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Come Reason's Apologetics Notes blog will highlight various news stories or current events and seek to explore them from a thoughtful Christian perspective. Less formal and shorter than the www.comereason.org Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

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Showing posts with label problem of evil. Show all posts
Showing posts with label problem of evil. Show all posts

Friday, September 08, 2017

Are All These Natural Disasters Punishment from God?


The news seems to be filled the last few days with one natural disaster on top of another. Texas has already been victimized by Hurricane Harvey, with massive flooding and untold suffering. It was the largest hurricane Texas has ever recorded and may be the most costly natural disaster in U.S. history with estimates placing the damage at up to $180 billion.1 But Houston may not hold that record long as Florida sits directly in the path of Hurricane Irma, with Hurricane Jose following behind her. We then have a massive 8.1 earthquake off the coast of Mexico which may cause a tsunami. What’s going on?

Given the terrible destruction and suffering caused by Harvey and Irma, people are beginning to wonder if there isn’t some kind of divine retribution going on. Jeffery Terry tweeted "#HurricaneHarvey is Gods punishment for those who support @realDonaldTrump may God have mercy on them" and University of Tampa Professor Ken Storey tweeted "I don’t believe in instant karma but this kinda feels like it for Texas. Hopefully this will help them realize the GOP doesn’t care about them." (Although Storey’s tweets are protected, you can view a screenshot here.)




Jennifer Lawrence didn’t blame God, but did invoke Mother Nature and insinuated that the recent destructions are somehow related to the recent election of President Trump, saying "We voted and it was really startling. You know you’re watching these hurricanes now, and it’s really hard especially while promoting this movie, not to… not to feel Mother Nature’s rage, wrath."2  Of course Christians are not immune to the temptation, either. Newsweek reports that Rick Wiles claimed "‘here’s a city that has boasted of its LGBT devotion, its affinity for the sexual perversion movement in America. They’re underwater."3

Shark Attacks and Jumping the Shark

So, with so many out of the ordinary natural disasters occurring, shouldn’t we attribute them to God’s wrath? Before we jump to that conclusion, maybe it would be wise to find out just how out of the ordinary this weather cycle is. It seems that with media channels reporting the continued destruction in our 24-hour news cycle, one could hardly be blamed for assuming 2017 was a special year for natural disasters, but that’s not necessarily the case. According to the folks over at Weather underground, 2005 was truly a record year, with 28 storms and 15 hurricanes in the North Atlantic. Of those, five were large and/or deadly enough to have their names retired (Dennis, Katrina, Rita, Stan, Wilma). 2017 isn’t close to that yet.

Interestingly, we’ve actually been in a downward trend of hurricanes that hit the United States. Writing for the NOAA, climate scientists Gabriel A. Vecchi and Thomas R. Knutson show how the United States has been seeing a decrease in the number of storms causing damage on land. They provide the figure below with the following caption:


Since the late-19th Century global (green) and tropical Atlantic (blue) temperatures have risen – an increase that was partly driven by increased greenhouse gases. If one does not account for possible missed storms (first red line) Atlantic tropical storms appear to have increased with temperature; however, once one accounts for possible missed storms (second and third red lines) basinwide storms have not exhibited a significant increase. When one focuses only on landfalling storms (yellow lines) the nominal trend has been for a decrease.4
So, the number of hurricanes displacing people and causing widespread damage is not increasing, even though we may think it is. A lot of it is because we forget just how bad seasons like 2005 really were and compare this year to last year or to two years ago. Some of it is the continued discussion in the media, spurring what is sometimes called "the shark attack effect" following the release of the book and movie Jaws. A quick explanation is that while shark attacks in real life are very rare (more people die from bee stings in this country each year than from shark attacks), once it captures our psyche, we are prone to look for more examples to confirm our fears. It’s kind of like how only after buying a new car you notice how many of that same model are on the road.

We live in a fallen world and natural disasters are a part of that fallenness. It is also true that God has and will use natural calamities to punish or correct nations. However, when people jump to that conclusion first, they remind me of Jesus’ disciples in John 9, who asked him, Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" There, Jesus gave a most prescient answer: "It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him." That should be the Christian response. Let us show the goodness of Christ’s love by reaching out to those afflicted by nature’s devastation and stop trying to pin the blame on some perceived sin. It will be a more effective way to share your faith with others.

References

1. Reuters. "Hurricane Harvey Damages Could Cost up to $180 Billion." Fortune.com, Fortune, 3 Sept. 2017, http://.fortune.com/2017/09/03/hurricane-harvey-damages-cost/
2. Long, Jackie. "Jennifer Lawrence: ‘I’Ve Heard and Seen Things on TV That Devastate Me and Make Me Sick.’" Channel 4 News, Channel Four Television Corporation, 6 Sept. 2017, www.channel4.com/news/jennifer-lawrence-ive-heard-and-seen-things-on-tv-that-devastate-me-and-make-me-sick. Beginning about 5:14.
3. Sinclair, Harriet. "Did Gay Sex Cause Hurricane Harvey or Was It Climate Change? Some on the Right Blame LGBT Americans (No Seriously)." Newsweek, Newsweek, LLC, 3 Sept. 2017, www.newsweek.com/gay-americans-are-blame-hurricane-harvey-apparently-659059.
4. Vecchi, Gabriel A., and Thomas R. Knudseon. "Historical Changes in Atlantic Hurricane and Tropical Storms." Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, GDFL/NOAA Research, 29 Aug. 2017, www.gfdl.noaa.gov/historical-atlantic-hurricane-and-tropical-storm-records/.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Don't Be Afraid of Questions about Evil



One of the most difficult objections a Christian faces is what to do with the problem of evil. They claim the Christian God doesn't make sense given all the evil we see in the world today. Some non-believers play the objection like a trump card, thinking this proves the irrationality of believing in a divine being.

