Nov 10, 2010

Debate on the Problem of Evil

This past Monday I had the privilege of participating in a debate on the question, "Why does a good God allow evil and suffering?" The debate was held at the University of Montevallo, Alabama, sponsored by the Christian Ministries Association there. My opponent was Dr. Michael Patton, philosophy professor at U Montevallo. I believe that the debate was very civil, and we had a good exchange of views. I don't think it's appropriate to try to declare any official winner of such events. As in any formal debate, both sides scored some points. I'm satisfied if the audience came away with a better understanding of the issues under discussion and of the various arguments that may be offered by both sides. If it leads people to think more deeply about the question of God's permission of evil, that's a good outcome. If helps to strengthen the faith of believers and causes unbelievers to question theirs, that's even better. For what it's worth, though, I think I was able, with God's help, to make a good and convincing case that God allows evil to bring about a greater good and that the existence of inexplicable evils in the world is no strong evidence against God's existence. For all who were present, especially my students and friends from Southeastern Bible College and Birmingham Theological Seminary, I want to say thank you! For your further perusal and for the benefit of those who couldn't be there, I have pasted my opening remarks below.

Opening Statement

A Debate on “Why Does a Good God Allow Evil and Suffering?”
University of Montevallo
November 8, 2010

On August 30, 2005, Americans watched in horror as the storm surge of hurricane Katrina broke several levies that kept water out of New Orleans and 80 percent of the city was flooded. Many people there lost their lives and tens of thousands were left homeless. In February, 2005, John Evander Couey, a convicted sex-offender, snuck into the home of nine-year-old Jessica Lunsford of Homosassa, Florida, and kidnapped, raped, and murdered her.

If God—a being who is all-powerful and all-knowing—exists, then he could have prevented all of these terrible events. And since he is supposedly all-good, we might well think that he would prevent these things. So how could an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good being stand by and allow such evils? Some have found the paradox of evil to be unsolvable. For example, the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus threw up his hands in despair of solving it, asking, “Is he [i.e., God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”

The Greater Good Defense
Throughout the centuries, theists—those who believe in God—(especially Christian theists) have offered what I take to be an adequate answer to the problem of evil. Speaking very generally, the answer has been that God has a morally sufficient reason for allowing evil. Now there have been several candidates for what might constitute God’s morally sufficient reason. I don’t have the time to discuss the pros and cons of all of the proposals. So let me just tell you what I think is God’s reason for allowing evil and then elaborate on it. God allows whatever evils exist in his creation in order to bring about a greater good. Historically, this is known as the Greater Good Defense (GGD). Somewhat more formally, GGD states that
God allows an instance of evil E only if E is necessary to bring about some greater good G that could not be brought about unless E occurs.

The idea that good can come out of evil and suffering is a common feature of our experience. There are lots of mundane examples. I might deny my son some prized privilege in order to teach him the value of the Golden Rule or to help him develop some virtue like patience or diligence. Or, if he commits some petty crime in his teenage years, I might let him spend a night in jail to deter him from worse crimes. Much less mundane, consider the experience of John Walsh, the producer of the program America’s Most Wanted. Walsh’s son was kidnapped and murdered, an unmistakable moral evil. Yet this tragedy led Walsh to start his TV program which has proven decisive in saving the lives of many other kidnapped children and bringing the perpetrators to justice.

Christians would appeal to the Bible for further concrete examples that are directly related to God. Consider the biblical account in which the patriarch Joseph is sold into slavery by his brothers (Gen. 37:25-28). Though Joseph suffered terribly from the evil done him, at the end of the story, after his family and many others had been saved from famine by his rise to prominence in Egypt, he was able to declare, “You planned evil against me; God planned it for good to bring about the present result—the survival of many people” (Gen. 50:20).

It is evident, then, that evil can often lead to considerable goods; goods that, in at least many cases, we can see to be greater than the evils that serve as their precondition. So, it is my contention that God is morally justified in allowing evil because he intends to use that evil to bring about greater goods. Now it probably cannot be proven that all the evil that God has permitted in his creation will ultimately result in the production of goods that outweigh the evils. Nevertheless, it seems that the theist can claim that it is possible that they will. And given a justified belief in God (and I believe that belief in God is eminently justified for many reasons), then it is highly probably—indeed virtually certain—that he has good reasons for allowing the evils he does. And this means that God has a morally sufficient reason to permit the evils that he does.

At this point, many atheists and agnostics may respond by saying, “Yeah, I can grant that God may have good reasons for allowing many of the evils we see in the world. But there are lots of evils that we don’t see leading to greater goods. For example, there are lots of children who are raped and killed, but their daddies don’t start a TV show that leads to the greater goods that came from the death of Walsh’s son. There are lots of people who are sold into slavery—even today—but their suffering doesn’t save a multitude from a famine. In such cases, we can’t see a good reason that would justify God in allowing these evils. So, isn’t it likely that in these cases, there simply isn’t a good reason that would justify God in allowing them? Shouldn’t we conclude that these are pointless evils? And therefore, shouldn’t we conclude that God—a least a good God—doesn’t exist?

