Monday, October 23, 2017

The Problem of Evil: Some Perspectives

* The following is from my presentation The Objectivity of God, Morality, and Evil: A Perspective from Jesus.  I pulled out the section on the problem(s) of evil for posting here.

·      First, there is no such thing as the problem of evil…

o   Rather, there are problems of evil—and they are not all of the same kind.[1]

o   We can distinguish between the philosophical problems of evil

§  Deductive and inductive (or evidential)[2]

§  Types of evil: moral, natural, and demonic

o   and the practical or existential problems of evil[3]

§  Evil touches all of us and it hurts

§  One’s worldview should seek not only answers to the philosophical issues but also provide the resources for helping to deal with the existential problems of evil[4]

·      I want to provide some perspectives on the problems evil

o   Not a full-blown theodicy or nice-and-tidy “answer” to the problems of evil

·      Christian theism takes evil seriously

o   It doesn’t deny or downplay the reality of evil that besets our world

o   It argues that nothing less than the active power and presence of God himself is needed to overthrow and defeat evil in the world

§  ASIDE: Denying God may render the concept of “evil” problematic[5]

·      Perspective #1: A Christ and Cross-centered Greater-Good Defense

o   A Greater-good defense explains the existence of evil in terms of the greater goods that come out of it

§  Traditionally suggested greater goods: free-will; soul-making

o   Christ and cross-centered greater good

o   Alvin Plantinga explains:

“Given the truth of Christian belief, however, there is also a contingent good-making characteristic of our world—one that isn’t present in all worlds—that towers above all the rest of the contingent states of affairs included in our world: the unthinkably great good of divine Incarnation and Atonement.  Jesus Christ, the second person of the divine trinity, incomparably good, holy, and sinless, was willing to empty himself, to take on our flesh and become incarnate and to suffer and die so that we human beings can have life and be reconciled to the Father.  In order to accomplish this, he was willing to undergo suffering of a depth and intensity we cannot so much as imagine, including even the shattering climax of being abandoned by God the Father himself: ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’  God the Father, the first being of the whole universe, perfectly good and holy, all-powerful and all-knowing, was willing to permit his Son to undergo this suffering and to undergo enormous suffering himself in order to make it possible for us human beings to be reconciled to him.  And this in face of the fact that we have turned our back upon God, have rejected him, are sunk in sin, indeed, are inclined to resent God and our neighbor.  Could there be a display of love to rival this?  More to the present purpose, could there be a good-making feature of a world to rival this?”[6]

o   Plantinga argues that even a world in which all of humanity is sinless would not be a better world compared to a world in which God manifests his glory in the incarnation and atonement of Jesus Christ.[7]

o   Note: This Christ and cross-centered greater-good perspective does not necessarily explain the function of any particular evil

§  “Why did I get cancer?” or “Why did that hurricane kill those people?”

§  It does, however, provide the overall context of God’s plan in which evil plays a part

·      Perspective #2: The Engulfing Goodness of God

o   From the Christian perspective, right relationship with God is the greatest good for a person to experience (Psalm 16.11; 73.25-26; John 17.3)

o   For the Christian the evils and suffering in this life will be overwhelmingly over-ruled and engulfed in the glory of God’s presence[8]

§  Some Christian traditions have spoken of the “beatific vision” in which experiencing God’s presence in a transformed state will be the highest pinnacle of joy and satisfaction

§  Biblical data:

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.  Romans 8.18

For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison…  2 Corinthians 4.17

·      Perspective #3: Trusting the God of the Resurrection

o   Many evils experienced are not seen—they don’t appear— to be good-producing

§  Difficult to see how God could possibly redeem or engulf such evil

·      “How can God bring good out of this evil!?”

o   For the Christian the crucifixion of Jesus—the cross of Christ—is the paradigmatic example of God bringing unspeakable goodness out of the depths of horrendous evil[9]

§  Crucifixion of Jesus is a horrendous evil

§  Through this horrendous evil there flowed profound good…

·      Salvation, cosmic reconciliation, and the manifestation of the glory of God

§  What is the mechanism which brought about this turn of events?

