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Problem of Evil Lecture Diablo Valley College, CA. Aug.3, 2006

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The Problem of Evil— Dr. Peter Krey

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s (1821-1881) story concerning the problem of evil is poignant, but the protest of Ivan Karamazov to his religious brother Alyosha is misguided.  When an eight-year-old boy wounded a general’s favorite hunting dog by throwing a rock at him, the general lets the dogs hunt the boy and they tear him to pieces.  Ivan cannot accept a world where such incidents occur.  He thus cannot accept God’s entrance ticket.[1]

What Ivan fails to see that he is refusing to participate in the goodness of God, the same way the general is.  The torture, the refusal to value the life of a peasant boy, making it equal to the wounded paw of a hunting dog, all of these conditions, attitudes, malignant functionings of the human heart, are alienated from God, and are turning the blessings intended by God into distorted, ugly curses on what could be such a beautiful and marvelous creation.

We have to get to the heart of the protest here against the existence of God, but first, just one sentence on Epicurus’ paradox (341-270 BCE): it fails to take into account the rebellion of the creation against God, the fall and the alienation of the creatures from the creator, and from my point of view, those that are the doers of evil are accompanied by those who alienate humankind and human nature further from its intended goodness, by non-involvement.

That God is all-powerful, omnipotent and omni-benevolent, and omniscient can be considered a Greek philosophical influence on the scriptural presentation of God and not the heart of the scriptural tradition. We do not have to move to the Process Theological conception of a limited God, however, because our standards cannot pretentiously measure God whose sovereign authority measures and evaluates us.

Pojman criticizes the assumption that omniscience entails God’s control of the future thereby obviating free will.  He notes that the “epistemic domain does not affect ontological ones” (p 69).  In other words, someone can know what is going to happen without that entailing controlling it.

Another consideration in the omnipotence attribute is that all-powerful does not entail doing the logically impossible.  It does not mean God has to be able to square a circle or make 2+2=5.  If God is also under the law of non-contradiction, does the logic of Epicurus then prevail?  It is similar to the question of Socrates: “is it good because God commanded it, or does God command it because it is good?”  I believe this issue becomes resolved because goodness flows out of the nature of God, logic is its structure, and justice is required by God and also is God’s consummate nature (Macintyre’s contribution in Peterson, p.621).  Anomalies will exist from our perspective, however, because it again involves the paradoxes that occur in the interface of the finite with the infinite. 

Perhaps the goodness of God gets into these paradoxes as well, considering the relationship of infinite and finite goodness.  To say that God is not completely or perfectly good because of them, makes us have to call a Demiurge into existence, as the source of material evil—relegating God to all spiritual good and helpless before the Demiurge.  Or there is God on one side and the devil on the other—two sides of the some coin.  That kind of a schizophrenic God is pretty much blasphemy. 

Luther spoke of the Deus revelatus vs. the Deus absconditus —the revealed God and the hidden God.  In this sense, those who rebel against God face the God as a devil—and those who worship and obey God, receive God’s grace and benevolence.  Now there is a difference between God in god-self and our perception and experience of God.  When completely alienated and rebelling in a distorted state against God, God will appear as a monster in the sky, and the good forces externalized are encountered as a beast, ready to tear the rebel’s heart apart.  But making friends with the beast, changes the heavens, placing a gracious God up in the sky, one who lifts a person up in the creative powers of grace that continue rescuing the creation from its evil rebellion against the good that God created it in.

Thus, evil happens because of an externalized enmity with the powerfully positive, continuously creative forces of God—distorting them and turning them into evil.

That there is evil is mostly not denied.  Some evil is moral and some is natural.  Natural or surd evil is that which is irrational (p 71) and is what unredeemed nature does of her own accord: hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, etc.  Moral evil is what humans do to each other.  Humans tear each other up like wolves, and to say this really insults wolves, because they are in no wise as bad humans can be.

Now both evils are intimately related, because poverty and neglect—the perversion of war, prevent human beings from changing the earth to a more humanly friendly place.

Pojman also refutes the idea that good needs the contrast of evil, that a balance is required. Properties, he notes, do not require their opposites to be able to exist (p 71).

The free will defense asserts that it is logically impossible for God to create free creatures and guarantee that they will never do evil. Because we agree that it is good to create morally responsible creatures—but therefore, they have to be free.

