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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.”

Amy Hall

Amy Hall – If God is good, why is there evil and suffering?

If God is good, why is there evil and suffering?  How can we reconcile the existence of evil with a good, powerful and omniscient God?   In this clear and enlightening presentation Amy discusses the various reasons why it is reasonable to believe that God has morally sufficient reasons for allowing the evil we see in the world.

Amy works for Stand to Reason (http://www.str.org) by contributing to their online content, blogging and responding to apologetics questions sent to Stand to Reason.  She has an M.A. in Christian Apologetics from Biola University.

This presentation was recorded at Thinking Matters Tauranga (New Zealand) as part of a 10 day speaking tour of New Zealand with Brett Kunkle (Stand to Reason) and Jay Watts (Life Training Institute) in September 2012.  This presentation comes from the full NZ Tour DVD set (includes 9 sessions by Brett, Amy and Jay) which will be available shortly from Thinking Matters for NZ$60 (freight free in NZ).  Keep an eye on the blog for news of its availability.

How Stephen Law Failed in His Debate with William Lane Craig

Several others have already offered their reviews of the recent Craig/Law debate (see Wintery Knight’s post, J.W. Wartick’s analysis, Randal Rauser’s comments, or Stephen Law’s own thoughts here) and so I’ll restrict my comments to Law’s debating strategy. In my opinion, his line of argument was totally inadequate to the task. Here’s a few reasons why:

1) He only gave the briefest and most perfunctory of treatment to the cosmological argument and the historical case for the resurrection, focusing almost exclusively on the moral argument and his own evidential argument from evil for the probability of atheism.

2) He didn’t understand what a cumulative argument is or how it works. It’s simple to understand really. Argument 1 gives reason to think there is a being with properties A B and C. Argument 2 gives reason to think there is a being with properties C, D and E. Argument 3 gives reason to thing there is a being with properties C, F, and G. The fact that argument 2 doesn’t give any reason to think that the being in question has property B is not an indictment of that argument, nor a weakness of the whole case.

3) These two failures, combined with the way he proceeded, meant he was really not on the atheistic side of the debate. The totality of his arguments (even if successful) allowed room for a type of theism, such as Deism.

4) His strategy of comparing the problem of evil for a good God with the problem of good for a ‘malevolent God’ (a ‘square circle’ makes just about as much sense – let’s say he meant ‘malevolent creator’) relies on Manichaeism, which is false if Christianity is true. Thus the Christian has no reason to entertain Law’s counterargument.

On the Christian view, there is no such THING as evil. Evil is rather a privation – an absence of a good that should be there. Evil is ontologically posterior to goodness, thus for there to be evil, there must be a good. Christians not only believe that God does good, but that God’s very nature is goodness itself. He IS the standard. But when evil and goodness is understood this way (and not as a Manichean would conceive of good and evil: as two forces opposing one another), you can see that there cannot be a evil being comparable to a good God. Such a being would have no being.

5) He was totally inconsistent in his use of mystery, allowing it to feature particularly in his own answer to the problem of the origin of the universe (and also in his explanation of the existence of objective moral values and his dismissal of the resurrection as the best explanation for the historical facts about Jesus and the disciples), but not allowing Craig to ostensibly have it in his answer to the problem of evil.

6) More to the point, Craig was not using mystery to answer the problem of evil. He was saying that it is not unreasonable to expect, given the nature of our situation (a transcendent God and human beings with cognitive limitations in time and space), that we would be unable to perceive God’s sufficient reasons for allowing evil. The atheist therefore is in no position to assess the probability of a good God allowing the evil he sees in the world. Thus, it was Laws that failed to carry his argument.

7) Finally, it was noticeable how Law mentioned in his first speech that he would respond to Craig’s arguments in his next rebuttal, but deferred responding to Craig’s arguments until his third speech. This only allowed Craig the opportunity to rebut Law’s counter-arguments in his closing remarks. If Law wasn’t so soft spoken and didn’t have all the appearances of a genuinely nice guy, I’d suggest this deferral was an intentionally underhanded debating trick. Whether or not this was the case, it was evident that Law, although he had done careful research beforehand (unlike so many of Craig’s interlocutors), could not respond effectively to Craig’s cosmological and historical arguments, as well as Craig’s own response to the problem of evil.

