Evil and God

I had a wonderful conversation recently with a student, which touched on a number of aspects of the problem of evil that – despite millennia of attention – seem to me somewhat neglected.

For instance, the classic statement of the problem focuses on the incompatibility of three things: omnipotence, omnibenevolence, and evil. But what about omniscience? It might at first glance appear to be logically irrelevant to the problem of evil. But what if one envisages a perfectly powerful and good God who simply does not realize that created beings are suffering – whether because God does not get that information, or because God is not the kind of entity that is able to empathize with our anguish?

It is also worth mentioning that the problem of evil is not in any sense, in and of itself, an argument for atheism. Evil is compatible with polytheism, as well as with a God that is good but not powerful or powerful but not good. Evil must shape our thinking about the attributes of God or gods. But it does not disprove the reality of the divine per se.

Mercy and self-transcendence are some of the human attributes that many hold in the highest esteem. We are especially impressed when the victims of mistreatment exemplify these characteristics. And so what would it mean to posit that God likewise extends mercy and for this reason refrains from intervening in history? Or, conversely, what would it mean to say that God is incapable of such things?

The student I spoke with used the language of “bringing God to justice” which I found particularly striking, It raises such interesting questions! If one were to prosecute God, what would the charge be? Cruelty? Negligence? Apathy? Murder? Genocide? How do you even punish God? If God were to experience everything that was suffered in creation by every creature  would that make things right? That last thought experiment raises interesting questions related to the way most countries’ criminal “justice” systems work.

I also found myself thinking about Eva Kor and her controversial act of forgiving the perpetrators of the horrors she experienced. Her case illustrates that humans do not agree on the appropriate response to evil, and so it is unsurprising that what seems to one person a satisfactory resolution of the problem, to another will simply look like part of the problem. But once again the question is whether God is the ultimate perpetrator of all injustice, even if indirectly. If so, the  perhaps the appropriate course of action would be that of Eva Kor, namely to forgive God rather than harbor resentment, for your own sake.

Viewed through this lens, it becomes a matter of not letting God defeat you – an idea that is not that far from the accusations and complaints towards God that one finds throughout the Hebrew Bible.

What do blog readers think? Is it possible to have any genuinely new insights when it comes to theodicy, the problem of evil?

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  • Chris Hall

    I’m not entirely sure this is a new insight, but for me the problem of evil is looked at in the wrong way.

    Let us assume that God allows evil for whatever reason (it’s unimportant); now, a world in which bad things happen to good people because God allows it (crime, hurricanes, diseases, famines, etc.) looks exactly like a world with no God in which bad things happen due to just blind chance.

    Using Occam’s razor it’s very easy to choose between the two scenarios.

  • jh

    Forgiveness means letting go of the personal feelings for revenge. (That has positive benefits on the person who forgives because our emotions can impact our health.) However, forgiveness is not synonymous with justice. I may forgive the person who broke into my car, stole the petty cash, ripped the stereo out. However, that doesn’t mean that I don’t want justice or that the very idea of justice should be ignored.

    Some questions come to mind with the Eva Kor example.

    Did Eva Kor want justice for the crimes committed against her? In other words, should the Nazi’s have paid for their crimes rather than go about their day after participating in a genocide? Is it reasonable to only look at her when it comes to forgiveness and justice or should we look at the other victims as well? Do we deny their voices just because we find Eva Kor’s voice so much more comfortable?

    I’m an atheist. I’m not angry with God because it would be like me being angry with Santa Claus. It makes no sense. It’s not real. However, if such a creature existed, I would demand justice on behalf of all it’s victims. If even one victim demanded blood, that creature would have to pay. And frankly – that’s what the Judeo-Christian god is like. For all the vaunted talk about mercy, the Christian’s god is decidedly unforgiving and unmerciful and uncharitable. In fact, it reminds me of the mafia’s “protection” insurance. It causes the opportunity for humanity’s suffering and then “graciously” extends a solution that requires humanity to be slaves to it.

    *As a christian, I was both sad and relieved that JC died for my sins. As an atheist, I’m horrified at the fact that I would exploit another beings death to save myself. It shows an aspect of myself that I am not proud of… that I would take advantage of another person’s sacrifice in the way that is recorded in the Bible.

    • http://timebottle.weebly.com/ Beau Quilter

      I’m not a Christian either, and I hope that humanity can rise above ancient notions of justice that demand payments of blood debts or punishments for crimes. If our focus is on human flourishing and the reduction of suffering, then our criminal justice system should be focused on preventing future crimes, and this can involve the rehabilitation of the criminal. It may be that in some cases, punishments may be the best deterrents for criminal activity, but such decisions should be based on studies of what measures actually deter crimes, not on what appeases barbaric notions of revenge.

      I have never been fond of the rhetoric that victims “deserve” justice. Victims deserve our care and concern, certainly, but no one “deserves” the punishment of another human being. Crimes are committed for a complex array of reasons and extenuating circumstances. Our focus should be deterrence, not punishment.

      • John MacDonald

        Would you agree with a Universalist Catholic that we should pray for Hitler so he can be rehabilitated and let into heaven, or would the idea of letting Hitler into heaven be contrary to the notion of a “Just God?

        • http://timebottle.weebly.com/ Beau Quilter

          Heaven? Really?

          Gee, I don’t know. Should Santa Claus continue bringing gifts to Hitler on his sleigh after he’s rehabilitated in purgatory, or should he get coals in his stocking for eternity?

          • John MacDonald

            Say that Hitler never killed himself, but was captured. Should he have been executed, or just sent to prison for the rest of his life? Or should he have been released after rehabilitation?

          • http://timebottle.weebly.com/ Beau Quilter

            Some criminals will require life imprisonment to protect society sufficiently; I could certainly see that justification applying to genocidal narcissists.

            I oppose the death penalty.

          • John MacDonald

            They say prison isn’t so bad. You can become a trustee: Time goes by easier if you have a “job” to do daily, not to mention you get out of your unit regularly. And there is the added bonus of reading as much as you like. And you get exercise time, and square meals every day. Hardly seems fitting for a genocidal narcissist. Some poor and homeless people get by on far less.

          • http://timebottle.weebly.com/ Beau Quilter

            On one hand, our current prison systems, both those that are abusive and those that are too lenient, fall short of rehabilitation, simply because good models of rehabilitation have yet to be consistently studied or put in place.

            And on the other hand, the concern for what’s “fitting” is a concern for vengeance. Vengeance is not a good end goal for a criminal justice system.

          • John MacDonald

            “Vengeance is not a good end goal for a criminal justice system.”

            I imagine some victims and their families would disagree.

          • http://timebottle.weebly.com/ Beau Quilter

            I’m sure some would; which is why, even in our current faulty justice system, judges and jurors related to the victims must recuse themselves. Victims understandably lack objectivity in making such decisions.

          • John MacDonald

            So Beau, I guess my question is why your bias toward rehabilitation should receive more weight than a victim’s bias toward retribution?

            Retribution is part of what we mean by “justice,” which is why, for instance, in Canada where I am from, justices let victims and family members read “victim impacts statements.”

            A victim impact statement is a written statement that describes the physical or emotional harm, property damage, or economic loss that the victim of an offence has suffered. The Court must take the statement into account when sentencing an offender.

