Monday, April 04, 2011

Is God Responsible for Evil?

I'm presently teaching a unit on Christian Apologetics in which my students are asked to "describe to the class an objection to the Christian faith that has been put to you by a non-Christian friend and describe how you will seek to enter into dialogue with that person using the skills you are gaining in this unit." I've been quite impressed with a number of the presentations so far and thought I'd post some of them here. Here is the first from Jon Mayne with thanks to Jon for permission to post it.

"I have a well educated professional friend who is an architect and an artist. We worked in the same organisation for some years and we have been on a couple of work missions in Papua New Guinea . John is intelligent, good company and decent, but he is not a believer, at least not as far as I am aware, certainly I am not aware of him ever having attended a church service. John likes few things better than to debate issues – music, history, art, life in general and especially when I am around, religion and faith. Usually we talk around issues and concepts often quite light heartedly but respectfully. Eventually however, we come to a place where he will say something like, 'Jon, if God made everything, he also made sin and evil, so how can he also condemn anyone as a sinner? You can’t have it both ways he either made everything or he didn’t and if that includes sin, then he is responsible not me.' In the past this has probably been where the discussion has stopped, at least for that occasion – from my perspective, probably because I really had little more that I could throw into the ring. We haven’t revisited the subject for some years - our lives have diverged over time and John has lived overseas for some years. I do believe however that the door is still open and that some day we will pick up this conversation.

So how would I begin to address afresh this major question? Although I doubt that I can convince John, (and is it really my job to do that?) at least I can talk in a little more of an informed way as a result of my recent studies. I might commence with some comments about God as revealed in the Old Testament, the God whom Richard Dawkins describes as 'that nasty and spiteful little Israelite God.' I don't think Dawkins has really spent much time reading the OT,certainly I doubt he has approached it in anything other than on the most literal level, but that's another issue. I would suggest to John that the Israelites initially understood God in terms of their cultural setting, they were a minor tribe among some powerful nations with gods who required appeasement and who led their people to victory if they were pleased with them and abandoned them at other times. Fickle gods who were hard to read and placate and who in some cases demanded human sacrifice. I would suggest that Jahweh's dealing with Israel progressively revealed a faithful forgiving God, one who would turn aside his anger, who blessed a repentant people repeatedly, and sought to protect them. A God who warned them of the perils of wilful disobedience but as Abraham discovered at Sodom and Gomorrah and Jonah at Nineveh, here was a God who would go to great lengths to stay his judgement. I would say that the OT was not however the final word on the nature of God but that it strongly suggested that there was more to come. I would say that if Yahweh had designed evil or even allowed it, he also provided a solution or salvation from it and this is seen most perfectly through the incarnation through which he redeems humanity by taking on himself the penalty of sin and evil, breaking its power and hold on humanity and promising an eschatological ultimate vanquishing of evil and a restoration of all creation(a totally opposite outcome to one in which we could hold him accountable for or careless in regard to the problem of evil).

Developing the theme of the incarnation I would describe how in the person of Jesus, God shared our humanity, being tempted and suffering in all things like us if you like but also suffering uniquely the full force of evil expressed against him. At this point I would drop into the conversation reference to such landmark thinkers as Augustine and describe how he believed that evil was not a separate creation or even a separate reality, arguing that evil was rather the absence of God or the privation of the good intended by God, essentially evil was an unfortunate by-product of the exercise of human freewill and can't be ranged as a charge against God. Furthermore, pursuing Augustine's argument, to expect that God should intervene to deflect or mitigate the unfolding repercussions of human freewill - the bad choices, deliberate evil, evil arising from inaction or dereliction or cowardice in the face of wrong, would in effect make us mere robots or puppets, without any personal identity or true capacity for free will. I would note that the existence of evil is not a statement against the existence or character of God, but rather, evil can be an instrument which can be turned to achieve God's good purposes. There is no difficulty in finding many contemporary examples of people, Christian and non Christian, who triumph over great adversity and whose struggles result in outcomes /discoveries which not only define them but often benefit communities or humankind generally even if only by being exemplars. However, one needs to be sensitive as to how this argument is pursued. I would be keen to make some reference to Martin Luther and recognise his implacability against impassibility, offering the fact that Luther, unlike many of his contemporaries, held that as Christ suffered in his humanity, so he suffered in his divinity.

