TOWARD SOLVING THE problem: AN EPICUREAN riddle NO MORE
I. Introduction.................................................... 1
II. A Jet Tour Of The Problem Of Evil.............. 3
III. The Earliest Christian Responses................. 5
IV. The Divine Purpose...................................... 9
A. The Origin Of Evil
B. Purpose From Evil
V. Theology And The Problem Of Evil.............. 15
VI. Conclusion................................................... 19
The “Problem of Evil” is an old riddle, dating back to the post-Socratic philosophy of ancient Greece, perhaps even farther back than that. In a famous quote, Greek philosopher Epicurus presented his riddle of this problem. “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then He is impotent. Is He able but not willing? Then He is malevolent. Is He both able and willing? Then whence comes evil?” Epicurus is not the only person to ponder this dilemma. Socrates asks a similar riddle of Euthyphro; Rabbi Harold Kushner openly questions whether or not “God was out to lunch” during his crisis of faith, and even the biblical patriarch Job sarcastically reflects on the question that he is, “a joke to my friends, the one who called on God and He answered him; the just and blameless man is a joke.” (Job 12:4 NASB)
Amongst all of these questions one thing is for certain: evil is real. Pain and suffering exist in the lives of people. Yet another conviction that can be taken from scripture is that God is good, just, and fair. The Psalmist wrote that God does not, “take pleasure in wickedness; no evil dwells with (Him).” (Psalm 5:4) Nevertheless, the fact that evil is present in this world seems self-evident. With this in mind, how evil is viewed in the overall plan and purpose of God is something of extreme importance. For either evil caught God off-guard, or God allowed evil to enter the world all the while remaining all-good, all-powerful, and all-knowing, for one grand purpose—his glory and our good. It is this belief that can give hope in the midst of human suffering. Despite the musings of Kushner that certain bad things happen for “no reason,” the Bible resonates with the control of God—and the control of God in all things. Paul, writing to the Roman church, declared that “God causes all things” and that He then “works (those things) together for (His) good.” (Romans 8:28) Paul does not say all things will be good. Instead he proclaims that God will synchronistically harmonize those “things” specifically into His purpose, and for His glory.
Concerning that line of thinking, John Piper has said that, “It is amazing that the most common means used by people today to solve the mystery of suffering never occurred to Job or to his three friends—namely, the limitation of God's sovereign control over all things. Today we limit God at the drop of a hat (he couldn't have willed that sickness, or that explosion, or the death of that child!). So he must not be in control. He is a limited God.” However; in that sermon Piper further stated that “We see through a glass darkly, even from our New Testament perspective (1 Corinthians 13:12). But faith always affirms that no matter how chaotic and absurd things may seem to our limited view they are in fact the tactics of infinite wisdom.”
A Jet Tour Of The Problem Of Evil
As previously mentioned, the problem of evil is an old dilemma. Socrates asked Euthyphro to question how a pantheon of good gods could be good, and powerful, and there still be problems. According to Plato, Socrates asks, ““Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” The primary interest in the Euthyphro Dilemma in the Judeo-Christian context; however, has primarily concerned the relationship between God and morality in the monotheistic religious tradition. In this, God is taken to be omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent, having created the universe initially and still actively involved in it today. The dilemma for the Christian then is best summarized by D. Scott Henderson who wrote, “The first option says God creates values by willing them, thus making morality arbitrary; the second option says that God must align His will to a standard, thus making Him subordinate.”
In other words, God is either all-powerful, but not very nice, or He is a benevolent deity that lacks the sovereign power to control His creation. In either case the God of the Bible is obfuscated by reason of the dilemma. It stands to reason that neither option is of much value to the theist, for she does not give into the assertion that there are only two horns in Plato’s dilemma. God is neither weak and subordinate, nor is He cruel and incongruent. As William Lane Craig has written, “God’s commands are not arbitrary, and so we need not trouble ourselves about counterfactuals with impossible antecedents like, ‘If God were to command child abuse…’”
The Euthyphro Dilemma is the front door that opens this so-called problem of evil. The problem, masked and somewhat veiled, also rears its ugly head in the Old Testament scriptures of the Judeo-Christian faith. As an example, the problem played a major role in the biblical writings of Job. God is shown as being in complete control, allowing the adversary to torment Job despite his righteous character. While Job’s friends attempt to find some flaw in his morality, Job consistently maintains his innocence. It would then seem as though God was unjustly tormenting poor old Job. The end of Job’s sufferings show the righteousness and justification of God. As Job 28:12-13; 23 attest: “But where can wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding? ‘Man does not know its value, nor is it found in the land of the living.’ God understands its way, And He knows its place.”