·      RESURRECTION of Jesus Christ

§  Christians affirm:

·      If God is able to exercise his sovereignty in such a way that

o   That there is a planned horrendous evil and

o   God is able to bring great good out of it…

o   Then God can be trusted to bring good out of the evils that beset them and the world.

·      Perspective #4: Looking to the Suffering Christ to Sustain Hope

o   Not so much about the philosophical problem of evil

o   Rather, the existential problem of evil[10]

§  “How do move forward in the midst of suffering?”

o   For the Christian, God has not left himself immune from suffering

“If the cross of Christ does not unveil the mystery of why God permits so much suffering in the first place… it does reveal his love in becoming incarnate to suffer with us.  He is not content to be immutable and impassible, to watch his writhing creation with the eye of cool reason.  He unites himself to a human consciousness and takes the suffering to himself.  Thus, he knows from experience what it is like for pain to drive everything else from finite consciousness and to press it to the limits of its endurance.”[11]

§  Biblical data:

“For it was fitting for him, for whom are all things, and through whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to perfect the author of their salvation through sufferings… Therefore, he had to be made like his brethren in all things, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.  For since he himself was tempted in that which he has suffered, he is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted.”  Hebrews 2.10, 17-18

“For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.  Therefore, let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time f need.”  Hebrews 4.15-16

“fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.  For consider him who has endured such hostility by sinners against himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”  Hebrews 12.2-3

o   The perspective provides a sense of solidarity with Christ and hope in the midst of suffering

§  The Savior has suffered and he remembers the pain

§  His pressing through the pain even unto death yielded the good of the resurrection

§  This is the Christian’s hope as well

·      These four perspectives…

o   Do not “solve” the problems of evil

§  There are still difficulties and doubts that are faced

o   But these perspectives do begin to contextualize the problems of evil and provide both intellectual and existential resources to engage the many faces of evil

     [1] See the particularly helpful taxonomy of problems in Williams, Love, Freedom, and Evil, 5-8.  Williams, thus, concludes: “A portrait emerges in which evil represents not a singular problem but a complex web of problems that entangles the heart and the hands as well as the head.  For the head, how do we understand God’s supreme goodness and power in the many faces of evil?  For the heart, how do we foster relational trust in God’s supreme goodness and power in the many faces of evil?  For the hands, how do we engage in actions that align with God’s supreme goodness and power in the many faces of evil?  What kind of thinking, feeling, and acting can match the combined force of abstract and concrete problems of evil?” 

     [2] A helpful introduction to the deductive and evidential problems of evil is found in three short video presentations by Greg Ganssle of Yale University.  Available online:

     [3] As Thaddeus Williams notes: “Here we are confronted with the emotional problems of evil, which multiply with virtually every experience of human heartache and may vary significantly in their intensity, effects, and implicit conclusions from heart to heart.  The failure to distinguish these concrete problems from the less personal and more abstract philosophical problems of evil can lead to a wearying assault of misguided and irrelevant counsel.  Imagine, for example, expounding Augustinian privationism (the notion that evil is not a real thing but lacks positive ontological status) in an effort to console parents who have lost a child at the hands of a drunk driver.  For them, evil is a very real, concrete thing.”  Williams, Love, Freedom, and Evil, 7.  For a moving portrait by a philosopher who has struggled with evil at an existential level see John S. Feinberg, “A Journey in Suffering: Personal Reflections on the Religious Problem of Evil” in Suffering and the Goodness of God, editors, Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2008), 213-237.

[4] “I am not implying that a given intellectual response to abstract problems of evil must simultaneously meet the challenges posed by concrete evil.  Rather, our intellectual responses, at a minimum, ought to comport with how we meet the concrete problems.  Hendrik Vroom, a philosopher, theologian, and former hospital chaplain, stated, ‘Whatever cannot be said in a hospital should not be said in a philosophy or theology text attempting to deal with evil and suffering.’  Epicurus echoes, ‘Vain is the word of a philosopher which does not heal any suffering of man.’”  Williams, Love, Freedom, and Evil, 9.

