Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Problem of Evil and Hostile Surroundings

The Problem of Evil

     I’m currently engaged in a discussion with an atheist concerning the problem of evil. This specific problem of evil emphasizes that the amount of unnecessary evil in the world makes it unlikely that God exists. Usually if the probabilistic version of the problem of evil is used, then it’s a concession that the logical version (i.e. attempting to reveal a logical contradiction between the existence of God and evil) fails. The conclusion that follows from the probabilistic version, that God is unlikely to exist, can serve as additional warrant for soft atheism (agnosticism), and serves as a potential premise for hard atheism (“God does not exist”). A successful defeater of the probabilistic version weakens the warrant the agnostic (non-theist) might have for their lack of belief in God.

     As is evident from my current discussion, the probabilistic version of the problem of evil is weak against two defeaters depending on how the atheist argues. First, if the atheist attempts to use the term ‘unnecessary evil’, then he or she must be able to provide an account that explains how they distinguish between unnecessary evil and necessary evil. In other words, what criterion can the atheist use that can be applied to evil events in the world such that event P can be assigned the property unnecessary evil, and event Q the property necessary evil?  If atheism is true, then it would appear that all evil is unnecessary (along with reality as a whole), but to use this as a premise for the problem of evil actually begs the question. The only other option the atheist can take is to provide facts that would show that some evil event is pointless; but how would he do this? In order to show that a particular evil event is pointless (unnecessary), the atheist must be able to demonstrate that the alleged pointless evil event cannot yield a greater good or is excessive to some end. But in order to stake a claim like that, the atheist must be able to know the truth value of future tense propositions (counter-factuals). However, since no human being can know the future, then neither can the atheist know that an evil event is pointless. The theist, however, doesn’t argue from the bottom up, but instead argues in this fashion: Given that God exists, the effects of any current evil event serves to bring about a greater good. Therefore, unnecessary evil doesn’t exist.

      The second defeater for the probabilistic problem of evil follows from the abandonment of the term ‘unnecessary evil’.  The atheist might say that the amount of evil in the world makes it unlikely that God exists, for He could have chosen a path that yielded as much good, but with less suffering.  But it remains dubious how the atheist, through his inductive observations, can declare what is and isn’t excessive evil without already knowing the moral ends in question. Although the atheist can fathom a reduction of evil from an actual evil event, it says nothing about whether such an option is feasible for God. Sure, a city block full of people with headaches seems like a large amount of evil that can be reduced.  The atheist’s possible solution? Give everyone Tylenol.  But the theist only has to offer one possibly true example to show that this solution may not be a feasible solution for God. For example, giving Tylenol to someone causes them to get better, rise early, get in the car, and head to work. However, it’s possible that on the way to work the driver crashes into a school bus killing 15 children, a worse evil. Because a worse evil comes about, God prefers to prevent that person from receiving Tylenol.  Although humans cannot say for sure which future tense propositions are true, God, who possesses foreknowledge, and can assess the truth value of counter-factuals, can do so. Excessive evil, then, turns out to fail in the same manner that unnecessary evil did in the first defeater.

Why the Universe is Hostile

     But despite the fact that the theist can adequately evade the problem of evil, there still remains a tricky issue concerning natural evil.  Atheists have argued that the universe is too hostile for us humans and that an all-loving and good God wouldn’t (shouldn’t) have made it that way. Although an earthquake may serve as a means for God to deal judgment, or further His will, it doesn’t explain why earthquakes even exist alongside of human beings to begin with (it’s not as though God needs earthquakes to punish people when he can just snuff out their existence). Earthquakes and the like were chosen with the knowledge that they would kill human beings. Therefore, says the atheist, God is directly responsible for natural evil since He could have designed the universe in a less hostile way.

     This certainly has some force. It’s one thing to explain evil as the actions of free willing human beings, and another thing to explain why the stage, so to speak, tries to kill the actors. However, I think the Christian can respond in the following way:

“And He saw that it was very good.” –Genesis 1:31

     This verse can start us off with a possible response. After all, there is nothing inherently ‘evil’ about earthquakes, floods, and fires. In fact, even if humans are within the vicinity of an earthquake or flood, one would be hard pressed to call that evil. It’s only when a human is injured or killed that we call it an evil event. Although not explicitly mentioned in Genesis, there are good reasons to suggest that these natural forces did exist while humans were created.  So when did the natural world become evil in relation to human beings? Genesis tells us that the world as Adam and Eve knew it was changed forever; God explained it to Adam:  cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field.”( Gen 1:17-18)

