Incoherence: Not God’s Problem

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.

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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.
(Isaiah 55:8-9)

Too Much Evil and Suffering in the World?

December 5, 2014 § 1 Comment

Evil50%offThe reality of sin (Genesis 3, Romans 5) brings misery to the common human experience. The presence of evil and suffering in the world makes sense to most Christians, but many wonder why there is SO MUCH evil and suffering. Couldn’t a loving God just spare us from the high degree of heartbreak, disease, death, and natural calamity that we see on the news and in our own lives? Personally, I’d be okay with a lot less. But how much less would do it for me?

A THOUGHT EXPERIMENT

Hypothetically, let’s say the amount of evil and suffering in the world was HALF of what it is now. Either the trials we endure are cut by 50%, or the number of people who endure trials is cut by 50%. What would our perception be? The news would still be filled with stories of crime and tragedy, and instead of everyone we know hurting, every other person we know would hurt. I think we would still ask God why there is so much evil and suffering in the world. The reality is, half of what we see now would not make much of a difference at all.

Suppose the degree of evil and suffering in the world were just TEN PERCENT of its current level. Instead of trouble striking me and most of the people in my life, only one in ten people met with trouble. Or instead of daily trials, we experienced trials only one day in ten. Would we still look to the sky and ask God why we must see so much pain and suffering? We all know hundreds of other people and are connected to many media sources, so even if we were fortunate enough to escape tragedy, I believe the suffering of those around us would still cause many to question God’s compassion.

So let’s go further. Imagine that we never personally experienced the amount of evil and suffering we currently see, but that only ONE PERCENT of the world did. Ninety-nine percent of our current trouble never touched us, or only one in a hundred people ever lost a house, a job, a loved one, or fell into addiction, illness, or died. Even in the middle of a good world, where the vast majority of us only knew joy, goodness, love, and perfect health, the 1% of the world that was decaying and corrupt would not go unnoticed. Its rarity might even highlight it more, and I’m sure the question would still be there.

That news story about the child who died from the rare disease. Why him, God? Things like that just don’t happen!

A small village buried in a landslide while the entire surrounding communities were untouched. Why them, Lord? How could you allow that?

God, You brought me so much good in my life for 80 years, and today I find out I have cancer. Why?!

I CAN’T GET NO…

What ratio of evil to good would truly satisfy us? The thing is, no matter how scarce evil, death and suffering were in the world, I don’t think many would express the sentiment: Yes, God, this is a good balance. Very few people suffer. This seems fair. The fundamental truth is that even ONE sin—one lie, one act of rebellion, one bite from the fruit, and one effect of the Fall—is too much for us to be content.

God isn’t satisfied with it either, which is why He didn’t leave us alone in the world we tainted with sin. Romans 5 reveals that “sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned… if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.” (vs. 12,17) God loved us enough to give us the free will to choose right and wrong, and He loved us enough to redeem us because we made the wrong choice. The atonement of Christ for our sin satisfies, and will one day deliver us from the effects of sin on the world.

We also have no idea how much MORE pain and suffering there could be in the world if it were not for the restraining hand of God. I might lose my job and then shake my fist to the heavens completely ignorant of the fact that God spared my life the day before in an accident that, by His providence, never happened.

HOW’S ABOUT ZERO PAIN AND SUFFERING?

Why a good God allows bad things to exist at all is a different category of problem, one which C.S. Lewis and countless other theologians have tried to address. To me, the most satisfying answer comes from remembering who God is.

He loved us enough to give us a free will, the freedom to choose to follow Him or to take our own path. Our own path was sin, which brought evil and corruption into the world. He could miraculously prevent us from sinning, but we would lose our freedom. And while preventing say, half the sin would result in losing just half our free will, the problem begins to look like the one above. How much of the freedom we have now do we want to be without?

It would also do us well to remember that an all-knowing, all-loving God is like a wise and loving parent who keeps a child from too much cake or a busy street, or must inflict pain to clean a wound before bandaging. These things hurt and seem unfair to a child who knows much less about the good plan the parent has for them. Finite minds can’t expect to know what God knows about what He has in store for us, and why we are going through pain. But we can know that He loves us, and that the Son of God went through it too.

OUR GOD REIGNS

We need an eternal perspective here. No matter how rare calamity was, we would still want less of it because we know God’s ideal was a good creation (Genesis 1:31). So for now, creation “groans” and “waits in eager expectation” for deliverance (Romans 8:18-23). But we wait for a God who is still on His throne in the midst of it all.

Psychopathy or Sin: What Caused the Sandy Hook Shooting?

December 15, 2012 § 3 Comments

This is a discussion under a Facebook post calling for a focus on mental health reform following the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14th, where 27 people, 20 of them children, died at the hands of a lone gunman. The comments reflect different ideas on the root of the problem of such heinous crimes.

David

Let’s get down to it people. This country needs renewed focus on mental health. There is a serious problem here that won’t be solved by wishing, giving or taking. This heinous crime was committed by a psychopath.

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Mary

Agreed.

Tracey

That’s true. Try to stop it at its source.

Brent

They’re closing all the mental health institutions due to budget constraints. This is what we get?

David

Maybe so, but it is greater than that. It starts at home. Greater consequences for a start. There is a world of knowledge available, and the signs of psychopathic behavior are freely listed and available to know, and act upon.

Mike (me)

Does heinous crime come from being mentally ill, or do we decide he is mentally because he committed such a heinous crime?

David

I have to be honest, I don’t think there is a solution to this. Psychopaths exist. They do not empathize normally. They blend within our society, and are adept at manipulation so they may escape detection even within the aid of mental health professionals.

Modern science and psychiatry needs to be enlisted to determine what makes them take the move from desire or thought to planning and action.

But… That won’t happen. A sufficient enough part of the population has already made this their political rallying cry, or blamed the cause on a supernatural evil, or just can’t look because it hurts.

Mike, the nature of the crime… He killed his parents, then children at where his mother works in a premeditated manner, leads on to believe he lacks basic human empathy and has penchant for violence against the most defenseless.

I don’t see how it could be said any other way than a mentally ill psychopathic person acted upon that illness or the effects of that illness to commit the acts he did.

Mike

I agree that we won’t get to a solution the way we’re going, refusing to recognize evil for what it is: simply evil.

What is the threshold someone like this (whose name I’ve intentionally forgotten to rob him of any more fame) crosses that makes him the victim of a sickness rather than an instigator of evil to a high degree? Were the 9/11 bombers all merely sick? As you said, the act was premeditated. This crime was calculated and planned by a clear and morally responsible mind. A mindless drone acting on the effects of a clinical condition couldn’t have pulled it off. It’s so evil, we would rather think there is some cause we could isolate and treat with psychotherapy or a pill.

I don’t think there is healthy thought and desire behind a barrier of unhealthy planning and action. Each flows into the next.

We can’t blame his upbringing, or economics, or dismiss sin as a sickness we don’t carry responsibility for. If sin is a sickness, it’s self-inflicted.

David

I believe we will be learning more about this in upcoming days and weeks.

I am sure it will become clearer what made him a monster.

Edwin

Exactly Mike. No one in today’s society can simplify it to that. There are some people who are just evil End of story. No doctor or social worker is going to help. The only thing we can do is protect our selves and our loved ones and get to know the people around us. Start talking to people again instead of texting and e-mailing. Start getting to know your neighbors and report the out of the ordinary…Stop avoiding and being politically correct.

