Concerning the Problem of Evil

At some point, most Christians have probably encountered questions such as, “Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?” or “If God is perfectly good, then where does evil come from?” These are challenging questions that don’t necessarily have simple or easy answers. But they do have answers.

This post is by no means intended to be a thorough critique of the problem of evil. That would require several books, at least. Instead, by falling back on minds greater than my own, I hope to probe some of the chinks in its armor. More specifically, I want to address the Epicurean Paradox (given below).

“If God is willing to prevent evil, but unable to
Then He is not omnipotent.

If He is able, but not willing
Then He is malevolent.

If He is both able and willing
Then whence cometh evil?

If He is neither able nor willing
Then why call Him God?”

To this day, I occasionally hear friends and acquaintances refer to these few lines as if they were a fatal knockout punch to the Abrahamic religions. There is, however, an obvious element that seems to be missing. What about free will?

Renowned philosopher and apologist Alvin Plantinga tackled this very issue in his free will defense. I won’t bother spelling it out here, but it’s worth reading up on.

Alvin Plantinga

While the Epicurean Paradox seems intimidating, there is clearly some important information that it fails to account for. One might say that God is willing to prevent evil…and able to prevent evil…but unwilling to achieve this state by creating puppets or robots instead of children.

“Then whence cometh evil?” 

Rather than being “the opposite of good”, I sometimes think of evil as being “the absence of God”. It’s what happens when we rebel against our Creator…and most of us intuitively recognize that rebellion involves collateral damage (ask Alderaan). Sometimes terrible things happen to good people. C.S. Lewis probably explained it most eloquently:

“God created things which had free will. That means creatures which can go wrong or right. Some people think they can imagine a creature which was free but had no possibility of going wrong, but I can’t. If a thing is free to be good it’s also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of automata – of creatures that worked like machines – would hardly be worth creating. The happiness which God designs for His higher creatures is the happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other in an ecstasy of love and delight compared with which the most rapturous love between a man and a woman on this earth is mere milk and water. And for that they’ve got to be free. Of course God knew what would happen if they used their freedom the wrong way: apparently, He thought it worth the risk.”

C.S. Lewis

As a final point, I think there is another issue here that people have a tendency to overlook. There are many who view God as a detached, indifferent ruler looking down on human suffering from his comfortable throne up in the clouds. Yet this image stands in direct contradiction to the Christian narrative. I once again give the floor to Dr. Plantinga:

“…as the Christian sees things, God does not stand idly by, coolly observing the suffering of his creatures. He enters into and shares our suffering. He endures the anguish of seeing his Son, the second person of the Trinity, consigned to the bitterly cruel and shameful death of the cross. Some theologians claim that God cannot suffer. I believe they are wrong. God’s capacity for suffering, I believe, is proportional to his greatness; it exceeds our capacity for suffering in the same measure as his capacity for knowledge exceeds ours.”

So although God allows evil to exist, he doesn’t just stand by and watch us suffer from it. Rather, he chooses to share in the suffering with us (and for us).

And to me, that in itself says a lot.

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55 thoughts on “Concerning the Problem of Evil

  1. Excellent! Excellent! As an orthodox Jew, we don’t wrestle with how come God didn’t . . . . We do discuss at length our free will to choose. And some go so far as to suggest that evil in a sense is at the behest of God, not to destroy us but to strengthen us in our resolve to do good. There are those who lean completely toward the evil, but for the most part each human struggles to do the good that he or she understands. Of course that seems feeble in the face of genocide or other atrocities that have littered our history. But the fact is we do have choice whether to perpetrate the good or perpetrate the evil. We are not puppets. And yes, God does grieve with us in our suffering.

    Excellent post!

  2. Evil as an absence of God. This is certainly true. But the presence of God would also be the absence of evil. The two thoughts in tandem explain why human free will is so risky. By acting in an evil fashion, a human takes himself out of the presence of God. He is too holy to tolerate evil in his presence. However, does choosing good automatically bring a person into the presence of God? Perhaps not. It at least allows God an opportunity to admit the human being to his presence, but something more appears to be required: a cleansing. The evil that was chosen must be purged, because it has left a mark upon the human soul. Christ enters to provide this cleansing, along with the Holy Spirit to help maintain the purity and expand it throughout the whole human character. This is a signal of the sovereignty of God. By his trinitarian actions, he restores the human to relationship with himself and makes possible a consistent choosing of the good. Yet this work of deity is not completed until a period beyond human time-bound experience. Until then, we continue to struggle with good and evil.

  3. A most compelling article – and a profoundly challenging subject to tackle…well done! I agree that C.S. Lewis puts the subject of good and evil into clear context, and other comments here as well. In knowing God, we know: “God is light, in whom there is no darkness at all.” 1 John 1: 5. Good news…in spite of the presence of evil…(and until the whole earth has gained its fullest redemption – resurrection —Romans 8:19), we can rejoice in God’s grace and strength to help us overcome evil with good…(Romans 12:21).

