A Theodicy of Evil – Lenten Season 2023
“Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, “You must not eat from any tree in the garden?”
The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, “You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.”
“You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked, so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.
Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid fromthe LORD God among the trees of the garden” (Genesis 3:1-8 NIV).
Revelations – Day 15 “The Religious Problem of Evil”
It´s midnight in the garden of good and evil.
You are here to meet with God. You have questions that you want answered. Adam and Eve have just been thrown out of the garden and evil has taken hold of the world.
How could he let this happen?
He’s over there by those two trees. Go and talk to him. You can just see his form there in the shadows.
You stop in your tracks, your questions dying on your lips. What’s going on here? You need time to think before you just barge into the presence of the Holy God, your Father, who created you.
Perhaps there is more to this than meets the eye.
The interesting thing about the Religious Problem of Evil, in my opinion, is that as soon as God enters the picture, we forget completely about the Secular Problem of Evil. Without God, we are free to admit that the fundamental problem is within us but as soon as God enters the picture, we start to blame him.
We tend to keep both the problem and the solution “external” to ourselves as if that somehow is the proper way to go. It isn’t. As we said previously, many philosophers of death will extol the “gift” every human has to decide their own future, their own morality, their own destiny but ignore the fact that if the problem is within us, we aren’t capable of exercising that “gift” very well. And if we look even closer, we may come to the conclusion that the “gift” of deciding what is good or bad for us is, in fact, the problem.
The “gift” is really a “curse.”
It is also interesting to me that this modern, intellectual discussion of the nature of evil and the existence of humankind is reflected so accurately in the creation story found in the Bible. That alone makes what the Bible has to say incredibly “relevant” to our current discussions.
But before we get into the Religious Problem of Evil, let us talk about religion itself in a bit more detail.
Both Feuerbach, in his book Lectures on the Essence of Religion, and Freud, in his book Future of an Illusion, give a secular understanding of theistic religion as a way for the “self” to deal with both nature and other people on our behalf. After all, if nature is amoral and arbitrary, then we can either anthropomorphize aspects of nature into various “gods” and try to appease them, manipulate them, or worship them to get what we want or we can place a “divine person” above nature who has the power to control the blind forces of nature on our behalf and then try to appease him.
In either case, the goal is to create some form of “corporate defense mechanism” through social acceptance of these “gods” or “God” to control nature on the one hand and people on the other. After all, if you do not adhere to the socially determined moral code backed up by the religious expectations of your “gods,” you won’t be protected and you won’t get what you want, need, or desire or any help from the community.
Not that it works very well in most cases.
There is nothing more common than the fact that “evil is not always punished” and “good is not always rewarded.” Even in Christianity. But the attempt is still made because protection and providence are still needed.
Interestingly, the Bible talks about the fact that protection has been removed and that providence would become difficult after mankind took upon themselves the “gift” of deciding for themselves what is good or evil for them. Once the relationship with God was broken, all bets were off, and protection and providence became difficult at best.
Leaving aside for a moment the “relevance” of the Biblical interpretation of reality, we may be tempted to accept the interpretation of Feuerbach and Freud as an astute assessment of how religion was developed historically.
Personally, I agree with both of them. Are you surprised? You shouldn’t be. Although there are other elements at play in the individual development of religions and worldviews from around the world, the basic understanding given by these two men is correct and should be considered seriously.
But what is the difference between a worldview and a religion?
They are often confused because one is part of the other. A “worldview” is often considered a larger subset of beliefs and values of which “religion” is a part. Politics, values, and societal norms are also impacted by a worldview but are not necessarily “religious” in nature. On the other hand, every religion (or even a combination of religions) may have a similar worldview.
According to James Sire, in his book The Universe Next Door, there are seven basic worldviews which he calls Theism, Deism, Naturalism, Existentialism, Postmodernism, and Eastern Pantheistic Monism. These are not religions in and of themselves but rather worldviews that try to answer seven basic questions of life that almost everyone is concerned with.
First, what is out there beyond us? What is real? We might say that the material cosmos is real or that there is a spiritual element behind the material that we call “God” or “gods.”
Second, what is the nature of that external reality? Is the “material” cosmos created by the “spiritual” reality behind it or did it develop somehow by itself? Is it chaotic or orderly? Do we emphasize our subjective interpretation of reality or the objectivity of the cosmos independently of us?
