God and Evil
- Introduction: the problem of evil and two potential objections to Christianity
- A Legitimate Objection: Christianity is internally inconsistent in its belief in a good, omnipotent God and its belief in the existence of real, transcendent evil.
- An illegitimate objection: The actual existence of evil disproves the existence of the biblical God.
- A Legitimate Objection: Christianity is internally inconsistent in its belief in a good, omnipotent God and its belief in the existence of real, transcendent evil.
I. Introduction: The problem of evil and two potential objections to Christianity
When Christian apologists bring up the subject of good and evil, the end in view is often very personal. The hope is that we would recognize our guilt before a good and holy God and would appeal to God for His provision for our forgiveness. Unfortunately, this intended destination is often never reached. Any discussion about our personal responsibility before God can be forestalled by a series of intellectual objections that come up whenever we talk about God and evil. How can the biblical God exist if evil exists? Is God truly omnipotent? Is God truly good? If God is truly good and truly omnipotent, then why does evil exist? Now I am not claiming that these questions do not have intellectual merit or that they should not cause thoughtful people to raise some heartfelt and serious questions. But I am claiming that the existence of these questions can sometimes be used to obscure or avoid the personal implications of any conversation about God and evil. In this essay, I'd like to examine the problem of evil and ask whether a belief in the God of the Bible is compatible with the existence of evil and suffering in the world. But the goal, as always, should be to turn from the abstract to the personal. If the Bible does provide a plausible explanation for how a good, omnipotent God can exist despite the presence of evil and suffering in the world, then what is my duty and responsibility towards this God? In light of God's goodness and justice, what is my personal guilt and what is God's solution?
One aside. This essay is not an attempt to respond to the problem of evil as posed by people who are currently undergoing suffering or tragedy. My immediate response to you would be to pray for you (please email me at Neil -AT- shenvi.org) and to point you directly to the cross of Jesus Christ, where God himself suffered. You may well have real intellectual objections which I hopefully will be able to address in this essay. But Jesus' response to evil and suffering was not primarily an intellectual one but an incarnational one: he wept (John 11:35).
The classic problem of evil comes in the form of a Trilemma, a difficult question with three possible answers. Is God unable to end evil and suffering? Then He is not omnipotent. Is God able to end evil and suffering, but unwilling? Then He is not good. Is God both able and willing to end evil and suffering? Then where does evil come from? These questions try to show that the existence of a good, omnipotent God is incompatible with the existence of evil and suffering. As I said, I believe these are arguments that ought to be addressed. However, there are two uses to which atheists can put these arguments, one legitimate and one illegitimate. First, an atheist may claim that the biblical idea of an omnipotent, good God and the biblical idea of the existence of real, transcendent evil are internally inconsistent. But the second use of these arguments is to claim that the actual existence of evil proves that the biblical God does not exist. In other words, we are not merely claiming that Christianity is internally inconsistent but that something in the external world (namely, the existence of evil) contradicts the claims of Christianity. In the second half of this essay, I would like to show that this second claim is -in my opinion- illegitimate and actually is more of a problem for atheists than it is for Christians. But first things first.
II. A Legitimate Objection: Christianity is internally inconsistent in its belief in a good, omnipotent God and its belief in the existence of real, transcendent evil.
In this section, I'll confine my remarks to what I think the Bible teaches about the relationship between God and evil. There are some reasonable answers to the problem of evil (free will, soul-building, etc...) which I will not discuss here. Although these answers might be helpful and certainly contain some elements of truth, I think the Bible focuses on a different set of issues when addressing the problem of evil. And the Bible does address the problem of evil which is, after all, not a very new problem. In fact, it is one of the central issues in several books of the Bible (Job, Habakkuk, Ezekiel, Romans, Revelation), which is astounding if you remember that Christians believe that the Bible was inspired by God. As a Christian, if we believe that God did inspire the writing of the Bible through its various human authors, then that very fact ought to cause us to take the problem of evil seriously. What are we to make of the fact that the entire book of Job is devoted to the lengthy wrestling of Job with the problem of evil and suffering? Why does God go to such great lengths in the book of Ezekiel to vindicate his own justice and righteousness in the presence of the severe suffering endured by the Israelites? Alternatively, as an atheist, we can't accuse the biblical responses to the problem of evil as being ad hoc arguments thrown together by 20th century apologists. Rather this is a question which the Bible addresses and runs through its entire plot line: How can evil coexist with a good and loving God and how will God's justice be vindicated?
