Friday, April 25, 2008

"Is Our Pain God's Problem?"

Patrick Chan has pointed me to a debate between Bart Ehrman and Tom Wright:

I don't think that Wright has a very good explanation for the problem of evil. Indeed, he doesn't pretend to. But he does make some other useful observations along the way. Here are my favorites:

First, picking up that point about thinking and feeling, I do think the rhetorical impact both of your book and of your brief opening statement is to make a powerful appeal to the emotions, perhaps particularly to the emotions of western persons such as ourselves who are insulated, geographically and culturally, from so many of the world’s horrors. You spend a good deal of time in the book, and even in your brief posting, detailing some of these horrors, as though to remind readers of what (surely?) all intelligent people know already. (I wouldn’t have been able to rattle off the actual statistics, but none of the phenomena came as a surprise.)

There are of course multiple miseries in the world, and for many (most?) of them it’s impossible to say, ‘There, look, some good came out of it.’ I think we both react in the same way against that suggestion...But I’m not sure what logical or moral (as opposed to rhetorical) force you add to your case by describing in such detail the horrors of the world.

In a sense, you simply bring us back to where western Europe found itself after the Lisbon earthquake on All Saints Day 1755. Up to then some had said, ‘Look at the world, think about it, and you’ll see that God exists and that Christianity is true.’ The earthquake was a wake-up call to casual western religion, and precipitated the whole Enlightenment revolution, first towards a detached Deism and then into agnosticism or atheism. Have you done anything other than recapitulate that moment? And, if you haven’t, I guess I want to ask: were you not aware, earlier, of the scale of evil in the world – the Holocaust, the dying babies, the inexplicable ‘natural’ disasters, and so on? You’re not implying, are you, that people (like me, for instance) who still hold to Christian faith are somehow failing to notice these horrors, or to reflect soberly and deeply on them? And if, as you say, your book (and your blog posting) do not actually constitute an argument against Christian faith (‘If you reflect on these issues you’ll see that the Christian claim is incredible’), might it not seem that the shift in your own position which you have described is a shift which came about, not because of logical argument, but because of other (unspecified) factors, with the problem of suffering providing a kind of intellectual backdrop to a journey whose main energy was supplied from elsewhere?

I am very much alive to the importance of the emotions within the whole debate, and don’t at all want to reduce it to cold logic; but if one is making an argument, then multiplying examples of the problem doesn’t actually add to the force of that argument.

This was why (your first point, my second) I was wondering about the force that is added to the case your book is making (or – a sudden thought – was your book not after all ‘making a case,’ but rather ‘expressing an emotion’?) by spending, say, twenty pages describing the Holocaust in detail rather than summarizing it in one or two. I’m still trying to get a handle on the relation between the rhetorical strategy of your book (rubbing your readers’ noses in great detail about the horrors of the world) and the actual substance of the case you’re making. I am not at all saying that numbers don’t matter or wanting to reduce things to cold logic . . .

For the early Christians, God’s new world – the world where God’s writ runs – had already begun, and they were living in it by the power of the Spirit. Things did change. The early Christians did make a difference. (See Rodney Stark’s remarkable book on The Rise of Christianity.) Yes, of course, earthquakes and tsunamis still happen. The NT writers knew that as well as we did, and they went on saying that Jesus was already Lord, not simply that he would become that one day.

But it leads me to my final question – to press a point I made in our radio interview: Why, granted your view of the world, should we bother? Why not ‘eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die,’ and thank our lucky stars that we can do so? The other side of the coin of ‘the problem of evil’ is, after all, ‘the problem of good’: if there is no God, no good and wise creator, why is there an impulse to justice and mercy so deep within us? Why is there beauty, love, laughter, friendship, joy? How do you then tell the difference between Ecclesiastes and Sartre? The Bible of course has some answers to those questions.


  1. Off-topic:
    Is there any way one of the T-bloggers can respond to the counter-arguments provided by the materialists in the comment sections on these two posts:

  2. Seems to me the Christian commenters are more than holding their own. In fact, one dude by the name of Saint & Sinner made an excellent observation about miracles.

    For now I’ll confine myself to two brief comments:

    Because BarryA is using an anecdotal argument, his illustration isn’t all that rigorous, which gives the materialist an opening.

    Bill Dembski has a sophisticated formulation which is far more resistant to the stock objections:

    It’s better to use that formulation as your basic model rather than expend a lot of energy shoring up the Stonecarver-of-the-gaps.

    2.On the miracle thread, Tom Riddle (comment #6) falls into a classic straw man argument about miracles. We also find this in Spinoza and Gould.

    Here the idea is that a miracle is a repair job. God must intervene to fix the machinery.

    This is then subjected to the criticism that if the machinery was properly designed in the first place, it would be unnecessary for God to intervene.

    i) But that’s hardly the way the Bible defines a miracle, or God’s motive in performing a miracle.

    a) This straw man argument equates the world with a machine. And that’s a useful scientific model. It’s also true that the world exhibits some mechanistic features.

    b) But there’s much more to a theistic universe. It’s, in part, a morality play. A stage set or theater for the divine “drama.”

    c) It’s also a material metaphor for the immaterial God. A sign pointing to the invisible God.

    Like the New Jerusalem, which is a residential area, patterned on a temple, where man can live in the presence of God, the universe is ultimately meant to be both a home for man and a meeting-place between man and God.

    d) Man is the tenant. God is the Landlord. God is not a house burglar. This is his world. He made it. And he has the keys to every apartment.

    ii) Finally, there is a sense in which some miracles are reparative. But that’s not due to a design defect. That’s due to the Fall, which happened for a reason. And miracles foreshadow the consummation.

  3. "In fact, one dude by the name of Saint & Sinner made an excellent observation about miracles."

    Sorry. I made those comments a few hours after posting the comment above.

    Thanks, Steve.