Ryan

I am with both David and Mike on this one. I think mental illness IS real, and it doesn’t necessarily lead to the extreme, horrifying ends witnessed yesterday; in fact, mental illness generally decays its victims slowly and often with little outside observation or, God forbid, acknowledgement from people affected by it themselves. It is a tragic disease that needs more, not less, attention in our society. That said, evil (and grace, and we often forget that) indeed exists in the world as well. That acts of evil is a manifest of sin itself, and I believe both extreme mental illness and evil were married together in yesterday’s news. Also think Edwin’s right…regardless of belief, we ALL need to know our neighbor’s better. Put the Smartphone down, and go next door to say “hello”…

Mike

Yes, this guy’s story will unfold in the days to come I’m sure, a story that began in Genesis 3. I think the corrupting effects of sin in the world are far reaching (Romans 5 and 8:22), that “creation groans”, even in the form of very real mental illness. But truly, we’re all messed up and need a Savior from what we saw yesterday.

Great thoughts. For me, the love for neighbor starts with the reality of sin and and its effects. But we’d all be better off to get in touch with people. Will be spending some quality time with my wife and son today, perhaps more than usual given yesterday’s events.

David

This society inspires crazy. Religion and belief can and do contribute to this, as well as the zeitgeist, and the simple fact that man is on the top of the food chain. We just make more of us us as it is to other animals.

The prisons are not filled with athiests.

We need to look at how we do things differently than other societies that are not subject to the same ills to find out what we have done to ourselves.

There is no supernatural element here, nor need for one to explain this, nor evidence that a supernatural element would have prevented this.

Again… Our overcrowded prison system is not full of athiests. Shouldn’t it be? Why not? Where is all the “evil” coming from? The answers I have heard are all a bit too contrived, and convenient.

Mike

Prisons are filled with people who do evil. Prisons are not filled with atheists simply because you don’t need to be an atheist to do evil. Evil doesn’t come from atheism, it comes from being human. Humans are created in the image of a moral law-giving God (Gen. 1:27), and we know good and evil innately (Rom. 2:15). We’re all made with a free will that can choose evil (Gen. 3).

Evil is universally recognizable. What person, atheist or not, will deny this murder spree was just plain evil, without putting it in “quotes”? Evil is an objective reality that is the absence of good (another objective reality). We all live as if moral good and evil are objective reality, atheist or not.

Nature obviously can’t explain the existence of evil. If the moral law that says the unprovoked slaughter of innocent children is wrong was conceived by people, we ought to find an abundance of people who think that such a thing is morally good, and that’s unheard of. Such a crime would be viewed as a crime regardless of who did it, where, or when it was done. The obvious alternative then is super (outside of) natural. God’s transcendent moral law is what we are all made to regard.

I’m not sure where you would find “societies that are not subject to the same ills”… Less crime, perhaps, but no one lives in a sinless country where the same type of tragedy couldn’t happen. Sin is the common denominator. I can’t prove the Biblical God as the source of objective morality—no more than the atheist can show evolution or something else as a source—it must be accepted on faith. But when God-given morality is accepted, it makes perfect sense of good and evil, whereas the alternatives don’t.

David, changing the topic to avoid the issue 

I am totally 100% cool with anything anyone believes that does no harm.

What I am not cool with is getting battered with bible verses, or an acceptance of a “truth” without evidence, a hijacking of a culture based upon cult of personality. I also have no interest in changing the beliefs of others. Keep it away from me, and especially from my child.

Find your path and follow it, preferably respectfully. I am on my path.

Mike

Well, there’s the dismissal I was anticipating. If I quote no scripture save a few references, yet you feel “battered with Bible verses”, it may just be that you feel a bit threatened by the truth projected. Just a theory. 😉

Truly I mean no disrespect and certainly no harm, but I’m willing to sign off here to avoid giving that impression. Just know that we’re kidding ourselves if we say we have no hopes of changing anyone else’s view about good and evil and what is true (in fact your posts do the same).

David

Mike, we all have a threshold for annoyance, ad-infinitum twisted repetitive arguments. You are confusing it with feeling threatened. We not in the flock get bombarded with this every day… on the internet, at work, from family. I am sure you just feel great when you hear about Scientology, or Mormons, or whatever that comes around you that you don’t believe in.

I don’t care what people see or view. I prefer to gather with like minds and to observe those who think differently. If I want a bible verse, I will find a bible and read it. But, actually reading it got me where I am today, with the help of some of that good ole repetitive annoyance I wrote about above.

You keep doing you, Mike… but you either do not know where the threshold is, or don’t care. Can’t swing at someone and follow with “just kidding”… so, I think you did mean to disrespect.

So, congrats. I am amazingly hard to insult these days… but you persevered.

Mike

Thankfully, man is not the sum of his ideas. The call to love and respect people God created doesn’t apply to the ideas they may come by, which whenever presented are always open for scrutiny, challenge, and reasoned debate, and they will stand or fall by the same.

Non ad hominem. David I love and respect.

How Could Adam and Eve Sin Before ‘Knowing Good and Evil’?

September 25, 2012 § 28 Comments

Genesis 3 says that Adam and Eve didn’t know good and evil before they sinned. How could they be held morally responsible for sin without the knowledge of good and evil?

The text in question is from Genesis 3:22, where, following Adam and Eve’s sin in the Garden of Eden, “the Lord God said, ‘The man has now become like one of Us, knowing good and evil.’” (NIV)

The Hebrew term for “knowing” in this verse (also in verse 5) is not unique to this passage or chapter; it’s the same word “yada” used elsewhere, some 960 times in the Hebrew scriptures. “Yada” can mean to learn, to perceive, to discern, to distinguish, to know by experience, to recognize, to consider, to be acquainted with, and other fairly ordinary definitions of the word listed in Hebrew lexicons (Strong’s #3045). But, there is no particular sense of “knowing” indicated in Genesis 3.

So what meaning of “knowing” is intended? I think the definition “to know by experience” best fits this usage of “knowing”. Imagine what life would have been like for Adam and Eve. At the end of the description for each day of creation, God’s calls His creation “good” or “very good.” (Gen. 1:4,10,12,18,25,31) Adam and Eve knew the “good” that God had made for them, but they would probably not have had the mindset to identify it as good. God knew good and evil; Adam and Eve knew only good, because they had experienced only good. For Adam and Eve to say “all that God has made is good” might mean they would have to understand a distinction between good and evil. They had witnessed or practiced nothing with which to contrast good. Before their own sin, no evil had been known to them in the experiential sense.

Does this mean they didn’t know right from wrong before they sinned? I don’t think so. God tells Adam in Genesis 2:16-17: “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” God’s command no doubt informed Adam that there was a specific standard and that a deviation from the standard was possible. He would have been innately aware of God’s moral law, being created in His image, but here he received a specific moral directive. He was also taught about the presence of something called “the tree of knowledge of good and evil.” Adam may have inferred the existence of “evil” as 1) something that was tantamount to deviation from God’s law or directive, and 2) something he was to avoid knowledge about. (Related: Good Ignorance: Handling the Knowledge of Evil)

From that deduction, Adam would have known of evil only as a vague concept, or a theory. Similarly, the consequence God warned Adam about—“you will certainly die”— for disobedience wouldn’t have been fully understood without experiencing death in any of God’s creatures. But he would have perhaps recognized it as a potential ending to what God had provided, a consequence Adam naturally would want to avoid.

