Friday, January 26, 2007

The strawman argument from evil

Many unbelievers seem to think they have a simple, four-step syllogism for the argument from evil:

1.God is omnipotent
2.God is benevolent (or omnibenevolent)
3.There is evil
4.Given (3), either God is able to prevent evil, but unwilling (pace #2), or else he is willing to prevent evil, but unable (pace #1), in which case there is no God.

Many unbelievers also seem to think that this is an internal critique of the Christian theism because it generates a contradiction between a set of propositions which a Christian would affirm. But this argument is deceptively simple.

1.The first premise isn’t especially problematic although some unbelievers caricature the attribute.

i) There is a logical constraint on what is possible.

ii) There is also a constraint on what is physically possible. For the physical is inherently limited. A finite medium is not infinitely elastic.

iii) Finally, omnipotence is not self-referential. It’s not about God’s power over himself. Rather, it’s about God’s ability to make things objective to himself.

2.The second premise is far more ambiguous.

At this point, many unbelievers make no attempt to define divine goodness in Biblical terms. They simply begin with *their* preconception of what a benevolent being would do, equate that with God, then proceed to disprove God because he doesn’t live up to their preconception. But there are two basic problems with that move:

i) It represents an unspoken shift from an internal critique to an external critique.

ii) In presenting an external critique, the onus is now on the unbeliever to justify his own value-system as well as his belief that there are creatures capable of suffering pain or suffering wrong.

3.As with #2, many unbelievers simply begin with *their* preconception of what constitutes gratuitous evil. But at that point it ceases, once more, to be an internal critique.

In sum, the common flaw in the formulation of the argument from evil is that it operates at too high a level of abstraction. It often purports to be an internal critique, but it frequently disregards Christian theology when defining the key terms.

So the argument from evil is generally a straw man argument.

28 comments:

  1. :::SNIZZZ!!!:::

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  2. I noticed the same thing when my ethics professor brought this argument up and dubbed it a "contradiction" just a couple of weeks ago.

    I don't get it.

    It would be analogous to me telling an unbeliever, "Wait, your secular system is a contradiction because you don't really seek the greatest good, which is to worship God"

    A simple comment like "that's not how my system defines good" destroys this argument.

    Why is it so popular, though?

    One reason could be that most people aren't trained enough to discern between an internal and an external critique. So they lobby charges in the form of internal critiques that really don't get off the ground because they insert their own definitions.

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  3. Very good points, Steve. I've read a number books on the problem of evil-- however, I can't say I've read one that points out the distinction between internal external critiques, much less apply it. Interesting stuff!

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  4. BTW, I've been debating this very point in the combox over at David Wood's new blog:

    http://problemofevil.blogspot.com/2007/01/suffering-and-expectation-i-recently.html

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  5. This is why in my discussions with Daniel Morgan that I constantly point out he's never defined "evil." And as I said there, you can't very well have a discussion on the "Problem of Evil" if you can't even define evil to begin with.

    Berny wrote:
    ---
    Why is it so popular, though?
    ---

    Your point on most people missing the difference between internal & external critiques is the underlying problem. The reason that problem isn't seen however is more of an emotional issue than anything else.

    Everyone "knows" evil things happen. Everyone has experienced injustice at some point. Everyone knows what pain is like. This creates an emotional response.

    Ultimately, because everyone has an emotional understanding of "evil", when the argument is left undefined people will subconsciously insert their own personal definition into the argument. Since they know from firsthand experience that their definition of evil has occured, then it automatically fits in the argument.

    This is the same trick advertisers have been using for years. It's like when Acme Gum says, "The flavor of our gum lasts 25% longer!" That seems like a comparison, but it isn't. They've just compared their gum to...nothing. But the hearer of the advertisment will automatically assume whatever brand of gum they use (say, Emca Gum). They will automatically "hear" the advertisement as saying, "Acme Gum lasts 25% longer than Emca Gum" even though it wasn't actually stated.

