snubnosed in alpha

Christian reflections on the way the world is and ways the world might be

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Mr. Deity, J.L. Mackie and Jonathan Edwards on evil


Here Mr. Deity and Larry have put their fingers on the classic philosophical Problem of Evil. David Hume’s character, Philo, more succinctly but less entertainingly summarizes the problem thus:
Epicurus’ old questions are yet unanswered.
Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?
[1]
At the end of the day the problem comes down to whether or not God has a sufficiently good reason for allowing, decreeing or permitting evil to (at least temporarily) be. The reason that Mr. Deity gives to Larry, that it would be too easy for people to believe in him without evil, is, needless to say, a little silly. But that hasn’t prevented some theologians from giving that basic answer.
Recently the most popular tactic amongst Christian theologians for fending off the problem of evil/suffering has been the ‘free will defense.’ Basically this view says that giving a sort of libertarian free will to humanity is a good or a necessary precondition of a good (like ‘genuine love’) sufficient to justify God’s permitting evil to be. Libertarian free will is so a great a thing that the attendant risk of absolutely free creatures falling into sin and unleashing all manner of evil and suffering upon the world was totally worth it. This strategy, however, is fraught with difficulties, as J.L. Mackie brilliantly demonstrates in his book, The Miracle of Theism. Just one of the difficulties with it is, as Mackie points out, the question: “If God has made men such that in their free choices they sometimes prefer what is good and sometimes what is evil, why could he not have made men such that they always freely choose the good?”[2] Mackie points out that for Christians who believe in Heaven, saying that it is impossible for men to be made such that they always choose the good is not really an option. He writes:

For at least some theists this difficulty is made even more acute by some of their other beliefs: I mean those who envisage a happier or more perfect state of affairs than now exists, whether they look forward to the kingdom of God on earth, or confine their optimisms to the expectation of heaven. In either case they are explicitly recognizing the possibility of a state of affairs in which created beings always freely choose the good. If such a state of affairs is coherent enough to be the object of a reasonable hope or faith, it is hard to explain why it does not obtain already.[3]

It would seem that this consideration alone should lead Christian theists to abandon the “free will defense.”
The problem that Mr. Deity and basically Arminian conceptions of God have in common is that God so conceived is, to borrow J.B. Phillips' phrase, “too small.” There is a vast difference between the petty and thoughtless Mr. Deity and the immeasurably excellent God of the Bible, whose ultimate reason for doing anything, including decreeing that evil be, is that his infinite glory would shine forth. Jonathan Edwards, the great American theologian, explains:

It is a proper and excellent thing for infinite glory to shine forth; and for the same reason, it is proper that the shining forth of God’s glory should be complete; that is, that all parts of His glory should shine forth, that every beauty should be proportionately effulgent, that the beholder may have a proper notion of God. It is not proper that one glory should be exceedingly manifested, and another not at all….
Thus it is necessary, that God’s awful majesty, His authority and dreadful greatness, justice, and holiness, should be manifested. But this could not be, unless sin and punishment had been decreed; so that the shining forth of God’s glory would be very imperfect, both because these parts of divine glory would not shine forth as the others do, and also the glory of His goodness, love, and holiness would be faint without them; nay, they could scarcely shine forth at all.
If it were not right that God should decree and permit and punish sin, there could be no manifestation of God’s holiness in hatred of sin, or in showing any preference, in His providence, of godliness before it. There would be no manifestation of God’s grace or true goodness, if there was no sin to be pardoned, no misery to be saved from. How much happiness soever He bestowed, His goodness would not be so much prized and admired….
So evil is necessary, in order to the highest of the creature, and the completeness of that communication of God, for which He made the world; because the creature’s happiness consists in the knowledge of God, and the sense of His love. And if the knowledge of Him be imperfect, the happiness of the creature must be proportionably imperfect.
[4]

Thus, we may take heart that the evils before us, shootings and tsunamis, suicide bombings and cancer, are not gratuitous, aimless or without their place in the grand scheme of things. These light and momentary afflictions are a difficult but necessary part of God’s perfecting the happiness of his chosen people in the greatest thing there is: his glory. His glory is the end for which he made all things and the only reason sufficient to justify the permission of gross and unspeakable evils. And so we look forward with anxious hearts to the day when his great self-portrait will be complete, present evil will have served its purpose and been done away with and his majesty will finally be unambiguously writ large upon the New Heavens and Earth. For all who are gripped by God in all of his splendor, this is a word of hope. But, of course, this answer to our problem will not satisfy everyone or even fully satisfy the most devout Christian all of the time. The glory of God is an acquired taste and until that taste is acquired things are very hard.


