Knowing who you are
Sat May 25, 2013
by Jeremy Pace
Resurgence roundup, 5/24/13
Fri May 24, 2013
The places grace empowers us
Thu May 23, 2013
by Justin Holcomb
‘Each next risk is the biggest one’: James MacDonald talks with Mark Driscoll
Wed May 22, 2013
by Mark Driscoll
Tue May 21, 2013
by Amanda Edmondson
A Letter About 9/11, Good, Evil, and God
In the days immediately after 9/11, a friend in her mid-thirties wrote me an email wrestling with the question of how could God allow such evil. Elizabeth had worked for many years in the financial district of New York City and had relocated only a few years before the attacks. Thus, the senseless loss of life of friends and acquaintances was fresh, raw and scarcely comprehensible to her. Her first child, Susannah, had been born a year before, which provided an additional lens for reflecting upon the 9/11 attacks. This letter was written September 19, 2001, and different parts will be posted leading up to the 10-year Anniversary of 9/11.
At long last I’m able to devote a lengthy period to sitting down and writing a response. I’ve thought of this issue daily, many times a day, even before you emailed last week. I’ve realized that in spite of my intellectual apprehension that I’m not “the Defender of God,” I have emotionally felt that I had to be just that for you. That has daunted me. But with fresh realization that we’re having an on-going dialogue about a very important question, that your faith is not in my hands, I feel slightly less daunted. And so I begin.
How does one account for the presence of evil in the world? How can an omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent God allow suffering?
I attempt to address this question as a Christian. That may strike you as unremarkable, but I want to clarify that there are other approaches to this question, both philosophical and theological, that I can’t embrace. Not only is my understanding of this issue a Christian one in the broad sense, but in a more narrow sense my understanding is circumscribed by the Scriptures and the teachings of orthodox believers through the centuries.
Why is this worth mentioning? Because in my experience many in the church accept some “lines” in the web but are startled to hear of other lines that are quite different from mainstream cultural assumptions. However, I hope that my answer will be in accord with Biblical assumptions—I doubt that I will fully succeed, but that is my aim. Without getting into epistemological matters, I will simply say that as we engage these matters of faith my authority is God and His Word.
The doctrines of the faith hang together, inextricably connected.
I will first address, briefly, your question in terms of philosophy. You may want to skip this because you may not care about logical syllogisms and the technical matters of the validity and soundness of formal logic. I only venture into these waters briefly because in my experience in discussing this issue with intelligent people (like you), they go back and forth between the “human” or “everyday” concerns and rigorous philosophical concerns. I.e., when I attempt to answer this question at a human level, attending to sentiments, the natural adversarial response is to press philosophical problems. When I then try to deal with the philosophical problems, the person goes back to how unhelpful that is and how unconnected it is to the real pain of suffering. Literally I can trace in many conversations the switching from the philosophical to the human and back again and again, sometimes alternating every question. I think this particularly happens when the discussion seems more adversarial, when I’m seen as the Defender of God and the other is pressing his/her frustration with God.
Why do I begin this way? Because just about any serious question put to Christians will entail a multi-faceted, multi-layered response that depends on other “lines” in the web of Christian belief. The web is inter-connected, and pursuing one line of the web in an answer depends upon and touches upon other lines. The doctrines of the faith hang together, inextricably connected.
So, I’ll just do the philosophy material in brief, and then move on to the more everyday concerns of how human hearts are to understand God and the presence of pain.
II. Philosophical Version of the Question
First, evil is distinguished in two forms: moral evil and natural evil. Moral evil has to do with human decisions and actions and natural evil comprises disasters like floods.
Second, the philosophical question has often (not always) taken the form of a deductive argument. Atheologians (as they are sometimes called) have leveled the argument that if the “theistic set” is inconsistent with the presence of evil, then the concept of God is contradictory…thus incoherent…thus irrational. This requires a deductive proof that proves with certainty that the concept of God suffers from internal contradictions.
The case has been pressed like this:
- God exists
- God is omnipotent (all powerful)
- God is omniscient (all knowing)
- God is omnibenevolent (all good)
- God created the world and
- The world contains evil
Atheologians have alleged that this “theistic set” of premises is contradictory and thus belief in God is irrational. While this looks like a devastating argument against Christian belief, Professor Alvin Plantinga of Notre Dame (and past president of the American Philosophical Association) has demonstrated that this is not explicitly contradictory, only implicitly. Another premise would have to be added to make it explicitly—either that God can do anything or that God must eliminate evil as far as he can.
However, neither of these additional premises are part of Christian belief. While the word “omnipotent” does mean "all power," Christians have only affirmed that in a qualified way. We don’t believe that God can do absolutely anything. He cannot, for example, make a square circle. He cannot create a married bachelor. Logically impossible things cannot be accomplished by God because they are non-things. Also, God is not under compulsion to eliminate evil as far as He can because it is well possible that eliminating some evils would create other or greater evils or that there would be a loss of "goods." God may well allow some evils in order to prevent greater evils or the privation of certain goods.
Plantinga has offered a syllogism that undermines the deductive argument against God on the basis of evil.
- An omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent God created the world.
- God creates a world containing evil and has good reasons for doing so.
- Therefore, the world contains evil.
As a matter of deductive logic, this syllogism protects against the atheologians’ attack on the rationality of the concept of God. While Plantinga’s work is helpful in academic debates attacking Christian beliefs, this hardly solves the experiential problem that people feel as they contemplate how could God allow evil to occur.
More to come on that next Sunday...