Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Problem of Evil part 4

This is the fourth and final post in a series introducing the problem of evil to those who are not familiar with it or the Christian responses to it. Please see the previous posts for more background.

The final response to the problem of evil that one is likely to hear from Christians is less of a defense than an appeal to look at the problem from a different perspective. There are a lot of variations on this kind of explanation but I call this the sovereign defense response. Similar to the free will defense (FWD) the sovereign defense (SD) holds that evil exists as a result of some purpose in Gods creative economy. Unlike the FWD, however, the sovereign defense does not teach that evil is a necessary byproduct of some higher purpose in Gods creation. The SD teaches rather that God uses evil in His creation to bring about His purposes. In this view evil is opposed to God but is not outside of His sovereign control and all events, good and evil, are part of the unfolding plan of God.

The Primacy of a Biblical View

The SD does not try and argue from some supposedly neutral premise to a justification of God. It is a presuppositional argument meaning that it assumes the truth of scripture as its starting point. Opponents claim that such a response fails because it is an example of the logical fallacy of begging the question and see it as simply a more sophisticated way of presenting an obviously fallacious argument such as:

Christian:         God certainly exists
Doubter:          How do you know?
Christian:         The bible says that He does.
Doubter:          Why should I believe the bible?
Christian:         Because God wrote it!

Supporters of this view point out that every philosophical system including materialism, atheism, and all other religions must assume the truth of some initial ideas that they then reason from. They point out that the problem of evil derives its power from the apparent contradiction of certain elements of the Christian system such as God’s omnipotence and His love. SD supporters say that since the criticism itself derives from claims about God made by the bible it is perfectly appropriate and consistent to argue that a more complete understanding of the biblical system removes those apparent contradictions. This makes the SD argument different from the fallacious argument listed above because SD is simply attempting to show that the Christian view of evil is consistent and non-contradictory.

There are few different elements to this argument that we will consider.

The bible as an Answer to the Problem of Evil

The first aspect of this argument is to turn the premises of the original argument from evil back upon themselves in the following way:

1)      Evil exists

2)      God is perfectly good, all powerful, and that He knows everything
a.      Since God is perfectly good He has the desire to eliminate evil
b.      Since God is all powerful He has the ability to eliminate evil
c.       Since If God is all knowing then He knows how to eliminate evil

3)      Therefore God will eliminate evil 

Those who hold to an SD argue that God will ultimately deal with evil and that, in fact, He has done so in Christ. The bible is the record of God’s plan of redemption and is God’s answer to the problem of evil. God reveals to us that He has a plan of redemption and that He is working in a particular way to eliminate evil and judge those who partake in it. Most of the people who use the problem of evil as an argument against Christianity make the assumption that the existence of God is inconsistent with evil if it exists for any duration of time. They seem to wish for a God who instantaneously acts to eliminate evil from His creation. While God certainly has the power to do this He has determined rather to triumph over evil by working through the created order to redeem what He has created. His purposes in doing this are not shared with us but He promised to bring victory through the seed of a woman. Just as evil entered through creation He has determined to deal with it through the creation. In fulfillment of the promise God made to Adam and Eve God established a lineage that culminated in the God-man Jesus Christ in whom the ultimate triumph over evil was accomplished. The biblical answer to the problem of evil is that God has, and will, vindicate His righteousness and judge evildoers. The solution and culmination of this work is the sacrifice of His son Jesus Christ. The battle is already won but He continues to work through creation toward final redemption. His doing so, however, is not instantaneous but is a process. He does not share with us why He chooses to work this way but we are able to trust in Him by virtue of who He is.

God’s Relation to Evil

The second attribute of the SD is that problem of evil contains certain assumptions about the relation between God and evil that is either incorrect or oversimplified. There is the implication in the problem that somehow evil is an independent power outside of God that He either cannot or will not overcome. Those who hold to the SD point out that the biblical relationship of God and evil is more complicated. Although evil is certainly opposed to God it is never independent from Him. They teach that God ordains evil events in order to bring about His sovereign purposes. There are many biblical examples of this, however, one will likely suffice for our purpose because it at once an example of the most evil act ever committed and also a tremendous demonstration of God’s sovereignty and the basis for His ultimate triumph over evil itself. I am referring to the crucifixion of Christ.