There is an assumption in this objection, one that is almost certainly false. The assumption is that if God has a good reason for allowing some particular instance of evil, then I (we) should be able to see it. By way of analogy [borrowed from Daniel Howard-Snyder], suppose that I’m rummaging around in my fridge looking for a carton of milk. We would all assume that if there were a carton of milk in my fridge, I’d be able to see it. So, when I don’t see one after looking very carefully, it’s right for me to conclude that there likely is no carton of milk in the fridge. So it is with God’s reasons for allowing evil, says the atheist. If God has a reason, I should expect to see it. Since I don’t see it, there must not be a good reason.

However, the milk in the fridge analogy is the wrong analogy. Consider another scenario. Suppose that I’m standing just on the outside edge of my neighbor’s vegetable garden, and I’m looking to see if there is a snail somewhere in the garden. We would all agree that even if there were a snail in the garden, I should not expect to see it—not from where I’m standing. Likewise, there is no good reason to think that if God has a good reason for allowing some particular instance of evil, we’d always be able to see it. And there are good reasons to think that we would not always be able to see God’s reasons for allowing evil. For most of us theists, we believe that we are finite, while God is unlimited in knowledge and wisdom and power. In fact, it is part of the standard belief of most theists that God is incomparable (Isa. 40-45), that his ways are past finding out (Rom. 11:33), and that his ways are not our ways (Isa. 55:8). God is transcendent and very different from us. Moreover, we are sinful and the sin in our hearts clouds our minds and limits our understanding of God and his ways even further.

At the very least, we should understand our relation to God on the analogy of young children in relation to their parents. As Stephen Wykstra has pointed out, parents often have good reasons for doing things to and for their young children that their children cannot begin to fathom—things which the children may think are unjustifiably bad. Consider a small child’s vaccination shots. The child suffers pain and cannot comprehend the reasons for it. Yet there are good reasons to give those shots which justify such infliction of pain. So, clearly, the fact that the child cannot see a reason for the pain is no reason for him to believe that his parents had no good reason.

So, given what we know about God (that he is transcendent and infinitely wiser than we are) and given what we know about ourselves (that we are limited and sinful), what should be our reasonable expectation with regard to God’s reasons for permitting evil? Would we expect in every case to see them? Or might we expect, in at least some cases, to be mystified? The answer is obvious.

Therefore, we have no justification for believing that there are in fact pointless evils in the world. The fact that we cannot always see God’s good reasons for allowing evil is no basis for thinking that he has no such reasons. And let me reiterate that if we have good independent reason to believe in God, then we can know that there are no pointless evils. And indeed we do have evidence for the existence of God in the form of the fine-tuning of the universe for life, the existence and nature of human consciousness, and the existence of objective moral values—all things that find their best explanation in the existence of an intelligent, morally perfect creator of the universe and all it contains.

The Incoherence of the Atheist’s Argument from Evil
This last point leads me to another important consideration in dealing with the question of why God allows evil, especially when it comes up in discussions with atheists. That consideration is this: insofar as the atheist objects to the existence of God by appealing to what he takes to be real pointless evils in the world, he appears to embrace the notion that there really are things in the world that are objectively evil. One cannot point, say, to the kidnap and murder of Jessica Lunsford and say that that event was an evil for which God could have no good reason unless one also admits that there is such a thing as objective morality. By objective morality I mean real moral values and principles that do not depend upon our subjective endorsement for their validity and truth.

But here’s the rub. One cannot say that something like Jessica Lunsford’s murder is objectively evil such that a good God couldn’t or wouldn’t allow it unless God exists! In other words, the existence of objective moral values depends upon the existence of God, a morally perfect law-giver who provides the ontological foundation for their existence. As the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky once wrote, “If there is no God, everything is permitted.”

This point is widely acknowledged among atheists. Many of them openly admit that on a naturalistic, atheistic worldview, objective moral values make no sense. J.L. Mackie, one of the most prominent atheist philosophers of the 20th century said, “Moral properties constitute so odd a cluster of qualities and relations that they are most unlikely to have arisen in the ordinary course of events without an all-powerful god to create them.” Richard Dawkins, the outspoken atheist, explains it this way:
In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.

James Rachels writes, “Man is a moral (altruistic) being, not because he intuits the rightness of loving his neighbor, or because he responds to some noble ideal, but because his behavior is comprised of tendencies which natural selection has favoured.” Michael Ruse, another atheist philosopher, says, “Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction. . . and any deeper meaning is illusory.” Lastly, atheist Richard Taylor writes, “To say that something is wrong because. . .it is forbidden by God, is also perfectly understandable to anyone who believes in a law-giving God. But to say that something is wrong. . .even though no God exists to forbid it, is not understandable.”

