June 25, 2021

This is a continuation of the exchange documented in my post, Problem of Evil & of Good: Great Dialogue w Agnostic (6-17-21). The words of “axelbeingcivil” (from my combox) will be in blue.

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Alright, here we go! This is gonna take some time and effort…

I don’t want to turn this into a mega-quote-fest, so I’m going to try and break this down into several broad categories of response. There’s multiple threads to this discussion now and they all deserve a response, but they all have their own unique aspects.

Broadly, I’d frame these things as…

1. Permissive vs. Perfect Will
2. The actions of Satan specifically
3. Libertarian free will (I am probably going to cover this discussing point 1)
4. Good in a godless world

Permissive vs. Perfect Will

So, before I go any further, I need to just clarify terms here as to what is being talked about. If I understand the concepts correctly, Perfect Will represents what God “wants” to happen. That is, if all the universe worked flawlessly and without failure, God’s perfect will is precisely what would happen but, according to the argument, because of free will, things don’t go according to the grand plan.

That’s right. God can’t control free will to mold it into His perfect will, or else it would cease to be free will. But He can work around and with it and bring about the best outcome, given free will: at least for His followers. Romans 8:28 (my favorite verse in the Bible) states: “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose” (RSV). God also has to work around our Cosmic Rebellion, which Christians call “the fall” or “original sin”; and our continuing predisposition towards sin (concupiscence). He does so, but that is His permissive, rather than perfect will.

Permissive Will, therefore, is the result. That is, God allows us to act upon our free will, regardless of the consequences to ourselves or others, because free will creates some kind of moral value. That is, God could’ve made us robots who automatically and always love and obey, but didn’t because it’d nullify the value of any good that we do.

Correct. Would you prefer to be a robot rather than a free agent who is truly free?

Now, of course, there are times where God does intervene. Miracles, prophets, etc.

As a rare exception to the usual norm and as an act of mercy . . .

These, of course, shun the Permissive Will, as God imposes the divine will directly,

It’s hardly “imposition” if we like the results. The recipient of a miracle would say, “God can ‘impose’ that type of will on me whenever He likes, if I am healed of blindness or have a demon cast out of me, or am cured of cancer!”

but I don’t think your argument requires God to be in any way consistent with when they do or do not apply Permissive Will.

We are too limited in our perspective to even fully understand what “consistency” means in an omniscient, all-benevolent Being. Let me submit an analogy if I may. We were changing our oldest granddaughter’s diaper yesterday (we’re babysitting her for a week) and she was putting up a tremendous fuss. No doubt she thought this was “torture” and a huge inconvenience (perhaps even embarrassment: who knows?). But from our far more advanced vantage-point we know it was absolutely necessary and that to not do it would bring about a diaper rash, making her far more miserable than she was during the “ordeal” of a diaper change.

Just like the baby, there are many things we can’t possibly comprehend about God, by the nature of the case. He’s infinitely greater in every way than we are. This is why He provided us with inspired revelation: to learn as much as humanly possible about Him.

You’ll forgive me for considering that arbitrary, though.

It’s not, in light of what I just wrote.

But, all that said, I do not consider the conception of a “Permissive Will” to be a moral defense here.

Humans engage in permissiveness too. Earlier, you used the example of you letting your daughter go out and party. There’s a possibility that doing so may lead to questionable behaviour but, in the long run, you allow it because the experience of making her own decisions is worth the risks entailed there.

On the other hand, if your daughter showed you a handgun and told you she was off to murder the neighbour… You might be inclined to try and stop her! You’d recognize that the benefits of her freedom are significantly outweighed by the long-term harm she is almost certainly about to do.

God simply can’t intervene (as our infinitely greater Creator) every time an evil act is going to occur. It’s not the same as a parent and a daughter. Every analogy of human beings to God has its limitations. This is what I mentioned last time. God is on a different plane than we are. I speculated about a world in which God intervened to prevent every particular act of evil in my longest and most in-depth treatment of this issue:. I was talking more about natural disasters and calamities, but the same reasoning could easily be applied to human-produced acts of evil:

It is said that God could and should have performed many more miracles than Christians say He performs, to alleviate “unnecessary” suffering. But this is precisely what a natural world with laws and a uniformitarian principle precludes from the outset. How is it that the atheist can (in their hypothetical theories and arguments against Christianity) imagine all sorts of miracles and supernatural events that God should have done when it comes to evil and the FWD [free will defense]? “God should do this,” “He should have done that,” “I could have done much better than God did,” . . .

Yet when it comes to natural science (which is precisely what we are talking about, in terms of ”natural evil”), all of a sudden none of this is plausible (barely even possible) at all. Why is that? Legions of materialistic, naturalistic, and/or atheist scientists and their intellectual followers won’t allow the slightest miracle or direct divine intervention (not even in terms of intelligent design within the evolutionary hypothesis) with regard to the origin of life or DNA or mammals, or the human brain or eye, or even unique psychological/mental traits which humans possess.

Why would this be? I submit that it is because they have an extreme reluctance to introduce the miraculous when the natural can conceivably explain anything. They will resist any supernatural intervention into biological processes till their dying breath.

Yet when we switch the conversation over to FWD all of a sudden atheists — almost in spite of themselves – are introducing “superior” supernatural options for God to exercise, right and left. God is supposed to eliminate all disease, even though they are inevitable (even “normative”) according to the laws of biology as we know them. God is supposed to transform the entire structure of the laws of physics, so no one will ever get a scratch on their face. He is supposed to suspend a bullet in mid-air so it won’t kill its intended target, or make a knife turn to liquid before it rips into the flesh of yet another murder victim.

In the world these atheist critics demand of God, if He is to be a “good” God, or to exist at all, according to their exalted criteria, no one should ever have to get a corn on their toe, or a pimple, or have to blow their nose, or have chapped lips. God should turn rocks into Jello every time a child is to fall on one. Cars should turn into silly putty or steam or cellophane when they are about to crash. The sexually promiscuous should have their sexual diseases immediately healed so that no one else will catch them, and so that they can go on their merry way, etc.

Clearly, these sorts of critics find “plausible” whatever opposes against theism and Christianity, no matter what the subject is; no matter how contradictory and far-fetched such arguments are, compared to their attacks against other portions of the Christian apologetic or theistic philosophical defenses. Otherwise, they would argue consistently and accept the natural world as it is, rather than adopting a desperate, glaring logical double standard.

In effect, then, if we follow their reasoning, the entire universe becomes an Alice in Wonderland fantasy-land where man is at the center. This is the Anthropic Principle! Atheists then in effect demand from God the very things they claim to loathe when they are arguing against theism on other grounds. Man must be at the center of the universe and suffer no harm, in order for theism to be true. Miracles must take place here, there, and everywhere, if theism is to be accepted as a plausible or superior alternative to atheism.

The same atheists will argue till they’re blue in the face against demonstrable miracles such as Jesus’ Resurrection. What they demand in order to accept Christianity they are never willing to accept when in fact it occurs to any degree (say, e.g., the healings performed by Jesus). God is not bound by human whims and fancies and demands. The proofs and evidences He has already provided are summarily rejected by atheists, one-by-one, as never “good enough.”

Atheists and other skeptics seem to want to go to any lengths of intellectual inconsistency and hostility in order to preserve their skepticism. They refuse to bow down to God unless He creates an entirely different world, in order to conform to their ultimately illogical imaginings and excessive, absurd requests for what He should have done. They’re consistent in their inconsistency.

By definition, the natural world entails suffering. One doesn’t eliminate that “difficulty” simply by resorting to a hypothetical fantasy-world where God eliminates every suffering by recourse to miracle and suspension of the natural laws He put into place.

In any event, the world as He created it did not originally involve suffering (nor will it in the future, for the redeemed). Man could have chosen to live in such a world, just as the unfallen angels did. They chose never to rebel. But man did, and having done so, now he wants to blame God for everything for which the blame in actuality lies squarely upon his own shoulders.

The natural world can’t modify itself every time someone stubs their toe or gets a sunburn. That would require infinitely more miracles than any Christian claims have occurred. With a natural world and natural laws, any number of diseases are bound to occur. One could stay out in the cold too long and get pneumonia. Oh, so atheists want God – if He exists – to immediately cure every disease that comes about? Again, the miraculous, by definition, is not the normative. It is the extraordinary, rare event. I might stay underwater too long, swallow water, and damage my lungs. I could fall while ice skating, bump my head severely and damage my brain. I might eat a poisonous mushroom, or get stung by a poisonous snake, etc., etc. That’s how the world works. It is not God’s fault’ it is the nature of things, and the things of nature.

In an orderly, uniformitarian, largely predictable natural world which makes any sense at all, there will be diseases, torn ligaments, colds, and so forth. The question then becomes: “how much is too much suffering?” or “how many miracles is God required to perform to be a good and just God?” At that point the atheist can, of course, give no substantive, non-arbitrary answer, and his outlook is reduced to wishful thinking and pipe dreams.

Materialistic evolutionists resist miraculous creation at all costs precisely because they think miracles are exceedingly rare. Christians apply the same outlook to reality-at-large. We say that miracles will be very infrequent, by their very nature (“SUPERnatural”). And that must be the case so that the world is orderly and predictable enough to comfortably live in, in the first place.

This is because we recognize that there’s a threshold of potential harm beyond which allowing someone to act is unacceptable. We, too, value the free agency of other human beings, but that value is not exceeded by a certain degree of harm to others.

If God intervened every time we wanted to commit evil, then it would soon be the total contravention of free will (unless He picked-and-chose when to intervene, which is arbitrary and unlikely). Since He values our free will, He can’t do that because it is directly contradictory and even God is subject to the laws of logic, which are the laws of reality and the real world.

But He does mold our will in due course, as we approach a never-ending future in either heaven or hell. In light of that, this is simply a necessary temporary state of affairs: like a child having to wear braces for five years out of a life of 70-80 years or more. My wife had to wear a back brace for a while in her teenage years (scoliosis). Had she not done so, she would be in a wheelchair today. We chose to rebel. It wasn’t God’s choice. He allowed it.

Likewise, we recognize that, when one has the power to intervene to halt such violations, but chooses not to, one is culpable to some extent for them. Not as much as the bad actor, generally, but the degree of culpability is usually proportional to the level of control they had over the situation and responsibility that they held. This ranges from a parent allowing a child irresponsible levels of freedom (eating nothing but candy and smoking cigarettes is not something a responsible parent lets a twelve-year-old do) to not reporting malfeasance to refusing to intervene in ongoing immoral behaviour. If a wealthy person allows a person to starve at their door, the Bible itself calls that person out as evil!

None of these analogical considerations overcome the factors of the Creator-creature relationship that I have been discussing, in light of free will. You need to address the arguments I have been making too.

To that end, we have to conclude that, since God has the power to intervene and chooses not to, they bear at least some of the responsibility for what happens.

What this argument amounts to, then, is the belief that allowing the unrestrained exercise of free will is more important than placing any kind of safeguard or abjuration against evil action.

I don’t think anyone, anywhere, ever has comfortably made that argument. There are always circumstances where, at a certain point, it becomes immoral not to intervene. There’s always murkiness and grey areas because humans are still human, but I would argue that most human beings recognize, for example, that the British were right to put a stop to the immolation of widows in India, even if their conquest and occupation was a selfish evil.

I do not see any benefit to history’s great atrocities, especially not to the victims of those atrocities, that would justify a lack of intervention. Moreover, there is a double crime, too, in that many of those atrocities occurred due to lack of knowledge on the parts of various human beings.

In summary, I don’t find that perspective at all persuasive.

God does overcome “grand evil” in many ways, through prayer, selected miracles, the particularities of circumstances and situations, etc. So the Christian would say, for example, that men (not God) caused World War II. God didn’t decide to start killing everyone different (the Nazis and the Japanese). But God could have (and we believe, did) help in any number of ways to defeat that evil, in assisting human beings to overcome it. Thus, we have a world where the Nazis didn’t prevail and predominate.  Other evils still have to be opposed (terrorism, remaining Communism, sexism, racism, economic exploitation, slavery [which still exists], sexual trafficking, drug pushers, militant fundamentalist Islam, sexual immorality, etc.). God will help relatively good people to defeat those things, too, should they decide to do so.

There are all kinds of stories about World War II, where prayer had a marvelous effect, or where weather changes favored the Allies. I just saw a movie about D-Day (The Longest Day). It is a fact that Hitler took a sleeping pill and slept longer than usual on the morning of D-Day. Consequently, German generals couldn’t do things they thought were necessary to prevent the success of the invasion. Who’s to say that God didn’t put the thought into the mind of Hitler: “take a sleeping pill”? Hitler’s little nap could have changed the entire course of the war.

The best German general, Rommel, was in Germany celebrating the birthday of his wife on D-Day and so was a non-factor. God does intervene in rare exceptions with miracles. Likewise, He can choose to intervene in a more subtle, hidden way. Hitler made lots of dumb military decisions, like deciding to fight on eastern and western fronts simultaneously (which sealed his fate in retrospect).

So God does intervene through massive prayer (human beings freely expressing their desire for good to prevail over evil). He’s a caring, loving God. But He cannot on the other hand (due to free will and the laws of nature), always intervene against evil (for the reasons I have explained); nor is He obliged to do so. He made us free and able, for the most part, to decide to cease doing the evil that we so often choose to do, and to oppose the evil that others are intent on doing.

Your task, on the other hand, as always, is to tell us all why you casually assume that various things are wrong and evil in the first place. You have no objective basis for doing so, without God. And so, today, we have otherwise ethical people saying it is fine and dandy to allow a baby who survived an abortion attempt to starve to death on a table in a hospital, gasping for air and in agony the whole time. I say that is evil and barbaric; so does Christianity and the Bible and God. Millions now say it is perfectly acceptable behavior, along with the ongoing genocide of abortion itself: which is our equivalent to the extraordinary moral blindness of slavery in the 19th century.

Even the likely minority of atheists who agree these things are wrong have no real, objective basis to say why they think so. Their morality comes from men. Thus, seven men on the Supreme Court in America in 1973 thought it was morally permissible to kill children in the womb. That’s the atheist “standard”: those seven men. There are many other examples besides abortion. Evil people think the drug trade or sexual trafficking is perfectly fine, etc.

Satan, in specific

Satan’s a distinct and separate case here. I don’t think you reinforce your argument particularly well by referencing Job, in which God very specifically places Job – poor Job – into Satan’s hands.

That’s part and parcel of free will. In rebelling against God, human beings put themselves under the particular alternate influence of Satan, who had also rebelled as an angel. God allows this to take place. But there will be an end to it. And we know that because God, Who knows everything and is outside of time, told us so.

He does not let Satan kill him,

That’s the point. See, there was a limit, wasn’t there?

but allows Satan to torment Job in ways that are truly unimaginable for those who have not endured them; not merely the anxieties and fears of starvation and disease, but the loss of his wives and children, who are the essence of what makes life matter.

And in the end He restored Job’s fortunes. We’ve already been through this.

(As an aside, it’s entirely possible that Job was a slaveholder, so perhaps there’s a reason to not have too much pity on him, but I think anyone can appreciate that the loss of one’s family as a trauma regardless of the person in question.)

He suffered terribly. There is no doubt about that.

If the argument is that Satan acts freely, without God’s permission, Job is a bad example. Satan was explicitly given control by God. 

He’s permitted to do so. Permissive will. It doesn’t portray God as saying, “I think it’s wonderful that you want to horribly torment Job! You have My blessing!” The story is an attempt to explain an abstract concept (the problem of evil) insofar as it ultimately says that it is a mystery and that God, as God, cannot be fully understood by the mind of man (that’s what most of the dialogue in the book is about). It uses the literary technique of anthropopathism to do so. Satan gained control because human beings chose Him over God when it was time to make a choice between the two. And we choose his “way” every time we choose to sin. If we hadn’t done that, it would be a non-issue. But when we made that choice, God allowed it to occur. And that’s why he allowed Satan to torment Job.

It was not Job’s personal choice or failures that led to his torment – quite the opposite, we are told that Job is a good and godly man, who praises and gives thanks for his blessings – but simply God listening to Satan’s argument and seeking to prove the Accuser wrong.

Exactly: even the righteous suffer because of man’s cosmic rebellion and what it has brought about. This is what Christians agonize about, and what apologists have to try to explain. Atheists have to agonize over how to define good in a non-arbitrary, non-relativistic, objective way. And atheism has produced far worse fruits in the real world.

HaShem’s response at the end of Job is, in all of this, a bit amusing, since it’s an appeal to mystery. God has some grander plan than mortal minds can consider, so asking the question of “Why do bad things happen to good people?” is inane, at best. The Lord works in mysterious ways, so Job tells us.

He’s exactly right. We can understand a lot, with the help of revelation, but we can never fully understand a Being so far above us as God is.

1st Kings 22, likewise, makes reference to a deceiving spirit approaching God, who has asked the celestial choir who shall act to lure Ahab into destruction. Angel or demon, it’s clear that this spiritual principality acts only with the direct assent and direction of God.

Most people think this is an instance of the personification of the spirit of prophecy. It’s definitely not an evil spirit, though. Keil and Delitzsch Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament states concerning this:

The vision described by Micah was not merely a subjective drapery introduced by the prophet, but a simple communication of the real inward vision by which the fact had been revealed to him, that the prophecy of those 400 prophets was inspired by a lying spirit. The spirit (הרוּח) which inspired these prophets as a lying spirit is neither Satan, nor any evil spirit whatever, but, as the definite article and the whole of the context show, the personified spirit of prophecy, which is only so far a πνεῦμα ἀκάθαρτον τῆς πλάνης (Zechariah 13:21 John 4:6) and under the influence of Satan as it works as שׁקר רוּח in accordance with the will of God. For even the predictions of the false prophets, as we may see from the passage before us, and also from Zechariah 13:2 and the scriptural teaching in other passages concerning the spiritual principle of evil, were not mere inventions of human reason and fancy; but the false prophets as well as the true were governed by a supernatural spiritual principle, and, according to divine appointment, were under the influence of the evil spirit in the service of falsehood, just as the true prophets were moved by the Holy Spirit in the service of the Lord. The manner in which the supernatural influence of the lying spirit upon the false prophets is brought out in Micah’s vision is, that the spirit of prophecy (רוח הנבואה) offers itself to deceive Ahab as שׁקר רוּח in the false prophets. Jehovah sends this spirit, inasmuch as the deception of Ahab has been inflicted upon him as a judgment of God for his unbelief. But there is no statement here to the effect that this lying spirit proceeded from Satan, because the object of the prophet was simply to bring out the working of God in the deception practised upon Ahab by his prophets. . . .

Jehovah has ordained that Ahab, being led astray by a prediction of his prophets inspired by the spirit of lies, shall enter upon the war, that he may find therein the punishment of his ungodliness. As he would not listen to the word of the Lord in the mouth of His true servants, God had given him up (παρέδωκεν, Romans 1:24Romans 1:26Romans 1:28) in his unbelief to the working of the spirits of lying. But that this did not destroy the freedom of the human will is evident from the expression תּפתּה, “thou canst persuade him,” and still more clearly from תּוּכל גּם, “thou wilt also be able,” since they both presuppose the possibility of resistance to temptation on the part of man.

This supports what I was just saying about how God could have put thoughts into the mind of Hitler or Rommel, etc., to influence the outcome of World War II. God likes to work in concert with us and our prayers (free will again). Lots of Christians were praying for an Allied victory in World War II, just as lots of Christians prayed and engaged in activism and voting that ended British and American slavery. God didn’t simply send brimstone and fire from heaven, because that’s not usually how He works.

Not that the Allies were perfect, either, in World War II. When we sought to end the Pacific War, it was by intrinsically evil acts: two nuclear bombs on civilian populations.

And while there are references later on to the power to cast out unclean spirits – the pneuma akathartoi – these are curious beasts. There is no infernal hierarchy, no mention of infernal powers. The Talmud actually describes shedim as a different class of being entirely; mortal, despite their generally non-corporeal forms, and in need of sustenance.

No particular comment on that . . .

You can take, from all of this, a very different interpretation, where Satan is not some fallen angel but, rather, exactly what the name HaSatan implies; the Accuser, a loyal servant whose duty it is to test humanity on behalf of God, with the unclean spirits commanded and exorcised merely a choir of the otherwise mundane and earthly ephemeral entities, who obey divine commandments but are antithetical to human life.

I don’t see that the Bible (especially the New Testament) teaches that.

But let’s set that interesting demonology aside for a moment and focus on a core question: If God has demonstrated a power to prevent demonic incursion into our world, but also a willingness to allow it anyway, the natural answer is that God is allowing it for some purpose. As Job demonstrates, we may be unclear or ignorant of such purposes, but God still chooses to allow it. To that end, God was responsible for all the suffering Job experienced.

Allowing is not total responsibility. That’s the equation that you have not established is the case. And just because God is omniscient and omnipotent doesn’t change that fact.

That’s really the core of it. If you take the Book of Job as a literal telling of events, Job’s suffering only happened because of God. Ergo, God is directly responsible.

The Satan portion is likely anthropopathic (i.e., not literal; a literary technique). But the theology fits fine with Christianity (and Judaism). But it didn’tonly happen because of God.” God allowed it to happen, just like he has allowed the devil to run free till the time of judgment comes.

If you then believe that Satan only has any such power because of God, you must likewise hold God responsible for all actions by infernal whim.

That doesn’t follow at all. I don’t how many times and how many different ways I have to say it. Just because God could change just about any particular in the universe (that isn’t contradictory or evil) doesn’t mean that He is responsible for every particular decision made by all creatures. Freedom is what it is and so is free will.

Libertarian free will

You’ll have to forgive me but I don’t find “it’s a mystery!” to be satisfying. If you can’t produce a reason to hold a specific set of beliefs, I can’t dissuade you, but you’re also going to have a hard time convincing me.

Well, quite obviously I ain’t just doing that, because if I was, this paper would be much shorter than it is! I am explaining as far as the human intellect can take this. Every Christian admits there is mystery, too, to things that are of God. That’s not unusual at all for any thinker (lest you think so). It’s not “blind faith.” So, for example, in science, there continue to be great mysteries. The big thing right now is dark matter and dark energy. Scientists believe in both, but know very little about them. They manage to believe without total, complete, comprehensive knowledge. They know enough to believe in them. And that’s how Christianity is.

I do not believe predestination is required to obliterate free will; I think the very concept of free will is paradoxical in and of itself. I laid out my reasoning in more complex terms last time but it can simply be focused on the question of “Why did someone make a decision?”

All decisions are the result of causal chains. There is a cause and an effect. If someone could theoretically have produced a different outcome from the same causes, the effect is random, because there is no relation between the causes and the effects.

Omniscience doesn’t enter into the question here; libertarian free will is a paradox from its inception. Omniscience just adjusts the level of moral responsibility that lies on God’s hands since, knowing the outcome from the start, they could change it to be different. Applying blame for actors that God essentially placed into that situation is blaming the victim.

Furthermore, even if something like libertarian free will did exist, you’ve demonstrated that the “outcome” of it – of sin – is unnecessary. You say that, unhampered by flesh, strife, Original Sin, or infernal influences, humanity would be sinless and pure, even with free will. Knowing that, absent those things, humanity would be perfectly good, God created them anyway, instead of simply creating humanity already in those perfect conditions. Or, likewise, God could have created humanity sufficiently capable of resisting all temptation and with the moral drive to do so, whereupon we would never sin, despite these issues.

He can’t do that and allow free will (i.e., a free will that would always make the right choice and avoid the whole evil detour). It’s possible, however, that there are worlds with unfallen creatures. C. S. Lewis wrote about that. But if they exist, it’s by the creatures’ choices, not because God wouldn’t allow them to do otherwise. The outcome is driven by the creature, not God. God gives them everything they need to make the right choice.

It’s simply inescapable. If God knew suffering would occur because of certain factors and could’ve avoided them, God is responsible for that suffering. You can argue it serves some greater purpose – and perhaps it might – but then the question arises of whether God could’ve achieved the same ends with a different means. Omnipotence demands we say yes.

I will add that a less perfect deity could be forgiven for these failings. A god who is not all-knowing may simply not know the outcome of their actions and just be doing their best. A god who is not all-powerful might simply not be able to bring about a perfect outcome. But for any deity that is ascribed perfection, it’s not really possible to escape these issues.

Philosopher Alvin Plantinga (whom many think is the greatest living Christian philosopher) doesn’t think so. See my paper, “Logical” Problem of Evil: Alvin Plantinga’s Decisive Refutation (The Problem of Evil is NOT a Disproof of God’s Existence, Goodness, or Omnipotence).

Good in a godless world

I have to start by saying that I do not believe rewards or later goodness “makes up” for suffering. I believe that, in the balance, it can be worth it to suffer for a worthy goal, but the better thing is to attain the goal without suffering. If you made your offer of blood in exchange for a vacation, I’d say that the benefit outweighs the suffering, but it’d be even better to get the benefit without the pain.

I make the same moral consideration with, say, giving a child a vaccine. It’s unpleasant for them, but it’s better they suffer a small pain and be tired for a few days than risk catching measles. However, if I can vaccinate a child without causing them any pain, I would. Why wouldn’t I? The suffering doesn’t add anything to the equation.

In the end, suffering isn’t erased by later rewards; the suffering is real, no matter what. Just like I don’t believe that apologies or later good deeds can “make up” for past misdeeds. They can demonstrate you’ve changed, they can show true contrition, and even just be a sign of being a good person, but you can’t “buy” your way into being a good person. There is no tally sheet that we all get to work off. Done, as they say, is done.

We would say that human beings don’t have exhaustive knowledge about what the higher purpose for suffering may be. I was just watching the Ken Burns documentary on Lewis and Clark, and in the features they interviewed him and asked about his mother dying when he was twelve. And he noted that the greatest thing his mother ever did for him was die when he was young. It sounded shocking at first. But he didn’t mean that he wished her to die; rather, the point was that her death forced him to confront “real life” and his own goals and aspirations, and he thinks that it literally made him what he is: the world’s greatest documentary filmmaker. It doesn’t make suffering less painful, but good things can come from it.