  4. This is a good post Matt, but I think it leaves out a key player: Satan. Our friend Clive Staples would’ve been the first to point out the necessity of addressing the Enemy’s role in perpetrating evil.

  5. If God meant the world to be good than it would be heaven. How do you know someone loves you truly if you have them programmed to already? The test is can you endure this life, will you except the idea of my son and His death for you, and will you make an effort to know me and share the story of me if you can not see me or “hear” me. The complexity of this world and its purpose is a profound and magical thing that constantly keeps me on my toes. But I find comforts in truths which have been revealed to me and the others that have commented here.

  6. Thoughtful read, Matt, thank you. I remember years ago reading C.S. Lewis’ explanation and it just made sense to me. I rarely have to answer this question but it is Lewis’ whom I quote when asked. I also believe that the questioner should search out the matter for him/herself so I try to leave room for that. Just the research they do could bring them to a John 17:3 knowledge of God.

  7. Free Will, eh? As an Arminian, I concur.

    As for suffering, I recently read an excellent chapter concerning this topic. Chapter 7 of For the City, by Darrin Patrick and Matt Carter reminded me that God promises that we will suffer and that God always keeps his promises! The reason for this suffering is because it strengthens our faith. The authors make a very good case that the best witness in the early church was not excellent preaching, but rather the response that the Christians had to their persecution. Good stuff!

  8. So although God allows evil to exist, he doesn’t just stand by and watch us suffer from it. Rather, he chooses to share in the suffering with us (and for us).

    Amen!

  9. God gave us free will, but the world became corrupted by the original man Adam and his companion Eve by eating the forbidden fruit. They took satan’s direction and suggestion by their own free will. At that point we were introduced to sin and became unclean, thus the world became sinful and evil by this one act of defiance by the original man and woman , Adam and Eve. A loving God gave them Free Will to choose, warning them to not eat the forbidden fruit.

    Man and woman became trapped and had no recourse or out from Sin. Before this act by Adam and Eve, man knew no Sin and thus no Sin and Evil entered the World, and we live under the Law of Sin and Death, until the coming of the Messiah, Jesus Christ.

    God, the Messiah, Jesus Christ, who took away the sins of the world His Son and our Savior Jesus Christ. Although this earthly world will never be free from evil or sin,those who choose through free will to ask Jesus their Savior to come into their lives will have eternal life and forgiveness from Sin..

    God Bless

    Convergence of Relevant Stuff

  10. Very good post. C.S. Lewis is one of my favorites. I loved Platinga’s quote too (I hadn’t heard that one before). Thanks for sharing your thoughts and beliefs.

  11. Hello Matt. I too am interested in the problem of evil. The question which possesses me is whether there are evils in the world that don’t have outweighing goods like free will and so on. For example, it seems as if we could still be able to make morally-significant choices without as much evil as there is in the world. Suppose there were no animal predators, or natural disasters, or even as much moral evil as there is- if we could’ve gone without these things without losing some outweighing good, it stands to reason that God wouldn’t have allowed them to happen.

    The Plantinga quote is interesting, but it seems that a morally perfect person like God wouldn’t merely participate in suffering, but rather end it if it serves no higher purpose.

    But perhaps God knows outweighing goods that we don’t.

  12. Matt,

    This is a nice concise post on the subject, and you raise up the issue of ‘free will’ that leads us in the right direction. The question you could be asking next is, “Why do I in my freedom choose to abandon God?”

    I have been contemplating the subject myself, and have started with the scenario in Genesis regarding the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Check it out, as you may find it pertinent to your own post.

    http://unapologeticapologist.wordpress.com/2012/01/11/reconsidering-genesis-my-theory-on-the-tree/

    and a clarification of it here…

    http://unapologeticapologist.wordpress.com/2012/01/12/defending-my-theory-on-the-tree-of-knowledge/

  13. Pingback: Movie Quote Monday – Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone | steadily skipping stones

  14. There is a man I don’t know whether to love or not.

    He never turns up uninvited
    But once he does
    No-one tells him to leave
    Not unless he accomplishes his purpose

    Some call him Mr Punishment
    Some call him Mr Consequence
    Others call him Mr Panel-Beater
    Because once he is done with you
    You feel straightened out and fixed
    Like a dent in a car

    He doesn’t turn up when you have just served your meal
    No, I guess he likes his portion served cold

    By the the time he turns up,
    Some would have already forgotten
    That some time back, they sent an invitation
    And it has come to pass
    Some never remember at all
    So they turn to ask “why me”

    When he goes
    He leaves you with bruises here and there
    Hoping you will remember
    And stop inviting him
    But still you won’t
    Sooner or later, unknowingly, unaware
    The invitation is sent again
    And on goes the cycle again

    God loves us, cares for us, forgives our sins – but does sin and evil go unpunished? Welcome your guest and learn what he teaches you so that he doesn’t make it a habit of turning up in your life. There is nothing that goes on on earth that God does not see or is not aware of.

