Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Over Jordan

Over the years I've done hundreds of posts on the problem of evil. In this post I'd like to summarize some of that material, as well as arranging it in a logical relationship. The purpose of this post is not to reargue all my contentions, but state them in compact, logical fashion. The supporting material is to be found in my many posts on the subject. It's possible that I've forgotten some of my own arguments. 

1. The problem of atheism

Before we think about the problem of evil, we need to think about the problem of atheism. Too many atheists as well as Christians get off on the wrong foot by beginning with the problem that evil purportedly poses for the Christian faith. But that's the wrong starting-point.

We need to consider the implications of the alternative. Atheism provides a point of contrast. As some hardy atheists concede, their position conduces to moral and existential nihilism. Human lives are worthless. 

The problem of evil induces some professing Christians to renounce the faith. Yet atheism is irredeemably evil. Apostates are siding with evil when they recant Christianity. They decry evil, but throw themselves into the arms of evil by embracing nihilism. 

It's crucial to appreciate that atheism can never be a viable fallback position. 

2. How problematic is the problem of evil?

Evil can be a serious problem without being a serious problem for the credibility of Christian theism. We need to distinguish different ways in which evil is a problem. Evil is a problem in the sense of making life much grimmer. But that's different from claiming that evil is a problem for the truth of Christianity. 

We keep reading that the problem of evil is the main intellectual challenge to the Christian faith. But does the repetition of that trope artificially condition people to think that way about evil? Does constantly reading about the problem of evil feed on itself.

Is the trope circular? Does the trope have a cumulative effect? If you hear something a thousand times, you may be more likely to believe it just because you heard it a thousand times. Repetition becomes a specious substitute for evidence–like an urban legend. 

3. The freewill defense

Not surprisingly, many freewill theists deploy the freewill defense. Obviously, it wouldn't be possible for someone who isn't a freewill theist to deploy the freewill defense. If he was a Calvinist, then that theodicy would be inconsistent with his theology.

However, the freewill defense is independent of freewill theism in the sense that even if libertarian freedom were true, that doesn't automatically mean the value of libertarian freedom outweighs the disvalue of evil. Just because freewill theism is consistent with the freewill defense doesn't entail that the good of libertarian freedom is better than the good of a world without so much pain and suffering. Many freewill theists just assume that the freewill defense is their default theodicy, but the truth of freewill theism is separable from whether freedom in itself makes the existence of evil morally permissible. 

4. The logical/evidential argument

The logical argument from evil is internal to Christianity. It attempts to show that some key Christian tenets are mutually inconsistent. In principle, an atheist who denies moral realism can deploy the logical argument from evil. 

By contrast, the evidential argument from evil concerns the plausibility of God's existence in light of evil. That can be a worry for Christians. But unlike the logical argument from evil, when an atheist deploys the evidential argument from evil, he may evaluate the issue by resort to his own standards. 

Frequently, though, atheists blur these two different arguments. Is the atheist arguing on his own grounds, or is he arguing on Christian grounds? Oftentimes, atheists are so controlled by what they think is rational or ethical that they impugn the coherence of Christian theism when they are covertly interjecting their own criteria into the assessment. 

Moreover, if an atheist deploys the evidential argument from evil, then he shoulders a burden of proof to justify his own standards, consistent with his naturalism. He's not entitled to take his criteria for granted. 

5. Philosophical theology

The argument from evil typically takes the form of an inconsistent tetrad:

i) God is omnipotent

ii) God is omniscient

iii) God is benevolent

iv) Evil exists

An atheist then attempts to show that these are mutually inconsistent, thereby generating a dilemma for the Christian. To relieve the inconsistency, a Christian must forfeit at least one of the propositions. If, however, (i-iii) are nonnegotiable, then his belief-system has no give. As an all-or-nothing, take-it-or-leave-it set, if it's inconsistent at any one point, then you must ditch the whole thing. So goes the argument.

But one problem with the argument from evil is that it attacks a very abstract version of theism. Something derived from philosophical theology. Classical theism or perfect being theology.

Typically, the argument from evil isn't formulated in reference to a historic living religion like OT Judaism or NT Christianity. 

For instance, it would be much harder to show that the argument from evil disproves the existence of Yahweh since Yahweh isn't "benevolent" in the sense that atheists typically define benevolence when formulating the argument from evil. Indeed, many unbelievers reject biblical theism because they think Yahweh, Jesus, and/or God the Father is not benevolent as they see it. They take umbrage at various divine actions, commands, and prohibitions in Scripture. 

But where does that leave the argument from evil? If, by their own admission, biblical theism doesn't comport with their preconceived notions of benevolence, then the existence of evil is consonant with the existence of a Deity like that. 

On a related note, the existence of evil is a necessary presupposition of biblical theism. If we were living in a world devoid of moral and natural evil, then the absence rather than the presence of evil would falsify the Biblical depiction of reality. Bible history is replete with evil. Eschatological salvation and judgment are the ultimate remedy. 