I would encourage the Christian to not shy away from the question of evil in the world, but embrace it. That's because the problem of evil is a problem not simply for the Christian, but for everybody.

There are a lot of things on which people of different political and social viewpoints disagree, but I think everyone can be in agreement that the world isn't as it should be. When atheists complain that all the evil in the world shows there is no God, they are admitting there is a right and wrong, and there's too much wrong in the world. Social justice warriors on college campuses try to silence what they deem as evil speech while those on the other side see the act of censorship itself as evil. ISIS, people suffering in the inner cities, regimes ruled by tyrants, kids starving in underdeveloped countries are all serious issues in need of thoughtful solutions.

Because the problem of evil is a serious one, no one is off the hook. Every worldview needs to be able to at least begin to answer the question "what can be done about it?" How does the objector's worldview correct the problem? All seem to agree that the world is out of sorts and things aren't the way they should be. But what can be done to make evil less than it is now? How do different worldviews solve the problem of evil?

Three Choices for a Broken World

When a man on an expedition finds he has damaged his only transport vehicle to the point where it isn't running reliably, he is faced with choosing one of three options. He may try to fix it himself. This is certainly the quickest way to solve the problem, but it isn't as easy as it sounds. Repairing a vehicle is complicated. It requires the proper diagnostics, the proper tools, the right replacement parts, and the proper knowledge. For example, modern vehicles equipped with computers and sensors cannot be fixed without high-tech tools. And the risk of assuming one is more capable than the person's skill warrants could lead to making things worse.

A second option is the man may ignore the issues and continue to drive the vehicle. He may place a piece of tape over that warning light and hope all the stalls and grinding won't get too bad until he arrives at his destination. But when survival is at stake, this is certainly not a prudent idea. There's a high risk the vehicle will fail completely, leaving him stranded and in danger for his life. Or perhaps the brakes fail or the accelerator sticks and the vehicle could then cause his death.

The third option for the man would be to return to the company from which he obtained the vehicle and ask those responsible for it to correct the defects or replace it. Once his vehicle is running as it should, he may proceed to explore the wonders of the unknown without concern for his travel. These strike me as the only options available and the man must choose at least one of them.

What's the Solution?

The options we face with the problem of evil are much like those the explorer faces. Some believe we can fix it all on our own. However, not everyone is agreed even on what constitutes evil. Hot button issues such as abortion, immigration, dictatorial regimes, persecution of people of faith, or persecution of LGBT people are just a few of the many, many, difficult and contrasting viewpoints we face today. How do we fix that?

Further, what are the proper diagnostics to use? Everyone may say certain issues are obvious. Going back to our analogy, a fuel leak would certainly be a problem in need of repair. However if the vehicle you're diagnosing is an SR-71 plane, the plane is designed to leak fuel while on the ground. In the air the tanks expand and seal. If you "fix" the fuel leak on the ground, they will burst in operation.

The second choice is to try and ignore the issue. One may hold this world as ultimately meaningless. In the final reality, one must not love too much or hate too much. All desires equally lead one astray. One must simply retreat within oneself in order to find Nirvana and become like a candle that has been blown out.

Interestingly, there is a contingent within modern atheism that has chosen this second option in a different way. Given that we are all simply electro-chemical matter that happened to evolve over time by chance, good and evil don't really make sense. Nature is red in tooth and claw and that is simply the way it is. Black widows devour their mates, male chimps cannibalize male infants, and cone cannot assign a moral value to those acts. As animals, we are simply acting upon our urges, too.

The third choice is to try and seek out the one who made the world in the first place.

Certainly, there are people who don't fall neatly into one camp. They try to balance two or three of the options based on the situation at hand. But Christianity holds the high ground here. The Christian worldview holds that we cannot fix it ourselves, nor should we ignore evil. Christianity teaches that God must come down and fix the problem himself. And since it is God is the one who grounds all good, he can be relied upon to properly diagnose and fix the problem. This makes perfect sense.

We've not yet come to the end of all evil. That will happen. But of all the different worldviews available, Christianity offers a rational solution to a pressing need. But remember the next time you may be asked "What about all the evil in the world," the problem of evil is as much of a problem for the atheist as it is for anyone else.

Monday, January 09, 2017

What's the Alternative to the Problem of Suffering?



One of the biggest challenges Christians face from nonbelievers is why God allows innocent people to suffer. The question is key, especially since it holds a specific emotional impact in its posing. People have an intuitive understanding that the suffering of others seems out of sorts with the way things should be. If a loving parent wouldn't want his or her children to suffer and would do whatever is possible to help those children avoid suffering, wouldn't an all loving, all-powerful God act similarly?

Christians in conversations about the problem of evil have traditionally pointed to the fact that as free beings, human beings are themselves the reason for a lot of suffering others experience. Most evil is the result of people sinning, and one consequence of sinning is that other people get hurt. I once had a philosophy professor who conceded that the majority of human suffering was caused by other humans. He didn't think that answer solved the problem of evil, though. He said that even if one was to conclude that the free will of human beings is of enough value for God to allow evil to exist, it wouldn't explain the instances of natural evil in the world.

Real Natural Evils Do Exist

Moral philosophers draw a distinction between evils caused by the moral failings of people and those completely out of human control. Killings, rape, suffering from neglect, etc. are categorized as effects of moral evil while injury or death from natural disasters, infection, genetic diseases, and such are categorized as effects of natural evil1. My professor held that even if God allowed moral evils to facilitate free will, God was still directly culpable for allowing natural evils to cause so much pain and suffering.

