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.


Isaac Gouy said...

I will, in this series, challenge a number of these assumptions...

Do you intend your "challenges" to be consistent with the "lines of evidence" you have put forth in "Why I believe"?

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.

So the sufferings of Job weren't the result of a braggart God having an idle boast challenged by His minion Satan, who God explicitly empowers to cause Job to suffer?

Cliff Martin said...


Do you intend your "challenges" to be consistent with ...

Of course.

So the sufferings of Job weren't the result ...

You are correct.

Isaac Gouy said...

isaac > So the sufferings of Job weren't the result ...
cliff > You are correct.

I look forward to your explanation of why you read Job in the way you do - by all means quote chapter and verse.

Isaac Gouy said...

... the power of the oppressor would be more effectively broken by nonresistance than by open battle.

Do you intend that to stand as a claim without exception?

Surely the effectiveness of nonresistance depends very much on the intentions of the oppressor.

When the intention of the oppressor is to annihilate the oppressed, nonresistance simply allows annihilation to proceed.

Tom said...

The book of Job is a piece of art -- not only in its poetry and story, but also in its ability to be interpreted from several vantage points.

My reading of Job is that he knew God was not punishing him for sin, which was the common view. (Which is still a common view if you believe Hulk Hogan, as I recently described on my blog). He still could not get a handle on why horrible things were happening to him. Or rather, I should say, he did not know why God was either doing these things to him or allowing them to happen. The sad thing for Job and us readers is that he never does understand the reason -- only that there is a reason behind it all. He was frustrated, hurt, angry, and confused by God's actions (not passive responses), but he never sinned throughout the process. He exercised pacifism.

It is interesting in chapters 38-41 that God presents himself as Mother Nature, and nothing more. As we understand nature, we see that it has no particular purpose for us in mind.

Job's refusal to ask for forgiveness from Mother Nature is spot on in the sense that he was not doing anything to warrant bad things to befall him, but for him to still assume a glorious purpose seems to only distort the pain.

The purpose of pain is to try and avoid it. If one is to accept pain as "God's way" then it seems to be throwing up our hands at the problem. If God is giving us pain so that we figure out ways to avoid it, then we certainly have to ask how this is better than the alternatives. (In my lab, we do rat and mouse behavior studies. We are bound by ethics to employ positive reinforcement pretty much at all times. It is extraordinarily difficult to get funding if you want to give a light zap to a critter on occasion, even though that technique tends to give faster results than positive reinforcement. The point is, there seems to be alternatives to pain if the desired effect is behavioral.) Perhaps this will be part of the future posts.

It just seems Job, like all of us, was up against Ma Nature. And yes, we have to cope with that. There is no reason to ask the gods to forgive us for the evil that we must have done when bad stuff happens. Does the book of Job present another God besides Mother Nature?

Tom said...

After reading this post on the paying of ransoms, I got to wondering about the implications of God dealing with evil through the paying of a ransom. It would be interesting to hear your perspective on this in this series -- how God dealt with evil already through the payment of a ransom in the sacrifice of his son. What the link above indicates is that payment of a ransom only serves to enable evil. Perhaps the mantra of Jesus as sacrificial lamb to pay our ransom is in error, or was there something to it that really made this deal with evil a permanent solution?

Cliff Martin said...


Thank you for the comments which are quite helpful.

I do not pretend to understand the mechanism whereby our suffering, and the sufferings of Jesus, and of the "suffering servant" of Isaiah (which at times is clearly the nation of Israel) undoes the power of evil. It is a mystery to me, though I doubt that ransom paying is involved. There are some strong indications in Revelation (I'll get to them in time in a post) of some established "thresholds" that trigger the final judgment of evil. There appear to be thresholds in the accumulating prayers offered in faith, in worship, and in suffering.

The sufferings of Jesus are multi-faceted. There may be ransom paying in regard to the personal redemption of believers. But Jesus came primarily not to save individuals, but to destroy evil (1 John 3:8). Paul tells us that the sufferings of Jesus were, in some sense, incomplete ... that our sufferings combine with his to accomplish some intended purpose.

I will have more to say on all these interrelated topics in coming posts. But I will say that the writing of these posts is likely to be a slow process. My work is very busy and stressful at the moment, and we are remodeling our house. But I will keep working on this series.

Isaac Gouy said...

isaac > > Do you intend your "challenges" to be consistent with the "lines of evidence" you have put forth in "Why I believe"?

cliff > Of course.

Previously you quoted Michael Denton seemingly with approval -

... the cosmos is a specially designed whole with life and mankind as its fundamental goal and purpose ...
["the finely-tuned cosmos" para 4]

- yet now you talk of challenging the view that "that man is the raison d'être of the cosmos".