A libertarian view of the freedom of the will claims that people are free to choose and they are causally underdetermined.  Determinism in opposition claims there is no free will and compatibilism attempts to reconcile freedom of action with determinisms.  If, according to Pojman, you are committed to the last two positions, then the free-will defense does not help (p 72).  For an analogy of God and humans in compatibilism, if an adult is watching children, then the adult is still responsible to limit the evil the children do.  Compatibilism is a kind of soft determinism that makes it possible to keep moral responsibility, but it is not as robust a defense against the problem of evil as the unrestricted free-will argument (p 73).

The theodicy defense was first formulated by G. W. Leibniz (1646-1716). It states that all evil will contribute to the greater good and despite appearances, this is the best of all possible worlds.  John Hick continues the argument today; he argues that the world is wide open to evil in order to use the world as a place for soul making, which involves the spiritual perfection of our characters as persons (p 74).  That seems to hark back to Socrates—“Ye Men of Athens’” speech, where he charges that they think only of wealth, property, and honor, and nothing to the improvement of their souls.

God did not make the world as a completed creation.  As Irenaeus of Lyons (130-200 CE) argued, humans were made in the image of God, but they do not yet have God’s likeness—they are incomplete—and in God continuous creation—(to insert my word) they must become fully perfected in God’s likeness.  In our world a second and harder stage of the creation is taking place according to John Hick (p 74).  What sense would this creation make as a “play pen paradise,” as a hedonistic romper room—where all our actions had no consequences?  The whole of human development would become morally stagnant (p 75).

Pojman argues against this Theodicy defense, that there seems to be very much more evil in the world than necessary for what Hick is theorizing.  There is seemingly a gratuitous amount of evil and Hick might be overestimating human capacity to use evil for good (p 75).

Pojman does not mention the theological insight of Augustine’s happy sin or the “felicitous Fall.”  God gives human beings free will and God’s glory consists in being able to turn the evil that humans do into good.  Thus, Adam and Eve’s fall made it possible for them to grow into a maturity outside of the guarded and protected confines of paradise, (not quite a “play pen paradise” here).  In the case of the Joseph Narrative, that his brothers almost kill him, that he is “sold down the river” into slavery, and that he is framed for a rape he did not do, are all evils that God changes into a blessing: saving all the Egyptians and even neighboring people from a famine and then bringing about a change of heart in the murderous brothers.

In the same way, the most brutal instrument of torture and execution—the Roman cross, becomes changed into a symbol of the greatest love the world has ever known—and into a symbol for the continuing of redemptive suffering that overcomes violence, evil and other suffering in the world.  Pojman does not mention the divine capacity to change evil into good.

There is still evil beyond these bounds, and from my point of view, it is part of the chaos that has not yet been redeemed by continuous creation.  In the Christian religion, in addition, the incarnation is also an important strategy of God against evil.  Marilyn McCord Adams argues that in the crucifixion God in Christ suffers torture and evil and dies like us, to identify with us and thereby to overcome evil, suffering, violence, war, and death (p 79), all by means of the cross.

As a boy was being hanged by the Nazi’s in a concentration camp, one prisoner asked a believer, “Now, where is God?  Where is your God now?”  The believer replied, “Up there, being hanged by us.”  In the incarnation, God becomes as vulnerable as the least of these—these victims, but thereby gives a way to become more than victorious.

The evolutionary source of evil—with nature being red in tooth and claw—reverts us to our animal nature, but we are not merely sentient, but have learned ethics that make us very human.  We can be lifted up even into God, in a theosis—as Luther says—but we can also be an abyss of evil, a bottomless pit of brutality—we can be truly demonic.  Thus we do not become fully human until filled by divine goodness, according to believers.


[1] This lecture reviews Pojman’s chapter on the subject. Louis P. Pojman, Philosophy of Religion, (New York: McGraw Hill, 2001), pages 67-80. Michael Peterson, et. al., Philosophy of Religion, Third Edition, (Oxford University Press, 2007) is also referred to.

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Written by peterkrey

August 16, 2006 at 8:57 pm

One Response

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  1. Hi, Peter. You have some interesting ideas here. Re-reading the entry just now, I had a thought/question: Taking the story of the fall literally, how could Adam and Eve have sinned in taking the fruit? After all, the fruit was from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, so wouldn’t they not have known that it was wrong to disobey God until after they already ate the fruit? Maybe that implies the story should be taken metaphorically, as an allegory of how each of us invariably sins after we develop our conscience as we grow up. Knowing good and evil gives a capacity to do both: without knowledge of right or wrong we can’t do anything wrong, but we can’t do anything right either. Only with knowledge of good and evil we can do good, but that entails we can do evil as well.
    What do you think?

    Jason Zarri

    January 20, 2007 at 2:56 am


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