Thursday, August 07, 2008

The Problem of Evil:
I. What is Evil?

Is the existence of evil an insurmountable "defeater" for belief in God - or more particularly a

logical argument against the notion that a god could be omniscient (all-knowing), omnipotent (all-powerful), and omni-benevolent (all-loving) all at the same time
It is not that the "problem of evil" is a new thing - theologians have been discussing it for thousands of years. Indeed, just about as long as folks have believed that God was
omniscient (all-knowing), omnipotent (all-powerful), and omni-benevolent (all-loving) all at the same time
Somehow Christians have continued to believe that God is "all that and a bag of chips" even with the evil in the world. Are we fools just waiting for this fate:
Yet when I have presented the theodicy problem to them, I must confess the cognitive dissonance they experience when confronted with the logical inconsistency therein has been painful to watch.
The general theological answer is expressed well here:
My own approach assumes that God can do all things, but not all things at once without doing violence to some of them. For instance, God can't make 2+2=4, and 2+2=5, both be true without fundamentally changing the concept of either 2, 4, 5, plus, or equals. Thus, I conclude that the existence of evil was the byproduct of some other condition that God desired to bring about in creation. The work of theology then would be to attempt to develop an understanding of what that desired condition was, and how it was that the existence of evil was a necessary byproduct thereof.
In the past I have pointed to a list of books recommended to me by one of my pastors. One of those books is When Skeptics Ask, by Norman Geisler and Ronald Brooks. Chapter 4 is "Questions about Evil". I am going to go through Geisler and Brooks arguments in a series of posts; but first I want to deal with what I am trying to accomplish.
I cannot say why God chose how he chose - all I can do is offer one (of many) logical arguments about why He might have done what He did.
All it takes is one in fact, and there are many answers.

As a Christian you really must have an answer beyond "God's ways are not our ways" or "God is beyond our understanding" or some such other anti-intellectual nonsense - these are not answers that fulfill the call to be prepared to show what your hope is based on. Certainly, there are great resources on the issue:

Indeed, if you want to grapple with this question there are many resourses to use. The first question Geisler contends with is:

What is Evil?

The defeater argument, from the existence of evil, for God not being the creator of all things - or worse yet the creator of evil - is:
  1. God is the author of everything
  2. Evil is something
  3. Therefore, God is the author of Evil

How you understand evil is important. Is it a power in itself? A created thing? If you believe that, and in a creative God, then you have to believe that God created evil. That certainly is a difficulty if you are going to believe in an omni-benevolent God. Or you have to believe that Evil is a separate power - which places you on the very lip of Dualism. That would challenge the notion of monotheism. The general understanding put forward by Geisler and Brooks is that evil is not a thing-in-itself:
The first premise is true. So it appears that in order to deny the conclusion we have to deny the reality of evil (as the pantheists do). But we can deny that evil is a thing, or substance, without saying that it isn't real. It is a lack in things. When good that should be there is missing from something, that is evil. After all, if I am missing a wart on my nose, that is not evil because the wart should not have been there in the first place. However, if a man lacks the ability to see, that is evil. Likewise, if a person lacks the kindness in his heart and respect for human life that should be there, then he may commit murder. Evil is, in reality, a parasite that cannot exist except as a hole in something that should be solid.

