Thoughts on Theodicy

One of the most famous reasons to reject the existence of God is the existence of evil. Either evil or God can exist, not both. The dilemma relies on the supposition that these three propositions cannot all be true at once

  1. God is all good.
  2. God is all powerful.
  3. Evil exists.

In modern atheist rhetoric, the whole thing is stated as though not a single Christian, Jewish, Muslim, otherwise religious person has ever noticed the potential logical hang up with believing these three things. Thus a non-Christian or atheist of some sort will point out that a good God would stop evil, a powerful God can, but evil happens therefore either proposition 1 or 2 isn’t true…therefore in a non-sequitur of immense proportions, “if God is not all powerful or all good by my definition, then God does not exist.”

Now, many solutions to the problem of evil have been proposed and of them some are logically sound solutions. This is very important because the rhetoric works like that:

  1. If I can make you feel confused about the problem of evil, then you are irrationally believing in God.
  2. I stated the problem of evil, therefore you are confused,(or even if you’re not), therefore God does not exist. (I know it does not follow, just thinking of discussions at dinner parties.)

The more sophisticated version is here:

  1. Believing in God does not comport with reality if the problem of evil creates a contradiction.
  2. The problem of evil does entail a contradiction.
  3. The law of non-contradiction states that contradictory statements cannot both be true.
  4. Therefore one of your beliefs (God is powerful, God is good, and evil exist) is false.

Here’s the thing. As long as there is, as far as I know, one logical solution to the problem of evil (even if you do not think that solution is true), then it loses its force as an argument.

The argument against God’s existence from the existence of evil does not require the discovery of a 100% true solution to be rendered null. It simply requires a demonstration that the propositions are not necessarily contradictory. This is why we still use Newtonian physics despite the existence of other models that apparently create a contradiction. There is not, that I am aware of, a definitively true, solution to the relationship between classical physics, quantum mechanics, and physics approaching the speed of light. But a plausible account is what allows the propositions of those systems to be held until a truer solution is produced.

With respect to the theistic problem of evil, Vox Day, a video game programmer and fiction author, has written a brief but poignant response to the classical problem of evil:

As for the idea that an all-powerful and all-loving God should wish to stop and be able to stop evil, to say nothing of the idea that the existence of evil therefore disproves the existence of such a god, well, that doesn’t even rise to the level of midwittery [this word, which I know I heard growing up, is a Voxism on the internet].

 

One has to have a truly average mind and remain ignorant of basic Biblical knowledge to find either of those concepts even remotely convincing.

 

Imagine the Sisyphean hell that is the existence of a video game character, literally created to die over and over and over again. Does the misery of his existence prove that the video game developer does not exist? Of course not. Does it prove that the developer has any limits upon him that the video game character can observe? Of course not. Does it prove that the developer has any particular enmity for the character? Not at all.

 

Now, it does prove that the developer is not all-loving. But then, the Christian God is not all-loving. He plays favorites. He loves some and He is very specific about others for whom He harbors not only antipathy, but outright hatred. It is fine to attack the idea of an all-loving god, but it is a mistake to assume any such attack is even remotely relevant to the Christian religion.

Vox’s points evade the objection to God’s existence on the grounds of analogy. If a video game programmer makes a game whose characters have awful experiences, the programmer still exists. On that score, our objections to God’s existence on the grounds of our experiences in life don’t square with the logical arguments nor the testimonial evidence that God/gods exist(s).

He also notes that God, in Scripture, plays favorites. There is a sense in which that is true. I would say that Scripture does tend toward the notion that God is love and thus all-loving. But God being all loving does not mean, as is mistakenly supposed, that God is equally nice to all. His point still stands, even if one of his premises needs fine tuning. It’s more accurate, I suppose, to say that God is love in the same way that God is good. God is the height of goodness in a sense that is infinitely superior and also infinitely other than our own.

Aside from Vox’s objection, it is also the case that many people who suffer the most god-forsaken experiences and torments, like Jesus on the cross and still end up believing in God and God’s love. So the argument against God’s existence from the existence of evil fails on evidence of the experience of many religious persons. Of course, one could respond that they’re experiencing severe cognitive dissonance.