  15. Pingback: Mr Punishment « ToriVictoria

  16. C.S. Lewis has another interesting quote on the topic from his book the problem of pain. I don’t have it before me, but I’ll paraphrase what I can from memory. He says something like, “the most interesting theological questions of our time must be nonsense [in the context of heavenly understanding] such as: is yellow square or round?” I tend to agree with Lewis on this one and when people ask me why God allows evil to exist I believe the best answer is one as nonsensical as the question. But, a “yes” works just fine.

  17. I stopped by here after you liked one of my posts (Sunset, Shadows, Clouds, Moon & Trees). BTW, Thank you. I read this post first. I think Ezekiel 18 talks about some of that very thing. Of course, this is a discussion of Jehovah God and Israel – but it reflects the truth of freewill. Vs. 32 states flatly that God does not take delight in death (I’m reading a different translation right now but believe “death” to mean “perishing” which means, “without Him”. As in rejection of Christ’s life/death/resurrection separates one from God eternally. (Before I commented here I also read your “about blog/author”. Very well expressed and written, all. Very professional and clean looking blog. But most of all, glad to hear your are a Christian and young and blogging about worthwhile things.) Enjoyed visiting – Jenn

  18. This is awesome, Matt! I was just having a conversation with a friend about this same topic recently. I love your blend of quotes with your own thoughts to make a very well-balanced discussion.

  19. Pingback: Is Evil in the world a problem to you? « The Good News

  20. A presuppositional apologist’s response to the Epicurean Paradox is that evil does exist, and the person who makes the objection obviously agrees. However there cannot be evil apart from an absolute moral standard, and God is the only one capable of establishing moral absolutes. By asking the question, they’re assuming the God of the Bible exists.

    The answer to the paradox overall is that God has a morally sufficient reason for the existence of evil.

    Thanks,
    Bill

    • “By asking the question, they’re assuming the God of the Bible exists.”

      Exactly! I definitely should have touched more on this. Perhaps in a future post… 🙂

  21. Ok, if you want to excuse your god the ‘evil’ in the world he created that is your choice. My question to you would be this: why did your god need little play mates?
    Did he create the universe because he was lonely? Did he create the universe because he had no choice but to create it?
    Genesis shows that he was disappointed that Eve ate the fruit, so it was not god’s first plan. Didn’t the omniscient god know that she would? Was he unable to not put the tree in the garden? Why did the god of Abraham do all the things he did that he knew would lead to disappointment after disappointment? Was he not able to stop himself? Was he not able to stop himself, or did he do it on purpose knowing that he would have to condemn to hell more than 90% of all humans ever born?

    You don’t have to answer. Plantinga has it wrong. Epicurus presents one problem, but I think that Hitler presents a worse problem for theists. It can be argued that if Hitler was evil, so is the god of Abraham. Then again, as you say, your world view doesn’t have to be logical, make sense, or be true or provable.

    • I guess I don’t see how omniscience is contradictory with God’s goodness or our own free will. Your questions seem to operate under the assumption that God experiences time linearly, as we do (“god’s first plan”…”know that she would”…”knew would lead to”…etc.).

      Admittedly, this is an area with some theological disagreement among Christians – but the most common position is that God exists *outside of time*. Think of “eternal” as a state of timelessness, rather than an infinitely long period of time.

      Given this premise, your questions really don’t make a lot of sense. They project our *human* ideas of time and causation onto a God who lives outside of those rules.

    • I’m not understanding where you are having trouble. The god of Abraham is said to be omniscient – knowing all things even before they happen. Knowing what would happen he let the snake into the garden, waited until he could then flood the earth, and many more examples where a deity with all knowledge of all things could have done a better job than he supposedly did. Even if WLC et al claim their god to be a timeless, spaceless being it does not aleviate the problem of having all knowledge, all power and still not getting it right. In fact, it makes him look rather sinister.

      Unless you are saying that the god of Abraham can know all things but not in which order they will happen for us in this universe. This would still be problematic given the wording of his interactions with bible characters.

      Or are you asserting that morality does not apply to YHWH?

    • Hello MAL,

      You take for granted that certain things are evil and certain are good. I agree that we (atheists included) innately know right and wrong, because God has written his law on our hearts. For you to say there is evil is giving away that you know God exists, and His morality is righteous.

      If we are just a species of apes, there are no moral absolutes, and no such thing as evil. All you would have is your personal taste in morality. Only God can establish moral absolutes.

      Thanks,
      Bill

    • My argument or position is much as you have stated: We are a species of ape, there are no moral absolutes, no such thing as evil, and all morality is subjective and of no meaning to anyone but the person making the judgement of where it is morally good or bad.

