jesus, to think with his mind and feel with his heart and serve with his hands. It means to be so changed that you pray like Jesus, love like Jesus and keep faith like Jesus. It means to rid yourself of the vices that Peter condemns and develop the virtues he praises.

And the more you do this, the more you will feel like a foreigner and exile in your own land.

1 Peter 2:4-5: Spiritual House, Holy Priesthood and Spiritual Sacrifices

The next verses continue the thought but change the metaphor from growing up to being built into a temple. Both however are processes of becoming.

As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him— you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

We are like the stones of which a temple is built, with Jesus as the cornerstone. But unlike ordinary stones, we are not passive in this process; we “come to him,” we move toward this living stone, who is Jesus Christ. We believe in him and put ourselves at his disposal. And he makes something of us. Peter really presses this metaphor.

Jesus is not only the living cornerstone but also the architect and the builder of this temple. We are living stones in this living temple and the priests who serve in this temple, offering spiritual sacrifices pleasing to God. Temples are holy places, where God lives and people come to meet him. But in this case we do not go to the holy house of God to have a priest offer our sacrifice for us; we are the holy house of God, we are the priests and we are the sacrifices.

A Spiritual House or Temple

Notice what is being built here: the whole is greater than its parts. Something new comes into being when the living stones are incorporated into the building. The building itself is alive. One organic molecule doesn’t make a cell, and one cell doesn’t make a living human being. One stone doesn’t make a temple, and one person doesn’t make a people. Nor does pile of stones make a house or crowd of individuals make a people.

The word “Christianity” can be a misleading term. It’s not found in the New Testament. A Christian is a real living being, a believer and a disciple. But Christianity sounds like a philosophy that could be adopted, adapted and more or less practiced by a lone individual; it could be mistaken for an ideology for culture or a therapy to help us through life.

No, that is not what it is. Christianity is always concretely embodied in a Christian, and a Christian cannot exist except in the city of God, in the kingdom of God, in a people. Christianity—if we have to use this abstract term—is a comprehensive way of life that cannot be lived except in the community created by the Word and Spirit of God.

The Rejected Stone

Notice the idea set off by dashes in verse 4, the rejected stone. It may look like an afterthought in this context, but it fits right into Peter’s overall theme that we are “foreigners and Exiles” in the world, just like Jesus was. Peter says to his readers, “Jesus was rejected by his contemporaries but he was chosen and precious to God. In the same way, you are rejected by your contemporaries but are loved and chosen by God. Don’t be surprised that you are disliked because you are a Christian, a serious disciple of Jesus. Be encouraged because this is a sign that you are chosen by God.”

Naturally, we want to please people. We want them to like us. And when people reject us it is natural to ask ourselves, “What am I doing wrong?” But Peter says, “People’s rejection of Jesus did not prove the there was something wrong with him; instead it revealed their corruption. In the same way, if people don’t like you because you follow Jesus don’t be discouraged; count it an opportunity to identify with Jesus and enter empathetically into his experience.

Very few of our neighbors would speak disparagingly of Jesus. They might even admire him. But for most of them “Jesus” is just a name, just a story. The true test of whether someone accepts or rejects Jesus is not whether they admire him but whether they trust their lives to him and follow him wherever he leads.

Holy Priests and Spiritual Sacrifices

Let’s look at one more idea in this text. As holy priests, we have work to do. We are to “offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” What are these spiritual sacrifices?

What is a sacrifice anyway? It’s an act in which we return to God an object of value as an act of devotion. In human relationships such an act is called a gift. In both cases, the particular object that is given up is not the main thing. It symbolizes something deeper: the relationship between giver and the recipient of the gift or worshiper and God.

What is Peter doing by qualifying our sacrifices with the term “spiritual”? In calling our sacrifices “spiritual” Peter contrasts our sacrifices with those made in physical Temples, sacrifices of blood and animal bodies and grain. By calling our gifts to God “spiritual” Peter puts the emphasis on the inner, symbolic meaning of our acts of worship rather than on their external features—the real thing as opposed to its appearance to the senses.

