Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Problem of Evil (part 1)

A confession: I realize full well that many of my beliefs have gone past what most people consider being borderline heretical into full blow heresy. I am fine with that. I sleep well at night. Most people's view on orthodoxy are very limited in their understanding of Judeo-Christian thought and of historic Christian teachings. Most people's views tend to be shaped by the past two hundred years more so than the 2000 years before that. I seek to return to a better understanding of Christian orthodoxy than is taught among most of American Christendom. This isn't arrogant, this just is. (If my pursuit of orthodoxy makes you think of me as a heretic, I don't really care. Whatever gets you through the day, I suppose.) I am willing to listen to anyone's perspective and respect their opinion--regardless of whether or not I agree or disagree.

With that in mind...

Like I said in my last post, there can be no denying that evil exists and its impact is widespread. But such a fact is problematic for those of us who follow a God who is love. Why does evil exist? Or, to phrase it even clearer, why does unnecessary evil exist? (I rephrase it slightly only to deal away with those that will say that some things that are viewed as evil aren't ultimately evil. But, when phrased as "unnecessary evil," we narrow the field on that part of the debate.)

Long story short, I think you have to boil it down to one of two perspectives: 1, God won't do anything about evil; 2, God can't do anything about evil.

Addressing #1: God won't do anything about it.

I understand that God is a unique being--totally separate from humanity. She is other and not like us. So when discussing #1, most people will typically say that "God's ways are higher than ours." This is true. But this is also a theological cop-out. This does not answer the question at all. To say that "God's ways are higher than ours and that sums it up" is an intellectually invalid statement and a weak point to argue. Some people carry it even further and say that "God's ways are higher than ours and evil is necessary for the greater good." Really? Do people really think this is a legitimate perspective? I think this is also an incredibly trite argument. I daresay that one could point to major wars in history, or the Holocaust, or the Crusades, or the civil war in Sudan, or any number of horrors of humanity and say that they were certainly not necessary. If God is good, God is love, and God is all powerful, then she certainly doesn't need events like this to accomplish her ultimate purpose.

Or you could look at it another way (and this one involves questioning God's character): perhaps #1 is true because God is not entirely good. If God is who the Bible says he is, then we have a pretty good idea that he is love and he is good. Misunderstood at times, but loving and good nonetheless. I will admit that there is validity to the argument of those who say that the God of the Bible (the Old Testament in particular) is a malicious god. But why would we choose belief in this god? Why would this be the view point we settled on? I have a friend who says that atheism makes more sense than this perspective.

So for #1, I don't think a solid, logical, Biblical case can be made. On to...

#2-God can't do anything about it.

Get off of your "Jump to Conclusions Mat." Let me make my point before you go assuming you know what I'm saying here. The idea is complex, but when worked through, makes for an incredibly insightful look at God and his nature and the way the world works and why evil persists.

In effort to avoid a bunch of lengthy posts, I'm breaking this down into several parts. The Problem of Evil (part 2) is coming quickly.


Wes said...

First question-so is someone who does not understand the judeo-christian thoughts, whether because of lack of access, lack of ability, or simply apathy, any less in tune with God? And when I say "in tune with" I simply mean because of their lack of understanding of these "thoughts", are they any less able to connect with God in a meaningful and real way that is true? Does redneck joe in Warren Co. who goes to Podunk Church, who believes in Jesus and in God and the Bible and studies it to the best of his knowledge and ability, and yet does not understand the judeo-christian thoughts--is he unable to understand God? Can anyone understand God simply by reading the bible as it is? I guess all I'm trying to ask is why has this sudden change of focus on judeo-christian thought suddenly made the last 200 years of Christian thought inept and incapable of comprehending God the way He desires to be known?

Second question, which I'm sure you're well aware of, but I still want to ask, what about the perspective that God's not pulling the "Im stronger/higher than you" card with evil, but instead allowing evil's existence so that the choice of good can be fully understood? Can love be understood and fully appreciated without pain?