I will try to summarize four biblical responses to the problem of evil. These responses are not intended to be comprehensive, but I think they form the basis for treatments of God's relationship to evil in the Bible. I would urge readers to look at the relevant biblical texts for themselves, not only to make sure that I am not misreading them, but in order to gain an appreciation for the depth and range of the Bible's treatment of this subject.
Response 1: God's ultimate reasons for allowing evil in general and instances of evil in particular are a mystery to us.
First, the Bible affirms that the existence of evil and certainly the existence of particular examples of evil are a mystery to us. We do know that God is sovereign and that God has purposes for everything that happens. But we do not necessarily know what those purposes are. To say "Because I can't see the purposes, there must not be any purposes" is quite a leap. Here, it's very instructive to consider the whole book of Job. Job loses all his wealth, loses his children, and is stricken with disease. For thirty chapters, he asks one question over and over: "Why? Why did this happen?" Job's friends have a very easy answer: "God is just. Man is evil. Therefore, God is punishing you for something you did. Who are you to question God?" This is answer is one that I often give and seems to me to be very theologically sound. Unfortunately, God appears at the end of the book and condemns Job's friends. What is interesting is that God does not answer Job's question either. Instead, for three chapters God (Job 38-41) asks Job questions about biology, geoscience, and astronomy: "Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? etc..." God's point is clear and Job recognizes it: as human beings, there are many things that we simply don't understand. If God is powerful enough to end evil and suffering in an instant, then he is also transcendent enough to have reasons for evil and suffering that we don't understand. To pretend that we have it all figured out (as Job's friends did) can be a mark of arrogance rather than spiritual maturity.
This point is important because it prevents us from using the unwarranted and highly dangerous kind of reasoning that we often employ in evaluating suffering. On the one hand, it is true that some suffering is used by God to punish sin and wickedness. If a tyrant who has tortured and oppressed his people is killed in his palace by rebels one night, it is possible that this act was used by God to punish him for the evil he had done. On the other hand, the Bible repeatedly and severely warns us not to extrapolate from this fact to account for the evil we observe. Obviously, the case of Job's friends is instructive as is the reasoning of Jesus' disciples in John Chapter 9. Seeing a man born blind, the disciples ask Jesus whether this blindness was a punishment for his sin or his parents' sin. Jesus rejects both options and declares that this blindness is an occasion for God to display his glory in this man's life. It is through Jesus' mercy and love towards this man in healing his blindness that he becomes Jesus' disciple and is reconciled to God.
Jesus challenged the belief common at the time that it was the weak, the sick, the despised and the poor who were cursed while the healthy, the famous, and the rich had God's favor (see for example the Beatitudes in Matthew and Luke or the parable of the rich man and Lazarus). Because we live in a fallen world, we are not to expect that the temporal conditions of the people around us are an indicator of their spiritual condition. Disease, pain, sadness, suffering, and misery fall on the righteous and the unrighteous alike. Did Jesus live a happy life of material prosperity, health, and human acclamation? No. Then we should not expect someone's spiritual state to be evidenced by the absence of suffering in his life. As Christians, we are commanded by God to fight evil, injustice and suffering but we are not to expect God's purposes for allowing evil and suffering to be readily apparent to us.
Response 2: God will one day bring evil to an end and will mete out perfect and eternal justice.
