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The Problem of Evil Recap

My last three posts were all addressing various elements of the problem of evil. Together they represent the basic sketch of how in my mind our universe is consistent with a wholly good God. I don’t think that everyone approaches reconciling evil and God in the same way. People have different experiences with evil and God that prompt differing psychological responses. These posts represent my opinion on this subject and not Christianity’s as a whole, but I hope those who struggle with this problem might find inspiration and answers in my posts.

In the first post I aimed to demonstrate how God is not causally responsible for evil, nor does He plan and carry out evils in order to bring out goods (this is a reflection on my ethical beliefs that the ends do not justify the means). Also in the post I talked about how God’s goodness is the reason we do not see much direct influence of God in our world and why He uses primarily His relationships with people to impact our world.

In the second post I discussed the nature of good and evil. Here I expanded on how evil is a natural outcome of good and thus evil requires good to exist. However, good does not require evil to exist and thus good can ultimately overcome evil.  Our universe can plausibly be explained as being in the transition of good overcoming evil.

In the third post I addressed natural evil and how it is not evil at all but a necessary expression of our free agency and the movement of free agents to ultimately overcome evil and be fully good.

https://scottpd.wordpress.com/2012/12/27/god-is-sovereign-not-a-sovereign-a-response-to-the-problem-of-evil/
https://scottpd.wordpress.com/2013/01/26/contingent-evil-a-second-response-to-the-problem-of-evil/

https://scottpd.wordpress.com/2013/01/26/natural-evil-and-the-end-of-evil-a-third-response-to-the-problem-of-evil/

In philosophic terms I believe that the free-will defense against the problem of evil explains why God is not casually responsible for our evils, and I believe a soul-making theodicy explains the setting full of “natural evils” that we experience.

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In answering the problem of evil most people are willing to accept the basic sense of the free-will defense. That is, for moral good to have any real meaning, the potential for evil also must exist. Thus people do evil things in their freedom even though they are designed for and by good. Nevertheless the problem of natural evil (natural disasters, disease, etc.) seems to blatantly contradict the existence of an All-Powerful and Good Creator. Now, some theologians have postulated that natural evil is nothing more than moral evil by a supernatural agent (i.e. Satan and demons cause all natural disasters). While this is a possibility, I myself think it is not necessary to postulate that very dualistic sounding notion.

In my first post of this series I made an argument for why God does not take a very direct reign in creation and in my second post, an argument for why evil is expected in goodness but that evil can be overcome by goodness. By tying these two notions together I think a very plausible response to the problem of natural evil can be made.

My first observation is that what we call natural evil is not really evil when there are no suffering agents around. In fact all these ‘natural’ evils are very powerful creative agents, many of which are beautiful in their power and complexity. The problem is not really the ‘natural evil’ but the weakness and mortality of living agents.

It seems to me however that in the process of overcoming evil, agents need to develop good character. And if there were no harmful consequences to our evil choices we could never be brought into the understanding necessary to begin consistently choosing good and thus develop virtuous character. If we were immortal and immune to suffering how could we learn to do good? And what kind of moral options (if any) would we have to choose from? It seems to me that in suffering of all forms, the reality of our choices is far more obvious and impactful for ourselves and others than in trivial choices. Trivial choices rarely change people. Our physical mortality is the conduit by which we learn and freely act. Thus what we call natural evils are not really evils at all, and neither are our weakness and physical mortality. We simply live in the hot iron to be forged into something beautiful.

To make this argument of course I think some variant of restitution and renewal as promised in the Bible will fall on those who particularly suffer in this life. Also I think any sort of soul-making theodicy requires some variant of universalism which I think is also consistent with Christianity. If one rejects universalism, then I think the only potential way of reconciling natural evil with a Good God is to fall on a spiritual warfare theodicy and believe all natural evil is caused by supernatural evil agents.

In my earlier post I argued that God is not casually responsible for evil, and that His ontological responsibility for evil does not warrant any devaluing of God’s goodness. In this post I want to talk a little more about the nature of good and evil and why while we can expect evil where there is good, the relationship between good and evil is not dualistic. Good is positive value. Moral good is virtue (like the fruits of the Spirit). But collective good is about more than that. It is positive, creative, free, and relational. Evil on the other hand is negative, destructive, limiting, and isolating. And so for evil to exist it is predicated on the existence of some good. Evil does not create or sustain; pure evil is nothing (non-existence). Only with the existence of good does the potential of evil exist. And without the potential of evil, good itself is emptied of meaning, for then it would have no freedom, no creativity, and no virtue.