Third, what is a human being? Are we a complex “machine” or a “naked ape?” Are we a “sleeping god” or made in the image of God?
Fourth, why are we even asking these questions? Where did our ability to think and reason come from? How did we become self-aware, conscious beings? Were we made in the image of God or are we the chance result of a long history of evolution?
Fifth, why are we moral creatures? How do we know what is right and wrong? We don’t seem to have a clear ability to get it right all the time so why is that? And why do we value “good” over “evil” and “right” over “wrong” even though we can’t always distinguish well between the two? Are we made in the image of a “good” God? Or is it determined by human choice alone based on social norms, or subjectively by what feels right and good at the moment?
Sixth, what happens to us when we die? Are we talking about “personal extinction” of all conscious thought? Will we be transformed into “a higher state of existence?” Do we believe in “reincarnation” or some shadowy non-material existence?
Seventh, what is the meaning of human history? Why do things happen the way they do? Is there in fact any meaning at all? Is history a reflection of the purposes of God (or the gods)? Are we supposed to create paradise on Earth through the development of civilization?
And we haven’t even discussed other pertinent questions such as who is really in charge of our reality? God (or the gods) or humans (or no one at all)? Are we humans truly free or are most things pretty well determined by forces beyond our control? Do we decide our values and beliefs as individuals or society or is there an objective ground for what is good and bad for humans (individually or collectively)? Is God really good? Is God a person or a figment of my imagination (or our corporate imagination)?
My thanks to James Sire for his help in cataloging the major worldviews and putting together a framework for evaluating them and comparing their similarities and differences. It is always helpful to think carefully through our own worldview and ask ourselves why we believe it to be true. Like the philosophers of death, we would encourage each reader to recognize how much their values and belief system is a result of social norms and expectations and not necessarily something consciously adopted in its own right.
Christianity started as a religion of conviction. Even the name “church” in Greek means “the called-out ones.” Believers were called out of other religions based on ancestor worship or social expectations into a religion based on conviction. And, especially in the early church, they often paid a heavy price for that conviction.
Once Christianity itself became a world religion, as it is today, it also suffered from the fact that many people grew up as believers and are part of the church for family and social reasons but not out of personal conviction. Perhaps this is a good time to get down to the truth of the matter in your particular case.
Did you notice that all of these questions are the same ones we have been dealing with all along? The question of whether there is a spiritual dimension to life. The question of whether we are, in fact, capable of determining our own fate by deciding for ourselves between good and evil. The question of where our self-awareness even came from, why we have the ability to ask questions and to reason at all, and why we are moral creatures in the first place.
The point that needs to be made before we get into the whole question of the Religious Problem of Evil is that the problem and the questions were here beforehand. You don’t need to be religious to ask these questions or recognize that evil is ultimately within. Furthermore, it is true, in my opinion, that many religions and worldviews developed as a primordial, fundamental response to the threat of evil and the questions that it produces.
After all, if everything was safe and peaceful in life, and there was no evil to contend with (whether externally or internally), then there wouldn’t be much need for answers or solutions would there? Perhaps that is one of the reasons why God allows evil to exist in the first place. But more on that in future posts.
For now, it has to be said that Feuerbach and Freud are probably correct in their assessment of how these worldviews and religions came about in response to the existence of Evil and the questions it generates about ourselves and the world we live in. That process of questioning the nature of our existence created worldviews and each worldview has multiple religions within it. For example, the theistic worldview would include at least Judaism, Christianity, and Islam since they all believe in one God who created the Universe and controls all aspects of life.
This is an important point because it isn’t only at the level of worldview that we will find our answers to the problem of evil but at the level of religion. There are fundamentally different answers to the important questions of life given by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Just because they are all “theistic” religions and therefore have the same general worldview, doesn’t mean that they answer the questions in the same way. Certainly, that is true for the final question on the meaning of history and life in general, but it is true of the other questions as well.
And that brings us back to Feuerbach and Freud and why I believe that they are right in their assessment of how religions and worldviews have developed over time. But with one exception. Christianity. Or more specifically Old Testament Judaism and Christianity. But now the onus is on me to justify this exception, isn’t it? Why do I believe that out of all the religions and worldviews in the world, Christianity is the only one that is true? The answer deserves a book of its own but here I want to talk about two issues – one negative and one positive.