     [5] “The nonexistence of God may imply the nonexistence of evil.  At the very least anyone who would use the term ‘evil’ while denying God must give this term an intelligible sense.”  David H. Freeman, “On God and Evil” in God and the Good, editors Clifton J. Orlebeke and Lewis B. Smedes (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1975), 174.  William Lane Craig goes further and states: “I would want to say, evil actually proves that God exists because if God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist!  If evil exists, it follows that moral values and duties do exist, namely, some things are evil.  So evil actually proves the existence of God, since in the absence of God, good and evil as such would not exist.  So you cannot press both the problem of evil and agree with my contention that if God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist because evil will actually be an argument for the existence of God.”  William Lane Craig, “Second Rebuttal” in “Is the Foundation of Morality Natural or Supernatural?—A Debate Between William Lane Craig and Sam Harris.”  Transcript available online:

     [6] Alvin Plantinga, “Supralapsarianism, or ‘O Felix Culpa’” in Christian Faith and the Problem of Evil; editor, Peter van Inwagen (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2004), 6.  Available online:  Note: page numbers refer to online edition.  Also, see Appendix C for some comments on objections to Plantinga’s view.

     [7] “I believe that the great goodness of this state of affairs, like that of the divine existence itself, makes its value incommensurable with the value of states of affairs involving creaturely good and bad.  Thus the value of incarnation and atonement cannot be matched by an aggregate of creaturely goods.  No matter how many excellent creatures there are in a world, no matter how rich and beautiful and sinless their lives, the aggregated value of their lives would not match that of incarnation and atonement; any world with incarnation and atonement would be better yet.  And no matter how much evil, how much sin and suffering a world contains, the aggregated badness would be outweighed by the goodness of incarnation and atonement, outweighed in such a way that the world in question is very good.”  Plantinga, “Supralapsarianism, or ‘O Felix Culpa’,” 9.

     [8] Marilyn McCord Adams has written: “From a Christian point of view, God is a being a greater than which cannot be conceived, a good incommensurate with both created goods and temporal evils.  Likewise, the good of beatific, face-to-face intimacy with God is simply incommensurate with any merely non-transcendent goods or ills a person might experience.  Thus, the good of beatific face-to-face intimacy with God would engulf … even the horrendous evils human experience in this present life here below, and overcome any prima-facie reasons the individual had to doubt whether his/her life would or could be worth living.”  “Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God,” in The Problem of Evil, eds. Marilyn McCord Adams and Robert Merrihew Adams (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 218.
     [9] The notion of “horrendous evil” comes from Marilyn McCord Adams in her essay “Horrendous Evil and the Goodness of God.”  She defines “horrendous evils” as “’evils the participation in (the doing or suffering of) which give one reason prima facie to doubt whether one’s life could (given their inclusion in it) be a great good to one on the whole.’  Such reasonable doubt arises because it is so difficult humanly to conceive how such evils could be overcome.”  She later includes the crucifixion of Jesus in this category of horrendous evil.  “Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God,” 211, 212.

     [10] Within Thaddeus Williams’ taxonomy this would include “Concrete Problems of Evil in Intra-Fide Emotional Form” which Williams describes as: “The sufferer may be a believer suffering from inside the pale of faith (intra-fide).  In this case, the concrete problem is a distinct problem of continuing to trust the God in whom one has a positive belief and prior relational commitment.”  Also included would be “Concrete Problems of Evil in Extra-Fide Emotional Form” which is described as: “Conversely, the sufferer may suffer from outside the pale of faith (extra-fide).  In this case, the concrete problem forms more of a subjective blockade to initiating trust towards God in whom one lacks any positive belief or prior relational commitment.”  Williams, Love, Freedom, and Evil, 6-7.

     [11] Marilyn McCord Adams, “Redemptive Suffering: A Christian Solution to the Problem of Evil” in Rationality, Religious Belief, and Moral Commitment: New Essays in the Philosophy of Religion, eds. Robert Audi and William J. Wainwright (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1986), 260.  Thaddeus Williams likewise notes: “Unlike us, God can feel the weight of the cumulative travails and triumphs of billions of people, weeping with those who weep and rejoicing with those who rejoice.  His heart is incalculably more adept at complex feeling than our own.”  Williams, Love, Freedom, and Evil, 87.