     The question becomes, why did the natural world become hostile towards humanity? Although some of creation was corrupted as a result (introduction of disease and ‘thorns’), earthquakes and the like didn’t change in form. What happened, I argue, is that Adam and Eve lost the foundation for a proper relationship with God: faith. Man from that point gained a wisdom that made it more likely to rely on himself rather than God. If Adam and Eve hadn’t sinned, then they would have remained in communion with God in such a way that their faith would have protected them from severe injury or death. It’s questionable whether the fruit had any special properties that gave them this wisdom; It could be that the command, “Do not eat from the tree”, combined with the Serpent’s cunning ability to bring Eve to doubt God’s authority, caused this wisdom to come about. Evil, after all, is fundamentally the rejection of intended purpose, and doubting God’s good command forced an existential decision in Eve’s mind. Choosing to eat the fruit was akin to relying on oneself, rather than God. With man’s limited knowledge of the natural world, and his ignorance of the future, he walks into nature with clouded eyes that can lead him into danger. Moreover, humans were assigned the honor of being stewards of the Earth, so the introduction of diseases into the world can be explained by some casual connection between man’s sin and the world he was supposed to take care of. The expression, “A happy gardener is a healthy garden” seems to apply here.  

    But this doesn’t explain why there is danger to begin with. Couldn’t God have made a world that lacked such hazards? Does creation need earthquakes and floods? I’m sure that God could have made a world, a physical world, which was essentially fixed, such that no hazards could exist. After all, God created angels, which are spiritual beings with no experience of earthquakes in that realm. But I think we need to look at God not only as an engineer, but as an artist who takes pleasure in what He creates.  After all, it is one thing to ask, “Why did God allow an earthquake to kill hundreds of people”, and another to ask “Why did God create earthquakes to begin with?” The former can be answered by refuting the presuppositions in the problem of evil (see above). The latter question is answered by noticing that the physical world isn’t inherently evil (an inanimate object cannot be), nor does evil emerge when humanity is set alongside it (for all of creation, the six days, were good).  The assumption here is that God would have allowed earthquakes, fires, and floods to kill humans prior to the Fall. Since there was no evil tainting humanity at that point, there would be no reason why God would use natural disasters to further His will against evil.

    The last point the theist can make is to argue that all of this fits perfectly within the Christian narrative, so that the charge of ‘special pleading’ fails. Humans were designed to be above the natural world as stewards, yet also dependent upon the physical world, and ultimately God. The fierceness of the natural world serves as a sign of man’s finitude and dependence. A fear of God is proper in a creature/Creator relationship, an ‘awestruck’ feeling at the power of God’s creation. This fact turns the table around for the atheist, because his whole point in offering this criticism is to cast doubt on God’s existence. However, a simple question can reveal a greater point: Who is more likely to have faith in God, a rich man who feels above everything such that he never contemplates his finitude, or a poor person who understands what it means to be hungry and understands his dependency on forces outside of himself? History sides with me when I say that the poor in spirit, the oppressed, are more likely to find faith in the face of evil. It was observed in Psychology Today, “believers usually experience a strengthening in their faith after a disaster. There may be a time of questioning, and some believers may see their faith shaken deeply, but for most, tragedy brings greater commitment to religious faith, not less.”( Therefore, it’s easy to see what positive effect such awesome power has on the human psyche.  There may be no better way to understand one’s finitude and dependency than to witness the forces of nature. Just as one looks up into the heavens and feels small, so too does one look at a hurricane while being reminded of his finitude and contingency. We are stewards, not masters, of this world, and earthquakes serve to remind us of that, revealing our finitude in order to be existentially interested in regaining communion with God.

    So is there a problem for the Christian here? I think not. There is no explicit contradiction between God and the existence of natural forces that can kill us. There is nothing inherently ‘evil’ about an earthquake, neither is this the case when humans exist alongside them.  Only when an earthquake kills a human being do we call it evil. But to criticize God for allowing earthquakes to kill people presupposes a post-Fall world in which the answers to the problem of evil come into play. Prior to the Fall, however, there is no reason to suspect that humans were in any danger from these forces because (1) they were in proper communion with God and their faith protected them, and (2) Human evil did not exist yet, so God would not allow earthquakes to harm them for some greater good. Although the reason why earthquakes were created might appear arbitrary, as long as the theist can maintain that they are not inherently evil, then there is no contradiction the atheist can lean on. Finally, these powerful forces fit within the creature/Creator narrative since they serve as symbols of man’s finitude and dependency on nature, and ultimately the God who created them. These two factors are the formula for faith, the foundation for a proper relationship with God and the one attitude of the mind that is the opposite of trusting in oneself. With these things said, I believe that the problem of evil, from all angles, is only an emotional problem that is conquered by faith in the Most High, trusting that He, not the creature, knows all ends.

Praise be to God.

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