The Greek word translated here as “spiritual” is used in the New Testament to speak of God’s nature. To say that a life or a sacrifice or anything in the world “spiritual” is to say that it is God-like, that it participates in God’s spiritual nature. It is corresponds to the character of God.

Is Worship For God or For Us?

When we hear the term “spiritual sacrifices” we probably think of what goes on in the Sunday morning worship hour. More specifically, we may think of our songs and prayers and, perhaps, our “offering.” Have you ever wondered what worship is for? Is it for God or us? A few months ago Rich Little [our regular preaching minister] played a little video clip in which Victoria Olsteen explains to her church that worship is not for God’s benefit but ours. God is pleased, she says, when we are happy. Worship is for us, to make us feel good. She says:

Realize when we obey God we are not doing it for God.  I mean that’s one way to look at it. We’re doing it for ourselves.  Because God takes pleasure when we’re happy.  That’s the thing that gives him the greatest joy….So I want you to know…just do good for your own self.  Do good because God wants you to be happy.  When you come to church, when you worship him you are not doing it for God really.  You’re doing it for yourself….Amen?

Of course, it’s easy to smile at such a careless and narcissistic statement. But let’s don’t be too hard on her because she’s half right. She’s right that God doesn’t need anything we can give him. So, worship cannot be about making God happy or propping up his ego or making him feel loved or taken seriously. If you think of worship exclusively as doing something for God’s benefit you will end up putting the focus on the external features of things, on getting it right.

And Ms. Olsteen is right that worship is designed for our benefit, in a certain sense. But if we make worship all about us, we will focus exclusively on how worship makes us feel: did I enjoy the songs, were people friendly, was the sermon uplifting, were the prayers well-worded, did the service start on time, did it end on time, and on and on. And, if we make worship all about us, we will begin worshiping worship instead of God, that is, worshiping ourselves instead of God.

By “spiritual” Peter does not mean something moving or beautiful. Of course, he is not saying that the external features and feelings that accompany them are of no importance. But they are external, superficial and momentary. By a “spiritual” sacrifice Peter means the real act that is symbolized by the external act—the God-like act that participates in the spiritual nature of God. So, what is this real act?

Peter doesn’t explain it…and this is because he expects his readers to know what he is talking about. They know about the teaching of Jesus and the example he left us. They know that they should love God above all things and love their neighbors as themselves. They remember Jesus’ words, “Take up your cross and follow me.” They know that Jesus sacrificed his blood and returned his life in obedience to his Father. What is our “spiritual sacrifice,” our spiritual worship? It is the act of giving our lives back to God to do with as he pleases! It’s not something you do only on Sunday mornings or Thursday evenings; it is identical with our whole act of living. What we do and say ritually and symbolically on Sunday is what we should be doing practically and actually every day of the week.

Apart from this act of worship, it does not matter what words you say or what feelings the music stirs in you. So, is Ms. Olsteen wrong that worship should benefit us? No. But spiritual worship benefits us not by generating good feelings in us but by making us into good people. Week after week, year after year, a steady diet of the “spiritual milk” of the word of God, read, sung, prayed, preached, ritually enacted and practiced daily, will help us grow up in our salvation. Worship is not about our momentary happy feelings but about our participation in God’s spiritual mode of life. And this sharing in God’s life creates in us the most enduring, deepest and highest joy.

Concluding Questions

1. I leave you with a series of questions for self-examination Peter the elder might ask us:

2. Am I a serious disciple of Jesus?

3. Do I hunger and thirst for God’s word?

4. Do I feel like a foreigner and an exile in the world? Or do I feel quite at home in a pagan world?

5. Is our church a holy and living temple dedicated to making the true character of God known in the world?

6. Do we live as a community in a radically different way from the social order of the world?

7. Do we really love each other deeply?

8. Am I offering spiritual sacrifices to God or mere words and signs?

9. Do I seek momentary feelings of wellbeing or lasting spiritual transformation.

Note: I preached this sermon at the University Church of Christ, which meets on the campus of Pepperdine University, today, May 24, 2015.