Before we go too far, it's important to note that even much of what we may consider "natural evil" can actually be moral evil unknown. Take the uptick in birth defects and epilepsy inflicted on babies in the Upper New York state in the 1970s and 80s. It was the sinful actions of people years before who ultimately were to blame. Classifying earthquake deaths as natural evil when the death toll is really due to shoddy building structure construction is questionable at best. However, people really from suffer from maladies or conditions over which they have no control. Some people die in earthquakes even though there is nothing more one can do to reinforce their homes. Is God accountable for the suffering of these people?

The only way to avoid suffering

The challenge of natural evil sounds difficult to overcome. Why would God allow a world where tsunamis or infections can ravage people? Why would he allow droughts that make people starve? These are tough questions, but if you reflect upon the problem, you need to ask yourself what alternatives are there? I can think of only one way where the present world could exist with no natural evil; all people would need to be Superman by necessity. I don't mean they'd need to have costumes and x-ray vision. They would, however, need to be indestructible. They would need to be impervious to any natural calamity, simply shaking off the effects of the necessary plate tectonics 2. They would need to somehow have their biology not have food as a necessity for gaining energy. They would also need that biology to be impervious to any disease while still capable of maintaining those cellular functions required for growing or sustaining their organs. They would need to be supermen.

Here's the question, though. If you have such a race of supermen and that race is capable of moral evil, then how does one vanquish that evil? How do you punish others who are impervious to pain but delight in wickedness? How do parents teach their children about the consequences of wrong and the value of right? How does this world work where no one dies but they can still inflict the villainy of emotional torture on others?

Genesis and General Zod

These ideas are really not new. In fact, the Bible starts off with them right up front with the sin of Adam and Eve. Once humanity was infected by sin, God ejects them from Eden and guards the Tree of Life so human beings wouldn't be able to live forever in their fallen state. God was making sure that a race of indestructible sinful human beings wouldn't come about, because he knew that such a scenario wouldn't create a race of supermen, but a race of General Zods, bent on having their own way because they cannot be crushed by others. Such a world could easily result in more pain and suffering rather than less. In this sense, even the natural evil we experience is ultimately rooted in a moral failing.

Like a Monday morning quarterback, it's easy to object to the problem of suffering. Tougher is to think about what kinds of alternatives one may offer that would remove such suffering. A world without any suffering would mean a world of isolation, where one couldn't hurt others. It would mean a world where one wouldn't be able to punish evildoers. How does this make the human condition better? Only if the stain of sin is removed from the human heart would such a world be feasible. Until then, what we have is better than any alternatives I can imagine.

References

1. Calder, Todd. "The Concept of Evil." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University, 26 Nov. 2013. Web. 09 Jan. 2017. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/concept-evil/.
2. Broad, William J. "Deadly and Yet Necessary, Quakes Renew the Planet." The New York Times. The New York Times, 11 Jan. 2005. Web. 9 Jan. 2017. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/11/science/deadly-and-yet-necessary-quakes-renew-the-planet.html.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

The Need for Justice and the Problem of Evil



The search for justice runs through all of storytelling. We watch some nefarious villain executing his evil ploy and we hang on the edge of our seats hoping our hero will be victorious. There's something fundamental in the human spirit that wants to see good triumph.

This desire for justice is what attracts us to the adventure quest, like Peter Jackson's adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. There, Frodo Baggins is given a ring that holds the power of the evil Sauron, who seeks to wield it and rule Middle Earth. Because he bears this ring, Frodo assumes the dangerous responsibility of finding the path to destroy it. Frodo never asked for this assignment; circumstances thrust it upon him. Yet, he knows the quest is vital even if he may lose his life in the process.

In one poignant scene, Frodo is feeling the weight of his choice and laments to Gandalf about the evil Gollum, who is threatening their quest:

Frodo: It's a pity Bilbo didn't kill him when he had the chance!
Gandalf: Pity? It was pity that stayed Bilbo's hand. Many that live deserve death, and some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them, Frodo?

Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends. My heart tells me that Gollum has some part to play yet, for good or ill before this is over.

The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many.
Frodo: I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.
Gandalf: So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world, Frodo, besides the will of evil. Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, in which case you also were meant to have it. And that is an encouraging thought.

In Frodo's complaint, we see a particular instance of the problem of evil. You may have heard someone complain about how a loving God could allow so much evil in the world. Frodo believes the world would be better if Gollum had been killed. It's easy to make the charge that there's too much evil in the world, but we don't know how the story of this world plays out. However, fans know that Gandalf is right; Gollum's existence does figure into the ultimate salvation of the Middle Earth.

Evil Gollum must exist in order for Frodo's quest to succeed and a greater evil vanquished. The Roman executioner's cruelty must also exist for the sacrifice of Jesus to succeed. It isn't a contradiction to say God exists and is in control even if evil hasn't been eliminated. We just haven't gotten to the end of the story.

*This article comes from my chapter entitled "Using Hollywood Blockbusters to Share Your Faith" in Sean McDowell's A New Kind of Apologist. You may purchase a copy here.

Image courtesy bandita and licensed via the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) license

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Why God Doesn't Create a World with Less Suffering



Probably one of the most difficult objections a Christian faces to his or her faith is how an all-powerful, all loving God can allow so much suffering in the world. I've talked at length about the Free Will Defense (see the short video here), which is the most common response to the problem of evil.