[1] Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, p. 63
[2] Mackie, The Miracle of Theism, p. 164
[3] Ibid.
[4] Edwards, “Concerning the Divine Decrees,” p. 528

11 Comments:

Blogger LoftGirl said...

I myself have a bit of a hard time swallowing the idea that the reason for sin or pain in the world is to offer contrast and context for the glory of God. But, even if I accept that point, I still don't see how that is of any comfort to an unbeliever, or how it would better explain why God "lets bad things happen" to them. I think the response I would hear is, "So God wants me to see my 'need' for him in the midst of sin and pain he created (and could have prevented) for his own glory. And that need for him, that need to be saved is only a result of sin that existed because he allowed it to be." I'd have a really hard time answering that question. Thoughts? Help me if I'm not understanding this correctly.

10:02 AM  
Blogger snubnosed in alpha said...

The main point of my citation of Edwards was intended to make was that God has a sufficiently good reason for incorporating horrific evils into his divine plan: namely, evil is a necessary condition of God's adequately revealing his character in a full orbed way within the context of a finite creation.The upholding, expression and manifestation of God’s attributes is the chief end of God in all that He does. Certain of God’s attributes, in order to be manifested within the context of a finite creation, require the existence of evil (e.g. His justice, wrath, mercy, forgiveness, longsuffering, etc.) Thus, God’s decreeing that evil be (and be in massive quantities!) is a function of His holiness, His dedication to the full expression of all of His excellencies, and He is therefore wholly righteous in so doing.
There is no doubt that saying this sort of thing is bound to upset non-believers. The first thing that that fact turns up is that we have horribly skewed ideas about the nature of value. Because all creaturely goodness, worth and value is derivative from and dependent upon the goodness, worth and value (read, glory) of God, we could not rightly give higher priority to creaturely goods (e.g., comfort, health, safety, fulfillment, etc.) over the glory of God. As Piper loves to point out, God is not an idolater. God is out to glorify his name above all else. If the non-believer has an issue with this, that shouldn't come as a surprise. Prizing something else above the glory of God is at the very root of unbelief.
The other thing the unbeliever's irritation with this way of thinking points up is his/her misunderstanding of what s/he deserves, and a misunderstanding of the goods and evils the befall him/her.First it should be remembered that as a potter has rights over the clay and the clay has no rights over the potter; i.e., as God’s creatures we have no rights over God except those privileges He has given us (Rom 9:20-21). We should ask with the psalmist, “What is man, that Thou dost take thought of him? And the son of man that Thou dost care for him?” (Psalm 8:4) Every good gift given to Adam and Eve by God before they fell was gracious and undeserved.
Now that man has fallen, having exchanged the truth of God for a lie, to worship and serve created things rather than the Creator (Rom 1:25) mankind deserves nothing from God but wrath and is doubly undeserving of any good thing from God. But the blessings still come. God graciously and mercifully blesses fallen humanity with rain, sunshine, crops and food (Matt 5:45; Acts 14:17) and countless other blessings which we do not deserve. Since mankind in no way deserves such blessings, God is not unrighteous if He withholds them or if He replaces them with manifestations of His wrath (e.g., plagues, natural disasters, foreign invasions, etc.) It should also be noted that, as John Frame writes, “God is good to creatures in different ways and at different times, depending on their natures and their roles in God’s plan for history. His goodness does not obligate Him to give the same blessings to all, or to give the same blessings throughout his existence.”

8:30 AM  
Blogger snubnosed in alpha said...

This sort of thing doesn't make for easy conversations, but, if handled well, such conversation can be fruitful and illuminating.

8:41 AM  
Blogger Nicholas said...

the problem with edwards (and your) argument is that it is necessarily platonic.

If evil was necessary in order to reveal something of himself adequetly (and assuming this something, pity for instance, is a immutable aspect of God's nature) then evil is a necessary pre-condition to call God pitious;it might be stated as follows

(a) God is immutably merciful
(b) The nature of what it means to be merciful is to have mercy on some transgression.
(c) transgression/evil must therefore be a pre-condition for God to be immutably merciful.

A strategy which attempts to rectify this would be to deny that God is immutably merciful, but this is part of his covenantal interaction. Of course, this doesn't quite get rid of the issue, since (1) evil then is a pre-condition for God to relate coventally to his people, and hence God must be the cause of evil. (2) this creates a dichotomous view in which his nature as revealed us utterly different than his nature as pre-incarnate.

This second point would tend to an idea which God is something before hand (but not merciful, because evil would be a necessary precondition of mercy) and must invent evil to show mercy, of course then this is not part of his original nature, and hence one might question how it is that he is revealing himself, (rather it seems he would be revealing a new becoming of who he is).