On the negative side, the problem with Feuerbach and Freud is that they have no basis for ethics or morality in their interpretation of the development of religion. Freud calls religion an “illusion” and both he and Feuerbach believe that all religions are social and historical inventions to deal with the need for protection and providence in a world gone mad. But, at the same time, they see religion as a “motivation” for morality. At least that is how religion was used historically. Now, in our modern world, we accept the fact that religion is an “illusion,” that there is no basis for morality, and that morality, itself, is nothing but a social construct.
Where does that leave us?
Look around and you can see the mess we are in. Postmodernism has accepted the fact that naturalism simply cannot stand the test of scrutiny and therefore celebrates chaos and disorder and the lack of any kind of foundation or answers to our most basic questions of life. There is no God. There is no answer. There are no solutions to the problem of evil. Be a man and face up to the reality that you are nothing more than “dust in the wind.” Earth is nothing more than a “blue dot” in the vast expanse of the universe. You are not intrinsically valuable. There is no identity, purpose, meaning, or significance to your life or to history.
End of story.
On the positive side, we need to recognize that this, too, is a worldview called “postmodernism”, but it isn’t very satisfying. Most worldviews leave something to be desired. To a greater or lesser extent, they try to answer the questions of life and give a rationale for our existence, but each worldview is incomplete or incompatible with our reality. Except for Christianity. Because of the focus on a particular type of theism specific only to Christianity, there is a foundation for metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics that is lacking everywhere else.
Somehow, in some way, we have to account for the reality we live in. We have to account for the way humans are. We have to account for the fact that we are self-aware, conscious, moral, and social beings. Christianity does that better than any other worldview.
After all, theism, according to James Sire, is “a complete worldview.”
Some would claim that the very fact of being “complete” when the other worldviews are not, makes Christianity suspect. After all, if you agree with Feuerbach and Freud, you would expect that worldviews and religions develop over time and are therefore a mismatch of somewhat conflicting ideas and understandings of the world and the answers it produces. Being incomplete and inconsistent is to be expected. From that point of view, Christianity is suspect.
And it is true.
Although the Bible was written roughly over two thousand years by numerous authors and consisting of sixty-six books, it has a unifying worldview and understanding of God and humans, and the relationship between the two that is quite astonishing. You can try to claim that it was manipulated, controlled, or invented by that many people over that amount of time, but that would be a monumental and unique accomplishment in and of itself. No, the other option is simply that it is true. It is a complete worldview because Christianity is not invented by man but rather a revelation from the God who is actually there.
God is at the center of the Christian worldview and not only the concept of God but the nature of God as an all-powerful, all-knowing, and morally perfect divine person. And because God is the focus and because we believe that the Bible is God’s self-revelation through words and deeds in history, there must be a consistency and completeness about it.
So where does that leave us?
We are now ready to talk about the religious problem of evil. We must remember a few truths to provide the proper context.
First, evil exists whether or not we believe in God and that evil is not just external but internal. It is within us.
Second, the fundamental questions of life that all religions and worldviews are trying to answer, including the modern discussion on the need for protection and providence in a world gone mad, all have an answer in the “amazingly relevant” Biblical interpretation of reality.
And third, if Christianity is the only complete worldview in existence, it is either an incredible, never seen before, feat of social engineering by multiple authors over a very long period of time or it is true.
With this context in mind, we can now turn to the moral question of the Religious Problem of Evil. And we will deal with it from a Christian theistic point of view. Other worldviews and religions will deal with the question of evil in their own way, but they don’t have a powerful, apparently good, personal God to blame it on. We do.
So, let’s look at some of the issues involved.
Let’s start with some fundamentally important human desires that are born from this experience of the reality of evil. We, apparently, all want good to triumph over evil (however we define those concepts of good and evil). We all want justice to be done and we all want death not to be the end of our conscious existence. One author simply says: “love wins.” And that seems to say it all. Because it certainly doesn’t look like “love” or “goodness” or “justice” is winning and what happens after death is still pretty much of a mystery.