I suppose before the fall Adam would have knowledge of evil as someone like myself has knowledge of the President. Do I know the President? Well, I know who he is, and I know about him, but I don’t know him personally. If I met the President, I would know him in a very different sense than simply having heard of him or read about him. When Eve and then Adam in turn disobeyed God’s command, they came to know sin first hand. They had experiential knowledge of both good and evil.

I think it’s fitting and nothing approaching revisionism to say that Adam and Eve knew good because it was all they truly knew, and that they knew only of the potential of evil at Creation, but came to know evil by experience when “their eyes were opened” (Gen. 3:7) following their acts of disobedience to God.

Debate: The Problem of Suffering

June 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

While debating the moral argument for God from the question I posed: “Do Atheists Judge God’s Morality?” at AskAnAtheist.wordpress.com, (you can also read that debate here), this debate happened. It follows the same type of discussion but later focuses on the problem of evil and suffering, often the biggest deterrent an atheist sees to accepting the reality of God.

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Happy Heretic

Forget the bible and god which are created by humans. Look around and it is usually obvious what is right and what is wrong. A good guide is provided by Buddhism which is a non-theistic path – if it causes more suffering it is wrong; if it relieves suffering and leads to happiness it is right. The Buddha insisted you make your own mind up. Slavish observance of holy books leads to mega ****loads of suffering therefore…..

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Anonymous

Bad answer.

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Happy Heretic

Bad answer, ‘cos it challenges your brainwashed views? Bad answer ‘cos it pulls open your blinkers ? Or maybe bad answer ‘cos it is true.

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Mike Johnson

I’m guessing ‘bad answer’ because it really isn’t an answer or a challenge to theism. You say morality is obvious (correct) but say nothing to account for its source. You say Buddhism is a “good guide” but offer no foundation for “good.”

And suffering does not necessarily equate to evil. There is pain and suffering in childbirth, healing, some forms of exercise, and telling and hearing the truth, and these are good things. There can be happiness in painless activities such as lying, adopting ignorance, smoking weed, or murdering someone with chloroform, and these are obviously wrong.

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Don

>You say Buddhism is a “good guide” but offer no foundation for “good.”

Atheists don’t have to provide an alternative to theistic morality. We can and do, but that is irrelevant to whether God provides a basis for morality.

>And suffering does not necessarily equate to evil. There is pain and suffering in childbirth, healing, some forms of exercise, and telling and hearing the truth, and these are good things.

They are only good things when they are necessary to achieve a greater good. An omnipotent God would never have to use suffering. He could accomplish any logically possible end via any logically possible means.

We know he left many horrors out of creation. It seems he could have omitted one more. If he could have created a kinder world and just didn’t, then that is chilling. It seems he just likes suffering.

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Mike Johnson

“Atheists don’t have to provide an alternative to theistic morality. We can and do, but that is irrelevant to whether God provides a basis for morality.”

But in the attempt, an atheistic basis for morality is incoherent. The only logical source for morality is something that would have to be remarkably similar to the God described in the Bible, if not God Himself. As I’ve argued above, (Dec. 7 post), and the point of this thread, the mere fact that you pass moral judgment on the character of the Christian God shows that you already assume your moral obligations have enough scope and immutability and authority to actually obligate God. Can you do otherwise?

“An omnipotent God would never have to use suffering. He could accomplish any logically possible end via any logically possible means. We know he left many horrors out of creation. It seems he could have omitted one more. If he could have created a kinder world and just didn’t, then that is chilling. It seems he just likes suffering.”

This was a “kinder world” when God created it (Gen. 1). It was mankind who sinned by choosing to rebel against God’s good moral law. Is it “logically possible” to create man without a free will with which to make choices? Yes, but what kind of world would that be? In His omnipotence, God could intervene and stop our sin right before we do it by suddenly changing the course of our actions and thoughts when we are headed in the wrong direction. But what sort of maddening experience would that be, every hour of every day, waking up in a new place in spacetime with new thoughts? In His omniscience, He could logically prevent the desire from which sin always grows. But how miserable would we be without desire? God could remove everything and everybody in our lives that could tempt us and lead to evil desires. But since any thing and any person can be a temptation, what would be left?

Out of love, God made a “good” creation. Humans messed it up, and God, again out of love, provided a solution to our mess through the atoning sacrifice of His Son on the cross. And obviously suffering was a crucial part of that, but it passes your own requirement for acceptable suffering: It was “necessary to achieve a greater good”, which was redemption. This was the only suffering that pleased God.

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Happy Heretic

OK. You can not show me this god that you posit. ( For he is imagined), but suffering is not imagined, and the world has plenty of that. Forget biblical ideas about ‘evil’. Buddhism asks you to look around and decide for your self. If something causes more suffering it is unskilful, if it reduces suffering, causes happiness and freedom, it is skilful. It is a simple but far reaching and profound basis for morality without divine intervention which, if we consider the history of theism has been a cause of immense suffering. ( One might even call that evil if one thought in these atavistic terms.)

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Don

>But in the attempt, an atheistic basis for morality is incoherent. The only logical source for morality is something that would have to be remarkably similar to the God described in the Bible, if not God Himself.

This is a good discussion to have, but it certainly is not a necessary conclusion. There are many candidates for naturalistic morality. But again, that has nothing to do with this thread.

>the mere fact that you pass moral judgment on the character of the Christian God shows that you already assume your moral obligations have enough scope and immutability and authority to actually obligate God.

No. I am arguing on Christianity. Yahweh fails to be loving under Christianity. He is sovereign and under no jurisdiction that could pronounce him good or evil. To say he is Good without applying an external standard is like saying Kim Jong Un is good. We can say that, and hope that every action he takes is the best possible thing for the country, but then good becomes meaningless. He can order opposite things and we would have to say they were both good.

So, either goodness does not apply to God, or we apply some standard of goodness to him and see how he measures up. Yahweh only measures up against an authoritarian standard that renders Goodness empty.

>This was a “kinder world” when God created it (Gen. 1). It was mankind who sinned by choosing to rebel against God’s good moral law.

Come now. Are you prepared to dump science? Do you accept that the world was a paradise before The Fall? If so, you render yourself unconversable on countless topics. But EVEN IF, this were true, God had some choice in what followed from The Fall. After The Fall, women didn’t start exploding during childbirth. Their pain was multiplied. God had choices. Thus, it seems that even if ALL the suffering was caused by The Fall, God still determined what is possible and what is not.

We can’t kill with our thoughts. God left this power out of creation. It seems he could have left more horrors out, say pediatric cancer.

Here’s a funny video that makes this point:

Mr. Diety Episode 1: Mr. Deity and the Evil

>Is it “logically possible” to create man without a free will with which to make choices?

Much suffering has nothing to do with human free will. EVEN IF it was ALL caused by human choices, it is not just for infants to suffer because of the sins of others.

>Humans messed it up

Horrendous animal suffering existed for eons before The Fall. EVEN IF we say it didn’t, we drop science and say that the lion lay down with the lamb in the pre-Cambrian, it would be unjust for an infant to suffer a birth defect for the sins of her ancestors.