Of course, I would not be surprised if he were to counter at this point with something like, “I expect you are about to introduce the idea of Process Theology and refer to Bonhoeffer and Moltmann et al arguing the concept of a suffering God. But to what length can you take the concept of a suffering God before you render that deity divinely compromised or even impotent?” I might then reply, “well you are not the first or last person I expect to ask that question and maybe we need to accept that this is a work in progress”. This would probably be a good time in the discussion to return again to comment further on the person and teaching of Jesus Christ. The thrust of his teaching and ministry I would suggest, is clearly in opposition to evil at every level. His actions in healing, restoring life, exorcising demons and forgiving sins, are inarguably anti-evil. And his dealing with people caught in sin or despised by others because of perceived sin, was completely compassionate. At the same times, his trenchant opposition to institutional wrong, hypocrisy by authorities or persons trying to pass judgement on others and the exploitation of others, or putting barriers up to frustrate people finding forgiveness or compassion from religion, is clearly recorded in the Gospels for anyone to read. There can be little ground to suggest that God in any sense is in league with or accommodating of evil."

Thanks to Jon Mayne for this thought provoking response. Comments are very welcome.


Sing Chee said...

A agree - excellent response that covers lots of ground in a very concise manner. Whenever someone describes evil as "the absence of God", I can't help but think of this comic strip:

Paul the Grad Student said...

I enjoyed reading this.

Paul the Grad Student said...

Thanks for posting this.

AYoung said...

Nicely argued Jon. However, everyone says that the ability to have free will is the reason for our ability to do evil. That being said, why couldnt God give us free will without sin or evil? By saying we cannot have free will without sin is to limit God and say he is neither omnipotent or omniscient.

dy4health said...

God gave us a choice - either do right by observing His laws and instructions, or do wrong and suffer the consequences. This choice was given in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve chose to disobey, sin was born and mankind has suffered the consequences ever since. When we do wrong, we pay, sometimes dearly. Jon's article was well written.

JonM said...

Thanks to you all for the helpful comments. Of course, my arguments just scratch the surface of the subject and in real life, the discussion would likely have its own momentum and take me to less comfortable places, but that's fine too.

AndrewY , thanks for your thoughts to which I make the following initial response. Certainly it has long been held that the risk with humans having free will is that they might choose poorly or disobediently, as did Adam and Eve. As to what having freewill with the absence of evil might look like, we just can't say. I did recently read a logic based argument which suggested that God could have given us freewill and an absence of evil, I just don't know what use our freewill would be in that scenario, what would we be choosing between, a higher good and a lesser good maybe?

I would also like to comment on the idea of limiting God. While we would want to avoid any suggestion of confining or limiting God, there are scenarios in which it has been suggested God has been limited, albeit by his own choice. Primary among these is in Jesus. While we believe that Jesus is in the Father and that the Father is in Him, and that Jesus is truly and properly God, yet as the man Jesus, he could not be in all places at the one time, nor could he see all things past present and future and here is a critical one, Jesus was not impassible, for if he was, the whole claim/idea of the suffering Saviour, the Passion, even the death and resurrection are shredded. Clearly God in Jesus suffered so either he put aside his impassibility or God is by nature, a suffering God, in which case the classical theism view of God needs revision. So we have the statement by Paul in Phillipians 2: 6 & 7 where I read that Jesus put aside his glory, (I understand this as being the limiting bit), for the purpose of becoming human. Yet even in that state he remained divine. The limitation here is real but it is imposed by God upon himself in Christ. (Please don't ask how this can be).

I would also argue that though humanity is right now deserving of punishment for disobedience and sin, God has withheld a final judgement on humanity/all things, to allow the maximum opportunity for repentance and salvation, and this for no other reason than he chooses to stay his hand in mercy or in a sense limit himself by his own choice. Using that argument, could we not say that God allowed for the possibility of disobedience as part of our freewill, from Adam through to us, all the time having the rescue /redemption plan of Jesus in place, through which evil would be ultimately and completely defeated. Ultimately, in the new Heaven and new Earth, the restored creation of which we will be part, there will truly be a sinless place, where our choice is to do the perfect will of God.

AYoung said...

"there will truly be a sinless place, where our choice is to do the perfect will of God". Why not create that place to start off with instead of letting everyone fall short and endure eternal suffering in hell?

Another note as an aside... If people have free choice in this new earth then the choice to commit sin is still there under the guise of freewill. Christians who then say that evil and sin are necessary parts of freewill then must say that in the new earth everyone will be like robots as our choice for bad and our freewill shall be taken away.

Concerning another statement u made Jon, "There can be little ground to suggest that God in any sense is in league with or accommodating of evil". I would then like to focus your attention to 1 kings 22:22. Accordingly I must say that deceiving is supposed to be a trait of Satan.  I might also refer you to isaiah 45:7, everything comes from God, he creates both good and evil.

Glen O'Brien said...

It seems to me that it's a logical necessity that free will involves the power of contrary choice. If there is such a thing as a good act there must of necessity be such a thing as a bad act. So, could God have created beings who have free will but do not have the power to choose to do wrong? Logically, no.