This means in order for human beings to be free, we must be free to do what is wrong as well as what is right. As I've explained, God cannot do what is logically impossible. That means he cannot make a square circle or a light-filled darkness. To have the ability to freely love God and obey him, an individual must also have the ability to reject God and disobey his laws. If I grant my son the freedom to drive my car while I lock him in his room to prevent him from crashing it, I've certainly not given him freedom. That means if God wants to create free creatures, they simply must be able to do evil acts as well as good ones.

Alvin Plantinga argues in a similar way, arguing if God wanted to create creatures that are significantly free, he must give them the ability to do things that are morally evil. Thus, Planting concludes "The fact that free creatures sometimes go wrong, however, counts neither against God's omnipotence nor against His goodness."1

Why Can't an All Powerful God Make People Only Hurt Themselves?

While the Free Will Defense has convinced philosophers that there is no logical contradiction between an all loving, all powerful God and the fact that evil exists in the world, many atheists still object to what they perceive as too much evil or the wrong kinds of evil in the world today. Of course, explaining just how that would play out is a much more daunting task, one the atheist is usually incapable of so doing.

Richard Norman feels that God should have created a world where people are still free, yet if they do evil things, they will only inflict suffering upon themselves.2 In the abstract, this sounds reasonable, but it really isn't. It strikes me that in order for God to create a world where evil acts hurt only the perpetrator, one of three scenarios must exist. The first is that the perpetrator lives in a world where his or her actions have no significant consequence to any other being. Think of a person taking a sword and slicing another in two but when he does so the sword passes through the other person's body like an apparition. We have a good model for this kind of world in the video game area; you may lose your lives and lose the game, but you harm no one else.

But we know that any virtual world isn't as valuable as the real world. We are appalled by those who would shun actual relationships so as to only seek sexual gratification only through virtual reality apparatus. It is because video games don't provide real world consequences for one's actions that we understand them as an occasional pastime activity and not what should be driving and informing our humanity.

The second scenario is to reduce the choices people can make to those that are non-meaningful, save self-destruction. In this case, a person would have no choices available to him or her regarding others. We could not choose who we love, if we love, if we walk, if we work. Everything would be run off a program. The only choice we would have is a "harm thyself" button on our chests. That one we can push, knowing that if one did decide to blow himself up, the machine-maker would immediately replace him with another so no other cog in the wheel would fail. This obviously denies the significant portion of creating a significantly free being, which doesn't make it much of a choice.

We Need Suffering to Be Human

The last option available in order for no one to harm another is a world that I think God could actually construct. That is simply to create a world where every single human being is isolated from one another. If one has no relationship with others, it becomes impossible for any emotional attachments to develop and for one's actions to produce any suffering upon another. In such a world, we would perceive ourselves to be alone. God would basically be creating billions of worlds of single individuals. But again, this robs humanity of one of its distinguishing features—the ability to develop meaningful relationships, empathy, and love for one another.

The fact that people suffer in this world is difficult to understand. However, the fact that it bothers us is hugely valuable. Empathy is part of what makes us human and it is part of what it means to be made in God's image. To be human means to understand that suffering is a bad thing, which requires us to be relational beings who can make free choices. Take away our freedom to choose to do evil and you are left with beings who are less than human.

References

1. Plantinga, Alvin. God, Freedom, and Evil. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977. Print. 30.
2. Dr. Norman explained his position on the Unbelievable? radio program "Why does God allow Evil? Clay Jones vs Richard Norman." 21 June, 2014. https://www.premierchristianradio.com/Shows/Saturday/Unbelievable/Episodes/Why-does-God-allow-Evil-Clay-Jones-vs-Richard-Norman
Image courtesy Tripwire Interactive - , CC BY 3.0

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Critics of God Ignore the Biggest Part in the Problem of Evil



One point to consider when discussing the problem of evil is just how much evil infuses all of life. We tend to think of evil as something separate from us. A Hitler or a Pol Pot or a Kim Jong Un. Maybe evil is found in the latest serial killer or corporate pirate. But that's really thinking of the problem in a backwards kind of way. Because evil isn't confined to those names on a list produced in some office of the FBI or Interpol. Evil can be found in the grocery store when a person snatches a few grapes from the produce table. It can be seen on the highway in how drivers treat one another. Evil is everywhere.

In her essay "The Greatest Drama Ever Staged," Dorothy L. Sayers argues that this kind of evil is the type we do not want God to deal with immediately. In fact, we don't even count it as the problem of evil at all. She writes:
The problem of sin and evil is, as everybody knows, one which all religions have to face, especially those that postulate an all-good and all-powerful God. "If," we say readily, "God is holy and omnipotent, He would interfere and stop all this kind of thing"—meaning by "this kind of thing" wars, persecutions, cruelties, Hitlerism, Bolshevism, or whatever large issue happens to be distressing our minds at the time. But let us be quite sure that we have really considered the problem in all its aspects.

"Why doesn't God smite this dictator dead?" is a question a little remote from us. Why, madam, did He not strike you dumb and imbecile before you uttered that baseless and unkind slander the day before yesterday? Or me, before I behaved with such cruel lack of consideration to that well-meaning friend? And why, sir, did He not cause your hand to rot off at the wrist before you signed your name to that dirty little bit of financial trickery?

You did not quite mean that? But why not? Your misdeeds and mine are none the less repellent because our opportunities for doing damage are less spectacular than those of some other people. Do you suggest that your doings and mine are too trivial for God to bother about? That cuts both ways; for, in that case, it would make precious little difference to His creation if He wiped us both out to-morrow.1
Sayers touches an appropriate nerve here, i think. For a holy God to vanquish evil, he is required to vanquish all evil. Every drop. Christianity holds that the death of Jesus on the cross paid the price to conquer evil and reconcile all mankind to himself. Now, God is in the process of preparing the world to work in a way where people can live in an evil-free environment. His allowance of evil simply reflects his love for his people. God's first move isn't to wipe out the person who slanders or the uncaring friend. It is to deal with the reality of the evil that we euphemistically label "being human." I can think of no other belief system—faith-based or non-faith based—that so clearly identifies evil in all its forms and still offers a workable solution to it.