    Finally, not defining the term allows the atheist to be ambiguous. What is evil in their first premise isn't necessarily the same evil they use in their conclusions. And I wouldn't even say that the atheist does this consciously (except for those who have had it pointed out to them and still continue to do so); it's typically an automatic emotional response.

    So how to combat it? Continue to do what Steve did here (or what I have done in the discussion with Daniel Morgan). You have to continue to point out what an internal argument is and you have to continue to point out the ambiguous use of terms by the atheist. Eventually, they may "get it"; but even if not, nominal Christians who may have been pursuaded emotionally can solidify their faith in Christ instead.

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  6. ii) There is also a constraint on what is physically possible. For the physical is inherently limited. A finite medium is not infinitely elastic.

    Let's just look at what God can do with water. Can God turn water into wine, or bring water out of a rock, or make an axe head float, or allow a human to walk on water, or send rain or a flood or a storm, or part waters so that 3-4 million people can cross on dry ground, or cause dew to be on a fleece?

    Hmmm. I could go on and on. We could talk about food. Can God miraculously feed 3-4 million people in the desert for 40 years, or create bread to feed 5000 people out of a few loaves, or alleviate a seven year famine, or provide for the Christian if she will give him 10% of her income?

    I could go on and on.

    But do you deny that the greater power someone has then the more moral responsibility such a person has? If I had no means to stop a pair of thugs from beating someone to death, then I do not have the same moral guilt that a superman would have for not doing anything about it. Do you disagree with this? Your God is like that superman. With a mere snap of his fingers he could've stopped the Indonesian tsunami which killed a quarter of a million people. Not much effort at all, wouldn't you say? And if your God had done this not one single person on earth would ever conclude he did anything to reveal himself, so he could still have remained "hidden."

    Didn't your God create this universe ex nihilo? Didn't your God create the laws of nature? If not, then who did?

    Is there something that is impossible for God to do in our world? What would that be, according to you?

    Just curious. I'd like to know. Specify, specify, specify. What exactly are you talking about here?

    And this is not a problem to you? Hmmmm. Faith is. Blind. Your.

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  7. The second premise is far more ambiguous.

    Really? Then this is only because the believer has not spelled out what she believes about God's goodness. I'm listening. Please tell me, and then I'll ask you why you believe these things. It's that simple.

    Now let's say you believe it's good for God to send people to hell, and that it's good for God to do nothing about the many tragedies that happen on a daily basis, as well as the historic ones, like Katrina, the Indonesian tsunami, or the 9/11 attack.

    That's what you believe, correct? Then I have all I need to mount my internal critique. I will press you on why you believe these things are good, especially when an omnipotent God could easily have averted them all.

    Why didn't he do anything, I'll ask? You will try to offer reasons why he didn't. I will question these offered reasons and ask you to clarify and explain them.

    Now, if in the end you choose to believe in your God in spite of the glaring problems you have in explaining the presence of intense suffering, then you've left the discussion and punted to faith.

    My internal argument is that you have not concluded properly based upon the things you yourself believe. My argument is that you are not being consistent with your own beliefs.

    Sure you will disagree with me, and that's where our argument lies. But it's not an external critique to press you to the conclusion I think your beliefs push you toward.

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  8. Naturally, Loftus would show up to prove my point...

    Hey Loftus, since Daniel hasn't done so yet perhaps you'd be so kind as to define "evil" for us.

    I'll be over here not holding my breath.

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  9. (And yes, I ask that to see if Loftus even has a clue how Christian theism defines the term...pretty difficult to claim a contradiction in someone's beliefs if you can't even define the term the way they believe, eh?)

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  10. The line between the emotional problem and evidential problem is not quite as clear-cut as some want to make it. If we experience a tragedy we want our counselor to help us understand why God allowed it, not just hug us. Daniel Howard-Snyder admits this.

