I'm new here, but I'm going to take the plunge and start a discussion. In the I'm confused about morality thread, a few commenters raised the problem of evil, i.e. why is there evil in a world created (according to the Bible) by a good God? I think that is one of the toughest questions for theism, and it's the primary objection I hear when I talk with atheists, so I would like to hash it out with any of you who are interested in responding. I'll start by quoting an exchange with Gallup's Mirror from the other thread. In response to his initial objection, I wrote a very brief and inadequate summary of how evil fits into Christian theology: 

1. The concept of an afterlife makes a big difference when it comes to suffering. Just like a painful operation may be justified by the health it brings, the prospect of eternal life in heaven changes the calculus when it comes to suffering in this life.

2. Christianity says that human sin brought suffering. Couldn't God end that suffering? Yes, but only be ending humans or by changing us so we do not have free will. In a nutshell, Christian theology would say human free will = sin = suffering. (This does not mean that particular people suffer as a direct effect of their particular sins, but that a world full of sinful people will necessarily include suffering.)

3. God isn't just a bystander to all this. He came and suffered and died himself in order to begin setting things right. He's got skin in the game, so to speak.

Gallup responded (my replies in green text below his/her comments): 

David Vogel: Is there any conceivable situation in which a good parent would allow his child to suffer?

Gallup: Today in Africa 5,500 children under age 5 willdie of starvation. This is a slow, miserable death. Indevoutly religious Africa, be assured that the parents of these dying children cry out to God to save them. The children die anyway. That's over 2 million children every year.

David: I agree that the problem of evil is probably the toughest challenge to Christian faith.

Whoa, there. Back up.

You asked if there is any conceivable situation in which a good parent [Yahweh] would allow his child to suffer.

The answer to your question is yes. According to your theology, Yahweh is making millions of innocents suffer. Even if Yahweh gives them magical lollipops in some unproven afterlife, the answer is still yes.

Yes, I do agree that Yahweh is allowing (not making--key distinction) millions of innocents to suffer. My point is that allowing someone else to suffer is not necessarily evil. For example, a parent may allow a painful operation for her child because it is in his best interest. And again, part of Christian theology is the claim that Jesus himself suffered and died so that "death is swallowed up in victory," though that victory is not yet fully displayed. 

2. Christianity says that human sin brought suffering.

That is one of the most vile dogmas in Christianity. Either the toddlers who die by the millions brought it on themselves, or they are suffering because an ancestor disobeyed Yahweh. In this they have no say.

Why is it vile to say that someone suffers because of a decision someone else made? If that is actually what is happening, isn't it best to recognize it? Would it be vile if I said that the baby of a drug addict is suffering because of decisions her mother made? If that is true, it seems like saying so would be a first step toward helping that child and others in her condition. 

Couldn't God end that suffering? Yes, but only be ending humans or by changing us so we do not have free will.

If your Yahweh creates each person and every quality that person has, knowing in advance everything that person will do, how is that free will?

Yahweh makes puppets and writes the script they must follow, including the evil they do and the suffering they endure. In this, the puppets have no say.   

Well, I could turn this around and ask how one can have free will if the world is nothing but material cause and effect. Free will is hard for the naturalist to explain either. (Or maybe you don't believe in free will? I don't want to assume.) But, anyway, the same Bible which says God/Yahweh exists also says people have free will, so if you have reason to believe the first then the second comes along as a package deal. I know you don't believe the first, but if you did I imagine you'd find free will fairly easy to believe in too, especially since it corresponds to our own lived experience.  

3. God isn't just a bystander to all this. He came and suffered and died himself in order to begin setting things right. He's got skin in the game, so to speak.

If Yahweh is observing the suffering of millions and doing nothing to stop it, he's a bystander. But that's not the case. He created the suffering and allows it to continue unabated.

It doesn't seem fair to argue that Christian beliefs can't explain the problem of evil and then ignore what Christians actually believe. We do not hold that God allows evil to "continue unabated." He came and suffered and died and rose again to bring an ultimate end to evil. The question of whether Jesus actually, historically came as a sacrifice for sin is a separate debate, but the problem of evil accuses Christian beliefs of having an internal contradiction and asks whether we have a good answer for why God would allow evil in the world. From the perspective of Christianity's coherence and ability to address the problem of evil, wouldn't it make a difference if, theoretically, "God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life"? I'm not asking you to believe it; just to consider if that element of Christian belief is relevant to how we explain the present reality of suffering. 

