April 8, 2019 § Leave a comment
There are two reasons a person might say something is incoherent. One reason is that the thing being considered is incomprehensible. The other is that the person, for whatever reason, is unable to comprehend it. While both may be true, what one professor of philosophy calls “A God Problem” in a recent New York Times opinion piece reveals a problem with his own ontology. It’s a short read here.
Peter Atterton takes us though a short series of “problems’ about the existence of God that philosophers have pondered for centuries. Interestingly, he offers the first two, and then offers the solutions for us.
THE OMNIPOTENCE PARADOX & THE LAW OF NON-CONTRADICTION
“…the paradox of the stone… Can God create a stone that cannot be lifted? … The way out of this dilemma is usually to argue, as Saint Thomas Aquinas did, that God cannot do self-contradictory things. … Not all philosophers agree with Aquinas. René Descartes, for example, believed that God could do absolutely anything, even the logically impossible, such as draw a round square.”
Well, sure. Philosophers and other humans disagree on all kinds of things—some are right and some are wrong. Aquinas was right; logic extends from God’s nature, so logical absurdities (such as a round square, or a rock too heavy for God to lift), and sin itself, are impossibilities for Him. God is a God of logic and therefore cannot do illogical things. God is good and therefore can do no evil. René Descartes was wrong because there is nothing in Scripture that suggests that God can do anything that contradicts His own nature.
THE PROBLEM OF EVIL & FREE-WILL DEFENSE
Secondly, Atterton asks, “Can God create a world in which evil does not exist? This does appear to be logically possible. … Indeed, if God is morally perfect, it is difficult to see why he wouldn’t have created such a world… The standard defense is that evil is necessary for free will.” He then cites Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga, “To create creatures capable of moral good, [God] must create creatures capable of moral evil; and He can’t give these creatures the freedom to perform evil and at the same time prevent them from doing so.”
Plantinga was also right; man’s free will necessitates the eventual probability of his choosing to sin, so it’s actually not logically possible for God to create human beings and not give his creatures freedom to make either choice. Adam and Eve did not know evil and the effects it would have on the world. However, in a glorified state in heaven, our clear and perfected view of God’s goodness may simply preclude the possibility of a free-will choice to sin. But we are talking about the world we are in now. “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully…” (1 Cor. 13:12)
NATURAL EVIL & GOD’S SOVEREIGNTY
The author then presents two problems that he claims make God particularly incoherent because he can’t answer them. But, like God, coherent answers do exist. Seeming to allow Plantinga’s argument that human free-will necessitates evil choices, Atterton contends that “this does not explain so-called physical evil (suffering) caused by nonhuman causes (famines, earthquakes, etc.). Nor does it explain, as Charles Darwin noticed, why there should be so much pain and suffering among the animal kingdom.”
The problem of “physical evil” of “natural evil” included in Genesis 3’s curse of creation is not philosophically insurmountable either. As J. Warner Wallace proposes at ColdCaseChristianity.com, a world created to accommodate free will agency will also perceive both benefit and detriment from certain natural conditions. Some natural disasters are the result of man building and venturing in the wrong places at the wrong time. Some natural disasters may be God’s prompting us to consider Him, and others, to bring out the best in people using various trials (James 1:2-4). Whatever the reasons God may have to allow natural evil, the question of “why there should be so much pain and suffering among the animal kingdom”, or among people for that matter, is problematic. In a world where a small fraction of the current pain and suffering would likely still bring complaint and rejection of a benevolent God, what would the acceptable amount be? And why assume God’s hand has not restrained a great deal more? (Related post)
GOD’S THOUGHTS & OUR THOUGHTS
On to Atterton’s final reason he finds the concept of God incoherent: “If God knows all there is to know, then He knows at least as much as we know. … There are some things that we know that, if they were also known to God, would automatically make Him a sinner… like lust and envy. …one cannot know lust and envy unless one has experienced them. But to have had feelings of lust and envy is to have sinned, in which case God cannot be morally perfect.”
His logic here is super flawed, and the philosophers he cites to support his argument made the same mistake. God’s omniscience does not require Him to “know” sin in the same sense that a sinner knows it by experience (I write about this distinction in this post). That’s an unnecessary conflation along the lines of suggesting a God who can’t create logical absurdities is not omnipotent.
Critically, Atterton notes a motto French theologian Blaise Pascal had stitched into a jacket: “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob — not of the philosophers and scholars,” and concludes with the notion that “Pascal considered there was more ‘wisdom’ in biblical revelation than in any philosophical demonstration of God’s existence and nature — or plain lack thereof.” I think we have to be open to the idea that Pascal chose not an incoherent God, but a God whose coherence he understood and the secular philosophers and scholars of his day did not. What yet another secular philosopher has managed to highlight in his challenge to the classic Ontological Argument is the failing of the mind of man, not the coherence of God.