If there’s something I still enjoy and appreciate about Christianity, it’s the idea of grace and redemption; it’s something I still hold onto as a belief. Not in the form of a divinely granted salvific power, but simply that people can grow and change, and that letting go and forgiving past transgressions is important to our health moving forwards. We can’t change the past, but we can move on and move forwards; sins washed away by our transformation into a better person.

No one can do any good thing without God’s grace, and it must be asked for and “worked with” (including repentance for sins). You can hardly ask for something from a being, if He doesn’t exist. But the principle makes sense, in a world with God. Without God, it makes little sense. It’ll work to an extent, because that’s how God designed it, but if there had never been a God, the world would be far, far worse than it is. And the atheist is always free to redefine any sin away. He or she is his own king and master. No one to be accountable to in the final analysis.

Now… On the meat of the topic of goodness in a godless world… Yes, I do believe people are basically good. There’s a wonderful parable by the Confucian scholar Mencius, called the Allegory of the Well, which I think illustrates it nicely.

If a human being – high or low, rich or poor, virtuous or venal – is walking down a road and sees a child playing by a well, and that child trips and falls, their innate reaction will be to reach for that child to save them. That most basic, unthinking, unfeeling instinct in all humans is to help and protect one another. Humans, like raindrops in a forest, will always flow towards the common river. Like water being forced uphill, people can be made to act against this instinct, but that core instinct – that care for one another – lies in the heart of everyone.

And we say it is because God already put that good and decent impulse in them. Where we agree is to say that if a person rejects this understanding of charity and compassion, it’s their own fault.

It’s a pleasant and simplistic allegory – as allegories are – and humanity is complex and complicated, with some people born with defects in empathy, say, but I think its essential truth is correct: Humans, at their basest level, want to do good for one another. It takes other circumstances to make that no longer the case.

They do before they are corrupted by sin. This is why children before the age of reason seem so “innocent.” They actually literally are more innocent than those who know more and thus sin more.

It’s why, in every part of the world where there has been an atrocity, those in charge have taken special pains to ensure that those doing the actual deed are as mentally distanced from the victims as possible. Even those people who committed history’s worst atrocities, even the Nazis, engaged in this behaviour, to hide from themselves what they were doing. Prior to the use of gas chambers, soldiers who were made to shoot Germany’s “undesirables” frequently took their own lives, because the horror of what they’d done stained itself indelibly into their souls.

Yes, because somewhere buried down deep, remains the conscience that comes from God.

So, as I said, I do have reasons for believing people are basically good. Evil exists within us too, but I think we are, overall, good. Weak, perhaps, but good. But I also said that this is an article of faith for me. I don’t really have absolute proof either way. You can ascribe that to the fumes of faith if you will, but it’s not something I can really reason perfectly for or against.

I believe people to be basically good, in absence of perfect evidence one way or the other. In this, I am not, as you say, hyper-rational.

If we’re “basically good” on the whole, then all the human-caused suffering we see is the remarkable thing to explain. The world shouldn’t and wouldn’t be what it is, and this is your “problem of good.” The good things would be far more prevalent than the bad, if this were true. You have a lot more to explain than I do, because I believe in original sin and actual sin and human beings with free will who rebel against the All-Good God Who made them.

But in the balance, assume I’m wrong. Assume that there are no gods, no Heaven or Hell, that things are as bleak as you say, and that humanity is fundamentally malicious at its core.

It wouldn’t affect one iota as to whether atheism is true or not. Truth doesn’t care about our feelings; it simply is. If God exists, it doesn’t matter whether I find their actions immoral or not; they do exist. Likewise, if God does not exist, it doesn’t matter how bleak or uncomfortable or despairing it makes you feel; they simply don’t. Our wants or desires are not the moral arbiter of a belief’s correctness or falsity.

But what is the moral arbiter? This is your difficulty. All you have done is tell me what isn’t the moral arbiter. And I don’t blame you, because in atheism there is nothing beyond human beings. If we determine right and wrong, then given world history and the long sad record of men doing evil to one another, to me that is an exponentially more difficult problem than the problem of evil in the theistic worldview. And it’s why — I submit — you have written very little about it. Atheists have no solid answer to it, from where I sit.

And as a conclusion on why I care… I don’t believe God exists, but you definitely do. I share this world with people of all religious faiths, and I find their ideas and perspectives fascinating. It’s interesting to engage with people and discuss their perspectives; to test their ideas and my own, and see what shakes out. Because even if I don’t believe in your deity, you do, and it clearly shapes and affects your beliefs on things like morality and responsibility, which are at the core of this discussion.

I deeply appreciate your cordiality and “normal” behavior. Christians are confronted constantly with atheists who seem to get a charge out of mocking and belittling us and telling whoppers about how anti-intellectual, anti-scientific, and childishly gullible we are. I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to simply have a good discussion, minus all the insults and straw men. Rest assured also that my criticisms I have are of your views, not you as a person. You seem like a really cool, likable person.

Sorry for taking so long… But hopefully this was worth the wait.

It certainly was. No need for apologies. Thanks!

***

Photo creditCover of the 1888 edition of Goody Two-Shoes, published by McLoughlin Bro’s. of New York, US. The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes was a children’s story published by John Newbery in London in 1765. [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

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Summary: More great dialogue with a friendly, non-insulting agnostic on the problem of evil: that thorniest of issues; along with my retort regarding the corresponding atheist “problem of good.”

June 17, 2021

This began when “axelbeingcivil” started the discussion on my blog, on 7-7-21. His words will be in blue.

*****

A belief in demons, even the devil, does not mean a belief in Hell or eternal separation from God. God sends malicious and malevolent spirits to serve his purposes at several points in the Bible, and they are described as faithful attendants of his court. When Satan appears in the Book of Job, he is given no reproach or chastisement. If people accept that God sends hardships to test them or for them to struggle against, why not devils to inflict misery and suffering? After all, omnipotence means God intends for the suffering to happen anyway, right?

That’s an extreme form of Calvinism, which is a tiny minority position in historic Christianity. Did you used to be a Christian? If so, what kind? Are you an atheist now?

I admit, I have many negative things to say about Calvin – his conception of what justice, compassion, and mercy look like is nothing but rebranded sadism – but I do think he was one of the rare few people to understand the implications of omniscience and omnipotence as to evil’s presence in the world.

That said, I don’t think this is Calvinism. The notion that Satan acts only and solely as God permits is a part of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. See:

Although Satan may act in the world out of hatred for God and his kingdom in Christ Jesus, and although his action may cause grave injuries – of a spiritual nature and, indirectly, even of a physical nature – to each man and to society, the action is permitted by divine providence which with strength and gentleness guides human and cosmic history. It is a great mystery that providence should permit diabolical activity, but “we know that in everything God works for good with those who love him.”

Paragraph 395 of the Catechism. This notion – that Satan and all his evil are only and solely what God permits, for some ostensible purpose (usually to test people or to allow for God’s own glorification) – is fairly mainstream.

I was Christian, yes. Now, I would call myself an agnostic atheist. Still fond of chatting with my former coreligionists, though.

Yes, of course, God permits evil (His permissive will). It’s not His perfect will. Therefore, He causes no evil; He only permits it.

What kind of Christian were you; what denomination?

If something only occurs because you permit it, what’s the difference between you causing it and not? It feels like, if you were to analyze that through the principle of moral cooperation, it’d be obvious that it is indeed evil.

If I, say, knew that someone was preparing to commit a mass shooting and had evidence of that, and I could prevent it with no fear of harm to myself (or indeed anyone), but chose not to, in what way am I not morally culpable?

(And, yes, I am aware that opens the door to holding ourselves culpable for all kinds of evils-by-tacit-approval. I actually believe that is the case. Humans can’t be said to be at all perfect.)

As for what kind, hard to put a pin in it, but always some kind of Protestant. In my life, I’ve been a part of Anglican, Methodist, and Baptist church communities.

I permit my teenage daughter to go out and party with her friends. If she decides to start taking heroin or to drunk drive, is that therefore my fault? Or is it hers? Did I cause that?

The analogy here doesn’t really work, since you lack perfect knowledge and perfect power and perfect compassion. You also didn’t create heroin or the intoxicating effects of alcohol or any of the fundamental laws of the cosmos, much less a thing like injury and death. Hence, the level of responsibility you bear is very different than someone who did.

Assuming here that the doctrine of Hell is correct for the moment, and the native seat of Satan is a bronze throne at the heart of a lake of fire, lord of his prison-city, the only reason that the infernal powers may have any control or influence over Earth and its inhabitants is divine remit. That is, if God simply declared that those rebellious and emphatically former heavenly princes could not enter Earth’s spheres or have influence over it, they would indeed have no influence. The only reason they have any whatsoever is God’s direct say-so.

Since God also knows whether these infernal powers mean good or ill, what they both intend to do and will do (which may not be the same thing) if allowed to proceed, and that God is perfectly capable of halting them without the slightest issue if so desired… It stands to reason that they only and solely act at God’s discretion. That would make God responsible for their actions, even without having directed them.

Consider, by way of analogy, a parole board. These are people whose job it is to weigh individual convicts on their merits and likelihood of reform, and to approve the release of those who merit the opportunity of being redeemed to society and retaining those who still present a threat.

Imagine if a parole board, in its entirely limited and human capacity, had strong evidence of a convict up for release not merely being a potential threat but actively and openly planning to do harm to someone or likely even many someones. I’m talking about threatening writings, declarations of hatred, detailed plans, etc.

If that parole board decided, in full knowledge, to release that inmate anyway, we would rightly consider them culpable in whatever suffering inevitably followed. Just because their hands weren’t the ones that got dirty doesn’t change that they were in a position of power and authority and, rather than use it to protect the public, they did the opposite.

And that, in turn, is a degree of responsibility we purely demand from mere humans; flawed, frail, feeble things, herein infused with only a modest amount of power. To how much higher standard must be held one in whom all power and all authority is invested?

It doesn’t matter how powerful or knowledgeable God is, as to whether He wants to allow human free will. He allows it, knowing perfectly well all the bad things that will result, because He thinks that is better than the alternative: us being a bunch of robots.

My daughter just came home and said she almost got into an accident on the freeway. So say she had actually gotten killed? Would I then say it was my fault because I allowed her to get a driver’s license? No. It’s understood that with driving comes a risk of getting injured or killed. Almost everyone takes that risk because it’s better than the alternative.

I deny that what God permits, He is responsible for. The very existence of other free wills that exist besides God and His decisions and freedom, means that He is not responsible, just as parents caused their children to come into existence, but are not responsible for every decision they make beyond the age of reason. He allows the evil that results for the sake of this freedom as the better choice of the two.

Most of the bad and evil things that happen, we blame God for. We’re always blame-shifting: between each other, and between us and God. I recently wrote about how we blame God for the Nazi Holocaust, which is ludicrous, seeing that we had every ability to prevent WWII and all that went with it from happening (at least the European part of it), by listening to Churchill’s warnings about Nazi military build-up.

The parole board is a decent argument / analogy. But I think we can defeat it by noting that God and human beings are on entirely different planes. There is, therefore, a sense in which He sets the world and human free will on their courses and then “gets out of it” and says in effect, “okay, have at it. I gave you everything you need to be happy, but also a free will, which includes the possibility of evil. You have to choose which course to take. Don’t blame ME when you make stupid or evil choices (and you will make many of those)”.

But human judges and prisoners are on the same plane, and we have to have a system of justice, just as God has “cosmic justice.” But the latter (most importantly) also includes the afterlife and is not just this life.

And so God sees all the evil we do, and provides the way past it, and the way for anyone to be saved and to have a fulfilled, joyful life (even with suffering). And He gives us the possibility of a blissful eternal life. THAT is where evil is finally controlled and obliterated, and where God’s perfect will (us being fulfilled and pain-free in union with Him) is supreme and in place for all eternity. For some reason He wants to leave it as it is now, before we get to that point. We don’t (and I think, can’t) totally understand that. But, as best I can make out, I think it comes down to what a truly free will entails (contrary choice).

It’s a matter of perspective. Once we are in heaven with God, and the “time” (metaphorically) is a trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion times more than the time we spent on earth, then all the suffering will be seen to be worth it, and God will be known and understood as quite a fair and loving Being after all.

But in atheism you have all the suffering and no cosmic justice (Mao and Hitler and Stalin were no more punished than anyone else) and it’s all meaningless in the end and we are annihilated. That’s the “problem of good” that’s a lot more serious than even the thorny problem of evil. I would certainly be in despair and take the nihilist view if I believed that.

I’ve written about this many times on my Philosophy page (2nd section down). Probably my most extensive single treatment is this paper:

Problem of Evil: Treatise on the Most Serious Objection (Is God Malevolent, Weak, or Non-Existent Because of the Existence of Evil and Suffering?) [2002]

First, let me say that this is a fairly considerable reply, thanks for taking the time!

I do have to start by saying, though, that I think the issue I was raising has become a little muddled with time and analogy; understandably so, but muddled just the same.

This wasn’t about human free will. I find that topic fascinating, and I will respond to what you’ve said, but, first, I want to refocus here and emphasize what the issue was.

This was a discussion about diabolic forces being allowed to act upon humanity. If Satan is truly active in the world, as Catholic doctrine would argue he is, the argument of free will cannot really be made for him, can it? The Architect of Malice cannot be said to be a beneficiary of that same liberty; judgment has been passed, sentence made. His prison has been prepared; its walls raised, its bars set. The key to such a jail rests entirely in the hands of the Almighty.

Hence, while you are making arguments about free will for humans, such arguments cannot be raised for diabolic influences. Malefic powers have no place in that equation, since their choice has already been made, their punishment levied, and any access to our world is solely at the discretion of God. Otherwise, the prison of Hell would be no prison at all.

This is in keeping with the Catechism, as I brought up initially: Any action Satan takes is expressly with God’s permission. Unlike human beings, who exist amongst each other and interact with one another naturally, the unholy princes of the Pit have no such special place to argue for freedom.

So, even if we were to otherwise completely agree on the matter of human free will, I would answer that diabolic powers and wicked spirits still act only and solely at the discretion of the divine.

Now… With that out of the way…

I have to start by saying that I don’t believe in libertarian free will. I don’t think this belief relies solely on materialism (though it is bolstered by it), as is evidenced by plenty of religious authors recognizing that divine omniscience naturally requires predestination, culminating in Calvin’s writings (whom, as I believe I’ve said already, I find clear-sighted on this point but essentially on this point only).

By way of simple proof:

1. Either a given effect is determined by a cause or set of causes, or it is stochastically random. That is, if something happens, it is either caused to happen by something else, or it arises entirely and unpredictably at random, regardless of prior events.

(This is not purely binary; an effect could theoretically have some non-random and some random causes, but the point is that a given individual cause must either be one or the other.)

2. If an effect is the result of random causes, it cannot be said to meaningfully arise from any intent or choice; it is random and is not occurring in relation to anything else, including any theoretical actor’s decision-making.

3. If it is the result of a set of causes, any time those exact same circumstances occur, the same result will follow. That is, if you rewound time, the exact same situation would always recur. In such a case, it is impossible for any actor to change what they would do, because they will always do what they’d do in that specific set of circumstances. While even small variations might change the outcome, an identical set will not.

Hence, the idea that people have free will – that we can be anything but products of causal chains – is not logically sound.

But… For the sake of argument, let’s set even that aside.

I still think it’d be reasonable to argue that free will is not a sufficient answer to the problem of evil within this theological framework, and the evidence of that answer likes in the idea of the World to Come.

It is said that, in the World to Come, there will be no sin, for the Law will be written on the hearts of all its inhabitants. This can be interpreted in one of two ways.

First, humans will exist in some state where they have free will but will somehow be sinless. If that is the case, free will is not incompatible with sinlessness and the problem of evil persists. Evil could be eliminated while retaining free will.

The other way to interpret it is that humans will no longer have free will, but instead be eternally bound to a morally positive state.

Myself, I don’t find terror in either of these situations. Either of them is better than what currently exists. If the price of everyone loving one another is people being unable to choose *not* to love one another… I can’t call that a negative. There are plenty of ways humanity’s will is currently limited already – we can’t fly just by wishing it, or banish undesired emotions, say – so I find no particular problem in accepting some limitations to banish others. It’s just a question of what those limitations are, whom they’re imposed by, etc.

But even if we grant that

You bring up mentions of some of humanity’s worst atrocities, and say that they happened as a result of inaction on the part of good people, and I agree. In doing so, though, you set the very standard you’re trying to deny: That inaction is tantamount to tacit acceptance. As you ay, the world had every opportunity to prevent it, refused, and so was complicit (and I would count Churchill amongst the complicit, for his refusal to put a stop to the march of fascism in Spain by supporting the opposition there, but he saw it as too valuable a buffer against communism). Yet one person’s inaction does not excuse another’s. If we are, at the last judgment, to be held accountable for our own sins, with “But my brother-” never been allowed as an excuse, then surely the standard is the same.

If we hold the Great Powers of Europe responsible for their refusal to stand up and do the right thing, the same standard must surely apply to the Almighty. If inaction is culpability, then so much more the culpability of the most powerful. If we hold tiny mortals, with all their mortal fears and pains to suffer if they choose to risk everything they love in service of the common good, how much more heavy must the moral debt be on one unimpeachably mighty enough to do the job with no threat, no fear, no exhaustion?

I think you might offer a fair answer, for the record, about divine perspective. Perhaps our suffering means little to God; the depths of our agonies and miseries little more than children crying over a scraped knee in the perspective of a being who has seen stars be born and die. I think I could empathize with such a being and, if I stood before it and it acknowledged as such, admit it a benign flaw in the face of the cosmic good it provides.

But it’s still a flaw, and posits a God whose mind is alien to our own; who cannot understand our suffering and pain, and does not think it worthwhile to find a way around it. If we suffer, so what? It builds character. It posits a God who is not quite all-knowing or, if not that, not quite as perfectly compassionate.

I’ll conclude by saying that, once upon a time, I thought the same thing about atheism but, honestly, after ending up in that pool myself, my perspective’s only grown more compassionate? I don’t attribute that to atheism, mind, just… Getting older. I was a very dumb when I was younger, as young people tend to be (and have a right to be), and I am sure I will think myself just as dumb in ten years. Life’s like that.

The truth is… Reality’s awful sometimes. Bad people often do bad things and get away with it, and that’s miserable. But it’s not an excuse not to care, or to try.

I still care about other human beings. I still care about beauty and joy and happiness, and easing pain. I don’t have an objective reason for caring about any of those things, I just do, and those who do not will likely never agree with me on things and there’s nothing I can do to change that. There are things I take on faith still – that humans are, overall, basically good; that things will, on average, keep improving; that people can, through collective action, overcome their failings and improve the world for everyone; that compassion and love are worthwhile, and should be extended at every opportunity – and I don’t feel a particular need to seek objective justification for them, because I don’t think there is any.

There are not atoms of agape or molecules of mercy, but we can still make love real with our kindness and our actions. Maybe it seems dull or boring to an outsider but… They feel the same to me as they do to you. If nothing else, we can agree that compassion is a good thing and build common ground from there.

If you want me to review the rest of your works before commenting further, I’ll happily do so.

Cheers.

I don’t see how Satan and the demons are any different than human beings in this regard. They rebelled and were allowed to wreak havoc. Again, it’s God’s permissive will but not His perfect will. You appear to not make that distinction (which would collapse everything into God’s perfect will). You say they were judged. They were by being kicked out of heaven and out of the ranks of the obedient angels, but they have yet to be finally judged. Their judgment is inevitable because they made their choice against God.

The devil is not yet in hell, according to biblical and Christian theology. He will be sent there at the time of the general judgment / Second Coming (Rev 19:20; 20:10). The Bible, in both Job and Revelation, shows Satan being allowed to do evil, but not totally. He is partially constrained, and he (and demons) can be resisted by human beings:

Job 1:12 (RSV) And the LORD said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your power; only upon himself do not put forth your hand.”

Job 2:6 And the LORD said to Satan, “Behold, he is in your power; only spare his life.”

Job 42:10, 12 And the LORD restored the fortunes of Job, . . . [12] And the LORD blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning . . .

Matthew 10:8 Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons.

Mark 3:14-15 And he appointed twelve, to be with him, and to be sent out to preach [15] and have authority to cast out demons:

Mark 6:12-13 So they went out and preached that men should repent. [13] And they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many that were sick and healed them.

Mark 16:17 And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons . . .

Luke 10:17-20 The seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” [18] And he said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. [19] Behold, I have given you authority to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing shall hurt you. [20] Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you; but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

James 4:7 Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you.

Revelation 20:1-3, 7-10 Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key of the bottomless pit and a great chain. [2] And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, [3] and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years were ended. After that he must be loosed for a little while. . . . [7] And when the thousand years are ended, Satan will be loosed from his prison [8] and will come out to deceive the nations which are at the four corners of the earth, that is, Gog and Magog, to gather them for battle; their number is like the sand of the sea. [9] And they marched up over the broad earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city; but fire came down from heaven and consumed them, [10] and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulphur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.Any action Satan takes is expressly with God’s permission.

Of course, just as is any action we take. You used exactly the right word: permission; as opposed to His perfect will. Catholic (and most Protestant) doctrine holds that human beings can do absolutely no good thing whatsoever without the prior enabling power of God’s grace. So in that sense, He makes possible all our actions. At the same time we freely cooperate with that grace, and so retain free will. It’s just that every good thing could not have been done without His grace.

The devil and his demons have no such grace, so that is the essential difference there. But they have freedom to tempt and cause evil to occur until Judgment Day, when they will lose even that. One might say they have a “suspended sentence.” :-)

I have to start by saying that I don’t believe in libertarian free will. I don’t think this belief relies solely on materialism (though it is bolstered by it), as is evidenced by plenty of religious authors recognizing that divine omniscience naturally requires predestination, culminating in Calvin’s writings (whom, as I believe I’ve said already, I find clear-sighted on this point but essentially on this point only).

Predestination is not incompatible with free will. Both are held together in a paradoxical relationship. It’s a very deep mystery and barely comprehensible by human minds, but this is mainstream Christian teaching. And how they go together, I explained above: we freely cooperate with God’s grace. It’s not “irresistible grace” (Calvin’s false teaching). And the damned aren’t predestined to hell for all eternity, with their own free will and choices having nothing to do with it (double predestination: another serious error).

My own soteriological view is Congruistic Molinism. It holds that God (being out of time and omniscient) takes onto account how we freely respond to His grace, in His decision to predestine the saved. Catholics do believe in predestination (it’s a dogma) — we have different schools of thought as to how that works — , but we don’t believe it’s inconsistent with free will, and we reject the predestination of the damned, coupled with a denial of their free will to choose heaven or hell. Calvinist doctrine makes God not only the author of evil, but an outright Evil Agent. It turns Him into something I would never choose to serve and worship. I understand that they don’t view it that way, but it is the inevitable logical reduction of their positions. And this is why I was always an Arminian as a Protestant.

I think, like most atheists, you are hyper-rational and can’t see the forest for the trees. You think free will is wiped out and can’t exist with an omniscient God Who predestines, and so you have been brought to despair and atheism. I don’t know your whole story but I know that “dichotomous / either/or” thinking is a central error in Protestantism. The idea of cooperation with God (or merit in Catholicism, when we do it the right way) is the solution to the perceived problem.

At any given point in life we have the prerogative to choose God or to rebel against Him. It’s not all foreordained: not every action we do. God knows what we will do, but it doesn’t follow that He caused everything we do (in the exclusionary sense that we have no causative influence). I always use the example of “knowing” that the sun will rise tomorrow. I don’t cause that at all, but I know with a very high degree of certainty that it will take place.

God ultimately caused it by bringing about the laws of physics, whereby the earth rotates and travels around the sun once a year. The earth secondarily caused this by continuing to rotate according to those laws (God need not “supervise” the laws of science every second). Foreknowledge is simply not the same as “micro-management causality / pan-causality” (to coin a phrase!). We really are free to choose for or against God; for good and not evil. At the same time, God already was the sole cause of a choice for good, through His grace.

God is like the Water Department. It sends me the water I need in my house. It sends the water to the faucet that goes into the hose to fill my backyard pool (where I will be today in a few hours). So one can always say that the Water Department was the cause of that water, for my own use. But we can also say that I caused it (secondary agent) to flow through the faucet by turning it on, and the hose also was a secondary agent, used to direct a bunch of water into my pool, or to my grass and flowers, or my car, as the case may be. Both things are true. The Bible clearly teaches this paradox in several passages:

Mark 16:20 (RSV) And they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that attended it. Amen.

1 Corinthians 3:8-9 He who plants and he who waters are equal, and each shall receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.

1 Corinthians 15:10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me. (cf. 15:58; Gal 5:6, 6:7-9)

Ephesians 2:10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Philippians 2:12-13 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (cf. Titus 3:5-8)Hence, the idea that people have free will – that we can be anything but products of causal chains – is not logically sound.

This is untrue. One simply has to accept paradox and a “both/and” scenario of primary and secondary, or multiple / complex causation (which we see in life all around us), and to reject a linear, hyper-rationalistic either/or thinking. Chesterton said that the problem with a madman is not that he has no logic at all, but that he has nothing but logic.

First, humans will exist in some state where they have free will but will somehow be sinless. If that is the case, free will is not incompatible with sinlessness and the problem of evil persists. Evil could be eliminated while retaining free will.

Yes, that is true in heaven, because then we are no longer subject to original sin and the world, the flesh, and the devil. That’s the difference. Our free will choices are hampered by these opposing forces (and to see how subtle those are, read Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis). When we are finally redeemed, those forces are removed, so that we can freely always choose to do good and not sin, just as God does.