Evil is No Thing!

Last week’s post concluded that however much our experience of evil might challenge belief in an omnipotent, perfectly good and omniscient God, it does not disprove or even challenge the existence of a divine reality as such. There are many views of the divine and its mode of interaction with the world that are perfectly consistent with the existence of evil. The importance of this insight can hardly be overstated, and I will explore its significance in a future post. For now we need to explore the nature of evil in a bit more detail.

Evil as Conflict

In a recent post entitled “When is “Evil” Truly Evil?” I argued that describing an event as “evil” makes sense only if the event transgresses a cosmic plan for the way things are supposed to go. Evil is too strong and emotional a word to be used as a way to say “this is not what I wanted” or “I don’t like this.” In that essay I wanted to show that the concept of evil is evacuated of significance unless the thing we call evil is also “wrong.” Hence the concept of evil entails the concept of wrong.

Today I want to point out another quality of evil, not so much a moral quality (wrongness) as a physical quality. Whatever else one might say about evil, everyone can see that it involves disorder, disharmony or conflict. In a moral evil such as theft or murder the perpetrator abandons adherence to the moral law and enters into conflict with other people’s interests or rights. Vices such as greed, envy and lust arise from inner disorder and generate outer conflict. Such diseases as cancer, heart failure and diabetes begin when the natural integrity and harmony of the body fails and degeneration sets in. I use the word “conflict” to stand for the family of physical qualities mapped by the terms disorder, disharmony, disintegration, antagonism, conflict and other like terms.

What is the origin of conflict? Conflict makes sense only where there is more than one thing. Why is there more than one thing? In the end, there are only two ways to think about the origin of our universe. Either it derives from one eternal reality or it derives from more than one eternal reality. In worldviews that teach that there is only one eternal reality—for example monotheism—evil cannot be eternal because evil becomes possible only when the one eternal reality produces the many things of the world. In worldviews that appeal to more than one eternal reality—for example polytheism—the possibility for evil is eternal because division itself is eternal. Many of the differences between the ways the world’s religions and philosophies (East and West) approach evil can be explained by which one of these two presuppositions they hold to be true.

In continuity with Judaism, Christianity teaches that there is only one eternal God who is the creator of the world and its diverse creatures. God freely created the world with all its diversity by his word. In the early centuries of the church, Christian theologians faced a challenge from religious philosophies that asserted the existence of two eternal realities, one good and the other evil. These philosophies taught that the existence and apparent power of evil can be explained only by the existence of an eternal evil power that stands in eternal conflict with the good power. Otherwise, they argued, we would have to think of God as the origin of evil as well as good.

Evil is Not a Thing

In response to such philosophies Christian thinkers argued that evil is not an independent thing that can act on its own. Evil is disorder, misrelation or defective activity (failure) among real things. Evil is the condition of disorder itself, not a thing that instigates conflict against other things. And disorder is not an existing thing, like an atom, an animal or a human being. It can have no effect apart from the activity of things that exist. Real things can be ordered or disordered, but disorder cannot exist by itself. Augustine says, “I inquired what wickedness is; and I did not find a substance but a perversity of will twisted away from the highest substance, you O God, toward inferior things, rejecting its own inner life” (Confessions 7.16). Basil the Great also rejects the idea that evil is a real thing that can exist on its own:

Do not consider God the cause for the existence of evil, nor imagine evil as having its own existence. For evil is the absence of good…For it is neither uncreated…nor is it created, for if all things are from God, how can evil be from good. For nothing that is vile comes from the beautiful, nor does evil come from virtue” (God is Not the Author of Evil, 8; quoted in Dumitru Staniloae, Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, vol. 2).