            The victim impact statement gives victims of crime a voice in the criminal justice system. It allows victims to explain to the Court and the offender, in their own words, how the crime has affected them.

            The Canadian Victims Bill of Rights came into force on July 23, 2015. This Act gives every victim the right to present a victim impact statement and to have the Court or Review Board take it into account when sentencing an accused person or when making other decisions about a person found not criminally responsible. These rights are part of a victim’s right to participation.

          • John MacDonald

            In other words, Beau, you “value” rehabilitation, while certain victims and their families “value” retribution. Why does your value system “trump” theirs?

          • http://timebottle.weebly.com/ Beau Quilter

            I value protecting society over personal revenge. What’s good for society trumps personal desires for vengeance.

            And I have a sneaking suspicion that psychologists will ultimately find that vengeance does more harm than good for victims as well.

          • http://timebottle.weebly.com/ Beau Quilter

            One of the best treatises against both the death penalty and making an end-goal of retribution is Justice Thurgood Marshall’s concurrence in the case of Furman vs Georgia.

            A few highlights:

            “The fact that the State may seek retribution against those who have broken its laws does not mean that retribution may then become the State’s sole end in punishing. Our jurisprudence has always accepted deterrence . . . as proper goal of punishment. Retaliation, vengeance, and retribution have been roundly condemned as intolerable aspirations for a government in a free society.”

            “To preserve the integrity of the Eighth Amendment, the Court has consistently denigrated retribution as a permissible goal of punishment. It is undoubtedly correct that there is a demand for vengeance on the part of many persons in a community against one who is convicted of a particularly offensive act. At times, a cry is heard that morality requires vengeance to evidence society’s abhorrence of the act. But the Eighth Amendment is our insulation from our baser selves. The “cruel and unusual” language limits the avenues through which vengeance can be channeled. Were this not so, the language would be empty, and a return to the rack and other tortures would be possible in a given case.”

            http://documents.routledge-interactive.s3.amazonaws.com/9780415506434/document9.pdf

          • John MacDonald

            Thanks for sharing that!

            Yes, some jurists are in favor of the death penalty, and others aren’t. I don’t think the death penalty is exclusively about retribution. Pro death penalty advocates think some criminals deserve probation, some five years, some ten, some twenty, some thirty, some life, and some heinous criminals deserve to die (even if the victim and their family disagree with the death penalty). Some people are pro death penalty, and some are against it. Neither side is “right.” It’s just a difference of taste. It’s like the abortion debate: some people are pro choice, and some are pro life, but neither side is “right.” It’s just personal preference.

          • http://timebottle.weebly.com/ Beau Quilter

            The arguments made from both sides are neither about retribution (for the reasons outlined by Marshall) nor about “taste” or “personal preference”. The arguments have to do with whether or not the death penalty effectively deters crime, and then whether the degree of deterrence outweighs the concern that the death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment.

            I’ll concede that more research could lend weight to either argument, but the question of whether we should kill criminals is certainly too vital an issue to be relegated to “taste” or “personal preference”.

          • John MacDonald

            I’m not sure why “Whether the death penalty will better deter crime” is the only element of it that you are focusing on. A far more fundamental question is whether someone like Hitler, or Bin Laden, deserves to die? If someone is so heinous that they deserve to die, then it is irrelevant whether that death will serve to “deter crime” better than if that person is left alive.

            Beau wrote: ” The question of whether we should kill criminals is certainly too vital an issue to be relegated to ‘taste’ or ‘personal preference’.”

            Choosing a side on the abortion issue is just an issue of personal preference. How is the capital punishment issue any different? The fact that an issue should be reduced to something more than simply “taste” and “arbitrary point of view” doesn’t mean it actually does have a ground more substantial than “I like this” or “I like that.”

          • http://timebottle.weebly.com/ Beau Quilter

            What the heck does “deserving” have to do with it? What does “deserve” even mean? Do you “deserve” to live? Do I? Do you deserve your job? Do we deserve citizenship? Where? Our country of birth, or the country where we live?

            No, the notion of “deserving” is completely subjective. We fail to provide any equitable way of determining what we “deserve” in almost every facet of life, from healthcare to citizenship to jobs. What on earth makes us think we can determine someone else’s right to live when we can’t even agree on the concept of deserving to begin with.

            Choosing a side in either the death penalty or abortion is hardly “just” a matter of personal preference. What an idiotic notion. Personal preference and taste are for matters that don’t substantially affect the lives of other people, like your favorite ice cream.

            If you are going to kill another human being, you should have a better damn reason than your personal taste.

          • John MacDonald

            Beau said: “If you are going to kill another human being, you should have a better damn reason than your personal taste.”

            Beau, your personal preference is that there should be no death penalty. Others disagree. I personally don’t support the death penalty, but that’s just my choice. I also don’t like tomatoes (although I do like ketchup and pizza sauce!).

            Your (and my) unsupported claim that we disagree with the death penalty is a JUDGEMENT (the country I am from, Canada, has no death penalty. And I like that). That’s no different from one person liking a movie, while another thought the movie sucked.

            When we make “JUDGEMENTS,” such as the judgement that “CAPITAL PUNISHMENT is wrong,” we make those judgements by applying either explicit or implicit, and objective or subjective, criteria.

            For instance, when an elementary school teacher is making a judgement as to what grade a child gets on a narrative piece of writing that the child has submitted, the teacher applies a rubric judging such things as effective use by the child of such things as:

            Ideas—the main message
            Organization—the internal structure of the piece
            Voice—the personal tone and flavor of the author’s message
            Word Choice—the vocabulary a writer chooses to convey meaning
            Sentence Fluency—the rhythm and flow of the language
            Conventions—the mechanical correctness
            Presentation—how the writing actually looks on the page

            Similarly, when a mixed martial arts judge tries to determine which fighter wins the match (when there is no knock out), they judge the fighters respective performances against such criteria as striking, grappling, and aggression.

            The problem with “moral judgements” is that it is very hard to get non-subjective criteria. In terms of murder, for instance, our culture in our time judges murder to be wrong (and I like that), but other cultures in other times have approved of such things as cannibalism and feeding the Christians to the lions for sport. If we are not to just adapt an arbitrary “holier than thou” attitude from the point of view of our time, individual biases, and culture, the question is what right do we have to judge others that have a different worldview than we do?

            “Making a Judgement (such as “judging” a student’s essay to be a 75%),” means you have decided something has met, failed to meet, or approximated a criteria. The criteria may be explicit, as in a rubric, or implicit, but it’s there. Making the criteria explicit is always favorable, which is why rubrics are important in student evaluation – for the reasons such as the student knowing what they need to do to get a good mark.

            My question to you, Beau, is if you think capital punishment is “objectively wrong,” what criteria are you making that judgement in light of? If it is so obvious and objective that capital punishment is wrong, why do so many people think capital punishment is a good idea? For instance, why do so many people think Saddam Hussein “deserved” to die for crimes against humanity?

          • http://timebottle.weebly.com/ Beau Quilter

            So which John MacDonald am I talking to?

