Tag Archives: evil

Are Darkness and Evil Rooted in God’s Nature?

 

This is the third and final installment of my review and critique of Thomas Oord’s book The Uncontrolling Love of God. In the previous two essays I described and analyzed Oord’s argument and criticized three of his crucial assertions. Today I will address a fourth assertion.

4. God’s Nature Limits God.

For Oord, the problem of evil focuses on absolving God of responsibility for the evil that plagues our world. Oord argues that the problem of evil cannot be dealt with as long as we view creation as a voluntary divine act. If God voluntarily created our world then God either allows or positively wills the evil that occurs within it. And no being that allows or permits, much less positively wills, the horrible evils that happen in our world can be considered loving. Oord “solves” the problem of evil by concluding that God did not choose to create a world with randomness and freedom, which are the necessary conditions for evil. Because God is love by nature, God creates our world by necessity.

Oord contends not only that God is love by nature but also that love is the preeminent divine attribute and limits the other attributes. God’s power extends only as far as his love. God cannot act contrary to his loving essence and must express that essence by creating. Let’s listen to some of Oord’s claims:

“God’s loving nature requires God to create a world with creatures God cannot control” (p.146).

“By contrast [to John Sanders], I do think God’s nature dictates the sort of world God must make” (p.148).

“God’s love is uncontrollable, not only in the sense that creatures cannot control divine love but also in the sense that God cannot stop loving” (p. 161).

“Essential kenosis says limitations to divine power derive from God’s nature of love” (p.164).

“Essential kenosis says God’s self-giving, others-empowering nature of love necessarily provides freedom, agency, self-organization and lawlike regularity to creation. Because love is the preeminent and necessary attribute in God’s nature, God cannot withdraw, override or fail to provide the freedom , agency, self-organizing and lawlike regularity God gives. Divine love limits divine power” (p. 169).

Is God a Prisoner of His Nature?

For many readers, the familiar idea that God cannot contradict his nature seems correct. God cannot lie or sin or die. We could add that God cannot act in an unloving or unjust way. I too agree with these statements. But Oord goes further.  He contends that God’s nature limits God, which in effect makes God a prisoner of his nature. The traditional teaching that God cannot contradict his nature was never understood as “limiting” God, that is to say, depriving God of an option that God might otherwise have willed to use for some good purpose. On the contrary, the idea that God cannot die or sin or act unlovingly expresses God’s unlimited perfection! It would be silly to say that there is something good or great in dying or sinning that God is missing because he cannot do it. Dying is not something you. It is something that happens to you. Nothing just happens to God!

But Oord insists that “Divine love limits divine power”? In the traditional doctrine of God, God’s power is thought to be unlimited, which means that God’s power extends to everything that is logically possible. Oord adds a further qualification by excluding some logically possible things. Specifically, Oord wants to exclude God using power to control or coerce his creatures. These actions are, according to Oord, logically possible, but given the priority of divine love in the divine nature, are impossible for God. It is logically possible for God to prevent evil actions but impossible for God actually to do this. God cannot act contrary to his loving nature, and his loving nature demands that he give irrevocable randomness and freedom to creatures.

Darkness and Evil Within the Divine Nature?

Our suspicions are rightly raised when we hear a thinker using one divine attribute to limit the others. Oord speaks as if God were essentially love but not essentially power or eternity or justice or others. It seems to me that we ought to reject out of hand the attribution of incoherence and disharmony to the divine being. Instead we ought to allow all the divine attributes modify and enrich each other. If we believe God is perfect in every respect, we should also assume that there is no tension much less conflict between divine love and divine justice or power or eternity or omniscience. God’s love is just and his justice is loving. And God’s love is powerful and his power is loving.

