The Problem of the Problem of Evil

The Scottish philosopher David Hume’s argument against God was the problem of evil. If God is good and all-powerful there wouldn’t be evil therefore either he isn’t powerful, isn’t just or just isn’t.

Well, who says God isn’t defeating evil? He isn’t doing it on a timetable Hume and others would like. This argument against God is more aligned with how Rob Moll put it in a recent article in Christianity Today. Moll argues that what the New Atheists are doing is not arguing against God but rejecting how it is that he runs the world. They are, in a sense, more moral that God himself. Moll lays the blame at the feet of the church:

The church’s inability to answer the problem of suffering is still atheists’ most common complaint against God, and it teaches us how we may be setting people up for spiritual disappointment and failure. Maybe the modern church puts too much emphasis on better living through God. Or perhaps we don’t adequately explain that God suffers with us and redeems our suffering without eliminating it. Whatever the cause, atheism remains an attractive worldview for those who have witnessed suffering or been in pain and can’t reconcile the idea of a good and powerful God with the reality of life on earth.

Provided that when he says that “God suffers with us” he isn’t implying Open Theism 1The idea that because of human freedom God does not know the future and cannot control what happens in the world for that would restrict human freedom. but instead is referring to Jesus being born, suffering and dying, then I think he has a point. We need to discuss the problem of evil in a better fashion than what comes across as fatalistic or in terms of Open Theism.

Nate Wilson, in his clever book Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl, begins to draw out an way for the Church to discuss pain and suffering in the world that doesn’t make God impotent or non-existent. The chapter title is “The Problem of Evil and the Nonexistance of Shakespeare” and here’s what I think is the nub of his argument:

In a world with evil, God is either not all powerful or not all good. Are these the only options?

Or is he Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Botticelli, Dostoevsky, Van Gogh (with both ears), Michelangelo, Vivaldi, Robert Johnson, N. C. Wyeth, and Gary Larson rolled into one.

Our art is tiny compared to His. And yet He says that we are in His image. He is infinite (what can that really mean to our minds?) and the narrative of the universe, the song of the universe, the epic of the universe, the still-frames of the universe on every level–from quarks to galaxies–reveal His self, His character, His loves, His hates, His mercies, His judgments, His kindnesses, His wraths.

The universe is a portrait in motion, a compressed portrait in motion, a miniature, inevitably stylized, for it is trying to capture the Infinite. The galaxies are each one fraction of a syllable in a haiku of the Ultimate. On the human level, art is all recompression, attempts at taking a sunset from the small frame of the horizon and putting it on a postcard; taking a blues riff, the rhythmic vibration of strings, and capturing a sense of loss; marble, chiseled and shaped until it shows nobility; a cartoonist’s frame, simple ink, grabbing at six-year-old boyness, grabbing at laughter.

Perhaps evil is a problem for us because we’ve accepted a mechanical universe from our Modernist forefathers. What Wilson is pressing for here is the fact that God spoke the universe in to being. He authored it. It wasn’t a pocket watch wound and left to run; it is a poem read aloud, a painting in progress, a play only part way through Act I, a movie that is still unspooling. There are bright spots in that poem as well as dark moments. In a watch, there is only the movement of gear against gear with mathematical predictability. In the machine evil is a problem,it is a lack of periodic maintenance by the Owner, and unattended malfunction that makes the machine less efficient. In a play, however, we understand that it is part of the plot and an issue that will be dealt with (set up, confrontation, resolution). If the New Atheists are operating off the mechanical vision of the universe, no wonder they have a problem with evil!

But wait, the universe is mechanical. If I drop my toast it will fall to the ground at 32 feet per second per second every time (and land, more often than not, butter side down). That’s why we refer to gravity as a law and not just a neat idea. The Modernists weren’t idiots, they explained the universe as they found it. But do you remember that scene near the beginning of Dead Poets Society? When Robin Williams has them read the introduction to the poetry book and then has them rip it out? To me, that’s what we should do with a mechanistic understanding of the universe. Dr. J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D. was right to an degree, you can measure a poem’s “greatness” but is an X/Y graph the best way to get the full understanding of it? Or will problems like violence, bigotry, poverty, tsunamis, athlete’s foot, marital infidelity or marital fidelity, and bratty kids at the movie theater, will these things cause the poem to be rated farther down on the “Perfection” scale?