God planned from eternity past that this sacrifice should be made. John tells us in Revelation that Christ was the lamb slain before the foundation of the world and many years before He was even born Isaiah said of Christ “It was the will of the LORD to crush Him”. It was absolutely certain that this event was going to happen and even many important details of it were prophesied long before they happened. It is clear that God has planned and ordained these events to come to pass. The decisions that bring it about, however, are clearly evil and sinful. Peter sums up the tension of these truths after being released from custody in Acts: “truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.” (Acts 4:27-28 ESV)

This demonstrates that at the very least there is a complexity in the relationship between God’s purposes and the particular evil acts of moral agents. What is more, based upon the biblical view of God’s ultimate power over all things including creatures, weather, and contingencies this complexity extends beyond moral acts to also include natural occurrences of evil. The disease, fire, and other calamities that afflicted Job for example were done with the consent of God (it is God who points Job out to Satan and extends permission to Satan to afflict him). Since those who hold to the SD maintain that nothing happens outside of God’s purposes they must explain how God can ordain and use particular evil events such as the treachery of Judas as well as earthquakes etc. without being considered blameworthy for those evil acts.

God and the Authorship of Sin

The major criticism of this approach from within the church is that it seems to “make God the author of sin”. There are a few different ways that those who hold to the SD respond to this. Most make a distinction between God ordaining an event and God being the efficient cause of an event. For example, God ordained that Christ would be betrayed by Judas and offered up to be crucified etc. but while God was the ultimate cause of this He was not the efficient cause. The evil in Judas’ heart and the sinful motives in the hearts of the leaders were the efficient cause of Jesus’ crucifixion. In this view, God has a redeeming purpose for working through secondary causes, even when those secondary causes perform evil actions. God therefore cannot be said to have been the cause of the evil directly because He always works through creatures according to their natural desires. In this case, God did not force Judas to do anything, rather Judas acted in accordance with his own evil desire. God therefore could ordain with certainty His ends while not violating the freedom of any particular agent such as Judas. The result is that God ordained that a particular person (Judas) perform an evil act but the evil choice originated within the will of the person without coercion or restraint. This presupposes a compatibilist view of human freedom that retains God’s justice in holding people accountable for actions that He ordains because they flow unimpeded from their own will and desires.

A second way that some that hold the SD respond is to simply assert that there is no problem for God’s justice or righteousness even if He were the efficient cause of evil acts. In their view responsibility, in the sense of being blameworthy, cannot apply to God in any sense because He is “Ex Lex”, meaning that there is simply no law or standard to which He can be held accountable outside of Himself. Culpability is seen in this view as simply the result of being held under a standard of law. God is just in holding creatures accountable for things that He, Himself, can do without culpability simply as a result of the fact that we are subject to Him and He is subject to nothing outside of Himself. They respond to the criticism that this is an unbiblical view by asserting that the bible repeatedly claims that God is sovereign over all things and that there is no biblical passage that teaches that God is not the author of sin. They claim that verses such as James 1:13, 1 Corinthians 14:33, and others are often interpreted as biblical support of that position but that these verses are addressing specific circumstances are not dealing primarily with the metaphysical issues involved in this argument. They point to passages of scripture such 1 Kings 22:19-22 and others as counter-examples to show that God retains His sovereignty even in ordaining evil acts. He is just in doing so as a result of His position as God and His judgment is just because it flows perfectly from the divine nature. Ultimately they teach that God does as He pleases with His creation and for us to question those choices is an example of arrogance and pride.


This argument, like all the other responses to the problem of evil that we have covered, is much more nuanced in its details than what I have presented here. There is some strength to this argument in that it recognizes that approaching the problem without a consideration of the broader doctrine of God and His relationship to His creation is problematic. There is no neutral ground with which to consider this problem despite the best efforts of philosophers through the years. J.I. Packer explains that for many years there was no problem of evil because believers simply understood that God was in control and that we were responsible for our actions. Although that is an exaggeration there is wisdom in that simplicity. By trying to analyze the problem without the broader context of the Christian message we inevitably import certain assumptions into our thinking that influence our logical progression. If the complaint is that the God of the bible is inconsistent with evil then all of the biblical data about that God and His relationship to this world must be considered when evaluating that claim. We must not try to resolve this problem without considering carefully who God is and everything He says about Himself.

The weakness of the argument is that it adds little to the philosophical discussion. It may be a logically consistent response of someone who has faith but it is unlikely to be very effective as a defense because it requires the importation of an entire set of presuppositions that are all in question for those who typically bring up the problem of evil. Of course, those who hold this view do not feel that they should put themselves on the defensive and prefer to proclaim rather than explain the God they believe in. Either way, though this argument is compelling to those who accept the scriptures it can sound a lot like fideism despite the best efforts of those who support it to present it in a rational way. Therefore it works well for presuppositionalists but is unlikely to be of much value to classic apologists.

There is certainly much more that has been said about the problem of evil than we have covered in this series but my intention was to try and write a simple introduction to the major views. For those interested in studying the topic further we recommend that you consult the starter kit and advanced study resources.

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