Why is that? Well, it has to do with the atheist’s picture of the universe and his view on the nature of human life. According to atheistic naturalism, all that exists is the physical universe, and everything that exists sprang from a cosmic accident several billion years ago. The universe was not created by an intelligent being for some grandiose purpose. The Big Bang occurred simply as the result of natural processes, unguided, undesigned. It follows from this that human beings are nothing special. Human beings exist simply because some of our distant ancestors developed some random mutations that naturally selected them for survival. We are not special, we are simply lucky. And the history of evolution—which exhibits an incredible indifference to the birth and extinction of millions of entire species—shows us that the human race is eventually destined to perish like the dinosaur. In fact, the atheist-naturalist story has a very predictable outcome. The story will end with the heat-death of the entire universe as all the stars gradually burn out, all the planets turn cold, and every living thing dies.

Given this picture of the world, what basis is there for affirming the existence of objective moral values or the sanctity of human life? It should be fairly clear, therefore, that the atheistic worldview cannot provide a ground for objective moral values. If atheism is true, then Dostoyevsky is right—everything is permitted. Which means that the atheist cannot object to the existence of God on the basis of objective evils like the murder of Jessica Lunsford. . .unless God exists! This means that the atheist argument from evil, insofar as it appeals to objective moral evils, is simply incoherent. If there are objective moral values, then God exists. And that means that there are good reasons why bad things happen even if we can’t always know what those reasons are.


Curtis said...

I really enjoyed your article. In a sense, you removed the foundation of the atheistic arguments against a good God allowing evil by showing that even their concepts of right and wrong come from the presupposition of some moral compass. I believe that C. S. Lewis did the same thing in "Mere Christianity." Seeing as how I have not read his book in some time, I am glad to have stumbled upon your article as a reminder of this apologetic. Thanks for your insight.

Erik Esse said...

First, a factual correction. You say, "In fact, the atheist-naturalist story has a very predictable outcome. The story will end with the heat-death of the entire universe as all the stars gradually burn out, all the planets turn cold, and every living thing dies."

The scenario you describe is one theory that some physicists (atheists and otherwise) have put forward as the logical consequence of the laws of physics that we know of. There are many other theories, and none of them is connected to atheism per se.

But my main problem is with the core of your argument, and I'm happy to say that wrestling with it has put me in a more optimistic mood than I was in when I started, so I thank you for that.

You seem to be saying that, because some people believe that methods of science are a better way to understand the universe than a religion (which claims to have gained its information through revelation), they cannot act morally, or, at least, that their arguments for their morality are incoherent. Indeed, if I, as an agnostic, were to try to come up with some simple link between my basic explanation of how nature works (such as evolution) and how I should make day-to-day moral decisions, I would be at a loss. Yet this seems to have absolutely no effect on my ability or desire to act morally. This is the case on a societal level as well. There is not a higher rate of crime in states with lower levels of Christianity or religion than those with higher rates. Millions of atheist and agnostic people across the globe are able to act morally every day, whether they have a coherent explanation of why they are behaving morally or not.

On the other hand, Christianity asserts that something like a person or self created the universe and human beings, then felt compelled to sentence those human beings to eternal torture because of the behavior of two people, but then decided not to do so because an aspect of himself became human, died, stopped being dead, and then flew up into the sky. To me, this explanation of the universe doesn't point to why I should be ethical any better than evolution, perhaps less so. Its picture of the universe is bizarre, with a God whose behavior is erratic and arbitrary.

All religions assert that there is a tight connection between cosmology and ethics. Such a connection feels intuitively right to me as well. Yet every day we see how some people are able to act ethically without such a link, and how others can reach extraordinarily similar conclusions about moral behavior despite wildly dissimilar cosmological visions. Such immense inconsistencies in human behavior and thinking may be frustrating to the philosopher, certainly. But isn't it just such inconsistencies that allow us to survive at all? Coherent philosophical thought is the province of a minority of people, and diversity of opinion is a universal fact. Isn't it fortunate, and something to be celebrated, that we are able to treat each other well is the absence of coherent explanations about why we are doing so? And isn't the functioning of ethics in the absence of cosmology an interesting subject for philosophical inquiry?

Again, thank you for stimulating my thought process.

Anonymous said...

Hello Steve,

Is there a tape recording of this debate? Also, do you know of resources that offer good defenses of compatibilism?


Steve Cowan said...

Seminole, unfortunately, it was not recorded. Sorry. I truly wish it was. I thought it was a good debate, and--for what it's worth--I believe that my case for Christian theism came out on top. As for compatibilism, I'd recommend John Martin Fisher, The Metaphysics of Free Will, as well as his contribution to Four Views on Free Will. Less technical would be the section on freedom and determinism in my book, The Love of Wisdom, and the chapter on freedom in the book, Whomever He Wills.