      The simple fact is that I do not know a god exists. I’m not even satisfied that the idea of gods is even workable. The statement that only god can establish morality is ludicrous. The statement that only your god can establish moral absolutes says not one thing about whether those absolutes are good or bad. It would seem that you believe that no matter what your god decides, it is good. One would be tempted to ask if you’ve had to stone to death any of your unruly children?

    • Hello MAL,

      You said, “The statement that only god can establish morality is ludicrous.”

      I said only God can establish moral absolutes. Anyone can establish their own personal morality, which is certainly not absolute (applicable to everyone at all times), and would be evil.

      You said, “One would be tempted to ask if you’ve had to stone to death any of your unruly children?”

      If I didn’t know better, it would seem as though you’re saying stoning unruly children is wrong.

      Thanks,
      Bill

    • Hi Bill. Two things I’d say in response. First, there’s no reason to think that theism is essential for moral realism. Second, even if it were, the problem of evil would remain. This is because the theist is postulating that there are moral absolutes and also a God, and if the atheist can point out that the existence of God entails no evil or less than the amount or kinds which actually exists, then theism becomes either incoherent or less probable, respectively. It’s always struck me odd that even professional philosophers (Norman Geisler comes to mind) thought your line of thinking actually adequately answered the problem of evil.

    • Hello Adamoriens,

      I’m not attempting to answer the question of why evil exists. To discuss that question with an atheist would be like racing for pink slips when your opponent doesn’t have their pink slip. That would be silly. The consistent atheist must be a moral relativist.

      How do you account for the existence of evil in your worldview?

      Thanks,
      Bill

    • Bill,
      My bad, I misunderstood what you said on the establishment of morals, but I could not disagree more with the statement that your god has written his law on our hearts. Such symbolism is meaningless for the most part. The Jews were not marauding around in a killing orgy before Moses came down off the mountain. His mimicry of Hammurabi does nothing to establish your god as ‘the’ law giver. The law of reciprocity existed long before that and is the basis of all commonly accepted ‘good’ laws. You would know this as the golden rule. It’s the basis for cooperative behaviors and was around long before anyone wrote anything down. If your god had anything to do with it and your holy book is to be believed, the law of reciprocity was determined by humans after your god graciously threw humans out of the garden and they had to cooperate to survive.

      You state it like it’s a bad thing, but it’s not. There is no god. We are just clever apes. The only morality that exists is subjective morality. Even the morality you claim your god has given you is subjective – subject to the whims of a jealous and vengeful god. You claim that your god has absolute authority to declare what is morally good and morally bad, yet if it turns out that your god declares next week that all redheads are to be killed on sight would you be the first in line to throw a stone? I rather doubt it. So, there is the problem, your personal morals will trump those of your absolute authority deity. Of course, I might be wrong. Perhaps you throw stones at those who work on the Sabbath?

    • Bill raises an excellent point about moral absolutes. On moral relativism, it makes no sense to claim that the God of the OT acted immorally – beyond your own personal opinion of what’s “moral” (in which case, one could easily respond with, “who cares?”).

      But on another note, I still think MAL’s evaluation above doesn’t adequately allow for free will. The only way God “could have done a better job” (that is, avoiding sin/pain/suffering/evil altogether) would be to deprive us of free will, since freedom – by definition – allows for the possibility of bad decisions. The problem is that *true love* between God and man can only genuinely exist of man is free to *choose* God. You seem to be arguing that God’s qualities are only consistent in a universe populated with automatons…which has been effectively refuted by Plantinga and others.

      “Or are you asserting that morality does not apply to YHWH?”

      I’m asserting that all morality is derived from God.

    • Matt,

      Your analysis of how god could have done a better job describes heaven – removal of free will in order to enforce blissful heaven. If you become willful in heaven god kicks you out, so I’m told. This just begs the question of why he needed new friends and created humans… but that is another discussion.

      I made an argument ( http://myatheistlife.wordpress.com/2012/04/27/was-adolf-hitler-evil/) that if Absolute Morality exists, to say Hitler was evil means that YHWH must also be evil. References to it get things confused.

      I hold that there morality is objective in all cases. Even Bill says it’s subjective as he asserts that morality is subject to the whim of his god. In other words, killing unruly children is morally good according to Bill’s assertion.

      I’m currently rehashing free will in view of some other conversations I’m having at my blog, but I do not believe the universe to be deterministic and that morality is always subjective.

    • MAL:

      You say, “The statement that only your god can establish moral absolutes says not one thing about whether those absolutes are good or bad. It would seem that you believe that no matter what your god decides, it is good.”

