“I will sweep away everything from the face of the earth,” declares the Lord.’ (Zephaniah 1v2)

For many, the sense of God’s judgment runs something akin to the man in the picture (above) who stands ready to squash some bug under his shoe. A pictorial representation of a rather indifferent and wanton deity who is as ready to crush humanity as he is to leave it unharmed. But is this a fair representation of how the majority of people see God? Although a large proportion of believers from many religious backgrounds will assert that God exists, they can no more prove it than those who are opposed to God can prove that He doesn’t. This does not even begin to consider those people who have come to think of God as a “hands-off” watchmaker diety who in creating earth, winds up it’s mechansim, sets it in motion and stands back as it disappears on its eliptical journey around the solar system for the next six billion years.

Now, while the idea of a non-existent or “hand’s off’ deity allows people to sidestep the issue of becoming accountable before God, the issue of a Day of Divine Judgment is kept alive by those who believe the Divine Creator has issued moral standards and values for humans to follow. Moreover,  this Creator will return to hold all the people of earth accountable for their actions, bringing judgement on those who are found wanting and rewarding those that are considered just and obedient.

In the next two months, other posts  on the ‘God of Judgement’ thread will consider some of the issues for believers and sceptics in the religious acceptance and belief in the idea of a Deity who holds us to account. A plethora of questions that will consider:

  • the way we imagine and understand God?
  • the human need for judgment?
  • the degree to which we can understand the Divine from our human perspective?
  • the way in which humanity is considered culpable for the ills of the world?
  • the notion of an actual ending of time and everything as the Day of Judgment arrives?

 

 

 

Necessary Evil ?

Does evil exist for some sort of purpose? Is it an unavoidable part of this creation, and more tellingly, was it always there?

One of the foundational theories of evil in Christian circles is that of the “Fall”. This is the point in the biblical narrative where sin is seen to enter the word, the implication being that all was well before that point. Bob Eckhard has dealt with some aspects of this is his other blogs on this site.  Many traditional Christian views hold that all evil, including physical death, result from this one  primeval human action. It is not the view of all Christians though , nor many Jews, from whom we derive the text as part of the Jewish Pentateuch.

Christianity takes the Old Testament scriptures as God’s word of course, but re-interprets many of them through the lens of New Testament texts. One of the key relevant texts in this context is Romans 5:12 which says :

“Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned.”

Through this and other verses, many Christians have come to the view that literally everything that we call “evil”, from the Holocaust to the common cold, came into the world because of human sin. It also cultivates the view that  “suffering” is contrary to the creation plan and has no part in it. Holding that world view, however intuitive,  has serious implications ; it affects how we feel about the world we live in, our inner sense of well being, how we interpret the challenges of life, our sense of contentment, and also how we feel about God.

A few blogs ago I mentioned man called Irenaeus. Irenaeus is a key Christian figure (not a heretic!) and portrays the event of Genesis 3 in a slightly different light.  He questions the idea of “fall” without disputing the idea of evil.  Irenaeus paints a picture where God creates fallible human beings who were set on the path of growth, encountering and overcoming challenge.   They “turned away” from the path of obedience through pride and a desire to be their own master.

This is subtly different from a “fall” – a turning away is not the same as a loss of status.  It certainly does not explain the origin of evil – it was clearly already present. It is there in the form of their tempter, but also  perhaps in themselves in their very inclination to listen and act upon that temptation.  After all, the fact that they “fell” at all shows there were prone,  and such a move in human development was more or less inevitable. Adam and Eve, real or metaphorical, are presented as beings with a choice, invited not commanded to obey God. His instructions are clear, but they are not enforced. He left them a choice. Our original created state is with a clean sheet, yes, but not moral perfection. We not only had the potential to sin, we clearly chose to do so.

It follows that we should not bemoan our origins, but rather seek to discover what role hardship and adversity play in our development. Their created human purpose is to attain maturity, and to spur them on their way they will have to overcome problems and subdue her living environment. There is another hint in Romans that this could be a valid interpretation :

“Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we[c] boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” Romans 5:1-5

We’ll examine the problems with this case in later blogs – and there are many. For now let’s agree to open our minds to the possibility that this word is our responsibility, and that it is more or less as it was intended to be. Our mission is to tend it and “subdue” it as Genesis says, in partnership with God.

One reason why God offers freewill to his creation is explained in an observation made by the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre who observed how the individual

‘who wants to be loved does not desire the enslavement of the beloved. He does not want to possess an automaton … If the beloved is transformed into an automaton, the lover finds himself alone.’

What this seems to suggest is that the nature of God’s love necessitates that freedom must always be the main concern. God allows both outcomes to occur – that is to say that people are free to accept or reject the advances of the Divine even though God knows the consequence when humanity rails againstHis goodness which in turn brings about evil and suffering.

As already noted in an earlier post, the reluctance of God to overrule our choices poses an interesting question in regard to how the Creator is considered to operate in our world with many believers holding to the idea that God has the power to overrule our personal freedom by changing our mindset so that we do not pursue a particular course of action. But this makes little sense and seems unreasonable as it goes against the very nature of God’s love that has chosen not to intervene and overrule.