Why is the universe orderly and predictable? Why shouldn’t it be merely chaotic? Does gravity have to be constant? Perhaps it is because the universe is a poem, a play, a movie, a sculpture, a painting and not a watch. In this way Christianity is different form other creation stories. The universe didn’t come about because two gods were wrestling, it wasn’t torn form a god’s thigh, it isn’t blood spilled from some slaughtered cosmic bull, it isn’t a lie someone told us and it wasn’t nothing that exploded into everything on a late Thursday afternoon in the fall. God is distinct from creation, it didn’t fall out of him.  He spoke and it was. It was orderly because God doesn’t mumble or stutter. The orderliness of the universe speaks too.

So what about evil? Did God speak evil into existence too? Not exactly, not according to our creation story. Evil came about through the agency of fallen creatures. But that doesn’t mean that God didn’t write that into the script too. Doesn’t that make God the source of evil? According to Wilson’s argument, if it does then every crime novel author should be arrested for murder. I think Jonathan Edwards’ reflection on this question is helpful. Basically it is “God can decree an action that is sinful for a human to perform, because he decrees it for non-sinful reasons.” That is, God may decree a sinful action but a) he never performs them and b) he never decrees them for sinful final purposes, only for good. You can’t watch the first act of a television show and determine that the writer is a psychopathic murderer because someone committed murder and then killed again to cover his/her tracks. You haven’t seen the end of the story to find out that they didn’t get away with it. That DCS Christopher Foyle uncovered all the complexities of the murder and the story taught us something about love or anger along the way.

Back to Moll’s article. I think he summed up the problem rather nicely:

Though atheists may argue that the existence of a supreme being is impossible, their arguments often reveal a belief that God just doesn’t behave as they think he should…None of these are arguments against God’s existence, but rather arguments against how God and especially his followers act. That is why traditional atheism is a highly moral philosophy, and one worthy of respect, even while we strongly disagree with it.

Yet, we have to remember that we’re still in the middle of the story.We haven’t gotten to the resolution or the denouement yet. We’re still outraged by the injustice that set up the confrontation. The murderer is still loose. The painting has not been recovered. There is no “Book ’em, Danno” yet. Sin and death and Satan are still on the stage. But one day Jesus will return and vanquish his enemies and put Satan and sin and death and hell into the lake of fire. God isn’t impotent or callous; he is working according to his storyline and when the story is through he will establish his kingdom and remove evil and evil doers. Till then we have to put up with people in the theater complaining loudly about the implausibility of the story. In the end they’ll gasp too.

1 The idea that because of human freedom God does not know the future and cannot control what happens in the world for that would restrict human freedom.
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  • Whether that idea of ” god” exists or not you just did what everyone else does. You scream loud in the theater and said “god” (what ever that means) is Jesus. Now you just choose a Jewish man who was crucified for what ever reasons and made him this “god” idea. 
    We all perceive in how we are taught. But that doesn’t mean we were taught with empirical observation or to question others ideas. We are taught in how that society wants to teach you. We all live in the Christian Muslim buddist new age era, Christianity and islam come from Hebrew scripture. Hebrew scripture come from old ancient Babylonian creations stories that simply evolved to what it is now. A more complex idea of creation with no reality and thought put into it. 
    Well this is the result an endless argument…who is this god idea. Creation is it’s limit not whom the author is or is not

  • Yaocuicatl, I think you missed my point. This post was not arguing the deity of Jesus, though that is true, nor the reality of God. I was trying to discuss the nature of Hume’s the problem of evil. I don’t see anything in your comments that addresses my point.

  • Tim,

    What a great blog! Glad to stumble upon you. i just started as an associate pastor at north sub in deerfield. keep up the good work.


  • Congratulations Sam! North Sub is a great church.

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