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Evil and the Existence of God (Part I)

February 26, 2010

The following is part of a paper on the problem of evil that I wrote for a philosophy class last semester.  In order to make it more manageable I will break it down into several (maybe 4) parts.  When I wrote this paper there was actually a word limit, so the part where I flesh out my own ideas for a theodicy are quite limited (I ran out of room!).  They are just a few basic points to come back to in the future.

INTRODUCTION

I recently watched the movie Taken, the story of a young girl abducted by sex traffickers as she traveled to Europe.  While the movie itself was fiction, the images of women drugged and exploited sexually stirred within me an emotional outcry at the injustice that does so often take place through the evil actions of humans—for sex trafficking is a sobering reality for countless women and children throughout this world.   The point of writing this is to make an observation about the subjective reaction within a person when such horrendous evil is exposed.  Interestingly enough, the atheist and the theist will quite often respond—in an emotional outburst of passion—“How could a good and loving God allow all of this to happen?!”  I, a committed theist, found myself asking the same thing while watching this movie.  Can God really exist when in the face of so much horror inflicted by humans and nature?  A similar statement is made by C.S. Lewis in pondering the creation of such a world:  “If you ask me to believe that this is the work of a benevolent and omnipotent spirit, I reply that all the evidence points in the opposite direction.  Either there is no spirit behind the universe, or else a spirit indifferent to good and evil, or else and evil spirit.”[1] It is, perhaps, the strength of this “problem” that led Hans Kung to call this objection “the rock of atheism”.[2]

At the same time, a second question, posed primarily by the theist is pertinent:  is there such a thing as genuine evil in an atheistic philosophy?  Or, how do we come to these concepts of goodness and evil in a naturalistic schema?  For all of the problems that moral and natural evil presents for the theist who believes in an all-good and all-powerful God, these “problems” presuppose the existence of such a God in the first place.  This point will be taken up shortly.  For now, let it suffice to say that the “rock” of atheism—the objection to the existence of God based on gratuitous evil—actually requires the existence of an “all-good” God to be considered coherent; for the atheist borrows religious language (e.g., ‘goodness,’ ‘evil,’ etc.) to make its objection.[3] Of course, this does not resolve the issues for the theist, and so for a full explanation, some sort of theodicy is needed.  In what follows, I hope to defend the claim that the atheistic objection actually presupposes the existence of God, and then offer some considerations for a Christian theodicy by looking at the two most popular formulations—the Irenaean and the Augustinian Theodicy.  A guiding thesis for this project is this:  any explanation of evil that has it as a necessary or inevitable part of existence or ordained by God, in the end, undermines God’s utter opposition to evil and his call to his people to rebel against evil in all its forms.

APPROACHES TO THE PROBLEM OF EVIL

Naturalism/Materialism

“Philosopical naturalism,” writes William Hasker, “insists that the natural world is complete in itself, self-oriented and self-sufficient.  According to naturalism, everything which exists or occurs lies entirely within the domain of natural process.”[4] This is the home of the atheist.  Since the universe is self-oriented and self-sufficient, there is no need for the existence of God.  It is precisely because science explains so much about the universe that many now believe that there is no longer any good reason to believe in the idea of a creator God.  In short, this view postulates that the existence of the universe and all forms of life is due to a random explosion of particles that over the course of billions and billions of years formed into the planets and life forms that we now observe.  Even humans, the highest form of these random combinations of particles and matter, are simply that—combinations of particles and matter.  For example, naturalists believe that the human brain is a “self-operating computer” and that the “thoughts and other mental properties of humans are simply properties of complex, highly organized physical systems—namely human brains.”[5]

Yet the question arises, how can simple or complex combinations of particles be capable of good or evil?  Protons and electrons are morally neutral.  Therefore, combinations of particles that have evolved into higher life forms—such as human beings—while sophisticated are ultimately, still just combinations of particles.  The concept of evil has no place in such a system.  Take first what has been called natural “evil.”  A tsunami that destroys two hundred and fifty thousand human beings seems horrendous to the human observer.  It feels evil.[6] However, in reality, all that has occurred is a massive tidal wave of hydrogen and oxygen particles washing over other particle combinations.  Human morality is no different.  What seems reprehensible to us is simply the result of complex material interactions in the brain—perhaps malfunctions—but the result of “natural processes” nonetheless.  All we are left with is nature; and nature is neutral.

So while the naturalist/atheist wages his strongest argument against the existence of God based on the amount of gratuitous evil in the world, his very system denies that such evil exists in the first place.  For this reason, I have claimed that he must borrow his concepts of good and evil from a theistic system; his objection presupposes the existence of God.  No one denies that this world is full of heinous evil, both moral and natural; yet, it is because there is real goodness in the first place that we are able to recognize evil.  It is because we recognize “rightness” that we are able to recognize “wrongness,” and for this I propose we need a being of ultimate goodness.  For the atheist to argue that evil counts as “evidence” against the existence of God is to recognize that evil is really real.  And this is not something that his system will allow him to do.

In the end, it is my belief that in order to take evil seriously, we must do so within the confines of a theistic worldview.  This, of course, does not eliminate the “problem” of how an omnipotent, omnibenevolent being allows such evil to exist, but it does situate evil properly in a context where evil can be evil (and thus fought against), but good can be good (and thus prevail).  To the project of theodicy we now turn.


[1] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain. In The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), p. 552.

[2] As quoted in Michael Peterson et al., Reason and Religious Belief:  an Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion, (New York:  Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 129.

[3] I am sure that many would object to the idea that words such as “good” and “evil” are inherently religious and presuppose the existence of a diving Being.  I hope to adequately explain this in my critique of naturalism.

[4] William Hasker, Metaphysics:  Constructing a World View, (Downers Grove, IL:  Intervarsity Press, 1983), p. 108.

[5]Ibid., p. 70.

[6] Religious and non-religious people alike may have strong intuitions of good/evil and right/wrong.  I do not deny the fact that proponents of naturalism can conceive of evil.  However, ontologically speaking, nothing in their system can be truly “evil” for, as I’ve mentioned, particles, no matter how complex are morally neutral.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 26, 2010 10:05

    Hey Jonathan:

    Glad to see you’re back to blogging. I’m glad to see I’m not the only person who sometimes posts his papers on his blog. 🙂

    You might be interested in the paper I wrote for Problem of Evil class.

    http://practicingresurrection.wordpress.com/2009/12/18/natural-order-and-natural-evil/

    peace

    Bill

    • jonathangroover permalink*
      February 26, 2010 8:47

      Bill Thanks!

      Yes, I definitely use my papers, because if I put all that work into it, the least it can give me back is a few blog posts. 🙂

      I skimmed your paper, but want to read it in detail soon. I’m interested in your critique of Boyd. I might even post a link to it at the end of my last post if that’s cool. 🙂

      • February 27, 2010 11:07

        If I’d read your paper more carefully before posting, I probably would’ve been too embarassed to link mine.

        I love the way you write and really enjoyed both parts of this. Like you, there are some things about Hick’s argument that I found compelling. Honestly, that disturbed me. But like you, I can’t accept his conclusion.

        Ultimately I come down with Boyd on this. My critique of his theodicy is minor, and maybe even unfair.

        peace

      • jonathangroover permalink*
        February 28, 2010 8:17

        No way man, you’re a great writer! I always enjoyed reading your posts in class, and I’m glad I know your blog now. And I think you’re analysis of Boyd’s natural evil argument is valid. I have my own thoughts about how to resolve it, but your post has given me something to think about.

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