‘Is it just a case that God isn’t able to deal with evil?’

Eugene Borowitz, Jewish lecturer, theologian and historian has concluded that ‘Any God who could permit the Holocaust, who could remain silent during it, who could hide his face whilst it dragged on … was [and is] not worth believing in.’

But is this position justtified. For one, it raises questions about our understanding of what it means for God to be ‘perfectly good’ and ‘perfectly powerful’ because implicit in Borowitz’s statement are two things: either God wishes to take away evil and is unable to do so which means the Divine is not omnipotent OR God is able to do away with evil but unwilling – which means God is not really good after all.

This line of reasoning was also developed by the 18th century philosopher and historian David Hume, who outlined it this way by asking:

Is God willing to prevent evil but not able to?           =>Then he is impotent.

Is God able but not willing?                                          =>Then he is malevolent.

Is he both able and willing?                                          =>Then where does evil come from?

It is this question about the origin of evil that has perplexed many people over the centuries. Yet the best explanation of how evil comes to exist independently of God and the world is advanced by Augustine of Hippo who we will consider next…

 

‘If God created the world, then why is it so evil?’

It will be helpful to begin this part with an observation that most religious traditions seek to address the problem of evil by determining how to limit its influence in people’s lives. By this I mean that most religions recognise evil as a problem which affects individuals and communities alike. Of course, as we have seen, the degree to which humanity is influenced by evil differs from person to person. Factors such as environment, emotional intelligence, and upbringing all seem to play a part in determining how a person matures and the way in which they will engage or refrain from evil. It also needs be noted that sometimes there is no explanation for moral evil such as when a person  commits a random or savage act that is totally out of character with their nature and upbringing.

Now, one problem people have with the idea of God as a kind, loving heavenly Father who loves people and is essentially good, is the sense that it is totally at odds with the evil and chaos evident in the world today. Not just in the present day but throughout the centuries and in virtually every part of the world. Indeed, some people argue that if the world is the product of a good and loving God, there is sufficient reason to challenge the existence of God because evil suggests creation is neither perfect in design or outcome. Likewise, the idea that God maintains control over everything in the world is also problematic in the face of human suffering because a second question arises:

‘How could a loving God allow evil to happen in the world?’

Behind this question are two assumptions about the character and nature of God. Firstly, if God is perfectly good (as believers attest to) then surely he would not want people to suffer. Secondly, if God is all powerful, he would exercise his power and alleviate or remove suffering from our world. As already noted, the very presence of evil and suffering in our world has often been seen as calling into question God’s integrity and ability to design the world. The logic of such an argument goes something like this:

  • Suffering exists in the world because of evil actions
  • Evil actions imply the world is not perfect but flawed
  • As God is the designer of the world, it must be concluded that God has made some mistake in the construct of the world
  • Or that God is capable of both good and evil?

More, in the next post…

Is it okay to do evil if a greater good results from it?

In the last post we considered how evil may occur due to our failure to bring about good in the world – a concept most famously coined by political philosopher Edmund Burke who observed that ‘all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. With the hindsight of Two World Wars and countless justice issues from antiquity and modern day society,  today we will consider the paradox of

‘Can the decision to commit evil ever result in a good outcome?’

One of the most obvious examples occurred in the 1940s with the American decision to drop two atomic bombs on Japan: one on the city of Hiroshima; the other on the city of Nagasaki. Although there are many theories as to the political intention behind these decisions,  it does appear that the bombings brought about a speedier conclusion to the war, heralding Japan’s surrender and ensuring fewer lives were lost in the process…but at what price?

While the two Japanese cities did have populations that were a mix of military personel and those who worked in factories making armarments or supplying the war, the bomb also killed and injured a number of innocent adults and children, leaving them with debilitating burns or a painful death through radiation sickness. Women and children whose death warranted no significant purpose to gain a tactical position but who were ‘sacrificed’ (for want of a better word) to the cause of a greater good.

Wherever you stand on this matter, there can be little doubt that the bombing did achieve the US objectives and bring an earlier conclusion to the war than many imagined – and with less loss of life. So how do we undertsand the bombings?  A good decision or an evil act and are humans able to make such judgement calls or should it always rest with God. Moreover, what are we to make of Jesus instruction to, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs?’

‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.’ (Edmund Burke et al)

In this post we turn our attention to the idea that people who fail to do good in the world are wittingly (and unwittingly) guilty of evil. While it may offend some on first reading, the failure of the person to do good when it’s within their ability to act, is often referred to as a sin of ommision – that is when a person ‘omits’ to do something that will help another and a consequence arises. A moment in time when the person with power – be that physical, mental, resources etc –  has the opportunity to do good BUT  chooses to not go through with it.