>God, again out of love, provided a solution to our mess through the atoning sacrifice of His Son on the cross.

But he could have just forgiven us. The brutal spectacle of the cross was optional. Again, it seems he just chooses more bloody methods than he has to. He has options and excellent connections. He could have ‘saved’ us in any way at all.

It seems reasonable to say that an omnipotent God could have achieved all his aims with less suffering than we observe. If he couldn’t, if ALL of it is necessary, then God is locked in. He can’t answer prayer. He is more like a force of nature, a bystander to creation.

God either can’t or won’t reduce suffering further. And he could do it without infringing on our free will. Humans don’t have a bomb that can destroy the solar system. God set things up so that we haven’t discovered it yet, or it isn’t possible. He could have set things up so that we couldn’t have made nuclear weapons, without infringing on our free will. Hiroshima was made possible by God’s choices, too. With great power comes great responsibility.

Any conceivable god is weak, evil or absent.

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Mike Johnson

” I am arguing on Christianity.”

As an atheist, you morally condemn God using morality that, according to your own worldview, can have no jurisdiction over Him. In that respect you are arguing from atheism (but making a pretty good case for theism).

On Christianity, God is beyond condemnation from anyone because He doesn’t reside below any moral law but also because He doesn’t contradict His own moral law. Any and all good comes from God as part of His nature. He didn’t decide to be good; good doesn’t exist apart from Him. There is no comparison to Kim Jong Un’s moral compass and God’s moral law, because Kim is a follower and God is ultimately the leader. Kim recognizes objective moral law and tries to follow it, often poorly, and can be shown to contradict himself. All humans fail at this at some point. God cannot be shown to contradict Himself. It is reasonable to think that moral law has an external origin (Christianity claims it comes from God) but there is no reason to assume that God would need some external standard to pronounce Him good. Then we’re on to an infinite regress.

There is really nothing that shows we have to “dump science” to accept a historical Genesis account as there is plenty of conversation out there about that, most of which will be way off topic here. The Bible makes clear that man’s sin began with the fall in Genesis 3, but there was probably a certain amount of pain before then. I don’t think we can blame all pain and suffering on sin. Adam may have stepped on a stick, and Eve’s pain during childbirth “increased”,; it didn’t suddenly appear. Much more pain and suffering is present in the world because of the decaying effects of sin and we often react to it sinfully. God didn’t create cancer; cancerous cells are most likely a biological effect of sin—not necessarily directly the sin of the one with cancer, but the sinful condition of the world (Romans 8:19-22).

And of course God retains the ability to choose, but He clearly allows us the ability to choose between right and wrong. And God rightly judges and must punish sin, of which pain and suffering is often part of those consequences. Is it fair for sin to go unpunished? Justice is something we all crave because we are made in the image of a just God. It’s a logical absurdity to expect God to deal with some sins and forgive other sins. He couldn’t “have ‘saved’ us in any way at all” because logic is also a part of His nature—He cannot arbitrarily ignore sin and still be just. The very nature of justice is that payment is made for crime, by someone. The only payment that could be made for all sin perfectly is the blood of a perfect sacrifice. Only God is perfect and sinless and therefore adequate payment.

Thanks for the video link. It fails however because it completely ignores the reality of sin and its role in pain and suffering—God allows evil in that He allows us freedom to choose good or evil. The God represented in the video isn’t true to the Biblical form. And to suggest that if “Mr. Deity” allowed disease and natural disasters then no one would believe in Him doesn’t square with the present reality of a world that is conservatively 90% theistic, in spite of disease and natural disasters. But yes, it was funny. 🙂

I’ve explained why God just couldn’t logically set up the world in some way that doesn’t take away both our opportunity to sin and our freedom. It’s true that children often suffer from no direct action of their own, and I admit there is no easy way to talk about that. But sin always has consequences that affect others, and we expect that. If the CEO of a company goes to jail for insider trading, the company may suffer and jobs may be lost as a result his choices. We then blame the CEO and his sin rather than the system of cause and effect that is a necessary reality. If God is the Creator and Author of life, He has the right to allow life and to allow it to be taken away. He could have morally good reasons for doing so according to a plan that we should have no expectation as finite humans to be able to know or foresee.

“God either can’t or won’t reduce suffering”.

God does reveal enough of His plan, which involves redemption (John 3:16) and a new creation (Rev. 21:1-4). This is the end of unneeded suffering. I understand that it’s hard to see past all that is wrong with the world now. It may seem easier to say any conceivable god is weak, evil or absent. But weakness just doesn’t fit a God who created the universe, and evil doesn’t fit a God who represents good, and absence doesn’t fit a God everyone seems to want to talk about (and to) so much. Without power, goodness or presence I don’t think He would have the following He has, or at least without power and presence, wouldn’t be able to trick anyone into following Him. The good news about faith is that you don’t need 100% certainty to put it in something. Nobody has 100% certainty about crossing the street safely, yet we all take the steps, despite the fact that some don’t make it across alive. Faith requires reasonable belief.

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Don

” I am arguing on Christianity.” As an atheist, you morally condemn God using morality that, according to your own worldview, can have no jurisdiction over Him. In that respect you are arguing from atheism (but making a pretty good case for theism).

My worldview is irrelevant. Suppose Golda Meir was accused of murder and Hitler is the prosecuting attorney. His worldview would have no bearing on the case. He could present facts and definitions that would hold no matter what he thought. That’s what I’m doing. Comments about me are irrelevant.

I am pointing out contradictions within Christianity. Jesus told us to love God and our neighbor. But that requires us to love a God who does not love our neighbor as much as he could. The facts show that God could have created a kinder world and still reached all his aims. Thus, there is more suffering than is necessary for Him for any purpose.

>On Christianity, God is beyond condemnation from anyone because He doesn’t reside below any moral law

Yes, you can say this, but then Good loses all meaning. God is not Good in this scenario because there is no way to judge him to be Good. He is simply God, and if we follow him, we are following mere Power, not Goodness. He may not be evil. Goodness may simply not apply to him. But we can’t say he’s good, either.

>God cannot be shown to contradict Himself.

If God allows more suffering than is necessary, then he is not as Good as he could be. We know God left some horrors out of creation. It seems he could have omitted one more. There is no contradiction in a world without Stevens-Johnson syndrome, for example, yet there it is. God had something to do with that.

[link]

To keep God, we must admit he is not as loving as he could be and he plays favorites. I can’t follow such a God and love my neighbor, because following him requires that I sign on to a regime that could, with no effort at all, treat my fellows better, but simply doesn’t.

>there is no reason to assume that God would need some external standard to pronounce Him good.

For Goodness to have any meaning, there must be some standard. This is a general rule. Many victims of abuse say their abuser loves them no matter how he treats them. (This is Job’s situation.) If ‘love’ can mean anything, then it means nothing.

>cancerous cells are most likely a biological effect of sin—not necessarily directly the sin of the one with cancer, but the sinful condition of the world (Romans 8:19-22).

This is plainly unjustified scientifically, and it would be unfair even if it were true.

>Is it fair for sin to go unpunished?

Are you suggesting that having a child born without a brain is a suitable punishment for something? If we say it is, then Justice means nothing. 1,000 kids die every hour of starvation. The sheer amounts of suffering make a mockery of any notion that our world is Just. And if we say it is Just in some inscrutable way, then we are simply saying we don’t know HOW it is Just. This is the same as saying we don’t know IF it is Just. If Justice can mean anything, then it means nothing.