And that is the point after all, especially when we throw a “theistic,” personal, all-powerful God into the mix. After all, if we want our basic hopes to be fulfilled, then God must at least be a person, be morally good, be all-knowing, and all-powerful. But if that is the case, why is he losing the battle? Evil exists and, in some cases, it is flourishing. There are many “undesirable” things in the world that could easily be eliminated by God.
He doesn’t even have to be all-knowing. He just needs to be as knowledgeable as humans are. He doesn’t even have to be all-powerful. So long as he is “moderately” more powerful than humans, a lot could be done. Even humans are working hard to eliminate evil in various forms. God could help out a bit, couldn’t he?
And that speaks to the real question at the back of our minds.
Is God actually good? After all, even a moderately “good” human being would be willing to eradicate many evils if they had the power to do so. In fact, we would consider it a moral duty to do so. Why is God any different? This is not merely a puzzle to be solved, but, in its more sophisticated form, it is an argument against the existence of God.
I have argued that evil, especially the evil within rooted in this “gift” that is actually a “curse” of deciding for ourselves what is good or evil without regard for God or others, is actually proof that God exists. Here the opposite is claimed. If evil exists, then an all-powerful, all-knowing, good God cannot exist.
Let’s look at the steps in the argument in some more detail.
First, if God exists then he is all-knowing, all-powerful, and morally perfect (or good).
Second, if God is all-powerful, then he has the ability to get rid of evil.
Third, if God is all-knowing, he knows when and where evil exists.
Fourth, if God is morally perfect (or good), then he desires to eliminate all evil.
Fifth, evil exists.
Sixth, if both evil and God exist, either he is not all-powerful, not all-knowing or he is not morally perfect (or good).
Seventh, if any one of these attributes is taken away, then our all-knowing, all-powerful, and morally perfect God does not exist.
It seems straightforward enough, but is it? Or are we missing something?
Perhaps we need to go back to the “context” we talked about earlier where we agreed that the evil we encounter is not merely external but fundamentally internal. The problem of evil is within. And no one is immune from it.
From a Christian point of view, when we took upon ourselves the “gift” of independent authority in all matters related to the distinction between good and evil and left God in the dust while we forged our own future without him, we did not remain “neutral” but were, in fact, corrupted by the very evil that we sought to control. After all, for us, evil is an option for getting what we want. We prove it everyday.
We have said that the “gift” was actually a “curse” and that we were created in such a way that we need a conscious dependency relationship on our Creator God. Just like we have an “estrangement-dependency” on nature whether we like it or not, we also have an “estrangement-dependency” on the God who created nature (including us). The difference is that nature is an amoral, arbitrary force whereas God is a personal being who wants to restore our relationship with him.
The point is that this relationship with God is not optional but a necessary relationship that, because it is broken, is at the heart of all our problems.
So why is it that we leave out this fundamental truth when we formulate the Religious Problem of Evil? The argument seems only to contemplate “external” evil and not the secular “internal” problem of evil that we all know is there.
Let’s see if we can’t reformulate some of the steps in the argument.
The first four steps can remain the same. God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and morally perfect (or good). He wants to eliminate all evil but there is a problem. How does he do so if the evil is within? How does he eliminate evil without eliminating each and every one of us?
We wish that it was just a question of power but, like many things in life, it is really a question of love. Because we have free will, love cannot be coerced but must be enticed, seduced even, or perhaps better put, it must be freely given. We all know that.
After all, if you want to get someone to fall in line with your decisions or to act in a moral way, you can either force them to do so or entice them to do so (with a myriad of options in between). Most of life is about the choice between force (and fear) or love (and desire). More gets done by fear most of the time but love is what makes life worthwhile. We all fear those who would force us or manipulate us into doing what they want but we love those who give us the freedom of choice based on their relationship with us. It is a basic human experience.
So, the fundamental problem with the logical argument for the non-existence of God based on the Religious Problem of Evil is that it misses a step. If the evil is within, how does God save us without destroying us? If he uses force and makes sure that every action is either punished if it is evil or rewarded if it is good, it doesn’t change the fact that evil is within. We still want to do what we want to do when we want to do it regardless of whether it is good or evil in the sight of God (or anyone else).
In order to deal with the evil within, one has to go to the source of the problem and somehow reverse what happened in the first place.