            The John who says:

            “Some people are pro death penalty, and some are against it. Neither side is ‘right.’ It’s just a difference of taste … It’s just personal preference.”

            Or the John who says:

            “subjective preference for the death penalty is hardly a justification for putting someone to death”

            Additionally, how is a judgement about the death penalty different than a judgement about a narrative piece of writing or a martial arts match. Cannot a rubric be applied in all three cases?

            Do you you really think (as you imply in your last question to me that people who argue for or against the death penalty don’t apply criteria). I’ve given you a source of excellent criteria in Justice Thurgood Marshall’s writings. Do some jurists disagree with him? Yes, just as some english teachers disagree about the quality of some essays, and some fight judges disagree over the outcomes of matches.

            Disagreement does not entail that criteria don’t exist and arguments can’t be made.

          • John MacDonald

            In the case of the capital punishment, the responsibility is on the side of the “pro death penalty advocate” to demonstrate that the accused prisoner “deserves to die (whatever “deserves” means).” If the pro death penalty side can’t demonstrated the prisoner meets objective criteria for being put to death, then putting that person to death is objectively immoral.

          • http://timebottle.weebly.com/ Beau Quilter

            You’re not being particularly clear. You had said about the death penalty:

            “The problem with ‘moral judgements, is that it is very hard to get non-subjective criteria.”

            And now you say:

            ” If the pro death penalty side can’t demonstrated the prisoner meets objective criteria for being put to death, then putting that person to death is objectively immoral.”

            So where are you going with this, John? Do you think there are objective criteria that can be met to put a man to death?

          • John MacDonald

            I didn’t mean to be unclear. At times I was just being Devil’s advocate to understand your position more clearly. I don’t think there are objective criteria that can be met to put a man to death, just the arbitrary one of “that person ‘deserves’ to dies.”

          • http://timebottle.weebly.com/ Beau Quilter

            Desert is arguably arbitrary. But moral first principles are not.

            You should really read up on humanist moral philosophy; unless you’re just trying to default to William Lane Craig apologetics.

          • John MacDonald

            And, as you say, subjective preference for the death penalty is hardly a justification for putting someone to death. It has long been known that preference for the death penalty is simply subjective bias and preference. Hence, we used to have “Hanging Judges.”

          • John MacDonald

            So, to sum up my thoughts, clearly there is such a thing as objective morality in some cases, although it is best approached indirectly. For instance, consider the question of capital punishment. Those on both sides of the issue have their reasons for being for or against it. However, their “reasons” reduce to bias, subjective personal opinion, taste, preference, culture, etc., so they are relative, not objective. This would seem to suggest the question of capital punishment is bogged down in relativism. But it really isn’t. If your judgement that “Saddam Hussein deserved to die for crimes against humanity” is just a matter of subjective personal taste, then that is clearly not a good enough reason to take the person’s life from him. Is subjective personal preference a strong enough ground to end someone’s life? Of course not, because the judgement is no more objective than saying “I like tomatoes” or “that movie sucked.” And it has long been known that being pro death penalty reduces to subjectivism: It is where the concept of a “Hanging Judge” comes from. And so, even though the two sides of the capital punishment debate are a matter of subjective personal preference, being pro death penalty is objectively Immoral.

            On the other hand, certain morality debates will be forever lost in relativism. For instance, the abortion debate hinges on whether the fetus is a person or not, and since the two sides are contrary on this point, everything else in the debate becomes meaningless verbiage. There is no objectively right answer here, just the personal preference one has about whether the fetus is a person or not.

          • http://timebottle.weebly.com/ Beau Quilter

            I’ll reply to your last comment (I think it’s the last – it’s hard to tell when you stack up multiple comments – disqus doesn’t always display them in the right order).

          • http://timebottle.weebly.com/ Beau Quilter

            John, do me a favor?

            If you’re interested in having a dialogue with me in the comments section, stop making multiple replies to the same comment. It’s a pain in the butt to track down multiple comment notifications and try to reply to each one on disqus.

            Make it easy. Just one reply to me at a time, please (comment on the original post as much as you like).

          • arcseconds

            Almost everyone does think the punishment has to be proportional to the crime, though, so there is some notion of desert going on. If the death penalty deters murder, then it surely would deter other crimes, yet practically no-one thinks the death penalty is appropriate for anything but the most heinous crimes.

            I think the strongest argument against the death penalty is that it means you’re unable to correct mistakes. There have been plenty of cases where people convicted of murder turned out to be innocent, and if they’re in prison, they can be released, and even compensated.

          • http://timebottle.weebly.com/ Beau Quilter

            And quite a number of people believe that the death penalty is inappropriate for any crime. Clearly deterrence is a goal that presumes other ethical concerns, otherwise you could argue that destroying an entire city is the solution to ending crime in that city. The proportionality of punishment can be related to the goal of deterrence as easily as the subjective sense of desert; the difference is that the effectiveness of deterrence can, in principle, be measured. The measure of desert will always be subjective.

            That many people consider punishment in terms of desert does not make desert any less subjective or prone to abuse. As Marshall said:

            “At times, a cry is heard that morality requires vengeance to evidence society’s abhorrence of the act. But the Eighth Amendment is our insulation from our baser selves.”

            I agree that the inability to correct a death sentence is a strong argument against it.

          • Nick G

            yet practically no-one thinks the death penalty is appropriate for anything but the most heinous crimes.

            “Practically no-one” out of what population? There are societies today in which many people think “blasphemy”, “apostasy” and “witchcraft” are appropriately punished by death – although presumably, they view these as heinous. But two hundred years ago in the UK, the death penalty was regularly imposed for petty theft.

          • arcseconds

            Don’t those societies view those crimes as among the most heinous?

            Are there any societies that currently impose the death penalty to petty theft? I think the present tense can reasonably be taken to not include things that happened 200 years ago.

          • Nick G

            My point was a simple one: there is nothing inevitable about a consensus that the death penalty is not appropriate for crmies that are not seen as “the most heinous”. The use of the present tense does not invariably confine the population referred to, to those alive now.

          • arcseconds

            Well, I’m confused now. Your first statement suggests you weren’t genuinely confused about who I was talking about, because while you asked the question that wasn’t your point. The second sentence on the other hand seems to be defending your confusion.

          • Neko

            You wrote:

            Choosing a side on the abortion issue is just an issue of personal preference.

            It’s actually a passionate debate about fundamental moral principles. You have a glib approach to matters of life and death. No wonder you “personally like” Donald Trump.

            Whether a person “deserves” x is irrelevant to the principle that the state shouldn’t execute citizens, or, in the case of abortion, coerce birth/sanction killing (or “murder,” as our friends in the anti-abortion movement are fond of saying).

          • http://timebottle.weebly.com/ Beau Quilter

            I have endured a few of these exchanges with John McDonald now. He seems to be expressing the sorts of lame strawman parodies of atheism that Christian apologists think we must conclude if we “deny” God.

            I’ve seen this before. Someone takes the basic arguments of a William Lane Craig (“if you’re an atheist then you must make the same conclusions as this atheist strawman I have invented…”). Then this person pretends to be an atheist, or as John McDonald claims, nonreligious, so they can make the arguments “from our side.”

            I think the idea is to convince atheists to buy into these lame strawman, so that they can later be convinced of the error of their ways.