    Besides, pointing out all the suffering in our world is not just emotional either, since if we're talking about suffering we need instances of it to know exactly what we're talking about. Why else do abortion protesters show pictures of aborted babies? If talking about instances of suffering is an emotional appeal then we cannot talk about suffering at all, since unless we do we have nothing to talk about.

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  11. Idiotdude, let's say I don't believe that anything that happens in our world is objectiveky evil. Let's say I'm a relativist. Perceived evil is all we know. It's just the natural evolutionary process, that's all. As part of that process I have a right to find as much happiness as I can. So what? How does that change anything...anything...with regard to my questioning the internal beliefs of someone who does believe there is objective evil and who also claims God is objectively good?

    You're stupid, and this is my only comment to you here. I don't tolerate stupidity coming from a one note karaoke singer like you.

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  12. Loftus,

    First, I never said that emotional appeals were invalid. Feel free to emote all you wish. You'll convince your dog that you are right.

    Secondly, how do you come up with this concept of "rights" in a subjective, relativistic universe?

    Thirdly, can you or can you not define evil?

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  13. I apologize for that last outburst. I'm sorry. I shouldn't even read what you write, Calvindude, because it's the same argument every time, no matter what the discussion is about. I should just let you read what I wrote here, and here.

    You clearly want to discuss a separate topic. Here I'm speaking to the internal consistency of the Christian beliefs about evil. If you'd rather talk about you favorite argument then go ahead. But I think I've already answered you.

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  14. John, where is your critique? Can you clearly articulate an internal challenge that can be approached by the opposite side?

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  15. John W. Loftus writes:

    "Is there something that is impossible for God to do in our world? What would that be, according to you?"

    I don't know how Steve would answer, but I would posit something like create a circle-square or, as I've heard elsewhere, a married bachelor.

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  16. Matthew, fine, I would agree, but then God can pretty much do anything that I suggested? then he can do a lot wouldn't you agree?

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  17. Loftus,

    Thanks for the apology. But all things considered, I'd rather you skip the apology and just give me the Christian definition of "evil" since you're pretending to be interested in an internal critique.

    Until you do that, you merely prove to everyone that you are a charlatan. But don't let me get in the way of your downfall :-)

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  18. Doubting Tom1/27/2007 11:15 AM

    Seems like a lot of clouding of the issue going on in this post, Mr. Hays. Why not answer the problem of evil explicitly? Examples:

    SH: “The first premise isn’t especially problematic although some unbelievers caricature the attribute.”

    So, is God able to prevent evil, or not? That’s the question that Christians need to answer, regardless of how many ways they want to gerrymander the notion of ‘omnipotence’. What's the answer? Yes, or no?

    SH: “The second premise is far more ambiguous.”

    So, is God willing to prevent evil, or not? Answer this. Then answer: Can anything impede the will of God? Yes or no?

    SH: “many unbelievers make no attempt to define divine goodness in Biblical terms.”

    CD: “This is why in my discussions with Daniel Morgan that I constantly point out he's never defined "evil."”

    What exactly is the Bible’s definition of evil, and where can it be found? If you want to show that there is no internal problem, then you will have to provide clear, unambiguous biblical definitions. If Christianity does not offer any clear definitions of good and evil, then what good is Christianity?

    Next, is God on friendly terms with evil (e.g., is God willing to use evil means to achieve His ends?), or is he strictly and uncompromisingly opposed to evil in every and all forms?

    Which is it?

    Both believers and unbelievers are looking for answers, not obfuscation. The obfuscation that continually drains out of apologetics blogs only suggests that the problem is indeed real, and that the fire its caused is uncontrollable.

    Tom L.

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  19. Tom said:
    ---
    Why not answer the problem of evil explicitly?
    ---

    How can you answer a nebulous, undefined problem? It'd be like me demanding you answer the problem of it. You'd answer, "I'd love to answer, if you'd just tell me what 'it' is!" In the same way, I'd love to answer your problem of evil if you'd just tell me what evil is!