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Thanks for that Reg, that is a VERY interesting article! My ex-husband has lactose intolerance, and I do not...I am going to do a DNA test on my son that that will reveal quite a bit about this issue...thankfully my son does not seem to have lactose intolerance that I know of yet....but it's really cool to learn about this!!!!! THANK YOU!!!!

That is a good article, thx to all pointing it out!

I'm surprised that there supposedly is still controversy about why the gene mutation spread so quickly. It seems to me that too many theorists are looking for a single reason for the spread, because (imo) a lot of changes from genetic to cultural evolution came into play around the same time. Along with agriculture, the domestication of animals in general played a huge role in civilization building, and the availability of milk from those animals was just one of several advantages to human survival that came about at the same time.

I remember a graduate course on ethics where one of my fellow students asked during a discussion of The Good "But by just knowing The Good, why should I do it?" The prof's reply was that, "Well, that's what The Good means, isn't it?: something that should be the case or needs to be brought about. If you understand what The Good is, you should understand that you have a duty.

@Jim,

The serpent in the Garden of Eden sinned before Eve did, by lying to her, suggesting that  "sin" preceded the Fall of Man, so original sin cannot be said to be original at all.

Oh yeah, definitely. "Original sin" is only original insofar as the human race is concerned. 

If the tree of knowledge of good and evil actually contained such knowledge, wouldn't God want humans to know that God was good and the serpent was bad? Without such knowledge, how could Eve be expected to make the right choice by obeying God.

We aren't given a detailed description of what the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was all about, but it definitely wasn't some sort of knowledge-dump without which people couldn't know good from evil. In the Bible, "knowing" often has a more experiential connotation (e.g. "Adam knew Eve" means they had sex), so the knowing of good and evil produced by the tree should probably be understood in that way. In other words, after eating the tree they knew about sin in an experiential way for the first time, which means they also understood good differently too. They knew to obey God from the start (hence the shame recorded in Genesis 3 as soon as they sinned), but they didn't know what it was to sin until they did... by eating from the tree that brought knowledge of good and evil. 

Did the tree actually contain knowledge of good and evil? Did Eve possess such knowledge after eating the fruit? Is it such knowledge that leads to feelings of nakedness and shame? If so, why does God not feel at least ashamed for having such knowledge.

See above for the first couple questions. The shame came because they had sinned against God--i.e. experiential rather than theoretical knowledge of evil. 

God could've told them not to touch wet paint and if curiosity struck them, they would and have experienced the same shame for have touched the paint before it dried.

Yes, precisely. 

So the story in the Garden of Eden is about blind obedience to the will of God.

Obedience, yes, but not blind obedience. You could argue the story is false, but it's hardly a story of blind obedience. They knew God, and knew he was their Creator. That would seem to be grounds for reasonable, justified obedience. 

But what exactly is the will of God. Nobody knows because God isn't something that anyone has actually observed or interacted with. 

What if, hypothetically, he told us? According to the story of the Garden, he did explicitly tell Adam and Eve what his will was: "From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die." 

This kind of debate is specious because it's non-falsifiable:  You can't logically assess the proposition of God's existence through the "problem of evil", because a believer can simply resolve any apparent contradiction or inconsistency by saying "Because God made it so."  It's like debating the existence of Santa Claus by questioning his ability to visit every household in one night: "Well, Timmy, Santa uses magic!".  

And the implication that there is a well-defined, objective, absolute "evil" independent of evolutionary biology, human psychology, and cultural memes is itself highly questionable. If we evolved from hive-mind creatures which reproduce through mitosis, our sense of morality and our definition(s) of evil would be very different.

But if such debates float your boat ... happy floating! Just don't expect to ever reach shore :-)

...creatures which reproduce through mitosis...

This is the 2nd time I've seen a mitosis affect mentioned. What is it about, lack of sex?

@Gallup, 

I'm replying here to your post over here, because we were running out of space for replies to each other over there. 

Thanks for taking the time to group your responses together. I think I did respond to most/all of your comments in some way, but in the shuffle of the thread it felt like we weren't quite hearing one another. I'll try to summarily respond to each of your points below. 