Oord, to the contrary, defines God’s love independently of the other essential attributes and seems to base his definition of divine love on a human conception of love. He then uses this human conception to restrict divine power. Consequently his conception of divine power is likewise distorted. Oord seems to think of divine power as force and coercion, which must be limited by divine love. Divine power is obviously conceived as the possibility for evil as well as good. Amazingly, this move grounds the tension in creation between love and evil in a tension within the divine being. Hence to escape rooting evil in the divine will Oord places its possibility in the divine nature! The problem of evil has infected the divine being. And God must continually overcome his possibility for evil. Evil has been eternalized.

But divine power is not the possibility for good or evil, love or coercion. Divine power is the power of being; it is unambiguously good. God is the power of his own being and consequently the power for the being of creatures. God’s power always manifests itself in creation as giving being. There is no reason to see any tension between God’s power and his love. Every act of love is also an act of power. God loves by giving being in all its richness to creatures.

Conclusion

In sum, Oord solves one problem of evil only to create an even worse one. He succeeds in absolving God of any responsibility for evil by transferring the possibility for evil from the divine will to the divine nature. However, the price of this transfer may be greater than many are willing to pay. If the suffering we endure in this world is somehow rooted in the unfathomable divine will and purpose, we can still hope that evil will be overcome and “every tear will be dried.” But if evil is rooted in the eternal divine nature, God has no place to stand to pull us out of the pit. How can he sympathize with our pain when he is distracted by his own suffering? How can God “lead us not into temptation” when he must continually overcome his own temptation?

Coming Soon: Eschatology. What can we know about something that hasn’t happened yet?

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God and Evil: Three Steps to the Wrong Answer

In my previous post I began a review of Thomas Oord, The Uncontrolling Love of God. I focused mostly on describing the argument of the book as fairly as I can. Today I want to explain where and why I disagree. Allow me to summarize what I said last time: Oord “solves” the problem of evil by limiting divine power and freedom in favor of divine love. According to Oord, love is the dominant divine attribute, and it limits the scope of the others. God cannot refuse to love, for that would contradict his nature. Hence God must create a world of creatures and give them freedom. God has no choice. When creatures misuse their freedom by doing evil and when the randomness of physical processes produces suffering, God is not to blame. As I said in the last lines of the earlier post,

“At no point is a divine decision involved actively or passively in the occurrence of evil or even in bringing about the conditions that make evil possible. Hence God cannot be blamed for genuine evil at any point in its genesis or history.”

According to Oord, this understanding of the divine nature solves the problem of evil. (For a fuller explanation, read the previous post, which bears the title, “Must we Limit God’s Power to Solve the Problem of Evil?”)

I will organize my comments around several of Oord’s presuppositions and assumptions, which, if you accept, will lead you to accept the conclusions of the book. If you do not accept Oord’s assumptions you probably will not accept his conclusions.

“Tragedy Needs an Explanation”

This assertion forms the title of Oord’s first chapter. Of course everyone feels the need to ask “Why did this happen?” when tragedy strikes us or those we love. We want an explanation, and not having one intensifies the suffering of injury and loss. But what kind of “explanation” counts as a satisfactory explanation? Reading his first chapter shows that for Oord, “explanation” means a coherent harmonization of the facts of nature, human experience of evil, and the idea of God. Oord excludes any “appeal to mystery” or expressions of trust as simplistic, if not irresponsible (p. 64, p. 89). He says,

“Simplistic responses to life’s difficult questions—“I just trust God”—leave many of us unsatisfied. We need better answers. Believers want to reconcile randomness and evil with the idea that God acts providentially” (p. 27).

Apparently, for Oord adequate explanations must make all things clear.

If you accept this thesis you will need to look for rational clarity in your explanation of tragedy. And Oord’s doctrine of God makes things clear. We understand perfectly why every evil event happens. God had to create a world where evil was possible, and God bears no responsibility for any genuinely evil event. God did not cause it or permit it. Crystal clear! But will such clarity really satisfy? For some people, perhaps it will. But others may find a loving but effectively powerless God very unsatisfying. Why can’t God be both powerful and loving! And why should we shy away from divine mystery? Should we expect the ways of God to be clear to us always? Hence I reject the presupposition that we should look only for “clear” explanations and refuse to consider those that resolve the problem in the depths of the divine mystery. Could a non-mysterious God be the Creator and Lord of the Bible?