References

Sayers, Dorothy L. The Greatest Drama Ever Staged. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1938. Online. http://www.gutenberg.ca/ebooks/sayers-greatest/sayers-greatest-00-h.html,br /> Images courtesy mob mob and licensed via the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) License.

Friday, January 08, 2016

Using Ultimate Evil to Answer the Problem of Evil



Why would an all-good, all loving God allow so much evil in the world? This question, what is known as the Problem of Evil, has been one that both believers and non-believers have wrestled with for much of Christian history. Christians have appealed to God's desire for mankind to have free will as the primary reason evil can exist at all.

Still, atheists will object to the fact that any God that would allow so much evil or certain acts that we recognize as so tremendously evil would be inconsistent with the God defined in Christianity whose primary attribute is love. Is the belief in an all-loving God incompatible with horrendously evil acts in the world? In order to better understand God's relationship to evil, I think it is helpful to look at what we can think of as the most extreme example of evil and see if the belief in the Christian God makes any sense.

What Would Count as Incredibly Evil?

To figure out what counts as a heinously evil act, let's narrow our choices a bit. First, I would argue that intentional evil is worse than accidental or natural evil. For example a person contracts cancer and suffers to degree X. If the cancer was natural we would look upon that suffering as bad. If the cancer was from negligence, we would hold the perpetrator in a certain level of contempt. But if the cancer was intentionally caused, that holds a higher level of seriousness. Intentional evil is a greater evil than unintentional evil.

Even within intentional acts there are degrees of evil. We rightly look upon murder as an evil act. As a though experiment, think of a 35 year old female victim who was murdered by a gunshot to the head. The killer is apprehended and placed on trial. If this was an indiscriminate act, such as a drive by shooting, one would rightly demand a certain level of punishment for the crime. However, if it was found that the victim was kept alive for several hours so the killer could enjoy himself torturing her, our view of the crime would change. It is more evil to torture and kill a person, especially for pleasure, than to simply kill them and walk away.

Secondly, I would argue murder is probably the most evil act one can perpetrate upon another because it robs an individual of one's most valuable asset, which is life itself. By taking a life, a perpetrator has robbed his victim of a future and the victim's friends and family of an irreplaceable asset. If one doesn't see human beings as intrinsically valuable, then the problem of evil is a functional one .Human beings are simply resources like the rest of the planet and cancer can be compared to any other natural resource. The problem of evil goes away at that point. But if human beings are intrinsically valuable, then they are different from the rest of the natural world. Their value rests in their existence. Therefore, to take away their existence is to do something uniquely evil, something more evil than any other act.

The Suffering of the Innocent Compounds Evil

Thirdly, the suffering of the innocent is held as more tragic than the suffering of the non-innocent. Suffering as a consequent to wrong actions is many times seen as "just desserts" in people's eyes. But causing the suffering of a child who may be considered ignorant of the world's workings is considered more heinous. This concept seems to be behind the questions I receive about God allowing young children to have cancer or other diseases. They appeal to children to imply the innocence of the one who is suffering.

Innocence is also important as we are talking about an all-knowing God. What if God allows a certain amount of evil or suffering in the life of a sinful person to show that person the ramifications of sin? It may be that an all-knowing God would use a sinful person's suffering to draw his or her attention back to himself. But if an innocent person suffered, then one can legitimately question how God could ever allow such a thing to happen.

The Most Evil Act Demonstrates an All-Loving God

I could go into more detail on my points above, but I will leave them as they stand now for brevity's sake. I lay all this out in order to develop what could be considered one of the most evil acts in history and see if we can measure how such an act could be perpetrated and still be compatible with the belief in an all-loving God. As I've noted, an intentional crime of murder against the innocent there the innocent suffer prior to death for no reason other than the enjoyment of the perpetrator is probably the most evil act one can think of. If the Christian God would stop any kind of evil, certainly he would begin with this kind of evil. This is evil with a capital "E" and certainly deserves God's attention. Does it make sense to believe in a God who allows this kind of evil to happen?

Yes it does. In fact, we have a very real historical example of just such an evil being perpetrated and we find that God not only doesn't stop it, but he allows it for very specific purposes. In the person of Jesus of Nazareth we have the epitome of the innocent individual. Christians hold that Jesus was not merely one of God's creatures but God Himself incarnate. That places his value even above those of humanity. Christianity also holds that Jesus was completely innocent and free of sin. He not only was born innocent as a baby, but he accomplished what no other human being on earth could, he remained sin-free even as an adult.

However, God allowed the most innocent and most valuable person to even walk the earth to suffer the most hideous evil of which we can conceive. Why would God allow such hideous and blatant evil to happen? Christianity tells us it is because God wanted to reconcile all of humanity to himself. As John 3:16 says "God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that if you believe on him you will have everlasting life." This means, given the free will of creatures, it is not inconsistent for an all-loving God to allow even hideous evil acts to occur. The crucifixion of Christ is the most evil act human beings could perpetrate and yet God allowed it to reconcile those very human beings back into a right relationship with him. Without that evil act, we would never have that opportunity. It is the cross that proves that God not only understands the problem of evil, but he's taken the brunt of it. He then answered it by rising again.

It isn't inconsistent that the God of Christianity allows evil to exist in this world. Rather, the cross proves God can leverage the evil of this world for his purposes, making the end result (reconciliation with God and redemption from hell) a better condition than if the evil itself never occurred.