>He couldn’t “have ‘saved’ us in any way at all” because logic is also a part of His nature

There is nothing illogical in God doing something kinder than the Crucifixion. Pepsi can make its ads violent, sexy or soothing. They have choices, and so does God.

>It’s true that children often suffer from no direct action of their own, and I admit there is no easy way to talk about that.

This is all we need to cast doubt on God’s goodness. It boils down to our emphasis: do we place more weight on an invisible, disputed God, or the solid, incontrovertible agony of our fellows?

>But sin always has consequences that affect others

Give God some credit. He could be a perfect accountant and have set things up so that sin accrues, fairly and proportionately, to each sinner.

>If God is the Creator and Author of life, He has the right to allow life and to allow it to be taken away.

Ok, but then he is a tyrant. I have 3 kids, but I don’t have the right to kill them. Once a being is conscious, we don’t own them. If God uses kids for his purposes, then he is a sadistic psychopath, ESPECIALLY because it would never be necessary for him for any purpose. He could accomplish anything at all without using kids.

>redemption (John 3:16) and a new creation (Rev. 21:1-4). This is the end of unneeded suffering.

What is God waiting for? If he can end suffering, it seems sadistic to stand by for centuries letting some sort of script unfold.

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Mike Johnson

Any legal judgment appeals to a higher law, so you’re right that personal views of right and wrong don’t really matter in that case. Any moral judgment also appeals to a higher law, correct? If not, then we are appealing to the very thing you imply should have no bearing on the case—our own worldview. And if moral judgment is an exception to that, then why? If relative morality is true, then no two person’s moral claims are guaranteed to be the same, and all claims are meaningless. I don’t think you believe that your claims are meaningless.

Clearly, we don’t live as if morality was conceived by humans. Morality presents itself as universal law over and above humanity. Christianity makes perfect sense of objective moral law, and atheism really doesn’t know what to do with it. The reason your worldview IS relevant is because your arguments are based on an atheistic worldview and are self-defeating. Your claim that God is immoral is grounded in objective moral law that couldn’t exist without God, or some other being that has many of God’s attributes, including the intelligence and transcendence to place His law on our hearts.

You are free to critique Christianity and morally condemn God for “not loving our neighbor as much as he could.” But in doing so you are obviously expecting any God to respect the same moral codes humans respect (or at least the ones you respect). If atheism is true, then any being outside of humanity cannot be held accountable to human law. If theism is true, then moral law would naturally be seen as something that is relevant to our understanding of God.

If Good comes from God, then good isn’t meaningless; God gives meaning to good. Isn’t the reason you reject an ultimate standard for good because you reject God? You hold the concept of God up to a human standard for good, (so you can’t really say “goodness may not apply to him”) and a human standard can have no logical jurisdiction over Him. Good has to come from somewhere, and if everyone uses it to measure God to discuss whether He is good or evil or something else, then on the level of God is where we would find the source of good.

Your note and your voice against Stevens-Johnson syndrome and other disease make a very compelling argument. You have my respect. I don’t have any love for the degree of suffering and death in the world either. You seem to have an ideal in mind of a degree of love and fairness we should expect from God, that He “does not love our neighbor as much as he could”; that “there is more suffering that is necessary”; that He “could have created a kinder world.”; that “He could have omitted one more” horror; that “He is not as good…” or “…loving as He could be”; that He should treat us “better”.

The fact is that everyone sins, whether we think that sin is big or small (1 John 1:18; Rom. 3:23). At what level on the severe-o-meter should God start judging? If God only judged sin according to the degree of the sin, how would you match the judgment to the severity of the sin? And how would you determine the severity of the sin? How could we know the severity of some sins that may seem smaller but have far-reaching and long-lasting effects? And how do we put sin-value on the murder of a homeless man who has no family or friends? Would that earn a more or less severe punishment than a boy whose mere words scar another boy for a lifetime? If a clerical error causes a murder to go free and he goes on killing, who is worse, the murderer or the clerk? I think this type of justice administration is much better suited for a omniscient God. It seems you expect such a God to handle this task with His goodness and justice, but you condemn Him, according to a human and therefore irrelevant system of morals, for not doing it “right”, trumping His infinite knowledge with your finite knowledge. Is this reasonable?

Even a newborn child, for which it’s hard to imagine disease as a fitting punishment, is infected with a sin nature. There are no easy answers for the mother of a child dead at birth or born with disease or deformity, but there are answers. A creator is an owner of that which he creates. Owning people is not immoral when it is God who owns them, because only the Creator has that right. If He owns us, He has the right to give and take away (Job 1:21). When we say He doesn’t own us, we imagine ourselves bigger than God. That much we can know and understand, but it’s by faith that we can trust God has good reasons for what He does that in the end outweigh the death or suffering we endure. And there’s no rational reason to expect that He would not have good reasons and therefore no contradiction in His character.

The “agony of our fellows” is undeniable, but your conclusions for the reason behind the agony is. Why make the assumption that a God who would create, provide a world for, seek fellowship with, and redeem human beings would also allow them to suffer for unjust purposes? I imagine that my 3 year old son assumes that all of our discipline is unjust. If I deny him a second cookie before dinner, put him in a time-out for hitting someone, or forcefully prevent him from running into the street, he will think that I’m unfair, that I could be kinder, that I’m not as good or loving as he thinks I should be. As a parent I know and see many things that he cannot. He won’t understand this until he’s older. I’m not comparing the discipline or correction of a child to grown-up suffering and death except to say that to a child who thinks he’s been treated unjustly, it is every bit of a tragedy as the ones adults experience. Most tragedies adults can get through without screaming or tantrums. Any God that fits His description in the Bible will have knowledge and foresight that we can’t possibly have and an ultimate plan we can’t possibly see. If we trust and obey God as a child should a father and accept His Son’s sacrifice as the solution to the sin that condemns us all, there is still no guarantee of a pain-free life on earth. But we are not relegated to a life, and more importantly an eternity, of isolation from our Creator and the potential joy that brings.

It’s obvious you have a very clear grasp of the amount of evil and pain in this world. God agrees that our pain is not the ideal, and there is of course cause to doubt—but it doesn’t have to end there. I suggest that it isn’t by reason that you reject God, but by your own will. You haven’t shown any real contradictions within Christianity and have actually helped prove the origin of morality to be well outside of human convention. I would recommend taking a look at Peter Kreeft’s Making Sense Out of Suffering, it’s very good. The question/answer format in your note reminded me of some of his style (he’s a fan of Socrates). There’s an audio by Dr. Kreeft which is along the same vein as his book. I listened to the first part, he gets into the good stuff pretty early on. Thanks for the discussion, I’ve enjoyed it. 🙂 Enjoy your weekend.

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Don

Having a limited awareness and knowledge does not apply in this case. Remember, there are two kinds of claims we make, analytic/relations of ideas (like ‘bachelors are unmarried’) and synthetic/matters of fact (like ‘all swans are white’).

We don’t need perfect knowledge to make the first type of statement. And we can’t be wrong about them. They follow from definitions.

I’m not making factual statements about God’s goodness. I’m evaluating ‘relations of ideas’: is he Good by a given definition.