Still, this is not the only place we see the dilemma in scripture. In Isaiah 45:6-7 for instance, God declares His omnipotence and in plain language declares He is, “the One forming light and creating darkness, causing well-being and creating calamity; I am the Lord who does all these.” And in Amos 3:6 the prophet writes of God, “If a calamity occurs in a city has not the Lord done it?” The word translated for “calamity” in both texts is the Hebrew word Ra, defined as “bad, unpleasant, evil (giving pain, unhappiness, misery) and displeasing.” This would seem to indicate that the traditional thought of physical and moral evil is in view in the biblical authors’ minds, not just the typical misery and misfortune of natural disasters.
This problem has also been the passion and consideration of many of the greatest Christian philosophers. Augustine of Hippo, Anselm of Canterbury, Thomas Aquinas, and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz have all added to the conversation on the subject. Augustine and Aquinas brought an early foundation of philosophical thought as well as theological understanding to the problem. Anselm is widely credited with the first look at the problem from the ontological argument from being. Leibniz was the first to coin the phrase “theodicy”, from the Greek words theos (God) and dikaios (righteous); thereby meaning the justification of God.
The modern world has also been beleaguered by the problem and modern theologians and Christian philosophers such as Alan Plantinga, Bruce Ware, Albert Mohler, Alister McGrath, C.S. Lewis, and Norman Geisler have contributed to the debate with the so-called New Atheism proponents, who are especially adept at presenting the problem as an argument against the existence of God. The problem of evil in modern society would seem to focus less on the ontological realities of evil and more on the nature of gratuitous evil, as seen in the everyday lives of everyday people. The question is oft heard by some victim who is lamenting their misfortune, “Where was God when this happened to me?” These calamities highlight both moral evil and physical evil. Even the bystanders to trouble sees the “absence of God” in major devastation. “Why,” asks these questioners, “do tsunamis kill hundreds of thousands of people IF God is good and powerful?” Or perhaps one might hear, “Why was my husband murderer for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time?” This line of thinking has become a rallying point for those opposed to theism. New Atheism stalwarts like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Bertram Russell and Christopher Hitchens have inculcated the problem of evil as a militant call-to-arms for those opposed to theism. Consider David Lewis’ diatribe concerning the problem of evil and Christians who continue to worship a God Who allows evil:
“Many Christians appear to be good people, people worthy of the admiration of those of us who are non-Christians. From now on let us suppose, for simplicity’s sake, that these Christians accept a God who perpetrates divine evil, one who inflicts infinite torment on those who do not accept him. Appearances notwithstanding, are those who accept the perpetrator of divine evil themselves evil?”
In this it is possible to see how the so-called new atheism, as a movement, is evangelical in its own right. Its proponents seek to win converts by means of science, philosophy, and even the problem of evil itself, decrying a vacillating, flippant god that either could completely cease humanity’s suffering and is too unconcerned to be bothered, or is a limp-wristed deity with a moral sense of obligation, but no power to effect any real change.
New atheism see no need for a Supreme Being, not realizing that they have simply made science their own little god. As an example, Bertrand Russell commented in his famous work Religion And Science, that “science has stood for the diminution of suffering,” while it was religion that “encouraged man’s natural savagery.” Sam Harris viewed faith and belief as a question best left to the cold realities of the scientific realm. The late Christopher Hitchens saw religion as combining the “maximum in severity and the maximum of solipsism.” This is the same argument and gestations that have been considered since the days of Socrates and Epicurus. Still, while the Christians of today may couch their answers to the riddle in more scientific language; even in this post-modern era, they are by and large the same answers the earliest Christian philosophers and theologians espoused.
Augustine of Hippo is seen as one of the most influential Christina philosophers to ever live. His influence ranges from the Roman Catholic Church to Protestantism, with the Arminians and Reformed theologians as well as Baptists and most every other theological stripe all claiming him as their own particular patron. Henderson noted that Augustine saw several things in humanity that contributed to a proper understanding of the problem. Henderson wrote, “Augustine recognizes that there is an order of creation reflective of the goodness of God and that all things that exist are inherently good. One of these goods is free will, which carries with it the possibility of its use to bring about evil.”  In Augustinian thought, evil is not a “thing.” In other words, evil has no substance, and as such it has no ontological being. It is best, according to Augustine, to see evil not as “something,” but as a “lack of something”—and a lack or privation of some part of goodness in specific. So Augustine saw evil as a parasite that must have goodness to corrupt, or it cannot exist.