Only Christianity holds the answer to the problem of evil.

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Just What is This Evil We Object to, Anyway?



What is evil? Why would God create evil in the world at all? I've engaged in conversation on this issue many times and I've found that a lot of confusion exists on even what we mean when we say something is evil. There's a clip at the end of Time Bandits where the Supreme Being has cooked the personified Evil to a crisp. He says of the charred remains, "Do be careful! Don't lose any of that stuff, that's concentrated evil!"

That's how a lot of people think of evil—as a thing in itself that stands in contrast to good. The Yin and Yang symbol represents such a view, showing how good and evil are necessary for each other's' existence.

However, this view is incorrect as the church father Augustine has argued:
All of nature, therefore, is good, since the Creator of all nature is supremely good. But nature is not supremely and immutably good as is the Creator of it. Thus the good in created things can be diminished and augmented. For good to be diminished is evil; still, however much it is diminished, something must remain of its original nature as long as it exists at all. For no matter what kind or however insignificant a thing may be, the good which is its "nature" cannot be destroyed without the thing itself being destroyed. There is good reason, therefore, to praise an uncorrupted thing, and if it were indeed an incorruptible thing which could not be destroyed, it would doubtless be all the more worthy of praise. When, however, a thing is corrupted, its corruption is an evil because it is, by just so much, a privation of the good. Where there is no privation of the good, there is no evil. Where there is evil, there is a corresponding diminution of the good. As long, then, as a thing is being corrupted, there is good in it of which it is being deprived; and in this process, if something of its being remains that cannot be further corrupted, this will then be an incorruptible entity [natura incorruptibilis], and to this great good it will have come through the process of corruption. But even if the corruption is not arrested, it still does not cease having some good of which it cannot be further deprived. If, however, the corruption comes to be total and entire, there is no good left either, because it is no longer an entity at all. Wherefore corruption cannot consume the good without also consuming the thing itself. Every actual entity [natura] is therefore good; a greater good if it cannot be corrupted, a lesser good if it can be. Yet only the foolish and unknowing can deny that it is still good even when corrupted. Whenever a thing is consumed by corruption, not even the corruption remains, for it is nothing in itself, having no subsistent being in which to exist.1
Augustine points out that if God created everything, everything would be good. However, created things aren't good necessarily like God is so they can be corrupted. It is this corruption or deviation from their original created purpose that we call evil. Just like the cold is the absence of heat, darkness is the absence of light, and a vacuum is the absence of matter, evil is the absence of good. By understanding what evil is, it gets us a step closer to understanding why God would allow evil in the world at all.

References

1. Augustine of Hippo. "Handbook on Faith, Hope, and Love (Enchiridion)." Translated by Albert C. Outler. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Calvin College Computer Science, 1 June 2005. Web. 07 Jan. 2016. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/augustine/enchiridion.chapter4.html.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Did God Make Life on Other Planets?



This month, the seventh Star Wars movie is set to debut. Fans are looking forward to seeing not only the action but the fantastic inhabitants of far off worlds, like those found in the now-famous cantina scene from A New Hope. The sheer number of diverse creatures from a host of worlds pictured there plays on our sense of wonder.

It also leads us to think about the real world and our place in it. Are we alone in the universe or could there be intelligent life found in some planet or galaxy far, far away? In our galaxy alone there exists some 200 billion stars1, many which have the potential for planetary systems, and ours is just one galaxy out of billions and billions. If God created such a vast universe, wouldn't it be likely that at least a few others would have life on them?

The Bible Doesn't Rule Out Life on Other Planets

First, it is quite possible that some kind of life could exist on other planets. There is nothing in the Bible that says God only created life for the earth. He could have created some kind of life elsewhere, too. Even on earth, when we travel to the harshest environments, such as volcanic vents in the ocean floor, we are surprised to find life in such unrelenting places.2 Microbes have even been found surviving in the stratosphere, miles above the earth. So to have some kind of an ecosystem found on another planet, even when that planet could not support human life is not as inconceivable as it may seem to be.

However, when this question is asked most of the time, people aren't asking about fungus, moss, or microbes. They want to know whether intelligent life—life capable of communication and abstract thought like humans are—is possible on other planets. I think the answer is such life is highly doubtful.

If advanced life were to exist on other planets, we begin to run into the same theological issues on free will and sin that have so frequently become a part of our conversations on evil and God's existence. In order to be truly free, alien beings must also be capable of sinning. However, if they were to sin, it would place them in a greater predicament.

The Need for a Redeemer Like Us

In the book of Hebrews, the writer explains why Jesus is greater than the angelic beings, who were held in high esteem by first century Jewish culture. He quotes Psalm 2, then explains that human beings, not the angels ae the beneficiaries of Jesus's salvific work on the cross:
But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers...

For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. (Heb. 2:9-11, 16-17, ESV).
Later, the writer explains that Jesus's sacrifice was a singular event: "He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself." (Heb. 7:27, ESV).

Therefore, if alien beings were advanced enough to make free choices for themselves, they would either need to be perfect throughout all eternity (which is highly unlikely) or irredeemable. Given the verses above, one can see why fallen angels cannot be redeemed and why God had to create Hell for them.

Thinking through the Presupposition

I've been asked this question many times, and I think it's a helpful one. It shows that human beings tend to think spatially about our world. If our planet takes up such a little place in the great big and vast universe that God created, certainly he would have placed life elsewhere, right? But God is an immaterial being. He doesn't value us on the basis of our mass. He values us because we bear his image. Therefore, I have no problem believing that God could have created the entire universe just to support life on one single planet, so he could have creatures who know and love him. That's true value.