            In this particular case, John has taken on the mantle of the atheist strawman who has strong feelings against the death penalty, but who simply must confess that the moral relativism of his “atheist worldview” provides him with no meaningful moral arguments whatsoever. He has “discovered” that as an “atheist”, he has no reason to be moral.

            It’s bull hockey, of course.

          • Neko

            Wow, that’s an interesting theory! I thought John had sympathies toward Christianity (as I have), but it didn’t occur to me he might be incognito!

          • http://timebottle.weebly.com/ Beau Quilter

            I have Christian sympathy as well. My extended family is all Christian, and I appreciate liberal Christians like James McGrath, who values ethics based on love, compassion, and the golden rule.

            It’s fake atheism that I find suspect:

            “I just realize that, as an atheist, I have no basis for morality”.

          • John MacDonald

            The fact that people passionately debate about moral principles doesn’t mean those principles are anything more than subjective preference. People also passionately debate about which wine is the best in a taste testing contest. – As Nietzsche demonstrated in his “Slave Morality” argument.

          • Neko

            People also passionately debate about which wine is the best in a taste testing contest.

            If you refuse to make distinctions there’s no point in debating morality. It’s all just floating signifiers, man.

          • John MacDonald

            I’m not refusing to make distinctions. lol

            “Moral Relativism” seems reasonable to me:

            Ethical standards weren’t absolute throughout history. In ancient Roman times, prisoners were executed for the entertainment for the crowd, Their society wasn’t better or worse than ours, they just had a different value system.

            To use an analogy, in elementary school teaching, teachers use criteria to judge what mark a child gets on a story. For example, if a child’s story has a strong plot, good character development, and uses vivid language, then they have met the criteria to get a ‘B.’ What absolute or objective criteria do humans use to judge when a behaviour is wrong?

            Some say the criteria is a variant of the Golden Rule: If you do to others something you wouldn’t want done to you, you realize that you have done something wrong (e.g., If you don’t want to be stolen from, don’t be a thief because you know it’s wrong). But this criteria has not been applied universally throughout history (e.g., the Roman example I gave), and it doesn’t follow from the fact that it has been applied in the past that it will be applied in the future. It varies. To the Aztecs, killing in sacrifice to their deity wasn’t wrong. To other cultures, child sacrifice was the norm.

            Morality seems relative. We make moral judgements according to our prejudices, biases, etc. If we don’t take a “holier than thou judgmental attitude” but simply allow the phenomena of behavior to appear, it would seem that “Moral Relativism” is a useful descriptor for the foundation of ethics, because it best describes why things like (a) cultural-based cannibalism, and (b) The Romans feeding the Christians to the lions in the arena for the exciting sport of the crowd, and (c) child sacrifice, etc., could occur.

            From the point of view of our time and culture, these practices are “judged wrong.” But who are we to judge? From the point of view of the people who were committing these acts, they were acting in a perfectly socially acceptable manner. So they are “wrong” from our point of view, but not from theirs. Relativism.

            Moral relativism is really very simple. Basing morality on “values” is another way of saying moral claims are justified according to their context. In the context of American society, what the terrorists did on 9’11 was evil and wrong. But in the context of the fundamentalist Islam of the terrorists, the terrorist attack on the twin towers was moral and holy. It’s not that one point of view is “correct” and the other is “incorrect,” they are just conflicting worldviews. Recall these images of people celebrating in the middle east as part of the response to 9’11: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LgcSWjuNBA8

            The truth of a moral claim is derived from its context. The context is not absolute, and if you take away the context the “truth” of the moral claim is gone. The “whole” (context) gives meaning to the part (makes the moral claim “true). Nietzsche pointed this out with his argument about “slave morality” (eg., a slave has to be meek and has no money, so being meek is interpreted as being morally good – “the meek shall inherit the earth, Matthew 5:5” – and the quest for money and its accumulation is morally bad – “It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to get into heaven, Mark 10:25”) Nietzsche’s point wasn’t that you had to accept his interpretation of history on this point, but rather that people determine what is moral and immoral relative to their point of view, which means their understanding of right and wrong depends on the context (i.e., depends on a person’s biases, prejudices, culture, evolutionary history, etc.). In Philosophy this is known as “Relativism: morality and the hermeneutic circle.” It is like interpreting a text. In order to understand what a part of a story means, you have to consider it in relation to the entire story. You can’t explain the “part” without the “whole.” But this is what moral realism tries to do. Moral realism doesn’t make sense because you can have two equally valid contradictory moral interpretations of the same event. Take the example of rape. We consider rape to be wrong under any circumstance. But the ancient Greeks considered war rape of women “socially acceptable behaviour well within the rules of warfare”, and warriors considered the conquered women “legitimate booty, useful as wives, concubines, slave labour or battle-camp trophy”.

            Here is a good article that links cannibalism to Moral Relativism by Dr. Jesse Prinz, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York:

            https://philosophynow.org/issues/82/Morality_is_a_Culturally_Conditioned_Response

            To me, Dr. Prinz is a little too optimistic about how much of ethics can be salvaged, but it is still a good article on relativism.

          • Neko

            I’m just now seeing this but didn’t read your long discourse. “Making distinctions” isn’t some protest against moral relativism. Moral relativism by definition involves making distinctions.

          • Neko

            People also passionately debate about which wine is the best in a taste testing contest. – As Nietzsche demonstrated in his “Slave Morality” argument.

            Citation, please. By which I mean a text citation, not a link.

          • John MacDonald

            “There are no moral phenomena at all, only moral interpretations of phenomena” Nietzsche, Friedrich (1973). Beyond Good and Evil. London: Penguin Books, pg. 96

          • http://timebottle.weebly.com/ Beau Quilter

            No. The point of Nietzsche’s slave morality and master morality genealogies is not that morality is a subjective preference equivalent to taste.

            Whether or not there is such a thing as an absolute “objective morality” is ultimately a useless question, since no one has ever agreed upon what such an “objective morality” even entails. (That is unless you agree that this objective morality is Kant’s categorical imperative).

            However, all that is needed to build a common morality is a set of foundational principles that all participants agree upon. Such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

            http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/

            Once such principles are set in place, they become the criteria against which moral decisions can be measured.

          • John MacDonald

            Nietzsche certainly thought certain versions of morality were, from his point of view, preferable to others, although he clearly said “There are no moral phenomena at all, only moral interpretations of phenomena. (Nietzsche, Friedrich, 1973, Beyond Good and Evil. London: Penguin Books, pg. 96).”

            I certainly agree with you that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a set of commonly agreed upon foundational moral principles which can be used in creating a common morality. My only point was that these “ground principles” reflect the participants’ preferences, and there is nothing intellectually objective being set in place from stopping a dictator rising in the future who initiates a movement (that ultimately wins out) which recreates society wherein control and the abolition of human freedom seizes absolute control, Like Emperor Palpatine in Star Wars, or something like that, lol :
            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DgxZr6LLS34

          • http://timebottle.weebly.com/ Beau Quilter

            As philosopher Shelly Kagan points out, such a morality is objective in that it is based purely rational first principles.

            They are certainly not just “preferences”.

