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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Why Greater-Good Theodicies Fail: Interview with Bruce Little (part one)

We recently interviewed Bruce A. Little, Professor of Philosophy of Religion at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (SEBTS). Bruce is also a member of the Executive Committee of the EPS, and Director of the  Center for Faith and Culture at SEBTS. In part one of two of our interview below, Bruce talks about his latest book God, Why This Evil? (Hamilton Books, 2010), and his view about how and why "greater-good theodicies" fail.

How long have you been thinking about “problem of evil” issues?

The problem of evil has been an important issue for me for 20 years or more.

How were you drawn into this area?

Well, as you may know, I was a pastor for 30 years and it was in the pastorate that I wrestled with this issue up close.  People and Christians in particular  needed questions answered because often their world had been turned upside-down. Most often they were faithful men and women of God and they were trying to make sense out of some very difficult situations in either their lives or the lives of those they loved. So, this issue has never been just a theoretical matter—it was a struggle at the deepest existential and theological level.

Why this area?

As a pastor, I found suffering the most difficult issue to answer within the Chrsitian context. When a member came into the office, she was not just a problem to be solved, she was a human being who was in the midst of extreme emotional pain (and sometimes physical pain). She needed a word of healing and comfort. This was no time to use fancy religious phrases and give some kind of false assurance that everything would be okay. Over the years I think I have encounter some of the most difficult heart-wrenching episodes of suffering known to humanity. On the one hand I was committed to being biblical and at the same time understanding and helpful—I came to believe those were not mutually exclusive notions for the Christian. I had a counseling ministry for about 15 years within the church context and one encounters some very difficult situations .

How does your work on the problem of evil relate to your other interests in apologetics, philosophy and theology?

Let me begin with theology. I think the problem of evil touches almost every major doctrine in the Christian Faith. I teach a course titled “The Problem of Evil” hear at SEBTS and every semester students are amazed to see how this issues touches so many other Christian doctrines. Questions are raised that involve a discussion of creation, salvation, sovereignty, providence, love, omniscience and so forth.

As for philosophy, I think being able to think philosophically about this issue is very important as it helps to get the discussion to use the right categories and to avoid logical mistakes. For example, in the many discussions I have had on this issue I find people want to argue from what God might do with evil and suffering to explain why He allowed the evil. To me that is a logical mistake. Christians, in particular, fail to see the real issue.

The problem is not why there is evil in the world (that is answered clearly in the Bible), but how God is morally justified in ALLOWING  so much evil, especially the suffering of little children which appears to be totally gratuitous, all of this in light of the fact that He is Lord over His creation.  Beyond that, there are some deep philosophical questions that deal with the coherence of theism itself.

Regarding apologetics, the problem of evil continues to be the strongest defeater of the claim that God exists—at least that is how I see it. Christians need to provide an appropriate response to this question without being subversive to other important doctrines in the Christian.  I think Mackie raised some legitimate questions in this area as has William Rowe. Because I often lecture in universities in Eastern and Central Europe, I am confronted by atheists who argue against God using the argument from evil. Here are people who do not believe the Bible so we must find ways to respond to their objection on other grounds.

Suppose that a classical Christian theology of original sin is not merely a source of Christian belief but considered a source of knowledge about reality; indeed, knowledge about what is real about evil in the world. What difference should that make in discussions about theodicy?

Of course the doctrine of original sin does have something to say about the reality of man’s condition in the present state. If we take this seriously, it tells us that man as a true human being often makes very bad choices and the consequences of the choices are real. This gives us the REASON why there is so much suffering in the world---I do not mean to say that it is the only reason, but surely a reason for much of the evil the world.  That is to say, evil is the result of human beings using their power to choose to make some very bad decisions that often spell pain not only for themselves but for others as well.

However, we must understand that that is not the primary question for a theodicy. A theodicy deals with the question of why or how is God morally justified in ALLOWING so much evil which is often intense and unequally distributed. In addition there is the question of why God allows the children to suffer. After all, if God is all-loving and all-powerful as well as all-knowing, it would seem logical to conclude that this world should look a lot better than it does at present -- or so goes the argument.

A theodicy zooms out and looks at the larger picture, the picture given to us in the doctrine of creation to show that there are other God designed values that govern God’s interaction with His creation. I would say these other values are tied to the fact man is made in the image of God and in order for him to be free to be truly human, the order of creation must make this possible. For the Christian, our hope is in the Cross of Christ and His coming Kingdom. This is when the issue of sin and suffering will be banished from the environment of the redeemed and that is our Hope.

One of the major contributions of your book is the challenge that you present to so-called “greater-good theodicies.” We’ll cover that below and you've already begun to hint at it, but now I’d like to know what you think about the development of greater-good theodicies. What’s the historical context for developing these theodicies?

