Friday, April 01, 2016

The real problem of evil

It's funny how atheist philosophers are unconsciously conditioned by a particular way of viewing issues. Because the problem of evil is conventionally framed in certain terms, atheist philosophers are stuck in that rut. They just keep moving in the same groove. 

I've already noted this in reference to the God who's targeted by the argument from evil. Even though atheist philosophers are usually training their guns on Christianity, albeit tacitly, they don't formulate the argument of evil in terms of Yahweh. Instead, it's much more generic.

Part of the reason is that some (or many) atheist philosophers don't take the Bible as their frame of reference–despite the fact that they are usually targeting Christianity. 

Now let's consider another example. To my knowledge, the argument from evil is always formulated in general terms. Human suffering generally, or even animal suffering. 

It's striking to contrast that orientation with the viewpoint of Scripture. In Scripture, the problem of suffering isn't about human suffering in general–much less animal suffering–but the suffering of God's people in particular. The issue of why God doesn't intercede more often to deliver his people from suffering. From a Biblical perspective, that's the real problem of evil.

To the extent that Scripture indicates a tension between God and suffering, it's not in reference to suffering in general. Moreover, it's not about God's existence, but God's benevolence. Atheists fail to engage the argument where Scripture engages the argument. If you wish to attack Christian theism, you must assume the viewpoint of Scripture for the sake of argument. 

Of course, the very fact that Scripture is filled with believers who complain to God about their dereliction goes to show that while the plight of believers may seem inexplicable, it is not unexpected. In that practical sense, it's consistent with God's existence, even if that's not an explanation.

The tension is exacerbated by certain divine assurances that seem to promise more than they deliver, viz. unqualified prayer promises. 

Is there any way to relieve the tension? A few suggestions:

i) The soul-making theodicy has something to offer. That's not a complete answer, but it makes a contribution. For instance, suppose you have two high school buddies who go hiking. One of them sprains his ankle. Of course, that will slow them way down. Because we're bipedal creatures, we can barely walk with a sprained ankle. That one injury almost immobilizes a man. 

Suppose there's a storm in the forecast. If they are overtaken by the storm, there's the risk of death by exposure. If the uninjured hiker leaves his companion behind, he can make it to shelter in time. But that will mean leaving his companion to fend for himself. 

If the injured hiker knew that his buddy was going to abandon him in a pinch, they'd never be friends in the first place. If he had a premonition that this was going happen if they went hiking that day, he'd never look at his classmate the same way. The crisis reveals something that was always missing, but only came to the fore when their friendship was put to the test. 

Conversely, suppose his buddy hazards his own prospects for survival by remaining with his injured companion. That, too, taps into something hidden. Something only a crisis brings out into the open. 

ii) When believers and unbelievers suffer alike, when they experience the same kinds of afflictions, how believers cope with suffering can be a witness to the world. And that's a biblical theme. Unless believers and unbelievers were in comparable situations, it would not be possible to compare and contrast how they deal with the same challenges. 

iii) You also have the principle of eschatological compensations, viz. "For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us" (Rom 8:18); "For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison" (2 Cor 4:17).

In some measure, promises of divine deliverance are ultimately about what's ultimate. Not about deliverance in this life, but deliverance from this life.


  1. "Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.

    - Hab. 3:17-18

  2. So many of the objections that atheists make using the PoE depends on their definition of God's omnibenevolence. I vaguely remember a post by Steve around 2011 where he cited (I believe) a Catholic theologian who claimed that the concept and/or term of omnibenevolence was recent and that earlier theologians and philosophers didn't use the term or concept.

    I can agree that God is "omnibenevolent" in the sense that God's will is always, only and fully good. But I think atheists may be using the term to imply that God must also be OMNIBENEFICENT. Meaning, God must bless with good things every creature (or at least all sentient creatures) in every way and to the fullest degree. The problem is that God would then have to make every sentient creature of one kind of species with all equal gifts, potentialities and providences. But some blessings are incompossible. For example, God's reward for willing martyrdom at an early age must be different in some sense from God's reward for faithfulness after a good old age of 99. An elderly person can of course die a martyr (and be rewarded for that), but the sacrifice isn't as costly as a willing young martyr. Or being a great Christian mother is incompossible with being a great Christian lady who never married and lived a life of devoted prayer and church service. Or a Great WOMAN of God with corresponding responsibilities CANNOT at the same time be a Great MAN of God (i.e. the blessing of womanhood is incompossible with that of manhood).

    I can also affirm that God's is "all good" 1. in the sense that God is the source of all goodness, 2. God's goodness is "infinite." Meaning without limit or to the highest degree qualitatively (not quantitatively, since there are no "units" of goodness). Omnibenevolence would seem to only require that God only wills that which is good, rather than equally wills good to all creatures (or all sentient creatures).

    However, even then the Calvinist position has the difficulty of explaining how an only and fully good God can reprobate sinners. Both infralapsarians and (most especially) have this difficulty. I still don't know how to answer such a problem, but I've come to some conclusions on my blogpost on a random survey of Calvinists who claim reprobation is conditional while other Calvinists claim it's unconditional.

    1. I wonder if Calvinists should just drop the term and concept of omnibenevolence and say that the concept is nowhere in Scripture, contradicts Scripture and affirm God's goodness is distributed according to His unobliged sovereignty.

    2. Today I finished reading Herman Bavinck's The Doctrine of God and in the last few pages he deals with the doctrine of reprobation. He makes an appropriate quote of Calvin on humbly trusting God's wisdom in His exercise of His sovereignty. I'm not sure that Calvin's immediate context was that of reprobation, but it would nevertheless apply to it as well.

      "For the Lord will be my witness, to whom I surrender my conscience, that I daily consider his judments so wonderful that no curiosity tempts me to know any thing in addition to them, that no sinister suspicion of his incomparable justice creeps upon me, in fine, that no desire to murmur rankles in my breast. - John Calvin as quoted by Herman Bavinck, The Doctrine of God p. 397

      I'm reminded of Luther's "three lights" analogy in the ending of his Bondage of the Will.

  3. My tuppence:

    I find the problem of evil best summarized by the interlocutor in Rom. 9:19. It seems to me that what Paul is trying to deal with is this: how can God be just, holy, righteous, trustworthy, wise, merciful and sovereign if He has a plan that, in appearance at least, looks like He is violating His own character? Is God divided, at least in the sense that Christ spoke about in Mark 3.20-27? Is He against His very own character? Once you deal with this issue, it seems to me every other issue, which we may think is a PoE, would be resolved.

    Under His Mercy,