      Based on this, I think you have a misunderstanding of what the Christian position on good & evil is, exactly. We don’t believe that good & evil exist *independently* of God as you suggest – nor that good is merely whatever God decides it to be. Rather, we believe that good is a manifestation of God’s unchanging nature. Evil is what happens when rebellious creatures (namely, us) rebel against God. Francis Schaeffer articulates this pretty well:

      “Christianity gives a moral solution on the basis of the fact that God exists and has a character which is the law of the universe. There is therefore an absolute in regard to morals. It is not that there is a moral law in the back of God that binds both God and man, but that God himself has a character and this character is reflected in the moral law of the universe. Thus when a person realizes his inadequacy before God and feels guilty, he has a basis not simply for the feeling but for the reality of guilt. Man’s dilemma is not just that he is finite and God is infinite, but that he is a sinner and guilty before a holy God. But then he recognizes that God has given him a solution to this in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Man is fallen and flawed, but he is redeemable on the basis of Christ’s work. This is beautiful. This is optimism. And this optimism has a sufficient basis.”

    • Riddle me this, Matt man,

      The notion that the nature of god is morality still fails to provide any answer worth having or any answer that explains the world sufficiently.

      First, this explanation relies on the existence of a god, specifically your god. This is unproven and disputed by all who do not believe as you do.

      Second, even though it is all fluffy and loving sounding, it does not explain what morality is, only crying that there is absolute morality because the universe supposedly reflects the moral nature of an invisible god whose existence has yet to be proven.

      Lastly, if your holy text is to be believed, the nature of your god being morality requires that genocide in the name of your god is morally good if you are to not condemn the actors in your holy texts for their deeds. If it cannot be known whom your god talks to nor how he guides them, you cannot condemn the acts of anyone claiming to act in his name. Where then can we say this is morally good and that is morally bad?

      All this does is muddy the water and fail to explain anything.

    • Riddle me this Matt man,

      The notion that morality is a manifestation of the nature of your god fails to explain what is moral and what is not as well as define anything that your god does as morally good.

      If all that your god does is morally good, it is still subjective to the whim of a god. A god whose existence is unproven and in fact disputed by all who do not believe as you do – and that’s a lot of people.

      This also requires that genocide done in the name of your god, or even by your god is morally good. Since you cannot know to whom your god speaks nor how he guides them, you cannot know what actions are morally good and which are morally bad.

      How then are we to know what is morally good and what is morally bad? If you had happened to live where Joshua took a fancy to walk, you would be morally bad by virtue of simply existing… if we view it as morally good that your god wanted such humans to be literally wiped from the face of the earth with nothing of them left behind.

      Morality, using your definition, seems to depend on the mood of your god, who can be jealous, angry, vengeful, loving etc. It is unclear how anyone can say that his nature is unchanging. Your holy text shows that your god views humanity as something to be toyed with, destroyed at will, and forced to do as he wishes on pain of not just death, but eternal torture. The nature of your god is akin to the Spanish Grand Inquisitor.

      Sure, you can cherry pick your holy text to say that I’m wrong and your right but this would simply be interpreting your holy text rather than reading it plainly. Your god forgot to tell anyone how to interpret it, so it cannot be assumed that it needs interpretation. That it needs interpretation is a clear indication that at least one aspect of the nature of your god is mystery. The kind of mystery that a kind and loving god who is truly concerned for the well being of humans would not foist on humans.

      You have offered up this gem because your omniscient god has utterly failed to provide guidance that is useful, that does not require interpretation, and which can be looked upon as clearly defining moral action.

    • “This is unproven and disputed by all who do not believe as you do.”

      The same could be said for any viewpoint, of course – including a materialist one.

      “If you had happened to live where Joshua took a fancy to walk, you would be morally bad by virtue of simply existing…”

      That’s really not accurate. The Caananites were destroyed because of their depravity and rebellion against God – not simply for existing. God previously wiped out *everyone on Earth* except for Noah and his family for the same reason. He destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah for the same reason. All of this is entirely consistent with His perfect sense of justice.

      “Morality, using your definition, seems to depend on the mood of your god…It is unclear how anyone can say that his nature is unchanging.”

      Can you provide some Biblical examples of God changing His moral character (or His moral commandments) based on His mood?

      __

      I’m also a little confused, because earlier you said this: “My argument or position is much as you have stated: We are a species of ape, there are no moral absolutes, no such thing as evil, and all morality is subjective and of no meaning to anyone but the person making the judgement of where it is morally good or bad.”

      If this is really what you believe, then how can you condemn the “genocide” that you accuse God of committing? If morality is really subjective – as you suggest – then why should I or anyone else care about your views on genocide? It would just be your own personal opinion, man.

    • Matt, indeed, my subjective view of genocide is just one person’s view and as such might not mean much. When whole societies collectively say we do not think that murder is good and definitely think that genocide is bad… well, this is where laws come from. I personally think that genocide is bad. It is not in keeping with the law of reciprocity. My original point in all this was a comment on the fact that if Joshua was morally good, you can’t say Hitler was morally bad and the reverse is true also… but only if you believe in absolute/objective morality. I don’t see where theists can justify belief in absolute/objective morality and also thinking Hitler was morally bad.