Thomas Aquinas followed up with this thought by postulating that despite the reality of evil, evil has no positive attributes, making it essentially nothingness. Despite God’s omnipotent character, there are some things He cannot do, such as the oft quoted dilemma of making a square circle. So it is better to define God’s omnipotence as the fact God can do anything that IS possible. God cannot make nothingness, ergo, God did not create evil, because evil is nothingness.
While attention to the problem itself lagged somewhat during the prevalence of evil during the Dark Ages, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz rekindled the debate by creating what he referred to as a “Theodicy.” As noted earlier, Sproul writes:
“The term theodicy involves the combining of two Greek words: the word for God, theos, and the word for justification, dikaios. Hence, a theodicy is an attempt to justify God for the existence of evil (as seen, for instance, in John Milton's Paradise Lost). Such theodicies have covered the gauntlet between a simple explanation that evil comes as a direct result of human free will or to more complex philosophical attempts such as that offered by the philosopher Leibniz.”
Leibniz proffered a threefold view of the nature of evil. He suggested that there are three types of evil; metaphysical evil, physical evil, and moral evil. In a systematic flow, Leibniz, relied heavily on his theory of monadology. (A staggeringly amazing view for his time, Leibniz believed that the world consists of tiny little units he referred to a monads.) In his Delicate Theodicy view, he saw evil as flowing from one type of evil to the next. In essence, because humanity possess metaphysical evil (that is, creation is evil because it could not be created perfect, only that witch is infinite can be metaphysically perfect) physical evil is present (tornadoes, earthquakes, etc.) The presence of physical evil opens the door to moral evil, and thus people have the propensity to commit moral evil. (This is sometimes referred to as “The Best of All Possible Worlds” theodicy, and is mercilessly parodied in Voltaire’s satire Candide. In the play, Dr. Pangloss’s hapless character is modeled after Voltaire’s perception of Leibniz.) The rationale and flow of Leibniz theodicy seems correct on the surface. Nevertheless, if one then traced the flow backward, it would seem as though Leibniz’s theodicy fails, due in large part because moral evil would be the necessary result of metaphysical evil. If, for instance, Adam and Eve were created metaphysically evil, necessarily; then they would have been evil in the Garden prior to the serpents entrance; and in fact remain evil even into eternity. Hence the so-called “Leibniz Lapse” fails his theodicy. This would also lend itself to the proclamation that humans are innocent of moral evil because they were not created good, but in fact they were created evil.
Since Leibniz first introduced the theodicy, many Christian theologians and philosophers have put their energy into solving the Epicurean Riddle and justifying God, some by proving the need for God. In Pensees #148, Blaise Pascal noted that the human soul has a hole that can only be filled with that which is infinite and immutable. C.S. Lewis sought for an answer to the suffering that humans feel, and decided that it must be filled with some reasonable argument for a divine purpose behind suffering and injustice. Before his conversion, Lewis was a devoted atheist. In Mere Christianity he wrote, “My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust.” Later, he would write in The Problem With Pain, “If God were good, He would wish to make His creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty He would be able to do what He wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore, God lacks either goodness, or power, or both.” He continues this thought with the theodicy that it is free will that leads to pain, suffering, and evil, not God. To Lewis’ thinking, God could interfere with our free decisions, but unless he removes the result of every sin, eventually humanity would end up in the same predicament in which it currently finds itself. Removing every sin, though, leads to “a world in which nothing important ever depended on human choice, and in which choice itself would soon cease from the certainty that one of the apparent alternatives before you would lead to no results and was therefore not really an alternative.” These thoughts are often called a teleological argument, or the argument from design. One of the things that vexes the atheist as he or she attempts to explain the universe is the fact of what is known as “The Law of Causality,” which states that every effect must have an adequate antecedent cause. In essence, the Law of Causality states that because a watch exists there, necessarily, must be a watch maker. Taken to its ultimate end, one could see that because there is a creation there, necessarily, must be a creator. Leibniz also saw this teleological theory for God in his “Law of Pre-established Harmony.” (It is important to remember here that the law does not require everything to have a cause, just every effect. i.e. God does not require a cause since He is a Being and not an effect.) As this relates to the problem, the teleological argument is best summarized by John Hick in his work Evil And The God Of Love. Speaking of the problem for the design aspect, he wrote that the “answer—adapted rather than adopted from Plotinus—is that evil is not any kind of positive substance or force, but consist rather in the going wrong of God’s creation in some of its parts. Evil is essentially the malfunctioning of something that in itself is good” (emphasis mine.) In other words, the design is good (Genesis 1:24), but malfunctions due to the privation of the good. Yet this begs the question, “Is there some sense of purpose from the Creator of all of this good gone bad?”
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