Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Problem of Evil: I. God’s Modus Operandi

This is the first in a series of posts on the Problem of Evil (hereafter referred to as PoE). In this series, I offer my own resolution to the quadrilemma of Epicurus discussed in this earlier post. The series will be several posts long. The full picture will only become clear as all posts are presented. For this reason, I will not generally respond to challenges or arguments to individual posts. But I am more than happy to answer any questions for clarification.

I believe that the quadrilemma of Epicurus relies heavily upon assumptions about God and his purpose for the Creation, and for man. The church has often upheld a theology which, in my view, contains misconceptions which inadvertently give rise to the rational objections of skepticism. The PoE is a “problem” in part because of these widely held assumptions, assumptions which are common both to believers and nonbelievers. I will, in this series, challenge a number of these assumptions, among them:

1) Man is central to Creation. Christians typically believe that man is the
raison d'être of the cosmos; that is, we are the primary reason for all Creation. In this view, evil is a sidebar story, one that intersects God’s central purpose in various ways. It is not the main story. The main story is man. Not only is this assumption self-aggrandizing, but it becomes a major building block in the development of the PoE. I will challenge this view.

2) The Chief Purpose of Man. Related to the first assumption is the commonly held view that God created man for fellowship. The chief purpose of man is “to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever” ... or so the Westminster Confession famously declares. With respect to the PoE, this assumption typically leads to the “free will” defense which argues the following: in order for God to have the quality of fellowship he desired, it was necessary to give his created beings the freedom to choose him or not, thus leaving the door open to rebellion and consequent evil. While fully endorsing free will, I will nevertheless challenge parts of this view, and suggest an entirely different “chief purpose of man.”

3) Evil invaded a previously pristine Creation. The assumption is that God’s original Creation was idyllic, a Garden of Eden without flaw. It is assumed that God would not create a broken universe, one with a component of evil at its very outset. According to this assumption, evil enters this unspoiled Creation as an unwanted guest, through the rebellion of Satan and his angelic followers, and/or through the rebellion of man as illustrated in the first three chapters of Genesis. I will challenge this view.

4) Pain and suffering can have no ultimate meaning. The PoE is only a problem if we neglect the many promises of Scripture to those who suffer unjustly. While not answering all our “why” questions, or specifically detailing exactly how suffering plays into God’s purposes, the Bible does make it clear that suffering has very high value for this age and the next. The materialist who only sees a temporal existence may never grasp the eternal value of suffering. Moreover, many believers have failed to fit suffering into its eternal context, a context in which suffering is redeemed, and glory is bestowed commensurately to suffering.

5) God would not battle evil the same way he instructs us to. Jesus instructs his followers not to resist evil. Paul, quoting the Hebrew Scriptures, teaches us to overcome evil with good. Yet it is typically assumed by both sides in the PoE debates that an omnipotent God could and would merely annihilate evil through the use of his superior power, if he chose to do so. It is this assumption that I wish to challenge in today’s post.

Let’s first set the stage. The Bible clearly teaches that we live in the midst of a battle of cosmic proportions between good and evil. The battle is, at times, territorial. There are places and times when the forces of evil clearly have the upper hand. Jesus identifies Satan, the archenemy of God and ruler of the forces of evil, as the ruler of this world (John 12:31; John 14:30; John 16:11). Many other Scriptures could be cited which demonstrate that evil often has the upper hand in this cosmic war. It is clear that we do not live in a world in which God does whatever he pleases whenever he pleases. Jesus taught his followers to pray that the will of God would be done on the earth, a clear indication that God’s will is not being done here. The Scriptures make it clear the there are rules of engagement in the battle of the ages. This is not a matter of God lacking omnipotence. It is a matter of legal rights, rules of engagement with the adversary, legalities which God honors. Much could be said about this cosmic battle. It provides the backdrop which we must understand if we are to make any sense of the evils, both natural and moral, that we observe in our world. But in this post, I limit my discussion to these questions: what is God’s modus operandi in this battle? what are his tactics? and how does he intend to destroy evil?