“For My thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways My ways,”
declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are My ways higher than your ways
and My thoughts than your thoughts.
November 3, 2016 § 2 Comments
Many Chicago Cubs fans would say a curse was lifted late last night when their team won the World Series for the first time since 1908. The “Curse of the Billy Goat”(1) dates back to the 1945 World Series, when the Cubs were in game four leading the Detroit Tigers two games to one. William Sianis, owner of the local Billy Goat Tavern, tried to bring his pet goat to the game (he had two tickets). Wrigley Field told William his stinky goat was not welcome, and William pronounces the curse: “The Cubs ain’t gonna win no more.” The Cubs went on to lose that game and the series, never to see another post-season victory. Until last night, at 11:47pm Iowa time, with game 7 against the Cleveland Indians going into extra innings, when a Cubs victory broke the curse(2).
This was a welcome ending to our November 2nd, 2016, a day that began with news of the ambush-style murder of two Des Moines-area police officers(3) shortly after 1:00am. We’ve been lamenting the news of cops getting killed all over the nation, and yesterday it hit home. It was a day of mourning, of bringing flowers and other notes of appreciation to local police stations, of hugs and tears at two flower-covered street corners, of blue stripes and lights appearing on cars and houses across the city, of churches(4) like ours canceling normal Wednesday services and opening their doors for a hurting community to come and pray.
Thankfully, the alleged shooter was caught and neighbors came together to support one another, but the evil behind the killing of Des Moines Police Sgt. Tony Beminio and Urbandale Officer Justin Martin is a reflection of another curse. Genesis 3 tells us about the curse over creation brought on by sin at the dawn of creation. “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together with labor pains until now. And not only that, but we ourselves who have the Spirit as the firstfruits—we also groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” (Romans 8:22-23)
I don’t want a comparison of the curse of sin to the “Curse of the Billy Goat” to make light of those fallen officers. A World Series win can’t bring them back. But maybe the Cubs’ day-ending and curse-ending victory could serve to remind us of the hope we have in Christ and God’s promises to us. Sin is the most serious business there is, and the evil and suffering brought by Adam’s sin in the beginning is part of a curse which will one day meet an end. The suffering of Christ for the sin that cursed creation will in the end heal it and renew it. “And He who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.'” (Revelation 21:5).
The truth of God’s Word bookends history; the tragedy that began the day of mankind will be made right by day’s end. In the midst of a broken and groaning world, we are “more than victorious” (Romans 8:37) with our trust placed in Jesus Christ, the one who has already proclaimed victory over sin and death. That’s a promise worth celebrating now.
January 25, 2016 § Leave a comment
A video attempting to address the Problem of Evil(1) prompted a Facebook comment from an atheist I’ve encountered before. Below is a brief conversation that followed.
He looks so proud of coming up with such a bad argument!
Cheesy video, and maybe an unfair dig against hippie hairstyles, but a good illustration. Whether the problem is “too much” evil and suffering (as the barber complains) or any evil and suffering at all, neither is evidence against the God described in the Bible.
First, objective evil (the only kind worth complaining about) only makes sense in light of objective good, which doesn’t make sense on atheism. Second, a good God creating humans with freedom to choose could not prevent our sin (the root cause of the world’s evil and suffering) without preventing our freedom to choose, and nobody’s okay with that idea.
And even if the world’s evil and suffering were a tiny fraction of what it is, the barber would still complain(2). God’s plan of redemption in Jesus Christ includes making all things new, so one day evil and suffering will be gone. The days the barber chooses to spend complaining and disbelieving are days that a good God has graciously given him as more time to come to repentance and faith (2 Peter 3:9).
You’re not going to be able to dismiss the Problem of Evil that easily…even the most prominent Christian apologists can[‘t] explain it away. As C.S. Lewis conceded, it’s the most powerful argument against the Christian god.
The problem of evil is not “easy”. That’s why it’s a “problem.” But a problem is something to think about and work through, not to discard because it’s a problem (like this list of unsolved problems in all types of fields of study(3)).
There are no “easy” answers because we’re the ones who see and often experience evil and suffering. C.S. Lewis knew it wasn’t easy but knew the logic behind it was sound, that freedom to love requires the freedom to do evil, which he summarized very effectively in The Case for Christianity:
“God created things which had free will. That means creatures which can go wrong or right. Some people think they can imagine a creature which was free but had no possibility of going wrong, but I can’t. If a thing is free to be good it’s also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of automata—of creatures that worked like machines—would hardly be worth creating. The happiness which God designs for His higher creatures is the happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other in an ecstasy of love and delight compared with which the most rapturous love between a man and a woman on this earth is mere milk and water. And for that they’ve got to be free. Of course God knew what would happen if they used their freedom the wrong way: apparently, He thought it worth the risk. (…) If God thinks this state of war in the universe a price worth paying for free will -that is, for making a real world in which creatures can do real good or harm and something of real importance can happen, instead of a toy world which only moves when He pulls the strings- then we may take it it is worth paying.”