And if we don’t evaluate him against a standard other than himself, Goodness loses all meaning.

Kreeft says “the protagonist must undergo suffering before the final triumph of good over evil. He urges us to view ourselves as protagonists in the midst of our own life stories. If good finally triumphs, as Christians believe, then the story is worthwhile, even with its inevitable suffering.”

Please notice the word “must”. Defenders of God use such words to constrain God’s great power. They want to say that even God is required to do certain things. I don’t know how they justify this, except to save God’s skin.

I can’t see why God humans “must’ undergo suffering. It seems that God could have ordained something involving less suffering and still achieved all his aims.

The answer, of course, is staring us in the face. We are animals living in the natural world. It appears that our world was not set up this way on purpose, and that is a huge relief. Otherwise we would live in a divine petri dish.

[link]

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Mike Johnson

Don,

“Kreeft says ‘the protagonist must undergo suffering before the final triumph of good over evil…’ Please notice the word ‘must’.”

I don’t remember that part in Kreeft’s audio, but I don’t think it’s useful to get hung up on the word “must” when it seems that logic is what requires suffering. Because logic is part of who God is, of course He is bound to it. He cannot create freedom and not allow freedom to choose evil, because that potential exists in every single choice we make. Thankfully God chose not to create a world full of amoral robots, and if we had no freedom to choose I think we might wish for suffering in order to make freedom possible—if we even had the freedom to wish for something. Would a little less freedom be an amicable trade for a little less suffering? Would it be acceptable for God to remove almost all freedom in order to remove almost all suffering? A logical Creator created a universe where logic exists, and it’s no more reasonable to expect God to lessen suffering without lessening freedom than it is to expect Him to make a round square or a rock too heavy for Him to lift. It’s simply absurd.

To say we are merely animals and nature is all there is I think is the most unsatisfying answer because it only leads to more unanswerable questions: The most basic being the proposition that nature caused nature. What, then, made nature? Logically we need something supernatural to create something natural. The moral question is absolutely unanswerable on naturalism because absolutely every moral evaluation we make appeals to obligations that could not possibly have evolved. At least the maltheist or misotheist could point to a basis of God’s moral law to condemn God. Moral evolution would create relativistic rules that simply don’t apply to God or anyone else for that matter. Of course even if we could explain life without God, we would still have suffering and death, but no hope for overcoming either.

In your animal farm note you wrote that if God exists, we’re screwed. But if you imagine that the God described in the Bible exists, then you ought to imagine that how the Bible portrays Him is also true. There is nothing Biblical that suggests we are merely a science project for Him to observe and squash when He’s finished. “He must also be good, fair, just and loving,” and the Bible says He is (Jer. 29:11; Ps. 19:9; 1 John 4:16). Although “fairness” would mean we got what we deserved, and as sinners we deserve death, which God offers salvation from. So I’ll give you that God is not fair. If God exists as He is described in the Bible, then we can’t really say that hell is on earth, that God saves based on our getting on His good side, or that suffering is the result of divine meanness. Christianity doesn’t actually teach that. On Christianity, there is no way humans can fully comprehend God (1 Cor. 2:11). That means that in order to conclude that God is not good and suffering is unnecessary, you must claim to know the mind and plan of God, or that you’re talking about a different god.

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Don

> He cannot create freedom and not allow freedom to choose evil, , because that potential exists in every single choice we make.

Not all evil is due to human choices. That is ‘moral evil’. We still have ‘natural evil’. Natural evil seems due to natural law, which God set up. If he had any choice in the matter, it seems he set up this world to be more brutal than he could have.

>Logically we need something supernatural to create something natural.

We don’t know for sure this is a necessary relation. It’s a good discussion to have, but there’s no contradiction in saying a natural world could exist without a supernatural one.

>The moral question is absolutely unanswerable on naturalism because absolutely every moral evaluation we make appeals to obligations that could not possibly have evolved.

Do you claim that morals are actually IMPOSSIBLE on naturalism? That’s a strong claim. There are many naturalistic approaches to morality. The best ones in my opinion follow from our evolution as social animals. If you don’t find them satisfying, that’s one thing. But it’s much harder to say that they aren’t ‘moralities’.

At any rate, this has nothing to do with whether God is Good. Atheists just don’t have to provide an alternative to theistic morality to show that theistic morality fails. We can show that it is authoritarian (and thus amoral), contradictory, bogus or incoherent.

>as sinners we deserve death, which God offers salvation from.

But we know infants suffer horribly. They don’t deserve death. And if we say they do, then we must say God is using his own, higher version of Justice. If we can’t comprehend HOW his system is Just, this is the same as admitting that we don’t know WHETHER it is Just.

>On Christianity, there is no way humans can fully comprehend God (1 Cor. 2:11).

Ok, but then you don’t know if he is good, either. Christians should want to avoid this version of a fine-tuning argument: That God is all-powerful and at choice, but is weak or constrained in exactly the right way to account for each and every instance of animal and human suffering that has occurred or ever will occur.

What if you ended up in heaven, but alone? Would you still sing God’s praises? Or would you feel a pang for humanity, not at its poor choices, but at the injustice of their fate?

If there is no state of affairs where you would say God is not Good, then Good means nothing.

I heard this from a Christian this week:

“I believe I’m an enemy of God because of what I’ve done and you believe you’re an enemy of God because of what he’s done (or hasn’t done).”

He and I agree on this.

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Mike Johnson

“Not all evil is due to human choices. That is ‘moral evil’. We still have ‘natural evil’. Natural evil seems due to natural law, which God set up. If he had any choice in the matter, it seems he set up this world to be more brutal than he could have.”

The curse from Adam’s sin in Genesis 3:17-19 shows a change in how nature would respond, including “painful toil” and the prevalence of “thorns and thistles”, and a change in the resilience of the human body: “from dust you are and from dust you will return.” In Romans 8:20-21, Paul says that “the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay…”. God allows the world to reflect the consequences of man’s sin on creation. God set up nature, but it was sin that brought widespread natural disaster. What you call “natural evil” was not inherently evil from the beginning.

“…there’s no contradiction in saying a natural world could exist without a supernatural one.”

Yet everything we empirically observe about nature involves causation. Hence, the “Law of Cause and Effect.” Assuming that nature is ultimately uncaused makes a lot of unnecessary assumptions.

“Do you claim that morals are actually IMPOSSIBLE on naturalism? That’s a strong claim. There are many naturalistic approaches to morality. The best ones in my opinion follow from our evolution as social animals. If you don’t find them satisfying, that’s one thing. But it’s much harder to say that they aren’t ‘moralities’.”

Morality as we relate to it could not exist on naturalism because we clearly appeal to something beyond nature. Or at least our appeal goes higher than the highest intelligence we can imagine in nature (and as I said, it’s a big enough umbrella to include supernatural creators.) In my discussion with The Atheist [another poster/owner of askanatheist.wordpress.com]  I laid out my understanding of the distinctions between human morality and animal “morality” …
http://askanatheist.wordpress.com/2011/12/06/do-atheists-judge-gods-morality/#comment-45647
http://askanatheist.wordpress.com/2011/12/06/do-atheists-judge-gods-morality/#comment-45689

“Atheists just don’t have to provide an alternative to theistic morality to show that theistic morality fails. We can show that it is authoritarian (and thus amoral), contradictory, bogus or incoherent.”

