Friday, September 14, 2007

POST #7 Theodicy, Evil's Riddle

With this post, we launch into a discussion of the “Problem of Evil”. This post is part one of a three part discussion ...

From a distance we all have enough,
and no one is in need.
And there are no guns, no bombs, and no disease,
no hungry mouths to feed....
God is watching us. God is watching us.
God is watching us from a distance.

Bette Middler popularized these Julie Gold lyrics in her 1990 hit single, “From a Distance”. In the shadow of the First Gulf War, our nation sang along as the recording climbed the charts to #1. It expresses the highest hopes of many postmodern minds. God, if he exists at all, must be the God of the deist: distant, uninvolved, perhaps even uncaring. Why is God watching us only “from a distance”? Because if he were truly here, he would surely do more to correct the many evils of the world.

Deism is that belief which conceptualizes God as something of a watchmaker. He designs and creates the watch, sets it to ticking, and then never picks it up again. Deism was born in the wake of an earlier war, the devastating 30 year war in Europe. It gained traction from the scientific advancements of the 17th and 18th century. But deism is primarily an effort on man’s part to harmonize the notion of a God with the realities of the evil and suffering we see on earth.

From the standpoint of the skeptic, there is no greater barrier to belief than the problem of evil. It is the issue most often cited by the atheist and the agnostic. It has been called the “rock of atheism” (Hans Kung). All my adult life, I have struggled with this problem, and the standard Christian responses. The problem can be summarized by the following broken syllogism:

1) If God is personal, good, loving and compassionate; and
2) if God is all-powerful, in control of the cosmos; then
3) how and why does atrocious evil, including man on man violence and what is sometimes called “natural evil” (earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, meteorites, etc) resulting in so much human suffering and death, continue to exist.

The problem of evil is by far the most rational and forceful argument in the arsenal of thinking unbelievers against an all-powerful, benevolent God. It is also the most difficult riddle for thoughtful people of faith.

The greatest mind of the last century, Albert Einstein, struggled with belief in a God. His own theory of General Relativity predicted that our universe had a beginning, and thus, a First Cause. But this conclusion he found distasteful, and he tried to overcome it with new theories. But when Edwin Hubble’s telescope established the origin of the universe from a single point, Einstein finally yielded to the necessity of a Creator. His own discoveries led him to abandon his earlier agnosticism, and he become a professed believer in God. But he settled upon the god of the deist, as he could never bring himself to believe in the Christian God or the God of his own Jewish upbringing. Einstein rejected the notion of a personal God. The reason? he could find no way around the problem of evil.

The many horrors of the 20th Century served to deepen this troubling conundrum. The Jewish theologian Eugene Borowitz commented on the Holocaust:

“Any God who could permit the Holocaust, who could remain silent during it, who could ‘hide His face’ while it dragged on, was not worth believing in. There might well be a limit to how much we could understand Him, but Auschwitz demanded an unreasonable suspension of understanding. In the face of such great evil, God, the good and the powerful, was too inexplicable, so men said, ‘God is dead.’”

The horrors of the Holocaust are all too well known. For their evening entertainment, Nazi soldiers trucked small Jewish children to their bonfires, dumping them into the fire. As the terrified screaming children attempted to flee the flames, Nazis armed with pitchforks stood guard, barring their way. The drumbeat of evil touching the lives of our most vulnerable continues to roll: every day, on some street in Thailand, or perhaps another country, some small child is whisked away from his or her parents, and sold into sex-slavery, destined now to die of some horrible disease at a young age. And God looks on.

There is a profound exchange in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamozov in which Ivan relates a very sad story to his brother Alyosha, an Orthodox priest. It is the story of a young boy’s unfortunate scrape with a cruel general in the Russian Army. The boy had thrown a stone which hit the paw of the general’s favorite hunting dog. This enraged the general, and he put the boy in a cold cell for the night. The following morning, while the boy’s mother looked on, the boy was stripped naked, and ordered to run. The general then turned his hunting dogs loose, and the boy was torn to pieces. Ivan asks his brother this searing question:

“Tell me yourself, I challenge you. Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature ... and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell me the truth.”

Os Guiness identifies the problem of evil as “life’s greatest challenge,” which is the subtitle of his book Unspeakable published in 2005. Written in a post 9/11 age, Unspeakable offers a chilling discussion of the manifestations of evil which reached a horrifying crescendo during the last century. The answers he suggests for this riddle come from one of the greatest contemporary evangelical thinkers, but I found them to be personally unsatisfying.

Evil’s existence has given rise to a branch of theology and apologetics called theodicy, man’s effort to explain why horrendous evil survives in a universe created and governed by a benevolent Almighty. The word theodicy literally implies an effort to “justify God”. From C.S. Lewis (The Problem of Pain) to Os Guiness (Unspeakable) Christians have sought to make sense of this horrible riddle. There are typical lines of reasoning suggested in Christian theodicy. I have heard and read these proposed solutions from many sources. In my next post, I will discuss the typical Christian response to the problem of evil, including the response that objects to the notion that we should even ask these hard questions. I will let the reader judge if these responses are rational and satisfying. In a subsequent post, I will reexamine the problem of evil in light of the earlier posts on entropy, and suggest a new understanding of the place of evil in this cosmos.


Stephen (aka Q) said...

A well-written post.

I have a question on a tangential point. You assert that Albert Einstein moved from agnosticism to Deism. I have seen assertions about this in both directions in the blogosphere. I'm just wondering what your source is for establishing that Einstein ended up a believer (of sorts).

Cliff Martin said...

I have also seen this bit of history variously described. I'm not sure I could source this. I've read several accounts of Einstein's spiritual journey. I believe there was a Time magazine article in the last three or four months on Einstein and his beliefs. I'm sure you could google it. I'm very limited for time at the moment, or I would do so myself. I have the Time article at home ... but I am in Canada at the moment. Anyone else have some sources for this?

Clay said...

Here is one TIME reference from, Person of the Century: Albert Einstein, January 3, 2000 by FREDERIC GOLDEN

For Stalinists, relativity represented rampant capitalist individualism; for some churchmen, it meant ungodly atheism, even though Einstein, who had an impersonal Spinozan view of God, often spoke about trying to understand how the Lord (der Alte, or the Old Man) shaped the universe.

Cliff Martin said...

Thank you, Clay. That fairly representents my own impression of Einstein's theism.

Clay said...

Actually, this is the more recent article that you referenced:

Einstein & Faith
Thursday, Apr. 05, 2007 By WALTER ISAACSON

Anonymous said...

One of the best books on the subject is probably The Problem of Evil and the Judgments of God. Here is one quote from the preface. "All of mankind must learn to realize what God is to them by an actual experience of what it means to be without Him. Then they will be able to give Him the unforced outflow of their hearts. Then they will appreciate it when His judgments permanently right all wrongs and eliminate all evil, through the suffering Sacrifice He has provided" The writers theology is very different from the mainstream approach, so people will need to be open minded. He knows his stuff however, and actually was a bible translator, who through the translating changed his views considerably.