Basil’s and Augustine’s rejection of the eternal and independent reality of evil solved one problem but created another. If God is the sole eternal creator of this diverse world why is there disorder and conflict? The mere presence of diversity does not cause disharmony and conflict; different things can be related harmoniously to achieve a greater whole. But how does a diverse world maintain its unity and harmony? No one thing within the world possesses the power to unify the whole world. If a brick were to impose its order on the house, it could at best transform the house into a brick; and that imposition would be an instance of violence and destruction. The Creator alone possesses the power, right and wisdom to unify the world of diverse things without doing violence to any of them. So, what disrupts the harmonious order? Two possibilities come to mind, chance or freedom.

Chance and Freedom as the Origins of Evil

Events that have their origin in chance or freedom are thought to break from the chain of events that preceded them and begin a new chain of events. Hence they can create order from disorder or destroy an existing order. Chance can be conceived in two ways. First, chance can be thought of as a spontaneous coming into being from nothing. Such an event has no origin and no explanation. It is absurd. Second, chance can be considered an event that occurs when two preexisting chains of events intersect in a way unpredictable from within either chain. A bird is flying overhead as I am taking my morning walk…I don’t need to describe what happens next. There is no vantage point from which the first form of chance could be predicted, but for the second there is such a possibility. Someone outside these chains of events in a position to see both could predict the time and place of their intersection.

From an external point of view freedom looks much like chance. Events originating in freedom look somewhat spontaneous and they often disrupt the expected flow of surrounding events. Chance events often cause suffering, death and destruction and so can events originating in freedom. But we experience freedom from within ourselves as rational deliberation and choice. Hence we know we are responsible for our deliberate actions, and we believe that other people are responsible for theirs. We may curse chance, but we don’t hold it responsible for what it causes. We attribute the suffering, death and destruction we experience at the hands of natural processes to chance. But most of the evil we experience at the hands of human beings we attribute to freedom.

Next Week: Why doesn’t God impose and maintain perfect harmony among the diverse things and free beings in the world? Why does God allow (or permit) evil? Is the free will defense the best answer to the argument from evil?

Does the Existence of Evil Prove There is No God?

Last week I maintained that the argument from evil to atheism is deeply flawed and arguably incoherent. As long as one defines “evil” at minimum as “something that has gone wrong” we must also admit the existence of an ideal plan from which evil deviates. And “ideal” plans exist only in minds; therefore the argument presupposes the existence of minds, either a divine-like cosmic mind or finite minds such as ours. But robust atheism denies the existence of a divine-like cosmic mind, so atheism must also give up the idea of a cosmic plan for the way things should go. Apart from such a plan no event can count as deviating from the ideal for the way things should go. There is no cosmic evil and hence no argument from cosmic evil.

If atheists give up the argument from cosmic evil to robust atheism, perhaps they can construct an argument from the human experience of evil to robust atheism. Human beings experience some events in the world process as painful, horrifying and repulsive. Measured by human wishes, plans and ideals, events often go horribly wrong. How does the contradiction between human desires and judgments about how things should go in the world and the actual flow of events argue for robust atheism? Clearly the argument would have to be developed along these lines:

  1. A divine-like cosmic mind would conceive and desire the same or nearly the same ideal for the way things go in the cosmic process as the ideal conceived and desired by human beings.
  2. A divine-like cosmic mind would do everything within its power to attain this divine/human ideal.
  3. A divine-like cosmic mind would possess enough power to insure at least a close approximation to this divine/human ideal is realized.
  4. Things do not go according to this divine/human ideal; indeed they deviate from it dramatically.
  5. Therefore no divine-like cosmic mind exists.

