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EPS Blog

This is the blog area for the Evangelical Philosophical Society and its journal, Philosophia Christi.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Another Consideration for the Problem of Evil

I am currently writing a book on the problem of evil. No doubt this is a monumental task, and I'll admit I probably will not be completely satisfied with the final result. That nothwithstanding, something has come to my attention concerning the literature ranging over the evidential problem of evil. We recall the famous article by William Rowe (1979) entitled "The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism." His argument (simplified) is that an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent God is unlikely given the extent, distribution, and apparent existence of gratuitous evil. Of course, by gratuitous it is generally agreed that these are evils where no outweighing good results as a consequence of their having obtained. The vast majority of the literature in response to Rowe centers on a debate as to whether or not we can understand the reasons God has for allowing certain instances of evil to occur (often called theistic skepticism). Would we expect, given our finitude, to understand all of God's ways and workings in creation--or is it more reasonable to believe that there are goods "beyond our ken" that only God apprehends that result from evil having occurred? Many suggestions as to what God is up to have resulted, ranging from various free will theodicies, soul making theodicies, or even eschatological theodicies (or perhaps some combination of these). Admittedly, I still do not understand the need for resulting goods from evil to be "outweighing" goods (perhaps someone can enlighten me). In terms of the consequences of actions, it seems that God can remunerate a "matching" good for the harm done, and that be a sufficient response to the problem (if in fact the matching goods theory were worked out--which is not what I'm doing here).

My observation is that there is an underlying assumption in the evidential argument that provides its force, namely that God has some obligation (moral) toward his creation that binds Him to act in ways that correlate to human relationships. In an excellent article entitled "The Persistent Problem of Evil," Bruce Russell argues the following:

1. If God exists, then nothing happens which he should have prevented from happening.
2. If something happens that any human moral agent should have prevented if he knew about it and could have prevented it without serious risk to himself or others, then something happens which God should have prevented from happening.
3. Something has happened that any human moral agent should have prevented if he knew about it and could have prevented it without risk to himself or others.
4. Therefore, God does not exist. (the numbering of the propositions is changed for our purposes).

Of course, the critical premise is 2, and in the rest of my post I want to offer an initial line of thought (admittedly sketchy at this point) to respond to Russell. Rather than worry about the problem of outweighing goods, my concern is to ask "in what sense is God obligated to any of His creatures?" If there is no account of divine obligation, then we have sufficient reason to reject premise 2, and with it goes the rest of Russell's argument.

Obviously we cannot obligate God in any meaningful sense. We do not have the status to legislate the moral values of actions to Him. The only account of divine obligation that makes any sense is that God obligates Himself to certain actions, and perhaps this obligation obtains as a result of His covenant or promises. But such a contruel is far from clear, and I think part of the confusion rests on conflating what is "good" with what is "right". In perfect being parlance God is the sum of all perfections, His goodness is perfect. I understand this to mean that when he promises to work in a certain way (say, to bless Abraham as a result of His covenant with him) He will do what He says He will do. But more importantly, God does not need the force of an obligation to "draw" Him to fulfill His word. If God needed the force of an obligation to carry through with His promises, then that would imply a defect in His character--in effect saying that He doesn't want to fulfill His promises, but will since He promised. Such a defect would give us reason to doubt his goodness (which is ontological), and to provide a moral injuction binding Him to His word (which would be deontological).

Thomas Morris provides a helpful distinction between an agent acting "under a rule" and acting "in accord with a rule." (see his excellent introduction to philosophical theology called Our Idea of God. For a good buy see Amazon at Acting in accord with a rule means an agent carries out actions without any need of external motivation (such as a moral injunction). Acting under a rule speaks of when an agent requires the force of an injunction to carry out what they have said they will do. In other words, moral obligation only obtains on morally defective agents. God, being perfectly good, has no moral obligations. Therefore, saying that God should bring about an outweighing good implies that He is morally obligated to act in just such a way--a notion, I contend, is incoherent (contra premise 2).

Again, these thoughts are preliminary, but I think if they can be developed more sufficiently, then a different undermining objection to the evidential argument is on the horizon.


Blogger Dr. Russell Norman Murray said:

Thanks for the read Jeremy.

I am new to the EPS, and received a link to this blog via email.

I went through your post and commented within one of my two theology blog's (the one I am posting with) most recent article in comments. I have been interacting with my readers concerning theodicy and other subjects.

I hold to a sovereignty theodicy and have a PhD viva on the subject in January at Wales. I also worked on an MPhil thesis on the same subject.

All the best with the book.

Russ Murray


satire and theology


By Blogger Dr. Russell Norman Murray, at December 19, 2008 at 1:11 AM  

Blogger Jay said:

Here's my solution:

Before the fall animals, along with Adam and Eve, experienced God's goodness not as a response to their demerit but still without deserving it. You cannot deserve as a non-being, to be created and put in a lavish garden to have all your needs met. So, before Adam and eve sinned the animals as well as Adam and Eve lived on grace. Grace is something that not even the animals deserve. Grace by definition is getting something good that we don't deserve and therefore, God is never obligated to treat animals or humans with any kind of grace, whether it's common grace or saving grace. If He was it wouldn't be grace. So, God does nothing wrong by withholding grace. The charge of injustice on God's part can't even arise because we are talking about grace. God is never obligated to show grace. For grace to be grace it must be freely given. So, when God allows humans and animals to suffer He does nothing wrong. God obviously has many rights and prerogatives that we do not. He's the Creator we are the creatures. He is the Judge, and we are not. Vengeance belongs to the Lord. He alone is God.