We could have done so all along, but we chose to rebel, and so God in effect had to “go to Plan B.” Plan B is a lot tougher road than God’s original Plan A would have been, because He has to work around all the evil and stupid choices we make as fallen human beings. But in the end we can be saved, if we will cease our rebellion and decide to follow Him.

If we hold the Great Powers of Europe responsible for their refusal to stand up and do the right thing, the same standard must surely apply to the Almighty.

That gets back to my earlier argument about God and human beings not being on the same plane. He creates us and lets us be truly free, which includes our choosing to rebel against Him, if that is our choice, just as any parent doesn’t say to their child, “you MUST love me!” He or she wants this to be a free, voluntary choice. Then it actually has meaning and depth.

So God created and then allowed us autonomy to do as we please. By the same token He created the universe and the laws of science, which now operate on their own, with minimal intervention from God. He does a miracles now and then, but it’s an exception. In my long paper that I linked to, I get into how God made scientific laws as they are and why He can’t (in a reasonable, predictable, uniformitarian universe) interfere with them every two seconds and do miracles all day long, one after another. I’ve expanded on that argument in other papers, in reply to atheist “demands” for massive miracles all the time from God, failing which they will get mad at Him as “unfair” and then deny His existence.

Perhaps our suffering means little to God; the depths of our agonies and miseries little more than children crying over a scraped knee in the perspective of a being who has seen stars be born and die.

This is not true at all, according to the biblical revelation. You’re talking about a so-called deist “god.” Jesus shows us how God cares about us. He stated:

Matthew 23:37 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!”

Revelation 3:20-21 Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. [21] He who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.

Jesus suffered horribly and died. He didn’t remove Himself (as God) from the suffering we go through. He, too, endured it. That’s love, not indifference.

In the end, the joys of heaven make up for anything we go through.

Romans 8:18 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.

This fact of a heavenly bliss that never ends changes everything. If you want to criticize Christianity, you have to take all of it into account, and a big part of it is the state of heavenly bliss for all eternity going forward.

It would be like accepting a deal of “if you are willing to endure a slight cut to your finger, I’ll give you an all-expenses-paid trip around the world for three months!” Who would refuse that deal? Heaven compared to our sufferings is infinitely more desirable than my weak analogy. It’s all a matter of perspective. You just have to believe it’s true. You have the opportunity to do just that, right now, as I share these things with you.

And this life isn’t all bad, either. I’ve gone through a lot of suffering in my life (my only brother and sister are both dead, etc.) but I am tremendously happy with my life, as a disciple of Jesus. He’s true to His word. There are many blessings before we get to heaven.

But it’s still a flaw, and posits a God whose mind is alien to our own; who cannot understand our suffering and pain, and does not think it worthwhile to find a way around it. If we suffer, so what? It builds character. It posits a God who is not quite all-knowing or, if not that, not quite as perfectly compassionate.

But He did find a way around it; we just don’t like it, because it’s not perfect bliss. He gave us a way through grace to have joy through suffering, and to have the greatest meaning in our lives. And once we pass this “test” of obedience and allegiance, then we are rewarded with heaven. You seem to think that’s not a worthwhile “transaction.” I think it is the greatest conceivable reward and ultimate solution to our suffering on earth.

But atheism offers . . . nothing . . . no ultimate meaning to life, no solid reason why anyone should even seek to be good and do good; no enduring existence that lasts forever. You yourself freely admit this (you are consistent):

I still care about beauty and joy and happiness, and easing pain. I don’t have an objective reason for caring about any of those things, I just do, . . . I don’t feel a particular need to seek objective justification for them, because I don’t think there is any.

You say: “humans are, overall, basically good.” This drastically undercuts the argument from evil, which always super-emphasizes all the wicked things human beings do to each other. You have to explain why all these bad things keep happening: how human beings commit such horrible evils if in fact they are “basically good”??!!! You have to make out that it’s all conditioning and education and being sheep or what not. But it’s much deeper than that.

I say that only Christianity’s doctrine of human beings capable of both great good and the most depraved evil, explains the actual course of human history. And so the Nazi Holocaust happened because a bunch of people followed their basest evil instincts and went wild with it (the mass genocide of helpless children in the womb is an even worse manifestation of this evil). But the Nazis were defeated because people also had enough good in them and enough of God’s grace to defeat this massive societal evil.

In atheism, we all die and cease to exist: the good and the evil alike. There is no ultimate justice or “cosmic justice.” That’s what atheism offers. Thank God atheism isn’t true. But the despair and futility you think you see in Christianity is actually in your system of belief. That’s what you have to grapple with: how to come to terms with that dreadful reality of a godless, meaningless, horrific, dark, bleak universe. You want to do good (I believe) you because you still have the “fumes” of Christianity and enough grace in you to still desire it. If God didn’t exist, you wouldn’t have these impulses to do good and to love; to care about other human beings.

If there is no God (as you either believe or suspect), then just forget about “Him” (i.e., that issue). Let Christians go on with their “delusions” and “fantasies.” Your problem is how to create some inadequate partial meaning without a God or ultimate purpose.

So that is the Christian counter-reply: God offers heaven as His ultimate solution to our suffering. He offers grace and the power and ability to have great joy and happiness in this life, even alongside great suffering. It all has a purpose. You have no reason or purpose in atheism. You freely admitted it. I didn’t even have to make the argument I am making. You grant and concede it (and you are correct!).

And I think that should give you pause and reconsider just which worldview is 1) true, and 2) offers joy and happiness and meaning. The true illusion or delusion or fantasy is an atheist world in which we somehow work up the gumption for life to have “meaning” even though we know down deep that it has none. That’s not reality. That is pretending that reality is not what it is (granting the premise of atheism), and going on in life as if there is indeed meaning (a la existentialism).

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Photo credit: Matryx (4-19-20) [PixabayPixabay License]

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Summary: Excellent, substantive dialogue with a friendly, non-insulting agnostic on the problem of evil: that thorniest of issues; with my retort regarding the corresponding atheist “problem of good.”

April 3, 2021

Atheists love to discuss the problem of evil, which they consider a knockout punch to Christianity: or at least to the notion that God is good and all-powerful. Recently an anti-theist atheist polemicist noted that someone “constructed an annotated bibliography of more than 4,200 philosophical and theological writings on the problem of evil published from 1960 to 1990—nearly one publication every 2½ days, and that is only in English.” They milk it for all it’s worth.

And for our part, many Christian apologists and theologians (including myself) agree that the problem of evil is the most difficult issue that Christians have to deal with and explain: though we do believe (over against atheists and other skeptics) that it’s not fatal to Christianity or the belief in a good God at all, and that we have more than adequate answers to it.

We hear a lot less, however, about the corresponding (and I contend, even more difficult) issue that atheists have to explain from their own perspective: “the problem of good.” After seeing yet another treatment of the problem of evil on my favorite atheist blog (A Tippling Philosopher), I decided to produce this paper, drawn from three previous efforts (the first listed is my favorite debate ever, with anyone):

The “Problem of Good”: Great Dialogue with an Atheist (vs. Mike Hardie) (+ Part Two) [6-5-01]

Dialogue w Agnostic/Deist on the “Problem of Good” [7-18-18]

The “Problem of Good”: Dialogue w Atheist Academic [9-11-19]

I will be selecting “highlights” of my own comments (with a word or a capital added here and there), in order to produce a more succinct or compact version of the argument. Three asterisks will separate the excerpts from each other.

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The atheist:

1) Can’t really consistently define “evil” in the first place;

2) Has no hope of eventual eschatological justice;

3) Has no objective basis of condemning evil.

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Atheist justifications for morality (i.e., logically carried through) will always be — i.e., in their logical reduction and/or ultimate result — either completely arbitrary, relativistic to the point of absurdity, or derived from axiomatic assumptions requiring no less faith than Christian ethics require.

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Atheists are usually as moral and upright as a group as any other group of people. But to the extent that they are moral and good, I argue that this is inevitably in conflict with their ultimate ground of ethics, however it is spelled-out, insofar as it excludes God. Without God it will always be relative and arbitrary and usually unable to be enforced except by brute force. Atheists act far better than their ethics (in their ultimate reduction).

The Communists, though, acted fairly consistently with their atheistic principles (as they laid them out — not that all atheists will or must act this way, which is manifestly false). God was kicked out, and morality became that which Marx (or Lenin) decreed.

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In the atheist (purely logical and philosophical) world, Hitler and Stalin and Mao and other evil people go to their graves and that’s it! They got away with their crimes. They could have theoretically gone out of the world (as well as all through their lives) laughing and mocking all their victims, because there literally was no justice where they are personally concerned. Why this wouldn’t give the greatest pause and concern to the atheist moralist and ethicist is beyond me.

In the Christian worldview, though, the scales of justice operate in the afterlife as well as (quite imperfectly) in human courts and in gargantuan conflicts like World War II where the “good guys” (all in all) managed to win. Hitler and Stalin do not “pull one over on God” (or on an abstract notion of justice). They don’t “get away with murder.” They are punished, and eternally at that, barring a last-minute repentance which is theoretically possible, but not likely. All makes sense in the end. . . .

That doesn’t make it a bed of roses for us, by any means, but it is sure a lot easier to endure than under atheist assumptions, where one returns to the dust and ceases to exist, quite often having utterly failed at life, or having been abused their entire life, with nothing significant to ever look forward to. Where is the hope and purpose in that?

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This is not so much an argument, as it is pointing out that the logical conclusion to atheist ethics is utter despair at what goes on in the world, and the ultimate meaninglessness of it all. It is not arguing that:

1) All is meaningless in the end; therefore no morality (in practice) is possible, and therefore all atheists are scoundrels.”

but rather:

2) The ultimate meaninglessness of the universe and the futility of seeing tyrants like Stalin do their evil deeds and never come to justice in this life or the next, ought to bring anyone who believes this to despair, and constitutes a far greater (“existential”) difficulty than the Problem of Evil — which has a number of fairly adequate rejoinders — represents for the Christian.

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Meaning is put into all human beings by God. But more accurately, I am simply acknowledging — with Sartre — that it is a sad and troubling, devastating thing if God does not exist, that a universe with no God is (when all is said and done) a lonely, tragic, and meaningless place. This is presupposed by the very Argument from Evil that is used against us! So you can scarcely deny it! Most lives on this earth are not all that happy or fulfilled.

And you would have us believe that after miserable, ragged lives lived all through history (e.g., the millions who don’t have enough to eat right now, or the Christian victims of genocide and slavery in the Sudan), the persons die and go in the ground, and that they ought to be happy during their tortured lives? Why? What sense does it all make?

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It is clearly far worse to have a Hitler and a Stalin do what they did and go to their end unpunished, than it is to believe in an afterlife where monster-morons like that are punished for what they did, and that those who lived a far better moral life are rewarded at long last (for many, the only significant “happiness” they ever had).

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Atheist ethics will always end up being self-defeating, and/or relativistic to the point of being utterly incapable of practical application. Failing God, the standard then becomes a merely human one, therefore ultimately and inevitably arbitrary and relativistic and unable to be maintained for large groups of people except by brute force and dictatorship (which is precisely what happened, if Stalinism or Maoism are regarded as versions of consistent philosophical atheism to any degree, or even corrupt versions of it).

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The atheist problem is: how to arrive at an objective criteria; how to enforce it across the board; how to make such a morality something other than the end result of a majority vote or the power of governmental coercion.

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Christians have the universal and absolute standard: God. What do humanists have? How are worldwide ethics to be determined and lived out? If there is an atheistic ethical absolutism (as I suspect), then that will have to be explained to me: how it is arrived at; why anyone should accept it, etc.

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1. Objective morality must be non relativistic (not relative to cultures, governments, or individuals).

2. Without a higher being, all behavioral imperatives logically and in practice reduce to (ultimately arbitrary) relativism, in the sense that no single standard will be able to be enforced for, or applied to one and all (which is what “objective morality” — #1 — requires); and that because no substantive or unquestionable criterion is given for the grounds for such a standard, as an alternate to the Christian axiomatic basis of God, in Whose Nature morality resides and is defined.

3. Therefore, there cannot logically be a self-consistent objective morality (one able to be consistently practiced by one and all in the real world) without a higher being; all merely human-based efforts will end in arbitrariness (and often, tyranny), due to the inability to arrive at a necessary, non-relative starting point and systematic moral axiom.

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We defeated the Nazis’ and put an end to it. Great (thank God), but how does that bring justice to the 6 million Jews and many thousands of others who perished in the camps and in battle? In the Christian view there certainly is justice, because there is the Judgment and the sentence of damnation for evil persons. This is how we view the world in terms of ultimate justice and meaning, and seeking your alternative system of making sense of such monstrous evils as Nazism and Stalinism.

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You just admitted (as far as I can tell) that “good” is relative to the individual. How, then, can there be an objective standard of “good” applied to all? By what standard do we decide what is good for everyone to do (what obligates them)?

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Hitler thought the Holocaust was good. Stalin thought the starvation of the Ukrainians was good. Corrupt Crusaders in the Middle Ages thought slaughtering women and children was good. Timothy McVeigh thought blowing up a building and killing 168 people was good. Terrorists think blowing up cars in crowded market places is good. The American government (and most of its people) thought annihilating civilians in two entire Japanese cities by nuclear bombs was good. America thought slavery was good (and later institutional racism and discrimination). Pedophiles think molesting children is good. Etc.

How do we resolve this inherent relativism? The Aztecs thought human sacrifice was good; the Catholic Spaniards thought it was a hideous evil. How do we resolve such conflicts? Was Aztec sacrifice good or evil (or neither)? And if the latter, how do we convince someone of a different culture that what they are doing is evil?

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I am trying to understand the atheist rationale for the most important, fundamental issues that all human beings face: Who am I? Why am I here? What is the purpose of life? Is there life after death? What is right and wrong? What is justice? How does one end injustice? What is love? What is truth? Etc.

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I’m saying, “assume that all this afterlife and God business is false and untrue; now tell me how purpose, hope, and meaning is constructed in such an atheistic worldview.”

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Is the atheist view simply existentialism, where one believes whatever they want, so as to achieve “meaningfulness”? That would be no better than the pie-in-the-sky which atheists so despise, of course. It simply substitutes pie-in-the-head (no pun intended).

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Human beings are very curious mixtures of both great evil and great capacity for good and love. This is another thing that the Christian view explains far better than any other I have seen.

Atheists always have to chalk evil up to environment, because they don’t look at it in metaphysical, ontological, or spiritual terms. So McVeigh had a Bircher for a father; Hitler was done in by his anti-Semitism; Stalin by his lust for power, the killers at Columbine High School by the availability of guns and right-wing fanaticism, etc., and what-not. Christians say that all people are capable of great evil or great good, depending on the courses of action they take, and how they respond to God’s graces. Environment is a factor, but not the sole or overwhelmingly primary factor.

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How about committing genocide or child molestation, or deliberately oppressing people through wealth or political power? What if those things gave a person “meaning,” since you have admitted that these things are relative to the person, and strictly subjective? No one else can tell the person who does these evils (which we all — oddly — seem to agree are “evil”) that they are wrong — it being a relative matter in the first place. This is now very close to the heart of my logical and moral problem with atheist morality (which, in my opinion, always reduces to relativism and hence to these horrendous scenarios).

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The atheist is simply living off the cultural (and internal spiritual) “capital” of Christianity, whether he or she realizes it or not.

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I am talking about the ultimate logical implications of atheism, regardless of how one subjectively reacts to them. The very fact of objectivism and subjectivism (assuming one grants both as realities) allows the possibility that the atheist is not subjectively facing the objective logical implications of atheism (which I maintain are nihilism and despair).

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Just because I think atheism has bad logical implications, doesn’t mean that I think atheists are therefore “bad” people.

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When all is said and done, the Christian believes there is a certain sort of God, and this affects everything else, and the atheist says there is no such God, and that affects everything in their view.

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Atheism doesn’t account for the evil person whose reflection amounts only to a ruthless, Machiavellian calculation as to how he can get ahead, indifferent to how many others suffer in the process. If your “standard” is rationality and a sort of abstract utilitarian outlook, then it breaks down when we get to the quintessential evil, selfish person.

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[2nd dialogue]

I used Hitler and Stalin in order to highlight and make it clear (by using the worst-case scenarios) what atheism entails, in terms of “cosmic justice.” It’s a scenario which is both incomprehensible and outrageous to me, and I don’t believe that the universe is like that: whatever it turns out to be in the end. In any event, Christianity (whether true or not) at least offers final justice and ultimate meaning in a way that atheism never has, and never will.

***

It is this inherent quest for meaning and happiness (which I believe is put into us by God), that causes atheists (who still have it within them too!) to deny that the universe is meaningless. I think their view that it is meaningful without God is an “unconscious” carryover from the Christian worldview. In my opinion, they have not fully grappled with the implications of a universe without God. For the Christian, such a universe would be like hell: the ultimate horror.

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[3rd dialogue]

The problem of good is at least as big of a problem for atheism, as the problem of evil is for theism (it’s a classic turn-the-tables argument).

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The problem of good is well  summarized in Dostoevsky’s statement, “If there’s no God and no life beyond the grave, doesn’t that mean that men will be allowed to do whatever they want?” [see more on this quotation from The Brothers Karamazov (1880)]. The way I used the argument (back in 2001) was not to assert that it proves God exists. Rather, I think it helps to establish that theism (considered as a whole) is more coherent and plausible than atheism.

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In the Last Judgment the scales will be weighed and divine / cosmic justice will be applied. Evil people will be judged and sent to hell, and those who are saved by God’s grace will be allowed to enter heaven. Atheism obviously has no such scenario, since it denies the existence of God, the afterlife, human immortality, heaven, and hell, so my statement is absolutely true, as to atheism. It has no such thing, and cannot, by definition. And from where we stand, this is a huge problem. It’s central to the problem of good.

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“Objective” in this context means a binding, non-arbitrary standard of absolute morals within the framework of atheism. I’m not denying that individual atheists have such moral / ethical standards for themselves. Of course they do. What I’m saying is that they are all ultimately arbitrary and relativistic without a God to ground them in, and that large atheist systems act in accordance with this moral relativism and/or amorality (Mao, Lenin, Stalin et al): and we see what they produced.

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Any good and noble impulses within atheist consciences are there because they are innate in human beings: put there by God in the first place. If there were no God, they wouldn’t be there and evil would be far, far greater than it is now (and it is a huge and troubling problem now).

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In the atheist outlook, the next person can always say, “who cares what you think about morality; that’s just you, and your view is no more worthy of belief or assent than the next guy’s . . .”

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The Christian “rock bottom” is God. The atheist rock bottom is like peeling an onion: it’s nothing.

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Many atheists (at least those in power) did indeed conclude that any evil was possible in a godless universe. If there is no ultimate morality and justice, of course this is true. It comes down to raw power and “might makes right” and reducing human beings to the “red in tooth and claw” state of primal nature and the animal kingdom, where the strong rule, in an amoral state of affairs.

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What is the measure? And how and why would all human beings be bound to it, in a godless ethical system?

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On what absolute / objective basis do you define “kindly” and how and why would all human beings be bound to it?

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You certainly believe (or act like you believe) that rape is a thing that is essentially a moral absolute [i.e., absolutely immoral] in all times and places. It’s presupposed in your arguments . . . But Japanese troops during the Rape of Nanking (not particularly religiously observant) did not do so, did they?:

In the mere six weeks during which the Japanese perpetrated the Nanking Massacre starting on Dec. 13, 1937, an estimated 20,000-80,000 Chinese women were brutally raped and sexually assaulted by the invading soldiers. They sometimes went door-to-door, dragging out women and even small children and violently gang-raping them. Then, once they’d finished with their victims, they often murdered them. . . .

The invaders, though, didn’t even stop at simply murder. They made these women suffer in the worst ways possible. Pregnant mothers were cut open and rape victims were sodomized with bamboo sticks and bayonets until they died in agony.

You don’t think that rape is a moral absolute, and that it is wrong at all times? If you don’t, then you just justified the Rape of Nanking, or at least provided the “ethical” basis for someone else (in power) to justify and rationalize it. In atheist “eschatology” there is  no ultimate justice for perpetrators of monstrous crimes such as these. In Christian cosmology there is ultimate justice and hell awaiting those who do such things and who do not repent of them.

I think you would agree with me, on the other hand that the nuclear bombing of Japan was immoral insofar as it killed innocent civilians (the US then became as evil as their enemy). But in an atheist world of morality, there is no compelling reason to explain why it is immoral, and must never be violated.

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The problem of evil presupposes that there are things that are indisputably wrong, and agreed to be so by all, as virtually self-evident. Otherwise, the atheist indictment against God (which fails, even as is) could not even begin to succeed. In other words, the atheist has to tacitly admit that the problem of good is a problem for atheism, in order to proceed against God and theism; and that is incoherent and self-contradictory. He or she winds up arguing as much for God as against, by utilizing such weak arguments.

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I’m saying, “these are the consequences on the ground of atheism, taken consistently to its logical extreme.”

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Societies construct legal systems, which hold that certain behaviors are wrong, and therefore, punishable by law. Law presupposes moral absolutes. Jails and judges and laws all presuppose an absolute system of morals and right and wrong. Otherwise, there could be no laws at all, and “everything would be permitted” (legal and moral anarchy). We would be back to Dostoevsky.

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You have to casually assume moral absolutes to discuss morality at all (i.e., if you condemn any particular behaviors).

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It can be shown that all societies agree on basic moral principles. C. S. Lewis in fact did this at the end of his book, The Abolition of Man. (what he called the Tao). We would say that is natural law and the human conscience, grounded in God. Commonalities don’t “prove” God’s existence, but this is perfectly consistent with what I wrote above, and what we would fully expect to find if God did exist. All societies, for example, have prohibitions of murder, as inherently wrong. They may differ on the parameters of murder (the definition). But they don’t disagree that there is such a thing as murder: that ought not be done, and for which there are strict penalties.

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Related Reading

I have written a lot of material on the problem of evil as well (the first listed being my most in-depth effort):

Problem of Evil: Treatise on the Most Serious Objection (Is God Malevolent, Weak, or Non-Existent Because of the Existence of Evil and Suffering?) [2002]

God and “Natural Evil”: A Thought Experiment [2002]

Dialogue on “Natural Evil” (Diseases, Hurricanes, Drought, etc.) [2-15-04]

Replies to the Problem of Evil as Set Forth by Atheists [10-10-06]

The Problem of Evil: Dialogue with an Atheist (vs. “drunken tune”) [10-11-06]

Dialogue w Atheist John Loftus on the Problem of Evil [10-11-06]

“Logical” Problem of Evil: Alvin Plantinga’s Decisive Refutation [10-12-06]

Reply to Agnostic Ed Babinski’s “Emotional” Argument from Evil [10-23-06]

“Strong” Logical Argument from Evil Against God: RIP? [11-26-06]

Why Did a Perfect God Create an Imperfect World? [8-18-15]

Blaming God for the Holocaust (+ Other Such Bum Raps) [11-1-17]

Atheists, Miracles, & the Problem of Evil: Contradictions [8-15-18]

Alvin Plantinga: Reply to the Evidential Problem of Evil [9-13-19]

Ward’s Whoppers #14: Who Caused Job’s Suffering? [5-20-20]

God, the Natural World and Pain [National Catholic Register, 9-19-20]

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Photo credit: Billie Burke (1884–1970), playing Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, in The Wizard of Oz (1939) [WizardofOz.com]

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Summary: Atheists love to discuss the problem of evil, which they consider a knockout punch to Christianity. But we rarely hear about the equally or even more difficult atheist “problem of good.”

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September 13, 2019

Alvin Plantinga (who was born in 1932 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and started his teaching career at my alma mater, Wayne State University, in Detroit) is widely considered — by his Christian or theist admirers and atheists alike — to be the greatest living Christian philosopher and philosopher of religion.

He wrote a very influential book in 1974, called God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans / New York: Harper & Row), which is now widely regarded as the best (and indeed, a decisive) refutation of the atheist use of the classic “Logical Problem of Evil” in order to disprove God’s existence, or (if not His existence) His character as all-good and all-powerful, since (so it claims) that Christian belief involves an inherent contradiction therein.

I have a post about his disposing of that particular argument. Here he takes on a separate “probabilistic” argument, called the “evidential problem of evil.”

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From: Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford University Press, 2000):

[S]uppose evil does constitute evidence of some kind against theism: what follows form that? Not much. . . . Is the idea, instead, that the existence of God is improbable with respect to our total evidence, all the rest of what we know or believe? To show this, the atheologian would have to look into all the evidence for the existence of God — the traditional ontological, cosmological, and teleological arguments, as well as many others; he would be obliged to weigh the relative merits of all these arguments, and weigh them against the evidential argument from evil in order to reach the indicated conclusion. This is vastly messier and more problematic than a terse and elegant demonstration of contradiction à la Mackie. (pp. 462-463)

Suppose the fact is God has a reason for permitting a particular evil like E1 or E2, and suppose we try to figure out what that reason might be: is it likely that we would come up with the right answer? Is it even likely that we would wind up with plausible candidates for God’s reason? A series of important recent papers by Stephen Wykstra, William Alston, and Peter van Inwagen argue (among other things) that it is not. The main reason is the epistemic distance between us and God: given that God does have a reason for permitting these evils, why think we would be the first to know? Given that he is omniscient and given our very substantial epistemic limitations, it isn’t at all surprising that his reasons for some of what he does or permits completely escape us. But then from the fact that no goods we know of are such that we know that they justify God in (serve as his reasons for) permitting E1 or E2, it simply doesn’t follow that it is probable, with respect to what we know, that there aren’t any such goods, or that God has no reason for permitting those evils. The arguments in those papers seem to me to be conclusive; I shall not repeat them here. (pp. 466-467)

[Plantinga later argues that the book of Job in the Bible provides a pre-philosophical version of the same sort of argument]:

Job’s problem is really intellectual; he can’t see any reason at all why God should allow him to be afflicted as he is; and he is inclined to conclude, unthinkingly, that probably God doesn’t have a good reason. The point here is that the reason for Job’s sufferings is something entirely beyond his knowledge or awareness; but then the fact that he can’t see what sort of reason God might have for permitting his suffering doesn’t even tend to suggest that God has no reason. And when God replies to Job, he doesn’t tell him what his reason is for permitting these sufferings (perhaps Job couldn’t so much as grasp or comprehend it). Instead, he attacks the implicit inference from Job’s not being able to see what God’s reason is to the notion that probably he has none; he does this by pointing out how vast is the gulf between Job’s knowledge and God’s:

[Plantinga then cites Job 38:1-7, 16-21 in an unspecified Bible version. I shall cite my favored RSV, so I can quickly cut-and-paste]:

[1] Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind:
[2] “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
[3] Gird up your loins like a man,
I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
[4] “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
[5] Who determined its measurements — surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
[6] On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone,
[7] when the morning stars sang together,
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

[. . .]