And I'm confused... for someone who claims to understand the judeo-christian thought (which i certainly don't, lol lord knows i don't) why do you refer to God as a she? Isn't God referred to as a He in the bible because referring to God as a male did not put a gender on Him but instead simply was the culture's way of showing Him respect? I mean, sure, in today's culture where women are finally becoming as respected as men, the denotation of God as a "He" becomes less and less of a way of showing any more respect than calling Him a He? Is that why you call God a she? lol sry, it just kind of threw me off for a second since I haven't read much theology or philosophy or blogs in a while.

Forgive me if I ask any questions that you've answered previously, this is the first time I've been on your blog in a while and just wanted to ask a few questions since I didn't understand some things. I was just curious what your thoughts were. Hope you're doing well man, wish we could stay in touch more, but you know how life and college go. Give me a call sometime!

JD said...

Hey Wes--your questions are always welcome, man. They all seem legitimate and worth asking. So don't ever worry about that.

To question #1-I never said that "the last 200 years of Christian thought" is "inept and incapable of comprehending God the way he desires to be known." I just said that a view that only considers the past 200 years is much more limited than a view that encompasses Jewish thought and the past 2000 years of Christian thought. We need to understand why we believe what we believe. Christian theology in America, specifically since the late 1800's, is a drastic change from the teachings, life and culture of the New Testament. So yes, a return to who we were as a church is essential in my eyes. We can pursue this American neo-Christian way, or we can seek to return to the way of Jesus. I'm not there. I don't know a whole lot of people who are. But still, if we are striving to follow Jesus, we should know more about him and his teachings.

Also, please understand that much of this argument that I've started and will continue with in the next several posts is very academic. To me, it has huge implications on the way I live my life. To others, it may not matter at all. Does someone's disregard for the academic side of Christianity make them any less in tune with God? No. I certainly don't believe that and have certainly never said that. This is my blog, and these are my thoughts. They aren't exhaustive or universal, and I could be wrong about everything. So what I deem as important could be otherwise. Anyway... people who attempt to study the Bible without any background or real knowledge of why a text says what it does tend to totally miss the intended meaning. Does this negate a real connection to God? No. Do I sound like a pompous jerk? I hope not.

To #2-Your question here has been argued most notably by a German dude named Gottfried Leibniz. Essentially, you're saying that we can't understand good without evil. Interesting, but it basically still fails to answer the question of why evil is necessary. I mean, why create a world where billions and billions suffer? So you can enjoy happy moments? If that's true, then why would God create such a world? This is basically an extension of the "evil is necessary for the greater good"--which I addressed in the blog post already. I doubt you could convince anyone that this point is a valid point in the grand scheme of Creation. You know?

#3-Even in Scripture, God is referred to using feminine terms. We miss that in translation, often times. However, I would agree that God has no gender. God is not male and God is not female. It doesn't have anything to do with equality issues. I just use the terms interchangeably because it doesn't matter one way or the other, really.

Hope those answer your questions in one way or the other.

Jeremiah said...

I think a good book that I would recommend would be NT Wright's "Evil and The Justice of God."

Firstly, I think you could break down your #1 into God won't, hasn't and isn't doing anything about it (and any combination of these three things.) Personally, I think God has done something about it (Christ conquering sin and death on the cross), is doing something about it (repentance and forgiveness of sins are constantly occurring among God's people), and will do something about it (the new heaven and new earth will be without evil).

Secondly, there is a very, very good case that evil is necessary to fulfill God's purpose with this world. Things like mercy, grace, forgiveness, unconditional love, and many other aspects of God's character are indemonstrable without evil and sin.
"You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives" - Joseph (Gen.50)
God used Joseph's brothers' evil to save the lives of Israel and of Egypt.

JD said...

Sure, God has done something. But God doesn't always do something. There is so much evil and pain and suffering in every moment of every day on this planet. So yes, God has intervened, but hasn't stopped it. Essentially, I'm seeking to answer why evil exists and persists.