 

Audio: Trent Dougherty on Faith and Reason in a Broken World

Last month, we had the privilege of hosting Christian Philosopher Trent Dougherty in Tauranga for two events on the problem of evil. Here is the audio from those talks:

[pk_icon_link icon=”download” icon_type=”dark”]Part 1: Faith & Reason in the face of Evil and Suffering[/pk_icon_link]

Does faith make sense given the horrendous evil we see in the world around us?  In this lecture, Trent offers guidelines for the integration of faith and reason and how to think about the problem of evil and suffering.

[pk_icon_link icon=”download” icon_type=”dark”]Part 2: Exposing Atheistic Naturalism’s Answer to Evil[/pk_icon_link]

Atheists claim that naturalism (the view that only matter, energy and time exist – with no God intervening from the outside) gives a better explanation of suffering in the world.  In this talk, Trent shows that naturalism’s attempt to answer the problem of evil and suffering backfires at every turn.

Special thanks to Rodney Lake for the audio and Brian Auten for helping us to host the files.

Trent Dougherty is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Baylor University.  He has a PhD in Philosophy of Religion, Epistemology and Probability Theory from the University of Rochester and an MA in Philosophy from the University of Missouri-Columbia.  He has published articles and book reviews in many journals including Religious Studies Review, Notre Dame Philosophical Review, Philosophia Christi and many others. He is also the editor of recently published book, Evidentialism and its Discontents.

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Faith in the Face of Evil

Paul Helm:

Faith cannot be totally blind, a gamble in the face of infinite odds. Whatever doubts and risks may be associated with trust, faith, in order for it to be intelligible and defensible, must have some evidence going for it. And the point of Christianity (at least) is to hold that enough of the purposes of God can be seen to trust him for what cannot be seen.

We may trust God in the face of evil not by an act of blind faith, but because there are other parts of the ways of God that are eminently trustworthy. God has a plan; parts of that plan are intelligible to us, and we trust him for what at present it is hard to make sense of.

One reason why it is hard to make sense of the plan of God is that it expresses itself in a temporally unfolding panorama which we, living for a few years in the 20th century, can only see part of.

The faith which can face and even surmount evil cannot be a mindless leap; nor is it a form of faith which has all the answers. It sees part of the picture, and trusts the Creator and Redeemer for what it cannot see.

Read the rest here.

[HT: Patrick Chan]

Tauranga Event: Faith & Reason in a Broken World

This weekend, Christian Philosopher Trent Dougherty will be in Tauranga to speak at two events on the problem of evil and suffering.

Here are the details:

SATURDAY 9th July – 7pm: Faith & Reason in the face of Evil and Suffering
Bethlehem Community Church, 183 Moffat Rd, Bethlehem, Tauranga
What reasons can the Christian Faith give when faced with the horrendous evil we see in the world around us?  In this lecture Trent will give guidelines for the integration of faith and reason and how they apply to the problem of evil and suffering.

SUNDAY 10th July – 7pm: Exposing Atheistic Naturalism’s Answer to Evil
Bethlehem Community Church, 183 Moffat Rd, Bethlehem, Tauranga
Atheists claim that naturalism (the view that only matter, energy and time exist – with no God intervening from the outside) gives a better explanation of suffering in the world.  But in this lecture Trent will show that at every turn, naturalism’s attempt to answer the problem of evil and suffering backfires.

Both events are free, but donations are welcome.

Trent Dougherty is the Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Baylor University in the US.  He has a PhD in Philosophy of Religion, Epistemology and Probability Theory from the University of Rochester and an MA in Philosophy from the University of Missouri-Columbia.  He has published articles and book reviews in many journals including Religious Studies Review, Notre Dame Philosophical Review, Philosophia Christi and many others.

 

Full Audio from the John Lennox NZ Tour

For those who might have missed out, I thought I’d collate into one post all the audio from John Lennox’s recent visit. You’ll notice that there is a common theme to most of the talks — however, given the Canterbury earthquake and the need to address the serious issues that came out of it, I think this is understandable.

 

John Lennox on God, Christchurch, and the Problem of Pain

Howick Baptist has made available the video and audio from Professor John Lennox’s  sermon at their Sunday service. Read more

Why Southgate’s “co-suffering” Argument Suffers: The Intrusion of the Emotional Problem of Evil in Evolutionary Theodicy

In my recent series I particularly focused on addressing the Problem of Evil (POE) on the presumption of an evolutionary history of pain, predation, suffering and extinction, etc., (P) and the implied age-old earth. I concluded in The Problem of Evil: Part Two that Christopher Southgate’s “compound evolutionary theodicy” was strictly unnecessary because with the resources of Christian theism there was no POE, apart from the emotional force of P. The following post considers the emotional POE of P in Southgate’s theodicy and possible strategies for an appropriate defense.