1. If your Yahweh creates each person and every quality that person has, knowing in advance everything that person will do, how is that free will?

Put another way, how does the all-knowing Yahweh make a complex wind-up toy, knowing in advance what every atom in every gear will do once he sets the toy in motion, while also letting the toy choose what to do?

If I write a computer program and know in advance everything it's ever going to do in every situation, how can that program be making free choices?

It seems like your objection has two elements: (1) God creates each person and everything about them, so they could not have free will and (2) God is omniscient, so his foreknowledge means humans could not have free will. 

1) The examples of the wind-up toy and the computer program would seem to fall under this objection. As a premise, you appear to be assuming that a person's component parts determine all their future choices. I actually agree, if humans are body/physical only. On the other hand, a mind or soul could make real choices that were not determined by how it was originally "put together" physically. Defending this further would require a debate over mind/body dualism which I would like to avoid in order to stay focused on the thread topic, so I'll just agree to disagree with you for now, if that's okay. 

2) On the point about omniscience, would you mind answering a hypothetical question? Suppose I could see into the future and saw you going to the store to buy milk next week. I'm not seeing some sort of vision--I'm actually watching it happen in the future. Would that mean your decision to buy milk was not free? 

I ask the question because that is how foreknowledge could work. It would be a matter of observing ahead of time what was actually happening at the time it was happening, hence no injury to the free will of the observed subject. 

Of course, we really don't have a clear idea of how foreknowledge would work, but your argument is based on our intuitive sense of what it would entail. My point is to show that actually our intuitions about omniscience do not necessarily create any sort of contradiction. (Before you complain that I switched foreknowledge for omniscience, that is the only part of omniscience that seems relevant to your argument. Please correct me if I'm misunderstanding.) 

6. "I can't speak for all Christians, but I do actually believe that God ordained the Fall. This does not mean Adam and Eve did not have a real choice, but it was nonetheless ordained." -David

Focus on #6. Note the statement is self-contradictory. Yahweh ordains that Adam and Eve will sin, but Yahweh lets them choose to sin or not. There is your square circle.

The key here is the question of whether divine sovereignty is contradictory with human free will, which I will address below. 

You provided a definition of omnipotence which (according to you) Christians use: Yahweh's power is limitless except for the logically impossible "which Christian theology has always included in the definition of omnipotence (cf. Wikipedia)."

You subsequently reversed yourself and claimed ignorance of what omnipotence means. Luckily your Christian theologians have not suffered similar attacks of amnesia.

There is a difference between defining something in general and knowing everything (or even much) about it. That was the point of my analogy with the ant trying to understand the emotions a human would feel on a roller coaster. My hypothetical ant could know that fear is "a feeling of anxiety or anticipation of pain or danger" and joy is "an emotion of great happiness" (general definitions), but wouldn't it still be reasonable for the ant to conclude it would be impossible to feel both fear and joy during a roller coaster ride? The general, overall definitions don't include the detail and texture to really understand them "from the inside." Similarly, it would be possible to understand omnipotence enough to talk about it meaningfully, without understanding it well enough to map all its implications with certainty. Do you agree there is a difference between defining something in general and knowing everything about it? 

On the larger point of a contradiction between sovereignty/omnipotence and human free will, the statements (1) God is omnipotent and (2) man has free will are not a priori contradictory. Establishing a contradiction would require defining omnipotence in a way that contradicted (2). Could you please define omnipotence in whatever way you feel is reasonable, such that it contradicts (2)? 

David: 2. Do starving toddlers prove that God is not omnibenevolent?

Gallup: We actually addressed it in multiple paragraphs. You stopped responding once you conceded the point in the following exchange:

This is what I meant about having different assumptions. I thought it was so obvious that it was logically possible for an omnipotence God to feed any number of hungry people that I took it for granted in my response and tried to explain why he might have created a world in which it was actually better for everyone, including the toddlers, not to do so. (I talked about this throughout the early parts of the thread.) I guess you thought I was avoiding the question, when I actually didn't realize you wanted an explicit answer to whether God could feed them. I assumed that question was rhetorical. 

I'm not sure how I stopped responding, since I asked you a question (re: banning automobiles) which you have declined to answer several times. That's fine, but it does seem like the ball is in your court. 

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