Even though it makes perfect sense why there is such things wrong with the world, it’s a problem because we don’t know why “we” or why “they” suffer the particular way that they do. It’s personal, so of course we don’t like it. But it also makes sense that we wouldn’t be able to fully know the mind of God and His ultimate plan for eternal good that can involve our temporary pain (like the pain of surgery in light of a better life afterwards).
God has an answer in redeeming evil through His Son, because He is a personal God that knows and loves us, desiring to save us from what are in the end the consequences of our own sin.
Most arguments for atheism based on the problem of evil assume a God who is not personal (deism) and just doesn’t care to intervene, or that He is just plain mean. Neither fit the description of the God of the Bible.
Have a great day!
I’ll counter with two words that have nothing to do with personal choice or ‘sin’: bacteria and earthquakes. Yet cause unmeasurable pain and suffering.
Actually, they are linked to sin. After their disobedience, God told Adam, “cursed is the ground because of you.” (Gen. 3:17) and Paul writes that “the whole creation has been groaning” as a result of man’s sin and “waits eagerly” for redemption (Rom. 8:19-22). The corruptive effects of sin reach everywhere in nature, which God created “good” to begin with (Gen. 1:31). Ninety percent of all bacteria are still good, non-pathogenic and necessary, but some became harmful to humans after the Fall. Likewise, most earthquakes are still harmless and too small to be detected without sophisticated seismography, and they were likely a non-issue before a cursed creation. We shouldn’t expect to know why God allows certain things to happen and how He works natural disasters or disease for ultimate good. But how much less natural disaster or disease would satisfy? And how do we know God hasn’t prevented many more disasters and disease? It seems He’s kept harmful bacteria at a mere 10% and stabilized the earth’s crust sufficiently that most earthquakes are non-destructive.
Well, I guess if you believe that all the problems in the world are the result of one bite of a fruit, then we are just going to have to disagree. There’s not much more I can say if you are just going to suspend reason like that.
That is a pretty common sentiment among atheists, but atheism is the cause of that sentiment, not the result. If there is no God, the only law we can break is our own, and “small” sins are no big deal because the foundation for authority is relatively small. If I were to, say, tell a lie to an infant, there would be virtually no consequences for me. If I tell a lie to my older child, I may lose his trust. If I lie to my wife, I may lose her trust and get banished to the couch. If I lie to my boss, I may get fired. If I lie to the government, I could face fines or prison. If God exists, He is infinitely higher in authority than any power on earth. Even a “small” sin like eating of the one tree God commanded Adam and Eve not to, a decision actually rooted in pride, arrogance and disobedience, is severe when all sin is an offense against an infinite Creator who wrote moral law on our hearts (and without whom all moral assessment is arbitrary and meaningless anyway). It’s not about the size of the sin, but the sovereignty of who we are sinning against. Sin is sin to God, and “all have sinned and fall short.”
But thank you for the discussion, I always learn something and appreciate you taking the time. I hope you have a good week.
(Related post: Too Much Evil and Suffering in the World?)
August 19, 2015 § 1 Comment
I had the privilege of co-teaching an apologetics class at church, and below is about three and a half hours of audio from the course. It’s meant to be an introduction to Christian apologetics, defining the practice of defending Christianity, the role of faith, arguments for the existence of God, the reliability of the Bible, Creation and Flood debates, and the problem of evil. Teaching is not my strongest suit, but I think the material and the flow of the lessons turned out pretty well (and the friend I taught with, Mark Kline, is a rather gifted teacher). Use this if it fulfills a need, and feel free to download the corresponding PDF handouts and PowerPoint slides to look at while you listen. We may do something similar to this again in January, so any feedback would be appreciated.
• The what, why, who and how of apologetics
• The role of faith and reason
• The argument from reason for God’s existence
• The argument from morality for God’s existence
Listen: Creekside U – Defending Your Faith, Session 1
Download: Slides (PPS) • Handout (PDF)
• What are the different forms of the Word of God?
• How do we know the Bible is God’s word?
• How did we get our Bible?
• Are there any errors in it?
Listen: Creekside U – Defending Your Faith, Session 2
Download: Slides (PPS) • Handout (PDF)
• Are there ay errors in the Bible?
• God’s publishing process
– Manuscript evidence
– Archaeological evidence
– Prophetic evidence
– Statistical evidence
Listen: Creekside U – Defending Your Faith, Session 3
Download: Slides (PPS) • Handout (PDF)
• How old is the Earth? How big was the Flood? How much does it matter?
• Too much evil and suffering in the world?
• Unanswered questions lead to atheism
Listen: Creekside U – Defending Your Faith, Session 4
Download: Slides (PPS) • Handout (PDF)