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Evil – A Primer

evil [ē-vəl] (n., adj., adv.):

1.       morally wrong or bad;  wicked.

2.       harm due to actual or imputed bad conduct or character.

3.       anything causing injury, harm, misfortune or suffering.

The word evil connotes a negative judgment about some event, idea, action, etc. Usually with a moral component, per the first two definitions, above. To do that meaningfully there needs to be an understood standard – a definition of good – against which the assessment of evil applies. For Theists, and specifically Adventist Christians, this goodness is either defined by, or perfectly exemplified by – God[1]. When the idea of a perfect God comes into play – one with the qualities of: all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving – the idea of evil becomes the Problem of Evil (POE). And thus a need for answers – which can produce various defenses of God, called Theodicies[2].

The problem is a collision between: 1) a perfect God, and 2) the (apparently) inescapable fact that “bad” things happen in our world. One of the earliest, yet still often referenced, statements of the problem is attributed to the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who wrote:

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”

Before considering this head-on I first assert that the POE is not peripheral to one’s Christianity – not some “angels dancing on pinheads” type of issue. Indeed, if you tune your ears to the frequency, you will hear this question (albeit without the label) asked over and over in religious circles, usually in informal settings, like Sabbath School, foyer conversations, potlucks, etc. In my experience it typically gets raised quizzically, with resignation or mild distress. Rarely have I heard anything resembling answers in such situations. Some personal, contextual version of the problem is spoken out loud, hangs in the air momentarily, and we move on after a short, awkward silence. Further, in my (now many) years of Adventist church attendance I can count on one fist the number of sermons I have heard that directly address the POE. Now, I am sure there are sermons and pastors who have done so and I also have a collection of books by Christian authors speaking to the problem. But, I claim, substantive consideration of the POE – however named – is rare in church settings. If I am right, why is that?

The questions are piling up. But indulge me a brief additional delay, for further definition and clarification. Both parts of the POE – “Problem” and “Evil” – can be subdivided. There is the pastoral Problem and the philosophical Problem[3]. When people experience bad things they need both comfort and answers. The comforting is a pastoral task – whether or not it is performed by clergy. You lose your job, your spouse is unfaithful, you have a serious illness. Such hurtful experiences provoke a need for comfort and we often seek out those who might help. How best to help such sufferers is a different issue than how to answer Epicurus. I will restrict my focus, below, to the searching-for-answers part. Next, Evil conceptually may be separated into Moral Evil and Natural Evil. Moral Evil involves the bad acts of people – such as theft, infidelity or murder. Natural Evil is the category we sometimes loosely call “acts of God” – tornadoes, fires, tsunamis, etc. Both will be considered here.

Now, I left two questions hanging:

1) How to answer the problem posed by Epicurus and others (or are there any answers)?

2) Why do we rarely address the problem in Christian circles?

The second question is easier, I think. If we had good answers there would be more discussion about the POE. But the reality (so say I) is that there are no fully satisfying answers, and if we think there are it’s because we haven’t thought about it hard enough.  Everyone would like simplicity and certainty in a confusing world. But when we do not get quick resolution to our dilemmas and doubts we have some difficult choices. The two endpoints of the response continuum are: 1) we can double-down on the yearning for certainty/simplicity by denial and defensiveness; or 2) we can live with (at least) temporary ambiguity and spend time searching for answers. In practice I think people choose a varying mixture of both.

But denominations exist in part because they claim to have superior theology to the competition. And this type of allure demands that its apologists proclaim the denominational version of the God story with confidence. This can have the unfortunate unintended consequence of papering over difficulties so as not to confuse seekers and possibly prevent them from making an important decision for God. The trouble is, this simplifying move, while perhaps appropriate for novices (i.e. “milk” not “meat”[4]) carries over too often into general church life – and venues there for dealing with hard questions are few. Add to that a widespread human aversion to ambiguity and everyone’s natural intellectual laziness (certainly including me) and you have a church populace with a high percentage who too often opt for comfortable oversimplification instead of admitting uncomfortable, even distressing, complexity and ambiguity.