[16] “Have you entered into the springs of the sea,
or walked in the recesses of the deep?
[17] Have the gates of death been revealed to you,
or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?
[18] Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?
Declare, if you know all this.
[19] “Where is the way to the dwelling of light,
and where is the place of darkness,
[20] that you may take it to its territory
and that you may discern the paths to its home?
[21] You know, for you were born then,
and the number of your days is great!

Job complains that God apparently has no good reason for permitting the evil that befalls him. He suspects that God doesn’t have a good reason because he, Job, can’t imagine what that reason might be. In reply, God does not tell him what the reason is; instead, he attacks Job’s unthinking assumption that if he, Job, can’t imagine what reason God might have, then probably God doesn’t have a reason at all. And God attacks this assumption by pointing out how limited Job’s knowledge is along these lines. No doubt he can’t see what God’s reason might be, but nothing of interest follows form this: in particular it doesn’t follow that probably God doesn’t have a reason. “All right, Job, if you’re so smart, if you know so much, tell me about it! Tell me how the universe was created; tell me about the sons of God who shouted with joy upon its creation! No doubt you were there!” And Job sees the point: “I have spoken of great things which I have not understood, things too wonderful for me to know” (42:3). (pp. 496-497)

[or, in RSV: “Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.”]

***

Photo credit: Job and His Friends (1869), by Ilya Repin (1844-1930) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

***

February 20, 2019

If God were to prevent every instance of suffering, He would have to eliminate (it seems to me) both 1) human free will and 2) the laws of science.

The first would turn us into robots, which is hardly a desirable outcome. The second would lead to chaos and an inability to do science. This is the high irony that I note among atheists. When they talk science, no miracles are permitted or even imaginable.

But when they talk problem of evil or getting evidence for God that even they will accept, the more miracles the merrier: we are supposed to think that God should perform literally millions of miracles in order to stop all suffering and make His existence manifest to one and all: no doubt whatsoever.

To put it another way, in effect the atheist argues (in self-contradiction):

A) You Christians believe in miracles, which are unproven and irrational and contrary to science; therefore I reject your belief-system.

B) If your God doesn’t perform many miracles in order to alleviate human suffering, either this proves he doesn’t exist, or that he is evil and/or weak and ineffectual.

A contradicts B (claims of miracles are a disproof of Christianity / miracles are required to prove Christianity’s God). Yet atheists habitually make or simultaneously assume both arguments. It’s illogical, irrational, and most unfair as a critique. The atheist can’t have it both ways and remain logically consistent.

God chooses to involve us in prayer, helping others, and in working out our own salvation (that is ultimately by His grace). I think that’s a wonderful thing. I don’t want to be a robot, or ruled by fate and mere “mechanical inevitabilities.” That would be a sort of Divine Fascism. If God was actually like that, I’d become an atheist in a heartbeat.

***

[atheist “Anthrotheist”There is really zero irony involved, in the context of viewing God as being so much wiser and more powerful than humans (and being their creator to boot) that he is a parental figure to humanity. We expect parents to intervene on behalf of their children as often as it takes to keep them safe, and that supersedes the child’s temporary preference or limited capacity for comprehension (by analogy, we don’t see parental intervention as making children “robots” nor do we see it as making their environment chaotic).

Parents are not omnipotent. The insinuation you are trying to make is that God should intervene qua omnipotent being, to overcome every sad and tragic thing that happens in life in a physical universe. That makes it a whole different ballgame.

If you want such a being to intervene every time, then that has massive repercussions to the universe as a whole, and to uniformitarianism, and hence, to science (making the latter very difficult to pursue at all, because no one has any idea when the next of millions of supernatural interferences will occur).

Please take care; saying “If God was actually like that, I’d join you as an atheist in a heartbeat.” is a blatant misrepresentation of what atheism is. If you defy God because you believe that he is a certain way (justified or not) and you don’t believe that God doesn’t exist then you would not be an atheist, you would be a heretic.

[see Anthrotheist’s complete original combox comment]

I do believe that with at least some atheists, they are rebelling against a God that — down deep — they think exists. They simply don’t like Him and don’t want to be subject to Him (much as Satan and the fallen angels felt). My reply there was somewhat tongue-in-cheek, playing upon the very common atheist animus against God.

The anti-theists among your number almost seem to forget that He doesn’t exist, in their view, since their replies become so hostile and emotional. And of course, we ask: “why are you getting so worked up about the equivalent of a leprechaun and a unicorn and the tooth fairy (according to you)?”

One might submit that this suggests an actual belief in His existence, since so much angst and ire is directed at Him. I don’t get worked up and angry about things I regard as imaginary (like the evil stepmother in “Snow White” or what not).

What bothers me are outrages and tragedies that are quite real, like abortion or the situation in Venezuela or in the sanctuary cities, defying the rule of law, or sexual slavery, or the exploitation of the poor by the rich, or the wolves in sheeps’ clothing in the Catholic Church, going around sexually abusing innocent victims or winking at and enabling same.

All quite real an not imaginary or fictitious . . .

Note: I elaborated upon this argument at far greater length in my 2002 article, Christian Replies to the Argument From Evil (Free Will Defense): Is God Malevolent, Weak, or Non-Existent Because of the Existence of Evil and Suffering? The present article is a “nutshell” summary of one key argument from the longer paper.

***

[further exchange from the combox of this paper]

Gavin G. Young (who wrote of himself: ” I am an ex-Christian. I am now an atheist and scientific naturalist and in most respects I am also now a secular humanist”):

There isn’t really a contradiction in what atheists are claiming. Point A says there’s no scientific evidence for the existence of miracles and thus miracles don’t happen, but since Christianity says that miracles happen, then the lack of evidence of miracles [evidence that should be there if Christianity is true in its claims about the Christian god] is evidence against the existence of the god of Christianity. Point B says that since miracles don’t happen then a loving all-powerful all-knowing type of god doesn’t exist, but most Christians believe that their god is loving, all powerful, all-knowing. Thus the god that those Christians believe in doesn’t exist.

My point (B) was that atheists demand that God perform miracles in the case of human suffering, and if He doesn’t, He doesn’t exist. They also demand them in the case of proving His existence; i.e., He has to perform some extraordinary miracle like writing “John 3:16” in the stars; then the hardened, cynical atheist will submit in dust and ashes (God having “performed” according to the all-knowing epistemological requirement of the wise atheist). So it’s an odd situation, whereby atheists 1) state that miracles are categorically impossible, yet 2) they demand this very thing as virtually the only means by which they can be brought to belief in God (and then reject it when it happens).

In fact, Jon Curry, an atheist friend of mine, expressed exactly this yesterday on my Facebook page:

No miracle has yet been evidenced in a manner sufficient to meet the standards of the scientific method. I’m always open to it, for whatever reason God is unwilling to perform a miracle that comes with decent evidence. Maybe he will one day. If he does I’ll believe in him. He doesn’t. I figure it’s because God isn’t real. Nothing stopping God from proving me wrong some day.

From the Christian, biblical point of view, it is recognized that human excessive disbelief and skepticism (of the hardened, rebellious type) will not be overcome even by a miracle:

Luke 16:29-31 (RSV) 29] But Abraham said, `They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ [30] And he said, `No, father Abraham; but if some one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ [31] He said to him, `If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead.'”

Defining miracles as impossible (which is extremely difficult to do, logically or philosophically) is the key to why atheists almost never come to belief. The prior assumption determines what they will accept, so that even when a miracle is documented and presented to them, they dismiss it because they have already concluded that miracles are absolutely impossible.

I think this is some of what Jesus hit upon in the statement above: nonbelievers reject revelation; therefore they will even reject a miraculous rising from the dead. In other words, nothing is good enough for them. They will reject what even they themselves claim is the thing that will convince them. This is why I replied to Jon’s comment as follows:

And there never will be one sufficient for you if the hundreds already documented are not. Your premises disallow it. I prefer to modify my premises according to observed reality.

***

(originally 8-15-18 on Facebook; a few paragraphs added on 2-20-19)

Photo credit: AwfulTrue (uploaded 6-30-15) [Wikimedia CommonsCreative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license]

***

June 16, 2018

The Problem of Evil is NOT a Disproof of God’s Existence, Goodness, or Omnipotence

Alvin Plantinga (who was born in 1932 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and started his teaching career at my alma mater, Wayne State University) is considered — by his Christian or theist admirers and atheists alike — to be the greatest living Christian philosopher and philosopher of religion.

He wrote a very influential book in 1974, called God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans / New York: Harper & Row), which is now widely regarded as the best (and indeed, a decisive) refutation of the atheist use of the classic Problem of Evil in order to disprove God’s existence, or His character as all-good and all-powerful, or to claim that Christian belief involves an inherent contradiction therein. John G. Stackhouse Jr., in an article from the 11 June 2001 issue of the evangelical magazine Christianity Today [link now defunct] noted his influence:

Alvin Plantinga is arguably the greatest philosopher of the last century.The Dutch-American Calvinist raised in the Midwest and now the John A. O’Brien Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame is not just the best Christian philosopher of his time. No, Plantinga is the most important philosopher of any stripe.

Plantinga deserves this accolade for three reasons.

First, he has taken up the two most important questions of our day: the problem of evil (arguably the most important philosophical question of any era) and the problem of knowledge (undoubtedly the key philosophical question of our era).

Second, he has made fundamental contributions to these two questions. On the problem of evil, Plantinga’s vaunted “Free Will Defense” (to which we’ll return in a moment) responded to the most trenchant form of this problem with a success rarely found in philosophy: for almost 20 years now, the discussion of the problem has shifted to other grounds because of the widespread acknowledgment of Plantinga’s argument.

. . . Plantinga has dealt with these two crucial issues on behalf of orthodox Christian faith. Because of the excellence of his labors, the Christian view of things simply has to be taken seriously by any questioner with the integrity to appreciate sound philosophy.

. . . In the so-called Free Will Defense, Plantinga answered the logical problem of evil, an apparently lethal argument that boldly claims theists cannot simultaneously affirm three propositions: that God is good, that God is all-powerful, and that evil exists. Therefore, says the argument, theism is incoherent, and one can thus dispense with it.

Plantinga’s response is complicated—the shortest published version (God, Freedom, and Evil, Eerdmans, 1974) ran to more than 60 pages—but it essentially was this: God desired to love and be loved by other beings. God created human beings with this end in view. To make us capable of such fellowship, God had to give us the freedom to choose, since love cannot be either automatic or coerced. This sort of free will, however, entailed the danger that we would use it to go our own way in defiance of both God and our own best interests.

For God to grant human beings free will was to grant us the awful dignity of making real choices with real consequences. If God prevents us from sinning, he is preventing us from truly free action. And if God constantly and instantly repairs our mischief, then it is likely that we would never face our sin and need for redemption. (Then again, God could have looked ahead and seen which human beings would sin and which would choose well, and then actualized only the latter human beings; God thus would not have compromised human freedom but would also have allowed no evil to result from it.)

In any event, Plantinga suggests that perhaps we human beings suffer from what he calls “transworld depravity,” a condition in which, no matter what the circumstances, each of us will commit at least one sin, and maybe many. We do so, that is, because it is somehow in each of our individual essences to do so. If God, for some reason (perhaps known only to God), wants to enjoy the fellowship of these particular beings (each with particular flaws), then God must let us be who we are, sin and all.

Why then does God put up with all the evil wrought by generations of human beings through the ages? God does so, Plantinga argues, because on the whole it is for the best—or, at least, for the better. God deems the cost of evil to be worth the benefit of loving and enjoying the love of these human beings. So, the Free Will Defense concludes, theists can simultaneously affirm that God is good, that God is all-powerful, and that evil yet exists.

It is important to remember that the original charge of inconsistency is an absolute one: there is no way for the theist consistently to hold belief in God’s power, goodness, and the existence of evil. All Plantinga had to do in response was to show at least one way to hold all three together—regardless of whether each detail of the defense is true or even plausible. The consensus among philosophers of religion (and consensus doesn’t emerge easily among this crowd) is that Plantinga has done this successfully.

Indeed, the argument for the last decade or so has shifted to so-called probabilistic arguments: that it is highly improbable that there is a God who is good and all-powerful, given the existence and extent of evil. Plantinga has joined in this discussion alongside many other doughty Christian thinkers. It remains to be underscored that this is where the battle is now joined, since Plantinga removed from the skeptic’s arsenal the knockout punch of the sheerly logical objection.

. . . Plantinga, then, has established the intellectual grounds for Christians to continue to believe in God, and particularly the God of historic orthodoxy, in the face of the two most daunting philosophical challenges of this century. He has done so, however, in distinctly 20th-century fashion. He has not, that is, offered a theodicy, an explanation for how God does, in fact, run the world. All Plantinga has done is show that it is not contradictory to believe that God is good, that God is all-powerful, and that evil yet exists. Whether one should go on to believe the gospel—well, that is not for him, as a philosopher, to say.

Nor has Plantinga offered an argument for the truth of Christianity. Again, all he has done is show that it is not improper for Christians to believe their religion is epistemologically well-grounded. Whether Christianity is actually true—well, that is not for him, as a philosopher, to say.

What Plantinga has done is to prevent the world’s main philosophical challenges from pressing Christianity out of the realm of reasonable options. He has helped preserve a space for intellectually respectable Christian belief. Whether anyone should go on, then, to believe in the Christian faith—well, that is for theologians and apologists and evangelists, and for every individual Christian and every Christian congregation, to show through faithful witness. That is for the Holy Spirit, ultimately, to say. Alvin Plantinga has masterfully done his part as a philosopher, and circumspectly steps aside for the rest of us to do ours.

Now, one might reasonably maintain that this is a biased account from a partisan evangelical Protestant source. Very well, then, let’s look at some secular philosophical estimations of Plantinga’s philosophical success and influence, regarding the question before us in particular. James R. Beebe, in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on “The Logical Problem of Evil” [possibly revised since I first cited this article in 2006], writes:

What might God’s reason be for allowing evil and suffering to occur? Alvin Plantinga (1974, 1977) has offered the most famous contemporary philosophical response to this question.

. . . How would you go about finding a logically possible x? Philosophers claim that you only need to use your imagination. If you can conceive of a state of affairs without there being anything contradictory about what you’re imagining, then that state of affairs must be possible. In a word, conceivability is your guide to possibility.

*

Since the logical problem of evil claims that it is logically impossible for God and evil to co-exist, all that Plantinga (or any other theist) needs to do to combat this claim is to describe a possible situation in which God and evil co-exist. That situation doesn’t need to be actual or even realistic. Plantinga doesn’t need to have a single shred of evidence supporting the truth of his suggestion. All he needs to do is give a logically consistent description of a way that God and evil can co-exist. Plantinga claims God and evil could co-exist if God had a morally sufficient reason for allowing evil. He suggests that God’s morally sufficient reason might have something to do with humans being granted morally significant free will and with the greater goods this freedom makes possible. All that Plantinga needs to claim on behalf of (MSR1) and (MSR2) is that they are logically possible (that is, not contradictory).

[MSR1: God’s creation of persons with morally significant free will is something of tremendous value. God could not eliminate much of the evil and suffering in this world without thereby eliminating the greater good of having created persons with free will with whom he could have relationships and who are able to love one another and do good deeds.]

[MSR2: God allowed natural evil to enter the world as part of Adam and Eve’s punishment for their sin in the Garden of Eden.]

Since (MSR1) and (MSR2) together seem to show contra the claims of the logical problem of evil how it is possible for God and (moral and natural) evil to co-exist, it seems that the Free Will Defense successfully defeats the logical problem of evil.

. . . J. L. Mackie[:] one of the most prominent atheist philosophers of the mid-twentieth-century and a key exponent of the logical problem of evil has this to say about Plantinga’s Free Will Defense:

Since this defense is formally [that is, logically] possible, and its principle involves no real abandonment of our ordinary view of the opposition between good and evil, we can concede that the problem of evil does not, after all, show that the central doctrines of theism are logically inconsistent with one another. But whether this offers a real solution of the problem is another question. (Mackie 1982, p. 154)

Mackie admits that Plantinga’s defense shows how God and evil can co-exist, that is, it shows that “the central doctrines of theism” are logically consistent after all. However, Mackie is reluctant to attribute much significance to Plantinga’s accomplishment. He expresses doubt about whether Plantinga has adequately dealt with the problem of evil.

*

Part of Mackie’s dissatisfaction probably stems from the fact that Plantinga only gives a possible reason for why God might have for allowing evil and suffering and does not provide any evidence for his claims or in any way try to make them plausible. Although sketching out mere possibilities without giving them any evidential support is typically an unsatisfactory thing to do in philosophy, it is not clear that Mackie’s unhappiness with Plantinga is completely warranted. It was, after all, Mackie himself who characterized the problem of evil as one of logical inconsistency:

Here it can be shown, not that religious beliefs lack rational support, but that they are positively irrational, that several parts of the essential theological doctrine are inconsistent with one another. (Mackie 1955, p. 200)

In response to this formulation of the problem of evil, Plantinga showed that this charge of inconsistency was mistaken. Even Mackie admits that Plantinga solved the problem of evil, if that problem is understood as one of inconsistency. It is, therefore, difficult to see why Plantinga’s Free Will Defense should be found wanting if that defense is seen as a response to the logical problem of evil. As an attempt to rebut the logical problem of evil, it is strikingly successful.

*

. . . all parties admit that Plantinga’s Free Will Defense successfully rebuts the logical problem of evil as it was formulated by atheists during the mid-twentieth-century.

. . . Plantinga’s Free Will Defense has been the most famous theistic response to the logical problem of evil because he did more to clarify the issues surrounding the logical problem than anyone else.

Sources:

Mackie, J. L. 1982. The Miracle of Theism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mackie, J. L. 1955. “Evil and Omnipotence.” Mind 64: 200-212.

Plantinga, Alvin. 1974. The Nature of Necessity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Plantinga, Alvin. 1977. God, Freedom, and Evil. Grand Rapids, Micghigan: Eerdmans.

Michael Tooley (atheist), in his article, “The Problem of Evil,” in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy [article since revised, so what is below from the first version may have been revised as well], states:

One of the more striking illustrations of this phenomenon is provided by Alvin Plantinga’s discussions of the problem of evil. In God and Other Minds, in The Nature of Necessity, and in God, Freedom, and Evil, for example, Plantinga, starting out from an examination of John L. Mackie’s essay “Evil and Omnipotence”, in which Mackie had defended an incompatibility version of the argument from evil, focuses mainly on the question of whether the existence of God is compatible with the existence of evil, although there are also short discussions of whether the existence of God is compatible with the existence of a given quantity of evil, and of whether the existence of a certain amount of evil renders the existence of God unlikely. (The latter topic is then the total focus of attention in his long article, “The Probabilistic Argument from Evil”.)

*

Not only, however, does Plantinga concentrate exclusively on very abstract versions of the argument from evil: he also seems to believe that if it can be shown that the existence of God is neither incompatible with, nor rendered improbable by, either (1) the mere existence of evil, or (2) the existence of a specified amount of evil, then no philosophical problem remains. People may find, of course, that they are still troubled by the existence of specific evils, but this, Plantinga seems to be believe, is a religious problem, and what is called for, he suggests, is not philosophical argument, but “pastoral care”.

Tooley — as an atheist — finds this unsatisfactory (as we would suspect):

This view is very implausible. For not only can the argument from evil be formulated in terms of specific evils, but that is the natural way to do so, given that it is only certain types of evils that are generally viewed as raising a serious problem with respect to the rationality of belief in God. To concentrate exclusively on abstract versions of the argument from evil is therefore to ignore the most plausible and challenging versions of the argument.

But I think Plantinga is right in this respect also. If the classical formulation of the argument was indeed designed to make the charge of logical incompatibility and thus a decisive disproof of God, to disprove the accusation is to render at least the classical Problem of Evil argument null and void. Understandably atheists would want to then pursue the essentially different probabilistic argument from evil, lest they lose this favorite weapon in their arsenal altogether, but it is a far weaker version, and thus, much more difficult to make stick.

The Christian can simply poke holes in the more subjective premises over and over, and appeal to any number of possible Christian answers, now that God’s existence is safe, logically speaking, from the attacks of the classic argument, meant to hit God with a knockout punch. If God (even the Christian God) hasn’t been removed from the equation, then the Christian can quite logically propose any number of scenarios whereby the existence of evil however great, is not inconsistent with a good or omnipotent God. Tooley continues, later on:

What are the prospects for a complete, or nearly complete theodicy? Some philosophers, such as Swinburne, are optimistic, and believe that “the required theodicy can be provided.” (1988, 311). Others, including many theists, are much less hopeful. Plantinga, for example remarks:

… we cannot see why our world, with all its ills, would be better than others we think we can imagine, or what, in any detail, is God’s reason for permitting a given specific and appalling evil. Not only can we not see this, we can’t think of any very good possibilities. And here I must say that most attempts to explain why God permits evil — theodicies, as we may call them — strike me as tepid, shallow and ultimately frivolous. (1985a, 35)

Sources:Plantinga, Alvin (1985a) “Self-Profile,” in Tomberlin, James E., and Peter van Inwagen, ed. (1985) Alvin Plantinga, (Dordrecht: D. Reidel), 3-97.

Swinburne, Richard (1988) “Does Theism Need A Theodicy?” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 18: 287-312.

Daniel Hill, a theist (presumably a Christian), wrote in Philosophy Now (Issue 21: 1998; link now defunct):

. . . Catholics and Calvinists

*

Most philosophers of religion also fall into one of two camps from the religious point of view too: the majority are either Roman Catholics or Reformed Calvinists. (There are a few important exceptions, such as William Alston and Peter van Inwagen, who are both Episcopalians, and Richard Swinburne of Oxford, a member of the Orthodox Church.) Notre Dame itself seems to have cornered the market in philosophy of religion by recruiting both Roman Catholics and Reformed Calvinists.

Big Alvin

Notre Dame’s brightest star is Alvin Plantinga, whom everyone agrees to be the current world-leader in the field. He is a product of the analytical school of philosophy and of the Dutch Reformed Church.

. . . The topics on which Plantinga has written have been the most important ones in the philosophy of religion over the past thirty years, important because he has written on them.

. . . It is very rare these days to see the problem of evil held up as a knock-down argument for atheism. This is due to the pioneering work of Alvin Plantinga (you guessed it), who has shown that it is impossibly difficult to establish any sound proof of God’s non-existence using this argument. Instead, it is usually now presented as showing just that God’s existence is improbable. Debate continues to rage fiercely about whether it succeeds in this. If God did exist, would we necessarily know God’s reasons for allowing suffering? People even disagree on whether the burden of proof here lies with the atheists or the believers. This brings up a distinction drawn by Plantinga between a theodicy and a defence. Plantinga only claims to offer a defence, that is a demonstration of why the atheist’s arguments do not succeed. He says that he is not able to offer a theodicy, that is, an explanation of why God allows suffering.

. . . To conclude, the prospects for philosophy of religion look brighter than they have done for many moons. The general standard of discussion in the analytical philosophy of religion is high – in my judgment, as high as in any other branch of philosophy. It is also provoking much interest both amongst professional philosophers in other fields (David Lewis and Martin Davies, for instance, have both written articles on the philosophy of religion) and amongst students taking philosophy at university (at Oxford, philosophy of religion is the second most popular optional subject, after philosophy of mind). In addition, it is a lively, interesting and accessible area, whose questions are surely relevant to all (don’t atheists need to consider the arguments for God, and perhaps provide some reasons for their rejection of theism?). If you would like to study it, there are many easy ways into the academic subject, and I feel sure that it will amply repay your time and attention.

Atheist philosopher Evan Fales conceded, “Alvin Plantinga has convinced most of us — if indeed, we were not already convinced — that the free will defense exonerates God from the imputation of a certain kind of incapacity. Not even an omnipotent being can guarantee the best of all possible worlds, for if such a world must contain created free beings, it will be partly up to them what transpires.” (“Should God Not Have Created Adam?”, Faith and Philosophy, Vol. 9, No. 2, April, 1992).

Plantinga himself, in his lecture, “Christian Philosophy at the End of the 20th Century,” noted the important role of “negative apologetics”:

Roughly speaking, negative apologetics is the attempt to defend Christian belief against the various sorts of attacks that have been brought against it: the argument from evil, for example, or the claim that science has somehow shown Christian belief wanting. It is the part of Calvinism to hold that Christians are not complete; they are in process. John Calvin, himself no mean Calvinist, points out that believers are constantly beset by doubts, disquietude, spiritual difficulty and turmoil; “it never goes so well with us,” he says, “that we are wholly cured of the disease of unbelief and entirely filled and possessed by faith” (Institutes III, ii, 18, p.564 ) . It never goes that well with us, and it often goes a good deal worse. There is an unbeliever within the breast of every Christian; in the believing mind, says Calvin, “certainty is mixed with doubt”. (No doubt the proportions differ for different people and for the same person at different times.)