But you haven’t shown any of that. 🙂 God is authority, but if authoritarian submission means blind submission, that isn’t what God requires. We are given a free will to choose and a mind with which to reason it out (Isaiah 1:18). The last 3 adjectives only hold on the assumption of the first, which doesn’t hold. It’s also wrong to assume that because God doesn’t, that God can’t for lack of power or knowledge (re: a “weak or constrained” God).

“But we know infants suffer horribly. They don’t deserve death. And if we say they do, then we must say God is using his own, higher version of Justice. If we can’t comprehend HOW his system is Just, this is the same as admitting that we don’t know WHETHER it is Just.”

Within Christianity, there is no reason to expect we can fully comprehend God’s justice, no more than a baby is expected to understand why she needs surgery. There is enough revelation of God that we can comprehend by looking at what Christ did for us: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. They are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. God presented Him as a propitiation through faith in His blood, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His restraint God passed over the sins previously committed.” (Rom. 3:23-25). Whatever the details of God’s plan are, we can see that it is redemptive in nature, and that He is just, righteous and merciful.

And yes, we can know if God is good because the Bible describes God as the source of good. If you insist on an external definition to define God as good, then I have to insist on an external definition for what you consider good. Within Christianity, however, there is no contradiction in the attributes of a sovereign God. And again, to say there is “too much” suffering begs the question, how much is too much? Others may have differing views about the degree of acceptable suffering. Isn’t there the potential of much more suffering and evil? And if it were cut in half, or a tenth, wouldn’t we still complain? There is enough we can observe about God’s power (ie. creation) to trust that He is not powerless in the face of evil and suffering. There is enough we can know from Scripture about His goodness that we can have faith that He is not just a brute arbitrarily permitting certain evil and suffering. I hate that children suffer and the sin that bought about the world’s corruption and decay, but while the creatures can question the Creator as Job did, we aren’t guaranteed an answer or the right to accuse. (Job 40:8; Rom. 9:20)

Christianity is internally consistent, and its Gospel calls us not to strain over the question of whether God is just, but rather ask if we are just. “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9).

“What if you ended up in heaven, but alone? Would you still sing God’s praises? Or would you feel a pang for humanity, not at its poor choices, but at the injustice of their fate?”

There’s no reason to think I would be alone, but even in that case I think the presence of God would satisfy. I also assume that my knowledge will be much more complete than it is now and I won’t view the condemnation of souls lost in sin as unjust. That much I can actually understand now.

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Don

>God allows the world to reflect the consequences of man’s sin on creation.

If God had any choice in what consequences followed from the Fall, then he is not as loving as he could be.

>“What if you ended up in heaven, but alone?
>even in that case I think the presence of God would satisfy

This is Christianity. We can’t love God and our neighbor at the same time. We can’t follow the First and Second Great Commandments at the same time. This is the central contradiction of Jesus’ teaching.

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Mike Johnson

“If God had any choice in what consequences followed from the Fall, then he is not as loving as he could be.”

I still don’t understand what you have in mind for the ideal of “as loving as [God] could be.” Would you settle for anything other than a complete absence of evil and suffering? “Not as loving” sounds as if you were hoping for something along a sliding scale ranging from the evil and suffering we know now to an absolutely sinless and painless world. What does your ideal balance of freedom/suffering look like? At what point on the scale would belief in a good God become tenable for you?

“We can’t love God and our neighbor at the same time. We can’t follow the First and Second Great Commandments at the same time. This is the central contradiction of Jesus’ teaching. “

The greatest commandment is loving God, which means IF I had to choose between people and God, I should choose God. The “second is like it” (Mat. 22:39) because God also commands us to love our neighbor, and through obedience of that we show love for God, and because people are made in the image of God. It’s important, but secondary, to love people. In any case, we can have both, because we are neither alone here nor will we be alone in heaven.

You say you have made the choice to love people over God because your concept of God is one who doesn’t love, or at least doesn’t demonstrate that He loves us “enough”. I don’t believe the dichotomy that forces your rejection of God exists, but rather it’s an illusion stemming from a fundamental misunderstanding of God. Suffering and evil in the world are the result of sin. Sin is a choice made by people because we have freedom to choose. Any revocation of that opportunity is a revocation of freedom. Zero pain = zero freedom.

God is logical and not free to contradict Himself and therefore didn’t create an illogical world where sin isn’t allowed and at the same time freedom is still available. Because of this, we are able to comprehend and make sense of the world. Evil and suffering wasn’t part of God’s original creation, and while He allows it out of logical necessity and for other reasons naturally beyond us, God’s love and compassion far outweigh and outlast His judgment and the pain He allows. Among many other selfless acts, Christ’s atoning sacrifice covering ALL sin is the greatest example of this. To focus on and draw conclusions from only one part of God is not making an accurate judgment of God—a judgment that (pointing to the point of this forum) we shouldn’t be allowed to make anyway if there is no moral Law-giver.

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Don

I believe we’ve covered this ground. Not all pain is the result of free will. Animal suffering preceded humans. Even if The Fall introduced all the suffering we see, it wouldn’t be fair for an infant to have a heart defect because her distant ancestor got in the cookie jar.

The world makes sense on naturalism. To say God set up this world, this way, we have to say Bad is Good. And we can’t follow God without signing on to a regime under which billions suffer needlessly.

>Would you settle for anything other than a complete absence of evil and suffering?

Christian theology says God promises this in heaven. If that’s true, what is he waiting for? If he could take his followers to heaven a second sooner, he is not as loving as he could be.

I’m breaking a key rule of authoritarian regimes: I’m second-guessing the Dear Leader. But we have to evaluate God if we are to be moral ourselves. If we hold God to no standard, then it means nothing to say he is Good.

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Mike Johnson

I’ve agreed that pain probably existed before the Fall. It was “greatly multiplied” or “increased” as a consequence of sin (Gen. 3:16). There is no record in Genesis of animal suffering before the Fall, but if it occurred it was probably the same type of pain Adam and Eve would have experienced before it was increased because of sin.

“The world makes sense on naturalism.”

A defense of naturalism with naturalism is hopelessly circular, much like a defense of reason by reason, or any other approach that seeks to limit explanations to humanity or nature, particularly when these things obviously appeal—as morality does—to something outside their spheres.

“what is he waiting for?”

To ask why God delays heaven is the same as a child asking why his parents delay whatever the child thinks he is immediately entitled to. Children think this unfair and may even doubt the reality of what was promised. Parents have good reasons and a good plan.

“we have to evaluate God if we are to be moral ourselves”.

But you can’t morally evaluate anything unless you are a moral being to begin with. And it certainly doesn’t make sense to morally evaluate God if moral law didn’t come from Him. How can the evaluation have any meaning or relevance? I’ve yet to see a coherent answer to this question on atheism.

“we’ve covered this ground”

You’re right, we are repeating arguments, and I think that may signal an impasse. Thank you again for the discussion. I’ve learned a lot from it and I wish you the best. 🙂

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There were no more comments from Don.