The Emotional Force of the Problem of Evil

It is clear that Southgate is not strictly responding to an intellectual problem, but rather an emotional problem. He states, “the crux of the problem is . . . the Christian’s struggle with the challenge to the goodness of God posed by specific cases of innocent suffering.”[1] This is exemplified by Fyodor Dostoevesky’s Ivan Karamazov. In response to an innocent child’s suffering, Ivan says, “It’s not that I don’t accept God, Alyosha; I’m just, with the upmost respect, handing him back his ticket.” The intuition being that if God allowed evil in the world, his goodness is impugned and he is therefore no longer “a God worthy of worship”[2]

In a very real way, as long as there is pain and suffering and death, the emotional POE will remain with us. Christianity is furnished with rich resources to address this problem, theologically pastorally, and practically.

One such solution offered by Southgate in his compound evolutionary theodicy is his second plank: the “co-suffering” argument. The argument is that God is not one who remains distant, aloft and uncaring, but identifies with the pain of every sentient creature. This argument has two fatal flaws. First, to the emotional problem caused by human pain and suffering this is an appropriate response, for Christ enters into our suffering by becoming incarnate and being crucified. However, this is over-reaching as a solution to animal suffering. Christ’s life was an experience as a man identifying with humans (cf. Heb 4:15), and not as non-human animal.

Second, Christ’s co-suffering with us does not explain how God can be good and yet there be evil and suffering in the world. Instead it provides a balm, removing the sting of being alone facing such a harsh reality. This fact is well and should not be diminished. However, as a defence for only the emotional POE and not a theodicy, it has limited utility for any wider concerns.

An alternative for addressing the emotional POE for P would be an understanding of Michael Murray’s levels of pain experienced by different animals. It is also permissible to speculate that just as the Spirit of God is the helper of humanity and comforter of the redeemed, providing purpose and resolution in the face of adversity, strength and endurance through suffering, so the Spirit of God may similarly help his creatures in the whole of the animal kingdom.

These strategies are ultimately unnecessary, for the emotional state of someone does not determine truth. Appealing to emotions is an important part of the task of persuasion – not for determining what is and is not true. Although such strategies are unnecessary, they are available for those seeking to develop a defence for the emotional POE.


Footnotes

[1] Christopher Southgate, The Groaning of Creation; God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil (Louisville, KE.; Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 13.

[2] Ibid., 10

Southgate’s “only way” the Wrong Way: God’s Omnipotence and Benevolence in the Problem of Natural Evil

The Problem of Evil

Christopher Southgate, author of The Groaning of Creation, denies a cosmic fall on the grounds that suffering, pain, predation, extinction, etc., (P) is instrumental in the Darwinian process for producing values, such as consciousness, rationality and the “range, beauty, complexity, and diversity of creatures the Earth has produced.”[1] Here is where the major plank in his compound evolutionary theodicy enters the picture: his “only way” argument–really just an assertion.[2] It is that for God, the P intrinsic to the Darwinian process was the only way in which God could bring about the many good values that have arisen in nature. In the Problem of Evil: Part Two, I offered three reasons why this major plank in Southgate’s argument is rotten. First, it presupposes natural evil is morally evil.[3] Second, a world without P may indeed be unimaginable, but that does not make P untenable. Third, his solution is successful in protecting God’s benevolence, but unfortunately at the expense of divine omnipotence.

On this third criticism Southgate does note Michael Lloyd’s unwillingness to accept such a solution specifically because it limits the power of God. All he offers is an assertion that fails to address the point. He states,

“I fully accept that we can never be sure that this was God’s only way to give rise to creatures such as stem from the 3.8-billion-year-long evolution of the Earth’s biosphere. We can only say that given what we know about creatures, especially what we know about the role of evolution in refining their characteristics, and the sheer length of time the process has required to give rise to sophisticated sentience, it is eminently plausible and coherent to suppose that this was the only way open to God.”[4]

But if God is omnipotent (can do anything that is logically possible), it is incoherent to suggest he could not have achieved the same values that have arisen by acting in such a way as to avoid the disvalues of P.  Hence Southgate’s solution to the problem of evil then is to favour a benevolent God to an omnipotent one.