Second, the Bible affirms that God will end all evil and suffering one day and will right every wrong. This point is absolutely central to the plot line of the Bible. The Israelite prophets had no illusions about the dismal state of justice in the world. Through them, God constantly reminded his people that the world was fallen and that a day was coming in which he would end evil and suffering and usher in a perfect and eternal Kingdom. Both the Old and New Testaments look forward to this Day of Judgment as the ultimate and final act which will vindicate God's justice in the face of evil and suffering. To see how God's final judgment serves as an answer to the problem of evil, we need only consider examples of evil and suffering in our own life.
For instance, I would ask you whether the experience of one microsecond of suffering or pain or evil makes you question God's existence. No, of course not, you'd say. Well, what about one millisecond? Probably not, you'd say. Well, what about a second? A minute? An hour, a year, a lifetime? In fact, if we think about it, it is not necessarily the duration of suffering and evil that really makes evil problematic, but the fact that there is no purpose or resolution to the evil we see. If I know that the pain of my brain surgery will be over in a few weeks and that I will be free from cancer for the rest of my life, then that pain would hardly cause me to doubt God's existence. On the contrary, the promise that my temporary suffering would be the means through which I will be permanently freed from suffering would be an occasion to rejoice in God's goodness. But this is precisely the situation that the Bible claims we are actually in. God has promised to one day wipe away every tear from the eyes of his people, to heal every wound, to bind up every broken heart and to put things right for all of eternity (see Isaiah 54 or Revelation 21). Even more, he has promised that He is using every drop of our suffering for our ultimate good and His saving purposes (see Rom. 8:18-39).
Now we can reject these claims as false and refuse to believe them. But if they are true, they provide a stunning answer to the problem of evil. The Bible affirms that the world is filled with evil and injustice and suffering. But God will be vindicated and those he has forgiven will rejoice for all eternity. This does not mean that evil and suffering are nonexistent, just as my headaches are not nonexistent simply because they are indicative of healing. But it does mean that God will bring good about not only in spite of our suffering, but through our suffering. The Bible repeatedly affirms that the ultimate vindication of God's justice and mercy is awaiting His judgment at the end of history. When God brings justice to earth and reveals His purposes in history for all to see, every mouth will be silenced and everyone will recognize God's justice and mercy. This promise should radically change our attitude towards the real but temporary evil that we experience in the present. Christians still grieve evil and mourn over suffering, but they do not need to grieve as if they had no hope.
Response 3: As sinners, we have no right and insufficient moral discernment to question God's justice.
Third, the fact that we are God's creatures and moral failures means that we do not have the right or the capacity to question God's justice. I listed this point third because it is not a palatable answer to most Western people and by no means exhausts the Bible's answers to the problem of evil. But because it is certainly one of the Bible's major responses to evil, it is important to discuss it (see Romans 9:1-29).
As modern individualists we like to think that the universe is essentially a democracy, or at least some form of representative government. But the Bible is quite clear that the universe is an absolute monarchy, in which all authority -moral or otherwise- is derived from God himself. Therefore, as creatures, we simply have no right to call into question God's justice. Although this statement probably strikes us as wildly offensive and insulting (it certainly strikes me that way), the more we think about it, the more obviously it follows from God's character. If God is infinitely wise and infinitely good then the silliest thing in the world would be for a human being like myself -who has trouble solving a simple differential equation- to level accusations against God. The certainty with which we condemn God's justice should be inversely proportional to the difference in wisdom and understanding between us and God. In the same way, a bacterium has very little grounds to question the workings of the scientist who controls his Petri dish. If a bacterium were to condemn the wisdom and moral judgment of the scientist, we would not begin by examining the truth of his claim. We would begin by pointing out that he is a bacterium. If God really is -as He claims in the Bible- both infinitely wise and perfectly good, then our accusations will not only ultimately be shown to be false. They will ultimately also be shown to be arrogant. However, the separation in knowledge between Creator and creature is not the only reason the Bible gives for the humility with which we ought to approach God. A far better reason is provided by our own moral guilt.