*

But then objections brought by the atheologians–the Freud’s, Marx’s and Nietzsche’s, the Flew’s, Mackie’s and Nielsen’s–these objections can and do trouble the Christian community and need to be answered . And that is, in part, the function of negative apologetics: to refute such objections, thus removing one kind of obstacle to the spiritual peace and wholeness of the Christian community. Of course negative apologetics can also be useful for those who are not in the Christian community, but perhaps on its edges, perhaps thinking about joining it. And it is can also be useful for those who are not on the edges but adamantly opposed to the Christian truth; perhaps once they really see just how weak their arguments really are, they will be moved closer to it. Well, how has negative apologetics fared during our century? Reasonably well, I think, but not as well as one might hope.

*

. . . there has been a good deal of work on the argument from evil, and in fact it is now, as opposed to 40 years ago, rather rare for an athelogian to claim that there is a contradiction between the claim that there is a wholly good, all powerful, all knowing God, on the one hand, and the existence of evil on the other. This is due in large part to the efforts of Christian philosophers. Those atheologians who now press the argument from evil must turn instead to the probabilistic argument from evil: given all the evil the world contains, it is unlikely, improbable that there is a wholly good, all powerful and all knowing God. This argument is much messier, much more complicated, and much less satisfactory from the point of view of the objector. In other ways, however, this probabilistic argument is more realistic and perhaps more disturbing. Christian philosophers–William Alston and Peter van Inwagen, for example–have done good work here, but much remains to be done.

In his paper, “Advice to Christian Philosophers” (Faith and Philosophy: Journal of the Society of Christian Philosophers, vol. 1, October 1984), Plantinga takes on the lesser probabilistic Problem of Evil argument, now fashionable among atheists:

Many philosophers have claimed to find a serious problem for theism in the existence of evil, or of the amount and kinds of evil we do in fact find. Many who claim to find a problem here for theists have urged thedeductive argument from evil: they have claimed that the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, and wholly good God is logically incompatible with the presence of evil in the world-a presence conceded and indeed insisted upon by Christian theists. For their part, theists have argued that there is no inconsistency here. I think the present consensus, even among those who urge some form of the argument from evil, is that the deductive form of the argument from evil is unsuccessful.

*

More recently, philosophers have claimed that the existence of God, while perhaps not actually inconsistent with the existence of the amount and kinds of evil we do in fact find, is at any rate unlikely or improbable with respect to it; that is, the probability of the existence of God with respect to the evil we find, is less than the probability, with respect to that same evidence, that there is no God-no omnipotent, omniscient and wholly good Creator. Hence the existence of God is improbable with respect to what we know. But if theistic belief is improbable with respect to what we know, then, so goes the claim, it is irrational or in any event intellectually second rate to accept it.

Now suppose we briefly examine this claim. The objector holds that

1. God is the omnipotent, omniscient and wholly good creator of the world is improbable or unlikely with respect to2. There are 10E+13 turps of evil (where the turp is the basic unit of evil).

I’ve argued elsewhere that enormous difficulties beset the claim that (1) is unlikely or improbable given (2). Call that response “the low road reply.” Here I want to pursue what I shall call the high road reply. Suppose we stipulate, for purposes of argument, that (1) is, in fact, improbable on (2). Let’s agree that it is unlikely, given the existence of 10E+13 turps of evil, that the world has been created by a God who is perfect in power, knowledge and goodness. What is supposed to follow from that? How is that to be construed as an objection to theistic belief? How does the objector’s argument go from there? It doesn’t follow, of course, that theism is false.

*

Nor does it follow that one who accepts both (1) and (2) (and let’s add, recognizes that (1) is improbable with respect to (2) has an irrational system of beliefs or is in any way guilty of noetic impropriety; obviously there might be pairs of propositions A and B, such that we know both A and B, despite the fact that A is improbable on B. I might know, for example, both that Feike is a Frisian and 9 out of 10 Frisians can’t swim, and also that Feike can swim; then I am obviously within my intellectual rights in accepting both these propositions, even though the latter is improbable with respect to the former. So even if it were a fact that (1) is improbable with respect to (2), that fact, so far, wouldn’t be of much consequence. How, therefore, can this objection be developed?

*

Presumably what the objector means to hold is that (1) is improbable, not just on (2) but on some appropriate body of total evidence– perhaps all the evidence the theist has, or perhaps the body of evidence he is rationally obliged to have. The objector must be supposing that the theist has a relevant body of total evidence here, a body of evidence that includes (2); and his claim is that (1) is improbable with respect to this relevant body of total evidence. Suppose we say that T is the relevant body of total evidence for a given theist T; and suppose we agree that a brief is rationally acceptable for him only if it is not improbable with respect to T. Now what sorts of propositions are to be found in T?

*

Perhaps the propositions he knows to be true, or perhaps the largest subset of his beliefs that he can rationally accept without evidence from other propositions, or perhaps the propositions he knows immediately-knows, but does not know on the basis of other propositions. However exactly we characterize this set T, the question I mean to press is this: why can’t belief in God be itself a member of T? Perhaps for the theist-for many theists, at any rate-belief in God is a member of T. Perhaps the theist has a right to start from belief in God, taking that proposition to be one of the ones probability with respect to which determines the rational propriety of other beliefs he holds. But if so, then the Christian philosopher is entirely within his rights in starting from belief in God to his philosophizing. He has a right to take the existence of God for granted and go on from there in his philosophical work-just as other philosophers take for granted the existence of the past, say, or of other persons, or the basic claims of contemporary physics.

Likewise, in “Intellectual Sophistication and Basic Belief in God” (Faith and Philosophy 3, 1986: 306-12) Plantinga argues:

So far as I can see, no atheologian has given a successful or cogent way of working out a probabilistic atheological argument from evil; and I believe there are good reasons for thinking it can’t be done.Footnote 9: See my paper “The Probabilistic Argument From Evil,”Philosophical Studies (1980): 1-53.

Some atheists, however, are behind the times, with regard to the now-defunct status of the classical logical Problem of Evil, courtesy of Dr. Plantinga. Misguided triumphalism can still be found. For example, S. Daniel Morgan, a former Christian, wrote on my own blog (10-6-06): “It is just that the arguments for atheism (or arguments against God’s existence, if you prefer) seem to be absolutely airtight.”

He linked to a page of his [link now defunct] containing many atheological arguments. On this page is included “The Problem of Evil.” Here is his entire section:

The problem of evil is the problem of reconciling the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent and benevolent God with the existence of a world full of evil and suffering. If God is omniscient then he knows how to bring it about that there is neither evil nor suffering. If God is omnipotent then he is able to bring it about that there is neither evil nor suffering. If God is benevolent then he wants to bring it about that there is neither evil nor suffering. But if God knows how to, is able to and wants to bring it about that there is neither evil nor suffering, then why does he not do so? The simplest answer is that God does not do so because he does not exist. This is by far the most popular argument for atheism.

Excellent. Therefore, the “by far the most popular argument for atheism” has now been demolished, insofar as it supposedly proves God’s nonexistence.

We shouldn’t conclude, however, that because Alvin Plantinga disposed of one variant of the Problem of Evil (albeit the one with the biggest punch) that he is, therefore, untroubled by the evils we see, and about how to reconcile particular instances with God’s lovingkindness. He is highly disturbed by that, as are most thoughtful Christians I know (very much including myself; I should make clear, given the nature of this paper). Hence he wrote:

. . . “why does God permit all this evil?” We don’t know. All we know is that it’s perfectly possible that He could achieve a better overall total state of affairs by creating free beings and permitting evil than by not dong so; and perhaps that’s why He permits it. What we do know is that He (God) has promised that all things work together for good, for those who love and follow Him. (in The Intellectuals Speak Out About God, edited by Roy Abraham Varghese, Chicago: Regnery Gateway, 1984, 167)

Elsewhere, Plantinga commented that the existence and prevalence of evil was “a source of genuine perplexity” to him, “deeply baffling” and some manifestations of evil or suffering “particularly perplexing.” He continued, after presenting horrible examples of slow painful diseases or young people or children cut down:

[W]hat could be the point of these things? . . . What is supposed to be the good in that? Why does God permit these things? The sheer extent of suffering and evil in the world is appalling . . . Why does God permit so much evil in his world? . . . Why does God permit . . . evil of these horrifying kinds, in his world? How can it be seen as fitting in with his loving and providential care for his creatures?

*

Christians must concede that we don’t know. That is, we don’t know in any detail. On a quite general level, we may know that God permits evil because he can achieve a world he sees as better by permitting evil than by preventing it; and what God sees as better is, of course, better. But we cannot see why our world with all its ills would be better than others we think we can conceive, or what, in any detail, is God’s reason for permitting a given specific and appalling evil. Not only can we not see this, we often can’t think of any very good possibilities. . . . This can be deeply perplexing and deeply disturbing . . . it can tempt us to be angry with God, to mistrust God, like Job, to accuse him of injustice, to adopt an attitude of bitterness and rebellion.

*

No doubt there isn’t any logical incompatibility between God’s power and knowledge and goodness, on the one hand, and the existence of the evils we see on the other; and no doubt the latter doesn’t provide a good probabilistic argument against the former. No doubt; but this is cold and abstract comfort when faced with the shocking concreteness of a particularly appalling exemplification of evil. What the believer in the grip of this sort of spiritual perplexity needs, of course, is not philosophy, but comfort and spiritual counsel. There is much to be said here, and it is neither my place nor within my competence to say it.

I should like, however, to mention two points that I believe are of special significance. First, as the Christian sees things, God does not stand idly by, coolly observing the suffering of his creatures. He enters into and shares our sufferings. He endures the anguish of seeing his Son, the second person of the Trinity, consigned to the bitterly cruel and shameful death of the cross . . . He [Christ] was prepared to accept this suffering in order to overcome sin and death and the evils that afflict our world, and to confer on us a life more glorious than we can imagine.

. . . of all the antitheistic arguments, only the argument from evil deserves to be taken really seriously. (“A Christian Life Partly Lived,” in Philosophers Who Believe, edited by Kelly James Clark, Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1993, 69-72)

With this background, let us proceed to Plantinga’s classic Free Will Defense, which I have abridged; taken from God, Freedom, and Evil (1974 edition, published by Harper & Row), pp. 7-64. I will indicate short text breaks with ellipses (“. . .”), longer ones with ( “[ . . . ]” ). Page numbers will be indicated by brackets ( “{ x }” ). All subsequent words are his own, from that work:

{10} Or suppose that the theist admits that he just doesn’t know why God permits evil. What follows from that? Very little of interest. Why suppose that if God does have a good reason for permitting evil, the theist would be the first to know? Perhaps God has a good reason, but that reason is too complicated for us to understand. Or perhaps He has not revealed it for some other reason. The fact that the theist doesn’t know why God permits evil is, perhaps, an interesting fact about the theist, but by itself it shows little or nothing relevant to the rationality of belief in God. Much more is needed for the atheological argument even to get off the ground.

*

{11} . . . The theist believes that God has a reason for permitting evil; he doesn’t know what that reason is. But why should that mean that his belief is improper or irrational? . . . To make out his case, therefore, the atheologian cannot rest content with asking embarrassing questions to which the theist does not know the answer. He must do more — he might try, for example, to show that it is impossible or anyhow unlikely that God should have a reason for permitting evil.

[ . . . ]

{12} According to Mackie, then, the theist accepts a group or set of three propositions; this set is inconsistent. Its members, of course, are {13}

(1) God is omnipotent
(2) God is wholly good

and

(3) Evil exists.

Call this set A; the claim is that A is an inconsistent set.[ . . . ]

{14} . . . a formally contradictory set is one from whose members an explicit contradiction can be deduced by the laws of logic. Is Mackie claiming that set A is formally contradictory?

If he is, he’s wrong. No laws of logic permit us to deduce the denial of one of the propositions in A from the other members.

[ . . . ]

{16} And when Mackie says that set A is contradictory, we may properly take him, I think, as holding that it is implicitly contradictory in the explained sense. As he puts it:

However, the contradiction does not arise immediately; to show it we need some additional premises, or perhaps some quasi-logical rules connecting the terms “good” and “evil” and “omnipotent.” These additional principles are that good is opposed to evil, in such a way that a good thing always eliminates evil as far as it can, and that there are no limits to what an omnipotent thing can do. From these it follows that a good omnipotent thing eliminates evil completely, and then the propositions that a good omnipotent thing exists, and that evil exists, are incompatible.[“Evil and Omnipotence,” in The Philosophy of Religion, ed. Basil Mitchell (London: Oxford University Press, 1971), p. 93]

{17) . . . What he means, I think, is that to get a formally contradictory set we must add some more propositions to set A; and if we aim to show that set A is implicitly contradictory, these propositions must be necessary truths — “quasi-logical rules” as Mackie calls them. The two additional principles he suggests are

(19) A good thing always eliminates evil as far as it can

and

(20) There are no limits to what an omnipotent being can do.

. . . he must hold that (19) and (20) are not merely true butnnecessarily true.

But, are they? What about (2) first? What does it mean to say that a being is omnipotent? That he is all-powerful, or almighty, presumably. But are there no limits at all to the power of such a being? Could he create square circles. for example, or married bachelors? Most theologians and theistic philosophers . . . concede that not even an omnipotent being can bring about logically impossible states of affairs or cause necessarily false propositions to be true.[ . . . ]

{21} . . . we don’t get a set that is formally contradictory by adding (20) and (19c) to set A. This set )call it A’) contains the following six members:

(1) God is omnipotent
(2) God is wholly good
(2′) God is omniscient
(3) Evil exists
(19c) An omnipotent and omniscient good being eliminates every evil that it can properly eliminate

and

(20) There are no nonlogical limits to what an omnipotent being can do.

Now if A’ were formally contradictory, then from any five of its members we could deduce the denial of the sixth by the laws of ordinary logic. That is, any five would formally entail the denial of the sixth. So if A’ were formally inconsistent, the denial of (3) would be formally entailed by the remaining five. That is, (1), (2), (2′), (19c), and (20) would formally entail {22}

(3′) There is no evil.

But they don’t; what they formnally entail is not that there is no evil at all but only that

(3″) There is no evil that God can properly eliminate.

so (19c) doesn’t really help either — not because it is not necessarily true but because its addition [with (20) ] to set A does not yield a formally contradictory set.Obviously, what he atheologian must add to get a formally contradictory set is

(21) If God is omniscient and omnipotent, then he can properly eliminate every evil state of affairs.

. . . we must take a look at (21). Is this proposition necessarily true?

*

No. To see this let us ask the following question. Under what conditions would an omnipotent being be unable to eliminate a certain evil E without eliminating an outweighing good? Well, suppose that E is included in some good state of affairs that outweighs it. That is, suppose there is some good state of affairs G so related to E that it is impossible that G obtain or be actual and E fail to obtain . . . Now suppose that some good state of affairs G includes an evil state of affairs E that it outweighs. Then not even an omnipotent being could eliminate E without eliminating G. But are there any cases where a good state of affairs includes, in this sense, an evil that it outweighs? Indeed there are such states of affairs.

{23} . . . someone’s bearing pain magnificently, for example — may be good. If it is, then the good present must outweigh the evil; otherwise the total situation would not be good. But, of course, it is not possible that such a good state of affairs obtain unless some evil also obtain . . .

The conclusion to be drawn, therefore, is that (21) is not necessarily true . . . One wonders, therefore, why the many atheologians who confidently assert that this set is contradictory make no attempt whatever to show that it is. For the most part they are content just to assert that there is a contradiction here.

{24} . . . the atheologian must find some necessarily true proposition p (it could be a conjunction of several propositions) such that the addition of p to set A yields a set that is formally contradictory. No atheologian has produced even a plausible candidate for this role, and it certainly is not easy to see what such a proposition might be.

[ . . . ]

. . . all we can say at this point is that set A has not been shown to be implicitly inconsistent.

{25} . . . to show that a set S is consistent you think of a possible state of affairs (it needn’t actually obtain) which is such that if it were actual, then all of the members of S would be true.

{30} . . . we can make a preliminary statement of the Free Will Defense as follows. A world containing creatures who are significantly free (and freely perform more good than evil actions) is more valuable, all else being equal, than a world containing no free creatures at all. Now God can create free creatures, but He can’t cause or determine them to do only what is right. For if He does so, then they aren’t significantly free after all; they do not do what is right freely. To create creatures capable of moral good, therefore, He must create creatures capable of moral evil; and He can’t give these creatures the freedom to perform evil and at the same time prevent them from doing so. As it turned out, sadly enough, some of the free creatures God created went wrong in the exercise of their freedom; this is the source of moral evil. The fact that free creatures sometimes go wrong, however, counts neither against God’s omnipotence nor against His goodness; for He could have forestalled the occurrence of moral evil only by removing the possibility of moral good.

[ . . . ]

{33} . . . replies Mackie . . . surely it’s possible that there be a world containing perfectly virtuous persons — persons who are significantly free but always do what is right. Surely there are possible worlds that contain moral good but no moral evil. But God, if He is omnipotent, can create any possible world He chooses. So it is not possible, contrary to the Free will Defense, both that God is omnipotent and that He cold create a world containing moral good only by creating one containing moral evil. If He is omnipotent, the only limitations of His power are logical limitations; in which case there are no possible worlds He could not have created.

[ . . . ]

{38} . . . Could God have created just any world He chose? Before addressing this question, however, we must note that God does not, strictly speaking, create any possible worlds or states of affairs at all. What He creates are the heavens and the earth and all that they contain. But He has not created states of affairs . . .

{39} What He did was perform actions of a certain sort — creating the heavens and the earth, for example — which resulted in the actuality of certain states of affairs . . . He actualizes the possible world that does in fact obtain; He does not create it. . . .

Bearing this in mind . . . Is the atheologian right in holding that if God is omnipotent, then he could have actualized or created any possible world He pleased? Not obviously. . . . if God is not a necessary being (and many, perhaps most, theists think that He is not), then clearly enough there will be many possible worlds He could not have actualized — all those, for example, in which he does not exist . . .

{40} . . . perhaps the atheologian can maintain his case if he revises his claim to avoid this difficulty; perhaps he will say something like this: if God is omnipotent, then He could have actualized any of those possible worlds in which He exists . . . any of those possible worlds in which He exists and in which there exist free creatures who do no wrong. He could have actualized worlds containing moral good but no moral evil.

[ . . . ]

{45} . . . we must demonstrate the possibility that among the worlds God could not have actualized are all the worlds containing moral good but no moral evil . . . suppose we think about a morally significant action such as taking a bribe. Curley Smith, the mayor, is opposed to the proposed freeway route; it would require destruction of the Old North Church along with some other antiquated and structurally unsound buildings. L.B. Smedes, the director of highways, asks him whether he’d drop his opposition for $1 million. “Of course,” he replies. . . . Smedes then offers him a bribe of $35,000; . . . {46} . . . Curley accepts. Smedes then spends a sleepless night wondering whether he could have bought Curley for $20,000 . . . let us suppose that

(31) If Smedes had offered Curley a bribe of $20,000, he would have accepted it.

If (31) is true, then there is a state of affairs S’ that (1) includes Curley’s being offered a bribe of $20,000; (2) does not include either his accepting the bribe or his rejecting it; and (3) is otherwise as much as possible like the actual world. Just to make sure S’ includes every relevant circumstance, let us suppose that this is a maximal world segment. That is, add to S’ any state of affairs compatible with but not included in it, and the result will be an entire possible world. We could think of it roughly like this: S’ is included in at least one world W in which Curley takes the bribe and in at least one world W’ in which he rejects it. If S’ is a maximal world segment, then S’ is what remains of W when Curley’s taking the bribe is deleted; it is also what remains of W when Curley’s rejecting the bribe is deleted. More exactly, if S’ is a maximal world segment, then every possible state of affairs that includes S’, but isn’t included by S’, is a possible world. So if (31) is true, then there is a maximal world segment S’ that (1) includes Curley’s being offered a bribe of $20,000; (2) does not include either his accepting the bribe or his rejecting it; (3) is otherwise as much as possible like the actual world — in particular, it includes Curley’s being free with respect to the bribe; and (4) is such that if it were actual then Curley would have taken the bribe. That is,

(32) If S’ were actual, Curley would have accepted the bribe.

is true.

*

Now, of course, there is at least one possible world W’ in which S’ is actual and Curley does not take the bribe. But God could not have {47} created W’; to do so, He would have been obliged to actualize S’, leaving Curley free with respect to the action of taking the bribe. But under these conditions Curley, as (32) assures us, would have accepted the bribe, so that the world thus created would not have been S’.

. . . Of course, there are possible worlds in which he is significantly free (i.e., free with respect to a morally significant action) and never does what is wrong. . . . But at least one of these actions — call it A — has the following peculiar property. There is a maximal world segment S’ that obtains in W’ and is such that (1) S’ includes Curley’s being free re A but neither his performing A nor his refraining from A; (2) S’ is otherwise as much as possible like W’; and (3) if S’ had been actual, Curley would have gone wrong with respect to A. (Notice that this third condition holds, in fact, in the actual world; it does not hold in that world W’.)

This means, of course, that God could not have actualized W’. For to do so He’d have been obliged to bring it about that S’ is actual; but then Curley would go wrong with respect to A. Since in W’ he always does what is right, the world thus actualized would not be W’. On the other hand, if God causes Curley to go right with respect to A or beings it about that he does so, then Curley isn’t free with respect to A; and so once more it isn’t W’ that is actual. Accordingly God cannot create W’. But W’ was just any of the worlds in which Curley is significantly free but always does only what is right. It therefore follows that it was not within God’s power to create a world in which Curley produces moral good but no moral evil. Every world God can actualize is such that if Curley is significantly free in it, he takes at least one wrong action.

{48} Obviously Curley is in serious trouble. I shall call the malady from which he suffers transworld depravity . . . By way of explicit definition:

(33) A person P suffers from transworld depravity if and only if the following holds: for every world W such that P is significantly free in W and P does only what is right in W, there is an action A and a maximal world segment S’ such that
(1) S’ includes A’s being morally significant for P
(2) S’ includes P’s being free with respect to A
(3) S’ is included in W and includes neither P’s performing A nor P’s refraining from performing A

and

(4) If S’ were actual, P would go wrong with respect to A.

(In thinking about this definition, remember that (4) is to be true in fact, in the actual world — not in that world W.)

*

What is important about the idea of transworld depravity is that if a person suffers form it, then it wasn’t within God’s power to actualize any world in which that person is significantly free but does no wrong . . .

We have been considering a crucial contention of the Free Will Defender: the contention, namely, that

(30) God is omnipotent, and it was not within His power to create a world containing moral good but no moral evil.

How is transworld depravity relevant to this? As follows. Obviously it is possible that there be persons who suffer from transworld depravity. More generally, it is possible that everybody suffers from it. And if this possibility were actual, then God, though omnipotent, could not have created any of the possible worlds containing just the persons who do in fact exist, and containing moral good but no moral evil . . . Such persons go wrong with respect to at least one action in any world God {49} could have actualized and in which they are free with respect to morally significant actions; so the price for creating a world in which they produce moral good is creating one in which they also produce moral evil.

*

[ . . . ]

{54} The Free Will Defense Vindicated

Put formally, you remember, the Free Will Defender’s project was to show that

(1) God is omniscient, omnipotent, and wholly good

is consistent with

(3) There is evil.

What we have just seen is that

(35) It was not within God’s power to create a world containing moral good without creating one containing moral evil

is possible and consistent with God’s omnipotence and omniscience. But then it is clearly consistent with (1). So we can use it to show that (1) is consistent with (3). For consider

(1) God is omniscient, omnipotent, and wholly good
(35) It was not within God’s power to create a world containing moral good without creating one containing moral evil

and

(36) God created a world containing moral good.

These propositions are evidently consistent — i.e., their conjunction is a possible proposition. But taken together they entail

(3) There is evil.

For (36) says that God created a world containing moral good; this together with (35) entails that He created one containing moral evil. But if it contains moral evil, then it contains evil. So (1), (35), and (36) are jointly consistent and entail (3); hence (1) is consistent with (3); hence set A is consistent. Remember: to serve in this argument (35) and (36) need not be known to be true, or likely on our evidence, or anything of the sort; they need only be consistent with (1). Since they are, there {55} is no contradiction in set A; so the Free Will Defense appears to be successful.

*

[ . . . ]

{61} . . . How indeed, could one argue, from the existence of evil, that it is unlikely that God exists? I certainly don’t see how to do it.

[ . . . ]

{64} . . . The Free Will Defense, however, shows that the existence of God is compatible, both logically and probabilistically, with the existence of evil; thus it solves the main philosophical problem of evil.

***

(originally 10-12-06)

Photo credit: [Max PixelCC0 public domain license]

***

June 12, 2018

This occurred in a thread at the Debunking Christianity website. I have expanded it slightly here and there with some additional clarifying sentences, and corrected numerous typos. My opponent (who goes by “drunken tune”) is responding to replies that I posted on my website and in the same forum. His words will be in blue. His older cited words will be in purple, and my older words in green.
* * * * *

Thanks for joining the conversation. If only you had something to add to it.

That’s interesting. So you want to spend a considerable amount of time (judging from the length of your reply) dealing with someone who in fact has “nothing” to add to the conversation (and commence with an insult). Why in the world should anyone spend time engaging in philosophical discussion with “nothing”? Is not your time more valuable to you than that?

On the other hand, though I may strongly disagree with someone, and even think they are irrational, I see no need to say that they add nothing to a discussion, as if they are not even thoughtful and reflective, whether or not illogically so. That’s how I approach Christian-atheist discussion (obviously unlike yourself). You poison the well from the outset in two serious ways (see my next comment).

Here’s some short answers that most Christians will have trouble with . . . but they do with Christianity.

