Sunday, November 08, 2009

Is evil a pseudoproblem?

Reppert is at it again:

“The question has to do with whether we have an understanding of goodness that allows us to view suffering as a problem. Of course, infants are deemed innocent, then God doesn't have an moral motive to inflict suffering as well as a moral motive to alleviate suffering.”

i) If infants are deemed innocent, then why do they suffer? Reppert’s alternative seems to commit him to massive amounts of gratuitous suffering.

ii) If, according to Reppert, God has a moral motive to alleviate suffering, then why doesn’t God alleviate suffering? Hasn’t Reppert just proposed a defeater for belief in God?

“However, if federal theory is accepted, along with a Reformed understanding of God's moral motivation to punish sin, then even an infant is under the federal headship of Adam…”

i) In historical theology, Calvinism has no monopoly on original sin. Traditionally, even Arminians subscribe to original sin. So, if this is a defeater or undercutter for Calvinism, that applies with similar force to every other theological tradition that includes original sin. So I don’t know why Reppert singles out Calvinism in this respect.

ii) Needless to say, the locus classicus of original sin is Rom 5:12-21 (cf. 1 Cor 15:21-22,45-59).
Does Reppert even care what the Bible might teach on this topic? Or does he view the Bible in the same way that John Spong, Bart Ehrman, and the Jesus Seminar do?

“…and therefore God has a moral motivation to inflict suffering on the infant based on his justice, just as he has a moral motivation to alleviate suffering based on his mercy, and it's up for grabs whether he is just or merciful.”

God would have a moral justification in so doing. That’s not the same thing as a moral motivation. Absent redemption, God would have a moral justification in damning all sinners. This doesn’t mean he has a moral motivation in so doing. God has no moral motivation in damning the elect. Indeed, that’s not even in the cards.

“Exactly the same situation obtains with infant reprobation as adult reprobation, and the only difference is that in the case of adult reproations, we have people who are visibly sinful, while in the case of infant reprobations, there is an appearance of the innocence of the victims.”

Infant reprobation is not an article of faith in Calvinism. Since Scripture doesn’t have much to say one way or the other on the eternal fate of all who die before the age of discretion, this is an open question in Calvinism. We’re left to speculate. Major Reformed theologians range along a continuum on this issue.

“However, on the assumption that we can deserve punishment in virtue of our descent from Adam, this appearance is illusory, and there is no relevant difference between the two cases.”

i) Actual sin is an aggravating circumstance. So the two cases are not identical.

ii) Remember, too, that original sin is the source of actual sin.

“That is why I have been arguing that the Calvinistic claim with respect to the problem of evil is to eliminate it, and this is done by rendering it a pseudoproblem.”

Since Calvinism has both a doctrine of redemption, to make atonement for the sins of the elect, as well as a doctrine of everlasting punishment, to exact retribution on the elect, that hardly leaves me with the impression that evil is a pseudoproblem.

“What the Calvinist claims is that God has a moral reason to inflict suffering as well as to alleviate it, therefore the amount and distribution of suffering does not count against theism one iota.”

Whether or not that counts against theism depends, in part, on whether you view Christian faith as a mode of knowledge or else a defeasible opinion.

“If this all seems counterintuitive to you, well, (and it seems counterintuitive on top of counterintuitive on top of counterintuitive to me) that's just a sign of how depraved you are, and how much you want to avoid God's justice, and how much you need to submit your intuitions to God's Holy Word. Or so I'm being told.”

Well, that raises a number of issues:

i) It’s hard to tell the difference between Victor Reppert and Thomas Jefferson. Reppert seems to be reading from his very own, customized edition of the Jefferson Bible.

ii) Certainly people can raise intuitive objections to the Christian faith. But they’d presumably raise those objections as outsiders to the faith. At the time they were considering the pros and cons of the Christian faith.