Any awareness of our own moral failings should make us dubious of our own moral discernment. I do not mean to imply that because we do evil, this fact therefore justifies God doing evil. Rather, the fact that we are certain that we commit evil on a daily basis should make us radically humble towards God. What would we think of a convicted murderer and rapist who -before court was even convened- began yelling wildly about the judge's wickedness and unfairness? Apart from any question of the judge's guilt or innocence, the murderer's accusation shows that he has an extremely inappropriate attitude towards his own deeds. I have direct experiential evidence that I am radically evil. Therefore, the evil that I willingly and freely commit ought to stop me in my tracks whenever I am tempted to charge God with injustice. The point of the Bible is not that God is unjust but that bringing such an accusation against Him necessarily involves a horrifying lack of appreciation for our own wickedness.
The danger here is that we take this point in isolation of the others and claim that the Bible views God's justice as a kind of divine fiat which has no correspondence to human goodness or justice. That is simply not true. The Bible constantly compares God's goodness to real human goodness and his justice to the best and most impartial human justice. When it draws a sharp contrast between God and man, the understanding is always that God is infinitely more good and more just than fallen human beings will ever be. Yet the fact remains that an infinite distance separates our understanding and our moral goodness from God's wisdom and God's goodness. The Bible does not condemn us for weeping or for grieving or for asking questions of God in the face of tragedy (see the book of Job). But even Job repented and regretted his own foolishness when he finally experienced God's presence.
Response 4: The cross of Jesus Christ is God's ultimate answer to the problem of evil.
Fourth, I think that all religions could give similar answers to the first three I've laid out here. If God is infinitely wise, then the reasons behind any particular instance of evil (the Indonesian tsunami, the Rwandan genocide) may be opaque to us. If God will judge all of human history at the end of time and right all wrongs, then our anger towards injustice in the world is legitimate but is horribly misdirected if we turn it against God. And finally, as finite human beings who are deeply morally flawed, we have no right to pass judgments on God and little reason to believe that these judgments will be accurate. However, in spite of all these answers, it is true that the existence of evil is something of a mystery and is certainly hard to comprehend. God does not necessarily come to us with answers. Instead, He comes to us -as He came to Job- and asks us to trust him.
An atheist may then ask a valid question: why should I trust God? Do I have any reasons to believe that He is trustworthy? Do I have any reason to believe that He is really going to end evil one day and that He is using even the worst evil to accomplish his good purposes? It is here that Christianity offers an answer that other religions do not. Here Christianity points to the cross of Jesus Christ as the ultimate vindication of God's goodness in the face of evil and suffering.
The illustration I've used before is a reporter interviewing an admiral in the Navy. During the interview, word comes in that one of the Admiral's ships is under attack and will certainly be sunk if help doesn't come. The admiral hears the news and turns white but doesn't respond. The reported leaps up and says "Send help! Tell them to withdraw! There are hundreds of men on that ship who will all die!" Still, the admiral says nothing. The reporter begins to curse the admiral's pride, his indifference, and his cruelty until one of the sailors pulls the reporter to the side and whispers "The Admiral's son is the captain of that ship." Instantly, the reporter would know that whatever the reasons the Admiral has for his actions, indifference cannot be one of them.
We might question God's motives and curse God's indifference and berate God's cruelty.
But when we recognize what it cost God to destroy evil and sin without
destroying us, we can only fall on our knees and ask for his
forgiveness. Christians do not believe that the physical
suffering that Jesus endured -although terrible and excruciating- was
the main component of his agony. The Bible tells us that Jesus was made
a substitute for us, that he bore our sin. On the cross, Jesus did not
just experience nails and thorns, but God's furious and awful wrath against
evil. When we think about unjust suffering and the problem of evil, the greatest
example that comes to mind ought to be the suffering of Jesus.
God caused the punishment that we deserve to fall on His own beloved son.