6. The paradox of prevention

Atheists allege that if God exists, he'd either prevent evil altogether or at least prevent more evil than he does. However, preemption has the paradoxical consequence of not only preventing an event but by the same token, preventing any evidence that the event was preempted. Since it never happened, it had no discernible effects. A nonevent leaves no trace evidence. 

For all we know, God has preempted countless evils, for if he's done so, then in the nature of the case that's something we will never know. 

7. No best world

It's easy for us to imagine ways in which the world could be better. But that's a shortsighted perspective.

Take time-travel stories in which the protagonist is living in the aftermath of a global catastrophe. His solution is to avert the catastrophe by changing the past. Changing a key variable in the past so that the future will fork off into an alternate timeline where that catastrophe never happened. And he succeeds, only there's an unforeseen cost. He may simply replace one global catastrophe with another global catastrophe. The alternate future has a different disaster. Or by preventing the catastrophe, he prevents many resultant goods. 

So he can never strike the right balance. There's no alternative that preserves all the same goods without the attendant evils. There's no best possible world. Each world may be better in some respects, but worse in others. Short-term improvements at the expense of long-term disasters. Every alternate timeline has tradeoffs. 

8. Domino effect

Apropos (7), although God can and sometimes does intercede to prevent or halt evil, divine intervention has a disruptive effect on the future. Every divine intervention causes the future to veer off in a different direction than if God did not intercede. 

Now, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes that's a good thing. Yet that's offset by the series of goods which divine intervention eliminated when he diverted the timeline. 

Moreover, there's no optimal number of divine interventions. He could always do it one more time or one less time. Each intervention or nonintervention has respective consequences down the line. So the cutoff is bound to be somewhat arbitrary. There's no intrinsic upper or lower limit. 

In a cause-effect world, every action has a domino effect. Divine prevention doesn't merely swap out one domino with another, but replaces the entire series of falling dominoes after that point with a different series of falling dominoes. 

Atheists act as though God could just rearrange some things to make the world a better place. But in a world with linear cause-and-effect, it isn't possible to rearrange a few things without setting the future on a whole new course. 

And every alternate timeline has a different set of winners and losers. People who were heavenbound in one timeline don't exist in another timeline. They miss out on that incomparable opportunity. 

Some people respond by appealing to the Epicurean symmetry between prenatal and postmortem nonexistence. But that's an intuition which many people don't share. Arguably, nonexistence is a deprivation. 

9. Second-order goods

There are internal relations where you have an effect of an effect. Nested relations where the end-result is necessarily contingent on an intervening event. For instance, a grandfather can't directly father a grandson. Rather, he can indirectly produce a grandson via the medium of his own son. By the same token, some kinds of goods are necessarily contingent on some prior evils. Even an omnipotent God can't bypass those stages to achieve the result directly. 

10. Soul-making virtues

There's a difference between knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by description. A difference between abstract propositional knowledge and firsthand experience. 

Experience is transformative as well as informative. It doesn't just add new information, but changes you in the process. Let's take two hypothetical examples:

i) Suppose an athletic boy has contempt for a disabled classmate. He taunts and bullies the boy in the wheelchair. 

Then he himself becomes disabled during a sporting event. He now finds out what a struggle it is to be confined to a wheelchair. To depend on the kindness of strangers. He acquires compassion through personal, comparable experience. 

ii) Suppose some teenagers go hiking. They're best friends, or so they assume. But that's never been put to the test. 

Suppose, due to unexpectedly bad whether, they suddenly find themselves in a survival situation where the odds of their individual survive are greatly enhanced by leaving an injured companion behind. Or by murdering a companion. 

That life-threatening situation exposes the depth or superficiality of their friendship. Will they risk their own life and health for the sake of another, or were they fair-weather friends all along?

Now suppose they never went on that ill-fated hiking trip. In that case, they wouldn't need to have those sacrificial virtues. Yet that's a grave moral defect, even if circumstances never force it to the surface. 

11. Eschatological compensations

Compared to eternity, this life is a blink of an eye. However horrifically a Christian may suffer in this life, once that's past, it's forever behind him. After he dies, the afflictions of this life are increasingly distant in his consciousness. Although memory is important, we live in the present, and our mood is powerfully shaped by future expectations.  

Indeed, there's a tremendous sense of relief. He made it! The worst is behind him. He's safe now. Out of harm's way. Nothing more to fear. Nothing more to lose. He can't go back. And the way ahead is nothing but good. 


  1. Steve would you say that in theodicy all evil will have resultant second order good? That there is no evil which has no second order goods?

    1. I wouldn't say there's a one-to-one correspondence between a particular evil and a particular compensatory good.

  2. Another Great post!

    For instance, a grandfather can't directly father a grandson.

    Technically, a man could commit incest with his daughter to produce a male child who's both his son and grandson. But anyone reading the blog should get Steve's point about "Nested relations where the end-result is necessarily contingent on an intervening event."

  3. Any plans for an e-book on the problem of evil putting your thoughts in that form?