Obviously, the first premise is the crux of this argument. Since the argument is made from an atheist perspective, it cannot appeal to divine revelation to establish how the divine mind actually conceives and desires the world to go. It must assert that human ideals would be shared by any actually existing divine being. Apart from this premise the argument goes nowhere. But it seems highly questionable to assume that a map of the values, goals and thoughts of a divine mind that encompasses every event in the cosmos could be extrapolated from the limited experience of finite beings like us. Understandably, we place ourselves at the center of all things and think the entire world process should serve our private ends; but what evidence warrants the conclusion that a divine being must also place us at the center? Perhaps the divine being thinks and judges in ways very different from ours and views us as mere means to an end very different from ours. Indeed, there are many conceptions of a divine-like cosmic mind that are consistent with the human experience of pain, suffering and death. Maybe there are many divine beings that possess conflicting desires or perhaps the divine being is not omnipotent or its understanding of what is good differs dramatically from ours. Hence this five-step argument fails to establish robust atheism.

The failure of the argument just analyzed highlights something about atheist arguments from evil that is rarely noticed much less explored: they do not argue from evil to “robust” atheism. I have never read an argument like the one I outlined above. I employed the unusual term “robust atheism” to designate the view that there is no God or anything like God, no pantheon of gods or divine mind, plan or law. In my view, the only atheism worth considering denies that mind or anything mental is a fundamental eternal reality. And this is what I mean by robust atheism. Modern atheism (from about 1770 to the present) argues from the fact of evil to the incoherence of western theism (a view of God influenced by Christianity, Judaism and Islam) and concludes to the nonexistence of the God of western theism. The Creator God of western theism is omnipotent, perfectly good and omniscient. Atheists argue that the factual existence of evil demonstrates that God cannot possess all three attributes. If God really were all-powerful, he could prevent all evil, if God were perfectly good he would want to prevent all evil and if God were omniscient he would know about every instance of evil. But evil exists; therefore the God of western theism does not exist. A variant of this argument contends that perhaps some instances of pain and suffering are consistent with God’s existence but there is so much evil in our world that no good end could ever justify it or make it right.

Clearly this argument does not warrant the conclusion of robust atheism that no God or anything like God exists. At most it points to the problem of reconciling a particular view of the divine cosmic mind (western theism) with the existence of evil. But this problem finds its natural home within a philosophical theology that affirms the existence of a divine mind. Only by a slight of hand can a debate about the nature of the divine and its relation to the flow of events evoked by the experience of evil be transformed into a debate about the very existence of anything like God. If you fall into robust atheism because of the argument from evil you have leapt far beyond the evidence. Some other motivating force must be at work.

When is “Evil” Truly Evil? (Is Christianity True? #37)

The problem of evil is perhaps the most popular and potent contemporary objection to belief in God. In its simplest form it goes like this: How can you believe in a good, all-powerful and all-knowing God in the face of the pain, suffering and inhumanity that plagues the world? Would a good God allow genocide on a massive scale, if he could stop it? Wouldn’t an all-powerful God prevent the human death and suffering caused by tsunamis and earthquakes, if he cared? Agnostics use such questions to undermine certainty of belief in God. Atheists offer these objections as evidence against belief in the existence of God. Believers also feel the negative force of evil and sometimes feel abandoned by God and threatened by doubt.

As befits a blog devoted to “thoughtfulness in religion” I want to begin at the beginning and approach the subject at the most fundamental level where the question of evil first emerges. The following two questions strike me as getting about as close to the foundation as we can get: what are the conditions under which any event or series of events could be considered evil?”  And what quality is being attributed to an event when it is called evil?

Evil cannot exist unless something exists. Absolute nothingness is not evil or good. Whatever evil is, it exists as a quality of something else—of a thing, an event or a relation. If there were no things or events or relations, evil could not exist. Now imagine that our universe has existed eternally or came into existence arbitrarily and that there is no divine mind to order and direct it. Imagine further that there are no finite minds or even any living things but that physical and chemical processes that constitute the universe will continue to operate forever, the universe evolving as it has since the Big Bang. Does evil exist in this imaginary world? Can it exist in such a world? No. Even though things are continually coming into existence and going out of existence, being built up and destroyed, no event or series of events can be considered evil. Why?