All of this is to show that goodness always bears with it the potential for evil and so our universe having evil in it does not count against there being a good God. In fact, I would argue that our desire to exist, to create, to be free, to be good, all point to a supremacy of good behind the workings of our universe. Evil exists because we are not particularly effective at manifesting our freedom for good. It is not that we have some dualistic struggle between wanting to be good and wanting to be evil. We are simply misguided and ignorant in our attempts to maintain existence and to create. And so we end up using our freedom to the detriment of others (and ultimately ourselves). Jesus says He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. That is because that is exactly what we are searching for, the proper way to use our freedom, the truth to end our ignorance, and life to continue being good.

This is not to say that an end to evil is not possible. But only that the possibility of evil always exists where good exists. The development of character can allow us (as God’s perfect character does in Him) to choose only good and this is God’s end in our sanctification. The actuality of evil, God has promised to, in the end, bring to a final stop. But this struggle to overcome evil requires the participation, reconciliation, and renewal of all things including all human beings.

In my next post I will delve into to process of eliminating evil and what role “natural evil” plays in that process.

I recently saw the theatrical version of Les Miserables and I have to say that I was very pleasantly surprised. Now, I am not the biggest fan of musicals, especially ones with nearly no dialogue and all song, but I loved the movie because the music really tapped into the raw emotions of the story. The story of Les Miserables focuses around the characters of Jean Valjean and Javert who each have opposing views of God. Javert’s god is the divine lawmaker whose law separates good people from bad people. Javert’s god keeps score and enforces rules with perfect justice. The God of the priest and of Valjean however, is a God of perfect love and mercy. He doesn’t keep score, doesn’t separate people into categories, reaches into the dark alleys of prostitutes and behind the barricades of revolutionaries. His love doesn’t condemn the thief or execute the double agent. Rather, it sets them free, and values even those who are against Him.

The two views play out in the interactions not only of Javert and Valjean together, but also their interactions with everyone else. Javert’s commitment to ‘justice’ restrains and makes people despair and even hate the world around them. But the God of the priest and Valjean liberates, heals, sacrifices, and restores. The musical draws out this key parallel just as effectively as the novel and was one of the main strengths of the movie.

The movie not only delves into the difference between these two views of God, but also the authenticity and value of human love. The love that drives Valjean to the barricade to save Marius and the love that drives Eponine to help Marius find happiness even though it ruins hers. The power of romantic love and family love is contrasted also with the motivations of Javert and are shown in compliment to the love of the God of Valjean.

The revolutionaries are praised in spirit by both the novel and the movie. Their desire to rise above the systematic oppression of the lower classes of society and their genuine desire to make a better world closely mirrors the God who seeks to save and heal the oppressed. But the revolution is crushed and its cause emptied because they, like Javert, believed that they needed to defeat their oppressors to create balance and justice, just as Javert believed Valjean ought to have killed him in the alley. The god of justice brings a mentality of retribution and balancing of power that does not have the transforming effect of the grace of the God of Valjean. I found the movie did a good job in portraying the revolutionaries in this light with the empty chairs song followed shortly by the finale song which shows the revolutionaries singing the song of a God of love.

My favorite element of the movie however was a somewhat less noticeable choice of always placing crucifixes in the area when Valjean is singing about or to God, and placing bare crosses in the scenes when Javert is singing about or to god. And this I thought was the most powerful way of making the distinction between the two clear. The cross is a symbol of roman power that in Christianity is seen as a symbol of divine power and God’s victory. It emphasizes the power and station of God. The crucifix however, draws forth feelings of empathy and emotion, it symbolizes human cruelty and the divinization of the victim and oppressed. It also draws forth emotions of the suffering of God for all human beings and value of all human individuals.

The story of Les Miserables is one of the God of the cross versus the God of religion. And it is a story that plays out in the minds of all Christians, some holding the false idol of Javert’s view and some the pure view of the priest and Valjean. Most however, are somewhere in the middle of struggling between the radical grace of perfectly loving God and the security of conceptions of a holy ruler god. I highly recommend the movie to everyone because it very powerfully shows the redemptive power of God. It challenges believers to choose between the god of Javert and the God epitomized in the phrase of the movie’s finale, “To love another is to see the face of God”.

When ever tragedy strikes, such as with the recent school shooting in Connecticut, there are always a multitude of questions that arise. Where was God? Is this part of His plan? Is this God’s vengeance against..? In these moments we are forced to try and deal with reconciling a God who is good with the great evil of this world. I too have struggled much with this; if God is all-powerful, then isn’t He ultimately responsible for evil? And as such, how could we begin to call Him good? I have however reconciled the issue in my mind by really delving into the life of Christ as being representative of God and His nature, and with some additional insight from pastor and theologian, Gregory Boyd.

