belief … the problem of evil and suffering 1 (RJS)

belief … the problem of evil and suffering 1 (RJS) April 5, 2011

Francis Collins, in the brief stretch between stints as head of the Human Genome Project at NIH and, now, Director of NIH, put together a book, Belief: Readings on the Reason for Faith, an anthology of readings he finds helpful in discussing rational reasons for belief in God. The anthology is, in some sense, a supplement to his book The Language of God. The essays  and excerpts in this book will not provide a proof for the existence of God – no such proof is possible. But they do provide arguments and reasons for belief.

Three of the excerpts or essays included in this book explore faith and the problem of evil and suffering. Art Lindsley explores the concepts of good and evil in post modern thought. Desmond Tutu and Elie Wiesel put flesh on the abstract. We live in a world where evil – true evil exists. And yet we have faith and hope. I am going to look at these excerpts from the writings of Lindsley, Tutu and Wiesel this week and put out some questions for discussion … Today Lindsley; on Thursday Tutu and Wiesel.

Art Lindsley is a scholar-in-residence at the C.S. Lewis Institute in Annandale VA. The excerpt included is from his book True Truth: Defending Absolute Truth in a Relativistic World. The title of his book puts forward a key question that must be considered.

Are good and evil merely human valuations in the context of a culture or is there a foundational absolute truth?

Is there absolute evil or merely local and relative evil?

If we come to the conclusion that there is absolute evil and that there is a moral law written into our being we can also pose a related question, pertinent in the context of recent discussions of heaven, hell, and the fate of much of mankind:

Does the moral law described by Paul as written on our hearts shape our view of justice, judgment and destiny? Should it?

Consider Romans 1:18-32.

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

… Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.

According to Lindsley:

Paul contended that each of these evils in the list is, in fact, known by all people. He describes this law as “written in their hearts,” or on their consciences (Rom 2.15). This conscious awareness of the law can be dulled or perhaps (in the case of a sociopath) lost, but it is usually retained to some degree, even in the most calloused people. Even totalitarian dictators or terrorists show care for their own families and have friendships with some people around them. (p. 135-136)

This moral law, written on the hearts of all, is an absolute moral imperative. There is almost universal agreement on the primary issues, but disagreement on some secondary issues – waffling about those to whom one must behave appropriately. In general there is a self-interest at play in the selection those toward whom we must behave morally. But denial of absolute truth, good and evil, leaves us with no leg on which to stand other than local cultural consensus.

Lindsley gives an example (p. 142):

For instance, a believing friend of mine took graduate classes under Richard Rorty, a leading postmodern philosopher.  In one such class he met a woman who was Jewish by heritage but was actually an atheist and a feminist. Being influenced by Rorty’s teaching, she claimed there were no absolutes. My friend, knowing what she cared about, said, “I can prove to you that you believe in absolutes.”

“No you can’t”

“Yes I can. I’ll give you two: rape and the Holocaust are morally wrong.”

She thought for awhile and said “you’re right.” Yet she had no basis on which to hold these values.

Any oppressed person, any person whatsoever who can imagine being oppressed, has a fundamental view of good and evil.  We tend to view slavery as practiced in  eighteenth and nineteenth century America as fundamentally wrong. Yet it was a culturally accepted empirically effective foundation for a “just” society based on law and consensus. It was “just” in the sense that it preserved the peace, prevented chaos, and treated beings according to their “place.” Do we really have any basis on which to judge this as wrong?

Likewise throughout much of our cultural history, and in many places yet today, women were valuable (or not so valuable) property… not always viewed as moral autonomous individuals. Parts of India, if not today certainly in the past, and Saudia Arabia are cases in point. Do we have any ground, do I have any ground, for viewing this as wrong?

Lindsley does not deal with the evolutionary argument for moral law – that it is an empirically effective means of achieving fitness and reproducing the gene. But this too is unsatisfactory. It defines morality as nothing more than survival in a general global sense. Rape and ‘slavery’ or hard patriarchy may in fact be the best way to ensure survival. This is true of many systems and species in nature. Why is it not true for humans?

Lindsley suggests that the genuine reality of good and evil requires a foundation that establishes a basis for judgment and valuation. As a Christian we believe that this foundation is God himself. The moral law, written on our heart, is of God. But the mere existence of a moral law does not demonstrate that Christianity is true, it only eliminates those positions that assert the absence of absolute good and evil – according to Lindsley atheism, radical post modernism, pantheism, and neopaganism, even perhaps Hinduism and Buddhism.

What do you think? Are there moral absolutes?

Does moral law point to the existence of God?

I’d like to bring up another point here as well. The discussion of Love Wins in yesterday’s post looked at the view of Hell and the deep sense of discomfort that many have with the idea that God either does not love and did not save large swathes of humanity, or that he condemned to eternal conscious torment large segments of humanity for the sin of being human. Frankly animals are treated better. They simply die. Of course animals don’t bear the guilt of Adam … or so some will claim. God is holy, God is just, thus we all deserve to be tortured forever. But God in his love chose to forgive and save some. This very idea seems to run counter to that moral law written on our hearts.

I am not trying to be unnecessarily provocative, and I am not a universalist – but if there is a moral law, written on our hearts, it seems to me that this law at its very best should play a formative role in how we think about God, his judgment, his justice, and his mercy.

If this moral law described by Paul is written on our hearts, God given and God revealed, are we wrong to allow this to shape how we view God as Holy, God as Love, and God as Just? If so why?

Is it possible that some of our visions of Hell reflect the depravity of mankind rather than the nature of God?

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