      Personally, I can’t see Joshua as morally good. After all, he did have the most powerful agent in the universe on his side and still could not manage to conquer territory without resorting to some of the worst kind of behavior that humanity seems to have to offer. That’s right, he had an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevoent ally and still needed to pillage, plunder, burn, slash, and kill everything that lives to get what he wanted. That seems rather gratuitous and morally reprehensible. Then we hear that your god helped him and a reasoning person can only conclude that your god is either an incompetent moron or mentally deficient, or both. But hey, that’s just me and my subjective judgement. You’ll probably just say he is a vengeful or angry god or somehow twist it so that those people Joshua murdered deserved it because they did not believe in your god. Maybe you’ll say they were judge evil by your god and had to be wiped out… despite the fact that your god supposedly has all the resources needed to either prevent their failures or correct them without resorting to murdering them and torturing them forever in hell… a special place he built just to torture people. Real nice guy.

    • “My original point in all this was a comment on the fact that if Joshua was morally good, you can’t say Hitler was morally bad and the reverse is true also… but only if you believe in absolute/objective morality. I don’t see where theists can justify belief in absolute/objective morality and also thinking Hitler was morally bad.”

      On the contrary – I don’t see how anyone can justify thinking Hitler was morally bad *without* a belief in objective morality. Because given a subjective view of morality, we might as well be debating whether or not green is a better color than blue. It’s all mere opinion. Without an objective standard of morality, we can’t even call Hitler’s actions “bad” or “evil” – because those terms are meaningless.

      There’s also a significant flaw in the comparison between Hitler and Joshua; namely, it ignores context. It’s sort of like saying: “You can’t call a soldier a hero while also calling a serial killer evil, because they both kill people.”

      Hitler’s actions were a self-motivated attempt to systematically eradicate groups of people that he disliked. Joshua’s actions were under direct command from God – he was essentially being used as God’s instrument of justice…a foot-soldier fighting for a noble cause. So your comparison, while *claiming* to demonstrate an inconsistency in the theist’s position, does so only by projecting non-theist assumptions (ie, “God wasn’t actually communicating to Joshua…or if He was, then He doesn’t have the right to judge His own creatures”) onto the Joshua narrative.

    • Okay, Matt, match point. Prove to me that you KNOW that Hitler was NOT acting on YHWH’s behalf. Prove that you know he was different than Joshua and that Joshua was acting at the behest of an invisible being. Prove these things. Prove them beyond a shadow of a doubt. You cannot say that the bible is true without proof. Prove the judgements you’ve made. Prove that you know what your god has done and what he has not. I beg of you, prove these things.

    • One of my more recent posts actually addresses this “demand for proof” to some extent: https://wellspentjourney.wordpress.com/2012/05/07/alister-mcgrath-on-the-demand-for-proof/

      I also touch on how it’s incompatible with the nature of faith: https://wellspentjourney.wordpress.com/2012/03/25/the-role-of-choice-in-faith-addressing-russells-teapot/

      ___

      But as it relates to *this* discussion, you seem to have misplaced the burden of proof.

      Your claim was that Christian theists commit a logical contradiction by believing Joshua’s actions were good and Hitler’s actions were bad. I demonstrated how this perceived contradiction can be quite easily resolved under the Christian worldview. (The contradiction only arises, in fact, when we look at this issue with non-theist assumptions)

      If you’re making the argument that the Hitler/Joshua comparison represents a contradiction, the burden of proof is on you to support that claim.

    • Matt, answer the effing question. Do not even try that tired old cop-out that faith does not require evidence. You made a claim. Back it up or be quiet. The burden of proof for your claim is entirely on you. No matter how you argue that it is not it still remains incumbent on you to back up your claims with evidence.

      All you’ve done here is tell us that you don’t have to prove your claims because you believe in a magic man in the sky. BS. Show us the evidence or go home … or admit your mistake and lets keep talking.

      You claimed to know that your god did not direct Hitler but did direct Joshua. Lets see the evidence. This is your claim, not the claim of Christianity or even your holy text. It is your claim. Prove it. You may think that your holy text should be accepted on faith, but I have no such compunction about your personal claims. Where’s the proof?

    • This entire discussion has been about your Hitler/Joshua comparison. You’re the one who made the initial claim (that it’s contradictory for Christian theists to believe that Hitler was “bad” and Joshua was “good”), so the burden of proof is on you to support that claim.

      I offered a plausible explanation of how the theist can resolve your proposed contradiction (namely, the contextual and motivational differences between your two examples). Philosophically speaking, I don’t carry the burden of proof because I wasn’t making a claim at all – merely demonstrating the leakiness of *your* claim.