Personally I think the easy answer is to look at the pre-suppositions of the problem of evil in one of two ways.

(a)Practically, everyone can acknowledge the issue of evil, but what if anything is the solution? (the gospel might be a good start)

(b) philosophically the question of evil might be a category fallacy because it assumes that God is in a linear sense before time, able to then create a vast number of trajectories of time, some of which might have had less evil than we do...The fleshing out of this fallacy is beyond the scope of a blog post, IMO. But it is a valid theodicy (I think).

2:04 AM  
Blogger snubnosed in alpha said...

Hmmm...I don't think I see how exactly Edwards' and my argument is Platonic. It's not as though we're arguing that God's character is a sort of ideal form being impressed on an otherwise unruly matter. What I have in mind (and I think what Edwards had in mind) is something a bit more down-to-earth than that. We've all had the experience of being surprised to discover that a certain person has a certain trait or skill or interest. For instance, one might enjoy several lectures with Dr. Edgar and think that he is a generally nice fellow, a lucid thinker, and a lover of all things French and nothing more. But should a situation arise in which Dr. Edgar was urged to play us a tune on the piano one would soon discover that he is also a brilliant Jazz musician. Indeed, upon hearing him play a few songs one would likely enjoy his talent as a musician, be moved to applause and find themselves, out of their enjoyment of his music, praising his skills to others. Now, note that prior to the circumstance involving the piano, one would never come to a first-hand knowledge of Dr. Edgar's musical talents and their knowledge of Dr. Edgar would on that account be correspondingly impoverished. A first-hand knowledge and enjoyment of Dr. Edgar's skill as a musician required the occasion with the piano and his being urged to play. It's certainly not as though Dr. Edgar's actually being a talented Jazz musician was contingent upon said occasion. But, rather, his talent could be at best known only second-hand and never really enjoyed by anyone apart from such occasions.
Another example is one might live next door to a fellow, Smith, who seems altogether ordinary. In fact, however, Smith is exceptionally brave and heroic. But without some circumstance arising involving Smith and requiring bravery one could never come to know first hand of Smith's courage, much less honor him for it.
So it is with God. At least I think so. God is immutably merciful such that he is prone to show mercy, should the occasion arise. It's not as though God's being merciful is contingent upon any circumstances. But in order for us to see first-hand and to be capable of really savoring his mercy, some occasion must arise for him to exercise it in our experience. And the only occasions for showing mercy are those wherein someone is deserving punishment, which depends, in turn, upon an occasion of that same someone having done something wrong. That is to say, without someone having sinned against him, we'd never get to really see that our God is a forgiving, longsuffering and merciful.

The second step of Edwards' argument is to say that there is no greater good than seeing, savoring and celebrating the character of God in all of his manifold perfections.
Hence, God has a(n all-)sufficiently good reason for decreeing that circumstances involving evil come about if he does so for the purpose of displaying his character, his glory.
Now, indeed, the gospel is the solution to the problem of evil in the economy of God. But let's not make the mistake of confusing the logical problem of what possible reason God might have for permitted evil to exist with the historical/theological problem of how God had acted to take care of the evil he has, by his all sovereign providence, permitted. The answer to the latter is the gospel. The answer to the former, in my opinion, is outlined above.

8:46 PM  
Blogger LoftGirl said...

I understand what you're saying. I think Nicholas clarified what I was trying to say, and I agree with your answer.

I think my main problem is that I have a hard time with, "If the non-believer has an issue with this, that shouldn't come as a surprise. Prizing something else above the glory of God is at the very root of unbelief."

Without acknowledging your own sin and need for God, you're not going to see God as merciful, because you won't see the need for mercy. This enforces my belief in being “chosen,” because otherwise we would never choose God. I realize that ultimately we don’t ‘deserve’ any more than we have. “This shouldn’t happen to me,” is at it’s heart selfish. Ultimately, as you mentioned before, it boils down to me or God. I can explain why it has to be God until I’m blue in the face, but that doesn’t change the heart.

That being said, knowing that God chooses, knowing that God is merciful, knowing that he ‘allows’ sin, I still don’t know how to explain that to someone who is in pain. I think I’m looking for a more practical answer. For instance, how would you respond to someone who lost their whole family, and their whole life in Katrina? Do you tell them that their pain is the result of sin in the world/in their lives? How do you explain a God that is full of compassion, while explaining that God can let things like that happen if it brings him glory? And I don’t quite understand how something like that brings him glory (but I don’t doubt that it’s possible). Do you see what I’m saying?

12:00 PM  
Blogger snubnosed in alpha said...