The question of how we can have free will in heaven is a fascinating one. Doesn't it leave open the possibility of a lapse in heaven, contradicting the view of heaven as an eternal state of blessedness? The best response to the question I have heard hinges on the distinction between 'logical impossibility' and 'psychological impossibility.' Is it possible to sin in heaven? Since we have free will which necessarily involves the power of contrary choice the answer would seen to be 'yes' it is a logical possibility. However since heaven is a place whose inhabitants have been perfected in love, it is psychologically impossible for them to sin. Sin always involves the absence of love. To love God perfectly is to make sin against God psychologically if not logically impossible. Logically it is possible for me to kill my son but psychologically it is impossible because of the love I have for him. You may well ask, well how does this differ from the situation in the garden? The difference between the free will in the garden and the free will in heaven is that in the garden Adam and Eve were not in a state of holiness, but a state of innocence. The inhabitants of heaven will not be innocent but holy. It's an important distinction that helps resolve the problem.

Glen O'Brien said...

Just a follow through on AYoung's statement that "saying we cannot have free will without sin is to limit God and say he is neither omnipotent or omniscient."

Both omnipotence and omniscience need to be carefully understood. There are some things even an omnipotent being cannot do. God cannot lie. God cannot sin. God can do nothing that contradicts the essential nature of God. Neither can God create a triangle that has four sides or make 2+2 = 4. God cannot do what is contrary to the laws that God has put in place. So, God cannot create free beings who do not have the power to choose sin.

AYoung said...

"since heaven is a place whose inhabitants have been perfected in love, it is psychologically impossible for them to sin. Sin always involves the absence of love."

The first being to sin is actually Satan who was in heaven and holy. Why not make it psychologically impossible for us not to sin to start off with?
In short, no matter what is said in terms of evil or it's origins, God is supposed to make a place free of evil and sin at the end of time. Why didn't God create this place to start off with?

Also: To say that God cannot do something still limits God. I think it's better to say God chooses not to do something. You say that God cannot make something like a triangle have four sides because of laws he has imposed in this world. However God is not from this world, he created it, therefore he is not confined to the laws of nature as we feeble humans understand it. To say otherwise is to say God is confined by the same laws that humans are confined to which means that these laws were preexisting before God or that Gods creation limits God.

JonM said...

Hello Andrew,

I'm responding to an earlier question relating to 1 Kings 22:22. (the deceiving spirit), chapter 22 records an interesting story and verses 21 -22 is particularly intriguing . Something about the way in which 'the spirit' is described approaching the Lord caught my attention so I referred to an old friend ( Guthrie et al 'The New Bible Commentary Revised”). As I suspected, the commentary suggests that 'the spirit' is Satan and it made reference also to Job Chapts. 1 & 2 and Zechariah 3: 1 -2. for similar events. What I find intriguing in Micaiah's 'vision' as I assume that was what this was, he describes seeing the Lord releasing the spirit to go and put lies into the mouths of all the prophets to deliberately lure Ahab. Yet God still provided Ahab his own prophet (Micaiah) who Ahab actually sought out , to tell him the truth. In the end, although Ahab recognised that Micaiah was God's own man and reliable, he chose to be deceived and went into battle where he was killed..
Just as an aside, when Jesus was baptised by John he was taken into the wilderness by the spirit where he was tempted over 40 days by Satan with flattery and lies he however did not succumbed. It is intriguing to suppose that Satan must have believed that Jesus had the potential to succumb.

AYoung said...

I was thinking whether to include Job but that is more to do with God allowing Satan to inflict evils. This brings up another very interesting topic of why God deliberately allows suffering but that's another conversation waiting for us Jon.

One thing I noted from the kings passage it seems to take place in heaven. God is amongst a multitude of heavenly spirits and amongst them was the recording spirit. How could this spirit be Satan if God had cast out Satan and his followers?

The ever annoying AYoung said...

God is good. This means that there has to be a "contrary measure" as to what is evil. This means that before the fall God is neutral, not good and not bad, or, if he was Good then there must have been something opposite like an evil being to measure his goodness against. However, what is the definition of sin and evil? Evil is everything that is not God as only God is good. Therefore God cannot sin whether or not an opposite measure exists or not. Everything god does is considered good, not by his actions but because he is who he is. If God were to create disaster then it is Gods will and therefore ultimately Good. If man wants to create disaster then it is bad because it is not Gods will. That being said God has freewill. But he does not have sin. So in creating something that has a separate conscious and separate freewill from God, God is automatically creating an evil being that is made to sin and not follow him. Why should that creation be eternally punished by its creator? If we were created to be evil or our will is different to Gods then that is the creators doing and not our own? Or did he create us just to punish us?
On another note, the metaphor of clay in the potters hand is used alot in the bible. Most notably in Isaiah and Romans. We have no right as clay vessels on our construction or more knowledge than the creator. But how can a potter blame and punish the clay because of a flaw that the potter has created?