To preserve God’s omnipotence a preferable argument would be that the actual world was the only feasible world for God to actualize given specific purposes, such as to bring a maximal amount of free creatures into relationship with him. Such a world may be filled with all types of natural and moral evil, even in the animal world. Since it is logically impossible to make someone freely do something, this does not subvert the traditional understanding of divine omnipotence. Southgate acknowledges creaturely freedom may be one of God’s purposes that could explain all the natural evil in the world, but shies away from saying this purpose is the reason why P characterizes the actual world.

Different divine purposes could apply in other specific situations. For instance, the spread of the gospel is in large part dependant on the fossil fuels that resulted from mass extinction events.


Footnotes

[1] Christopher Southgate, The Groaning of Creation; God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil (Louisville, KE.; Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 29.

[2] Ibid., 16.

[3] I have argued in The Problem of Evil: Part Two that this is dubious with three reasons that could assume animal suffering is similar in type and intensity to human suffering, and with one reason that argues animal suffering is not similar.

[4] Christopher Southgate, The Groaning of Creation, 30.

The Problem of Evil: Part Two

In Part One I explored different articulations of the Problem of Evil and sought to remedy the force of those arguments. In this, Part Two, I will look at the theodicies of Christopher Southgate and William Dembski that take into account animal suffering in an evolutionary history as a part of the problem of evil, and in doing so develop a framework for my own theodicy.

Southgate’s Not-so-easily Dismissed Dismissals

Christopher Southgate is an example of a Christian Theologian grappling specifically with the problem of animal suffering from a theistic evolutionary perspective. Before offering his own theodicy in The Groaning of Creeation, Southgate dismisses three strategies for an evolutionary theodicy. I will argue these strategies are not so easily dismissed and in fact, suitable for inclusion in an evolutionary theodicy.

Augustine provides the first stratagem.[1] Southgate’s reply is that we have a far greater understanding of the suffering in the nonhuman world than we did in the pre-scientific age. This dismissal is more of a confirmation of Augustine’s point; that due to our epistemic position we cannot see the divine purpose of the suffering we perceive in the natural realm. But if evil is magnified in our comprehension, then our view of the good that God has brought and will bring about is too small.

The second stratagem Southgate dismisses is that nonhuman creatures do not really feel pain.[2] His appeal to the science is misleading and misdirected. It is a question for the philosopher of science to answer if the appearance of pain in nonhuman creatures should be equated with the type and intensity of pain experienced by humans. Michael Murray, a philosopher at Franklin and Marshall College, distinguishes three levels of pain experienced by different organisms depending on the development of their brains.

Level 3: a second order awareness that one is oneself experiencing (2).
Level 2: a first order, subjective experience of pain.
Level 1: information-bearing neural states produced by noxious stimuli resulting in aversive behavior.[3]

Spiders, Bumble Bees, and possibly even the larger reptiles, plausibly only experience the first level of pain. At most the evidence suggests that vertebrates, such as dogs, cats and horses experience Level 2 but not Level 3. The part of the brain that is most closely associated with the consciousness of pain, is also the part that was last to arrive among mammals – the pre-frontal cortex.[4] Accordingly, all can experience pain, but only the higher primates are aware they are in pain. Alexander Pruss, philosopher at Baylor University, after giving examples of phenomena such as being able to be distracted from pain, suggests “… it really could turn out that it is our ability to conceptually focus in on mental phenomena in a second-order way that is crucial to pain’s being really bad.”[5]

The third stratagem Southgate dismisses says the suffering of animals is just a fact of nature. Kenneth Miller is a proponent of this stratagem, which argues that animals have no moral character, and we should not project onto them moral categories that properly belong to the sphere of human beings.[6] Southgate’s reply again fails to address the pertinent point. That creatures have value to God does not explain why we should consider their suffering to be wrong.

Indeed, it is not immediately apparent that animal suffering is wrong.[7] First, humans have value to God – yet suffer. We trust that there is a sufficient reason for human suffering, though we may never discover it in this life. Why should we believe then that God does not also have a sufficient reason for suffering in the animal kingdom, though we may no see it? Second, the argument that natural evil is morally evil is dubious. Showing animal suffering is wrong from mere natural facts, such as suffering, breaks the Humean principle and commits a deontic fallacy by deriving an “ought” from an “is.” Third, on the Divine Command Theory of ethics God does not have moral duties, and so is under no obligation to spare animals from suffering, let alone their lives in mass extinction events. Any perceived cruelty on his part is wrong thinking on ours. Fourth, we naturally fall victim to what is termed a Hyper-active Agency Detection Device (HADD): that is, the human tendency to ascribe to nonhumans personal agency.[8] Ascribing moral significance to actions of an animal is to run afoul of the fallacy of anthropopathism. Craig quips, we are “being had by HADD.”[9]

Southgate’s Compound Evolutionary Theodicy

Southgate’s proposed “compound evolutionary theodicy” suffers problems of its own, however my criticisms here will focus on the place from where his theodicy sprung. This is his denial of a cosmic fall as responsible for the pain, suffering, death, extinction and predation (P) in the natural world. I shall describe his second objection to such a doctrine, and then give reasons why that objection is erroneous, then do the same with his first objection.