We’d expect somebody who is already a Christian, especially a Christian philosopher, to have answered those questions before he took the final step. We’d expect him to get those questions out of the way, by answering them to his own satisfaction, before he crossed the line of becoming a Christian in the first place. Or, if he doesn’t have answers, at least he’s clear on which questions he needed to answer, and which questions he could leave unanswered.

That’s something you’d logically do before conversion, not afterwards. Reppert, however, seems to have one foot in the church and one foot in the world.

iii) Is original sin counterintuitive? Oftentimes, intuition is just a euphemism for social conditioning. For example, many traditional societies lay more emphasis on ascribed status than achieved status. If, for example, you’re the firstborn son of the chieftain, then that automatically confers on you a high social standing. You did nothing to merit that standing. It’s an external relation or birthright which you enjoy in virtue of your relationship with someone else–that man who happens to be your father. You automatically share his social status–for better or worse. Same thing with adoption.

I doubt that cultures like that would find original sin counterintuitive. If Reppert finds original sin counterintuitive, then that’s symptomatic of his provincial ethnocentrism.

iv) In addition, what he considers counterintuitive is actually paradoxical. Why do we even care about the fate of strangers–whether infants or adults? Unless they’re our own children, why would we even be bothered by specter of their damnation?

Well, that’s due to empathy or compassion. We have a capacity to identify with the plight of others. To project ourselves into the situation of individuals other than ourselves.

However, such sympathy involves a vicarious principle. A capacity to vicariously identify with the plight of another.

Yet the “intuitive” objection to original sin is that original sin is unjust precisely because it is a form of vicarious guilt. How can we be culpable for what someone else did?

But if you reject the vicarious principle of transitive guilt, then you also undercut the vicarious identification with the plight of the vicariously culpable which underwrote your objection to original sin in the first place. So, at best, this scenario generates conflicting intuitions.

v) I’d also note that in many traditional societies, empathy is by and for members of the in-group, not the out-group. For your kin or clansmen. Members of the other tribe are viewed with hostility. Their children are slaughtered with impunity.

Likewise, in our own time and place, many parents murder their very own infants with impunity (abortion, infanticide). It’s not just the bad old days of backward ignorance and primitive superstition.

So, once again, what do Reppert’s intuitions actually amount to? Who is he speaking for?

Or, to take another example–even in our own society, there’s a cultural expectation that friends will do favors for other friends. And this is extended to a friend of a friend. Although I may be your friend, I may not be your friend’s friend. Yet, if you ask me to do him a favor, I may do so out my friendship for you. He’d done nothing to merit that favor. He’s the vicarious beneficiary of our friendship.

Is that counterintuitive? Seems more like a cultural universal to me.

vi) In addition, should we think of people as discreet, self-contained units? Or does human identity have a corporate dimension? Is there something akin to a cumulative collective memory, albeit subliminal, which is passed down from one generation to the next? Something we both inherit and contribute to? Does that account for national character?

vii) When we speculate about infant damnation, we’re thinking of an infant qua infant. We see the infant as he is, not as he will be.

But suppose Hitler, as a baby, had a life-threatening illness. Suppose a Jewish physician, with the gift of second sight, was looking at that baby–not only as he appears to be, in the cradle, but with the benefit of foresight. At the very least, I think he’d be quite ambivalent about that cute little baby. If we knew the future of some babies, we’d be of two minds about their fate.

I don’t use this example to indicate what you or I should do in that situation. But just to indicate our own perspective is very shortsighted. We’re really not seeing the whole person, in relation to his life-history. His actual or counterfactual development–depending on whether he lives or dies.


  1. Somewhat off-topic (but somewhat not since we're talking about the illogical):

    What is this fallacy called? I heard Norman Geisler use it in a speech (played on the DL):

    1. Scripture says that Christ died for sinners (Romans 5:6).
    2. Everyone is a sinner, aren't they?
    3. Therefore, Christ died for everyone.

  2. How about a fallacy of equivocation?

    The syllogism would only be valid if the major premise (#1) said "all" sinners.