I think that where we are confused is that we think that because God is all-powerful (Sovereign) it means He acts as being in control (a Sovereign). However, it is not in the nature of good to rule, to coerce, to create hierarchy. I think we can deduce this about the nature of good intuitively in the world but also revealed heavily in the gospels where the kingdoms of the world are said to be the devil’s, and our struggle is against the rulers and authorities of this world. But we can also see what the nature of God’s goodness is in that Jesus came to serve, to build relationships, to rescue the oppressed. From this we see that the kingdom of God is completely unlike the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom the Jews wanted. We see that the relationship between Christ and the Church is like a marriage marked by mutual submission; He is Lord, but He is a friend. Love and Goodness thrive and emanate creative freedom and relationship not marked by hierarchy, coercion, obligation, decree, ordination etc.

God’s loving goodness manifests itself in creative freedom very evident in our universe. But this freedom (being free) can be good or evil. And this does not become a problem for God’s goodness unless He acts evil toward that which acts evilly. But God does not destroy, rule over, or restrain evil in order to stop it. For to destroy or rule over evil is to be evil. But God loves even that which becomes evil and seeks to overcome it with good. Christ did not restrain evil but wept with those grieving from suffering and equipped them with what they needed to fight evil in the world and be good. Overcoming evil with good is not an easy process; it is a battle, one in which we are engaged in the midst of on this Earth and in this universe. The weapons of the enemy are fear, anxiety, death; all powers to which the Bible attests, and all of which Christ overcame in His suffering unto death and subsequent resurrection. We are in a spiritual war and the enemy is very real.

So then facing tragedy, Christians are not to be of the mindset that “everything happens for a reason” or that evil is “part of God’s plan”. This is a demonic lie that is indignant of God. God never wills evil, and it is never a part of His plan. The Bible affirms that “God is light, and in Him no darkness at all”. God fights against evil at every turn with sheer goodness and beckons us to join in this fight. Tragedy is the work of the enemy that should serve as a rallying call for Christians, not a work of God we need to try and find the purpose of. We as Christians need to realize that Christ reveals to us that God is not a ruler in any sense of the word as it is used in our world. God is Sovereign but He is not a Sovereign.

The Gospel

This was a presentation of the gospel as I understand it that I posted to someone in a facebook group. I think it is well worth sharing on my blog as well.

In the beginning God created everything. Humans, in particular though were created with what the Hebrews called the image of God. Which in the context it is used in Genesis simply means that we are co-creators/managers of creation. And this is not something unique or counter-intuitive we know that humans have an unparalleled effect on their eco-system, and thus an intrinsic responsibility that sets us apart from all other creatures. Now God intended for this image of God to be utilized within the state of Eden (which Christians now call the kingdom of God, more on that later). Which is not a state of perfection, but a state of relationship, trust, a walking and talking with God. Within this context God calls humanity good, and together with God we continue(d) to make and maintain good. However, humanity (through the typology of Adam and Eve, and possibly even an actual existent group of first conscious humans) came into contact with evil already present in creation. And this should not be a surprise to the modern mind since we know that what in philosophy is commonly called “natural evil” pre-dates humanity on earth. In the Hebrew telling this encounter with ancient evil (the serpent, or lizard of sorts since it had legs) is the story of the temptation and the eating of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. What the encounter means for the human situation is that humanity already knowing the goodness of God and coming into contact with evil decided that we had a pretty good grasp on this whole good and evil thing and we don’t need God to carry out our responsibilities as creators and managers. And so through this act of “original sin”, rejecting God and assuming our mantle alone we set out on the creation of our Tower of Babels and sprawling civilizations that are being criticized and punished by God all throughout Genesis.

But more than that in Genesis we are told that within Eden was also a tree of everlasting life. And in our expulsion from Eden we are also removed from the source of life (God). And this is what Paul is getting at with sin bringing the dominion of death. Removed from our relationship of God we are made fully aware of our mortality and are fearful of death. And our fear of death is what drives our survival instincts which lead us to exploit the world and one another for security and comfort in the face of death. We even join in exploitations of others simply not to be the one being exploited. The works of psychologists like Ernest Becker have demonstrated that the majority of human behaviour is centered around death avoidance. And these survival instincts are born within us, transmitted in our very DNA. Removed from God we are born sinful and evil. And while we might think we really aren’t that bad psychology has shown pretty conclusively that the real difference between a Nazi and ourselves is just external circumstance.