To your second point: because God works our evil decisions towards good does not mean God needs evil or wishes it to happen. I think its rather twisted to say love and grace can't exist without evil.

But I'll get to that in part 2 of this post series, so I'll wait and let you read it there.

Wes said...

Hey, thanks for answering the questions! Like I said, it's been a while, and I think that's something I've realized, I just don't get into the academic aspects of Christianity as much as I used to. But I'm right there with you that we need to learn more about Jesus and what that time and the culture he was around entailed.

When you said "people who attempt to study the Bible without any background or real knowledge of why a text says what it does tend to totally miss the intended meaning. Does this negate a real connection to God? No." really answered the main thing I was wondering about. I don't agree with you on everything, but no two people will ever agree, even when it comes to something like the Bible. Well, unless they're brainwashed of course, but that's a different story haha. Either way, interesting take on the problem of evil in the world.

jason said...

I wanted to hold off on commenting because I want to see where you go with part two - but oh well.

I think the notion of evil is tied up with free will - you simply can't have one without the other. (not the place to talk about erroneous views on predestination and the like) God created us as free agents and we wouldn't be free agents with only one choice. I don't buy the notion that you need the bad to appreciate the good at all - I don't beat and withhold food from my son so he will appreciate or understand it, how lame.

God gives us choices and sometimes we choose the way that is opposite God - which is sin no matter how you slice it. Sometimes sin gets institutionalized, accepted, and celebrated. God isn't responsible for war, poverty, etc...we are.

The question of "Why God doesn't do something about blah blah blah..." is the same question He asks of me, "Why don't YOU do something about it?" - and for me this is the standard by which we are held accountable to.

JD said...

I agree with Jason. (But does our free will negate God's responsibility to do something? Why does evil still persist? Is it only our responsibility to act?--There are still lots of questions for me, though.)

And I hate to keep saying it, but I'll get to it in the next post or two.

Sheffield said...

good post...both thought provoking and about Part 3 Evil Strikes Back.

JD said...


Technically, part 2 would be called "The Evil Strikes Back" and part 3 would be called "Return of the Evil."

But you probably would need to know George Lucas' middle name to appreciate that joke.

Jeremiah said...

When I said things like God's grace and mercy can't be revealed without evil. I am simply saying that grace= undeserved favor and mercy=not getting the bad things you deserve. Both of these definitions require evil: sin is necessary for someone to be undeserving and sin is necessary for someone to deserving of something bad.
Without sin, I don't see how God could show us that he is merciful. Without a fallen world some of God's attributes would be incommunicable.

jason said...

Hey Jeremiah,

I understand what you are saying. But I disagree that one has have to have darkness to appreciate the light - does that make sense? Should we then encourage children and youth to "sin it up" in order to appreciate God's mercy and forgiveness?

I think a better approach is to look at it relationally. Human beings have sinned - from Genesis 3 - 11 is like a big ol' Sin Fest - and God, through His great mercy and love, restores the fellowship that was lost in the garden of eden. The focus in this presentation doesn't begin with sin but rather with a loving God who desires restored fellowship - but as a holy God cannot have fully restored relationship with a sinful human being, something is necessary.

I don't think you mean that God created sin to show us how good He is do you?

Ben said...

I'm not sure that I understand how one can say that one can appreciate light without darkness. If one was never to be in darkness, one could never realize that light was any better or good at all. Inversely, if one was never in the light but was always in the darkness, how could they know that it was not good?

Jeremiah said...

I am not saying that God created sin to show his glory. But how can mercy be revealed without it (sin)? If Adam and Eve had never sinned we would have known that God is loving and a wonderful creator. But his justice, mercy, grace, and the degree to which his love is unconditional would have never been demonstrated. More briefly, we would have seen that God was good, but we would never would have experienced the fullness of his goodness if we had stayed in Eden. (I guess God could have just told us he was those things, but God always actively demonstrates who he is.)
Instead, I think that God had a plan by which he would reveal himself as our merciful, loving, and just redeemer. But this cannot have been done without sin. I see the revelation of God to man as the main theme of this world. If in the end we merely come back to Eden, then this world - the holocaust, genocides, and wars - isn't worth it. This world has to be for something greater than Eden.
In the end I don't see God upholding our free will as worth the holocausts of this world. But God is so good, that the revelation of himself through Jesus Christ will be worth it.