    But, of course, that would beg the question.

  3. I didn't think it would be that simple.


  4. Geisler would probably say that we should assume Rom. 5:6 is universal:

    "Universal propositions generally have the word All or No at the beginning. If the proposition refers to only part of the subject group, it is called particular. Propositions of this kind start with words like some and not all. If no quantifier is given, then we assume that the proposition is universal"(Come Let Us Reason 28; emphasis mine).

  5. How would Geisler deal with Rom 5:18?

  6. Good question.

    In When Cultists Ask he says of this verse, "From these [5:18-19] verses universalists infer that Christ’s death “for all” guarantees salvation “for all.” This conclusion, however, is contrary to the context here and in Romans as a whole as well as to the rest of Scripture" (215; emphasis mine).

    (However, in Roman Catholics and Evangelicals he uses the verse to prove universal atonement: "The sacrifice of Christ on the cross completely satisfied God’s justice on behalf of the sins of the entire human race (Rom. 3:21–26; 5:18–19; 2 Cor. 5:21; 1 John 2:2)" (346). He uses it the same way in When Critics Ask on page 441.)

    So I suppose he would admit that the context can dictate how it's understood and the debate would go from there.

  7. Does Reppert not have kids? I have 7 of them and I love them all intensely. But their first thought in the morning (as infants or otherwise) is not "How can I serve mom and dad this morning?" Nor is it, "How can I serve my siblings?" They are cute, but completely self-absorbed, un-thankful, impatient creatures. They are amazing and I love them with all my heart, but they are definitely sinful. As soon as they have control of their limbs they are steeling toys from one another (I have twins). It is only their inability that keeps them from displaying their sinfulness more.

  8. To digress because of you, Brett, yeah, you, I have a couple of my own.

    On some days I want them. On other days my wife doesn't!


    The one thing I never taught them, the word or meaning, that they got all on their own was the word "MINE".

    It just utterly amazes me how selective those boys are. Will they ever grow out of such sin? :)

  9. "If, according to Reppert, God has a moral motive to alleviate suffering, then why doesn’t God alleviate suffering? Hasn’t Reppert just proposed a defeater for belief in God?"


    However, if God does not have a moral motive or imperative to alleviate suffering, then do we? To do so could be to attempt to nullify something that He Himself has ordained, no?

    Further, if there's really no amount of suffering that can be visited upon a sinner that would be proportionately "too much", why would it not be the right (if not duty) of the believer to not only ignore suffering but to increase it?

    That is unless the evil endured is only willed by Him so that some secondary good can be accomplished. I don't think that's necessarily the view here, though.

  10. JOHN SAID:

    "However, if God does not have a moral motive or imperative to alleviate suffering, then do we? To do so could be to attempt to nullify something that He Himself has ordained, no?"

    If we can nullify it, then God didn't ordain it. If God ordained it, then we can't nullify it. So there's nothing to lose by trying.

    "Further, if there's really no amount of suffering that can be visited upon a sinner that would be proportionately "too much", why would it not be the right (if not duty) of the believer to not only ignore suffering but to increase it?"

    Suppose that, hypothetically speaking, a certain degree of suffering would be disproportionate? Unless you can demonstrate that this hypothetical is more than purely hypothetical, so what?

  11. You are reacting to an explanation on my part of Calvinism. There is nothing in what I said that says that Calvinism is false. Nothing. I am just trying to spell out the position to the best of my understanding.

    I mean really. Do I have to put a big red sign on everything I say on the subject of Calvinism that says "This is not an attack on Calvinism" if, in fact, I am not attacking Calvinism? I've actually dont that a time or two, but that it gets a little tiresome. I'm trying to explicate some of the implications of Calvinist theology, in much the way I would explicate Islamic philosophy or theology if I were to be doing a class presentation on it.

  12. Victor,

    If you say Calvinism treats evil as pseudoproblem, then, of course, you're raising an objection to Calvinism. Don't play dumb. And don't play me for a fool.