I think I see what you're saying and here I think a strong dose of C.S. Lewis might help:
"God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world. A bad man, happy, is a man without the least inkling that his actions do not 'answer,' that they are not in accord with the laws of the universe....
No doubt Pain as God's megaphone is a terrible instrument; it may lead to final and unrepented rebellion. But it gives the only oppurtunity the bad man can have for ammendment. It removes the veil; it plants the flag of truth within the fortress of the rebel soul.
If the first and lowest operation of pain shatters the illusion that all is well, the second shatters the illusion that what we have, whether good or bad in itself, is our own and enough for us. Everyone has noticed how hard it is to turn our thought to God when everything is going well with us. We 'have all we want' is a terrible saying when 'all' does not include God. We find God an interruption. As St. Augustine says somewhere, 'God wants to give us something, but cannot, because our hands are full--there's nowhere for Him to put it.'... Now God, who has made us, knows what we are and that our happiness lies in Him. Yet we will not seek it in Him as long as He leaves us any other resort where it can even plausibly be looked for. While what we call 'our own life' remains agreeable, we will not surrender it to Him. What then can God do in our interests but make 'our own life' less agreeable to us, and take away the plausible sources of false happiness? It is just here, where God's providence seems at first to be most cruel, that the Divine humility, the stooping down of the Highest, most deserves praise."
-The Problem of Pain, pp. 84, 95-97

As paradoxical as it may seem, our pain is itself a mercy of God. He will not allow us to substitute any created thing for our one true good, Himself. He shatters the illusion that these lesser, created goods (e.g., health, home, family, friends) can be source of any lasting happiness. In a disaster such as Katrina the transitory nature of such things is put on display before the eyes of the whole world. For those who see such things and yet stubbornly and quixotically set their hearts entirely upon home, health, family, friends, music and so on, refusing to love God, the one immutable, eternal and infinitely satisfying Good, such tragedies are but stepping stones towards the greater tragedy of God finally leaving them to themselves. That ultimate estrangement is what we call hell. But for some, such tragedies will goad them into subordinating all created goods for the enjoyment of the Creator Himself. For them, such tragedies are vehicles of their redemption and ultimate happiness.

9:00 AM  
Blogger Nicholas said...

I think this is a qualification of the original statement.Now, Mercy is an extra quality which tells us something more baout who God is, not an essence (a sine qua non) without which we cannot know God. First problem is that we need not "know" about Dr. Edgars piano talent to be fulfilled, or to truly know him. Hence if the only way to know about his ability to play was to have nails driven through my arm, I might decline the invitation and just enjoy his lectures.

Or if neighbor smith's bravery needs a pre-condition of a car wreck to demonstrate it, then I would rather not have a car wreck at all and remain blissfully ignorant of his ability.

Likewise if God could have prevented the fall and we still could have known him we don't have a theodicy in the making. It is but an interesting side effect of his nature demonstrated through a bad situation which God could have prevented, but did not. But like the nails and the carwreck, I would just rather have not known.

The second qualification claims thusly...

(1) Knowing God, in all his facets, is the highest of all goods.
(2) The existance of evil allows us to know God in a fuller sense.
(3)To know the highest good overrides any amount of evil that it takes to get there or any amount of "other goods"
(c) Hence evil is understandable since we get something better out of it.

My issue here is one of proportionality (the issue which killed Liebnitz' theodicy). Assuming all the evil currently in the world only shows God's mercy, why not "one less rape?" Would God be any less greatly known is one child was molested once fewer in his or her life? If one less murder had occured in the holocost (5,999,999) would we know God less?

(1) If the answer is no - then I must ask why does God not prevent it then.

(2) If the answer is yes - then I must point out that if more evil occurs the more about God may be known, and He should therefore cause only evil to happen to people, so they can more clearly see his mercy.

(3) If the answer is "its in perfect harmony - there is just enough evil allowed to fully reveal God" then I must rewrite Candide and mock the ad-hoc response.

Pax Christi...Nick

7:41 PM  
Blogger snubnosed in alpha said...

Nicolai,
As for your first qualification:
The reason you'd prefer remaining blissfully ignorant of Edgar's talent and Smith's valor is that you value your comfort more than you do knowing about their qualities. Now, Bev in a few months is going to have to sacrifice some of her comfort if she ever wants to get to know the child she is now carrying. And I suspect she is more than willing to sacrifice something of her personal comfort for the greater good of being a mother. The reason is that she values the prospect of having, raising, loving and getting to know this (yet unborn) child much more than she does her own repose.
Now, with respect to God, if you value anything more than his glory, well, that's the greatest misplacement of priorities imaginable. Welcome to Idolatry 101: God values his glory more than our creaturely comfort, and so also should we. God is not an idolater. He loves his glory more than he loves you. But, hey, if you prefer safety and ease to knowing and loving God, that's your business.