Be that as it may. But obviously, the better  the answers, the less ambiguity and distress. So let me now turn to the Philosophical POE.

The best exposition I have found of the issues and answers is a book by philosopher Peter van Ingwagen, entitled (surprise!) “The Problem of Evil”. It is concise, dense – yet surprisingly readable, and (unfortunately) expensive. In the space remaining I will be implicitly referencing van Inwagen in trying to peel back the complexity.

The most helpful (to me, anyway) beginning is to recognize the assertions and rebuttals ought to be structured as a formal argument – which is quite different from the idea of tuxedoed people getting into a verbal fight when they disagree (smile). Conceptually a formal argument begins with some disputed statement of position-as-truth, made by its proponent, and is responded to with an initial push-back by the opponent, who gives reasons against the opening position-statement. This is followed by a series of alternating rebuttal attempts from each side, intending to show why the previous rebuttal is, itself, problematic. The “jury” in this exercise is supposed to be a group of “pure” agnostics – people who observe the conversation without any initial bias toward either position.

A useful analogy for this back-and-forth process is a baseball game, where first one team bats then the other – each trying to score. One can somewhat naturally fit the arguments found in the whole POE discussion into this form. So let’s proceed that way.

1A: top of the first inning) the POE position (contra Theism) “bats” first and presents the argument, per Epicurus, quoted above. What then is a quality counter-argument?

1B: bottom of the first) the initial response is usually what is called the “Free-will Defense”[5] (FWD) which says God allows humans freedom but is not responsible for what they do with it, just for the allowance. And, since created beings thus can and have sinned, it is their abuse of this freedom that is the root cause of evil. God’s allowance is legitimate, even laudable, since freedom is a necessary prerequisite for love. And the need for a love-based universe trumps and legitimates any risk.

As an aside, let me note here that IMO this is a powerful counter-argument to the initial POE statement, and has been viewed so historically. Further, when on the rare occasions I have witnessed church-based conversation on the POE, where tentative answers are actually proposed, they have invariably centered on the FWD. Unfortunately the response almost always stops here, usually with the tacit assumption that a FWD is sufficient. That is where I personally get frustrated because it seems like such a move tries to justify avoidance of harder, deeper aspects and tries to reduce the POE to a more satisfying over-simplification.

2A: top of the second) the POE position will not be that easily satisfied, and thus if Theists (and I include myself) wish to be persuasive, even to themselves, they must contend with further and harder parts of the problem. And at this point the issue of Natural Evil gets introduced. The POE position says: what about earthquakes, birth defects, famine, etc.? These natural evils seem to be rooted outside a perversion of creaturely will, i.e. some kind of sinning. The FWD is therefore inadequate for this type of evil.

2B: bottom of the second) The most frequent response at this point is to deny that natural evil is actually independent of moral evil, but instead a consequence of it. To get here it is necessary to back up the sin issue from the point in time where humanity fell from grace (identified by the Garden of Eden story), to where sin originated in the universe – Lucifer’s fall[6]. The argument is that Satan was exiled on the Earth and God withdrew His protection from this planet at that point in time – including protection from any natural consequences of Satan’s rebellion. This would include allowing nature to decay – producing not just death but disease and violent planetary events, like earthquakes or tornadoes. It would also cover unintended physical consequences from sin-mingled human activity, like Global Warming, STDs, building collapses due to design flaws or code violations, agricultural failures rooted in corrupt political choices, etc. Now, why God might choose to allow such domino effects is, of course, problematic. This is usually explained by appealing to a need to persuade unfallen beings elsewhere in the universe that sin is a very bad thing and is something they should never contemplate – as its consequences are so severe.

3A: top of the third) Persuading an uncommitted observer to accept argument 2B is, I believe, much more complicated and less successful  than accepting Argument 1B – the FWD. And, in my reading of papers and articles where these things are considered, there is much pushback by God-skeptics for whom 2B sounds a lot like wishful thinking or even desperation. But the dominant reason they are somewhat unimpressed is now presented in the 3A argument: the issue of “overkill” – evil in quantity and duration. Why, says the argument, is so much badness allowed, and why has it gone on for so long? If the idea is to demonstrate the heinousness of sin to the universe, wouldn’t you think they would “get it” by now? How stupid must they be if they haven’t yet figured it out and thus this awful demonstration has to continue? Plus, so much evil (especially the natural variety) seems to be gratuitous – i.e. serving no obvious purpose[7] in meeting the ostensible goal of showing the remaining, still-sinless, non-Earth populace  (the presumed “jury” here) that they should personally reject the option of sinning while still retaining their free will.