When we see what Jesus suffered on the cross, it gives
us a very concrete reason to trust God in the midst of a world filled
III. An illegitimate objection: The actual existence of evil disproves the existence of the biblical God
I've discussed the problem of evil with several atheist and agnostic friends and they tend to agree that there is nothing obviously invalid or false in the arguments I've presented above. However, their objection is that they find such arguments unsatisfying. I think that such a response is certainly possible, but it means that we have significantly shifted the grounds of our debate. We are no longer asking whether Christianity is true or valid or internally self-consistent, but whether it is "satisfying." This is still a reasonable question to ask, but we are now permitted to examine the alternatives. If the Christian answer to the problem of evil is unsatisfying, then we are permitted to ask what the other potential answers to the problem of evil are.
Related to this issue is a second use to which atheists put the problem of evil: namely, that the actual existence of evil disproves the existence of the Christian God. We are not asking whether Christian beliefs in God and in evil are internally consistent. Rather, we are claiming that the actual existence of evil renders God's existence impossible. To see the difference between these two objections, it is helpful to compare this reasoning to that of another related argument. An atheist might argue that a belief in the existence of hell and belief in a loving God are incompatible. However, if the atheist instead argued that the actual existence of hell means that God does not exist we would be rightly confused and surprised. Our response should be: "As an atheist, do you believe that hell actually exists? If so, then how does that belief fit into your atheistic worldview?" In this case, we see the obvious difference between arguing that two Christian beliefs are inconsistent and arguing that one belief is actually true such that the other must be false. The problem of evil can be used in either of these two ways. As I discussed in the last section, we might legitimately claim that the existence of evil and the existence of a good God are incompatible. But as soon as we start arguing that the actual existence of evil disproves the existence of God, we need to immediately ask whether it is meaningful for an atheist to talk about evil in this way. Both the claim that the Christian answer to the problem of evil is "unsatisfying" relative to the alternative explanations and the claim that the actual existence of evil disproves the existence of the Christian God require us to examine what an atheist means when he calls something “evil”.
To begin, I need to draw a distinction between evil and transcendent evil. A property is "transcendent" if it has an objective referent. For instance, the existence of gravity is a transcendent truth that exists regardless of whether humans are here to recognize it, acknowledge it, or even exist to comment on it. In contrast, other properties like "deliciousness" are non-transcendent because they have no objective referent. No one claims that rye bread is delicious in a transcendent sense. The concept of "deliciousness" varies from culture to culture and from person to person. It refers to a personal,subjective experience and has no objective referent.
Now if an atheist wants to use the existence of evil to disprove the existence of God, he needs evil to be a transcendent property. To see why, we need only consider the alternative. What if an atheist believes that evil is a non-transcendent property? In that case, evil is a subjective concept that varies from culture to culture and person to person like any other non-transcendent property. But how exactly can a subjective, personal preference for anything be used as an argument against God's existence? If our aversion to evil really is merely a personal or cultural preference, then we might as well use our aversion to celery or classical music as evidence for God's non-existence. An atheist might argue that evil is different than other non-transcendent properties because his aversion to evil is much stronger than his aversion to celery or classical music. The revulsion we feel when considering child abuse or genocide is far greater than the revulsion we experience from a certain taste or sound. But this objection will also not suffice. If I loathed celery with every ounce of my being, would the existence of celery then disprove God's existence? Or could an agoraphobe legitimately use the existence of crowds to disprove God's existence? Or if I woke up one morning to find that I loathed peace, justice, and love then would the existence of peace, justice and love be evidence of God's non-existence? Unless evil is bad in a transcendent sense, unless the concept of evil exists independent of my personal preferences or definitions, then it cannot be used as evidence that God is not transcendentally Good.