Southgate’s denies a cosmic fall on the grounds that P is instrumental in the Darwinian process for producing values, such as consciousness, rationality and the “range, beauty, complexity, and diversity of creatures the Earth has produced.”[10] Here is where Southgate’s “only way” argument–really just an assertion[11]–enters the picture, the major plank in his evolutionary theodicy. It is that for God, the P intrinsic to the Darwinian process was the only way in which God could bring about the many good values that have arisen. This reason immediately suffers from the following criticisms. First, it presupposes natural evil is morally evil.[12] Second, a world without P may indeed be unimaginable, but that does not make P untenable. His solution is successful in protecting God’s benevolence, but unfortunately at the expense of divine omnipotence.[13]

The first reason for Southgate rejecting a cosmic fall is that there is no evidence that any state of perfection existed at any time in earth’s history. He sights the uniformity of the fossil record as evidence. The dismissal at once suffers from three flaws. First, the “very good” of Gen 1:31 does not mean the absence of P. Southgate himself notes that this should be interpreted as aesthetic and functional, but he implicitly interprets it as moral and pragmatic in his critique.[14] Second, Genesis reports that Adam and Eve inhabited “the Garden,” gives a description of where Eden was, and were told to subdue and bring dominion over all the earth. This strongly implies the planet at large contained “thorns and thistles” where man had to toil to feed himself, and that Eden was a small localized area (and perhaps time) of safety and provision. Third, the narrative does not commit one to the belief that the consequence of a cosmic fall will present itself in the geologic record or somehow falsify a uniformitarian perspective. [15]

Dembski’s Proposal

Southgate is aware of this, for he continually positions his criticisms against a chronological reading of the fall narrative with an initial state of perfection, and footnotes the theodicy of William Dembski,[16] who advocates a kairological reading Genesis 1-3.[17] Dembski’s theodicy suggests that the effects of the fall are retroactive in history just as the salvific effects of the cross of Christ are.[18] On this scheme, God foreknew the human response to temptation and created a world that would reveal to humanity the gravity of the consequences of their sin in the natural world after the expulsion from Eden.

Southgate objects to this on the grounds that it is “weird” and “theologically extremely problematic.”[19] Weird it may be, but weirdness is not an adequate test for truth.  It is theologically problematic for on Dembski’s scheme God is responsible for P, and thus the creator of natural evil.[20] We have already responded to the way Southgate conflates natural evil with moral evil. But this objection is further ill conceived, for God is the creator of the same amount of natural evil on Southgate’s theology. Unlike Southgate, Dembski is up-front about this weakness. He says the fact that God created this evil (whether actively or by permission) is “a bitter pill to swallow.” Yet it is a pill that brings us the promise of redemption.[21]

Wrapping Up

If a defence manages to show that there is no POE, this will greatly diminish the need for a theodicy. Our review concluded that there is an external POE in a probabilistic form, the potency of which is severely diminished by the resources of Christian theism. Thus, apart from the emotional force of P given evolutionary theory,[22] Southgate’s evolutionary theodicy is strictly unnecessary. We have considered Southgate’s dismissals and objections, and constructed a framework for a theodicy that preserves Christian orthodox teachings regarding God’s omnipotence, benevolence and a cosmic fall that traces back to human sin, in the current mental environment that accepts evolutionary theory and a long history of predation. This compound theodicy proceeds by arguing there is no reason to think that natural evil is actually morally evil or that animal suffering is wrong, and good reason to think that it is not wrong by distinguishing different levels of pain and affirming the possibility that God has sufficient reason for allowing P in the animal kingdom.

In Part Three I will include the Appendices and Bibliography.


Footnotes

[1] Southgate quotes; “. . . this is the appointed order of things transitory. Of this order the beauty does not strike us, because of our mortal frailty we are so involved in a part of it, that we cannot perceive the whole, in which these fragments that offend us are harmonized with the most accurate fitness and beauty.” The City of God, 12, 4, quoted in A. Richard Kingston, “Theodicy and Animal Welfare,” Theology 70 (November 1967): 485. Also in Christopher Southgate, The Groaning of Creation; God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil (Louisville, KE.; Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 3.