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus presents a radical approach to dealing with evil. In Matthew 5:38-45 he says
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (NIV)
This teaching of Jesus has been variously dubbed as “nonresistance”, “the way of peace”, and “pacifism”. It has been the subject of many heated debates (and I do not wish to start a new debate here!). Whatever your views about political pacifism, Augustine’s “Just War Theory”, civil police action, etc., it is clear that on some personal level, at least, Jesus is teaching that a great strategy for overcoming evil, perhaps the best strategy, is to lay down our resistance to evil. To love those who hate us. To turn the other cheek. To go the extra mile. To pray for our oppressors. To freely give.

The standard approach of dealing with evil (and most of the Old Testament presents this approach) is to overpower it, to subdue it. Moses offered a system of holding evil in check through a carefully defined system of measured retribution: “an eye for an eye”. Jesus offers a new approach, an approach that is radically counterintuitive: Destroy evil ... rob it of its power to procreate ... by offering up NO RESISTANCE.

Many confuse the teachings of Jesus on pacifism with “passivity”. Nothing could be further from the truth, as the following slide illustrates:

Rather than being a passive, door-mat response to evil, the approach taught by Jesus is the most effective way to deal with evil in the long run. This is the secret of many great leaders like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., who once said “We will wear you down by our ability to suffer.” What did he mean? He meant that the power of the oppressor would be more effectively broken by nonresistance than by open battle. And he understood that this approach would necessarily entail much suffering.

The anabaptist theologian, Myron Augsburger, puts it this way: “Turning the other cheek is not a surrender, but a strategy for operation.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, explains:
"The only way to overcome evil is to let it run itself to a standstill because it does not find the resistance it is looking for. Resistance merely creates further evil and adds fuel to the flames. But when evil meets no opposition and encounters no obstacle but only patient endurance, its sting is drawn, and at last it meets an opponent which is more than its match. Of course this can only happen when the last ounce of resistance is abandoned, and the renunciation of revenge is complete. Then evil cannot find its mark, it can breed no further evil, and is left barren."
Jesus not only taught this approach, he lived and died by it. His friend Simon Peter recalled the manner in which Jesus suffered and died: “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23 NIV). The Cross of Jesus Christ, that central feature of Christianity, is our iconic reminder that Jesus overcame evil not by his superior might, but through yielding his very life to its torments.

While many believers understand how the principle of peace operates in disarming and overcoming evil, we typically confine this modus operandi to our finite, human sphere. But if God teaches us to deal with evil through the greater powers of love and non-resistance, why do we expect that his own methods would instead involve his omnipotent power and domination? What of the possibility that God, in this cosmic warfare with evil, is using the very methods he gives to us. In fact, he is! At the close of those radical teachings on the power of peace and love, Jesus declares that when we practice his teachings we show ourselves to be “sons (and daughters!) of [our] Father in heaven.” That is, we are acting just like God!

If this be true, it changes many of our presuppositions about evil, suffering, and God’s response or his perceived lack of response. It would suggest that every bit of suffering at the hands of evil (in which God himself leads the way!) is just one more piece of the battle that ultimately destroys evil. It would suggest that the suffering of every man, women, and child is another nail in the coffin of evil. No wonder the Scriptures make such a point of connecting our temporal sufferings with ultimate glory!

Scripture suggests that the sufferings of all creation play a role in evil’s undoing (Romans 8:18-25). So even the suffering of animals may, in some way, contribute to the ultimate judgment and annihilation of all evil.

The Old Testament story of Job teaches us that, in our sufferings, there are “behind the scenes” realities that we do not always see or understand. Job’s perspective was limited. He suffered greatly, and tried, along with his friends, to piece together some kind of rational explanation for his pain and perceived injustice. In this respect, Job tried to sort out the PoE, just as we are doing today. But the reader of Job is given a cosmic perspective. The sufferings of Job were not the result of some isolated randomness, void of meaning. Rather, they were played out in the context of a much larger, ages-old battle between a good God and an evil Adversary. His sufferings had an eternal significance that Job perhaps never fully understood until his death gave him a retrospective eternal view. I believe that this will be true of all suffering endured in this cosmos.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

“The Problem of Evil” Debate: and the winner is ...

Sadly, the debate in the discussion of the preceding post has descended to personal attacks, perceived personal attacks, and recriminations. My goal is to maintain a higher level of mutual personal respect on this site, especially when the conversation is between believers and skeptics. Perhaps the fault is mine for offering the quadrilemma of Epicurus for discussion. The issue easily becomes an emotional one, it seems.