There are many reasons why this happens. Sometimes the person falters because of fear. Other times it might be greed or because there wasn’t enough time to act before the window of opportunity closed on them? Or maybe it never crossed the person’s mind to act in that situation. Now, unlike moral evil which is seen through actions such as slander, malice, cruelty, murder etc,  sins of omission are best classified as ‘inaction.’ All of which means that the person who is suffering and experiencing some form of pain and desirous for someone to alleviate their suffering is often unaware of the potential answer that was not afforded them when the person crossed over to walk on the other side of the street. An example, aptly detailed in the Bible story of the Good Samaritan who’s action to the wounded traveller surpasses the righteous and reverred men who went before him on the trail that day.

So what is the answer?

Well, one thing  we can all do is to resolve to take action immediately against unfairness and injustice in the world where it is within our power to act.  Another, is to resolve to be active in God’s world being mindful that we are His solution and how our failure to deal with our own sins of ommision will always perpetuate the injustices we see around us.

Why doesn’t God lay down a marker so we know those who are evil from those who are good?

Now, because the issue of God’s lack of intervention in our world will be addressed in a future post, it will suffice at this point to consider one serious flaw in the proposal that God remove evil people from our world – with whom and where would God begin this process? A difficult question because surely every one of us is taken with the temptation to commit evil, albeit in some sort of lesser form. In fact, moral evil is perhaps better described as a problem that is endemic to society because it occurs in all human beings to one degree or another in that no one is exempt from losing their temper or thinking ill of another.

Just as a child takes another child’s toy and causes upset so a person gossips and brings misery to the other person who is spoken about. Or someone cheats on their tax return with the result that the government is denied revenue that would help others. Another person crashes their vehicle into a parked car and drives away, leaving the owner to meet the expense of repair.

From these examples, what we see is that if God were to oblige us in our request and remove people who do wrong in our world, a problem would immediately occur: what degree of evil is acceptable and at what point do we draw the line to determine who is in and who is out? Of course, if it were down to each human being to determine the position of the chalk line by which evil is measured, every one of us would  locate the point at which we would qualify as being ‘not evil’. Indeed, in my life, I have come across several individuals who truly believe they have never done anything wrong in their life. Implausibility of this aside, it is worth noting that moral evil is not so easily determined. We will turn to in the next post.

Why doesn’t God do something about evil people in the world?

 

A bomb explodes killing scores of people and injuring others. Terrorists lay siege to a building taking children and teachers hostage. Refugees are murdered in a wave of ethnic cleansing. Women are kidnapped and trafficked into a foreign country to serve as sex slaves in the prostitution industry. A teenager is stabbed and dies on the street of a city. Just a few of the events which reveal moral evil – that is humans treating others in an evil way – is as prevalent in society today as it has ever been during other periods of our history.

Given the frequency of moral evil in the world, one question that people sometimes ask is ‘Where is God?’ What they actually mean is ‘why doesn’t God do something? Why doesn’t He just come down and sort out all the bad people in our world?’

Behind this question is the rather simplistic idea that God possesses the ability to enter our world and remove people whenever he feels like it. Presumably, God would do this in order to make our world a better place to live. But is this the case or is it that God is ineffectual?Would removing evil people from the world make it better? Moreover, who gets to stay and who gets culled? Lastly – and most importantly – where is the line drawn in the sand by which we know if we stand on the right or wrong side of God?

With this and more in mind, the next seven posts will explore the issue of moral evil in the world and the Christian understanding of freewill and human choice. Hold onto your hats, it’s going to be a bumpy ride…

 

 

I have argued that God has created everything ; the doctrine of “ex nihilo” underpins everything Christians believe about God. So, there is a logical need to ask why that included the possibility of evil? This applies even if we put the blame for evil acts on fallen beings like Satan, evil spirits and mankind himself.

High power theologians like Augustine and Aquinas were keen to point out that there is a huge difference in nature between God and creation, what we call an “ontological” difference. Because creation is not God, and because God grants creation an inherent freedom, it is bound to have aspects which are not perfect or eternal. These may be evil, or appear evil to us because they sometimes have bad effects on us.