Some Evils are Gratuitous.

This assertion is central to the argument of the book. Without it the argument fails. Throughout the book, Oord refers to some evils as “genuine” or “gratuitous.” Other evils are “necessary” and may produce good results in the long run. Pain, for example, warns of physical damage and danger. But “genuine” evils never produce anything good; or not enough good to outweigh the evil suffered. Oord defines genuine or gratuitous evil as

“events that all things considered, make the world worse than it might have been…Genuine evils happen, and they have no greater overall purpose” (p. 68, 65).

In other words, some evils are so outrageous and horrendous that not even God can redeem them or turn them to the good—not in a million years, not in all eternity! Now, if you admit that there are evils so destructive that not even God can redeem them, Oord has won the argument. For a loving God would not allow such evils if he could prevent them, and if God’s allows irredeemable evil when he could prevent it, he cannot be the loving God we believe in.

In response to these assertions about “genuine” evil, we must ask Oord how he knows that some evils cause so much damage that not even God can repair or redeem them? His answer is simple. He knows it because of the way it makes him feel. He says this:

“I cannot imagine, for example, any instance of rape to be necessary to promote greater good. Genocides are genuine evils too” (p. 66).

What he “cannot imagine” cannot be true. In the book’s first chapter, Oord does what almost all of the advocates for gratuitous evil do. He recounts horror story after horror story and banks on the emotional appeal of such stories dissuading us from trying to explain them as redeemable in some way. It is what I call in my book, The Faithful Creator, the “rhetorical argument from evil.”

He does not show that a particular evil is irredeemable. How could any mortal do that? How could he know that the final resurrected, redeemed, and glorified state of rape victims or the victims of genocide will be worse than it could have been had not these evils affected them. Only God knows what God can do. So, no human being can know whether or not some evils are irredeemable unless God reveals it.  Instead of demonstrating rationally or on the basis of revealed truth the reality of irredeemable evil, Oord in effect silences us with the thought “How dare you justify this evil by making it redeemable!” Or, “What kind of person could “imagine” rape and genocide making the world a better place!”

I admit that just as he cannot show that some evils are irredeemable, I cannot show clearly that all evils are redeemable. I would not presume to try. But I can hold on to this hope because it is grounded in the resurrection of Christ.

Some Events are Truly Random.

This thesis also is crucial to Oord’s argument. Oord begins his argument for randomness by giving examples from common experience. The outcome of a coin toss, the timing and landing place of a leaf that falls from a tree, and the time and place of a lightning strike seem to common sense to be random. And Oord argues that we ought to trust our common sense to tell us the truth in this case. He explains,

“Most of us are realists, in one sense or another. And the way we act presupposes our belief in the reality of genuine randomness…If we are to make sense of life, we need to take everyday experiences of randomness seriously. We should believe our intuitions regarding randomness tell us something true about reality” (pp. 32-34).

The author then appeals to modern natural science’s incorporation of randomness into its theories. Quantum physics has discovered no way to determine the future state of certain subatomic particles from their previous states. Biology assumes randomness in the process of mutations that bring about variety in the biological world.

(Note: I would argue that one cannot prove that a particular event is truly random. To “prove” something is to show that it follows from the preceding conditions. But the very definition of true randomness or chance is that it does not follow from the preceding conditions, that those conditions do not determine the outcome. Randomness as a concrete event is unknowable.)

I agree that certain events seem to be random as far as we can determine. But this is a rather trivial conclusion. The real question is “Are some events random to God?” Only if Oord can show that the randomness we experience is also experienced by God in the same way, will his argument work. But his only arguments for this conclusion derive from extrapolation from our experience in common sense and natural science. Because we cannot know the full causes of some events, neither can God. He says it this way:

“If the dominant views of science and philosophy are correct in their affirmations of randomness and chance, theologians such as Augustine, Calvin and Sproul are wrong” (p.41) in their contention that God knows and, in a special sense, causes all things.