          • John MacDonald

            As apologists have long pointed out, without God to lend “authority” to principles (a God which secular people like you and I don’t have), finding principles to be “self evident” merely means you are asserting something without ground: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yrcQ_PTkVD4&t=1s

          • http://timebottle.weebly.com/ Beau Quilter

            You’re not really non religious, are you Jonathan? You’re too fond of bad Christian apologetics, and strawman versions of atheism.

            This is quite possibly the silliest argument that Christian apologists have to offer. What gives “God” the authority to “ground” morality (whatever that means).

            Founding principles are not simply self-evident; look at Kant’s Categorical Imperative or Rawl’s contractualism. These are rational moral philosophies based on inescapably rational principles.

            “God”? A completely arbitrary answer to morality. “God” as an answer merely takes back a step:

            What is good?
            That which God calls good.
            What is God?
            God is good.

            Riiiiight. Because most apologetic reasoning is circular.

          • John MacDonald

            I’m not religious. I’m probably the most non-religious person you can imagine. lol

            The long and the short of it is you are treating subjective criteria and principles as self-evident, which simply means you can’t provide a ground for them. When do moral criteria become objective? When 2 people agree on them / a hundred?

            Anyway, since you’ve started psychologising about my motives I take it you are getting irritated, so I think we should end the discussion.

          • http://timebottle.weebly.com/ Beau Quilter

            Nope. For neither Kant nor Rawls nor most humanist philosophers is moral criteria based on popularity. Take a look.

          • John MacDonald

            To use Kant’s terminology, saying “If you act in such and such a way, you will be acting in a moral way” would be a “Hypothetical Imperative,” not a “Categorical Imperative.” “If you want to be moral, then do such and such” is hypothetical, not categorical.

          • http://timebottle.weebly.com/ Beau Quilter

            Nope.

            From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

            “Kant holds that the fundamental principle of our moral duties is a categorical imperative … It is categorical in virtue of applying to us unconditionally, or simply because we possesses rational wills, without reference to any ends that we might or might not have. It does not, in other words, apply to us on the condition that we have antecedently adopted some goal for ourselves.”

            “There are “oughts” other than our moral duties, according to Kant, but these oughts are distinguished from the moral ought in being based on a quite different kind of principle, one that is the source of hypothetical imperatives.”

            “The Categorical Imperative, in Kant’s view, is an objective, unconditional and necessary principle of reason that applies to all rational agents in all circumstances. “

          • John MacDonald

            You’re wrong, Beau. lol :

            “If you want to be moral, then do X” is a “hypothetical imperative” formulation (If-Then), not a “categorical imperative” formulation.

            Search your feelings Anakin … lol

          • http://timebottle.weebly.com/ Beau Quilter

            It’s kind of laughable that you say I’m wrong, when I was only quoting the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. You’ll have to forgive me if I find that source more credible than you.

            Sure, you have a choice whether to act morally or not. (Though this is not what is meant by Kant’s “hypothetical imperative”). That’s true even for Christian’s who credit God with “objective morality”.

            But the moral principle itself is a categorical imperative. And this is not a preference:

            “Kant holds that the fundamental principle of our moral duties is a categorical imperative … It does not, in other words, apply to us on the condition that we have antecedently adopted some goal for ourselves.”

            “There are “oughts” other than our moral duties, according to Kant, but these oughts are distinguished from the moral ought in being based on a quite different kind of principle, one that is the source of hypothetical imperatives.”

            “A hypothetical imperative is thus a command in a conditional form. But not any command in this form counts as a hypothetical imperative in Kant’s sense.”

          • John MacDonald

            When Kant is talking about the categorical imperative, he is discussing what makes ethics possible, not the desire to act morally. If the categorical imperative meant “If you want to be moral, then do ‘X’,” the categorical imperative would be a “hypothetical imperative (If/Then),” not a “categorical imperative.” Kant says the Will self-legislates the Self to accompany all of the Self’s actions. Kant thinks this is the defining characteristic of human beings. Kant thus distinguishes humans from animals. For example, while we would not “sue” a dog for chewing up our couch (since the dog doesn’t know any better and is thus not responsible for its actions), I would be able to sue you if you came to my couch and cut up my couch with a knife because you are responsible for your actions. The Will self legislates that I accompany my actions by being responsible for them. That I am thought of as belonging to all my actions (with the exception of certain individuals with a mental illness) is why humans, according to Kant, are fundamentally moral at their core. A moral relativist like me doesn’t deny this (Kant is quite clearly right on this point), but just asserts that specific moral assertions are “culturally” and “individual-preferentially” conditioned principles:
            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QyGE0v__wgM

          • John MacDonald

            Ultimately, Kant failed in his Philosophical program, both in metaphysics and ethics. In metaphysics, while Kant did show causality is necessary for human experience, it didn’t follow that we experience specific instances of scientific causality (Such as “Water boils at 100 degrees Celsius under normal room pressure.”) In this regard, Hume’s challenge to specific instances of causality holds sway. We only ever experience one event following on another, not doing so according to a rule. We can observe water boiling at 100 degrees Celsius at normal room pressure a million times, but there is nothing in the experience that suggests this will happen the next time we try to boil water. Also, while Kant showed that ethics is grounded in the human freedom of the will self legislating the self to accompany all it’s actions, Kant did not (as Nietzsche showed) demonstrate that specific so called “ethical actions” are also so grounded in reason.

          • http://timebottle.weebly.com/ Beau Quilter

            Of course, the categorical imperative does not mean “if you want to be moral, then do ‘X'”. The categorical imperative has nothing to do with what you “want”.

            So you still have Kant confused. The desire to act morality might be individually relative, but not the moral principle itself. Which is why Kant did not regard a system of morality as relative. To Kant a system of morality is not based on desire (that would be a hypothetical imperative, depending on the context), a moral system is based on the categorical imperative.

            Of course, if you continue to confuse the desire to act morally with a moral principle, then you have failed to distinguish theists from atheists on the spectrum of morality.

          • John MacDonald

            We seem to be viewing Kant from two completely different perspectives. Let’s let the debate go and agree to disagree.

          • http://timebottle.weebly.com/ Beau Quilter

            Well, you are clearly confused about the implications of Kant’s moral philosophy. You started this thread with the theistic apologetic notion that God is the ground of morality, a far more arbitrary and subjective idea than anything you get in secular moral philosophy, especially when you realize that arbitrarily assigning God as the ground of morality gets you precisely nowhere in determining principles of morality.

          • John MacDonald

            Okay, I’ll say one last thing. I never said I thought God was the ground for morality. I don’t believe in God. I said that without God to give authority to ethical criteria and precepts, they remain subjective, relative and arbitrary. There is still room for ethics, though. As Derrida pointed out, Deconstruction is Justice. The example we discussed is Capital Punishment. Since there are no objective criteria to meet for putting someone to death, it is meaningless to say a criminal “deserves to die,” and so the Capital Punishment advocate cannot meet their burden for showing a prisoner “deserves to die.” As for Kant, the categorical imperative is formulated in the following way: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” Beau, you have interpreted this to mean: “IF YOU WANT TO BE MORAL, then act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” Your interpretation is clearly not what Kant means by the “categorical imperative,” because this interpretation would fit the form of a “hypothetical imperative (if you want to be moral, then …),” not a “categorical imperative.” Hypothetical imperatives apply to someone who wishes to attain certain ends. For example: (1) If I wish to quench my thirst, I must drink something. (2) If I wish to pass this exam, I must study. A categorical imperative, on the other hand, denotes an absolute, unconditional requirement that must be obeyed in all circumstances and is an end in itself. The only act in human life that reflects an absolute precept that must be obeyed under all circumstances is the act of the will to mandate the law that I accompany all my actions and inactions, and hence am a moral agent along with my fellow persons. Anyway, nice chatting with you!