      Your insistence that Joshua and Hitler are morally equivalent falls prey to the assertion fallacy. You haven’t offered any compelling evidence to support this position; they’re only morally equivalent because you say they are.

      Earlier I compared your Hitler/Joshua comparison to the following statement: “You can’t call a soldier a hero while also calling a serial killer evil, because they both kill people.” Demanding that I *prove* Hitler wasn’t acting on God’s behalf would be like telling me to *prove* that the serial killer wasn’t committing murders for a noble cause. It’s an absurd, self-refuting question.

  22. Hi Bill. I see no inconsistency between atheism and moral realism; that is to say, atheism does not entail nihilism or relativism. Let me rephrase my second point above:

    I can be a nihilistic atheist and still justifiably hold that evil demonstrates there is no God (or his existence is less probable etc.). All I need to believe is that:

    1. If God exists, there would be no gratuitous suffering.
    2. There is gratuitous suffering.
    3. Therefore, if God existed, he would have to co-exist with gratuitous suffering.
    4. Therefore, either premise 1 is false or God does not exist.

    So the atheist can argue that there is real evil and that this falsifies God, or he can argue that theism is internally incoherent (without being committed to objective moral values himself). For example, I could show that another person’s political views are incoherent without holding to any one of her beliefs myself.

    Contrary to your assertion, then, you do actually have to answer the question of why evil exists.

    • Hello Adam,

      You said, “I see no inconsistency between atheism and moral realism; that is to say, atheism does not entail nihilism or relativism.”

      Again, can you explain how that is? The only real attempt at an answer I’ve seen atheists provide is that good is that which leads us to X. Evil is that which takes us further from X. But, that is circular and arbitrary. It’s circular, because you’re presuming that X is good. It’s arbitrary because, everyone is free to choose X to be whatever they want, even if it’s contradictory to someone else.

      If you have something new to offer, I’m happy to consider it.

      As far as your proof, it is a different argument. Gratuitous suffering is evil, but evil is not necessarily gratuitous suffering. And there is no gratuitous suffering (#2 is false). God is in control of everything, and has a purpose for everything.

      At this point, I don’t know which position you’re espousing and what is just a theoretical argument. I’d appreciate it if you would just pick one and go with it.

      Thanks,
      Bill

    • Hi Bill,

      What I assert is that there is no formal contradiction between these two theses:

      1. God does not exist.
      2. There are moral facts.

      I don’t need to explain why, just as I don’t need to explain why numbers could exist sans rainfall. If the theist wants to assert that a formal contradiction does exist between those two premises, then it falls to him to argue that, “if God does not exist, moral facts cannot exist.” But no such argument has been forthcoming from your quarter.

      As far as your proof, it is a different argument. Gratuitous suffering is evil, but evil is not necessarily gratuitous suffering. And there is no gratuitous suffering (#2 is false). God is in control of everything, and has a purpose for everything.

      At this point, I don’t know which position you’re espousing and what is just a theoretical argument. I’d appreciate it if you would just pick one and go with it.

      In lieu of direct response, then, I take you to have conceded my earlier point; namely, that a person does not have to personally believe any one of a system of beliefs to show that that system of beliefs is incoherent. Thus, the atheist can fail to believe that suffering is morally objectionable whilst holding that the existence of suffering renders theism incoherent (or less probable).

      So our other argument about the reality of morality is actually irrelevant to the problem of evil argued as such. Of course, one could argue for one favoured theory of morality, show that it entails gratuitous suffering, and thereby demonstrate the non-existence of God, but as I’ve shown this is one of several options for the atheist.

      For the record, though, I tentatively believe there are moral facts, and I’m an agnostic who finds the problem of evil compelling (if not toward atheism, at least away from theism).

    • Hi Adam,

      You said, “What I assert is that there is no formal contradiction between these two theses:

      1. God does not exist.
      2. There are moral facts.

      I don’t need to explain why…”

      Morality is an expression of God’s character. God loves people, so murder is wrong. God loves the truth, so lying is wrong. There is no other reasonable explanation for the existence of moral absolutes.

      You said, “In lieu of direct response, then, I take you to have conceded my earlier point; namely, that a person does not have to personally believe any one of a system of beliefs to show that that system of beliefs is incoherent.”

      First of all, there is no problem of evil. The Bible answers the objection quite nicely. It’s reiterated in this post, and in the comments. It’s really an elementary objection. If you’re seeking to shake the faith of a neophyte Christian, I’m sure you can find plenty to impress. However, if you want to debate someone a little more knowledgeable, you have to take the time to learn how we answer it and present some interesting questions.

      I didn’t respond to your objection about whether you personally have to believe in evil to present this objection, because it’s rather silly. Evil cannot exist without God. It would be like saying you don’t believe in God because the angels (supernatural beings that God created) were mean to your baby brother. Admitting that angels exist is tantamount to admitting God exists. Admitting evil exists is tantamount to admitting God exists.