The validity of Oord’s extrapolation from human experience to divine experience is crucial to his case. Note that he uses the same method here he used when he argued in thesis two that our experience of evil as “gratuitous” and irredeemable shows that it is also gratuitous and irredeemable to God. This assumption was also evident in thesis one where he rejects “appeals to mystery” and seeks rational clarity. We are beginning to see a deep presupposition of Oord’s perspective come into view. Oord and thinkers like him assume that the methods of common sense, natural science, and philosophy can see reality as God sees it, at least with regard to evil and physical laws. This presupposition is well articulated by Alfred North Whitehead, the founder of Process Philosophy:

“In the first place God is not to be treated as an exception to all metaphysical principles, invoked to save their collapse. He is their chief exemplification” (Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1929), p. 521).

For process thought, God and the world fall under one grand system of metaphysical principles. And if they are subject to the same laws they must be simply two aspects of the one eternal reality. God is a part of the world or the world is a part of God.

Traditional thinkers such as Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, Karl Barth, and others assume a radical difference between God and the world, Creator and creation. Hence they never extrapolated directly from human experience to divine experience. The laws and limits that define and delimit creation do not apply to God. For God created all things and determined their laws and limits.

The most fundamental reason I reject Oord’s detailed arguments and conclusions is that I reject his fundamental assumption that God and the world can be understood under the same categories and laws and concepts.

Next time, I will discuss the fourth thesis: “God’s Nature Limits God.” I am sure you have heard this idea many times. Perhaps you thought it self-evident. Nevertheless, it is false. And next time I will explain why.

 

Must We Limit God’s Power to Solve the Problem of Evil?

 

Something Different

Today, I am doing something I don’t usually do in this blog. I am reviewing a book, a very provocative, sometimes infuriating, book. Let me explain why. Last October InterVarsity Press published my book, The Faithful Creator: Affirming Creation and Providence in an Age of Anxiety. A few weeks later InterVarsity Press published Thomas Oord’s book The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence. These books could hardly be more opposed to each other. After some communication with Oord, he graciously invited me to join him on a panel with two other theologians that will meet at the annual meeting of the Christian Theological Research Fellowship in San Antonio, November, 2016. The theme of the discussion is the problem of evil. My presentation will bear the title, “Faith, Hope, And The Rhetoric Of Despair: Providence And Evil After Ivan Karamazov.” In preparing for this paper I read Oord’s latest book. And I thought I would share some thoughts on the book. I cannot summarize or respond to every argument in the book. But I hope to give you the heart of its central argument. I am sure you have heard these ideas even if you are not familiar with the books, authors, and labels.

Open and Relational Theology

Let me give you some background. Within the past 30 years, certain evangelical theologians have begun to advocate a view of God and providence called “open” or “relational” theism. I have written articles and sections of books explaining and criticizing this movement. John Sanders, Gregory Boyd, William Hasker, Clark Pinnock, Terence Fretheim are well known exponents of this view. Thomas Oord places himself broadly within this school of thought. But he also criticizes many of his fellow open and relational theologians for not following the basic logic of the position consistently to its end. In The Uncontrolling Love of God, Oord presents a modified open and relation view he calls the “essential kenosis” model of providence. Even if you know nothing of the general open and relational model, I think you can pick it up as I review Oord’s modified open and relational model of providence.

Oord’s Argument For a Limited God in Context

Oord’s argument in its simplest form contends that the problem of evil can be answered only by giving up the traditional doctrine of omnipotence. God’s power is not unlimited but limited. So, God cannot control all things. Hence God is not responsible or culpable for the horrendous evils that occur in the world. But Oord knows that this simple solution raises a host of questions for Christian believers, and he devotes most of the book to addressing them: How limited is God? Are God’s limits natural or self-imposed? What thing or things limit God? And does this limited God measure up to the God of Christianity?