In some cases, though, evil is more easily explained as a case of bad relationships. If I pick up a good gun, put in a good bullet, point it at my good head, put my good finger on the good trigger and give it a good pull. . . a bad relationship results. The things involved are not evil in themselves, but the relationship between the good things is definitely lacking something. In this case, the lack comes about because the things are not being used as they ought to be. Guns should not be used for indiscriminate killing, but are fine for recreation. My head was not meant to be used for target practice. Similarly, there is nothing wrong with strong winds moving in a circle, but a bad relationship arises when the funnel of wind goes through a mobile home park. Bad relationships are bad because the relationship is lacking something, so our definition of evil still holds. Evil is a lack of something that should be there in the relationship between good things.
Augustine was a bit more dialectic in his argument than Geisler/Brooks:
What is evil? Perhaps you will reply, Corruption. Undeniably this is a general definition of evil; for corruption implies opposition to nature; and also hurt. But corruption exists not by itself, but in some substance which it corrupts; for corruption itself is not a substance. So the thing which it corrupts is not corruption, is not evil; for what is corrupted suffers loss of integrity and purity. So that which has no purity to lose cannot be corrupted; and what has, is necessarily good by the participation of purity. Again, what is corrupted is perverted; and what is perverted suffers loss of order; and order is good. To be corrupted, then does not imply the absence of good; for in corruption it can be deprived of good, which could not be if there was the absence of good." - Augustine, On the Morals of the Manichaens, 5.7.
The social/political implications of this are obvious to me: if you believe Evil is a thing or a separate force then you are almost committed to destroying what you see as evil upon deciding it is such. However, if you believe evil is a lack of good (or a "hole" in the good), or a corruption of good - then you can believe focus on the good and attempt to fill the hole or heal the corruption. C.S. Lewis touched on this in Mere Christianity :
In other words, something inside us, the feeling of resentment, the feeling that wants to get one's own back, must be simply killed. I do not mean that anyone can decide this moment that he will never feel it any more. That is not how things happen. I mean that every time it bobs its head up, day after day, year after year, all our lives long, we must hit it on the head. It is hard work, but the attempt is not impossible. Even while we kill and punish we must try to feel about the enemy as we feel about ourselves - to wish that he were not bead, to hope that he may, in this world or another, be cured in fact, to wish his good. That is what is meant in the Bible by loving him: wishing his good, not feeling fond of him nor saying he is nice when he is not.

The next question: Where did evil come from?
Series Link


  1. I would say that it's not enough for God to be able to do all things but not all things at once. That does remove the silly rock problem, where it's claimed that an omnipotent being will be able to make a rock he can't move and then move it, which is supposed to show the contradictory nature of omnipotence. It just shows the contradictory nature of a simplistic conception of omnipotence.

    I think a better way to put it is that God can do anything possible. If it's impossible for a morally perfect being to violate his own perfect character, then God can't sin, but it's no limit on omnipotence, since what's being described is impossible. But it's harder to conceive this kind of case as doing two contradictory things at once. This is a small point, but it becomes important among the philosophers who discuss this. Not everyone takes this exact approach, but I think it requires a little more than what you said.

  2. I am certain I am being simplistic - apologetics often are.

    You, of course, are the philosopher and your series on these kinds of things are some of the best I have seen.

    I do not get much lively discussion here - but a couple of posts in this series have lit it up with humanists/atheists at Street Prophets.

    Thanks for your input brother.

  3. i like Geisler and Brooks' take on what evil is. i've had this discussion with my kids several times and i've tried to explain that evil isn't a thing, it just is. but that argument was not well received at all. i think "an absence of good" works much better. it's easier to visualize, which helps.

    so what are your thoughts on Isaiah 45:7? a friend brought it up recently in a post i wrote on justice. he quoted from darby's translation which reads: "forming the light and creating darkness, making peace and creating evil: I, Jehovah, do all these things. " (for comparison, here's the NIV, "I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD, do all these things. "

  4. Hi Meg,

    I crosspost at Street Prophets - a religion and politics site that is not restricted to Christians, or believers of any sort. I am a bit of the crazy conservative uncle John there.

    Isaiah 45:7 came up from an atheist in the comments there - you can see my response there. I must say here that I am fond of the NET Bible's translation:

    I am the one who forms light and creates darkness; the one who brings about peace and creates calamity. I am the Lord, who accomplishes all these things.

    I think Matthew Henry's take (from 1702):

    Let Cyrus, when he becomes thus rich and great, remember that still he is but a man, and there is no God but one. 2. That he is Lord of all, and there is nothing done without him (v. 7): I form the light, which is grateful and pleasing, and I create darkness, which is grievous and unpleasing. I make peace (put here for all good) and I create evil, not the evil of sin (God is not the author of that), but the evil of punishment.


How to debate charitably (rules are links to more description of rule):
1. The Golden Rule
2. You cannot read minds
3. People are not evil
4. Debates are not for winning
5. You make mistakes
6. Not everyone cares as much as you
7. Engaging is hard work
8. Differences can be subtle
9. Give up quietly