God or Evil – Part 4

This is the fourth part of the series about the evil nature of God. In the previous articles we examined the nature of good and evil, what we can observe about God’s nature from the natural world, and what the Bible shows us about God’s nature. In this article we will examine the arguments used to defend God’s goodness against the problem of evil. These defences are called theodicies and have predominantly been around since the early church. We shall examine each in turn and outline the gaping flaws within each of them.

Augustinian Theodicy

Augustine was a Christian philosopher who lived between 354 and 430 A.D. He is known as one of the great thinkers of the early church. The Augustinian theodicy is the most well-known and surprisingly one of the most popular defences of God’s goodness. It is rooted in the idea that evil does not exist except as a “privation,” a corruption of goodness. If there is a problem then one of the best ways of addressing it is to deny that the problem exists, that was Augustine’s approach. His theodicy is based around the idea that because God is perfect he must have created a perfect world.[1] Augustine believed that God could not create evil and therefore that evil is not a thing in itself but rather just the absence of good. His explanation for the origin of evil lies in the story of Adam and Eve. God gave humans free will and when they chose to disobey God they created an “absence of good.” In his view Adam and Eve did not turn to evil but rather the act of turning itself was the evil. As a consequence of this both moral and natural evil entered the world. Two doctrines arose from this reasoning: original sin and the fall of man. In this view all of the blame is placed upon human beings while God dodges any responsibility and is regarded as a just and loving ruler. Because he is just he does not intervene to prevent evil and because he is loving he provides the death of Jesus (albeit considerably later) to provide a legal out for naughty human beings. Augustine believed that the universe does not lose any perfection by the presence of suffering or evil because there is misery for sinners and in his view “the penalty of sin corrects the dishonour of sin.”[2] Augustine likes to walk the fine line of semantics: humans have an evil nature as it is stripped of its original goodness because of the inherited original sin, but nonetheless humans still remain good because their existence comes from God. Augustine was a very smart guy, and some might argue a sophist.

There are a large number of problems with the Augustinian theodicy so I won’t go into all of them but rather briefly cover some of the bigger issues. The first big question is how could a perfect world go wrong? It is a logical contradiction to suggest that a perfect world could go wrong, either it was not perfect to begin with or God made it go wrong. Related to the first point how could perfect beings choose to do wrong? If indeed goodness was hardwired into human nature as the book of Genesis seems to suggest that it is,[3] why did Adam and Eve choose to do evil? Many opponents have argued against the idea that the world was made perfect. This is readily observable in the scientific evidence of evolution. All of the evidence points to the rise of humanity rather than the fall of man. Indeed if we reflect upon the morality of the past it is easy to identify sociologically that as a species humanity is becoming, on balance,  morally better. In the past we had archaic punishments for crimes and in the modern Western world at least we are becoming more and more humane. Commentators have argued that the transmission of original sin from Adam to the rest of humanity requires biological explanation. It is also argued that natural evil cannot be derived from moral evil. The scientific consensus is that natural disasters and diseases existed before humans and therefore cannot be the result of human sin. Niebuhr identified Augustine’s argument as placing sin inside the human will, in this view sin would be inevitable but unnecessary.

Many commentators have called out Augustine for playing word games with the term “evil.” He suggests that suffering is not a real thing and in doing so undermines the reality of suffering in our world. It appears that Augustine wants to live in an idealised world and will go to any lengths in order to justify the God that he sees printed in Scripture. He makes excuses for God by denying the true reality of the problem. For anyone who has been through real suffering, having someone tell you that you are not actually experiencing suffering but just a “privation” is offensive. Other opponents have argued that a perfect entity like Augustine’s God does not have any reason to create anything at all. Even if there were a reason to create a world it seems logical that God could have created a compatibilist world in which humans have the possibility to act freely within a world with no evil. In fact one can derive from Scripture that it is possible for God to do this. This concept will be discussed later when I talk about best possible worlds.

Irenaean Theodicy

Irenaeus was one of the early church fathers of Christianity who died circa 202 A.D. The inspiration for his theodicy is derived from the book of Genesis and the creation of man. Irenaeus draws different conclusions from Augustine. Irenaeus reads Genesis 1:26 to mean that there are two stages in the development of mankind: firstly in the physical image of God and secondly in the likeness to God. This second component involves the transformation of human nature to become like God. Detractors have asked why God did not create man perfect to start with and Irenaeus’s response is that although God could have done this it is better to have a morality that is developed through hard work than one which is pre-programmed. Importantly Irenaeus recognises that a pre-programmed morality would effectively make human beings robots without free will. Unlike Augustine, Irenaeus does not believe that humans were made perfect, nor does he believe that the earth was made perfect. His argument is that human beings need to live in a world where pain and suffering are real in order to develop morality. Irenaeus believed that in a world without pain our actions could have no moral consequences. A supporter of this view, John Hick has coined the term “soul making” to describe this idea of moral growth. He identifies that if God intervened in this process it would undermine human free will. There is also a concept of epistemic distance inherent in this argument: God deliberately makes his existence uncertain because if we knew he existed we would act out of fear of his punishment rather than our own virtue. Detractors of this view recognise a big problem: suffering does not necessarily lead to moral development. In fact in many instances suffering leads to moral degeneration. Much of the crime and atrocity observed in third world countries is attributed to poverty and a lack of access to survival requirements such as clean water and medication. Irenaeus responded to this problem by saying that for the suffering to be morally justified everyone must ultimately attain perfection. This led to the argument that this process of “soul making” must continue in the afterlife. As a result Irenaeus was forced into the position of endorsing universal salvation.[4]