    Tom said:
    ---
    What exactly is the Bible’s definition of evil, and where can it be found?
    ---

    First, try actually reading the Bible in it's historical and grammatical context. Read it as it was meant to be understood. You'll learn a lot.

    Secondly, understand that there are different meanings of evil even within Scripture, since what is evil for man is not necessarily evil for God. God is sovereign and He has the right to require certain things of His creation. As such, He gave us the Law which, if we do not obey, means we are guilty under it. As such, God is perfectly just in doing such things as killing a human being--this would only be wrong for God if He killed innocent people; and there are none innocent for all have sinned.

    However, if I decide to kill someone, I am not in the position of God. The other person is not my creation and is not obligated to me in the same sense that he is obligated to God. Therefore, it is wrong of me to take an innocent life. The only time I can do so is if there is proper justification (such as self-defense).

    Read the Leviticus and you'll see this in the application of the Laws given by God.

    So, this part alone, you can see that evil behavior on the part of people is not the same as God doing evil behavior. Thus, pointing out the people are evil does not, in any way, logically impede upon God's goodness. The only way for this to occur is if you can demonstrate that it is somehow evil of God for people to be evil.

    The ball is in your court on that one, Tom.

    Tom said:
    ---
    If Christianity does not offer any clear definitions of good and evil, then what good is Christianity?
    ---

    I ask the same thing of atheism...

    Especially since atheists can't help but slip into an external argument.

    Tom said:
    ---
    Next, is God on friendly terms with evil (e.g., is God willing to use evil means to achieve His ends?), or is he strictly and uncompromisingly opposed to evil in every and all forms?
    ---

    A) How do you define "evil means"?

    B) God does use means that would be evil if we did them, and God uses them for a good purpose. His usage of them is for a good purpose. The most obvious of them being:

    "...this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men" (Acts 2:23). "Lawless men" is also translated "wicked men" (NIV) and "godless men" (NASB), which will also help you understand some of the nuances of that term.

    The greatest good in Christianity is that Christ died for our sins; but this happened at the hands of evil men. It was evil for someone to execute an innocent man, and Christ wasn't merely innocent under human standards but under God's standards as well. Therefore, the greatest evil that could be done (the execution of one who was blameless before God) resulted in the greatest good in Christianity (the salvation of those who hated God--see Romans 5).

    The "problem" of evil isn't a problem in Christianity. Christianity only functions if evil is real.

    Now, you can certainly feel free to disagree that God's actions in saving sinners is actually "good"--but you cannot disagree on the basis of an internal problem in Christianity.

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  20. Doubting Tom1/27/2007 7:03 PM

    I thought this is what we'd get in response to my questions...

    CD: "First, try actually reading the Bible in it's historical and grammatical context. Read it as it was meant to be understood. You'll learn a lot."

    So which passage in the Bible do you think gives the biblical definition of evil? Why don't you provide the book, chapter and verse?

    CD: "there are different meanings of evil even within Scripture, since what is evil for man is not necessarily evil for God."

    So there are at least two definitions that you need to provide. Fine. What are the scripture references? Why don't you provide them? When Christians use the word "evil," what in tarnation do they mean?

    CD: "I ask the same thing of atheism... Especially since atheists can't help but slip into an external argument."

    Well, perhaps atheists at least provide a definition of what they mean when they use the word evil. If the Bible does not offer such a definition, one would need to look elsewhere. Pretty basic, 'dude.

    CD: "How do you define "evil means"?"

    Remember, this is an internal query. It matters not how any ordinary human being defines these words. How does the Bible define them? Again, Christian apologists give no answer.

    CD: "God does use means that would be evil if we did them, and God uses them for a good purpose. His usage of them is for a good purpose."