According to you . . .

One of the greatest issues that Christian apologetics attempts to address is the problem of evil. So, according to leading Christian apologists, it is a very big problem. There are hundreds of books from atheist and Christian alike trying to grapple with the problem. Many Christians have lost their faith because they saw the problem of evil as a nail in the coffin of insane religious belief. It’s fine if you put your blinders on. I don’t mind. Just don’t dismiss me because you think it’s a non-issue.

LOL You prove here, two things:

1) You fail to read comments in context (at least in this instance).

2) You failed to read my recent comments on this very thread, above, which contradict your ridiculous claim, or else read them and have forgotten in a day or two, or didn’t comprehend what I wrote.

Let’s start with #1: first. Let me give the reader your entire comment, without the middle section deleted:

“Here’s some short answers that most Christians will have trouble with. Us atheists need not answer them because they do not contradict with [sic] atheism, but they do with Christianity.”

And so I replied:

“According to you.”

So what is it that I am denying? Quite obviously, I denied that the various dilemmas you propose along the lines of the problem of evil, contradict Christianity. That is how the logic and grammar of your statement (despite its technically incorrect grammar: the proper phrase is “conflict with”, not “contradict with”) and my reply inexorably function.

So I have denied that the problem of evil contradicts Christianity. That is an entirely different proposition from maintaining (as you vainly imagine I did) that I supposedly “think it’s a non-issue.” That’s simply not true (the very opposite of the truth). How many times must I deny this on this blog? I’ve already done it three times now. First I wrote on 6 October 2006, on this blog, replying to John Loftus:

“I think I glanced at your deconversion. Wasn’t the problem of evil key? I consider that the most serious objection to Christianity (though, not, of course, fatal at all, as you’d expect). So while I could still quibble with that, it would be in an entirely different league from the sort of shallow stuff that usually constitutes reasons for deconversions.

“You know how that goes: there are reasons that one disagrees with, while considering them highly respectable and serious and worthy of attention, and others which are downright frivolous and trivial or plainly fallacious.”

Despite that, John cited back to me (on 9 October 2006, in this very same thread; just scroll up) Christian philosopher James F. Sennett:

By far the most important objection to the faith is the so-called problem of evil – the alleged incompatibility between the existence or extent of evil in the world and the existence of God. I tell my philosophy of religion students that, if they are Christians and the problem of evil does not keep them up at night, then they don’t understand it.

I replied: “I agree completely.” 

What parts of the words “agree” or “completely” (especially when conjoined) do you not understand? And then I reiterated it in another comment on 9 October 2006; also in this same thread (somewhat disdainfully and sarcastically):

“So being a Christian apologist and having regarded the problem as a very serious and worthy objection for 25 years isn’t sufficient to have any inkling of the depth of the problem.”

So can we put this idiotic portrayal of what I supposedly deny or don’t have a clue about, to rest yet? First John wanted to make out that I was so ignorant that no sensible dialogue was even possible (he has since softened some, but not sufficiently). Then you come along with more sanctimonious, equally irrelevant lectures and say that I don’t think the problem of evil is a problem at all. It’s getting downright goofy in here. One truly wonders if you guys understand the English language or if you think I am simply lying through my teeth when I give you my report of my own long-held opinion.

I just want to have a good dialogue, but it is wrecked by this kind of nonsense and gross misrepresentation of opposing views.

“When earthquakes occur, or children are hacked to pieces, where is your god?”

Being hacked to pieces and slowly murdered on the cross.

What a worthless statement. 

Quite the contrary; from the Christian perspective, it has all the worth and relevance to this discussion, in the world. You are critiquing the Christian view, and its supposed internal inconsistencies, so I responded (surprise!) from a Christian perspective. What you think of the cross is perfectly irrelevant to whether my reply is sensible from within my own paradigm that you are critiquing.

Be glib all you want, but some of us are interested in debate – not offhand comments. 

It’s not “offhand” in any sense of the word. If you imply that the Christian God cares little about the suffering of His creatures, we reply that He not only does care, but that He is willing to suffer horribly Himself. That is tremendously significant. If you care so much about debate, then why have you begun with three straight insults: all illogical and misguided?

The question at hand is whether God must stop all evil or else cease to exist, or be not-omnipotent, or not all-loving. I deny the atheist negative conclusions about God. But to do so does not imply in the least that a Christian doesn’t struggle with particular acts of evil or minimize them. It just doesn’t add up to a rejection of God and Christianity.

Your god has all the power and incentive to stop earthquakes, but he does not. Either there is an entirely natural explanation of it, or there is some other kind. The natural one is coherent, while the super-duper-natural one is not. 

I have given a reply as to natural evil in my thus-far longest paper on the subject (and summarized in some depth in my last installment). I argued precisely from the natural world and what it should plausibly be expected to be like, even if God created and oversees it.

Is it a sign of divine displeasure? What god sanctions an earthquake?

One need not make that equation at all. It doesn’t follow. If God created the natural world and set these processes in motion, which include earthquakes, etc., it doesn’t follow that He approves of every individual instance of suffering as a result of the nature of this natural world, nor that He is obliged to intervene with a miracle in every such case.

The natural world is what it is. Unless the miraculous becomes the status quo at all times (which I think is implausible, and so does the atheist, when not arguing about this topic) with endless miracles, the natural world will entail suffering.

It doesn’t necessarily follow that He should prevent all suffering.

Is he all-good, or not? 

He is.

If he’s all-good, he should intervene in every instance. 

That doesn’t follow. Nor can it even follow as a logical necessity, given free will, nor does omnipotence itself even necessarily allow God to do so, as Alvin Plantinga decisively proved in his famous Free Will Defense. Philosophers generally no longer claim that the argument either 1) disproves God’s existence or 2) establishes a formal contradiction between the propositions:

A) God is all-good.
B) God is all-powerful.
C) Evil exists.

All you can do, then, logically, in light of this current consensus in philosophy of religion, is to argue that it is improbable or implausible that God would do thus-and-so. But that is a far, far different ballgame. That is weighed down by a host of presuppositions which are all themselves open to serious question and doubt. My primary concern as an apologist (as was Plantinga’s as a theistic philosopher) is to show that the problem of evil does not make Christian belief inexorably self-contradictory or irrational, or (in your charitable, charming terms) “insane.” 

Plantinga has already achieved that goal within the realm of the philosophical world, as is generally acknowledged, even by atheists. So I don’t have to (even if I could; of course I would be unable as a non-philosopher). But old atheist habits die hard, don’t they? My concern is not with atheist emotionalism and disdain of God and Christianity, but with logic and rationality. On that score, you guys failed in your attempt to “prove” that God (or an all- good and/or all-powerful God) doesn’t exist because of the problem of evil.

He has the power and will to do so. If he isn’t all-good, then he is nothing more than a brute.

That doesn’t follow, based on the reasoning of Plantinga’s now classic free will defense.

The atheist casually assumes that God should intervene in every tragic situation and use the miraculous to do so, without stopping to consider what this would entail: what sort of weird world (in terms of the natural order) that would require.

You attack the atheist without addressing the issue.

No; I disagree with the atheist by bringing to bear the deeper, more involved aspects of the issue that they fail to address. I always do that. I’m a Socratic (and Socrates was no Christian, last time I checked). I will always question and examine the premises of my opponent and challenge them to consider the deeper implications of their own argumentation.

You can misrepresent my method if you wish, but you’ll just end up looking foolish. Be my guest. I’ve been through this routine with atheists a dozen times: someone on a list or board assumes I am an ignoramus, until a few exchanges, whereupon he changes his tune to avoid further embarrassment. In several cases in past exchanges with atheists, I eventually gained the respect of atheists who started out exactly as you are doing: judgmentally trying to make out that I am a dope with the IQ of a pencil eraser. Fair-minded people can see through that.

Just because you cannot comprehend it, doesn’t mean that your god couldn’t do it. 

Even an omnipotent God is subject to limitations insofar as He allows His creatures to truly be free, and therefore potentially counter His will, up to and including evil.

Isn’t that what Christians claim all the time? He can do whatever he want, and “weird world” or not, it makes no difference to him. 

Omnipotence means being able to do whatever is logically possible; not anything whatsoever. This is commonly understood by philosophers, and not arguable. God cannot, e.g., make a square circle, or make 2 + 2 = 5, or make Himself not exist, or make you exist and not exist at the same time, or make two brothers both be an only child. Likewise, He cannot create a world where, necessarily, free will precludes evil. And that is true, even given His omnipotence.

I’m agreeing with the theist, then following to the natural conclusion. You just might not like it. He could give us all wings tomorrow, or make the moon talk, or anything else. He can do it, can’t he?

He can do what is logically possible. The moon could conceivably “talk,” I suppose, but not by the laws of nature as we currently understand them. That’s as implausible as (to use a Plantinga example) Henry Kissinger swimming the Atlantic. Is God not omnipotent because Kissinger cannot do that? No; that’s just a limitation of human bodies that follows from physiology.

You haven’t adequately thought through what either free will or omnipotence entail. I don’t say this to insult you (as you repeatedly do to me) but simply as my reply. I appeal to Plantinga, and his much more involved argument.

I plan to present an abridged version of it later today or tomorrow, which I urge anyone to read, due to its high importance in the world of philosophy, regarding this topic. I don’t require you to read a dozen people (as John thinks I must do to intelligently discuss this); I simply recommend reading an abridged version of one highly-significant argument, which I am willing to spend many hours typing up, for your convenience.

I made the point that atheists are extremely reluctant to allow any divine intervention in matters of nature and will despise even theistic evolutionary attempts to do so in any way, shape, or form, yet if we switch over to this discussion on evil, all of a sudden, if God doesn’t do thousands of miracles per second, then He is either bad or not there at all.

Nice blanket label on us atheists. 

Is it? I’ve yet to meet an atheist who will argue that it is plausible or logical in the realm of the natural world, for God to constantly, continually intervene with miracles and the supernatural. You disagree? Okay; please direct me to even one such atheist, let alone many, as you make out. If you can’t produce even one, then you have no basis for accusing me of improperly labeling or generalizing in this respect.

Attack the idea, not the person. 

That’s precisely what I was doing. The reasoning is as follows:

1. Atheists don’t reason like this (i.e., that God should continually intervene in or contravene natural law) at all, when it comes to the natural world, cosmology, evolutionary discussions, etc.

2. But they want to switch their position and demand that God should do all that (and often, constantly, 1000 times a second), when it comes to discussion of the problem of evil.

Ergo, which is it? Is it plausible to assert a dichotomous hypothetical theistic universe where God can’t or shouldn’t intervene at all in matters of creation or DNA or evolution or intelligent design, whereas He should intervene all the time to prevent every evil imaginable?

I say it is not, and I contend that this is an internal contradiction in the atheist approach to God, when arguing that He doesn’t exist. I doubt that this is an original idea of mine, but I did come up with it without reading it in any philosopher, that I recall. I’d be interested to learn if someone else has made a similar argument.

In any event, it is not attacking people at all. Generalizations based on profoundly repetitive firsthand experience are not “personal attacks” by any stretch of the imagination.

It’s the sin that’s bad, not the sinner. Isn’t that what you’re supposed to say?

Yes it is. I’m the last person to say that atheists are necessarily “bad” people. I’m not a Calvinist (who tend to say that); I’m a Catholic. I’ve written papers (on my website right now) expressly denying that atheists must be bad people just because they are atheists. So you can stop that approach right now. It’ll get nowhere with me. I oppose atheist arguments, not the persons as persons, supposedly wicked and evil, and so forth. I can’t read anyone’s heart or know their motivations. I ain’t God.

I want your god to reveal himself. 

Great; that’s a good start.

Let’s hold a thought experiment: your god has said in the NT that he will present evidence to all that asks for it. I do not believe in god, so I ask that in a show of power, your god present himself. 

The same God also revealed that He often refuses to give a sign if the purpose is as some sort of “test.” He wants you to have faith in Him without some absolute proof, just as you have “faith” (i.e., assent without absolute proof) in any number of things that you don’t fully understand. So, e.g., Jesus appeared to “Doubting Thomas” after His resurrection, to “prove Himself.” Yet at the same time, He said, “Blessed are those who have not seen, yet believe” (John 20:29). There is more than enough evidence out there to support belief as rational and worthy of allegiance. But God will not be tested in the way that you seem to demand. This is a common biblical motif.

So help me, may I be stricken down by a thunderbolt.

If that’s what it takes, then so be it (provided you survive the experience). God could possibly do that, but He probably won’t, because He wants you to exercise faith without the necessity of oceans parting and people being raised from the dead. We know that some people won’t even be convinced by those miracles, anyway. Unbelief is often stronger than the most obvious miracle.

If we allow your god to tamper with our genes, thus agreeing with ID, 

See, this illustrates the internal contradiction in your outlook. Why do you call it “tamper[ing]”, if indeed God does do this (note: I am not asserting that He does or not)? You assume from the outset that He shouldn’t do so; that it is inherently improper. Yet out of the other side of your mouth, when you argue the problem of evil, you want God to change His generally “non-interventionist method” and appear in a great and mighty miracle just so little old you can now believe in Him. Why the difference? Why do you demand the supernatural over here (PoE) and deny it with great vehemence over there (ID, etc.)?

we then must go once again to the problem of evil – namely harmful mutations he has all the power to prevent. 

I see; so in He intervenes positively in creative acts or supervision, He is “tampering,” but if He doesn’t prevent a mutation, this proves His character as immediately suspect and not good. The universe as I construe it is far more plausible, I think: God usually doesn’t directly intervene. He created the universe and the presence of free will in sentient creatures, within it. Sometimes He intervenes with the miraculous, but this is a rare exception to the rule. This applies both to the “spiritual” realm (people having a religious conversion, remarkable answered prayer such as a healing, etc.), and to the natural world. But your (and the general atheist) position involves an irrational dichotomy that I find utterly implausible.

If he is messing around with our genes, 

See the improper value judgment again?: “messing around”? Why is that such a bad thing, if God chose to do that? If indeed He is the Creator, why is it so implausible that He could supervise His creation in some fashion? I don’t have this all worked out; my own views on creation are in flux and I am actually an agnostic as to actual process. But every Christian believes that God is creator and that He is inexorably “in” all creation in some sense, whether He chose to use evolution as His usual method or direct creation, in some instances. What all Christians deny is that God should be utterly separated from the natural world. We deny scientific materialism. Methodological naturalism is fine in the laboratory and at the theoretical level, but not philosophically.

he must be directly responsible for, or at least doesn’t mind, every single child born with a genetic disorder.

The natural world is as it is. If we didn’t have order in it, including calamities, then it would be a chaotic world that would make no sense, and arguably (per, e.g., C. S. Lewis, in his classic work, The Problem of Pain), even free will would be impossible. We would all be completely determined in our actions. Evil might be precluded in such a world, but good also would be, and that is the central issue: What is God willing to allow in order to bring about the possibility of good and love and virtue and the freedom that is necessary for all to exist? What is it that even He cannot prevent, in a universe with true freedom of action?

In fact, I argue consistently for your god to present himself. No god has taken me up on the challenge yet. Perhaps if you pray hard enough, he might pop in for a chat.

Chances are, He won’t, because of your manifest attitude of extreme skepticism, and borderline mockery. That is not how God, according to the Bible and Christian experience and thought, operates. There are always exceptions, but I wouldn’t expect that to occur at all.

I make the argument (too involved to briefly summarize) that there is, therefore, some necessity for the world being the way it is, and that God is bound to the laws of logic, insofar as natural disaster and natural evil occurs.

How is preventing a natural disaster breaking a law of logic? 

It doesn’t necessarily break any law of logic. God could intervene whenever He chose to do so. We believe He has in fact on occasion done so. What I am denying is the claim that He must do so, and in virtually all such scenarios, or else the conclusion musty be (so we are told) that He is bad or weak or not there. You simply have not proven that these things hold true. I have tried to make an argument that there is some (to us, mysterious) sense of the natural world having to be the way it is, and thus entailing suffering, by its very nature. God can then make great good come from suffering, in many different ways.

Your god can do whatever he wants, right?

Whatever is logically possible, as far as that goes. That doesn’t mean He has to do whatever is possible, as if He were determined in His actions, also. Nor does it mean that He is bound to our paltry human considerations of what He must do or not do. Clearly, an omniscient, eternal Being is so vastly different from what we are that it is pretty foolish for us to try to second-guess what this Being should or shouldn’t do. Christians believe on many grounds that He is a benevolent Being. The problem of evil, difficult though it is, doesn’t cause us to doubt that, because we have many other evidences, suggesting He is good.

The presence of free will makes it possible that it will be abused, yes. We believe that God thought it better to allow free will and the evil that can result, rather than make robots who can do no other than what they do. God made it possible for you to be so free that He even allows you to believe foolish things like denying that He exists. That’s extremely tolerant, isn’t it? It would be like me saying, “hey, you can believe whatever you want, even that I don’t exist.”

And for questioning something, I am deserving of hellfire. 

Who said that? No intelligent Christian that I know of. You’ll be judged based on what you know, not what you don’t know. If you know there is a God and reject Him, you will end up in hell by default, as your own choice. If you truly don’t know that He exists, and God decides that the conditions and environments that you moved in were sufficiently problematic, so that you had warrant for your disbelief from your own limited perspective, then there is hope that you can be saved trough ignorance and due to mitigating circumstances. That is why it is heartening to me to see a great deal of ignorance and irrationality in atheist circles. That gives me hope that many of you will be saved.

I don’t see sheer rebellion as much as profound disinformation and lack of knowledge and wisdom. And I see the attitudes that I run across myself, as a Christian apologist. If an atheist approaches an apologist, who represents the Christian faith, in an arrogant or mocking manner, chances are, that is how he approaches God, or the philosophical questions surrounding God, too. He is not seriously considering the Christian argument. But if that is not the case, I would argue (abstractly, from a purely philosophical perspective, momentarily putting myself in your shoes), that he shouldn’t bother at all with Christians or God, and simply go about his life and his business, doing his thing, whatever it is, free and full of bliss.

Yet you guys are here arguing with Christians all the time. If you didn’t have the slightest suspicion that we may be right and you wrong, then rationally-speaking, you shouldn’t bother with us at all. This blog shouldn’t exist. But it does. And people like you spend time answering ignoramuses like me. Why? There is something there; some remote glimpse or flicker of a possible world where God exists, with all that flows from that.

Pretty tolerant, ain’t it?

I have shown that your caricature of how someone may wind up in hell does not accurately portray either God as we know Him or the Christian position.

Why would an all-good god want me to burn in hell? 

He doesn’t. I deny your premise.

He should know exactly what would turn me to theism, or the clutches of Christianity. 

He does. How do you know that it won’t take many many years? God knows everything. He knows what would convert you, and you will have an adequate chance to believe or reject Him. It may take some tragedy 30 years from now that will break through your non-belief. There are millions of possibilities. But it is irrational to require Him to appear RIGHT NOW so that you can believe in Him. That’s an utterly simplistic view of the universe, not a thoughtful, reflective, adult approach to the possibility of theism and/or Christianity.

All I ask for is the evidence to save my soul. You should be jumping at this opportunity.

I am. I’m here arguing. Whether I do so to your satisfaction is not my concern (just as whether God does what He does to your satisfaction is any of His concern: how could He possibly please five billion people and however many millions of atheists there are, with all your irrational demands?). You can decide to continue with me if you see some spark of truth or possible, potential truth in what I say, or not. But in any event, I am not the one who would convert you; that is God’s job, and involves your free will. I can’t change that; only He can and you can, in the end. I’m just here making my arguments, and I have tons of material on my blog and website, if you or anyone else is interested.

[C.S. Lewis] “All matter in the neighbourhood of a wicked man would be liable to undergo unpredictable alterations. That God can and does, on occasions, modify the behaviour of matter and produce what we call miracles, is part of the Christian faith; but the very conception of a common, and therefore, stable, world, demands that these occasions should be extremely rare . . .”

Why should they be rare? 

Why should God’s intervention in creation itself be rare or nonexistent? Why is this opposed at every turn in discussions of evolution or ID? Why is it disallowed? Clearly, because some theory or grand outlook has precluded it. That’s exactly what we are asserting here: we claim that it is sensible for God to allow the natural world to be what it is, without intervening at every turn.

The existence of a god would neither dictate that miracles would occur quite frequently or once a blue moon.

That’s right. But you in effect irrationally demand both scenarios simultaneously; that’s what I am driving at. It’s one way to turn the tables on the problem of evil argument. “The problem of good” is another. I’ve done both.

He obviously thought differently, and He (being omniscient) knows better than we do, why the world is the way it is. This was essentially the perspective of the Book of Job. It makes a lot of sense, if one presupposes for the sake of argument, the theistic God. If He does exist and is all-knowing, then who are we to try to second-guess Him, no matter how perplexing we may think the world is?

Oh, so I shouldn’t ask questions. Ok.

To say that we shouldn’t second-guess God is quite different from saying we shouldn’t question or have any doubts and questions at all. This is what Job is driving at. It is the tomfoolery of a creature who knows that God is Who He is, questioning all these things, from a position of vast, incomprehensible intellectual inferiority. It’s like a two-year-old questioning Einstein.

Now, again, this doesn’t preclude any agony or thought or befuddlement on our part. It presupposes it and goes on to a deeper level. The point of Job was not that Job shouldn’t suffer and wonder what the hell was going on. Quite the opposite: God assumed that as perfectly natural, but objected to Job using his suffering (however profound, and it was) to cause him to “curse God and die” (as his wife and friends: the proverbial “Job’s comforters” – suggested).

In other words, the problem of evil is not great enough to warrant disbelieving in God, or even believing that He doesn’t have some greater purpose in mind, that we simply can’t comprehend. That is the specific meaning behind my comment about “second-guessing.” The Book of Job deals with this question in a dramatic, narrative, pre-philosophical and pre-scientific fashion. Alvin Plantinga disposed of it with brilliant philosophical method. Two ways to skin a cat . . .

Wait a minute! I couldn’t help but wonder why your god is correct, and the Islamic god is wrong. 

That involves a ton of apologetics, and is, of course, far beyond our purview here.

If I was to presume “the theistic god”, I can only conclude that the world is the way it is because a deity said so. Nothing more.

Not if free will is taken into account.

I hope I haven’t fallen out of your favor by thinking. I guess I shouldn’t ask questions.

If you ask them, I’ll answer them to the best of my ability. I won’t mock and belittle you, as you do me. That’s quite Christian: endure mockery and insult and continue to try to act in a considerate, loving fashion by providing some halfway decent answers from a Christian perspective. By God’s grace (it sure ain’t in my own power), may I always do so.

The Bible tells us that anyone we meet is like encountering Jesus Himself (“if you do it [provide charity or aid, etc.] to the least of these, you do it to me”). Mother Teresa had a funny saying (recounted by Malcolm Muggeridge): if someone perturbed and annoyed her, she would call them “Jesus in rather distressing disguise.” That’s how you are! God teaches me patience and longsuffering in dealing with mocking types like you. But you won’t stop me. Do you think you are the first atheist who has dealt with me in this manner? You ain’t the first and you won’t be the last. It has no bearing on how I reply. I’m here to communicate Christian truth, as I understand and believe it in faith, in complete harmony with reason.

He allows the evil to happen for a higher purpose (often so high we cannot comprehend it). He was certainly behind the crucifixion. That had the utmost purpose, even though the thing itself was horrendous evil. God (the Father) took it and made it the means for the salvation of mankind. He used the intended evil for good.

So where’s the free will for the Roman soldiers? 

They acted freely in ignorance. How were they to know what they were doing? They were just following orders.

Is your god guiding them along like actors in a play? 

He allowed the evil as He often does. In this instance, He brought about a tremendous good as a result of evil intentions (of those responsible for murdering – unjustly executing – Jesus).

He was, after all, “certainly behind the crucifixion.”

In the sense of allowing the evil for His greater purposes, but not direct causation.

You seem to be unable to comprehend how a theistic world could contain suffering or that much suffering could be the result of 1) natural laws of nature . . . 

If your god is all-powerful, he could change the laws of nature. 

He could. And He could also make them exactly as they are. I don’t see how the laws of nature somehow disprove God’s goodness because people sometimes get harmed by them.

He could make gravity less to stop a fall. He’s performed miracles, stopped the sun in the sky, and raised the dead. He can do all these things, but he can’t stop a rape?

He could do lots of things. But because of free will, lots of bad things become possible.

The child that gets run over by a speeding car had a purpose in being violently crushed to death under the wheel of a hummer? I think not.

In and of itself, it does appear meaningless, senseless, and outrageous, I admit. It certainly is in atheism, because this life is all there is. But when there is an eternal life ahead of us, tragic events like this are not the be-all and end-all.

You have just devalued the child’s life. 

I don’t see how. I simply said that there can be a greater meaning in even the most horrible things, and that the child has eternal life. The child’s existence didn’t end then, as in atheism. Imagine the senseless slaughter of abortion from an atheist perspective: now the child is not only deprived of an eternal life (because there is none), but even of this life, which is all he or she had. And this is thought to be perfectly rational, moral behavior.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn is thankful to God for his time spent in the Gulag because it brought him to God. Corrie Ten Boom’s sister (I forget her name) felt the same in the Nazi concentration camps: that they had a purpose (or that God could use these horrors in some fashion), however incomprehensible to us. So did Corrie (that was the subject of a movie, The Hiding Place). They didn’t blame God for that. Why should they? Men did those horrors, not God.

That is horrible to do so. 

Yeah, it would be, but I didn’t do it. What is horrible is for you to imply that I did.

Life is meaningless to a Christian. 

Is that so? You could have fooled me.

All that matters, as you say, is “an eternal life ahead of us”. 

I didn’t say that was all that mattered. I wrote, rather: “when there is an eternal life ahead of us, tragic events like this are not the be-all and end-all.” No Christian can disagree with that. Not even an atheist could disagree. All you have to do is change the initial “when” to “if” and you must agree to this, even as an atheist. It is a point about perspective.