          • http://timebottle.weebly.com/ Beau Quilter

            No, John, I NEVER interpreted the categorical imperative to mean IF YOU WANT TO BE MORAL, then act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.”

            Those are your words, not mine. I explicitly said “the categorical imperative does NOT mean ‘if you want to be moral, then do X”. That is your misinterpretation.

            You’ve clearly bought into the Christian apologetic argument that “without God to give authority to ethical criteria and precepts, they remain subjective, relative, and arbitrary”. Of course, any thoughtful secularist dismisses this for the poppycock that it is. The categorical imperative along with similar and related principles in moral philosophy serve quite well as authoritative, objective grounds for morality. “God” fails as an objective authority, because there is no consistent statement of God’s moral principles, no means of universally accessing God’s moral principles, and a plethora of conflicting interpretations of God’s moral principles across the world. Granting God moral authority yields, by far, the most subjective, relative, and arbitrary collection of moral interpretations.

          • John MacDonald

            I worry we might be confusing our readers. Just for a lark, explain the meaning of the categorical imperative in your own words (without quoting from the Encyclopedia of Philosophy), and explain what role the categorical imperative has in an Ethical action like refraining from lying.

          • http://timebottle.weebly.com/ Beau Quilter

            Oh I doubt you’re confusing anyone but yourself, John.

            But if you like larks, make the first move. Explain the meaning of God’s moral ground of authority in your own words, and explain what role it has in ethical action like refraining from lying.

          • John MacDonald

            At work in Kant’s philosophy are two kinds of freedom: (1) Freedom From and (2) Freedom For. An example of (1) would be a prisoner being released from her handcuffs. She is “free from” handcuffs. An example of (2) would be a life long drunk “mandating” to himself never to drink again. The drunk out of his own volition applies a rule to himself, which he accepts. Kant says that ethics is possible because the will prescribes a causality of “Freedom For” in the sense of the mandate that “I accompany all my actions” as belonging to me. This distinguishes us from animals. With a dog, for instance, you may come home one day and he is chewing on your shoes even though you trained him not to. There is no reason to get mad at the dog, because he doesn’t experience attachment for, and responsibility for, his actions in the same way humans do. Kant believes that ownership for what we do of our acts or refusing to act, is the fundamental characteristic of human beings, and that all individual ethical precepts and criteria (such as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you), are just expressions and manifestations of this primal act of freedom of the self having ownership for everything it does or refuses to do. Even when the accused in court tries do deny ownership and responsibility for her actions, here

          • John MacDonald

            I fixed the end of the above comment. I left off in mid sentence for some reason. Sorry if that caused any confusion. lol

          • http://timebottle.weebly.com/ Beau Quilter

            Another aspect of Kant that supports a view of morality that is not subjective. Our decision to act might be subjective. But the moral principles themselves can be based on entirely objective principles.

            Unlike the very subjective notion of divine command theory held by some theists.

          • Neko

            Right, whether the state should have the authority to kill citizens is just a matter of “taste.” You say tomato, I say tomahto, let’s fire up the chair.

          • http://timebottle.weebly.com/ Beau Quilter

            I have nothing against a victim impact statement. The impact of a crime should certainly be taken into account, when assessing how to deter such crime in the future. And some penalties for crime involve financial restitution, which obviously requires an understanding of impact.

            Rehabilitation is only a part of the focus that I think our criminal justice systems needs to improve. Overall, a criminal justice system needs to protect society from crime. That can involve incarceration and/or rehabilitation. And the effects of incarceration (including what freedoms are taken away) should be studied in terms of how well it deters crime.

            I personally oppose the death penalty, but if someone were to make a good argument for the death penalty, it would have to provide data demonstrating that the death penalty deters crime.

            I don’t believe that revenge has any known positive effects on society. I think we should protect and care for victims. I think we should prevent criminals from harming anyone else. But I see no benefits in vengeance.

          • John MacDonald

            Beau said: “I personally oppose the death penalty, but if someone were to make a good argument for the death penalty, it would have to provide data demonstrating that the death penalty deters crime.”

            I guess the contrary side against your position would be to argue that even if the death penalty didn’t deter crime, it would still be a valuable option for punishment in retribution for the acts of the most heinous individuals (as in the example of Hitler we described above).

          • http://timebottle.weebly.com/ Beau Quilter

            Only if you consider vengeance valuable.

          • Neko

            They say prison isn’t so bad.

            Who says?

    • Cynthia

      Eva Kor clarified her intentions: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/05/12/criticized-by-fellow-survivors-auschwitz-victim-defends-hugging-nazi-guard/?utm_term=.c0227a0b1372

      She didn’t want to “forgive and forget”. Rather, she wanted everyone in the world to remember and to fight against any resurgence of Nazism. She believed that focusing on that, and using old Nazis like Groening to educate about the Holocaust as part of a community service sentence, would do more good than putting them in jail at the age of 93.

      Her view seems to be similar to various Truth and Reconciliation tribunals.

  • John MacDonald

    Most religious people I know view the problem of suffering as adversity that needs to be overcome – or demonstrates what you are made of (eg., God took my child, but this motivated me to start a non profit for children with cancer). So, for instance, Small Pox may have seemed Evil at the time it was prevalent, but now it is viewed as something we as a people overcame. This is “sort of” the idea we find in Job when Satan incites God to test Job:

    3The LORD said to Satan, “Have you considered My servant Job? For there is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man fearing God and turning away from evil. And he still holds fast his integrity, although you incited Me against him to ruin him without cause.” (Job 2:3)

    Most religious people I know dismiss the problem of Evil because they believe justice is promised in the next life, not in this one.

    And really, viewing suffering as adversity that needs to be approached positively is sound psychology, reflecting what is taught in cognitive behavioral psychology.

    • Neko

      I think the premise is that we live in a fallen world because of a primal act of disobedience. Problematic!

      • John MacDonald

        I’m not religious, but the religious people I know look at the world as: instead of blaming God and assuming the role of a victim, if life hands you lemons, make lemonade! A very healthy way to approach life!

        Of course, it’s a little naïve, since the same people think God is to thank for all the good things in their lives, but never to blame for any of the bad things. lol

        • Neko

          Be that as it may, in Christian theology the Fall is the excuse for the existence of evil.

          God didn’t want to condemn all humanity unto the ages to struggle and suffering and death, and God didn’t want women to die in agony in childbirth, but dammit the kids were just too ambitious.

          • John MacDonald

            Satan was Evil, and he existed before the fall. Adam and Eve suffered the embarrassment of realizing they were nude, and this happened before God punished them.