But here the atheist faces a problem. Is there room within an atheistic worldview to say that evil is in any sense transcendentally bad? A Christian (or a theist in general) can obviously affirm that evil is transcendentally bad. Goodness and peace and love and justice are all transcendent properties because they are grounded in God's character. On the other hand, it is highly unclear whether transcendent standards of good and evil can exist within an atheistic worldview. To be precise here, it is not exactly atheism that precludes a transcendent basis for good and evil but naturalism. For instance, I think it is possible to believe in the existence of transcendent evil as a deist or a Platonic idealist. In both cases, transcendent evil is grounded in the existence of a trans-natural reality, whether the existence of some impersonal First Cause in the case of deism or the realm of "forms" in the case of Platonism. In contrast, naturalism denies the existence of any a trans-natural reality. As Carl Sagan put it memorably, naturalism holds that the Universe "all that is or ever was or ever will be." Within such a view, transcendent properties must refer to some element of the natural world, since the natural world is all that exists.
One of the aspects that distinguishes the Neoatheists from more traditional atheists is that they believe that the existence of evil is compatible with naturalism. It is interesting to consider how they solve this problem. Sam Harris, for instance, utterly rejects the idea that good and evil are culturally or personally determined. But because he realizes that within naturalism all properties must refer to some element of the natural world, he defines evil as "actions which result in the unhappiness of sentient creatures" and good as "actions which result in the happiness of sentient creatures." Since "happiness" and "unhappiness" can potentially be associated with the firing of certain neurons in the brain, we would then have an objective, naturalistic basis for "good" and "evil". The problem is that Harris' project relies entirely on his particular definition of good. He defines "good" as "that which leads to the firing of certain neurons in the brain of sentient creatures". But which neurons? What if we equated "good" with the firing of a different set of neurons, say those associated with pain or the perception of saltiness? That would certainly be a different definition of "good". But the crucial question is whether this would be an incorrect or false definition of "good"? In fact, we return to the original problem. Is there a definition of good or the concept of good which is not constructed by human beings or cultures, but which transcends them?
Traditional atheists like Sartre, Camus, Russell, or Rorty recognized this problem and said that the answer was clearly "No". They were convinced that the natural world provides no basis for properties like good and evil. Despite the vociferous claims of the Neoatheists, I've talked to many thoughtful atheists today who are similarly convinced that naturalism does not provide a basis for transcendent properties like meaning, value, good and evil or right and wrong. They believe that these concepts are defined by the individual or the community or the culture, but have no transcendent basis which grounds them irrespective of our own definitions. In what follows, let me try to provide several arguments to support the case that naturalism does not permit the existence of transcendent evil.
First of all, within a naturalistic framework, humans are simply highly evolved animals. Yet we apply moral categories like "good" and "evil" or "right" and "wrong" to humans, but not to other animals. Why? Would we travel to the jungle to throw an unruly alpha-male chimpanzee into jail for oppressing the other males in his tribe? Of course not. But why would we do so for a human? Is it because we are (slightly) more biologically complex than chimpanzees? But why should moral categories only apply to complex animals? To be a consistent naturalist, we have to explain why concepts like "good" and "evil" apply to human beings but not to other animals.
Second, within a naturalistic framework, all biological life is simply a highly complex set of chemical reactions and physical phenomena, much like a complicated computer. Yet we would hesitate to call a supercomputer or its behavior "evil". Even if a computer were programmed to wipe out an entire race, we would blame the human programmer but not the computer. In the same way we might blame a bridge designer, but not the bridge itself, for its disastrous collapse. Why this double standard? As a naturalist, we have to explain why concepts like "good" and "evil" apply to human beings but not to other highly complex chemical reactions.
Third, human beings obviously do not agree on what constitutes moral behavior. As a Westerner, I am outraged when a villager in a traditionalist society beats his wife. But the villager is outraged that I don't beat my wife. Now I am not primarily asking here who is right. I'm pointing out that the question of who is right is meaningless to a naturalist. If there is no trans-human moral standard by which all human moral standards are judged, then there is no sense in which any moral standard can be "right" or "wrong". They are simply different. If we answer that one particular standard is more likely to lead to a stable society, I would respond: 1) how do I know that love and justice will lead to a stable society? The Aztecs achieved a very stable society that involved human sacrifice. If we really found that the annual slaughter of innocent children led to a more stable society, would we conclude that this behavior was "right"? 2) More importantly, why is a stable society "right"? If doing what will lead to a stable society (or the survival of the human race or the happiness of others) happens to involve personal cost and sacrifice, why is it "right" to make such sacrifices? What if the villager has no interest in creating a stable society at his own personal expense or at the expense of his own family or his own village? As a naturalist, we have to explain why certain actions are truly "good" while other actions are truly "evil" regardless of whether other cultures or societies disagree with our definitions.