But to make that point has nothing to do with how valuable this life is or isn’t; only to note that the perspective on the evil event shortening that poor child’s life can be seen in a profoundly different light, when one believes that it is not the “end” of the child altogether.

So, nice try to caricature and twist what I said into some idiotic, stereotypical “pie-in-the-sky” scenario. It is not at all, and if you were thinking sensibly in interacting with me and accurately portraying what I argue, you would see that without it having to be pointed out to you.

You have devalued existence. 

Right. Of course I did no such thing. But nice try.

Now that is depressing. As you point out, “It certainly is in atheism, because this life is all there is.” Wouldn’t this make life much more important? 

In the sense of it being all there is, yes. So, then, why do most atheists think abortion is fine and dandy? You may claim (on illogical, unscientific grounds) that the baby slaughtered is not yet a person or a human being, but you can’t deny that it WILL be, if just given enough time. So you have still deprived it of the only life it would ever have, in your viewpoint. This is as monstrous an evil as I can imagine, and it is undertaken by torture and murder of the most defenseless creature.

We have only one life to live, so we try to help others because it helps, not because it gets you into heaven. 

That’s what we do, too, thank you. Because God is good, He will reward us in heaven one day, but our motivation is to love others and show them the way to God so they can get to heaven one day too. It’s illogical, of course, to argue that the Christian can only be motivated by heavenly rewards, simply because we believe in heaven. You have not proven that in the least. You simply assert it, because it is one of those old saws that play real well in atheist circles. But I’m not interested in empty rhetoric; I am interested in reason.

The Christian is selfish and cares only about the imaginary life after while the atheist cares about this life and others.

See my previous comment.

God can even use such horrors to bring about good.

So your god can direct the actions of the parents, but can not prevent the ball from bouncing into the middle of the street? Pretty bizarre.

I appeal back to my argument from the regularity of nature and the implausibility of the opposite state of affairs.

And that can be a witness which can bring about the salvation of many, which would be a wonderful thing brought about by the bad, hence giving it meaning it would not have by itself.

To give the death of a child run over by a car ‘meaning’ is a despicable act. 

Not at all. I’m not saying that the thing is good in and of itself, or even meaningful from our human perspective. Heavens no. I’m trying to look at it unemotionally from the standpoint of reason and philosophy (something you seem unable or unwilling to do, due to the highly emotionally-charged nature of the topic, that bothers everyone). To say that God can use some unspeakable horror and bring some good out of it is not to devalue the victim of the horror in the least.

The worst act can be cast aside for a positive meaning. 

Who’s casting aside?

You have just made the death of a child worthless.

Not at all. You are the one doing that, because in your world, such a horrific tragedy has no conceivable purpose. There is no eternal life. The child was just deprived of the only life it had. There is no way to balance the scales of unjust happenings and make it better for the child in another world. There is no God to bring anything at all good from it. Those things are what make the act senseless and the child’s life senseless, not Christian belief. You are in the world of nihilism, not I.

These things should make you tremble and be baffled and perplexed and disturbed far more than the problem of evil troubles Christians, because we have faith in a loving, omniscient God and accept that there are lots and lots of things we don’t know, with our severe limitations as finite creatures. You can lie about our perspective on these things if you wish but it won’t solve your existential problem or prevent the despair you ought to be in if you really, truly contemplated the ultimately meaningless world that your position entails.

Is the death of a fetus good because the mother may grow up to witness to others, which can bring about the salvation of many, which would be a wonderful thing brought about the bad, hence giving it meaning it would not have by itself?

The act itself remains evil. Do you support legal abortion? God can use it, as He does any evil. The mother involved (and pro-lifers generally don’t find the mothers responsible, but rather, the doctors, and those who “persuade” her to do this terrible act) may later give testimony that this choice was wrong, and help women to not have an abortion, or talk about the side effects which are ignored, etc. So good could come out of that.

If a child’s death is permissible, so is abortion. 

Abortion is the willful taking of an innocent human life. It’s murder. An accident with a car is not that. Apples and oranges.

Any action is permissible. 

In atheism consistently thought through, yes.

Bill Donohue said that the tsunami disaster in Southeast Asia was the “poor Asian people[‘s] gift to the world,” so it mustn’t have been that bad. 

I’d have to see the context of his remarks. Seeing how you have repeatedly run roughshod over the context of my own remarks, I don’t trust you to accurately report what some opponent of yours said.

Cardinal O’Connor called the Holocaust the Jewish “gift” to the world. 

Ditto.

Everything is now a gift from Jesus, and we should be thankful that we got melanoma.

God can use any tragedy and bring good out of it.

[W]e Christians believe there is a purpose and meaning to everything, no matter how incomprehensible to us, and there is another world coming, where all will be made right and just, and suffering will cease.

Is there purpose to abortion? 

Not in and of itself. It is a senseless outrage against justice and the very notion of defending the most innocent and helpless among us. That is pagan morality as well as Christian. In fact, when I was in one of my court trials after being arrested for blocking clinic doors, I stated in court that pro-life or opposition to abortion is not specifically Christian; it is based on the pagan Hippocratic Oath from ancient Greece, which also precluded it.

Can there be a silver lining found under each act? Cannot the child that survives the hurricane dedicate her life to her god, therefore giving the hurricane meaning? Cannot the woman that has an abortion dedicate her life to the name of Jesus, thus giving the abortion meaning?

That’s how God can use those things, yes.

Not at all; it is ultimately meaningless atheism which does that. Life has the highest meaning in the Christian worldview, which encompasses suffering and transcends it, even though it is very difficult for us to comprehend.

It must be very difficult for you to understand. You’ve caught your feet on the carpet enough for one night.

It’s difficult for everyone to understand. But being illogical and insulting and mocking, and butchering context and caricaturing one’s opponent and making them out to be imbeciles does not accomplish anything constructive, that I can see.

Don’t forget, you atheists are “witnesses” to the superiority of your own belief-system, just as we Christians are to ours. If someone on the fence sees your constant insults and shoddy argumentation, this does not bode well for the purpose of this blog or your own mission and purpose in discussing these things, whatever it is.

So I wouldn’t be so smug about your freely offered insults. Fair-minded people can see through all that and see that your recourse to it suggests that you lack rational replies or that you may very well be a miserable person (i.e., you are not happy or fulfilled in your atheism), to have to treat others so.

That may or may not be due to atheism, of course, but what you are doing does not exactly make atheism appealing to those on the fence. Who wants to believe something if its adherents are known as mockers and boors in discussion?

But the existence of free will of necessity entails suffering, because free beings really can rebel and cause untold suffering.

That makes no sense whatsoever.

If not to you, I trust it will to others working through the difficulty. That’s the wonder of the Internet. It ain’t just me and you. Others are reading this too.

Wow; you’re getting awfully angry at a nonexistent thing. I don’t spend my time getting into a lather about how unjust the man in the moon made of green cheese is or what a rascally scoundrel Darth Vader or Dracula is. Funny that you would do that with a mere fairy-tale known as “god.”

I guess someone doesn’t get hyperbole. 

I don’t get irrationality either, or why someone has a need to misrepresent an opposing argument.

I’m not angry with any god. 

Of course not; who would ever get that impression?

I don’t even think they exist. I am angry, however, that millions of people have a disease of the mind that allows them to justify every action with the three magic words: “God says so.” That’s why I’m angry.

Then you are in for a miserable life. First of all, it shouldn’t concern you. Let the ignorant be ignorant and go on with your life. If fantasies make others happy, then all you should think is that this is their way of dealing with the meaningless universe and slogging through somehow. You have your own way (heaven knows what that is).

Secondly, of course this is yet another gross caricature of how Christian theology and philosophy deal with these matters. Why am I not surprised? Of course many individual Christians can be found who will say all sorts of stupid things. But I am interested in the best of Christian (and atheist) thought, not the worst. And you should be too if you truly value good, constructive, challenging, thought-provoking discussion. I absolutely love interacting with thoughtful atheists. It’s one of my very favorite activities in my apologetics.

You want to play baseball? Now you can’t because some kid may let a bat fly after he swings and hit another kid and crush his skull. Okay; better not play then, and God is evil or ain’t there at all because He allows such things. What can God do to make it better? Well, He can make bats mushy and soft. Alright, fine. But how can you hit a ball now? You can’t. So it becomes impossible because to eliminate all suffering, God must make stuff soft so no bad thing can ever happen.

If he can do it, why doesn’t he? 

Dealt with above and elsewhere.

He must not be all-good, because an all-powerful, omniscient being that is all-good would want to stop evil, and would be able to do so.

That doesn’t follow, per Plantinga’s dismantling of it. Take it up with him. Then we’ll see who is over his head.

Yet atheists fight tooth and nail against miracles as the most implausible, unprovable thing imaginable. Why, they violate the natural law, and this can never happen! And everyone knows that! But now they must happen all over the place so that God can be a good guy and exist after all?

I want the miracles to start happening left and right! Let the miracles start raining down from heaven like manna. That would be the perfect way the convert every last atheist on this planet – that is, if you can prove that it is your god that’s performing the miracles.

Not at all, because profound disbelief (where it exists) is not affected even by miracles. There have been plenty of documented miracles, and you guys deny every one of them. So what makes you think massive miracles will cause you to act any differently?

You know down deep that there is a God whether you see a single miracle, because He has put this knowledge within you and it is discerned just by being human. You need no miracle to ascertain that. But you can be led astray by all sorts of bad reasoning.

***

(originally 10-11-06)

Photo credit: Azlan DuPree (9-18-10), entitled, “suffering is permanent – obscure and dark” [Flickr / CC BY 2.0 license]

***

February 14, 2018

Former Christian pastor, now atheist John W. Loftus is a big name now in the atheist world, with lots of books, and his popular blog Debunking Christianity. The following is drawn from remarks made on his blog. His words will be in blue. His older words will be in purple, and my past words in green.
* * * * *

Here are my own shots at solving the problem. I don’t claim all that much for them, except that I think they exhibit some degree of thought and that they’re not lightweight, breezy attempts at solutions. The latter debate I consider one of the best I have had with anyone: Christian or atheist (I wonder if Mike is still around on the Internet these days?):

“Christian Replies to the Argument From Evil (Free Will Defense): Is God Malevolent, Weak, or Non-Existent Because of the Existence of Evil and Suffering?”

“Dialogue With an Atheist on the “Problem of Good” and the Nature of Meaningfulness in Atheism (The Flip Side of the Problem of Evil Argument Against Christianity)” (vs. Mike Hardie)

These constitute one Christian attempt to grapple with the problem. I am more than willing to defend my points of view and even to admit that I have no answer in particulars if that is the case (or to retract particulars if that is required, too).

Best wishes to both sides in the debate, and let it be a fair fight!

Dave Armstrong, I skimmed through the essays on your Blog and what I saw what [sic] that you simply do not understand the problem.

You can’t determine that by skimming long papers on such a weighty topic. The least you could do is show me what you claim I don’t understand: educate the ignorant and get them up to speed.

I saw no interaction with David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion on this, and that only takes you up to the 18th century.

Hume believed in a deity of some sort (though not the Christian God), so whatever he concluded about evil did not, obviously, make him an atheist (and that is far closer to my position than to yours). Many people seem not to know this, but there it is. See my paper: Was Skeptical Philosopher David Hume an Atheist?

Christian philosopher Dr. James F. Sennett has said: “By far the most important objection to the faith is the so-called problem of evil – the alleged incompatibility between the existence or extent of evil in the world and the existence of God. I tell my philosophy of religion students that, if they are Christians and the problem of evil does not keep them up at night, then they don’t understand it.”

I agree completely, which is why I made a very similar comment on this blog recently. Just three days ago, I wrote in a thread under one of your posts:

I think I glanced at your deconversion. Wasn’t the problem of evil key? I consider that the most serious objection to Christianity (though, not, of course, fatal at all, as you’d expect). So while I could still quibble with that, it would be in an entirely different league from the sort of shallow stuff that usually constitutes reasons for deconversions.

You know how that goes: there are reasons that one disagrees with, while considering them highly respectable and serious and worthy of attention, and others which are downright frivolous and trivial or plainly fallacious.

Obviously, you missed that, or you wouldn’t quote my own belief back to me. And so your next statement becomes literally, nonsensical, since you thought that I would disagree with what Sennett said, but I do not; therefore, you are the one who doesn’t understand my position on this (whatever you think of its merits). And of course, understanding of opposing positions is fundamental to any decent dialogue.

Dave, YOU don’t understand the problem. Sorry to tell you this.

See the above remarks. I’m willing to interact with anyone who wants to show me where my reasoning went astray in my long paper on the subject. If you decline, that’s fine. Perhaps someone else would be willing to do so.

I find it humorous, too, that I cited very long passages from St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. If I don’t understand the problem, then neither do they, so the result would be that two of the very greatest thinkers in Christian history don’t have a clue about the problem of evil; only atheists do. Or else they understood the problem but I didn’t, even though I cited them in agreement. That brings us back to the logical nonsense of me agreeing with and citing people who understand the problem, yet I supposedly do not.

Right. I think you need to give it another try. I couldn’t care less whether you want to dialogue with me on this subject (or any other) or not (I manage to find many dialogue partners; no problem); but I would expect of you something better than this flimsy sort of response and misrepresentation of the position of Christian opponents.

I’ll be dealing with your deconversion story (as much as I can find online), and when I do that, I won’t misrepresent or breezily dismiss what you believe. But if you misunderstand Christian doctrine (as almost inevitably happens in any such cases that I have examined), I will certainly point that out.

[see: Critique of Atheist John W. Loftus’ “Deconversion” Story [10-15-06]

*

*
In any event, I won’t approach your writing with this silly attitude of “I skimmed your [long, involved] papers and you just don’t get it, so I won’t spend any time giving you the courtesy of showing you why you don’t understand the problem; instead I’ll quote Christian philosophers to you who say exactly what you said in a comment under a post of mine three days ago — as if you would disagree with them.”

C’mon; certainly you’re capable of much better than that . . . and if you aren’t, then hopefully someone on this blog is. I started out here in high hopes that good dialogue could be had! I haven’t given up yet . . .

* * * * *

I did notice your comment about evil, but even though you said this doesn’t mean you understand the depth of the problem. 

Even if that is true (which I deny), you give me no reason why you think this is the case.

I was in a hurry at the time I skimmed through your papers. I’ll look them over again. 

Thank you.

But anyone who attempts to deal with the problem of evil who mainly uses Augustine and Aquinas isn’t caught up to speed on the whole debate since Hume. 

I didn’t primarily use them. Above I made the point that if you want to play the “ignorance” game, you’ll have to include Aquinas and Augustine and I don’t think many people will buy an interpretation that they were ignoramuses, no matter what period they happened to live in.

And anyone today who wants to comment on the debate who doesn’t take into consideration William Rowe’s, Paul Draper’s, Michael Martin’s, Quentin Smith’s, Bruce Russell’s and Theodore Drange’s arguments still doesn’t understand the problem.

This is irrational. One doesn’t have to read all the philosophers to have any intelligent comment at all on a topic. That is simply academic elitism, and I don’t play that game. I’m not an academic and don’t claim to be. I’m a Christian apologist. But to say not only that someone can’t have a constructive, decent dialogue on a topic unless they’ve read a, b, c, d, etc. but that they can’t even comprehend the depth of the problem of proposed difficulty, is sheer nonsense.

Granted, the more one reads on anything, the better prepared and informed they will be, but you aren’t just saying that: you make out that reading these guys is an absolute requirement to even have the discussion or be regarded as a worthy dialogue partner/opponent.

In effect, then, this reduces to: either one has to know all the ins and outs of philosophical minutiae or else one can’t sensibly discuss the problem of evil at all. I vehemently deny this. I may not know all the intricacies of all these arguments as well as you do (freely granted), but that doesn’t mean I can’t spot a flaw in the arguments that I can read and comprehend as well as anyone else. Since I am a Socratic in method, that’s mainly what I do, anyway.

Even Alvin Plantinga thinks it is perfectly reasonable and rational for a Christian to hold certain beliefs without knowing all the ins and outs of the current philosophical discussion. And he is no slouch, as I have heard many atheists agree. He opposes academic elitism and snobbery, as I do.

When my debate transcript and video are made available you’ll see a glimpse of what the problem really is all about.

I see. So being a Christian apologist and having regarded the problem as a very serious and worthy objection for 25 years isn’t sufficient to have any inkling of the depth of the problem. I have to see your video to get a glimpse of how ignorant I really am.

I had so much more to share if needed, too. 

I’m sure you did. So did I when I wrote my papers.

Until then I wish you well. You’re a bright thinker, and I look forward to dialoguing with you on this issue in the future. 

Not if the requirement is to read a bunch of atheists first. If you want to discuss one such paper by one of these guys, great. I’d be happy to do that, anytime. I’d even gladly read, say, long online articles by each of these folks (but not books). And I would reply to them unless I felt that it was too philosophically technical and out of my reach in that sense.

And dialogue on this issue I will. But do me the favor first in reading up on the modern debates, okay?…that is, if you haven’t already.

I’ve read plenty on the topic. One can always read more. I don’t have unlimited time to devote to one topic. The apologist (esp. the Catholic apologist) has many many issues to write about and defend. You can wait till I read the books you think I should read if you like. In the meantime, I will start responding to comments I find here. If you want to counter-respond, fine; if not, fine. It’s of little concern to me. I dialogue with whomever is willing to do so, and I critique whatever I think is worthwhile to critique, whether the person is willing or able to reply back or not. Usually people can’t defend their own viewpoints; that’s been my experience.

Dialogue it is then! Forget my deconversion story. I know what you’ll say about science and Genesis 1-11, since you’ve already written about that.

Then I’ll skip that part and deal with others, but it will be dealt with (especially after the ridiculous, intellectually triumphalistic remarks you made about it that I saw cited at Steve Hays’ site):

[I’m saying the case I make in my new book is overwhelmingly better.

Again, are you going to read it and critique it for yourself? Hey, I dare you! I bet you think you’re that smart, don’t ya, or that your faith is that strong – that you can read something like my book and not have it affect your faith.

If Christianity is true, then you have nothing to fear. But if Christianity is false, then you owe it to yourself to get the book. Either way you win.

And even if you blast my book after reading it here on this Blog, I’ll know that you read it, and just like poison takes time to work, all I have to do from then on is to wait for a personal crisis to kill your faith.

Want to give it a go? The way I see you reason here makes me think it’ll make your head spin with so many unanswerable questions that you won’t know what to do.

But that’s just me. I couldn’t answer these questions, so if you can, you’re a smarter man than I am, and that could well be. Are you? I think not, but that’s just me.]

I would reply briefly that if all it takes (in the sense of immediate cause) to “kill” someone’s faith is a personal crisis, then obviously such a person did not understand the intellectual reasons for why they are a Christian in the first place, since if they had, a mere crisis would not have the effect of transforming one into an atheist, as it is merely an emotional reaction and not a rational one. This rather proves the point that the atheist objections tend to come down to, in the end, emotional and irrational factors. That’s why they’re so big on the problem of evil. It’s a very serious objection, as I’ve stated above and have always thought, but on the other hand, it’s also very rich in possibilities for emotional exploitation, rhetoric, polemics, and so forth, because everyone feels so strongly about suffering and evil.

***

[two days later]

Hitler is either “allowed” by necessity of human free will or else we have no free will.

This is a false dichotomy. 

Well, it is an argument from plausibility, based on the more involved logical background arguments of Alvin Plantinga.

Didn’t God harden Pharoah’s heart?

No. This is another instance (one of many I have documented) of atheists not properly understanding the Bible and how to sensibly interpret it. Shame on you, as a former pastor, with a multiple Masters degrees in theology, as this is a rather simple matter.

When the Bible says that God did this, it is in the particular sense of “God allowed the Pharaoh to become hardened of his own accord, then used it for His purposes, to free the Hebrew slaves.” In other words, it is a typically vivid, pungent, dramatic Hebrew way of speech: “God did it [in the sense of it being ultimately used for His purposes, in His providence].”

Because it is pre-philosophical language, all that is bypassed and the writer just says “God hardened Pharaoh.” But nevertheless, other passages give the true sense, so it can be better understood. Thus, the literature teaches by deduction what might be expressed in more logical-type language all in one sentence.

Accordingly, we have the Bible saying God hardened Pharaoh, many times (e.g., Ex. 4:21; 7:3,13; 9:12; 10:1,20,27; 11:10; 14:4,8 etc,), and even hardening the Egyptians (14:17), but it also says that Pharaoh hardened his own heart (Ex 8:15; 8:32; 9:34; 1 Sam 6:6).

Furthermore, it simply states the fact of hardening without saying who did it (Ex 7:14,22; 8:19; 9:7,35) and that one shouldn’t harden one’s own heart, as a generality (Deut 15:7; Ps 95:8; Heb 3:8,15; 4:7).

The obvious, straightforward way to interpret all this data is as I have done. It is not contradictory: neither internally, nor with regard to the problem of evil. One understands this insofar as one also is familiar with the Hebrew oft-poetic, non-literal manner of speaking.

If you want to directly compare that world with human beings, and make us merely an evolutionary development of it (i.e., in a completely naturalistic sense; I am not condemning theistic evolution), then you have huge problems of your own, since how can you argue that cannibalism is more wrong for human beings than for animals (especially in a eat-anything-to-survive environment, such as the famous Donner party)? Atheists will play games and make out that people are qualitatively different, but this is nonsensical within your paradigm, which has man evolving directly from this same animal kingdom, wherein survival of the fittest is the natural order of things.

This is irrelevant to the theistic problem of evil. It’s a red herring, for it sidetracks the problem of why God set up predation in the natural world. 

I was simply responding to your statement: “In the natural world something must be killed so that some other carnivore can eat. This is the world your God set up.” I didn’t claim that it had anything directly to do with the problem of evil. It was, in effect, a footnote.

We could deal with this issue, if you want to do so sometime, but let’s stick to the issue at hand. 

Gladly. Like I said, I was simply responding to what you wrote. It didn’t sidetrack me.

Why didn’t God make us vegetarians? There are naturally existing vegetarian animals.

He did, originally (and some Christians adopt this view on Christian grounds, though it is tough, since Jesus ate fish). Christians usually argue that meat-eating was a result of the fall and not the ideal situation. The fall was as a result of free will; hence not able to be blamed on God (that only applies to supralapsarian Calvinism: itself a small minority of a minority school).

That makes him worse than Hitler by a long long shot.

Really? I don’t see how:

1) God allows free will.
2) Free will entails the possibility of rebellion and evil.
3) Hitler ushered in one such massive societal rebellion against civilization and evil campaign.
4) God is to blame for Hitler’s evil because He allowed free will.
5) Man isn’t to blame for Hitler’s evil, even though he had the capacity to prevent it altogether.

Could God have given Hitler a heart attack and end the war? 

Certainly. The fact that He didn’t is no proof that He isn’t good, if some other plausible scenario can be imagined, consistent with His goodness.

Could utopian, naively pacifistic, Fabian socialist, occult- and sex-obsessed Englishmen in the 1930s have stopped the German military build-up, which was obvious? Yes. Can God be blamed because they didn’t? Nope. Can WWII be directly blamed on their failure to see the writing on the wall? Yes, of course.

You can’t start a war if you don’t have the military weaponry to do so in the first place, it seems obvious to me. But all you want to do is blame God because He didn’t strike down the madman. Isn’t it better for us to do that: does the parent have to do absolutely everything for his child when the child is capable? Clearly not. You act like human beings are like babies who can do nothing; hence God must do everything by way of preventing any evil.

This is a clear case where He didn’t have to do so. Men could have done everything necessary to prevent it. And in fact we did end it when we woke up to what was happening; after London was bombed, etc. Self-interest and self-defense. Pearl Harbor quickly got isolationist America in the war, didn’t it? Prior to that even London being bombed wasn’t enough. That wakes people up fast and motivates them to do what they avoided doing previously. 9-11 did the same in our own time, but it didn’t take long for certain schools of thought to put their heads in the sand again and pretend that fighting back isn’t necessary.

If so, he could’ve stopped a thousand Hitlers.

Yes; no argument there. The question at hand is whether He must do so in order to be believed to be as Christians think Him to be. We say no.

This is irrational. It makes no more sense to blame God for the evil choices of creatures he created free than it does to blame a good parent for sins of a child of his or her own volition, committed after the parent trusted the child to be responsible with its freedom. You can’t blame one being for the sins of another; at some point there is individual responsibility. That’s why it is ridiculous to blame God for Hitler.

If a mother gave a two-year old a razor blade she would be held culpable. And if she sat by and did nothing while my older brother beat me to death she could be considered an accomplice.

That’s correct. But in the case of the two-year-old, the mother is clearly culpable because the child isn’t old enough to know that it could be harmed by a razor blade (till it starts cutting, that is, then it can figure out some causal relationship, I think). That just proves my point that you are irrationally regarding the human race and adults with brains and responsibilities for free actions, as the equivalent of babies in diapers, with rattles rather than adult brains and the capacity to make intelligent and virtuous choices.

The other example at least makes a little sense (though you didn’t give an age of the brothers). There I would say that this is our responsibility as humans: to prevent harm insofar as possible. As for God in this analogy, I could easily argue that He set the world in motion and allowed free will because He wanted us to be responsible and to do good ourselves, not rely on Him to automatically make every situation we have screwed up right again. In effect, it is allowing His grown-up children to look after themselves. That’s what the analogy of God to parents involves, too.

Now God can intervene at times, but it’ll be the exception, just as a parent would assume that children of a certain age should be able to get along without killing each other. The human race knows more than enough to stop warring with each other and butchering children in their mothers’ wombs, but it doesn’t because of sin.