First, let’s set the argument of Oord’s book into the larger context of argument from evil to atheism or some form of modified theism.

The General Philosophical Argument from Evil (Simple Version)

  1. An omnipotent God could prevent every instance of genuine evil
  2. A perfectly good God would want to prevent every instance of genuine evil.
  3. Genuine evil exists

Therefore:

  1. Either God is omnipotent but not good.
  2. Or, God is good but not omnipotent.
  3. Or, God is neither omnipotent nor good.
  4. Or, there is no God at all.

You can see clearly from the two arguments below how Oord’s overarching argument is driven by the general argument from evil:

Oord’s General Argument #1

  1. A God of love would want to prevent all genuine evil.
  2. Genuine evil occurs in the world.
  3. Hence, either there is no God of love or God cannot prevent all genuine evil.

Oord wishes to affirm the existence of a loving God, so he accepts the conclusion that “God cannot prevent all genuine evil.” But why can’t God prevent all evil? This question leads us to the next argument:

Oord’s General Argument #2

  1. If genuine randomness in physical processes and genuine creaturely freedom exists in the world, God cannot control everything that happens.
  2. Genuine creaturely freedom and randomness in physical processes exist in the world.
  3. Hence God cannot control everything that happens (including events that are genuinely evil).

In relation to the general philosophical argument from evil, we can see that Oord accepts conclusion #5 (God is good but not omnipotent) and rejects #4 (God is not good), #6 (God is neither omnipotent nor good, and #7 (There is no God).

Oord’s Critique of Other Open and Relational Thinkers

But now Oord faces a barrage of questions. It is not enough to say that God is loving but not omnipotent. One can imagine many loving but totally powerless beings. Why should we consider this loving but not omnipotent being “God”? Many thinkers who agree with Oord’s argument so far take this question very seriously and give this answer: God is not intrinsically, that is, by nature, limited. God limits himself. God freely decides to create a world where randomness and creaturely freedom exist. Once they exist, of course, God cannot determine the outcomes that randomness and freedom produce. But they do not exist by necessity. They exist only because God chose to create them. God was unlimited before creation but after creation God limits himself to give creation room to exercise freedom to love or hate, to choose good or evil. God chose to allow the possibility of genuine evil for the sake of the possible good. The ground of the possibility of good and evil is the same: creaturely randomness and freedom. But God never does evil or approves of evil. God does everything he can—other than reverse his decision to create creaturely freedom and randomness—to prevent genuine evil from occurring. In this way, these writers think they’ve preserved the deity of the loving but limited God…and solved the problem of evil.

Oord disagrees. He argues that the divine self-limitation theory does not do justice to the love of God. It makes God’s love for creatures a choice for God instead of the chief attribute of his nature. It implicitly makes God’s omnipotence the chief attribute because God could have chosen never to create and could yet reverse his decision if he wanted to do so. God could choose not to love, even if he never actually does so.

The Essential Kenosis Model of Providence

Oord offers an alternative to the divine self-limitation theory: “The Essential Kenosis Model of Providence.” According to Oord, if “God is love” in his essential being, he always loves and cannot refuse to love. God cannot contradict his essence. “God must give freedom and cannot override the gift given” (p. 171). God does not choose to limit himself. God is essentially self-giving, or self-emptying. Though he never explicitly says this, it seems to me that Oord thinks God creates the world by necessity, that creation is implicit in the inner nature of God. And if God creates by necessity, God has always been creating the world. I will pursue the consequences of this line thought in the next installments of this review.