As you can probably see there are a number of inherent problems with this argument. The first big question is “does the ends justify the means?” Philosophers recognise that it is not acceptable to do something good by doing something bad – the ends do not justify the means. The philosopher Dewi Zephaniah Phillips argued that any theodicy which regards suffering as instrumental cannot be justified regardless of whatever good comes from it. Irenaeus argues that God deliberately creates a world with suffering so that humans can develop morality. But not all people develop morality as a result of suffering. Irenaeus has a one dimensional, overly optimistic view which reflects an insular frame of mind. In our observation of the world we can see that suffering frequently results in more suffering. So rather than making a “soul making” machine God has constructed a suffering machine that consistently produces more and more evil in the world. The next question to ask is whether or not suffering is the only way to stimulate moral development. We observe that hard work and preparation as well as participation in social activities can lead to moral growth. It very much appears that God could have created a world without suffering which was capable of stimulating moral growth. Lastly is the issue of whether or not this “soul making” ideology is actually fair. If, as Irenaeus suggests, this “soul making” process continues on into the afterlife what implications do our actions really have now? There is no motivation to be moral and our actions don’t really have consequences because ultimately everybody will be saved. This also further inhibits free will as it does not matter what we do, we will necessarily find our way into heaven. Henri Blocher criticised the universalism of this theodicy because it contradicts free will. If everyone must receive salvation then humans cannot choose to reject God. It also means that the Bible is lying about eternal punishment.

Some suffering is so great that it is excessive and cannot be justified. Eleanor Stump argued that the suffering endured by those with terminal illnesses cannot be for the purpose of moral development. Additionally these illnesses do not fall more often upon those who are immoral or in need of development. Michael Tooley challenged the suffering of animals and young children, arguing that neither of these instances serve any useful purpose and cannot lead to moral development. He also argued whether or not this universe is the best possible world for the moral development of humans. The distribution of suffering is so widespread that it seems unreasonable. Some suffer too little to learn anything and some suffer far too much pain to warrant a learning experience.

Irenaeus’s reading of Genesis 1:26 is questionable. He certainly appears to be proof texting here in order to prove his point.[5] Additionally, Irenaeus’ belief that the world and humanity were not created good flies directly in the face of Scripture. On numerous occasions in Genesis during the creation myth God describes his creation as good. It appears that Irenaeus was prepared to take a metaphorical view of the Scriptures and in many ways this reflects the poor hermeneutical practices of the time. With a refined biblical interpretation it is impossible to both believe the scriptures and also believe Irenaeus’ theodicy.

The Free Will Defence

The free will defence was made popular by Alvin Plantinga. The argument is that genuine free will is necessary in order for persons to have a relationship with God and genuine free will requires the existence of both good and evil. Additionally, in order for the free will to be genuine God must not place limits upon it or intervene in human affairs. In order for human beings to be able to demonstrate the attributes that God desires, such as courage, fairness and mercy we must equally be able to exercise cowardice, injustice and cruelty. Some proponents have argued that the free will defence also provides explanations for the existence of natural evil. Richard Swinburne says that a world with death is better than a world without it because the presence of death permits a person to make the ultimate sacrifice and mortality focuses our attention on how we should live this life. He also believes that death prevents the old from dominating the young in society and also limits the amount of suffering that any individual endures.

Most of the problems applicable to the Augustinian and Irenaean theodicies are also applicable to the free will defence. Additionally, it suffers some other serious critiques. J.L. Mackie argues that the free will defence makes a claim that God had only two choices in creating the universe: either a world with maximum pleasure and minimal pain but no free will or a world with pain and suffering but also with free will. But Mackie posed a third option. If God was truly omnipotent he could have the best of both worlds: genuine freedom and the minimisation of pain – God could create a world where people have free choice but always choose to do the right thing. In essence God missed an opportunity to create the best world and instead demonstrates his lack of omnipotence and goodness by not doing so. I would like to pose another argument, but before I do so I will outline one of the minor theodicies as my argument directly opposes that as well.