JonM said...

To the ever inquisitive A young,
I am negotiating around most of the content of your last post for the present, and will revisit these complex arguments another day. But for the sake of keeping engaged, would like to briefly comment on the references to 'the potter'.
I suspect you have blended a couple of pottering ideas into this one comment. There are several Isaiah references, 29:16, 45.:9 -10, 64:8. The Romans reference, 9:19 -21 is very similar in thrust to first two from Isaiah, all of which have as a theme the absurdity of the pot or the clay, questioning the wisdom or skill or right of the potter to design and make what he sees fit and applying that to the different historic situations which the writers are addressing. Isaiah 64:8 has a somewhat different approach, here the writer is recognising that same relationship while making an appeal to God for mercy through the analogy of the clay and the potter. Another use of the analogy occurs in Jeremiah . In this case, Jeremiah interprets his encounter with a potter at work. The potter is making a pot from clay but the form collapses. The potter starts again and re fashions the clay into another style or shape of pot. Jeremiah takes this as an analogy of God's relationship with Israel.. While Israel is obedient and malleable in his hands he can create with her, the best outcome, if Israel turns aside and disobeys God, all is not lost, he is still able to use her but the outcome may not be his first intention or hope for her. This is the message Jeremiah tries to bring to Israel before she is carried into captivity and dispersed. The suggestion then is that the failure is in the clay in this case (maybe it is too wet or has impurities in it), the potter has to amend his plan to take that into account rather than throw it out.

My comment.! As with analogies generally, including those in scripture they are often (maybe usually) situation specific. There is a limit to the message they are intended to give. Culturally however, we (westerners) have often tried to make the analogies and for that matter, the parables, say things which they probably were not intended to say – and use them for our own purposes and motives. I am happy to be corrected on this interpretation.

Anonymous said...

This was an interesting piece to read. Very nicely written.

Maybe everything is perfect and as it is meant to be.
The contrast allows us to desire more 'good' and continue in the creation and expansion on the universe.
We need the contrast to live in this reality. It's part of the way our universe works. It allows us to see what we don't want, and thereby create what we DO want.
We can direct our attention towards the positive or negative as we choose. That's the choice of free will.
Negativity is like the empty space. It's the positivity that flows.
God is the positive energy that we all have access to.

Steve said...

Hi Jon, I read your essay. Good work! I too think the question 'why does God allow evil' can be countered with the question 'why did God create beings - human and angels (including fallen angels) - with free will in the first place?' God would have saved Himself a lot of trouble by creating robots or puppets that simply obeyed! However, that would never have given Him any sort of relationship with His creation. That's why He has to take the bad with the good when it comes to free will. Evil, I would argue, exists because of the exercise of free will. That said, I'd rather have free will than be a mindless, servile robot.

JonM said...

Thanks Anon. for your kind comments and your blog.

I like some of your ideas, especially that we clearly have a choice in our response to the positive and negative we see or feel around us and also the idea that God is accessible to us all.

I would want however to understand better what you are meaning by your first statement. My understanding of what is being said in the suggestion that 'everything is perfect and as it should be' is to say that we exist within a dynamic which is an optimum state within which we are free to choose or influence outcomes. One question which arises for me in this scenario is, are there ultimate outcomes toward which the universe, or at least human society is intended to be moving. Or is it that there is no end outcome, an eternal open- endedness in which history ebbs and flows , sometimes toward the positive or good, at other times to the negative or evil, and no outcome is needed.

Another observation which I would want to explore is along the lines that is that the capacity we have for choice and self determination to which you refer. After thousands of years of human life/society on the earth, I think it would be not a difficult task to argue that we don't have that ideal of choice. At very least it is not distributed/available equitably. Far too many people in the world are so restricted culturally, socially and economically that their capacity to truly make choices which create a better world for themselves or those they love is equally restricted and often in real terms, completely denied them. Sadly, much of that restriction I note is imposed by others expressing/imposing their own 'right' to chose and live out their own self determination.

Thanks again for commenting on the earlier item and hope to hear from you again.

JonM said...

Thanks for your comments Steve. I agree ! The gift of free will exposes the giver to the risk of rejection and it exposes the rejector, to the consequences (whatever they might be) of a severed relationship. Thankfully, God made provision through Jesus even for our rejection.

Cheers. Hope to hear from you again.


JonM said...

Dear Anon,

Just picking up again on your earlier post (after a too long break), in particular I'm focusing on the idea in your first statement “everything (is)…. as it is meant to be”. The very suggestion of meaning in this scenario speaks to me of something beyond a force (even a positive force). For there to be meaning suggests to me the action or presence of a cosmic will, of intentionality and ultimately of personality. These characteristics suggest to me that the God whom we are considering is beyond the concept of pure force alone but has being.



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