I appreciate many of the arguments offered by the theists who commented. Many of them have merit. But at the risk of alienating my believing friends (something I seem to be doing a lot lately!), I must declare myself on the side of the skeptics here. If I had to choose a winner, it would be Psiloiordinary, and the skeptics who joined him. Of course, I disagree with where their arguments lead them. I am solidly in the theist camp. But the tone of some of my fellow theists on this topic, their dismissiveness of the problem, their lack of humility distress me. The problem of evil is, in my view, a significant challenge to theism, one that has lacked a satisfactory answer. Christians often object to theodicy itself (that is, the felt need to defend God), as a pointless, even presumptuous endeavor. “Who do we think we are to sit in judgment of God and his actions?” they ask. I’ve never accepted such an approach. It presumes that, though the Creator made us rational and moral beings, he expects that we will not use these faculties in our response to him. No, for me the problem of evil is a very real problem, one that cannot be dealt with easily. We owe it to a world of skeptics to offer our best answers with a high level of humility.

Many who have thought long and hard on this problem have come to similar conclusions. Because the problem of evil is a real problem to me, and to my faith, I have read a number of books on the subject, including
The Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis, Unspeakable by Os Guinness, The Doors of the Sea by David Bentley Hart (which should be required reading by all who would engage in this debate!), and Is God to Blame by Gregory Boyd (which comes the closest to my own views). (I've also read the challenges of Richard Dawkins, and other atheists on the subject.) For the most part, the Christian authors above display a healthy tentativeness in their approach, and a humility in their tone befitting the issue at hand. There are no easy answers.

Having said that, I now propose to boldly lay out my own views on the problem of evil. I addressed these views briefly a year ago in a series of posts on this site. I will now resubmit them with more detail and elaboration. I will do this in a new series of posts. I will not defend or debate my thoughts as I present them. If readers have questions for clarification, I will be happy to respond. I will deal with reader objections only after I have finished the series. Fair enough?

I will begin shortly at an unlikely starting point: Jesus’ radical teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. Stay tuned ....

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Epicurus and the "Problem of Evil"

A frequent commenter here at OutsideTheBox responded to my previous post on the existence of evil with the famous 2300 year old quadrilemma of Epicurus:
Many skeptics contend that no satisfactory answer to Epicurus has ever been forwarded. Do you agree? I am mainly interested in the response of other believers. The problem of evil, which I have addressed in a series of posts a year ago (the "Theodicy" series), continues to be one of the primary lynch pins of unbelief. It is a reasonable objection to theism which cries out for a reasonable answer. Believers, how have you resolved the problem of evil? or have you? I will give my own specific response to Epicurus in the next post, but I'd like to hear first from you. Comments?

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Reasons: V. The Existence of Evil

In response to a friend who asked, I recently wrote an essay entitled "Reasons for My Belief". The full essay can be found by clicking here. Following is the fifth and final post in a series in which I single out the five evidences from the essay. I am including, in this final post, the "epilogue" closing remarks. The earlier post did not allow for comments. As I repost sections, I am seeking readers' comments. So, please, join in the discussion ...

On a recent visit to Phnom Penh, my wife and I toured Tuong Sleng Prison, where Pol Pot held his recent arrestees before they were sent off to the killing fields. At Tuong Sleng, these prisoners were systematically tortured by the Khmer Rouge in an effort to extract more names of resisters. The prison, and its artifacts, were grim reminders of how utterly evil human beings can become.

Many consider the Problem of Evil to be the strongest argument opposing faith, particularly Christian faith. I have discussed this at length in earlier posts (see the sidebar Main Post Series for links to the Theodicy posts #7 through #11). However, as I reflect upon the meaning of evil, I have found it to be one of the strongest validations of my faith. This is indeed a 180° inversion of “the Problem of Evil”.