Good Ignorance: Handling the Knowledge of Evil

April 30, 2012 § 1 Comment

G&N Gauge“Knowledge is power,” a thought popularized by Sir Francis Bacon,(1) is echoed by humanity as a whole. People have always placed a high value on knowledge. We laud intelligence and academics, and God Himself regards knowledge, having given us a brain with which to learn and reason together.(2) Still, I’m convinced that there is a certain level of ignorance people, particularly Christians, should have. I think it’s clear that there are some things we simply should not learn, and those things are for the most part represented in the knowledge of evil.

The Bible describes the beginnings of evil on earth in Genesis 3. After Satan lied to Eve about the consequences of sin, he told her a very significant truth about the fruit of the aptly named Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil: “…for God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will open and you will be like divine beings who know good and evil.” (Gen. 3:5) After Eve and Adam had both sinned, “the Lord God said, ‘Now that the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil, he must not be allowed to stretch out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.'” (Gen. 3:22) Adam and Eve knew good from their creation, but from this we see that Adam and Eve knowing about evil fell outside of God’s original plan.

Why did God want to preserve our ignorance of the presence of evil? We learn best by doing, which was the case with Adam and Eve, and it’s also true with us. But at least some knowledge of the act of original sin preceded the act. Eve was tempted, but ultimately she made a free will decision to do what God had said not to do. Disobedience was evil. Knowledge led to the act of sin, which in turn led to an awareness that there is the choice to do evil as well as good. That is the specific knowledge that we would have been better off without. (See also How Could Adam and Eve Sin Before ‘Knowing Good and Evil’?)

It’s true that now that sin is in the world, there are certain evils we have to know about in order to protect ourselves, our families and to help others that may be struggling with the same evil. Lawyers, counselors, law enforcement officials, therapists, doctors, pastors, teachers and others would not be able to battle evil and equip others to do the same without knowledge of it. Really, any human being is irresponsible without some knowledge of what’s right and what’s wrong with the world—a parent needs to know how to protect their children, and every individual needs to guard their own heart. But some knowledge of evil is useful only because others have sinned and experienced evil, not because there is anything inherently good in evil—that would be an absurdity. Knowing some evil is simply a necessary evil.

How do we treat knowledge that is only there out of necessity? Carefully. We should either value the knowledge of our own experience with evil, or intentionally educate ourselves about evil, with a great deal of caution. Real world examples are the dangers of sexual abuse, teaching our kids prudence around strangers, the hazards of drugs and alcohol, wisdom with money and relationships and the reality of temptation. Always on the other side of teaching the good things we should do in the world are the ways those efforts could go horribly wrong. When self-educating about evil, the best approach is a minimalistic one, learning only what we think we need to know and no more—until we find we need to know more to protect ourselves or help others. Then we can move forward, but again with caution. It’s foolish to think that the evil we study to better equip ourselves and others will never ensnare us because of the knowledge we have about it. This reality is played out all around us, and I can think of many times I would have avoided a fall simply if I knew less about sin and evil.

Christians are called to “be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”(3) There’s a balance we need to maintain between beneficial knowledge and harmful knowledge. Paul writes in Romans 16:19, “I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil.” John Wesley paraphrases this verse: “But I would have you – Not only obedient, but discreet also. Wise with regard to that which is good – As knowing in this as possible. And simple with regard to that which is evil – As ignorant of this as possible.”(4) I think Paul is cautioning us not too be too well versed about evil, to be ignorant to a certain extent.

What does this look like in our real world experiences? Consider a couple more passages from the Bible.

“Everything is permissible”–but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible”–but not everything is constructive. (1 Cor. 10:23)

“…whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.” (Phil. 4:8)

Does this warrant thinking through many of the entertainment choices that we assume we can “handle”? To consider that it may be “permissible” for a Christian, but ask ourselves if it’s “beneficial” or “constructive”? Thinking of the amount of violence or vulgarity we tolerate in some movies, is it outweighed by the nobility, rightness and purity found in it? Does exposing ourselves to knowledge of evil acts honestly serve a higher purpose? Of course the Bible itself is violent in parts (i.e. war, Jesus’ crucifixion, etc.). On that we can argue for a “beneficial” and “constructive” aspect of scriptural depictions of violence because it turns us toward an awareness of God, specifically His holiness and His sacrifice for us in response to the introduction of sin into the world. Violence in entertainment is harder to similarly justify.

Apart from Biblical revelation about our tendencies toward evil, we can look to secular scientific research to find links between knowledge and harmful behavior. We know of an undeniable link between violent video game play and violent, uninhibited behavior.(5) We also find strong evidence for a preoccupation with pornography leading to pedophilia.(6) There’s no doubt that in many cases, thinking leads to doing in terms of deviant behavior.

A common Hebrew verb for sex is yada, which literally translates as “to know” (“And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived…”, Gen. 4:1).(7) Knowing sexually is both good and bad depending on the context: Are the participants husband and wife? So obviously who and what we are seeking to know makes a difference on whether it’s good or bad to know it. I don’t believe there is much benefit at all for a Christian to study up on sex in preparation for marriage, at least in great detail. On the other hand, a lot can go wrong if he does. God made the process a pretty simple one without any real need for advance training.

I’ve wondered if it’s problematic to have certain honest discussions on the subject matter of sex. Is it beneficial or constructive for a Christian author to discuss the question “Can We ____?”, as Mark Driscoll does in his book Real Marriage on the topic of sexual practices that many married couples consider deviant? (8) I don’t mean to unfairly judge the book as I’ve only read 2 chapters from it, one being the one mentioned above. There may be circumstances where the question is necessary (past experience with sexual abuse, for example), but I think the question “Can We ____?” always needs to be accompanied with “Why do we need to know?” Wisdom and caution in how much we know about certain activities is called for and whether the knowledge is needed. Curiosity by itself is not sufficient reason; Eve was curious about the fruit of the tree, and that didn’t end well. Talk of sex can make us blush or feel uncomfortable. Those responses may be a way our God-given conscience telling us that now is not the right time to pursue particular information. Depending on the information, the right time may never come.

While it is by knowledge that humanity has survived, flourished and known God, knowledge may also lead to a fall. We need to be careful about what we allow into our heads because what we know can obviously harm us. Christians have a guide in God’s word to seek balance and a principal that says at least some ignorance of evil is a good thing. Life experience corroborates that. The knowledge of evil that we do seek out should be by way of a conservative, careful approach, realizing that we should only know enough to help us avoid it. Avoiding evil, after all, is a calling against which few can argue.(9)

1. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Francis Bacon (http://www.iep.utm.edu/bacon/)

2. Proverbs 18:15 “The heart of the discerning acquires knowledge…” Hosea 4:6: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge…” Isaiah 1:18: “Come, let us reason together…”

3. Matthew 10:16

4. Explanatory notes upon the New Testament, Volume 2 by John Welsey (http://bit.ly/Jm6sp0)

5. ISU study proves conclusively that violent video game play makes more aggressive kids. Study by Craig A. Anderson, PhD (http://www.news.iastate.edu/news/2010/mar/vvgeffects)

6. A profile of pedophilia: definition, characteristics of offenders, recidivism, treatment outcomes, and forensic issues. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17418075)

7. Lexicon Genesis 4:1 (http://www.blueletterbible.org/search/translationResults.cfm?Criteria=knew&t=KJV&sf=5)

8. Real Marriage: The Truth About Sex, Friendship, and Life Together, by Mark & Grace Driscoll (chapter 10)

9. 1 Thessalonians 5:22 “Avoid every kind of evil.”

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