Saturday, July 2, 2011

The trouble with evil

Having once struggled with theodicy myself, I really enjoyed this comic from SMBC.  


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. It's interesting because in the comic, it's likely a child trying to reach the ball on the table. There is a better solution here. Instead of breaking the table, over time, the kid will grow tall enough to reach it if that is where the ball is kept.

    We too need to 'grow up' in a sense to understand how an all-powerful and loving God allows evil in the world. Imagine the thinking of a child that receives a painful shot at the doctor's office. Let's say his father was holding him when it happened. The kid might ask: Did my dad not know about it? Could he not protect me from the mean doctor? Does he not love me?

    See the flaw in this type of thinking? When he matures, of course the kid will realize that though his father didn't at all like seeing him in temporary pain, he allowed the shot for the promise of a healthy future. By carefully studying the Bible we can spiritually mature to the point where we begin to realize that God has done the same for the human family.

    The chapter linked to below from the book What Does the Bible Really Teach? explains the scriptural concepts that help us to see why God has temporarily allowed evil and is actually leading the human family to a healthy and bright future.

  3. The shot analogy is an interesting example, but we must remember that it is only one example. Do we benefit from murder? Rape? Smallpox? Ebola? I have read through the entire page that you have posted. It seems to rely heavily upon the argument from free will. This is a classic approach to theodicy, but with a little closer scrutiny fails to stand up by itself.

    For one thing there is the problem of the existence of natural evil. With personal evil, or acts committed by free agents, okay, maybe God can be let off the hook, because free agents are abusing their free will. What about natural evil? Earthquakes, tsunamis, viruses? It seems that the link that you have posted is suggesting that Satan rules the world, and I suppose you could then argue that it is he who is responsible for the diseases and what not. This, however, ignores the fact that God, in the Christian tradition created the Devil, as well. Okay, one might say, but maybe the Devil has free will as well. Here we come to the meat of my argument, and the problem that always confronted me when I was pondering theodicy: the Christian God is omniscient. It is difficult for us to imagine what it would mean to be omniscient, because we as humans are clearly far from it. But God being omniscient is a big obstacle to free will. If God knows everything, I mean everything, things that you have done things that you are doing and things that you will do, even before the moment of your creation then how can you say that you have free will, or that the devil has free will for that matter? Rather, are you not doing exactly what God created you to do? This would include all of the absolute horrors that humans have inflicted upon each other in the course of our history. If the world is as it is, and we have free will, then God cannot be omniscient and justified for suffering.

    Beyond that, I am definitely an atheist. It is not outside the realm of possibility that a god does exist, but there is no compelling evidence to suggest that one does. Extraordinary claims/extraordinary evidence and all of that. It is a bit off topic when discussing theodicy, but I thought I would throw it in for good measure.

  4. Thanks for your consideration of my response, Mike. You said, "Here we come to the meat of my argument, and the problem that always confronted me when I was pondering theodicy: the Christian God is omniscient."

    I actually disagree with this, at least in the sense of what it means to most. I've had discussions with religious people focusing on this very issue, and you probably would've found my explanations on the repercussions to God knowing absolutely everything surprisingly similar to how you'd argue. But what does the Bible itself have to say? Consider this verse as an example:

    "Then the LORD said, 'The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.'" (Genesis 18:20-21 NIV)

    Obviously, this seems to indicate that God does *not* know absolutely every detail of what will take place, otherwise his investigation into the matter would be a farce. How do you think God's 'omniscience' can be harmonized with his imparting (truly) free will to his creatures?

  5. I find theodicy to be an interesting thought exercise. If you are willing to sacrifice omniscience, omnipotence, or perfect benevolence, then the problem of evil disappears. In fact my university theology professor's solution was to limit God's power.

    Anyhow, I thought I would respond to the quote you posted from Genesis. This would certainly imply that God did not know what was going on down in Sodom and Gomorrah. However, there are plenty of passages that attest to God's omniscience. Some examples are Psalm 147:5 "Great is our Lord and mighty in power;
    his understanding has no limit.", Job 28:24
    "For he views the ends of the earth and sees everything under the heavens." or Isaiah 46:9-10 "I am God, and there is none like me, I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come." (NIV)

    Truth be told, I believe that free will is an illusion. A very convincing illusion to be sure, but an illusion none the less.

  6. Thanks again for your response Mike and your patience. If one accepts that God is omnipotent, then he must accept that God has the power to destroy the universe, correct? But does that also mean that one must believe that God will destroy the universe?