So much of what we see is not inherently evil but can cause suffering.  An example would be a earthquake, which comes about because of a necessary part of the created order that requires tectonic plates movement. For various reasons this is fundamental to life, but we don’t like it when we get in the way of one. Another example is the sun. We need its light, warmth and other things, but exactly the same physical phenomena that enable us to live can also cause UV over-exposure. This not only gives us sunburn but can be life threatening through the premature aging of the skin, suppression of the immune system, skin cancer and damage to the eyes. Even something as basic as gravity, essential to the way things exist in our universe, becomes a evil from our perspective when we fall from a great height or something falls on our head.

This is just a way of looking at evil from the stance of simple perspective, namely that good things do not always suit our needs. Ultimately this includes death itself.  The “last enemy” as Paul called it (1 Corinthians 15:26 ), prevents the planet that we know from becoming overcrowded and untenable. This will remain true for as long as we live according to the physical laws that God has currently put in place here. These are painful things to us, but having a good perspective on natural evil helps us appreciate the world more and be appreciative of its beauty and preciousness , instead of majoring on its imperfections and hardships.

 

A Logical argument – Is Evil Inevitable by Definition?

There is an anecdotal story about a Jewish man who engages a tailor to make a pair of trousers. After weeks of delay and endless frustration, the man confronts the tail and says, “Even God only took 6 days to make the whole world!” “Yes”, says the tailor, “but just see what a world made in a hurry looks like!”

The Christian tradition asserts God to be wholly different; different not just to man, but to the whole of creation. God exists outside creation and is not a product of it, so there is nothing in it to which He can be compared. We may have analogies to help us partly understand God but in the end he is “wholly other”. When you consider the cosmos, its complexity, size and time span, and the claim that God is in charge, it is just as well that he is truly different, for nothing in the realm of creation would be up to the job.

So, when God created the cosmos that we see with our eyes and telescopes, he was making something “other” than Himself. As such, by definition, there is a profound ontological difference between the entire universe, and God. Creation, by definition, carries with it inescapable imperfection because only God is perfect and the Universe is different from God. Evil, both the possibility of it and the actualisation of it, necessarily arises from this logical but profound difference of being.

Since God is infinite, there is no room for anything else – God has had to enable something other than himself to exist, it is argued. Some element of the tri-unity of God has had to recede, to literally retreat, to vacate the space, in order for creation to exist at all. So creation as we see it is imperfect but profoundly beautiful, where creative forces are allowed to play – the way galaxies and starts get made, the way in which cells divide and a baby is formed. In that creative process, alongside its inherent beauty, there is, from our human perspective an imperfection. It is shaped by finiteness, a tendency to be dependant or contingent on other things, it is mortal and will decay, and its life will be subject to competition, evolution, death and conflict (to a greater or lesser degree).

This difference in Christianity is that this is resolved in eternity. Reality is as we see it, flawed and imperfect. But the message of the gospel is hope –  such times as this will come to an end – sorrow will cease, injustice will not only be ended but will be repaid, sickness will be gone because the inherent imperfection of the current existence will be superseded by something else.

“See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes.Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”       Revelation 21:3-5

The physical order, of which we are undeniably a part, persists as it is in the meantime because it is not God. Because it has been given an inherent creative process, it is alive but finite; nebulae form stars and planets, stars burn fuel, life evolves, and all eventually ends because the imperfection means it is not eternal. This will not satisfy us when grief is consuming us, or when man’s inhumanity to man appears on the television screen. But it is an important thing to understand. Creation is described in Genesis as “good” or very good”. It is very pertinently not described as “perfect”. This may be a good starting point to look at purpose. Is there a redeeming point to the imperfection in the universe?

 

“Give me a God I can Understand!”

We have been considering the question of evil the light of the great theodicy question that confronts the Christian gospel – why does an omnipotent God of eternal love permit the existence of evil?

Christians believe that creation is good, was created good and that evil emerged from it, rather than being part of God’s nature. This is a very important distinguishing feature of Judaism And Christianity, who do not permit the possibility that another god exists, the one responsible for all the bad stuff (a view we call “dualism”). As I have argued, this leaves with a need to look for purpose it the way that God and reality seem to be, warts and all.

This requires us to eventually accept a God of mystery. I was reminded of this listening to a sermon this Sunday about the 10 Commandments and the incident of the Golden Calf. The people of Israel cried out for a God they could understand, a God they could touch, a God they could appease and manipulate in the way that everybody else did. The result was not God at all, but a golden idol, the very opposite of what the commandments contained, literally carried under Moses tired arms as he descended the mountain (Exodus 20 and 21).