          • John MacDonald

            Eating of the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil seems to suggest Evil already existed (like nudity), just that Adam and Eve weren’t aware of it.

          • Cynthia

            Bad things happen in the animal kingdom too. It’s just not a source of existential angst.

          • Neko

            I don’t think you appreciate how little some practicing Christians dabble in exegesis. Rather, they submit to dogma. It’s the dogma I’m describing, not the possible interpretations or intent of the scripture authors!

          • John MacDonald

            When it comes to the problem of suffering, everything is attitude. A rich lawyer can be a miserable alcoholic, and a prisoner can make a fun game of dancing in her chains. God is just an afterthought when it comes to evaluating the human condition.

          • Neko

            Never mind.

          • John MacDonald

            If you want get someone to re-evaluate their dogmas, including the idea that Eve brought Evil into the world, you have to start somewhere.

            Good and Evil are not things we experience, but judgements we make. As Palpatine said in Star Wars episode 3: “Good is a point of view, Anakin.”

    • Cynthia

      I found Frankl’s approach appealing, in that it provides a way forward regardless of circumstances.

      Where I think we need to be cautious, though, is in the potential to see the efforts to overcome adversity as the “reason” for the adversity, rather than simply the best response to adversity.

      My view is that we ultimately don’t know, and can’t know, the full reason for adversity. Pat answers are therefore going to be wrong, unfair and infuriating. The only thing that we can do, as humans, is responded to the challenges presented in the best way possible. It’s not so much about finding meaning, as it is about making meaning.

  • Neko

    Belief in the Incarnation resolves the problem of God’s inability to experience human suffering. But no argument I’ve ever encountered resolves theodicy. Incredibly, most of the apologetics begin with the premise that the Fall was some kind of reality. Come on now.

    Why must God be a super-consciousness. Because if God is super-consciousness then the evidence strongly suggests indifference to human/animal suffering. God makes more sense as the life Force in Star Wars.

    • John MacDonald

      It is truly remarkable that we have a divine spark within us that allows us to have a positive attitude even in the face of the most horrific Evil: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-13ScnosXAk

      • charlesburchfield

        Thank you for this clip!! it was a moment in my day that helped me get through some suffering. Here are some quotes from Viktor Frankl’s book called Man’s Search for meaning that reminded me of this clip from Life is Beautiful.
        //•Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
        •When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.
        •Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
        •Each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.
        •What is to give light must endure burning.
        •Live as if you were living a second time, and as though you had acted wrongly the first time.//

        As you’re probably aware Viktor Frankl survived a concentration camp experience, and lived to contribute to the greater good of humanity in my humble opinion.

        https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/9330192255dcebf22f4ee2f0557b79bbd6abe9bf3dbfc07de85230c5073ac1d9.jpg

        • John MacDonald

          Do you know what happened when humans ate the forbidden fruit at Eden? They started finding fault with everything. Nakedness wasn’t bad “in itself,” since Adam and Eve were naked before eating the fruit and God didn’t have a problem with it. The real curse is living a life while pessimistically seeing the worst and finding fault with everything, and not divinely seeing the cup as half full and focusing on the silver lining of even the darkest storm cloud.

          • charlesburchfield

            Thank you John you are a gentleman and a scholar! Here is my contribution from Kurt Vonnegut:

            https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/fbf4778d40b18ac57157e756cc4dff436c4fd2fde73092783da0c8edfacb85f0.jpg

            I just found this in my email from Richard Rohr:
            The great wisdom teachers and mystics say in various ways that you cannot truly see or understand anything if you begin with a no. You have to start with a yes of basic acceptance, which means you do not too quickly label, analyze, or categorize things as good or bad. The ego or false self strengthens itself by constriction, by being against, or by re-action; it feels loss or fear when it opens up to subtlety, growth, change, and Mystery. Living out of the True Self involves positive choice, inner spaciousness, and conscious understanding rather than resistance, knee-jerk reactions, or defensiveness.

  • Robert Landbeck

    “It is also worth mentioning that the problem of evil is not in any sense, in and of itself, an argument for atheism.” But it does provide an argument for questioning the theological construct of existing tradition and the validity of theology as a valid human intellectual endeavor. For self evidently, tradition has failed to deliver on the Promise of the Incarnation to provide the key for defeating evil. And if one happens to be looking for the best measure of the authenticity of a religious claim, there is no better measure then the theodicy question. For if this all too human theological construct of tradition is unable to deliver on the Promise, does that not negate their claim to speak for Christ?

  • Realist1234

    As a Christian, I certainly recognise the ‘problem of evil’. I would view evil as something that personal beings are able to perpetuate. I believe God is all-powerful and good, but if He has chosen to give human beings a genuine free will to choose how they behave in this life, then He also respects that choice, even when it directly or indirectly causes pain to others or self. As well as humans, there is of course the existence of satan and the demonic, though clearly atheists reject such existence. Such beings also cause evil and suffering (evil is not the same as suffering) – on occasion Jesus released human beings from direct affliction by such beings. Their origin appears to be that of ‘fallen’ angels, though in truth it is difficult to be certain. So, evil in the world comes from a combination of ‘fallen’ human beings and the demonic. At least, that is my world-view.

    Regardless of how you view Genesis, I have no doubt we are ‘fallen’ and prone to evil. We are not wholly evil, as we are capable of much good and love, but can also be very selfish towards other human beings, only concerned about our own welfare. You only have to read your local newspaper to see how fallen some people can become, but remembering to look at ourselves at the same time. Jesus made it clear no human being is wholly good, and that is pretty obvious. So I dont see a problem regarding ‘why do bad things happen to good people’ because there simply aren’t any (wholly) ‘good’ people, though it seems many view themselves as ‘good enough’, at least in the sense of ‘Im alright Jack’.

    I think God is all about ‘restoring’. During Jesus’ ministry, He often restored people to their being before evil or suffering came into their lives. For example, the many physical healings He brought, His expulsion of the demonic from individuals’ lives, His forgiving of sins which removed that deep sense of guilt, which can be debilitating.

    But the Christian world-view is not just about restoration in this life, but also an ultimate restoration in the future, which Jesus’ resurrection from death guarantees. So even in death, although we can grieve for them deeply, primarily because they are simply not physically with us anymore, we also know our loved ones are ‘safe’, and one day will be restored, along with this earth, when there will no longer be any evil or suffering.

    At least, thats how I see it.

    • Neko

      What has dying in childbirth or getting crushed in an earthquake or starving to death got to do with free will.

    • http://timebottle.weebly.com/ Beau Quilter

      Even if you believe in the concept of free will, noone has completely free will in this life. What our wills can achieve is limited by society, parents, governments, police, and many other forces.

      Indeed we are more than willing to blame (or at least find negligent) parents who fail to prevent their children from harming each other, or governments that fail to preserve law and order among their citizens. But apparently, the theology that explains the problem of evil with free will is perfectly willing to exclude God from all such responsibility.

      We would find abhorrent a doctor who stands by idly as someone bleeds to death in the street; but if there is a God, this is his everyday behavior.