    If an atheist gave such responses as this, he'd be accused of moral relativism. But since it's Christianity, it can't be moral relativism, right? If the means used to work towards an end are evil, then they are evil. But Christians don't want it so absolute when it comes to what their position promotes. No, it's a wishy-washy affair. The notion that "God uses evil means for a good purpose" smacks unoriginally of the view that the ends justify the means.

    CD: "The "problem" of evil isn't a problem in Christianity."

    Well, that's probably because a) Christianity does not put a definition to the word evil (so Christians don't know what it is when they see it) and b) Christians themselves have no problem with evil (because their god can do evil things and they refuse to call them evil).

    What a riot!

    Tom L.

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  21. Let us play Tom's game for a minute. Let us assume for the sake of argument that the Bible does not define evil, that the term "evil" is actually meaningless.

    Where is the problem of evil then?

    You see, Tom, if you really think that the Bible doesn't speak on the issue, then you cannot use the argument of the Problem of Evil which depends on evil being defined.

    What if I just say, "The Bible doesn't define evil. There is, in fact, no evil."? How would you press the problem of evil then?

    But in any case, I already gave you one suggestion in the previous post (to look at the Law of God, specifically in the book of Leviticus). The Bible gives practical answers to your question. It gives specific things that are evil for men to do. This is found in the entirety of the Law.

    But let's get beyond just the commands of God and into some more general aspects.

    Romans 1:18--"For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth."

    The unrighteous supress the truth; therefore, supressing the truth is unrighteous behavior. I would hope I need not press the fact that unrighteousness is evil in Biblical terms, since it ought to be obvious already.

    Let us, for the sake of the argument, define evil as a supression of the truth. Does the fact that a man supresses the truth mean that God, who does not supress the truth, is evil? No; it only means that the man is evil.

    Let us give another command, one from Christ Himself: "But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you" (Matthew 6:33).

    We know that no man actually truly seeks after the kingdom of God first. Does the fact that man fails here mean that God is NOT seeking after His kingdom first? Once again, man is sinning while God is not.

    Now, if we stop with these two examples for the time being--that evil is supressing the truth and not seeking after God's kingdom--then tell me how you can charge God with being evil? We can add into the argument the Laws and Commandments of God too. God cannot violate His laws for the simple reason that God is not under the Law, but the Lawgiver. Even aside from that, you might say, "How is it fair that God allows someone to murder another person?"

    "Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die" (Ezekiel 18:4).

    "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23).

    If someone murders another person, that person breaks God's commandment against murder; but God Himself does not violate any commandment (even if it did apply) because all have sinned, and God has already stated that the penalty for sin is death. As a result, God is not sinning unless He does not stop an innocent person from being killed ("innocent" in this case meaning innocent before God).

    There is only one time that God allowed an innocent person to die, and that was when Christ died on the cross. Even then, Christ became sin before He died: "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin" (2 Corinthians 5:21).

    So, once again I ask, by what basis within Christianity can you possibly accuse God of being evil?

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  22. Doubting Tom said:

    So, is God able to prevent evil, or not? That’s the question that Christians need to answer, regardless of how many ways they want to gerrymander the notion of ‘omnipotence’. What's the answer? Yes, or no?

    So, is God willing to prevent evil, or not? Answer this. Then answer: Can anything impede the will of God? Yes or no?

    ****************************

    i) I've already answered those question. Try to pay attention next time.

    ii) That said, your questions are irrelevant. As far as the argument from evil is concerned, the key issue is not whether such evils are *preventable*, but whether such evils are *gratuitous*.

    Apparently, you haven't bothered to acquaint yourself with the standard literature on the problem of evil.

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  23. Doubting Tom1/28/2007 11:02 AM

    CD: “Let us play Tom's game for a minute. Let us assume for the sake of argument that the Bible does not define evil, that the term "evil" is actually meaningless. Where is the problem of evil then?”

    Exactly. See my point b) above: “Christians themselves have no problem with evil.” A Christian’s strongest and most honest response to the problem of evil is “What problem? We don’t know what evil even is! So how can there be a problem?”