And to add to our evil from our “slavery to death” (as it is called in Hebrews), our setting out to take up our mission without God also left us in a state of uncertainty about God. Is He angry, will He punish us, does He even like us? This anxiety further keeps us from God and Eden, and is the root of the creation of our religions. Religion sprung up to give us security about God’s disposition toward us and also allow for us to properly scapegoat those who we were exploiting due to our fear of death.
The Genesis story accurately depicts the human condition as one apart from the Eden which we were created for. It reveals that humanity is in a state of horrible and depraved misuse of our responsibilities toward each other and the entire planet, and it is a state which is transmitted through generations and which humanity is trapped in.

But I believe there is hope, and there is good news. Because God came down to us through Jesus and said “He who knows me knows the Father”. And Christ showed us that God loves us, and that God loves His enemies, and that God even particularly loves those whom we have exploited and whom we have told that God doesn’t love. And this love persists whether we oppose Him, whether we betray Him, and even if we crucify Him He will still pronounce words of forgiveness from the cross itself. Jesus brought us the news that we don’t need to fear or have anxiety toward God. He loves and no matter what and we can trust Him. And if we do, we can return to Eden (the kingdom of God) and begin using our unique status as creators and managers for good rather than evil. We can experience joy and renewal instead of vanity and destruction. And Jesus rises from the grave to say that we need no longer need to fear death, it has no place in our biography any longer. We can do the work of God even if it costs us our material and physical security because we are secure in the hands of God Himself who holds the keys to hell and is the source of life.

Paul writes that we are to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling, because it is God who works with in us.” And that is exactly the freedom Christ is working in the hearts of those who return to Him. He is setting them free of the constraints of their anxieties and allowing them to do good, to be perfect, instead of be an instrument of destruction. And for those who do not turn to the kingdom He warned, like the prophet Jeremiah, that they would be tossed into Gehenna as burning corpses, which is exactly what happened to the Jews who rose up to liberate themselves from the Romans. They were fighting for security, and the return of their land. And these cycles of our Darwinian struggle for material and physical security always end in Gehenna, in torment, and pain, and blood. Because that is not how God intended us to be. This is the gospel that has been entrusted to me and I entreat to you. God is good, and only through trusting Him and having a relationship with Him can we ourselves be healed and the entire world from the depravity that exists in it.

A lot of people don’t believe in a personal God. Some think the God is merely a force (perhaps one of some generic unity and love) but not personal in a ‘being’ sort of way. Others tend to imagine God as more of a government or system, a Divine lawmaker that set creation and morality in motion and perhaps even in the end will give some form of final justice but they don’t believe that He is available as a friend or a mentor. And so as I look to myself I also see that I too tend to push God into abstraction, to avoid prayer and communion, and I ask myself why that might be?

The truth that I discovered is that a personal God is too demanding of a God. Not in the sense that He literally demands certain things of me and when I fail I am punished or He is disappointed (that god is back to the divine lawgiver and not much in the realm of being personally accessible). But that genuine experience with a perfect God convicts and reveals one’s shortcomings. God’s perfect love, forgiveness, passion, and seeking after me, leaves no room for me to not be like that with others. If I am daily experiencing a relationship marked by God’s agape

{Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.}

I cannot easily and certainly not in good conscience be envious toward others, or be resentful, or doubt, or put down, or not forgive. God’s perfection demands personal perfection by its mere presence. If I experience perfect love how can I will dysfunctional or bad relationships on others?  It is not a demand marked by any form of compulsion but is an even greater burden simply because it is not. The light of God reveals the parts of me that hide in darkness. And so I think it is because we wish to avoid the necessity to change, and become good, that we also de-personalize or abstract God. The perfect God who wants a relationship with us is too hard to bear so we change our perceptions in order to stay comfortable with our depravity.

In Matthew 5 Jesus says “Be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect”. Many just gloss over this as some form of hyperbole but in context Jesus is talking about loving even your enemies with an agape type love. And He says that we are to love our enemies because God loves His enemies. Because God loves you even while you are His enemies. He doesn’t say love your enemies or God will punish you, or love your enemies because the universe is actually harmonious in the background and you need to overcome the illusion that makes you believe others are enemies. He says love your enemies as God does. Recognize perfection, experience God’s perfection, and you will manifest that perfection to others.

The demand of a perfect personal God is not a demand that stems from Him, but from us. And so when we reject Him we do so in order to protect ourselves from ourselves. It is not God who expects too much, or God that is unreasonable, or God that is a tyrannical bully. It is we who are cowards, who are depraved, who live in darkness and will do whatever it takes to avoid communion with the revealing light that is God. We would rather remain comfortable in our darkness, keeping God at arm’s length, than embrace the uncomfortable vision of ourselves that a relationship with the Light brings.