It seems clearly that Augustine puts forth the foundation for the greater-good theodicies. I think in part, Augustine was right when he said that is was better to have “a runaway horse than a stone.” His point was that it was better to have moral agents with creaturely freedom than not even if that creaturely freedom was used to go against God. It is his idea that God would only allow that evil into this world from which He could bring about a great good or prevent a worse evil that I question. The latter of course is, as I see it, without any merit. How would we know that a worse evil had been prevented since it never obtained—I am of the opinion man cannot know counterfactuals. Therefore, I think this idea is pure speculation. I think the former part lacks either biblical or evidential support. Of course that would be a much larger discussion that we have space for here, but it is an important part for rejecting the greater-good theodicy.

What are the common features that motivated the development of "greater-good theodicies"? development?

First, I believe all the best intentions are involved as Christians realize we must have an answer. Let me say, the problem of evil is a most difficult issue and I would readily admit that so I do not want to leave the impression that I have answered everything.  I would say existentially that Christians have been motivated by the best of intentions and an intuitive desire to give God honor, however, I am not sure that is what turns out to be the case. Theologically, I believe it is the view of God’s sovereignty that motivates the greater good justificatory framework.  It is a view that, in some cases at least, when taken to its logical conclusion teads to a very deterministic view of reality.  In general I would say that the idea that God is truly sovereign (that is as they apply that notion) leads them to conclude that meticulous providence requires that everything must have a purpose. If God is in control, then everything that  happens, happens for a purpose. In the greater-good theodicy, that purpose is the greater good. Personally, I think that holding to a orthodox view of sovereignty does not require that conclusion. That is a a case I try to make in the book.

How do the contemporary examples of the greater-good scheme develop? How do they compare/contrast to the thinking of Augustine, Aquinas and Leibniz on this matter?

Most develop on the foundation of Augustine’s thinking in terms of the greater good being the moral justification for God allowing evil to continue in His creation. However, not all take Augustine’s view of creation. For example, John Hick holds to the same view as Irenaeus. The difference here is how is named as the greater good---soul making. Others hold to some form of soul-making, but not to Irenaus’ view of creation. I would say that what we have seen over the last 50 years is an attempt to define what the greater good would be.

So, the difference is primarily in how the greater-good is defined, that is, what is the good. Understand, that when Christian’s make the claim that the evil happens for some great good, then the logical question is: “what is the good?” So, mostly that has been the work of contemporary theodicies. Of course that is not true of  all theodicies as one can think of Gregory Boyd’s theodicy—Satan and the Problem of Evil. One of the contributions made by Leibniz, at least in my view, was the idea that this is the best of all possible worlds. I know that not everybody wants to accept that, but I think it is an important piece in any theodicy. I do not want to appear to be saying that no one has done good work in the area of theodicy, just because they forward the greater-good justificatory framework. I have benefited much in reading other theodicies even if I do not agree with the basic premise. So, I am grateful to all who have contributed to this ongoing discussion.

What do you see are the main reasons why greater-good theodicies fail?

I think the greater-good theodicies fail in several ways.

First is that it seems to me that they make God responsible for evil. If the evil is allowed by God in order for a particular good to obtain, we must ask ourselves a couple questions. One would be, is the good that comes from the evil necessary to God’s plan? If it is, then the evil is also necessary which seems to me to lead directly to God planning evil. In fact, without the evil, a good necessary to the plan of God could not obtain. If we say that the good is not necessary to the plan of God, then we have the question still of why God allowed it. If it is the plan of God that the good obtain, we should ask is it possible for the good to obtain by some other means which does not require the evil. This would seem to lead to the conclusion that the evil is most arbitrary on God’s part. If the good is not necessary to the plan of God, then the greater-good explanation has lost is major premise. 

A second problem is that of social justice. If God permits the evil to bring about a good (which is necessary to the plan of God), then how do we explain the commands in the  Bible for believers to stand against evil. If the evil is stopped, then so is the good which means by obeying God we actually thwart the plan of God. For example, consider the matter of abortion. Since abortion is a reality and I would say an evil, we must conclude (under the reasoning of the greater-good) that God has allowed it for some good. If we stop the evil, we prevent the good.  If one argues that the good is that Christians stand against the evil, what is the answer when Christians do not stand against the evil and it continues unabated?  One can apply the same reasoning to slavery in the US.

A third would be how to determine how much good is necessary in order to justify the evil? How would that be measured and here I know of no cosmic scale that would serve such a purpose. It seems that it would follow that if good comes from evil the greater the evil the greater the good. Why should one not argue then that it is better to have a lot of evil than not have any evil, in fact, evil now results in good, so evil is good at least instrumentally. If good is measured in that fashion, good is relative. Something in all of this strikes me as being convoluted. It is similar to the argument of Romans 6 where Paul asks if we should sin that grace might abound. His answer is God forbid.