    CD: “You see, Tom, if you really think that the Bible doesn't speak on the issue, then you cannot use the argument of the Problem of Evil which depends on evil being defined.”

    I did not suggest that “the Bible doesn’t speak on the issue.” I simply asked for you to provide the Bible’s definition of evil.

    CD: “What if I just say, "The Bible doesn't define evil. There is, in fact, no evil."? How would you press the problem of evil then?”

    Try it, and you might find out.

    CD: “But in any case, I already gave you one suggestion in the previous post (to look at the Law of God, specifically in the book of Leviticus). The Bible gives practical answers to your question. It gives specific things that are evil for men to do. This is found in the entirety of the Law.”

    I did not ask for examples of evil. I asked for the Bible’s definition of evil. You point to the book of Leviticus. That’s a good start, but you’re far from finished. You need to narrow it down. There are 27 chapters in Leviticus, and each chapter is broken down into verses. So you need to provide the chapter and verse now. Where does it define ‘evil’?

    CD: “Let us, for the sake of the argument, define evil as a supression of the truth.”

    I did not ask for our definition of evil. I asked for the Bible’s definition. Where does the Bible say “evil is the suppression of the truth”? If the Bible doesn’t define it, just say so. Or, would you prefer to suppress this fact if it is the case?

    Since the rest of your response did not cite the Bible defining evil, what you wrote is irrelevant at this point.

    SH: “i) I've already answered those question. Try to pay attention next time.”

    Then kindly repeat them. Or, do you offer more obfuscation as you have so far, and as the ‘dude has so far?

    SH: “ii) That said, your questions are irrelevant. As far as the argument from evil is concerned, the key issue is not whether such evils are *preventable*, but whether such evils are *gratuitous*.”

    Indulge my curiosity: Is God able to prevent evil, or not? Yes or no? Is God willing to prevent evil, or not? Yes or no? I’m not surprised you want to avoid such questions.

    SH: “Apparently, you haven't bothered to acquaint yourself with the standard literature on the problem of evil.:

    I very well may not be familiar with what you consider “the standard literature on the problem of evil,” but that’s irrelevant. I have posed direct questions to you, and you seem anxious to avoid answering them. If you are so familiar with “the standard literature on the problem of evil,” then it seems these should be simple questions to answer. But you don’t answer. Instead, you cop an attitude. Trying to hide something? Or are you simply trying to embolden my doubts?

    Tom L.

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  24. Tom said:
    ---
    Since the rest of your response did not cite the Bible defining evil, what you wrote is irrelevant at this point.
    ---

    Tom is simply playing semantic games here and is demonstrating he's not interested in understanding anything. The Bible is not a dictionary; but that does not mean it leaves evil undefined. I've already given specific examples of behavior and attitudes that are condemned as being evil. Only a severly obtuse individual would continue to claim that the Bible doesn't provide a definition of evil.

    The definition is found in what the Bible condemns. This is just as exhaustive as a specific dictionary reference that says, "Evil is [a list of things the define evil]." That the Bible isn't written in dictionary format is as irrelevant as my arguing that Tom's objection isn't in the form of a biographical statement (so what?).

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  25. Only a severely obtuse individual would confuse examples with definitions. But Calvindude is just such an individual. He says that the bible is not a dictionary, but then maintains that the bible does in fact give a definition of evil. Which is it? What is that definition? Calvindude bails out without a parachute.

    SQUAT!

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  26. Alepy makes an even more fundamental error. Let's just play his game:

    Alepy,

    Did you define any of the words you just used? No.

    Do we know what you mean? Yes.

    :-o HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE?

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  27. Actually, that's a pretty good question - just what is the Bible's definition of evil, and why doesn't Calvindude produce it (if he knows of one)?

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  28. I'm not surprised that the atheists cannot follow an argument.

    In any case, I've further clarified my poisition here.

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