JD said...

I will quietly disagree with both of you, Ben and Jeremiah. I've got too much writing to do at the moment to continue going back and forth on an issue that's already settled in my mind.

Please keep reading along. I appreciate your participation. There will be lots more writing on this matter in the coming days and weeks.

Thanks guys...

jason said...

"If Adam and Eve had never sinned we would have known that God is loving and a wonderful creator. But his justice, mercy, grace, and the degree to which his love is unconditional would have never been demonstrated."

Is Creation itself not an act of unconditional love? Doesn't the very act of creation, and creation itself reveal the good nature of God? Where does creation fit into your theological framework if not here?

"This world has to be for something greater than Eden. "

What could be greater then Eden, restored fellowship with humanity and God? Isn't that where scripture says we are heading? See Revelation 21 - 22.

This is good discussion - I hope you don't perceive me as attacking.

Jeremiah said...

Although we knew that God was a wonderful and good and loving creator, we did not know his unconditional love in Eden. It is impossible to know if love is 'unconditional' if there is no condition where it would be hard to love. After the fall, God continued to love us unconditionally - the condition being our sinfulness. But before, we were innocent and there was no condition for God to show us unconditional love.

So while creation was an act of love, it was not unconditional - what was the condition?

Similarly, you can't forgive someone unless they have wronged you. No one had wronged God in the garden and so it was impossible for him to show us that he is merciful and would forgive us.
I think that we are heading to a better Eden where God has fully revealed himself and that we will be grateful to him for his mercy, love, and forgiveness - forgiveness is something Adam couldn't have been thankful for in Eden.

jason said...

Hey Jeremiah,

I appreciate your response. Thanks for the conversation.

I think the largest difference in where we are going lies at our starting point. I perceive that for you, the fall is more important than creation. My view is that the act of creation is much more important than the fall. What could we fall from? The fall can only be understood in terms of creation.

Certainly, because of progressive revelation, you can make the argument "we couldn't understand x without having y happen." But I think we can understand the nature of God through the loving act of creation, when everything including humanity was created good, better than through the fall.

I think the bottom line is this: for me it boils down to a restoration to what was lost in the fall, so the fall is secondary. For you, the fall is primary.

Please correct me if I am wrong.

Again, thanks for the conversation.

Jeremiah said...

I think you are wrong about my point. For me, restoration is the key; it is the primary element. Restoring humanity from this world back to an Edenic heaven where God will dwell with us forever is the most important thing.
What I am saying is this: God restoring us from the fall back to to his presence will, in the end, reveal more about himself than if we had simply stayed in Eden.
God is a God who restores and saves from sin, but we would never know this without sin, evil, or the fall.
I think God revealed a ton about himself through creation. Its a lot of stuff. He revealed his love, intelligence, beauty, and many other wonderful things by creating us and this world.
But the story wasn't over after the 7th day; it was a starting point to eventually get us somewhere else - somewhere better.
If you could give me an example of how any being can show mercy without being sinned against, or unconditional love without a condition, or forgiveness without being wronged then my point is completely mute. But please, give me an example.

jason said...

Hey Jeremiah,

I think my point can be illustrated most poignantly by my own semi-recent experience. My son is almost 17 months old. He hasn't necessarily "sinned" against me yet, but I still love him, care for him, provide for him, and makes sure he is safe etc. Will my son understand / accept my love better when something bad happens? I guess you could make that argument. But for me, mercy is an another expression of love, love that has already been demonstrated, make sense?

For me, the very act of creation illustrates the same thing. The fact that God creates an intricately ordered world and an intricately ordered body that makes life possible is of HAY-UGE consequence. Mercy is definitely important, but mercy is a tangible expression of the love and character of God already expressed.