[2] He states, “It is true we can never see into the mind of animals. But we do know some. We have scientific examples of animals under not merely physiological response but actual suffering . . . intense and protracted pain and/or fear among creatures, particularly when the creature senses there is no chance of relief, may justifiably be termed suffering, and there is ample evidence that exists, particularly in creatures that have complex brains processing information from pain-detection systems.” Christopher Southgate, The Groaning of Creation, 4.

[3] Cited in William Lane Craig, “Nature’s Flaws and Cruelties” n.p. Reasonable Faith, Question 134. Cited 8 November 2010. Online: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=7645 See Also Michael Murray, Nature Red in Tooth and Claw: Theism and the Problem of Animal Suffering, (Oxford University Press, 2009).

[4] William Lane Craig, “Animal Suffering” n.p. Reasonable Faith, Question 113. Cited 8 November 2010. Online: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=7215

[5] “Or take that weird experiment that showed that looking at a paining body part through the reverse side of the binoculars, and hence making the part appear smaller, made the pain feel smaller.  . . . One might, for instance, come to one of two conclusions: (a) human conceptual abilities make pains less bad than they would be in a critter without these abilities; or (b) human conceptual abilities make pains worse than they would be in a critter without these abilities (or one might think that sometimes (a) is true and sometimes (b) is true).” Trent Dougherty, “Animal Pain and Animal Resurrection and Humanization: Somewhere between theodicy and defense” n.p. Alexander Pruss, comment 30 September 2010, Cited 8 November 2010. Online: http://prosblogion.ektopos.com/archives/2010/09/animal-pain-and.html

[6] In response he affirms the nonhuman world is of value, because God (A) created it, (B) pronounced it good, (C) sustains it in existence, (D) nurtures it with love. He concludes that the sufferings of the nonhuman world must be involved in theodicy. Christopher Southgate, The Groaning of Creation, 4.

[7] The following reasons would all apply if P were comparable in type and intensity to human suffering. However, as I have argued, by distinguishing Levels of pain, there is no reason for us to think that it is so, thereby eliminating the need for the following considerations.

[8] Richard Dawkins provides an amusing example. His bicycle had broken down and with it his temper. Yelling at the bike he realized that it really couldn’t understand him. Some psychologists believe HADD is a tendency that is hard wired into our brains.

[9] William Lane Craig, “Nature’s Flaws and Cruelties” n.p. Reasonable Faith, Question 134. Cited 8 November 2010. Online: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=7645

[10] Christoper Southgate, The Groaning of Creation, 29.

[11] Ibid., 16.

[12] I have already argued that this is dubious with three reasons that could assume animal suffering is similar in type and intensity to human suffering, and with one reason that argues animal suffering is not similar.

[13] For an explanation see Stuart McEwing, “Southgate’s “only way” the Wrong Way: God’s Omnipotence and Benevolence in the Problem of Natural Evil,” n.p. Thinking Matters. Citied 18 December 2010. Online http://thinkingmatters.org.nz/2010/12/southgates-only-way-the-wrong-way/.

[14] His critique is of Michael Lloyd’s two papers. Michael Lloyd, “Are Animals Fallen?” in Animals on the Agenda: Questions about Animals for Theology and Ethics, ed. Andrew Linzey and Bdorothy Yamamoto (London: SMC Prress, 1998), 147-60; “The Humanity and Fallenness” in Grace and Truth in a Secular Age, ed. Timothy Bradshaw, 66-82 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998). A breakdown of these categories is given by Daniel J. Dyke, “Was Evil Present in God’s Very Good world?” n.p. Reasons to Believe. Cited 2 November 2010. Online: http://www.reasons.org/interpreting-genesis/animal-death-before-adam/WasEvilPresentinGodsVeryGoodWorld

[15] Some theologians (C. S. Lewis for example, as well as Michael Lloyd) hypothesize Satan’s fall as responsible for natural evil. If this is the case, Satan’s fall could have been before the foundation of the planet and thus show no different modus operandi of the biosphere in the geological record. This would also preserve the idea that natural evil is the result of a personal agents moral evil. Dembski finds this solution difficult exegetically and problematic theologically, for on this scheme God nevertheless is still responsible for allowing Satan to ravage an innocent creation. God’s inaction is a necessary condition for any evil occurrence.