The Best of all Possible Worlds Theodicy, a traditional theology, argues that the creation in which we live is the best of all possible worlds despite the presence of evil. In other words, this world is the best that God could do given the parameters. My argument is based upon the notion of possible worlds but is also strongly linked to the idea of free will. First I need to ask you a question: do you think that there is free will in heaven? Heaven is recognised as a perfect place, a place where there is no suffering, no evil and perfect goodness. So how did you answer? If you answered no then you have acknowledged the belief that free will is extremely important in this world, so important that God would permit evil to exist in massive amounts in this world just so that free will can be exercised. But, you believe that once a person goes to heaven their free will is taken away. In other words God values free will right up until the point of death when he simply removes free will. If this is the case it doesn’t make any sense for God to create a world in which we have free will. Think about this chronologically. A person is going to live for eternity, without time. But a person is going to live in this world for approximately seventy years if they are lucky. So human beings are going to spend a period of time which does not even count as a spec in the ocean of eternity having free will. The rest of the time they will not have any free will. How can it be then that God values free will so highly? It is not logical. Alternatively, you answered yes to the question. You believe that there is free will in heaven. If you believe this then you have acknowledged that there is a possible world in which there is both free will and no suffering. This contradicts the idea behind the free will defence and the “soul making” theodicy. Both of these arguments are predicated upon the idea that God had to allow evil in order for free will to exist. But if there is indeed a possible world in which there is both free will and no evil then why did God not place us in that world? You can see that it doesn’t matter how you answer the question the idea of these theodicies is completely undermined by logic.

An additional problem to the free will defence arises around the issue of God not intervening in human affairs. A large number of Christians predicate their beliefs upon the idea that God does involve himself in human affairs and intervenes on behalf of people at certain times. This would violate human free will. A belief in free will is in direct opposition to a belief in miracles. It is impossible to believe in both free will and miracles at the same time as the two concepts are mutually exclusive. If God intervenes and changes a situation it invokes a necessary denial of free will somewhere along the line.

I will mention one last minor theodicy: the Contrast Theodicy holds that evil is needed to enable people to appreciate or understand good. This argument suffers from many of the same problems as its predecessors. If indeed this theodicy were true one would have to question just how good God is. If God’s goodness is not good enough for us to be able to understand good, then it cannot possibly be perfect. In other words God cannot be omni-benevolent. If the presence of evil is necessary in order to understand good then it means that good and evil are equally balanced in their importance. Thus both are necessary for the world. It also means that in order for God to be perfectly good he must have experienced evil. Because God is the creator of all things he must have created the evil that he could experience. So at the end of the day this argument means that God has created evil.

Another argument against these theodicies is the question of why there is so much suffering in the world. If the “soul making” idea is true then there needs to be some suffering so that human beings can learn to distinguish between what is good and what is evil and hopefully choose what is good. But do we need the amount of suffering which is present in this world in order to be able to distinguish good from evil? In fact it does not require very much suffering at all for us to be able to distinguish between the lack of suffering which is good and the presence of suffering which is evil. The enormity of evil in the world sends a different message. Either the world is simply a harsh natural environment in which the fittest survive and nature doesn’t care about our suffering, or God intentionally created a world with a massive amount of unnecessary evil. The result of the latter proposition is that God is necessarily evil.

There is a newer movement,[6] which states that even presenting arguments in defence of God’s goodness is evil. This is a laughable post-modern approach to Christian apologetics. This view exists because apologists have realised the absolute poverty of their arguments against the problem of evil. So poor are their answers that they now have to try and redefine the question and even suggest that offering a defence is, in itself, immoral. Atheists everywhere should treat the existence of this view as a win.

Conclusion

We have examined the major theodicies and shown their shortcomings. What I find interesting is that the major theodicies are extremely old having been around since the early church. One might think that this is the case because those theodicies are so good, but actually the truth is that these theodicies have remained because they are the best that the Christian church has to offer. They have not come up with any better answers in almost two thousand years. As I have shown in this article these theodicies do not hold much water and are easily refuted. The simple fact is that Christianity doesn’t have any other posts to lean on. If these arguments are destroyed then the Christian theologian has nowhere else to turn and must acknowledge defeat. So instead of doing so they attempt to defend the indefensible and refuse to acknowledge the obvious logic which shows that God is necessarily evil if he exists at all.

I used to teach about seven or eight arguments from these theodicies, but over the years I gradually crossed them off my teaching list. The reason behind this is that as I continued to investigate them I felt unconfident about defending them in front of other people. Because I myself could see the flaws in these arguments I was concerned about teaching them. Ultimately, not so long before I let go of my faith I remember telling a class that while there are theodicies that exist, none of them are very good and if you want to believe that God is good the only way you can do so is by faith. A revelation hit me as those words left my mouth. Not so long after this I began reinvestigating the problem of evil and that was the beginning of the end of my faith.

This series has been long, but the issue is a complex and important one which needs to be given a thorough treatment. There is one last article to come and that will deal with the last resort Christian argument: the point to which theologians retreat when all else has failed.

[1] Genesis 1:31.

[2] Augustine, Earlier Writings, p187.

[3] God called his creation good, this included man.

[4] This is the idea that everyone, regardless of religion or belief will be saved by the redemptive work of Christ.

[5] Proof texting is the method by which a person appeals to a biblical text to prove or justify a theological position without regard for the context of the passage they are citing. http://www.theopedia.com/proof-texting.

[6] New in comparison to the other theodicies that is. It is a post-Enlightenment view.

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