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Engaging with people on the problem of evil

Guest article written by Michael Otto. Originally posted at www.nzcatholic.org.nz/2018/07/11/engaging-with-people-on-the-problem-of-evil/. Republished with permission from NZ Catholic.


It is not often that St Augustine and his wisdom are subjects of everyday conversation, but his thinking might be given more of an airing after US Christian apologist Mary Jo Sharp visited New Zealand. Mrs Sharp, a Professor of Apologetics at Houston Baptist University, spoke in Christchurch, Auckland and Tauranga recently, courtesy of Thinking Matters, a ministry that “encourages New Zealand Christians to think more deeply about what they believe, and why they believe it, so they can present the Christian faith as both rational and true”.

In Auckland, Mrs Sharp spoke at the Greenlane Christian Centre on May 25, with her main address titled “Encountering the Problem of Evil in Everyday Conversation”, at the start of a two-day conference on “Confident Christianity”.

She outlined a three-step approach for engaging people on this topic in a way that is aimed not at putting them on the defensive, but rather freeing them to think. The steps are essentially “refine the objections [to belief in God based on evil]”, “define the terms” and “outline your view”.

St Augustine’s treatment of the topic of good and evil was summarised under the second heading.

But Mrs Sharp, a former atheist, introduced the subject on a more personal note, sharing what happened on one occasion after she had given a talk at a women’s ministry event on life having meaning and purpose in God.

“At the end of my talk, a group of women came down to ask me some questions afterwards. There was one lady that just kept hanging towards the back of the group. She kept catching my attention because I noticed that her eyes were completely red. She had been holding back tears.

“As soon as everyone was gone, she made her way up to me and she said, I want to make sure that everyone else had a chance to talk to you because I’m having some real problems about my belief in God. My son died of leukaemia when he was three years old. And I can’t reconcile that with the Church’s teaching on God being good. So I just need to have some conversation with you on this matter.”

Mrs Sharp said this woman’s “questioning lament, her deep grief over the problem of pain and suffering in her own life, is something that is common amongst us as humans”.

“So while a person could say that the argument from evil seems purely academic . . . our experiences in this life continue to thrust it into the conversation, by means of our own suffering. We do not have the luxury of purely pontificating on the matter. We all experience evil and will have to handle it one way or another.”

“One of the first things we need to do,” Mrs Sharp said, “when we encounter this problem in conversation is help the person clarify their objection.”

“So what we are working towards is developing an environment in which both parties can add to the conversation in meaningful ways. So to help create the environment, we want to discover, how does the objector understand their objection? What do they think they mean. To do so we can ask questions, we should ask questions.”

Caveat

At this point, Mrs Sharp made a caveat, one of several that punctuated her talk.

“Because when the lady came to me and said, how can I believe God is good when my son died of leukaemia at three years old, I’m not going to launch into a series of questions to see if she knows what she is saying or what did she mean by that?

“The first thing I am going to do is figure out if this is a person who is grieving and they need me to console, or listen, or if this is a person who wants the answers. . . .

“So with the lady who came up to me, I said, what do you need? Do you need answers or do you need a hug, because I am good for both. She said I think I need a little of both. That’s my intro, that’s where I’m OK to keep going.

“You are going to hear me caveat this all the way through, because the problem of evil has been handled at such a philosophical level so removed from the experience of suffering, we feel that we can lay that philosophical bomb on people without considering where they are at.”

Having made sure her audience was absolutely clear on this point, Mrs Sharp continued: “One of the first questions I always ask is: What do you mean by that?”

“Do you mean to say that this particular instance of evil wouldn’t have happened if God was good?

“Do you mean to say that no evil ever happens if God is good?

“I will just keep asking clarifying questions until they find something that they can say, yes, that’s what I mean, and something I can understand too.” Having refined the objection in this way, the next step is to define terms, Mrs Sharp said, especially what is meant by “evil”.

“When someone makes an objection to God using the existence of some evil as the basis of that objection, they are making an assumption — they are assuming that evil is real.

“They have to believe that evil has some sort of real existence in order to make the objection.”

Mrs Sharp said she asks people making this objection to give their definition of evil and then she can respond with her own thinking.

“I suggest that in order for us to understand what is evil, we need to know what is good. The two concepts are inextricably tied together. For evil has a parasitic relationship to good.

“As St Augustine said, there can be no evil, where there is no good.

“Evil is not a thing in itself, evil is a corruption of some good thing, evil is a privation of good. That’s what we mean when we say ‘evil’ .

“There are various corruptions of good – physical, moral. . . .”

“So for objective or real evil to exist, some kind of objective good must exist as well,” Mrs Sharp said. “In order to make the objection to God on the basis of evil, we need to know what is good and where we get that from.

“What I hear most frequently are arguments that assume there is some kind of objective good and there is some kind of standard, without ever giving a basis for how we know something is good at all.

“What we need is a standard of goodness.”

Standard

Mrs Sharp explained what would be necessary for such a standard.

“Whatever they bring to you [as a source for a standard for goodness], what you are checking for in that source, is — does that source effectively establish a standard of goodness for all people, at all times, at all places, something that is unchanging and consistent, because that is what we mean when we say ‘standard’.

“Why? — so that everyone would have the potential to discover good, so that we can have can have intelligible and consistent discovery.

But some people might respond that there is no such objective standard, Mrs Sharp said.

“I might say something [to them]. . . along the lines of this seems to me to be a tremendously important issue to investigate. You seem to be a person who believes in good and evil, you seem to live like they are real, you also don’t seem to be the kind of person who wants to be deceived, or hold on to delusions, so it appears we might have to do some homework in this area between us. And I might suggest a book or a website article we both can read and then come back and discuss.”

But if people adamantly insist “there is no standard at all? Then there is no objection from evil [to the existence of God]”.

At this point in other, more fruitful conversations, it would be helpful to ask the person if the Christian view can be shared, Mrs Sharp said.

“I might say can I tell you why I believe Christianity offers an objective standard of goodness and why it further explains the presence of evil as well as offering answers to the problem?” she said.

Starting with Jesus’ statement that “no-one is good but God alone” (Mark 10:18), Mrs Sharp spoke on the goodness of God and how “objective moral values have their source in the eternal character, nature and substance of a loving, just and self-sufficient God” (quoting evangelical Christian philosopher Douglas Groothuis).

She then gave an outline of salvation history from an evangelical Protestant Christian perspective, finishing by stating: “God defeats the consequence of our evil, he defeats death. The way God does this is he steps into the experience himself.”

“Though the problem of evil is the greatest objection to the existence of God, as [philosopher] William Lane Craig says, paradoxically, at the end of the day, God is the only solution to the problem of evil. If God does not exist, then we are lost without hope in a life filled with gratuitous and unredeemed suffering.

“He said God is the final answer to the problem of evil, for he redeems us from evil, and takes us into the everlasting joy of an immeasurable good, fellowship with himself.” Mrs Sharp finished her talk by revisiting her conversation with “that lady I was talking to about the problem of her son”.

“I walked through this with her, and though I gave her a lot of answers, she has still got a long way to go.

“What I want to remind you of is it is not going to be that easy for people. The problem of evil is a very hard question. And though we can find the answers and say that makes sense, when you experience the problem of evil, when you experience pain and suffering in your own life, sometimes it is going to feel like it doesn’t make sense. So we need to remind ourselves of what God is doing on that cross for us.

“It is the most powerful event in human history.”