If you believe the Christian interpretation of reality, you must find a way to give back that “gift” or “curse” of deciding for yourself what is good or evil and somehow restore the original relationship with God. We must give up our independence for dependency on the loving authority of God over our lives. Not so easy to do.
In fact, it is impossible for us, and worse still, we aren’t even interested. The truth is that we don’t want to give up that independence and personal authority over all questions that pertain to our lives. Not that God is looking to be a tyrant. Far from it. He is a good God, and he loves us. There are many decisions that he wants us to make. There are many decisions that he will teach us how to make over time as well. What he will not accept is our willingness to do evil to get what we want. Evil is not an option for God. Getting rid of that corruption in our moral character, whether we like it or not, is the goal.
But what is impossible for us, is possible with God.
He found a way and it was the way of love. There is a lot that can be said about why he decided to die on a cross outside of Jerusalem over two thousand years ago, why his justice had to be fulfilled by his sacrifice and not merely set aside, why his torture, death, and resurrection actually have the power to change what is within us, why the Holy Spirit can co-exist in us together with ongoing sin and evil and start to change us, and why our restored relationship with God will also heal our relationships with the people around us. It is a glorious story that is worth the telling.
The point is that it is a story that explains the mitigating circumstances that do not allow God simply to use his power to solve the problem of the evil within us. If he uses the power of his justice, then who can stand? He must somehow use the power of love to change us from within so that we can be saved from ourselves. And he did so. Thank God.
Context is everything. Honesty is necessary. Getting the story right is important and nothing makes any sense if you don’t start with the Biblical interpretation of reality. So, when people tell me that they can’t believe in a God who allows children to suffer, I tell them that God does so because he loves us. That usually confuses people even more. God allows suffering because he loves us? Yes. Exactly.
Because the alternative is that he ushers in the final judgment, punishes the wicked, and rewards the pure of heart. And, in all honesty, if you think you are pure of heart, then maybe you would welcome that approach. But God is clear that there is no one, not even one, who is pure of heart and can escape the judgment based on divine justice. We will talk about the nature of divine justice in another post but, at this point, all we can say is that you will ultimately agree that God’s judgment on your life and your decisions was right, good, and just. And you will not stand. No one will.
Since God knows that, it isn’t the path that he chose to deal with the problem. He must allow sin and evil to exist for a time while he works out his plan of redemption so that he can save as many people as possible. Not everyone will, nor can, be saved. Many will perish and those who are saved will only be saved if God, himself, makes the ultimate sacrifice. The very fact of Christ hanging on the cross and experiencing hell is poignant proof that this was no easy task and that the consequences of our sin and evil, and even more, the consequences of cutting ourselves off from God, have an eternal impact on our lives.
We can try to compare the “goodness” of God to human “goodness” and insist that God is not even as good as Mother Teresa or the Dali Lama. But God must think of eternity and the second death and the eternal consequences of this broken relationship with him. These are not things that he can change. They also exist. And they must be dealt with.
In that context, God’s “goodness” must include a consideration of the eternal “evil” that awaits all of us and not just the temporal “evil” that we deal with each day.
Of course, that only applies if you believe in the Christian interpretation of reality. If not, you can try to go with one of the other theistic religions (or one of the other non-theistic religions), but you will find them all wanting. You could simply resign yourself to a materialistic understanding of the universe, become a nihilist and simply find a way to accept that there is no meaning in life outside of what you can create for yourself. For some people that is enough.
The problem is that Christianity is dangerous. If you die, and there is nothing else. Then so be it. Your personal, conscious existence is over. Not pleasant but not so bad either.
But if Christianity is true, and there is a God and your life will be judged based on your use of the “gift” of deciding for yourself what is good or evil, with heaven or hell hanging in the balance, well, that’s another story altogether.
In any event, even those that reject the Christian interpretation of reality, still have to back off of the Religious Problem of Evil if they accept that the evil is within. The Secular Problem of Evil comes first, then you can decide whether or not God is handling things well or not in this world. If you are going to mix God up in this question of evil and try to blame things on him, then you would do well to listen to his side of things.
So get your story straight and look at all of the facts of the matter before you make your final decision. As for me and my house, we will trust in the goodness of God.
The Desert Warrior