Oord considers his model of providence superior to the models proposed by other open and relational thinkers (e.g. John Sanders) for two reasons. (1) The “essential kenosis” model possesses an inner coherence not present in the others. It makes love the master divine attribute in a radical and consistent way. Divine love judges and limits the exercise of all other divine attributes. (2) It really solves the problem of evil. In the “essential kenosis” model of providence, God cannot interfere with creaturely freedom and can never coerce creatures. God must create and give freedom to creatures. God has no choice. We know God does not desire or even allow evil because he does not even choose to create free creatures. God has no choice about this. They exist by necessity of the inner logic of divine love. Hence the problem of evil is solved. At no point is a divine decision involved actively or passively in the occurrence of evil or even in bringing about the conditions that make evil possible. Hence God cannot be blamed for genuine evil at any point in its genesis or history.

Next Time: I will offer some critical reflections on the fundamental presuppositions, central arguments, and implications of this book.

 

Evil is No Thing!

Last week’s post concluded that however much our experience of evil might challenge belief in an omnipotent, perfectly good and omniscient God, it does not disprove or even challenge the existence of a divine reality as such. There are many views of the divine and its mode of interaction with the world that are perfectly consistent with the existence of evil. The importance of this insight can hardly be overstated, and I will explore its significance in a future post. For now we need to explore the nature of evil in a bit more detail.

Evil as Conflict

In a recent post entitled “When is “Evil” Truly Evil?” I argued that describing an event as “evil” makes sense only if the event transgresses a cosmic plan for the way things are supposed to go. Evil is too strong and emotional a word to be used as a way to say “this is not what I wanted” or “I don’t like this.” In that essay I wanted to show that the concept of evil is evacuated of significance unless the thing we call evil is also “wrong.” Hence the concept of evil entails the concept of wrong.

Today I want to point out another quality of evil, not so much a moral quality (wrongness) as a physical quality. Whatever else one might say about evil, everyone can see that it involves disorder, disharmony or conflict. In a moral evil such as theft or murder the perpetrator abandons adherence to the moral law and enters into conflict with other people’s interests or rights. Vices such as greed, envy and lust arise from inner disorder and generate outer conflict. Such diseases as cancer, heart failure and diabetes begin when the natural integrity and harmony of the body fails and degeneration sets in. I use the word “conflict” to stand for the family of physical qualities mapped by the terms disorder, disharmony, disintegration, antagonism, conflict and other like terms.

What is the origin of conflict? Conflict makes sense only where there is more than one thing. Why is there more than one thing? In the end, there are only two ways to think about the origin of our universe. Either it derives from one eternal reality or it derives from more than one eternal reality. In worldviews that teach that there is only one eternal reality—for example monotheism—evil cannot be eternal because evil becomes possible only when the one eternal reality produces the many things of the world. In worldviews that appeal to more than one eternal reality—for example polytheism—the possibility for evil is eternal because division itself is eternal. Many of the differences between the ways the world’s religions and philosophies (East and West) approach evil can be explained by which one of these two presuppositions they hold to be true.

In continuity with Judaism, Christianity teaches that there is only one eternal God who is the creator of the world and its diverse creatures. God freely created the world with all its diversity by his word. In the early centuries of the church, Christian theologians faced a challenge from religious philosophies that asserted the existence of two eternal realities, one good and the other evil. These philosophies taught that the existence and apparent power of evil can be explained only by the existence of an eternal evil power that stands in eternal conflict with the good power. Otherwise, they argued, we would have to think of God as the origin of evil as well as good.

Evil is Not a Thing

In response to such philosophies Christian thinkers argued that evil is not an independent thing that can act on its own. Evil is disorder, misrelation or defective activity (failure) among real things. Evil is the condition of disorder itself, not a thing that instigates conflict against other things. And disorder is not an existing thing, like an atom, an animal or a human being. It can have no effect apart from the activity of things that exist. Real things can be ordered or disordered, but disorder cannot exist by itself. Augustine says, “I inquired what wickedness is; and I did not find a substance but a perversity of will twisted away from the highest substance, you O God, toward inferior things, rejecting its own inner life” (Confessions 7.16). Basil the Great also rejects the idea that evil is a real thing that can exist on its own:

Do not consider God the cause for the existence of evil, nor imagine evil as having its own existence. For evil is the absence of good…For it is neither uncreated…nor is it created, for if all things are from God, how can evil be from good. For nothing that is vile comes from the beautiful, nor does evil come from virtue” (God is Not the Author of Evil, 8; quoted in Dumitru Staniloae, Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, vol. 2).