Are you simply going accept that view when it's convenient to do so ("the finely tuned cosmos") and now reject that view because it's convenient to do so?

Cliff Martin said...

I do not disagree with Michael Denton in principle, though I would state the conclusion differently. The cosmos contains evidence suggesting it was created with highly complex and intelligent life in mind. That is not to say the man's existence was the end-all of creation. Man might be (as I suppose) an integral part of a larger, more encompassing plan and purpose.

Isaac, I'm happy to carry on constructive discussions with anyone on these topics. But it does seem that you are merely intent upon your efforts (unsuccessful!) to trap me in my words. What is your purpose, exactly?

Isaac Gouy said...

cliff > But it does seem that you are merely intent upon your efforts (unsuccessful!) to trap me in my words.

I took your words seriously - if you've misspoken just correct your words.

cliff > What is your purpose, exactly?

As I've said before - Presume I am trying to understand and make sense of your comment.

cliff > I do not disagree with Michael Denton in principle... That is not to say the man's existence was the end-all of creation.

Michael Denton's words are not ambiguous:
- he says he's talking about "the core proposition of traditional natural theology"
- he says that means "the cosmos is a specially designed whole with life and mankind as its fundamental goal and purpose"

If you wish to say that mankind is not "the end-all of creation", that mankind is not the raison d'être of the cosmos, that mankind is not the primary reason for all Creation - not the fundamental goal of the cosmos - then what you wish to say does disagree in principle with Michael Denton's claim.

Cliff Martin said...


I think I've made my point clear enough. If it is not clear to you, or if you think I am being inconsistent, you are free to your opinion. For my part, I have no trouble citing Denton, because I believe that this universe was absolutely designed with man in mind. That is not the same as saying that man was the primary purpose. As I said earlier, I agree with Denton's findings, but I would state the conclusion in slightly different terms. This all seems quite elementary to me.

Isaac Gouy said...

cliff > ... this universe was absolutely designed with man in mind ...

I wonder what that means to you - does it mean that the universe was designed with man in mind more than any other living or extinct organism in mind?

cliff > As I said earlier, I agree with Denton's findings, but I would state the conclusion in slightly different terms.

When "slightly different terms" means Denton concludes - life and mankind is the fundamental goal and purpose - and you conclude - life and mankind is not the fundamental goal and purpose - you are not stating Denton's conclusion in slightly different terms, you are stating your own quite different conclusion.

Why don't you just accept "Denton's findings" and argue that there's more reason to think they support your conclusion than Denton's?

Cliff Martin said...


This discussion is pointless. Please wait until I have finished these posts. I think your questions will all be answered. I assure you, there is nothing inconsistent in my acceptance of Denton's logic about the universe, and my view that God has a higher purpose for creation, a purpose in which man plays a significant role ... and thus benefits from all the design features Denton cites.

I do not agree with anyone 100%. I'll bet you don't either. Please, please Isaac, give me space to agree substantially with Denton's findings, but to disagree with the exact way he states his conclusion.

Denton's findings do not support my conclusions directly. They support his conclusions, and mine equally well. I agree with him in substance. But I factor in additional concepts which alter my conclusions slightly. They do not change his findings, and my substantial agreement with them, one iota.

Isaac Gouy said...

tom > My reading of Job is that he knew God was not punishing him for sin, which was the common view. ... God presents himself as Mother Nature...

'Wisdom's advocates posited an utterly just world, in which the righteous were ultimately rewarded and the wicked punished. ... The way of wisdom was thus one of waiting for God's inevitable justice to work itself out.
The heart of the book thus consists of a series of learned exchanges between these exponents of orthodox wisdom and Job, who, in "refusing to be comforted," ultimately calls into question the most hallowed doctrines of the wisdom outlook.'
How to Read the Bible

"It is not a parable of divine justice. It is a parable of resignation to a world-making force that has no justice as we understand justice. God comes off sounding like a metaphor for the universe: violent and chaotic yet bountiful and marvelous. ... If justice exists, the Book of Job concludes, it does so in a way inconceivable to humanity."

Psiloiordinary said...

Hi All,

Does anyone want to address why this all loving all knowing and all powerful god allows earthquakes and tsunamis to kill kids,sometimes quickly , but often very slowly and painfully?

Also how does an infant child suffering from a debilitating disease for years fit with this kind of god existing?

Why does science and rational thinking seem to give us hope we might reduce this apparently utterly unnecessary suffering whilst prayer has no effect that anyone has been able to measure?

Thanks & Happy Newtonmass to all for tomorrow ;-)