Fourth, within the naturalistic framework, where would the basis for morality reside? All of the natural sciences deal with understanding how matter and energy interact. Science can tell us a lot about what "is". For instance, science can tell us that our genes are encoded by DNA, that water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen, or that villagers in traditional cultures do beat their wives. But how can science or any other empirical observation tell us what "ought" to be? What do we even mean when we say that something "ought" to be this way rather than that way? In doing so, we are comparing the ways things are (which can be observed by science) to some standard of how things "should" be. Can this standard be part of the natural realm? If so, then how? If not, then where would it reside since -according to the naturalist- the natural realm is "all that ever was, or is, or shall be"?
Finally, over the centuries, there have been many mutually exclusive definitions of "good" from within a purely naturalistic framework (consider Ayn Rand versus Camus versus Sam Harris). Now if there is no transcendent standard of "right" and "good" and "just", then why are we not permitted to say along with Ayn Rand that what is "good" is what maximizes my own personal happiness without any consideration for the feelings of others? If we answer that no one thinks this way, I would point to thousands of objectivists who do think this way. If we answer that acting on this ethos would destabilize society, I would point out that Ayn Rand didn't think it would and didn't really care anyway, since the point of morality is not to benefit society but to maximize my personal happiness. If there is no transcendent standard of right and wrong, then there is no sense in which Ayn Rand's definition of morality is "incorrect" or "wrong" or "bad" when compared to Harris' or Camus' definition of morality.
Based on the objections raised above it seems that naturalism provides
no basis for the existence of transcendent evil. To be a consistent naturalist, we'd have to recognize
that all of horrible suffering and "evil" we see in the world around
us is not transcendentally good or bad. It just is. The suffering of
human beings may feel significant to us and may make us sad, but it is
not qualitatively different than the suffering of insects or the
scattering of cosmic dust particles from the sun. In that case, it
would be silly for a naturalist to claim that our personal preferences
for "good" and "peace" and "love" call into question the existence or
Goodness of God any more than I would claim my personal preference for vanilla ice
cream calls into question God's existence or Goodness. We are certainly permitted to
argue that theism's
view of God's existence is internally inconsistent, but we cannot
appeal to evil to disprove God's existence since evil is not a transcendent concept.
Only if evil is transcendentally Bad or Wrong could it possibly be used as an
argument against the existence of a transcendentally Good God.
After reflecting on the problems inherent with the existence of transcendent evil within a naturalistic worldview, what are the options? I think there are two. The first is adopt some form of Platonic idealism which holds that transcendent evil really does exist. In this case, we can condemn the evil and suffering in the world as transcendentally bad and could even potentially use it as evidence of God's non-existence. However, to make this accusation we have had to assume the existence of a non-natural Standard of good and evil. Whence comes this Standard? Moreover, if we adopted such a view wouldn't we be relieved and gratified that -after all- the blind indifference of the universe and the meaningless suffering we see is not good; that this suffering is condemned by the Standard? It almost seems as if the Standard itself is good: that it is the essence of goodness itself because it the measure by which all other things are evaluated. This is not far from the view that Plato himself held. If my readers reach this conclusion, then there is a passage I would recommend which I believe was written particularly with Neoplatonists in mind. See John, Chapter 1 verses 1-14 and the reflections of Augustine of Hippo on how this passage relates to Neoplatonism.