References

1. Rayman, Marc. "How Many Solar Systems Are in Our Galaxy?" NASA. NASA, n.d. Web. 1 Dec. 2015. http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/review/dr-marc-space/#/review/dr-marc-space/solar-systems-in-galaxy.html.
2. "'Alien' Life Forms Discovered" NOAA. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, n.d. Web. 01 Dec. 2015. http://www.noaa.gov/features/monitoring_0209/vents.html.

Friday, October 02, 2015

Why It Was Better to Be a Christian at That Oregon College



Yesterday I was invited to a Southern California community college by one of the on-campus Christian clubs to answer questions on God' existence. Near that same time a man burst into classrooms at an Oregon community college and began shooting. He specifically targeted Christians, asking them to identify themselves as such. The news of the tragedy quickly spread that afternoon; ten people were killed and at least seven more injured. The horror of those actions is still shocking. I mourn with those who have lost loved ones in the attack.

Wanton evil like the Umpqua Community College leaves one speechless. It seems hard to even wrap your head around the callousness of a person who would murder others in cold blood. But human beings are far more capable of this kind of evil than we normally consider. In my discussion yesterday, an atheist asserted that he believes people are basically good. They become bad due to circumstances in their lives. I think history has proven that view to be a false one. From the beginning of civilization, people have been warring with one another motivated by a lust for power, greed, or the simple fact that someone else is different.

Christianity holds that people are not basically good. Christians believe that all people are marred by original sin and things like selfishness, greed, and even bigotry come naturally. But it doesn't end there. Christianity also teaches that there is a God who can redeem us from our worst inclinations and that he stepped into history to do that very thing, at the cost of his own beloved son. While Christians recognize that people can naturally be evil, they also recognize there is a solution to the evil that we see.

Where's the Solution to the Evil in the World?

That's a key point, I believe. Some may wonder where God was when all these people were being slaughtered. If God is real, why wouldn't he protect his own? Does the fact that Christians died prove the Christian God is not real? No, it doesn't. It only proves that evil exists and needs to be answered. But, as Hamlet would say, there's the rub. What is the answer to evil if God doesn't exist? Was the murder of Christians an example of natural selection allowing the stronger to weed out the weaker? Was it just another act in nature where life comes and goes without any meaning whatsoever? We don't assign much meaning to how black widow spiders kill their mates or how mammals such as lions or chimpanzees will kill offspring other than their own to avoid competition. This is nature "red in tooth and claw" and no meaning other than that's the way it works can be assigned to it.

Those Christians on the UCC campus understood that any evil we find in this world isn't the end of the story. Those who were shot for their faith knew that whatever evil may be inflicted upon them here would be more than made up for in the life to come. They had confidence that evil will in the end be met with true justice. Trusting in God does not mean that he will deliver you from all harm. As I have written elsewhere, God is not "Our Genie who art in heaven." To treat him as such belittles him and diminishes our concept of God within ourselves. Because of the fact of the resurrection, we can know that God has conquered death and sin. We can know the problem of evil is only a temporary one.

Denying the Reality of Natural Evil

I feel more sorry for the non-believers at UCC as well as those on the campus with who I was conversing. There is no way for them to make any real sense out of this tragedy. They may hold that mankind is evolving and getting better, but the empirical evidence doesn't argue for that. ISIS doesn't argue for that. The looters who appear any time police presence in a community is restrained don't argue for that. Their claim is unfounded; it's a wish but not reality. They must believe it in order to hold out hope for a brighter future.  The only other option is nihilism--the idea that there is no meaning to our existence at all and therefore nothing really matters. That's why I believe it's better to be a Christian even at UCC where one is in danger of being harmed for one's faith than it is to have no faith at all.

Sometimes the truth comes at a cost but the wise man will still seek it out. That's what wisdom means.

Image courtesy Andy Bernay-Roman and licensed via the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0) license.

Monday, August 03, 2015

God, Atheists, and the Problem of Suffering Children



I've noticed that for some people commenting on social media is a lot like driving in a car alone. Certain drivers do things like pick their nose they would never do in polite company. It isn't that they don't know their vehicle's windows allow others to see inside as much as they can see outside. They simply feel protected and they haven't given their actions a second thought.

Similarly, people will say things online that are not thought out seeking to prove a point. One such statement was a conversation I witnessed on Twitter yesterday where a couple of atheists were making claims about how God couldn't exist. Their arguments were pretty pedestrian to begin with, but then they devolved to this:
So, let's take stock of what just happened here. All parties seem to know that children in areas across the globe are suffering. (The tweets seem to conflate children starving with suffering from certain medical maladies, two separate questions.) Given that they are accusing God of being silent, they seem to believe this situation is wrong and it needs to be rectified.

The question of why does God allow suffering is one with a long history. I've written about why God doesn't suppress all evil, Explained why evil must exist if we are to be loving creatures, and gone into longer answers on the problem of evil here and here. Of course when these atheists point out children suffering as wrong, they are themselves appealing to that which points to God's existence. But that isn't what bothered me.

Why Not Applaud the People Reducing Suffering?

What bothered me was the callous way these suffering people were being pointed to and how those pointing seemed to feel that it is God's fault and responsibility to do something about it. I don't think these commenters are really that concerned with the plight of those suffering. In the conversation they distance themselves from what's really going on, using and confusing the starvation of real human beings as a chip in their self-congratulatory position that God does not exist.

For example, when a Christian countered that Christians are actually on the ground feeding thousands starving in the poorest parts of the world, he received these responses:

Really? Instead of applauding that someone is trying to do the right thing, they turn and criticize God for not doing more? Of course wanting God to come in like some cosmic genie and clean up the mess that human beings have made in allowing their fellow man to suffer is a pretty easy out; it requires no work on the part of these Twitter commenters. Such a response is too slick.