[16] Southgate refers to Demski’s online paper “Christian Theodicy in Light of Genesis and Modern Science.” This work is no longer available, however his thoughts have been expanded and developed in a full length book, The End of Christianity; Finding a Good God in an Evil World, (Nashville, TE.; B&E Publishing, 2009).

[17] This is based on the insight that there are two Greek words that translate for time. Chronos, which means approximately a duration, i.e. “he took his time,” or “at the time of the changing of the guards,” and Karios, which signifies intentionality, i.e. “in the fullness of time,” or “at the appointed time.”

[18] As Newcomb’s paradox demonstrates, the usual metaphysical rule of backwards causation does not apply when dealing with an omniscient God.

[19] Christopher Southgate, The Groaning of Creation, 146.

[20] Southgate’s nomenclature is “ontological evil,” which is at once philosophically problematic; evil has no ontos, just as ice has no warmth. Evil is privation.

[21] William Dembski, The End of Christianity, 150. Dembski leaves this thought largely undeveloped. He does minimally state that God brings about natural evil to free us from the more insidious evil in our hearts.

[22] For further development of this see Stuart McEwing, “Why Southgate’s “co-suffering” Argument Suffers: The Intrusion of the Emotional Problem of Evil in Evolutionary Theodicy,” n.p. Thinking Matters. Citied 19 December 2010. Online http://thinkingmatters.org.nz/2010/12/why-southgates-co-suffering-argument-suffers/

The Problem of Evil: Part One

The task of reconciling the evil in this world with the goodness of God and his creation belongs to a branch of Christian theology called Theodicy. This task has been exacerbated in the past century and half by evolutionary theory that makes us acutely aware of the long-ages past filled with animal suffering. Developing a theodicy is of particular interest to the Christian theologian who seeks to make Christianity credible in the mental environment and requires the analytical tools of the Philosophy of Religion.[1]

The need for a theodicy is directly proportional to the force of the Problem of Evil (POE). Part One of this essay will therefore briefly survey different articulations of the POE and strategies that seek to explain or refute the force of those arguments. In Part Two, I will develop a framework for my own theodicy.

The Logical Problem of Evil

The logical POE has endured throughout the centuries until recent years. Its goal is to show that God does not exist. It is best put forth by David Hume, “Is he [God] 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?”[2] From this the following premises can be articulated.

1)       An all-powerful and all-loving God exists.
2)       Evil exists.

It is claimed by the proponent of the logical POE that both these premises are incompatible. Alvin Plantinga’s work has significantly developed discussion on the problem such that today it is largely considered by philosophers to be solved.[3] First he points out that the hidden assumptions needed to draw out an explicit contradiction are not necessarily true and their proof is a load far too heavy to bear. These hidden premises are the following.

3)       If God is all-powerful, then he can create any world he desires.
4)       If God is all-loving, then he prefers a world with less evil than the actual world.

Secondly, he provides reasons why we should consider both (3) and (4) as possible[4] – reasons which we shall explore in responding to Paul Draper and Christopher Southgate. Thirdly, he provides a fifth premise that shows that (1) and (2) are actually consistent. This premise is as follows.

5)  God could not[5] have created a world that had so much good as the actual world but had less evil, both in terms of quantity and quality; and, moreover, God has morally sufficient reasons for permitting the evil that exists.[6]

The Probabilistic Problem of Evil

The probabilistic POE is more difficult to dispel. This argument admits there is no logical contradiction between (1) and (2), but submits that their compatibility is extremely unlikely. It seeks to show that God’s existence is not impossible, but improbable given the amount of evil and suffering in the world. Three considerations are available that offset the force of this argument.

First, probabilities should always be assessed with respect to the background knowledge. If evil were to be taken in isolation, then the theist could freely admit that it provides grounds for the improbability of God’s existence. However, the theist should insist that evil be assessed relative to the full scope of evidence for God’s existence. Second, we are not in any position to know or assess if God has no morally sufficient reason for permitting the evils in the world. God’s foreknowledge extends perfectly into the distant future, while we are limited creatures who can only guess at the ripples effects any purported evil will accomplish in time. Third, there are certain Christian doctrines that render the compatibility of evil and God’s existence more probable.