Drawing these threads together, we have thought about some of the problems connected with moral evil in our world. In this, we have considered how evil could be thought of as a logical outcome if humans are to be enabled to make truly free decisions. The nature of God is not lessened by the outcome of evil in the world, but better understood as evidence of a love that allows things to occur independently of God’s nature and all the outcomes good and bad that it will bring.

Wouldn’t people be happier in a world in which they were programmed to respond to God’s loving advances so they didn’t commit evil?

While it’s true the world would be less violent where God was in charge and people had no volition towards doing evil, it does necessitate that this would be a loving world. Yes, people would certainly experience goodness and harmony between themselves and with God. Now, while this ‘programmed’ arrangement might work for a time between God and humanity, there is good reason to suppose that humans might eventually come to resent this control over them and their inability to make free and determined choices for themselves. All of which brings us to the dynamics of what constitutes a loving relationship.

In seeking to explain the love dynamic, CS Lewis in his book ‘The Four Loves’ outlines various types of love of which ‘agape’ is one. This love is different from the other three because it is unconditional in nature and always directed toward its recipients in selfless ways. A love, most commonly associated with the activity of God and done in ways that makes no demand of the receiver to respond or even show gratitude for whatever benefit has occurred.

In terms of our discussion, the ‘agape’ of God would then be seen as the unconditional love that humanity experiences through the ability to make their own free and determined choices while enjoying the resources of a world that sustains life. Within this there is no requirement that those who receive this blessing acknowledge God as provider or anything for that matter – such is the expectation that the gift be accepted or responded to in terms of a relationship with the Creator. Which leads us in the nest post to a useful caveat in understanding freedom and love as found in the power dynamic of God and humanity as drawn by French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre.

 

 

Following on from the Freewill Defence, Augustine’s arguments poses an interesting question in regard to how the Creator is considered to operate in our world. Many believers hold to the idea God has the power to overrule our personal freedom by changing our mindset so that we do not pursue a particular course of action – but this goes against the very nature of God who has chosen not to intervene in our decision making.

But what does it mean in regard to the world, evil, and suffering? Well, it might be argued that the instant humanity’s freewill is taken from them, God would be diminished as what need is there of God’s agape love for the slavishly obedient who have no need for forgiveness nor understanding of love?

Conversely, while God’s limitations on Himself may enable Him to remain true by not overruling directly in our human affairs, it may also  lead to decisions that go against the good God desire for us.

Naturally, the course the issue of maintaining human freewill means that God is powerless to intervene – consider the example below…

… imagine that I go out to buy some milk from the shop on the corner of my road. As I am leaving the shop, I am spotted by a man who takes an immediate dislike to me. He produces an axe and begins to chase me down the street. Given that the volition of the man is totally bent on seeing me injured, do we suppose that God might overrule the man’s mind so that he becomes less disposed to this outcome? No. If this were the case surely no evil would ever occur in the world because God would intervene and stop every instance where it was likely that one person would harm another, and experience tells us this does not happen. Instead, if I am to survive through some intervention of God, it seems more likely that my urgent prayer for fast legs will be answered in such a way that I get away from my assailant or maybe I happen across the path of a police officer who is able to arrest the man.

The important thing to note here is that the axe man’s freedom to choose to injure me is not directly usurped by God in that the Divine does not perform some kind of mind meld on the man encouraging him to think nice thoughts about me. Rather, the man’s choice is allowed to occur even though it is evil. The solution that results, in which the axe man is arrested, happens in ways that still allows the man to indulge his desire to chase and injure me but now (thankfully) he is thwarted. 

‘Why does God give people freewill if he knows they will misuse it and do evil things in the world?’

One explanation of how evil comes to exist independently of God and the world is advanced by Augustine of Hippo who, before converting to Christianity in the fourth century, lived a thoroughly immoral and decadent life – I mention this because I think it will help us to understand the argument that Augustine develops next after his conversion to Christianity.

The freewill defence

What Augustine does in his argument is reverse the complaint that is levelled against God by pointing the finger of blame about suffering in the direction of humans who he cites as the arbiters of evil. This argument is known as ‘The Freewill Defence’ and goes something like this:

  • For a relationship to exist between us and God,  humans must be created in a way that allows them to reject or accept God’s advances.
  • This necessitates people are created so as to not be naturally predisposed towards loving God because this reduces them to robots.
  • Instead, for the relationship to be meaningful, God woos humans to love Him, running the risk that some will reject him
  • Although God may not like this, the Divine does this so that humans may continue to receive freedom.
  • (and of course) The Divine is obliged to accept individual choices that go against him
  • As rejecting God means a rejection of his attributes of goodness and love – humans can make choices that run contrary to what God desires for humanity. (It is worth noting at this point that humans are unique in this respect as they are able to freely choose in a way that other creatures cannot).
  • The result of this is that decisions are made which result in good and bad things happening in our world for which we as humans must take personal responsibility. And Augustine’s freewill argument finishes by asserting that:
  • Human freewill directed away from God explains the reality of unchecked evil as it occurs in the world today.

So the Freewill Defence suggests that evil is a logical necessity for people to be enabled to make their own decisions in the world. However, this raises a question in regard to the necessity of freedom over and against the removal of evil. We shall consider this in the next post.

 

‘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.