    There is a distinct difference between having the ability to do something and actually doing it. People naturally accept this for God's omnipotence, so why not for his omniscience? That God has the power to know anything, yet is selective in exercising this ability, is the only way scriptures such as those you and I listed above are properly reconciled.

    If that is the case, in giving the gift of free will to creatures he made in his image, God would not predetermine everything they would ever do. The Bible shows that he hasn't. For example, it would make little sense for God to warn his people over and over not to turn aside from his commandments if he already knew what they'd do and it made no difference.

    I think the proper scriptural understanding of God's omnipotence, omniscience and love, along with how he deals with creatures with free will, explains perfectly just why there is evil in the world temporarily. If God truly gave his creatures the choice to listen to him or not, to do good or evil, and chose not foreknow and predetermine everyone's choice for them, yet did predetermine that good would ultimately prevail, that explains the situation we currently find ourselves in, with God's perfect love, power and knowledge intact.

  7. I am sorry, but I do not find "selective" knowing to be convincing at all. Either a being is omniscient and knows everything or it doesn't know everything and is therefore not omniscient.

    If I wanted to I could study all about cars and become a mechanic. In fact, I think I would be quite good at it. However, I don't know that much about cars, and I don't work on them ever. It would be quite incorrect to call me a mechanic, even though I could become one, because I am not in fact a mechanic.

  8. Mike, the fact is you are rejecting what the Bible itself says about God's knowledge. So what you are really doing is determining for yourself what God's knowledge is and then using that as the standard to condemn him when it comes to the problem of evil.

    The scripture I provided shows unambiguously that God did not foreknow of the evil being committed in Sodom and Gomorrah and that that evil resulted from the gift of non-predestinated free will.

    If you are willing to accept the Bible at its own word instead of insisting upon a priori beliefs, then the problem outlined in the comic disappears. Your starting premise of God's knowledge is simply incorrect, and ignoring evidence to the contrary doesn't change that.

    Thank you again for allowing a dissenting view.

  9. TJ, it is very easy to find Biblical verses supporting many disparate points of view. From slavery, to genocide, to the subjugation of women. It's all in there. You can also argue against those things from quotations in the Bible. Internal consistency is not the Bible's strong suit.

    Indeed, accepting the Bible at its own word becomes intensely difficult. There are just too many contradictions (yes, there are). At some point a person who wants to obey the Bible's teaching has to choose for themselves which passage is correct, or literally true, and which passage is metaphorical. Indeed one must perform logical back-flips to give the book as a whole any coherence whatsoever.

    As for my starting premise, it is not my starting premise. It is the starting premise of the theodicy, which theologians have toiled over for hundreds of years. Theodicy as it stands is probably like one of those puzzles that you learn in high-school geometry; the ones with no solutions (outside of changing its starting parameters). As I said before, I find it to be an interesting thought exercise, nothing more. I don't believe in God, nor would I if the Bible were completely non-contradictory (I have other reasons for that).

  10. If that's the view you choose to accept, that's your prerogative, but these are not disparate views. They do harmonize when the context is carefully considered. Of course, a closed mind is a closed mind. I've found in my experience that the fault-finder tends to do just as many back flips as the one he criticizes, he's just usually less aware of it.

    Again I appreciate your allowing me to present my views here.

  11. TJ, I appreciate your comments as well. It is always pleasant to have a discussion with a thinking person on the other side of an issue.

    Indeed, back-flips of reasoning are done all over the place, certainly not only in religion. Just think of when you find something you want on sale. You shouldn't buy it, you don't need it, but you convince yourself that buying it is a good idea. Everyone does this. Religion, however, is a subject that seems to be particularly rife with convoluted explanations. It is one reason that in some ways I have more respect for the views of people who take a strict interpretation of this or that religious text. (Of course, for friends I tend to prefer less fundamentalist people. Also, I tend to have many moral qualms with fundamentalists.)

    At times in Science certain ideas do not age well. As new data comes in, the old ideas no longer explain it very well. People may continue to use these old ideas, but it quickly becomes clear that a new way of explaining data is needed. In this way, science is self correcting. Simple is best. Religion, however, tends to insulate itself against such correction, requiring people to continue applying very outdated ideas to ever changing circumstances. You're absolutely right that a closed mind is a closed mind, but we must always be careful throwing that phrase around. It is often the case that it is easy to see someone as "closed minded" just because they don't accept this or that idea. There are certainly closed minded people out there, but I don't think they are as numerous as many would like to believe.