Basil’s and Augustine’s rejection of the eternal and independent reality of evil solved one problem but created another. If God is the sole eternal creator of this diverse world why is there disorder and conflict? The mere presence of diversity does not cause disharmony and conflict; different things can be related harmoniously to achieve a greater whole. But how does a diverse world maintain its unity and harmony? No one thing within the world possesses the power to unify the whole world. If a brick were to impose its order on the house, it could at best transform the house into a brick; and that imposition would be an instance of violence and destruction. The Creator alone possesses the power, right and wisdom to unify the world of diverse things without doing violence to any of them. So, what disrupts the harmonious order? Two possibilities come to mind, chance or freedom.

Chance and Freedom as the Origins of Evil

Events that have their origin in chance or freedom are thought to break from the chain of events that preceded them and begin a new chain of events. Hence they can create order from disorder or destroy an existing order. Chance can be conceived in two ways. First, chance can be thought of as a spontaneous coming into being from nothing. Such an event has no origin and no explanation. It is absurd. Second, chance can be considered an event that occurs when two preexisting chains of events intersect in a way unpredictable from within either chain. A bird is flying overhead as I am taking my morning walk…I don’t need to describe what happens next. There is no vantage point from which the first form of chance could be predicted, but for the second there is such a possibility. Someone outside these chains of events in a position to see both could predict the time and place of their intersection.

From an external point of view freedom looks much like chance. Events originating in freedom look somewhat spontaneous and they often disrupt the expected flow of surrounding events. Chance events often cause suffering, death and destruction and so can events originating in freedom. But we experience freedom from within ourselves as rational deliberation and choice. Hence we know we are responsible for our deliberate actions, and we believe that other people are responsible for theirs. We may curse chance, but we don’t hold it responsible for what it causes. We attribute the suffering, death and destruction we experience at the hands of natural processes to chance. But most of the evil we experience at the hands of human beings we attribute to freedom.

Next Week: Why doesn’t God impose and maintain perfect harmony among the diverse things and free beings in the world? Why does God allow (or permit) evil? Is the free will defense the best answer to the argument from evil?

When is “Evil” Truly Evil? (Is Christianity True? #37)

The problem of evil is perhaps the most popular and potent contemporary objection to belief in God. In its simplest form it goes like this: How can you believe in a good, all-powerful and all-knowing God in the face of the pain, suffering and inhumanity that plagues the world? Would a good God allow genocide on a massive scale, if he could stop it? Wouldn’t an all-powerful God prevent the human death and suffering caused by tsunamis and earthquakes, if he cared? Agnostics use such questions to undermine certainty of belief in God. Atheists offer these objections as evidence against belief in the existence of God. Believers also feel the negative force of evil and sometimes feel abandoned by God and threatened by doubt.

As befits a blog devoted to “thoughtfulness in religion” I want to begin at the beginning and approach the subject at the most fundamental level where the question of evil first emerges. The following two questions strike me as getting about as close to the foundation as we can get: what are the conditions under which any event or series of events could be considered evil?”  And what quality is being attributed to an event when it is called evil?

Evil cannot exist unless something exists. Absolute nothingness is not evil or good. Whatever evil is, it exists as a quality of something else—of a thing, an event or a relation. If there were no things or events or relations, evil could not exist. Now imagine that our universe has existed eternally or came into existence arbitrarily and that there is no divine mind to order and direct it. Imagine further that there are no finite minds or even any living things but that physical and chemical processes that constitute the universe will continue to operate forever, the universe evolving as it has since the Big Bang. Does evil exist in this imaginary world? Can it exist in such a world? No. Even though things are continually coming into existence and going out of existence, being built up and destroyed, no event or series of events can be considered evil. Why?