The problem of evil illustrates for me that we do not have a God we can fully understand. I have tried to show that we must accept that God created a universe which includes stuff we don’t like, and created or allowed the possibility that evil would emerge from His creation. I will go on to explore why this might be, but without ever pretend that I have the full answer. But I thought I’d like to back up my assertion with something biblical. The Bible contains much that suggests that all reality comes from him, and is sustained and governed by him. The clearest passage I can find is this one from Isaiah, which insists, “I am the Lord, there is no other.”

I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides me there is no god. I arm you, though you do not know me, so that they may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make weal* and create woe; I the Lord do all these things.     Isaiah 45:5-7

(* “Weal” =  happiness or prosperity.)

There is a danger that we create a theodicy or an explanation for evil that is nothing more than preference doctrine, that is the sort of thing we want to believe because it avoids questions we would prefer not to ask. On toughquestions.org we are saying that these questions are allowed, and the God we seek is not a simple answer to any of them. More than anyone whoever lived, Job perhaps has justification for asking God, “Why do these things happen ?” After much wrangling God answers in Job 38-40 along these lines :

 “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it?”    Job 38:1-5

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” is a rhetorical question that actually says, these things are not for you to fully understand. God asks us, will we love Him and trust him, even when we do not understand. So before we embark on addressing the “why” questions, I think we need to accept the fact that reality is that it s and there may be a purpose in it, as opposed to the view that it’s all a ghastly mistake and God is currently operating Plan B.  I would seriously counsel, be heard the God you think you understand and beware the theologies of those that make him just like us. He is not.


 

What we’re exploring here is the particular Christian problem with evil.  By evil we mean the issue of suffering of any kind, not just deliberate human malevolence. By this definition, animals suffer from it, and creation suffers from it. If nothing else, everything, is subject to decay and death, and that is an “evil” for our purposes.

Christians have a different problem with this to other faiths. Most faiths have similar ethics, and all recognise the difference between good and evil, exhorting the good. But they do not have the same problem explaining it. For example, Buddhists do not have to worry about why an all powerful God of love does not abolish evil, because they have no such concept of God. Even Muslims, who do have such a concept, prefer to live with the tension between evil and God’s goodness, than concede anything on God’s authority, and power. Evil is because God wills it, the explanation is mystery, and not for us to question.

However, for Christians it is a 2000 year old problem. How do we reconcile a God of omnipotence, omniscience, absolute love, and creatio ex nihilo, with the existence of evil. God is able, and should be willing to remove all evil from the world, but clearly doesn’t do so. This has given rise to the emergence of theories of “god defence” which go by the term “theodicy”. A theodicy is an attempt to explain the notion of evil within the definition of God held by Christians. Theodicy itself has been around for a long time, and the two basic types of theodicy emerged from the 2nd century onwards.

1.          Augustine’s is the best known, and has occupied a more central place in Christian theology. He argues that the problem of evil arises purely because of human choice, and is explained by the Fall (Genesis 3), which he sees as the disaster that explains all history. Human beings, Augustine argued, were created as perfect moral agents with the ability to make choices, both for evil as well as for good. They (Adam and Eve) used that freedom wrongly and evil entered the world. Evil was the absence of good, or privatio boni – the absence of good arising from the wrong use of good moral freedom to make bad moral choices.

2.          Irenaeus (AD 130-202) had a theodicy which accepts God’s partial “responsibility” for the emergence of evil. He prefers the view that says human beings were created as imperfect creatures, and the task of life was to bring them to perfection by development and growth through confronting the moral choices of life. The world is not a “paradise lost” but is as we see it now, with evil and good mixed in, is part of God’s purpose for Ireneus. He tries to explain it by identifying what is achieved through the process of overcoming evil. Iraneuas can also embrace the concept of natural evil in his theodicy (tsunami, earthquake and disease), which is much more difficult for Augustine or any theodicy based on the Fall. Rather than a fall from perfection, Irenaeus sees Genesis as a more like a deflection, or loss of direction, for humanity. The gap between us and God is caused by us wandering off the pathway, not falling from a height.

Augustine’s explanation will appeal to those who refuse to acknowledge that God has any part in the existence of evil. But it has a serious problem of historicity ; what we think we know of history contradicts it because death and suffering predates mankind (see Bob Eckhard’s blog of September 21, 2017) . Irenaeus, on the other hand, will appeal to those who accept this evidence and would prefer to try and explain evil by redeeming its purpose and embracing its challenge.  As such Irenaeus, despite being lesser known and possibly ignored down the centuries, actually offers us some sense of purpose, and even optimism.