      You said, “For the record, though, I tentatively believe there are moral facts…”

      That’s because you know that God exists, and He has written His law on your heart (Jeremiah 31:33). You can repent and trust Christ, and He will forgive your sins, and give you wisdom so that your worldview can’t be reduced to absurdity.

      You said, “I’m an agnostic who finds the problem of evil compelling…”

      That is because the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 1:7). If you don’t fear the Lord you have no wisdom.

      “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Romans 1:21).

      You have been commanded by your Creator to repent and believe the gospel. I sincerely hope you will do so.

      Thanks,
      Bill

    • Hi Bill,

      You write:

      Morality is an expression of God’s character. God loves people, so murder is wrong. God loves the truth, so lying is wrong. There is no other reasonable explanation for the existence of moral absolutes.

      This is merely one theistic theory of morality among many. In matter of fact, the disagreements between theists about meta-ethics is only matched by the disagreements found among seculars. Interestingly enough, each theistic theory finds a rough counterpart in atheists.

      The view you describe above is, as it stands, merely another form of relativism. We had might as well substitute God with “society”, “my culture” or “Adamoriens” and declare that moral absolutes exist. One way to escape this would be to take it to be necessarily true that “whatever God loves is good and obligatory.” But then we have a moral absolute that must stand independently of God, one which would be true even were God non-existent. Oddly, this would entail that atheism has at least one moral absolute.

      First of all, there is no problem of evil. The Bible answers the objection quite nicely. It’s reiterated in this post, and in the comments. It’s really an elementary objection. If you’re seeking to shake the faith of a neophyte Christian, I’m sure you can find plenty to impress. However, if you want to debate someone a little more knowledgeable, you have to take the time to learn how we answer it and present some interesting questions.

      I’ve already done so. This very thread contains such a post dated January 13, to which no reply has been made. I am in fact familiar with the attempts by Plantinga, Lewis and the Biblical authors, and remain underwhelmed.

      I didn’t respond to your objection about whether you personally have to believe in evil to present this objection, because it’s rather silly. Evil cannot exist without God. It would be like saying you don’t believe in God because the angels (supernatural beings that God created) were mean to your baby brother. Admitting that angels exist is tantamount to admitting God exists. Admitting evil exists is tantamount to admitting God exists.

      Again, some effort must be made to substantiate the claim that moral realism is only possible given theism.

      My point is simply that an atheist could legitimately attempt to show that Christianity is incoherent, simply by referencing the beliefs that Christians have or ought to have given their other commitments. In the same way, a Christian could legitimately attempt to show that atheistic materialism is incoherent by referencing the beliefs atheists have or ought to have given their other commitments. All this can be done without personally holding any one of these beliefs. You could call call this a reductio ad absurdum strategy.

    • Hello,

      It’s become apparent to me that you and I could type back and forth for quite some time. I would be willing to spend a very long time doing that, because I care about your eternity. But, I’d only do it if I thought you were genuine in your questions and objections. I could respond to your latest arguments (and it’s almost painful for me not to), but you would only come up with more objections.

      The truth is that you are enemies with God and not able to think clearly because you’ve built your reasoning on a faulty foundation. Until you submit to Jesus as Lord, you will not be able to account for your reasoning, logic, morality, or even have a standard of truth.

      You expect me to have logical reasons for my beliefs, but you’ve made no attempt to justify your basis for making objections. Until you do so, I think there is no point in continuing this conversation.

      Nevertheless, I have enjoyed the conversation and appreciate your time, and your kind tone.

      Bill

  23. Hi Bill. I suspected it would come to this. There is something of a sad solipsism about believing that all disagreement towards one’s opinions arise out of abject irrationality and moral depravity, and unfortunately this persists among all presuppositionalists I’ve encountered. Anyway, you write:

    You expect me to have logical reasons for my beliefs, but you’ve made no attempt to justify your basis for making objections. Until you do so, I think there is no point in continuing this conversation.

    This strikes me with some irony. It’s quite true that I didn’t offer meta-accounts for logic and morality before engaging in this conversation; but then, neither did you. And yet we’ve exchanged meaningful commentary. If you wish to ignore clear, coherent criticism because the bearer hasn’t explicitly carried out some unrelated philosophical task, you’re free to do so, but these sorts of evasive manoeuvers don’t escape the attention of readers. Since you have called my sincerity into doubt (gravely so), I will do the same.

    In matter of fact, you cannot substantiate your assertions about morality and atheism, nor contest that coherent criticism must be dealt with whatever the source; hence the cowardly withdrawal.

    Nevertheless, this conversation has stimulated me, and you’ve restrained yourself admirably as far as presuppositionalists go.

  24. Pingback: Ten Questions to Ask a Christian: My Responses | Well Spent Journey

  25. Pingback: On Raising Children Without God | Well Spent Journey

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