At a minimum, to designate an event or series of events as “evil” is to say that something has gone wrong; evil is a misrelation, disharmony where there should be harmony.  But the concept of “going wrong” makes no sense where there is no concept of “going according to plan.” And the idea of a “plan” makes no sense apart from a mind that conceives of that plan. Hence the possibility of evil depends on the existence of a real world in which the actual course of events can contradict the ideal course of events as conceived by the divine mind. If evil occurs in this real world, contradicting the divine ideal world, we can see that such evil would cause distress and disappointment in the divine being. [We are not yet speaking of God the Creator in the Christian sense. We are speaking only of an all-encompassing cosmic mind.]

So, what are the conditions for the emergence of the concept of evil? Something must exist and a flow of events must be taking place. There must be a plan that encompasses all things and events, and there must be a mind that contains this comprehensive plan. Only a mind can perceive the contradiction between the way things actually go and the way they are supposed to go. And only a mind that wills the good (that is, the way things are supposed to go) can experience distress when they go wrong. The concept of cosmic evil emerges only with the emergence of a cosmic mind/will. Hence to argue that there is no God because things go wrong is self-contradictory. The argument affirms that things do in fact go wrong (evil) but denies the necessary conditions for the affirmation that things go wrong (a plan for the way things are supposed to go).

Now let’s shift our attention to the human experience of evil. As I have shown above, if there is no divine-like cosmic mind that can conceive and will the way things are supposed to go in the world, the concept of evil makes no sense in reference to the flow of cosmic events. Imagine, then, that we have evolved by chance in a universe in which there is no divine mind, no cosmic plan and no cosmic evil. Here we are. We exist for no reason and no purpose. For our coming into existence is a cosmic event and cosmic events do not happen for reasons or purposes. But as a matter of brute fact we exist as thinking, feeling and willing beings. And as thinking, feeling and willing beings we exist also as cosmic beings in the flow of cosmic change, of coming into existence and going out of existence, of the process of building up and tearing down that constitutes the universe. And as cosmic beings we come into existence, exist for a while, then deteriorate and fall apart. Though there is no ideal plan for the way things are supposed to go, we can imagine one and wish it to be so. Though there is no divine plan for our lives we imagine our lives unfolding in an “ideal” way, that is, according to our desires. And we can perceive the contradiction between our ideal cosmic and individual plans and the actual flow of our lives in the cosmos.

As thinking, feeling and willing beings, we wish to be exempted from the cosmic processes of decay and death to which we are subject as cosmic beings. As a matter of brute fact we desire to live and experience happiness. We do not want to experience physical pain or emotional distress or spiritual suffering. When the actual flow of cosmic events contradicts our idea of the “way things are supposed to go” in our lives, we experience this contradiction and consequent distress as wrong, as a misrelation and as disharmony where harmony ought to exist. Hence on a human level evil is defined as whatever contradicts our ideal plan and thwarts our pursuit of happiness. And since this contradiction assails and destroys what we love, we hate it and rebel against it with all our energy. At the human level evil is that to which we say “No!”

But this line of thinking rather undermines the argument from our experience of evil to atheism. We’ve seen that the idea of cosmic evil makes no sense apart from a divine mind that can plan and desire the way things are supposed to go in cosmic history. You cannot argue for the existence of real cosmic evil from the contradiction between the mere human idea of the way the world should go and the human desire for life and happiness, unless you assume the existence of a divine plan and a divine mind. And if there is no divine plan or divine mind, the “evil” human beings experience is not really cosmic in nature. It is subjective, relative to the brute fact of human desires and wishes. On the supposition of the non-existence of God or anything like God, at the cosmic level genocides, hellish wars, devastating tsunamis, catastrophic earthquakes, famines, cancer and all other hateful evils are not evil. Like the deterioration of a radioactive element or the death of a star in a supernova, they just are.