However, the second option is to jettison our idea of transcendent evil. Our arguments will then be consistent, but we will not be able to use the existence of evil and suffering as evidence against God's existence. Evil and suffering may be deeply abhorrent to us but they have no transcendent referent. The suffering of children and the death of our loved ones may cause us emotional pain, but our pain is no more or less significant than any of the other myriad biochemical reactions that take place in our bodies on a daily basis. Is this a bleak view? Is this a tragic view? Great atheists of the past thought so. One of my favorite quotes is from Bertrand Russell's essay 'A Free Man's Worship' in which he writes of the implications of naturalism:
That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins--all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul's habitation henceforth be safely built.
At this point, we need to return once more to the beginning of this section and ask an important question: is this answer satisfying? As unsatisfying as the answer of Christianity may be to us, it seems that the answer naturalism offers is far, far less satisfying - both intellectually and emotionally. A naturalistic definition of evil which denies it a transcendent basis contradicts our natural intuition that certain things are simply Wrong. Whenever we talk about evil, we tend to automatically place it into an objective, transcendent category. We don't claim that murder is unproductive or self-defeating or destabilizing. We say that it is wicked. We assume that what is Evil ought not to be, regardless of our own feelings or the standards of our culture. A definition which flies in the face of our most basic intuition might still be true, but it can hardly be said to be satisfying.
Furthermore, a naturalistic definition of evil is deeply emotionally unsatisfying. To a naturalist, transcendent evil doesn't exist; the universe just happens to be the way it is. Millions of orphans die in Africa, people live in a slum and die in a gutter, sex slaves are bought and sold in East Asia and all of this is just part of the way things are. They are not transcendentally good or bad or right or wrong. These occurrences are really no different than the death of billions of microbes or the diffusion of ink through a glass of water. Human beings may find suffering sad and tragic, but when every human being is extinct, the uncaring universe will roll on just as before, completely indifferent to all of our pain and misery. Naturalism doesn't even grant us the courtesy of a basis for our outrage. Shaking our fist at the suffering is no different than shaking our fist at happiness. Again, I ask the reader: is this answer satisfying? Is this what we really mean when we talk about good and evil? Doesn't the very fact that we hurl the existence of evil as an accusation against God show us that we know evil to be really, truly, objectively wrong?
As unsatisfying as I may find the biblical response, we ought to at least recognize that it accords far better with our intrinsic understanding of good and evil than the naturalistic answer. As difficult and mysterious as the Bible's answers may be, it affirms that transcendent evil truly exists and is truly horrible. God can pay our assessment of evil no greater compliment than by agreeing with it. But at this point, we return to the personal question with which we started. Where do we stand? Often, we desire to draw a line between good and evil. God himself draws such a line. The difference is where we put ourselves. All people, of all political, cultural, and religious persuasions, tend to see the evil as "out there" on the other side of the line. The Bible challenges us to have the courage to mentally step over the line and admit our own moral failure. The problem of evil is not primarily a problem with God, but a problem with us. Christianity claims that this problem has been answered definitively, once and for all, on the cross. It is there that God himself solved our problem of evil by bearing the cost himself.
Other resources: Many books in the Bible and particular passages are relevant to the problem of evil. See the book of Job 38-41, Isaiah 54, Habakkuk, Romans 9:6-29, Revelation 21. Some of the points in the first section are taken from Chapter 2 if Tim Keller's Reason for God, which I highly recommend. The argument presented in the second section on the inability of naturalism to provide a basis for transcendent evil owes much to C.S. Lewis' work Mere Christianity, especially Book II, Chapter 1.
- What does it mean to live in a universe where God judges evil?
- A Long Response to Sam Harris' The End of Faith
- Harris FAQ - Are materialistic ethics possible?
- Our problem with God and His solution - 1 John 1:5-2:2, Transcript or Audio file
If anyone reading this essay has questions about it or about Christianity in general, feel free to e-mail me at Neil -AT- Shenvi.org. I also highly recommend the book The Reason for God by Tim Keller. It is phenomenal. Free sermons treating many of the topics covered by this book can be found here.