Not that God never shows us any grace. The Bible says that God promises to cause all things to work together for good for those that love Him. His promises can be fulfilled 2 seconds from now or 100,000,000 years from now when our life on earth is over and we are in heaven. The point is that He will eventually fulfill His promises either here on earth or in heaven.

So, to sum up, God is never obligated to show grace to His creation. If He was it wouldn't be grace. Nothing and nobody deserves His grace so He does nothing wrong in withholding His grace and allowing evil and suffering. Since He's the Creator He has many rights and prerogatives that we do not. He alone is God. His sovereign will where He causes all things to work together for good for those that love Him is hidden in mystery to us. We as His creatures do not know His sovereign or hidden will neither do we follow it. Rather we follow God's revealed will such as loving your neibor as yourself and loving Him above all else.

By Blogger Jay, at January 13, 2009 at 7:11 PM  

Blogger Steven Carr said:

Is God obliged to save children being gassed to death by Nazis?

Or is God, being God, unable to do anything other than save children from being gassed, in the same way that a triangle is unable to do anything other than have 3 sides?

Would it be an evil for God to allow human beings to write Biblical texts that he had no hand in inspiring?

As finite human beings, are we in a position to know whether or not God would allow the evil of texts to be written that he had no hand in inspiring?

By Blogger Steven Carr, at January 18, 2009 at 8:18 AM  

Blogger Jay said:

No He's not obligated. Let me just add that He has a good reason for allowing such things. I just don't know what it is. To know that I would have to be God and I'm not God.

By Blogger Jay, at January 23, 2009 at 7:22 PM  

Blogger Jeremy Evans said:

I want to ask a question to Steven Carr, especially since it's difficult to determine whether or not his questions were rhetorical. If God has obligations, from where are these obligations derived? In my first post, I gave (albeit brief) suggestions as to why I thought God has no obligations. Then I provided an account of why separating concepts of "good" and "right" were important category distinctions (morally and ontologically). You seem to think God has obligations, so I'm curious as to your thoughts on the origin of these obligations. I look forward to your post, and hope you are well.

By Blogger Jeremy Evans, at January 26, 2009 at 12:01 PM  

Blogger Edwardtbabinski said:


Are you suggesting that God can act as indifferently toward the cosmos and life in it as He wishes? How is that different from how the cosmos acts on its own? Aren't you justifying atheism and then simply calling it theism? Or justifying a God so hidden it might as well be an atheistic cosmos?

Side note, when I look at the photos of the cold empty planets and moon in our solar system and see photos of more distant stars and galaxies, I shiver a bit at those cold empty barren places, and see life on earth as being but a spark in a cosmos of death, with life on earth also being quite temporal and mortal, via indivual death, slow extinction, or even mass extinction events. Life appears to exist only as an infinitesimal spot in a cosmos of death, and in equilibrium with all that non-life around it.

The ancient Hebrew cosmos was so much cozier, with a world of living things created on a firm flat cosmos, everything held in place by God, the sky, and waters held back by God, with heaven being directly overheard and God in control (though of course God/gods devoured people with lightning bolts (Job), pestilences, famines, invading armies, or at least that is how the ancients interpreted their misfortunes). But knowing the cosmos as it is today where in the geological record of mass extinctions do we see God in control? Neither is God directly overhead, he does not bow the heavens and come down as in the tower of Babel days.

By Blogger Edwardtbabinski, at November 2, 2009 at 9:59 AM  

Blogger Toma Que Tomás ('Mash) said:

Or Edward, the earth was made as an island in the vast sea of "emptiness" as a witness to the extent of the focus of God's grace.

I have thought many times whether there are parallel realities where God displays his character in a different way other then the incarnation and the cross. But I cannot, or do not have the capacity to imagine it. The redemptive history of this island planet, the interaction between God and human is the grandeur of the magnificence of the focal grace of God and the vast unmeasurable extent of it.

More so God delights in and cannot do anything but glorify himself. The problem of evil is so that man when given a choice to choose between right wrong; by choosing right glorifies God because God is chosen over and above the creations desires. And not only that but it is only through God's given power man has the ability to choose any right in the first place. Thus God is doubly glorified for being chosen over sinful desires and for providing the means for us to choose God over sinful desires. More so I believe the results of our choices all lead back to glorify God by humbling creation and driving it to repentance. And not forgetting that this current existence is but a drop in the ocean of the eternity to come which is promised over and over again.

God has provided and provides us with all the means to glorify him and enjoy him now and in the promised eternity to come.

By Blogger Toma Que Tomás ('Mash), at November 3, 2009 at 2:33 AM  

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