  • Sam Andrew

    Well one way of looking at it is through the Book of Job, full of many of the “accusations and complaints towards God that one finds throughout the Hebrew Bible.” Toward the end Job explains how the only one who can answer his charge is God himself, yet when God appear he questions Job about order in the natural world “Do you know the laws of the heavens? / Can you establish its dominion over the earth?” and in this sense implies there is an order at work in creation.

    Job is speechless at this, yet it doesn’t answer his main contention, which was not so much is there order in nature, but is there a moral order, a justice that runs through creation – is evil not met with punishment and good with reward. God then declares against Jobs friend who did argue for God as a moral arbiter in creation “My wrath is kindled against you, and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me the thing that is right, as my servant Job has” – it is Job who has questioned if there is justice and rightness at all who has spoken the truth. In that sense the answer to theodicy is there, God maintains an order, but it is not a moral order Job wants but a mechanical one that reality shows. Evil is not a problem for God, as God has no interest in moral order and rejects the question put to him about it as not meaningful in the scheme of creation.

    The wrestle with God, the struggle of theodicy, is perhaps then trying to come to terms with having a desire for a moral order that sees God as an arbiter that will in the end dispel evil, yet knowing that in reality justice and morality does not exist as some cosmic force or action of God that balances things.

    • charlesburchfield

      Thank you for a most thought-provoking post!! It sent me to places I like to go to in my spirit to ruminate.

      Here are some of the quotes that came up for me.
      My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?
      C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

      1st Corinthians 15
      …27 For “God has put everything under His feet.” Now when it says that everything has been put under Him, this clearly does not include the One who put everything under Him.
      28 And when all things have been subjected to Him, then the Son Himself will be made subject to Him who put all things under Him, so that God may be all in all.

      John 20
      …20 After He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.
      21Again Jesus said to them, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent Me, so also I am sending you.”

      https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/20e727d8f5cd3e0f8db40dab8d7452e5b1207b0b3dcd562d219f73a031a95274.png
      … And this meme just for s**** and giggles!

    • Cynthia

      The Book of Job is both tough and interesting from a philosophical POV.

      Job, of course, doesn’t ultimately get his answer. He is simply left with the understanding that there’s bigger picture and reality behind the workings of the universe that is clearly beyond his limited human knowledge.

      To me, the bigger message is for his friends. THEY are sure that they have the answer, and that the answer must be that Job had sinned. They were wrong. The message then is that we don’t know and can’t know the exact reason for bad things happening to good people, and that there isn’t some precise formula where good is rewarded and bad is punished in an obvious way. That doesn’t mean that there is no order at all in the universe, or that there is no point in being good – just that human beings can never really know or understand God, but need to simply focus on being moral humans. We need some humility about our lack of knowledge. Even single person who claims that some disaster is a divine punishment, or who tries to comfort a mourner by claiming that God had a reason, or who believes that a genuinely religious person would never be poor or sick or need help – they are wrong. Explaining the reason for bad things, especially if it leads to treating people who are suffering badly, is just wrong. Instead, the human response to suffering needs to be compassion and seeking to help.

      • Sam Andrew

        Very good points, great to hear some feedback! I agree the friend in a sense represent the typical rationalizations for suffering etc. that people jump to automatically, and their surety that they understand and know the moral order of the universe turns out to be their greatest folly. I think you are right that in the end we can’t predict or understand any sense of a divine plan, just offer our compassion and try to avoid and mitigate suffering as best we can within our limited resources.

        I’m not so sure Job didn’t get his answer though, in some ways i think the lack of a direct answer, the focus on the psychical order of the world is the answer – suffering is a inevitable part of our physical reality, no rhyme nor reason. But such a rich text as that, in such a deep tradition of Hebrew theology is open to many interpretations.

        Its slightly odd to me that in spite of how clear the book of Job was that there are no answers to suffering we can know, it hasn’t stopped thousands of people since it was written, and widely available still mirroring the replies of Jobs friends and trying to come up with and answer to the question God, according to the book of Job, refused to answer. Suffering is such a horrible thing that no one can ever be satisfied with a given response, or no response.

  • Jim Rothwell

    So, I’ve been wondering lately about free will, so I thought I’d throw this out there and see what others think: If its true that God is love, that predicates the desire for an authentic relationship, and that means the other party must be able to choose to love you fully in return, or not, or partially. Thus, free will. But free will then implies that the other party’s choices are unknown, which seems to contradict omniscience. So what if omniscience isn’t really what we think its is? What if omniscience is knowing everything that has happened, everything that is happening, and *the likelihood* of all future events? Then God would have plans for us, and can move to make those things more likely (including, probably, the opportunity for growth through adversity), but whether those come to pass is subject to the decisions of many people.

    Thoughts?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Are you referring to the classic concept of Middle Knowledge? http://www.iep.utm.edu/middlekn/

  • Will Barton

    The non-omniscient God that you describe in this blog post

    “But what if one envisages a perfectly powerful and good God who simply does not realize that created beings are suffering – whether because God does not get that information, or because God is not the kind of entity that is able to empathize with our anguish?”

    That sort of ignorant God, sounds a bit like a deist version of God.

  • Nick G

    Surely omnipotence implies at least the ability to know anything the omnipotent agent wishes to know, and indeed to experience anything it wishes to experience? So if that agent doesn’t know we suffer, or doesn’t empathise, it’s because it chooses not to.

    If so, the perhaps the appropriate course of action would be that of
    Eva Kor, namely to forgive God rather than harbor resentment, for your
    own sake.

    Eva Kor chose to forgive what was done to her. It would be quite different if she presumed to forgive what Mengele did to others. If there is an omnipotent being, its victims number in the quadrillions, most of them lacking the cognitive capacity to forgive.

  • Cynthia

    Ultimately, is the issue one of having a concept of God that is anthropomorphic?

    The question seems to assume that God works like a slightly bigger and more power human. God learns of a problem, and then comes to a decision about whether or not to fix it.

    What if, however, someone starts by acknowledging that the terms we use are simply human-based metaphors – we use them because that’s what we relate to, but we also acknowledge that they are just metaphors and ultimately an inadequate description of an unknowable reality?

    Here’s a small example – what if “knowing” means “everything you do matters, nothing can be hidden and immune from consequences”? If God is perceived as simply the ultimate force and not seen as human, something like an injury or death due to a fall would be an example of a law of nature (gravity) applying at all times.

    • Nick G

      What evidence is there for the existence of such an “unknowable reality”?

      what if “knowing” means “everything you do matters, nothing can be hidden and immune from consequences”?

      There’s a problem with that: that isn’t what “knowing” means.

      If God is perceived as simply the ultimate force and not seen as human, something like an injury or death due to a fall would be an example of a law of nature (gravity) applying at all times.

      Exactly as if one concludes that there is no God, you mean?

      • Cynthia

        I mean that the typical Christian concept of God is often anthropomorphic, with people picturing a God with human characteristics including human emotions and thought. Christianity specifically teaches that one aspect of the Trinity was once both human and divine. Many denominations also value adherence to a specific dogma, even making that the ultimate value and key to salvation.

        That is not the only concept of God that exists, however, especially if you look at non-Christian religions.

        • Nick G

          That is not the only concept of God that exists, however, especially if you look at non-Christian religions.

          True, but with no reason to think any of these concepts are instantiated, so what?