That is to say, Pr(Evil/God & Other Christian doctrine) > Pr(Evil/God). William Lane Craig explicates four such doctrines. First, that the purpose of this life is not human happiness, but the knowledge of God. Second, humans are in a state of rebellion against God. Third, God’s purposes do not cease with the grave but are eternal. Fourth, the knowledge of God is an incommensurable good.[7]

The External Problem of Evil

These previous two arguments are internal[8] and have largely been abandoned. However, an external POE remains. This argument argues that God’s existence[9] and the existence of gratuitous evil are incompatible. Although the Christian theist is not committed to the premise that gratuitous evil exists, the objector will nevertheless try to show in an evidential fashion that it is true that gratuitous evil exists. (This is where evolutionary theory and a long primordial history of the world enter into our discussion, for with these the amount of evil and suffering in the world is dramatically increased.) The considerations given to answer the probabilistic POE will equally apply to natural evil as it does to moral evil.[10]

Paul Draper, an atheist philosopher at Purdue University, has used evolutionary theory as evidence to support his POE argument. Taking Theism (T) and Naturalism (N) as hypotheses, he asks which best explains the amount of evil we observe relative to the evolutionary process (E) and the distribution of pleasure/pain (P). By evaluating the simplicity and the explanatory power of each hypothesis he concludes that Naturalism is more probably true.

Draper’s argument is based on three dubious assumptions.[11] First, that the intrinsic probability of Theism and Naturalism are equal; i.e. Pr(N) = Pr(T). Draper admits his case depends on, “all things being equal,” but this judgment depends on the background evidence that should include any independent reason for or against God’s existence.[12] Second, that the probability of the distribution of pleasure/pain in a world with evolution and Naturalism is greater than a world with evolution and Theism, i.e. Pr(P/E&N) > Pr (P/E&T). However, as creatures with limited knowledge we have no reason to suppose that we are in any epistemic position to accurately weigh the distribution of pain and pleasure with any good that has or may yet result. Third, that the probability of evolution on Naturalism is greater than the probability of evolution is on Theism, i.e. Pr(E/N) > Pr(E/T). However, the evolution of biological organisms is dependent on the existence of biological organisms (B). He is thus actually arguing for Pr(E/N&B) > Pr(E/T&B), which with dubious in light of insights gained from the Intelligent Design community.[13]

In Part Two, while examining the evolutionary theodicy of Christopher Southgate and William Dembski interesting theodicy a framework for my own theodicy will develop.


Footnotes

[1] Plantinga has distinguished a difference between what he calls a “defense” and a “theodicy.” A defense will show that the proponent of the POE fails to carry his objection, while a theodicy will be an attempt at explaining why there is evil and suffering in the world.

[2] David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, ed. Norman Kemp Smith (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1980), part 10, p. 198.

[3] Evidence of this is its absence in professional philosophical literature. See William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, (Downers Grove, IL.; InterVarsity Press, 2003), 541.

[4] For the logical POE, these reasons need not be plausible. They only need to be possible and the alleged incompatibility is broken.

[5] The “could not” should not be considered a limitation in divine omnipotence, but should be construed as there being no feasible world of free-creatures that God could have created.

[6] William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, (Downers Grove, IL.; InterVarsity Press, 2003) 541.

[7] Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, 544-8

[8] An internal argument is a versions of the POE that is formulated with premises (1) and (2), both of which the orthodox Christian community is committed to. It seeks to expose an inner tension within the Christian worldview and thereby show that God’s existence is either impossible or implausible.

[9] God here defined minimally as an omnipotent and omnibenevolent being.

[10] I include animal suffering as one aspect of natural evil, which would also include earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, mass extinction events, pestilence, etc.

[11] The most fundamental flaw in Draper’s argument is his affirmation that gratuitous evil exists with his definition of Naturalism; namely, the affirmation that nothing but the “natural world” exists. (natural world = def. “By the “natural world,” I mean the collection of all existing physical entities (past, present, and future) together with any entities whose existence depends (either causally or ontologically) on the existence of those entities. “Natural” entities are entities that are part of the natural world so defined, and a “supernatural” entity, if there is such a thing, is simply an entity that can affect the natural world despite not being a part of it.”) Evil is however a non-physical property whose existence relies on objective moral values which cannot rightly be assigned to set of things natural. Naturalism does not, in principle, have the explanatory resources for the existence of evil. His argument is then, at bottom, a non-starter by begging the question.

[12] For instance, evidence accrued from Natural Theology or from personal experience.

[13] This would include the origin of complex and highly specified information in biological organisms, as well as the fine-tuning of the conditions necessary for existence of biological life, a life-sustaining planet and universe. See Hugh Ross, “RTB Design Compendium,” Reasons to Believe. Cited 8 November 2010. Online: http://www.reasons.org/links/hugh/research-notes