At a minimum, to designate an event or series of events as “evil” is to say that something has gone wrong; evil is a misrelation, disharmony where there should be harmony.  But the concept of “going wrong” makes no sense where there is no concept of “going according to plan.” And the idea of a “plan” makes no sense apart from a mind that conceives of that plan. Hence the possibility of evil depends on the existence of a real world in which the actual course of events can contradict the ideal course of events as conceived by the divine mind. If evil occurs in this real world, contradicting the divine ideal world, we can see that such evil would cause distress and disappointment in the divine being. [We are not yet speaking of God the Creator in the Christian sense. We are speaking only of an all-encompassing cosmic mind.]

So, what are the conditions for the emergence of the concept of evil? Something must exist and a flow of events must be taking place. There must be a plan that encompasses all things and events, and there must be a mind that contains this comprehensive plan. Only a mind can perceive the contradiction between the way things actually go and the way they are supposed to go. And only a mind that wills the good (that is, the way things are supposed to go) can experience distress when they go wrong. The concept of cosmic evil emerges only with the emergence of a cosmic mind/will. Hence to argue that there is no God because things go wrong is self-contradictory. The argument affirms that things do in fact go wrong (evil) but denies the necessary conditions for the affirmation that things go wrong (a plan for the way things are supposed to go).

Now let’s shift our attention to the human experience of evil. As I have shown above, if there is no divine-like cosmic mind that can conceive and will the way things are supposed to go in the world, the concept of evil makes no sense in reference to the flow of cosmic events. Imagine, then, that we have evolved by chance in a universe in which there is no divine mind, no cosmic plan and no cosmic evil. Here we are. We exist for no reason and no purpose. For our coming into existence is a cosmic event and cosmic events do not happen for reasons or purposes. But as a matter of brute fact we exist as thinking, feeling and willing beings. And as thinking, feeling and willing beings we exist also as cosmic beings in the flow of cosmic change, of coming into existence and going out of existence, of the process of building up and tearing down that constitutes the universe. And as cosmic beings we come into existence, exist for a while, then deteriorate and fall apart. Though there is no ideal plan for the way things are supposed to go, we can imagine one and wish it to be so. Though there is no divine plan for our lives we imagine our lives unfolding in an “ideal” way, that is, according to our desires. And we can perceive the contradiction between our ideal cosmic and individual plans and the actual flow of our lives in the cosmos.

As thinking, feeling and willing beings, we wish to be exempted from the cosmic processes of decay and death to which we are subject as cosmic beings. As a matter of brute fact we desire to live and experience happiness. We do not want to experience physical pain or emotional distress or spiritual suffering. When the actual flow of cosmic events contradicts our idea of the “way things are supposed to go” in our lives, we experience this contradiction and consequent distress as wrong, as a misrelation and as disharmony where harmony ought to exist. Hence on a human level evil is defined as whatever contradicts our ideal plan and thwarts our pursuit of happiness. And since this contradiction assails and destroys what we love, we hate it and rebel against it with all our energy. At the human level evil is that to which we say “No!”

But this line of thinking rather undermines the argument from our experience of evil to atheism. We’ve seen that the idea of cosmic evil makes no sense apart from a divine mind that can plan and desire the way things are supposed to go in cosmic history. You cannot argue for the existence of real cosmic evil from the contradiction between the mere human idea of the way the world should go and the human desire for life and happiness, unless you assume the existence of a divine plan and a divine mind. And if there is no divine plan or divine mind, the “evil” human beings experience is not really cosmic in nature. It is subjective, relative to the brute fact of human desires and wishes. On the supposition of the non-existence of God or anything like God, at the cosmic level genocides, hellish wars, devastating tsunamis, catastrophic earthquakes, famines, cancer and all other hateful evils are not evil. Like the deterioration of a radioactive element or the death of a star in a supernova, they just are.