What’s so complicated about knowing that it is bad to start killing each other for greedy reasons or sexual “freedom” or no reason at all in many cases? We can solve that ourselves, but evil and the propensity of man for evil makes what should be simple, impossible to achieve in fact.

I don’t see that God is under an absolute obligation to rectify things that we have screwed up. He has promised a better world that He will rule, where all things will eventually be made right. That’s more than enough, in my opinion. We don’t even deserve that. We all should be condemned to hell for our corporate rebellion, but God in His great mercy gives us a chance to repent and be saved.

But even if that made any sense, why do you atheists not give God any credit for all the good which comes from free will? If you want to hold Him accountable for all the bad things that men do to each other, or the natural events that can hardly be otherwise in a sensible, orderly universe, then how come you never give Him any credit for anything?

Because there is so much unalleviated suffering in the world we just don’t think there is a God.

That didn’t answer my question. I agree there is a lot of evil and that it is a difficulty to understand. I asked why you never give God (even a hypothetical God, for the sake of argument) any credit; only blame for bad stuff that is often clearly man’s fault?

Hitler’s Germany was a Christian nation and all you can do is to ask about Hitler from my perspective?

The people may have been, but the regime was not, by any stretch of the imagination. It was a grotesque mixture of corrupted romanticism, paganism, and occultism. The Final Solution was not justified on Christian grounds.

So I suppose American slavery was not justified on Christian grounds either? 

No; it certainly was. But wrongly so. Biblical servanthood (and often, pagan servanthood) is not nearly the same thing as American slavery was. The Bible condemned the oppressive sort of slavery. Ever heard of the Exodus from Egypt? That’s why black slaves often saw that as an analogy: God desired them to be free, just as with the Hebrew Egyptian slaves. It was only the characteristic of greed that caused Christians to justify such outrages.

But that was a clever way of switching the subject, wasn’t it? Perhaps you hoped that I wouldn’t notice, or that readers wouldn’t? Ah, but not when I point it out.

Who speaks for Christianity? 

Another rabbit trail. I would say as a Catholic, that the pope does, preeminently.

You? 

I do, insofar as I am a Catholic lay apologist devoted to defending Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular, and representing the beliefs of that system to the very best of my ability, and in submission to its authority.

Based upon hindsight?

Based upon the history of Christianity, the Bible, Church authority, authoritative apostolic tradition, and reason.

If He stopped Hitler by the miraculous and abrogation of his free will, then we would have a world where no one was free, and every bad, evil thing is immediately prevented

False dichotomy. You’ve just got to stop thinking in terms of extremes and clear black and whites here. 

It’s not extreme. It is a conclusion based on an unspoken chain of reasoning (and a sort of reductio ad absurdum). You guys say God should intervene practically at every turn, and prevent all these evils. If He can do so once, then (according to you, it seems), He ought to do so massively, in every case, since why would one be more worthy of attention than another? Why should God not immediately heal a child’s scrape or a hang nail or a blister or pimple if He is required to alleviate every misery known to man, in order to be believed for what He is?

There is no sensible stopping point. So I say it is most logical to believe that He simply lets the world operate according to the laws of nature and the results of human free will, with only rare miraculous intervention (yes, even up to and including Hitler).

The other sort of world makes no sense to me. It really doesn’t. But heaven makes sense to me. That is different precisely because to enter it we had to pass some sort of test, and accept the grace that God gave us in order to be saved. Then we can have perfect happiness.

God clearly directed free willed creatures in the Bible, it’s claimed, so why not do something about the horrendous evils which lead atheists to say he doesn’t exist if God wants us to believe? 

Precisely because those same free willed creatures are able to alleviate most suffering themselves. Atheists will find reasons not to believe no matter what. We maintain that there is more than enough evidence for theism and Christianity. That’s why many thinking people accept it and why atheism has always been a minority viewpoint even in western civilization, with all its marvelous intellectual and technological, artistic and musical and architectural achievements.

God makes your task harder and harder all of the time. I don’t envy your task here. 

I’m doing fine, thank you. I’m not trembling under your supposed profundities of anti-Christian argument, as you seem to think we all will, if we read your stuff. To the contrary, invariably when I take on opposing arguments, my faith grows stronger. It happens every time, and is one of the blessings of professional apologetics. I get to make the arguments and get the added bonus of having my faith strengthened by observing how the non-Christian arguments routinely fail to hit their mark and achieve their purpose, or to see how they are downright fallacious.

But God could avert these tragedies, if for no other reason to help you out in explaining why evil exists.

I think whatever the reason is that He allows them (and I believe Christians probably have a pretty good idea at least about some possible reasons why He does so), it wouldn’t be for any reason so trivial as that.

You say my moral code is subjectively chosen? Well then, where does your God’s moral code come from?

It’s eternal. Therefore, it “comes from” nothing. It always existed in God. God is Love. Yours is certainly subjective because you can’t create an absolute larger than yourself and applicable to all, no matter how hard you try. That has to come from a Being Who transcends creation and mankind itself.

That’s of course another subject, and I consistently refuse to be drawn off-topic while an important, meaty debate is already taking place. But some day I’d be happy to.

***

(originally 10-11-06)

Photo credit: John Loftus at SASHAcon 2016 at the University of Missouri (3-19-16). Photograph by Mark Schierbecker [Wikimedia Commons /  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license]

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November 16, 2017

JesusPassion3
(10-10-06)
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I reply to the comments of “drunken tune” (never was there a more apt nickname) on the Debunking Christianity blog:

***

Here’s some short answers that most Christians will have trouble with. Us atheists need not answer them because they do not contradict with [sic] atheism, 

Well, you have plenty of your own to deal with, so I wouldn’t wish more upon you.

but they do with Christianity. 

According to you . . .

While atheism may be depressing for some, 

It should be for all, but people have a great capacity to make meaning where there should ultimately be none, given their presuppositions. One sees the dichotomy in your own comments.

it’s better than following a contradictory lie that makes you feel good.

I agree with the concept expressed here; but deny that it applies to Christianity rather than atheism.

[1] When earthquakes occur, or children are hacked to pieces, where is your god? 

Being hacked to pieces and slowly murdered on the cross.

If he’s absent, then he’s not omnipotent or all-good.

Obviously, He was willing to take on the suffering that many of us have to endure. He is there with any victim who calls out to Him (even if they don’t), but it doesn’t necessarily follow that He should prevent all suffering.

This is what I delved into, in my long paper on the problem of evil. The atheist casually assumes that God should intervene in every tragic situation and use the miraculous to do so, without stopping to consider what this would entail: what sort of weird world (in terms of the natural order) it would require.

I made the point that atheists are extremely reluctant to allow any divine intervention in matters of nature and will despise even theistic evolutionary attempts to do so in any way, shape, or form, yet if we switch over to this discussion on evil, all of a sudden, if God doesn’t do thousands of miracles per second, then He is either bad or not there at all.

I make the argument (too involved to briefly summarize) that there is, therefore, some necessity for the world being the way it is, and that God is bound to the laws of logic, insofar as natural disaster and natural evil occurs. It is unreasonable to assume that He must perform millions of miracles so we never suffer at all. Other evil is clearly a result of man’s inhumanity to man, and it is foolish to blame God for it. We have the capacity to eliminate much of that.

[2] Then is it free will? That must be why people act so horribly to each other. 

The presence of free will makes it possible that it will be abused, yes. We believe that God thought it better to allow free will and the evil that can result, rather than make robots who can do no other than what they do. God made it possible for you to be so free that He even allows you to believe foolish things like denying that He exists. That’s extremely tolerant, isn’t it? It would be like me saying, “hey, you can believe whatever you want, even that I don’t exist.” And He is the one Who created you; without Whom you wouldn’t be here at all.

Yet, how much choice does the baby born with Down’s Syndrome have? 

That is not explained by free will, but rather, by the nature of the natural world, which will (properly examined and thought through) entail such things (in this instance, because genetics is not an absolutely perfect system). C. S. Lewis wrote:

We can, perhaps, conceive of a world in which God corrected the results of this abuse of free will by His creatures at every moment: so that a wooden beam became soft as grass when it was used as a weapon, and the air refused to obey me if I attempted to set up in it the sound waves that carry lies or insults. But such a world would be one in which wrong actions were impossible, and in which, therefore, freedom of the will would be void . . . All matter in the neighbourhood of a wicked man would be liable to undergo unpredictable alterations. That God can and does, on occasions, modify the behaviour of matter and produce what we call miracles, is part of the Christian faith; but the very conception of a common, and therefore, stable, world, demands that these occasions should be extremely rare . . .

. . . fixed laws, consequences unfolding by causal necessity, the whole natural order, are at once the limits within which their common life is confined and also the sole condition under which any such life is possible. (The Problem of Pain, New York: Macmillan, 1962 [originally 1940], 33-34)

If we’re given free will by this being, and I believed in him, I’d pray every day that he’d take our free will away. Anything to stop the powerful from oppressing the weak.

He obviously thought differently, and He (being omniscient) knows better than we do, why the world is the way it is. This was essentially the perspective of the Book of Job. It makes a lot of sense, if one presupposes for the sake of argument, the theistic God. If He does exist and is all-knowing, then who are we to try to second-guess Him, no matter how perplexing we may think the world is?

[3] So then is it that we all ‘have a purpose’? 

Indeed.

When truly horrible things happen to people that do not deserve to suffer, is your god behind this? 

He allows the evil to happen for a higher purpose (often so high we cannot comprehend it). He was certainly behind the crucifixion. That had the utmost purpose, even though the thing itself was horrendous evil. God (the Father) took it and made it the means for the salvation of mankind. He used the intended evil for good.

If that’s so, stop revering a monster. If this guy’s all-powerful, then he’s nothing more than a little boy with a magnifying glass standing over his ant colony. 

But you still have to establish your assumed premise that God must necessarily intervene in every tragedy, or cease to be good or all-powerful. You seem to be unable to comprehend how a theistic world could contain suffering or that much suffering could be the result of 1) natural laws of nature, and 2) malicious human free will.

The truly amazing thing to explain is how heroism and goodness and human love, of a selfless character, and good qualities in cultures at large, continue to exist, in such a meaningless universe.

For example, there was a ton of suffering in World War II, yet it could have been prevented if Germany had not been allowed to build up its military and install a fascist regime (ditto for Japan). So that evil (itself caused by man’s stupidity and failure of foresight) caused tremendous suffering, yet at the same time there was opportunity for great, wonderful, selfless acts of love, in order to alleviate the suffering brought on by human idiocy and blindness.

And the fact remains that the bad guys were beaten. The world was not entirely meaningless and hopeless. The evil people were beaten and their plans thwarted. I could just as well say that God caused that to happen in His larger plan, rather than irrationally blame God for the origins of that tragic conflict, when it was man’s fault for not preventing it. You look at all the bad things and blame God without cause, but one can also look at how God used the evil to bring about good, in many specific instances and overall.

The child that gets run over by a speeding car had a purpose in being violently crushed to death under the wheel of a hummer? I think not.

In and of itself, it does appear meaningless, senseless, and outrageous, I admit. It certainly is in atheism, because this life is all there is. But when there is an eternal life ahead of us, tragic events like this are not the be-all and end-all. God can even use such horrors to bring about good. The parents can be a witness of hope, when all would be looking to them to be crushed under the weight of agony and sorrow. It’s not humanly possible to endure such suffering, but it is possible by God’s grace. And that can be a witness that can bring about the salvation of many, which would be a wonderful thing brought about by the bad, hence giving it meaning it would not have by itself.

In fact, my wife knows a couple who had a young child who was behind their car, then the father backed up and crushed him to death. I can’t even begin to imagine what that would have been like. I could not endure that on my own; I couldn’t even start. I would want to kill myself on the spot.

But this poor couple survived and gave the glory to God. They didn’t lose faith. They didn’t become atheists like so many of you, for far lesser reasons. And that is because we Christians believe there is a purpose and meaning to everything, no matter how incomprehensible to us, and there is another world coming, where all will be made right and just, and suffering will cease.

In any case, Christianity has just devalued life. 

Not at all; it is ultimately meaningless atheism which does that. Life has the highest meaning in the Christian worldview, which encompasses suffering and transcends it, even though it is very difficult for us to comprehend.

We’re either robots following a master plan, there’s a purpose to every horrible thing happening, 

It’s not an intrinsic purpose, but a purpose insofar as God can use tragedy brought on by evil or the natural world, to bring about a higher good. I gave two examples above. But the existence of free will of necessity entails suffering, because free beings really can rebel and cause untold misery.

or we’ve just blamed the baby for bad genes. 

Of course we don’t blame the baby.

If you believe in god, then anything is then permissible.

Quite the contrary; God is the only sensible ground for a system of absolute ethics; otherwise everything is arbitrary and relativistic. That’s why by far the greatest evils have been perpetrated by cultures that rejected Christianity and put man in the driver’s seat (Nazi Germany, Maoist China; Leninist and Stalinist Russia, etc.)

Now we slaughter children in their mother’s wombs (in America) at a 4000 a day rate. Is that God’s fault, too, or a result of human beings playing God? Yet for some reason I hear precious little protest about that in all these ghastly scenarios meant to “disprove” God. You mention a child being run over, but not having its brains sucked out upon emerging from the womb or being torn limb from limb. Is that God’s fault, or the “doctor’s” who does it, and the society which permits such monstrosities to be legalized and called “good”? Is that a result of Christianity or of secularism and the worship of unbridled sex without responsibility, which involves butchering children that inevitably result from unhindered, amoral sexuality?

John W. Loftus chimed in, with regard to the ubiquitous Hitler connection:

I have a whole section in my book devoted to the question, “What is Life Without God?” that if you really want a detailed answer to this question you should get. What I was arguing for is that if God exists then he did wrong for allowing Hitler to kill and kill and kill. 

Hitler is either “allowed” by necessity of human free will or else we have no free will. God obviously thought free will was preferable to being automatons. But in this instance, clearly, we could have prevented what happened.

In the natural world something must be killed so that some other carnivore can eat. This is the world your God set up. 

That is the animal world. If you want to directly compare that world with human beings, and make us merely an evolutionary development of it (i.e., in a completely naturalistic sense; I am not condemning theistic evolution), then you have huge problems of your own, since how can you argue that cannibalism is more wrong for human beings than for animals (especially in a eat-anything-to-survive environment, such as the famous Donner party)? Atheists will play games and make out that people are qualitatively different, but this is nonsensical within your paradigm, which has man evolving directly from this same animal kingdom, wherein survival of the fittest is the natural order of things.

Thus, e.g., eugenics was justified by the Nazis and folks like Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood (who got a lot of her racist ideas from the Nazis) on evolutionary grounds. The real difficulties, then, lie on your side. You have to differentiate men from the animals, in order to have any rational system of ethics, but you have no basis to do so. Christianity, on the other hand, can easily make the distinction, based on the notion of a soul, which makes human beings quite different from the animals; also the fact that man is made in God’s image. The supernatural, non-material fact of a soul makes the qualitative difference

That makes him worse than Hitler by a long long shot.

Really? I don’t see how:

1) God allows free will.

2) Free will entails the possibility of rebellion and evil.

3) Hitler ushered in one such massive societal rebellion against civilization and evil campaign.

4) God is to blame for Hitler’s evil because He allowed free will.

5) Man isn’t to blame for Hitler’s evil, even though he had the capacity to prevent it altogether.

This is irrational. It makes no more sense to blame God for the evil choices of creatures He created free than it does to blame a good parent for sins of a child of his or her own volition, committed after the parent trusted the child to be responsible with its freedom. You can’t blame one being for the sins of another; at some point there is individual responsibility. That’s why it is ridiculous to blame God for Hitler.

But even if that made any sense, why do you atheists not give God any credit for all the good which comes from free will? If you want to hold Him accountable for all the bad things that men do to each other, or the natural events that can hardly be otherwise in a sensible, orderly universe, then how come you never give Him any credit for anything?

Hitler’s Germany was a Christian nation and all you can do is to ask about Hitler from my perspective? 

The people may have been, but the regime was not, by any stretch of the imagination. It was a grotesque mixture of corrupted romanticism, paganism, and occultism. The Final Solution was not justified on Christian grounds.

My conclusion (2) is that Hitler did wrong because he killed people, and I value people because I’m a person. 

Good for you. It ain’t rocket science.

I have sympathy for people who suffer like that under such a dictator. I would’ve stopped Hitler if I could, but your God did nothing. 

If He stopped Hitler by the miraculous and abrogation of his free will, then we would have a world where no one was free, and every bad, evil thing is immediately prevented: precisely the sort of world which is the utter opposite of what atheists argue must be the case in terms of naturalistic science. If you don’t allow the slightest intervention of God in the natural world (intelligent design, etc.) then why do you demand it when it comes to the problem of evil?

So in the realm of science, you argue that God can’t exist, period, simply because the natural world is what it is (i.e., assumed as a matter of unproven naturalistic dogma), and allows no supernatural, yet in order for God to be “allowed” to exist where suffering abounds, He must intervene constantly and never cease or else you will mock Him as nonexistent or a weakling or a monster, worse than Hitler, etc. And somehow these utterly contradictory scenarios coexist in one brain and one intellectual conglomeration. And we’re supposed to be impressed by such literal nonsense?

That makes my moral code better than your God’s moral code, because he let Hitler kill and kill and kill. 

No; men did that. They allowed it to start up in the first place. Then one can blame German people who refused to stand up against the evil when it came to their country, because it cost them something. We’ve far surpassed the German people in our sins of omission, because we sit idly by in America today while 4400 children a day are slaughtered. We call it “choice” or “sexual freedom” or “expedience” or “a career.”

But how is it any better for that to take place in our abortuaries than it was for Nazi atrocities to occur in concentration camps? Hitler killed six million Jews. Legal child-killing in America has now taken 44 million lives in the most hideous fashion. Again: is that God’s fault, or man’s, for allowing it to take place while doing nothing? Or is a tiny human life of less value than a grown Jewish person’s life? One unfortunate group was murdered because of ethnicity and religion; the other because of the sin of being small, helpless, and yet unborn.

I see no difference. But lots of people do. So spare me your sanctimonious tripe about Hitler and this supposedly having something to do with the morality of God, while most atheists (and some half of Christians also) wink at abortion and pretend it is not the abominable evil and outrage that it is.

You say my moral code is subjectively chosen? Well then, where does your God’s moral code come from?

It’s eternal. Therefore, it “comes from” nothing. It always existed in God. God is Love. Yours is certainly subjective because you can’t create an absolute larger than yourself and applicable to all, no matter how hard you try. That has to come from a Being Who transcends creation and mankind itself.

[ now back to drunken logic, er tune]:

Your god is behind the scenes, tapering with our genetic code, is he not? He’s in control of the whole . . . universe! Isn’t he there in every cancer cell and every quadriplegic’s broken spinal cord? Your god chooses what happens, and knows what will happen. Where is the free will when a baby is shot in the head, or your mother falls down the stairs?

. . . Now your god is allowing these atrocities to happen? How do you know he never intended to control everything? He’s all-powerful. He can’t just give up his power, otherwise he isn’t all-powerful, and is then only semi-powerful. He’s practically enabling these diabolical actions to take place. He is nothing more than a demon that allows horrible things to happen to innocent people, and deserves no submission from you or me.

Wow; you’re getting awfully angry at a nonexistent thing. I don’t spend my time getting into a lather about how unjust the man in the moon made of green cheese is or what a rascally scoundrel Darth Vader or Dracula is. Funny that you would do that with a mere fairy-tale known as “god.”

I always say that a radical feminist is someone who hates men yet tries her hardest to be exactly like them in almost all respects. You know: the identifying with the oppressor routine.

It is now clearly the time and place to define the irrationally angry atheist:

One who hates and gets all worked up against the “god” who doesn’t exist, and who desires to be the exact opposite of the imaginary being whose imaginary qualities he simultaneously vainly imagines and detests.

Man! Talk about an irrational and absurd complex . . .

There is an answer: Once upon a time we evolved, and through copulation and combination of our genes present in a sperm and an egg, we get small variations in the genes that are passed on. Sometimes an environmental factor such as a virus or germ may change the code, or a subdominant gene may be expressed through chance [about 1/4th of the time]. This repeats for a very, very, very long time. And that’s why we have genetic birth defects. The end.

Precisely! This is my argument. Lots of suffering comes from the natural world and what can result from it. It is unreasonable to absolutely demand that God must supersede all such instances in a supernatural way or else we all-wise human beings (not — unlike the imaginary “god” — known for our evil deeds at all) will reject Him and pretend He isn’t even there.

It makes much more sense to accept the natural world as it is and accept that things such as mutations and falling off of cliffs and drowning and fever epidemics will occur and that this casts no doubt on God’s goodness because there is a sense in which it cannot be otherwise. God made the natural world what it is. The laws of science and logic alike apply to it. Sometimes bad things will happen there. Lots of good stuff happens too.

But every good thing can be corrupted and become “evil.” If I get too close to that pretty orange-red-peach sunset sun, I’ll burn (I mean totally burn, not just get sunburn, but the latter is suffering, too). If I don’t watch where my head is, and how long, when I swim, I’ll drown. If I eat a poisonous mushroom, it’ll kill me. And sex (the same exact physical act) can be rape as well as the most beautiful expression of male-female interpersonal oneness and love. It’s all the natural world.

I used to love to play strikeout, where you throw a rubber ball against a brick wall with a strike zone chalked on it and have a one-on-one baseball dual (I still play with my sons, in fact, and I still hit and pitch very good at age 48). That’s pretty natural stuff too. Bats are kind of hard, and mafia hit men have used them to kill people. A guy (Ray Chapman) was killed in 1920 after being struck by a pitch in the major leagues. I had loads of fun playing that game. But the natural world being what it is, and kids being what they are (I was 10 or 11), one day I climbed up this place over a set of stairs, at the school where we played strikeout, to get a ball that someone hit up there.

I was about 20 feet off the ground, and had to go up to another level. So I put some little pieces of brick that were laying there, to step on, in order to climb up to the higher part. I was right on the edge, though, and the little pile collapsed, sending me to the concrete sidewalk below. So the same place that provided so much fun now became quite the opposite. Fortunately, I fainted on the way down and they say that is what saved me. I wound up with a concussion and a sprained wrist: not even a broken bone.

Was that God’s fault, or was it mine for sheer stupidity? Is God supposed to wipe out every child’s curiosity and adventurous spirit and devil-may-care attitude of invulnerabilty and carefree bliss because some will be killed by it? I don’t think so, because that is part of what it means to be a child. It’s easy to say “God should make every child never do stupid stuff so they won’t get hurt.” But think of a world like that:

You want to play baseball? Now you can’t because some kid may let a bat fly after he swings and hit another kid and crush his skull. Okay; better not play then, and God is evil or ain’t there at all because He allows such things. What can God do to make it better? Well, He can make bats mushy and soft. Alright, fine. But how can you hit a ball now? You can’t. So it becomes impossible because to eliminate all suffering, God must make stuff soft so no bad thing can ever happen.

So the atheist may say, “naw; God only has to turn the bat to mush if it is about to hit someone and hurt them.” Alright, so now if we grant that God must do that to be good and retain His omnipotence and existence and be given lip service by atheists, we have to allow the miraculous. Yet atheists fight tooth and nail against miracles as the most implausible, unprovable thing imaginable. Why, they violate the natural law, and this can never happen! And everyone knows that! But now they must happen all over the place so that God can be a good guy and exist after all?

The sheer absurdity of this ridiculous demand is its own refutation. Therefore I accept the contrary: for the natural world to sensibly exist, and for miracles to be rare rather than mundane and perpetually occurring, there must be the possibility of bad things happening in that same natural world. And when they do, it is not rational (let alone fair) to blame God for such tragedies. Based on the reductio ad absurdum above, I reject such a scenario on entirely logical grounds.

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Photo credit: Flagellation of Christ, by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) [Wikimedia Commons /  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license]

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May 18, 2016

OsamaBinLaden2

Osama Bin Laden (1957-2011), from c. 1997-1998. Photograph by Hamid Mir [Wikimedia CommonsCreative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license]

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These are old Blogspot papers of mine (except for the asterisked papers). Be sure to allow a minute or two for them to load, and select archived versions from July 2015 or earlier.

*****

Dialogue with an Atheist on the “Problem of Good” & the Nature of Meaningfulness in Atheism (Flip Side of the Problem of Evil Argument Against Christianity) [6-5-01]*

Christian Replies to the Argument From Evil (Free Will Defense): Is God Malevolent, Weak, or Non-Existent Because of the Existence of Evil and Suffering? [2002]*

Serious Christian Treatments of the Problem of Evil and Irrational Atheist Dismissals of Them (vs. John W. Loftus) [10-9-06]

Some Christian Replies to the Problem of Evil as Set Forth by Atheists [10-10-06]

Dialogue #2 with an Atheist on the Problem of Evil (vs. “drunken tune”) [10-11-06]

Dialogue #3 with an Atheist on the Problem of Evil (vs. John W. Loftus) [10-11-06]

Alvin Plantinga’s Decisive Refutation of the Atheist Use of the Problem of Evil as a Disproof of God’s Existence, Goodness, or Omnipotence [10-12-06]*

Critique of Agnostic Ed Babinski’s Post on the “Emotional” Argument From Evil [10-23-06]

Is the “Strong” Logical Argument From Evil Largely Discredited If Not Dead, Or Alive & Well? (Atheist Confusion) [11-26-06]

The World’s Shortest Free Will Defense (FWD) Argument Against the Problem of Evil [3-24-08]

Thoughts on the Devil’s Antics in Opposing Christians, and Suffering in the Christian Life [7-18-09]

*****

Meta Description: Debates (mostly with atheists) about the thorniest problem in Christian apologetics: why a good, omnipotent God would allow evil.

Meta Keywords: evil and God, evil and God’s benevolence, evil and God’s omnipotence, fall of man, free will, free will defense, Philosophy of Religion, Problem of evil, Suffering, theodicy


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