3B: bottom of the third) I hope you can see that the arguments and responses – for both sides – are getting less compelling and more complicated. Thus the audience is likely to be splitting off at various points with a wide variety of “yeah but” reactions, and consensus toward some happy ending (theodicy) for the Theist-leaning, or an equivalent slam-dunk rejecting of God’s existence for the Atheist-leaning – is less and less likely. Our “jury” ought to be (and I think is) – conflicted. But the 3B response moves toward the unsatisfying (but inevitable) Argument From Transcendence (AFT). What, says the God-defense “attorney”, is really enough? Should God, for example, save one more deer in a particular natural-evil forest fire (e.g. Rowe’s fawn) whose presumed reason for dying horribly to demonstrate evil – is so marginal? Ok then, let’s have God save that one animal. Not needed to persuade the jury. Then the question (reminiscent of Abraham’s pleading for Sodom[8]) becomes – how much evil can be reduced before the full, stark consequences are too obscured?  And, is God to be faulted if He steps back to let the world “run” basically without divine intervention (except for the occasional miracle)? Plus, since we are not God – thus we lack a God’s Eye View – how do we know that we see enough of the whole picture to validly critique how much intensity and duration this presumed sin-demonstration should include? This point leans on the Argument From Ignorance (AFI), which often shows up in parallel to the AFT.

Such a response is, at minimum, unsatisfying. To one inclined toward skepticism (let alone some “pure” agnostic) this can seem like Theist desperation. But, at some point, for honesty’s sake, one ought to concede our general ignorance, lack of perspective and struggles to adequately understand deep concepts like love, freedom and evil. Still, it is clearer that, because we are mired in such a difficult subject, there are no handy, satisfying one-liner answers to give in some Sabbath School discussion setting. So the POE becomes the church’s “elephant in the corner”.

Ok, I will arbitrarily stop now after three over-simplified “innings”, even though I fear the anti-Theism position appears to be ahead. But perhaps not. The AFT and AFI responses always sound weak – I will suggest – because it appears like all we are doing is engaging in wishfulness for a good God. But demanding closure and simplicity for deep problems is also a mistake. And rushing to an anti-God conclusion when no easy, satisfying pro-God argument is produced – also exemplifies the Argument From Ignorance.

Finally, I am not seeking, in this article, to persuade anyone pro or con regarding the POE. Frustratingly for some perhaps, I may appear to be an insufficient apologist for the pro-God position – to which I claim membership. My modest aims however are to encourage readers to: 1) not run away from thinking about this critical problem; 2) appreciate how complex it is; 3) avoid simple and unsatisfactory partial answers – which a thoughtful skeptic will understandably reject; and 4) better understand where the focus of our attention ought to be – not merely the FWD, but in the issues raised in the “third inning”. To these ends, I hope I have modestly contributed some value.



[1] There is significant dispute and confusion about which of these options is the correct starting point – as explored by Plato in his dialog: “The Euthyphro”.

[3] Sometimes this is called the Logical Problem of Evil, because we are abstracting the problem away from specific, painful human situations and dealing strictly with the logical argument.

[4] “I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it.” – 1 Cor. 3:2, NIV.

[7] The classic expression of this point is known as “Rowe’s Fawn” argument, after the philosopher William Rowe’s thought experiment in a 1979 paper “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism”. Follow the hyperlink to read the actual paper, or a tighter summary can be found a few paragraphs into this web page: http://uprightbipedalist.tumblr.com/post/23700762248/rowes-fawn-theodicy-and-the-problem-of-evil.

[8] Gen 18:16-33.

 

Rich Hannon is Columns Editor for SpectrumMagazine.org.

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