Fourth (there are other reasons I think the greater-good fails, but these four will be enough for now), the greater-good seems to place the Christian in the position of showing the good that obtained from the evil (an inductive approach). In fact, as I said earlier, that is what many are attempting to do which I find very unconvincing as a support for the greater-good theodicy. This is especially true with such evils as Stalin’s slaughter of upwards to 60 million people. If the good is always larger than the evil, then surely no one should have missed the good, but alas it is not so as we cannot point to any sizable good in that case. The greater-good denies that any evil/suffering is possibly gratuitous, that all evil/suffering has a purpose which is some greater good. If this is so, then we should be able to show the evidence that supports the claim. This I think cannot be done and hence undermines the greater-good explanation. Of course, I think if we could find a verse in the Bible that states this to be the case, then we should accept the greater-good. However, I am unconvinced that any such verse can be found. I want to be clear here, I am not saying that God never brings good out of evil, but that is entirely different from saying that that is the moral grounds on which he allowed the evil. Further, I would say that in those cases that God does so in spite of the evil, not because of the evil.

Part two of our interview can be found here. You can learn more about Bruce Little by visiting his website

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Blogger Tron said:

Bruce Little was interviewed on Apologetics315 on this topic here.

By Blogger Tron, at November 22, 2010 at 12:58 PM  

Blogger Carolin said:

The authors’ statement that we know WHY there is evil (based on scripture) but we don't know HOW God is morally justified in ALLOWING it, is the major dilemma for Lee and all theists. There needs to be a corresponding link between the WHY and HOW otherwise we are serving a Moral Monster (Copan). I think Lee limits the effectiveness of the Greater Good argument by confusing Purpose and Providence. If humans can not see the purpose for a specific evil, or know the counterfactuals, then God is not morally justified for permitting it. Therefore in his opinion the Greater Good argument fails. From this one could argue, if God has plans, and if God’s plans are not good, then God is not good. He fails to mention Plantiga’s “no see um” argument. Just because we can’t see the reason doesn’t mean that no reason exists. We are now arguing about what can or can’t be known. He wants to maintain God’s sovereignty while removing purpose, or motive, from acts of evil. (To say that everything doesn’t have a purpose seems fine as long as you are referring to actions which don’t require motive.)He also states that if Good is larger than evil, then we should see it. Couldn’t you also state that if God is Provident, then we should see Him? The reference to Augustine who is arguing for free will is important. I think that the author limits this by stating that free will is good; in spite of the evil that results; if and only if, it could be seen to bring about a greater good or prevent a greater good, is missing the point. The greater good is free will. Free will is the providential purpose which incorporates both the why and the how. God is morally justified in allowing evil for the sake of the greater good of free will. This is the best possible world.

By Blogger Carolin, at December 11, 2010 at 11:30 AM  

Blogger sensical1 said:

i suggest reading his book to better understand his criticisms of greater-good theodicies. he addresses much of what you object to and interacts with authors and lays out and reasons through the assumptions for the positions that have been proposed historically. after doing so i believe that it is better understood that he doesn't so much deny the efficacy of many rebuttals made to criticisms of greater-good theodocies, he is stating that it still essentially results in an incoherent view of God, providence, and evil.

By Blogger sensical1, at September 15, 2011 at 8:31 AM  

Blogger uchitrakar said:

I think so far nobody has been able to properly tackle the problem of evil. If God is good, then why is there so much evil? The answer mostly given by the theists is just the one we read here: God wanted us to have free will. But having free will means having freedom to choose between good and evil. But if there is no evil, then there is no more freedom of choice for us. Thus we are not actually free. Therefore evil must have to be there in order that we may have free will.

But the real story is something else. Evil is there not because God has given man free will, but because God is fully free. God is fully free means God has got full freedom to create. Similarly He has got full freedom not to create. But a good God can never have freedom not to create, because in order to do justice to His own good nature a good God is always bound to create, and thus He is not fully free. How can a good God be called good if He cannot do any good to anybody? So, in order to do good to others a good God will always be bound to create others. So He can never have freedom not to create.

Similarly it can be shown that neither can an evil God have freedom not to create. An evil God cannot be properly called evil if He fails to do any evil to others. But if God wants to do evil to others, then first of all there will have to be others. So here also He is always bound to create for doing justice to His evil nature.

But for a God who is neither good nor evil there is no such binding that He will always have to create. Here He can freely decide whether He will create or not. Thus a really free God is neither good nor evil. Like Hindu's Brahman He is beyond good and evil.

Now, if we accept that God is fully free, then we will have to admit that He is neither good nor evil. In a universe that has originated from a God who is neither good nor evil there will always be good as well as evil, as there will always be positive energy as well as negative energy in a universe that has originated from zero energy.

Most of the theists frequently claim that their God is all-powerful. But actually they pretend as if they are more powerful than their all-powerful God. That is why by labeling their God as all-good they dare to curtail God's own freedom, His freedom not to create.

By Blogger uchitrakar, at December 26, 2011 at 11:09 AM  

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