Evil, in its various inhuman permutations, takes on a life of its own at times. Without doubt, much man-on-man evil can (sadly) find its logical source in adaptive evolution. Evolutionary psychology seeks to define all evil in terms of biology. Dawkins appeals to the “selfish gene” for which our minds and bodies are mere survival machines. But not all evil readily fits the pattern we would expect from evolution. It is these horrifying and monstrous examples of evil which lead me to conclude that evil indeed does have a life outside of our natural, material world; evil goes beyond biological impulse. And if this is so, if evil is at times the manifestation of a supernatural force or personality, the mere existence of such an evil is an indication to me of a countering supernatural, personal source of good.

I do not subscribe to philosophical or religious dualism. The existence of a good God is not dependent upon a balancing force of evil. However, supernatural malevolence, if it exists at all, powerfully indicates supernatural goodness. And for this reason, every instance of inexplicable evil we encounter (one need not look long in the annals of history) is one more piece of tangible evidence for a good Creator/God who is, I believe, locked in a cosmic war with evil. In my view, this cosmic battle dates back at least to the creation moment, and is the major theme playing out in our universe. This conflict forms the basis for much of my own theology.

Some might fail to follow this logic. Some will deny any logic exists in this argument at all! However, my skeptic friend asked for my reasons for believing; and though this one may seem strange to some, and is certainly subjective, it has for decades been a lynchpin for my own faith.


In these five lines of evidence, you may note a trend from objective toward subjective. I could add many additional evidences, but they would continue to be more and more subjective, more personal, more experiential. In truth, these experiences of a personal God who is involved in my life serve to verify my belief more than the objective evidences offered here. But I recognize that they will have less value as evidence for my readers, and hence I omit them. I sometimes appeal to the following analogy: I could never prove to a doubter that my wife loves me. I can offer no objective evidence. There is nothing in our relationship that could qualify as empirical proof of her love. And yet, I am as certain of her love as I am of almost anything else. Likewise, for myself and many other believers, God has made himself so real that our certainty approaches absolute knowledge, though we could never bring this certainty to bear upon another.

Nevertheless, these subjective, personal evidences are fortified in my mind when I consider the more objective evidences such as the finely tuned cosmos, the ordered universe, and the markers of intelligence. Indeed, the Bible appeals often to the testimony of creation (e.g. Romans 1:20, Psalm 19:1-4). I do not pretend that the evidence offered here should persuade a skeptic to alter his worldview. But I do believe that the nature of our cosmos provides ample ground to justify a serious exploration for an open-minded seeker of truth. For such a seeker, the ultimate proof will not be found in the words of a blog-post, but in the inscriptions of the heart.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Reasons: IV. The Transcendent Nature of Human Love

In response to a friend who asked, I recently wrote an essay entitled "Reasons for My Belief". The full essay can be found by clicking here. This post is the fourth in a series in which I single out the five evidences from the essay. The earlier post did not allow for comments. As I repost sections, I am seeking readers' comments. So, please, join in the discussion ...

My dictionary defines transcendence as “that which is beyond or above the range of normal or merely physical human experience.” The Latin root suggests the twin ideas of climbing and crossing. As I use the word here, it speaks of a level of reality that is above us and beyond us crossing our physical, empirical reality. Our experiences intersect this “transcendent” reality when no material causation can be found for them. In my experience of human love, I find just such a transcendent quality.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn called mutual affection, which, among all living things, he found unique in humans, “the highest achievement they can aspire to.” Human love has inspired poets and artists through the ages. Plato told us why: “At the touch of love, everyone becomes a poet.” Even Einstein chimed in on the transcendence of human love when he said, “Any man who can drive safely while kissing a pretty girl is simply not giving the kiss the attention it deserves.” (Okay, that one was just for fun. But he did say that!)

Perhaps one of the best know quotes on love came from the physicist/philosopher, Blaise Pascal: “The heart has its reasons that reason knows nothing of.” This scientist who spent a lifetime in the realm of reason found in human love something that reason could never explain.

I agree. Some biologists will insist that they can find evolutionary paths that lead to the ineffable wonder of human love. But I doubt their accounting. Something so indescribably sublime cries out for an explanation beyond a few molecules bouncing around in the brain. Emotions and sensations on a much lower plane would have sufficed to ensure the propagation of the species. So whence the high joys of human love, especially marital love? These highest of human joys cross over into the realm of eternity, and give the human soul a sense of connectedness to something, or Someone who transcends the physical. That is my experience.