As for the second qualification, the theory Edwards and I have offered above is an exceedingly simple one, albeit a teleological one. We have posited a God who is sovereign over all things, whose glory is the only right and fitting ultimate end for which he could/would/should do anything, and whose glory consists in his goodness in all of its manifold aspects (generosity, patience, mercy, just wrath, wisdom, etc.) and we have posited a created world wherein certain of his attributes could not be demonstrated (and, hence, neither appreciated nor praised) apart from the existence of evil. Both of these posited entities were already believed in by a fairly large portion of the Christian community long before Edwards came along. Edwards only points out that these two entities are sufficient to account for the existence of massive quantities of evil (insofar as evil can be quantified). In this respect it is like atom theory, which is capable of explaining how it is that pots of water come to a boil. Edwards' theory does not go so far as to explain each individual case of evil any more than the theory of atoms explains why this particular pot of water and not that pot of water is boiling right now. But there is nothing ad hoc about saying that the amount of evil permitted or decreed is precisely the amount necessary for the manifestation of God's character. I needn't posit any more entities in order to give that answer. If anything, that answer is a direct, logical outworking of the theory as it stands.
And perhaps the theory can explain the quantities in a detailed way. God has his reasons, reasons to which we perhaps may only become privy post-resurrection. It's a bit like a child saying to the master watchmaker, "Why so many screws and springs and gears? Are they all really necessary? Why not one or two less? It might save you a few cents." The watchmaker just smiles and keeps working. The child will understand in due time.

8:29 AM  
Blogger Nicholas said...

As for the first response

Agreed that God's glory is more important than "creaturely comforts" but this seems to say to the question of theodicy that; (1) God's glory is enhanced by the presence of evil. Which was kinda the first concern. Perhaps thats the case, but it seems awfully hard to understand. I also think the preggo analogy is a bit of a category shift. Bev might suffer for 15 hours to have a baby. Two things are different in the case of theodicy. (1) The suffering is much greater. If Bev had to have four limbs chopped off to have a baby, I would probably just say...no thanks [given the choice]. (2) Some of the suffering is eternal for people, since evil is related to the fall.

As for the second response

Its perfectly fair, (and I suspect more honest than most theodicies) to plead mystery, which is what you do here. Why is there evil in the world (or the amount of evil) I don't know, but I trust God. Thats a faith response!! Of course its horribly unsatisfactory for the non-believer, but there are more problems with the non-believer than simple intellectual disatisfaction.

My concern with theodicy is offering the optimist perspective of; well the evil helps the world, or makes us better people, or is simply "for a sufficent reason." These responses do more damage to the character of God, than defense, IMO, because they typically take evil lightly.

Pax Christi...Nick

10:21 AM  
Blogger Kerry said...

It seems obvious that evil is allowed, or permitted or decreed or willed by God to "exist" or take place.

Whatever terms one wishes to use for the occurrence of evil really does not matter. What matters is how can we conceive of any possible reason God might have for allowing, say, the rape, torture, and beheading of a little baby?

Although I agree that certain of God's attributes are made more appreciable by contrast to evil, it is truly hard to see how horrendous evil acts are necessary in order to show God's glory.

Thus the problem with theistic approaches to the problem of evil (deterministic or open views)is that they are too often characterized by rationalism.

This is unfortunate. By its very nature evil is irrational and truly has no ultimate place in God's good creation. IF we are to follow Edwards we must conclude that the fall of humankind is ultimately a good thing..as in Augustine and Calvin. If this is so, why does Jesus ministry entail the destruction of the devils work? Is this not akin to casting out demons by the power of demons? Just a thought.

I personally feel any intellectual approach to the problem of evil (which is itself an intellectual problem) will ultimately fail. I mean particularly any rational or logical approach.

I do not mean to disparage logic or reason. These are tools we are endowed with by our creator. But, they are only tools. As such, they are limited.

It seems to me that human agents have a real role to play in the defeat of horrendous evils..ie, we have volitional capability. It also is obvious that God is omnipotent and sovereign. Scripture itself seems to portray these 2 truths as existing in some form of symbiotic relationship. This is no more a mystery than such Christian doctrines as the Trinity and the Incarnation.

It must be kept in mind that the POE was originally a weapon used by atheists to disprove the existence of God. In fact, the POE is truly a problem for the atheist..not the true believer. (KBC 10/28/07)

Any thoughts?

5:20 PM  

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