As mentioned above, there are several other solutions to the problem. Many of them are falsifiable, many are compatible with one another, and some contradict others, but they take any logical bite out of the objection to God’s existence because of evil):

  1. God created evil on purpose (Calvin, Augustine, Edwards, Jung, etc).
  2. Evil is an aberration within creation. (Open theism, classical theism, Anabaptist thought)
  3. A creation with the possibility of evil is a necessary precursor to a creation without evil (Irenaeus, Dallas Willard, Plantinga, and Swinburne)
  4. Evil is non-existent, it is simply a good thing going against its nature by means of deformity or free will. It is a designation for such things as deviate from God. It is not an actual subsisting thing (if no wills existed besides God’s, none of creation could be evil no matter how desolate, because existence is good).  (Aquinas, Eastern Orthodox thought)
  5. Creation entails difference from God, thus the possibility of evil, precisely because creation is not God.
  6. God is not all good.
  7. God is not all powerful.
  8. God is all powerful and all good, but those do not mean what you think they mean.
  9. God finds the problem of evil abhorrent too, hence the incarnation, the cross, the resurrection, and the promised new creation. God is solving it in creation and space-time history.

On the Importance of Philosophical Reasoning for Biblical Exegesis: Edward Feser and Romans 1:18-23

Introduction
In my mind, the ability to engage in philosophical reasoning in order to tease out the implications of particular interpretations of the Bible and other truths is indispensable for reading the Bible and teaching it to others.

Example

Edward Feser, in a post titled, “Repressed Knowledge of God?” comments that the common interpretation of Romans 1:18-23 is mistaken. Here is the passage in question from the ESV, I would translate it differently, but it reflects the most common interpretation:

Romans 1:18-23 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. (19) For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. (20) For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. (21) For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. (22) Claiming to be wise, they became fools, (23) and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

The common interpretation is that the atheist is the person to whom these verses refer. This can be seen in the writings of many schools of Christian apologetics. The idea is that atheism is always a matter of intellectual dishonesty because the Bible teaches that knowledge of the God of the Bible is so obvious that it can only be suppressed by sheer force of will. Personaly, I think that some people are atheists because they accept bad arguments just like some people believe in God for silly reasons.

Without thinking about Christian theology, the psychology of all atheists, and broader philosophical conclusions, the text of Romans 1:18-23 itself militates against seeing atheists in this passage. The passage is not about people who believe in no gods, but rather those who have good reason to worship the God of the Hebrew Scriptures, but choose to worship idols.(See the footnote of this post about the passage in question for an alternative interpretation). The passage gives good insight into the results of idolatry, which is related to atheism, but it is not directly about atheism at all.

Feser, without attempting to exegete the Bible passage in question, refutes the view that God’s existence is so obvious as to only be denied on purpose rather handily. Here is the relevant portion of his argument:

Do we have a natural tendency to believe in God? Yes, but in something like the way in which someone might have a natural aptitude for music or for art. You might be inclined to play some instrument or to draw pictures, but you’re not going to do either very well without education and sustained practice.  And without cultivating your interest in music or art, your output might remain at a very crude level, and your ability might even atrophy altogether.

Or consider moral virtue.  It is natural to us, but only in the sense that we have a natural capacity for it.  Actually to acquire the virtues still requires considerable effort.  As Aquinas writes: “[V]irtue is natural to man inchoatively…both intellectual and moral virtues are in us by way of a natural aptitude, inchoatively, but not perfectly…(Summa Theologiae I-II.63.1, emphasis added), and “man has a natural aptitude for virtue; but the perfection of virtue must be acquired by man by means of some kind of training” (Summa Theologiae I-II.95.1).

Now, knowledge of God is like this. We are indeed naturally inclined to infer from the natural order of things to the existence of some cause beyond it.  But the tendency is not a psychologically overwhelming one like our inclination to eat or to breathe is. It can be dulled.  Furthermore, the inclination is not by itself sufficient to generate a very clear conception of God.  As Aquinas writes:

To know that God exists in a general and confused way is implanted in us by nature, inasmuch as God is man’s beatitude… This, however, is not to know absolutely that God exists; just as to know that someone is approaching is not the same as to know that Peter is approaching, even though it is Peter who is approaching… (Summa Theologiae I.2.1, emphasis added)

In other words, from a philosophical point of view, to claim that God’s existence is only and ever obvious, is simply untrue. Now, that does not automatically mean that Paul doesn’t teach the falsified point of view. But for those with a conservative evangelical definition of the Bible, it means alternative interpretations should be sought.