What if the Lord is calling people to help but they're refusing to acknowledge him? He isn't going to force people to do what's right. Even much of the "natural" suffering we see isn't natural at all, but merely the ultimate outcome of immoral people doing immoral things, and it's the evil in men's hearts that allows such suffering to continue.

I really don't know if either Sandra or "ArtDeco" have contributed to alleviating the suffering of these children they so easily parade as proof of God's non-existence. But I do know that it's demonstrable that those who are religiously active don't just pray. They do more, give more, and work more at alleviating suffering than any other group. Arthur C. Brooks writes:
Religious people are 25 percentage points more likely than secularists to donate money (91 percent to 66 percent) and 23 points more likely to volunteer time (67 percent to 44 percent). And, consistent with the findings of other writers, these data show that practicing a religion is more important than the actual religion itself in predicting charitable behavior. For example, among those who attend worship services regularly, 92 percent of Protestants give charitably, compared with 91 percent of Catholics, 91 percent of Jews, and 89 percent from other religions.1
Brooks even sought to eliminate religious-compulsory motivations like giving due to social pressure or giving to the church in order to "have rewards in heaven." He looked at giving to nonreligious charities such as schools or civic groups and still found "religious people are 10 points more likely to give to these causes than secularists (71 percent to 61 percent) and 21 points more likely to volunteer (60 percent to 39 percent)."2

It isn't the theists that are the problem in the plight of suffering children; it's the secularists. Thus, an argument could be made that by trying to convince others there is no God, one is actually increasing the inaction of support for alleviating the suffering of children in the world. As to the charge that a God should do something about it, Brooks' article leads with an apropos quote by the American Puritan John Winthrop:
...When there is no other means whereby our Christian brother may be relieved in his distress, we must help him beyond our ability rather than tempt God in putting him upon help by miraculous or extraordinary meanes. (Emphasis added.)
That's the best response to the problem of suffering. Let's each one of us to roll up our sleeves and get to work reducing it rather than acknowledging it then chastising God for not doing his part.

References

1. Brooks, Arthur C. "Religious Faith and Charitable Giving." Hoover Institution. Leland Stanford Junior University, 1 Oct. 2003. Web. 03 Aug. 2015. http://www.hoover.org/research/religious-faith-and-charitable-giving.
2. Brooks, 2003.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Can God Use Natural Evil to Reduce Suffering?

Hurricane Ivan was an intense category V hurricane that battered the Caribbean and the United States in 2004. The hurricane was especially devastating because it didn't quickly disperse after coming on land. Instead, it became a cyclone that spawned tornadoes inflicting damage from Alabama to Maryland. It was a highly unusual and very destructive hurricane that took dozens of lives.1


In my recent series on the problem of evil, I set out to distinguish the difference between moral evil, that evil that comes about as a result of man's moral failings and natural evil. Natural evil could include the catastrophic events such as the deaths resulting from Hurricane Ivan. After all, no violation of God's law caused Ivan's existence; hurricanes are simply a part of the weather cycle. Atheists have argued that if there is a God who created this world, then God is responsible for the evil and suffering that events like Ivan produce. They then seek to challenge the very notion of an all-good God because He not only allows natural evil to exist; he basically built it into the world we see. How should a Christian answer such an objection?

God May Use Evil to Restrain Greater Suffering

I've previously written that natural disasters, such as the recent earthquake in Nepal, are necessary for life to exist on earth. That's also true for hurricanes. Tropical storms like Ivan help to regulate the heat of the ocean, preventing even more devastating storms from being created.2 They also are responsible for the needed rainfall in many areas that allows people to grow food.3 But, my goal of this post is not to justify specific weather anomalies. Childhood maladies that result from natural evil won't be dismissed so easily.

God may allow a certain amount of suffering caused from nature to stem even greater suffering from moral evil. Humanity, without a threat of punishment for wrongdoing, becomes more violent and more destructive. If one looks back to the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, you can see a similar trend. In the 1970s gay bathhouses were booming as a way for homosexual men to hook up for casual sex. The Associated Press estimates there were over 200 such businesses across most major metropolitan areas of the United States. By 1990, their numbers had shrunk to 90.4 What caused the huge decline? It wasn't that the patrons became more moral. It was the fact that they were scared of contracting a deadly disease. Thus, the suffering of those with AIDS was enough to not only stem the promiscuity in the homosexual community, but it actually reversed the trend for a while.

Hurricane Ivan Stops Untold Suffering

Going back to Hurricane Ivan, the tale of Robert L. Medvee shows one way how such natural disasters can lead to less suffering. Medvee lived in a Maryland neighborhood that was struck by one of Ivan's tornadoes. He hired a repair crew to patch the damage caused by the twister while he stayed with friends. While working on the structure, the crew discovered a huge trove of child pornography, including many photos that Medvee himself took of children engaging in various sex acts. Maryland State's Attorney Scott Rolle said, "Some of them appeared to be as young as 6 or 7. They were engaged in sex acts with each other and adults."5 The pain and suffering these children endured because of Medvee's evil acts was hideous enough. Who knows how many more children would have been tortured by being forced into sex acts had Ivan not struck and Medvee be uncovered? In this one act alone, Ivan may have saved more lives than it took, but we will never know for sure. The point, though, is that God can order certain events that seem evil to actually deliver less pain and suffering than if they didn't occur at all.

References

1. University of Rhode Island. "2004- Hurricane Ivan." Hurricanes: Science and Society. University of Rhode Island, 2010. Web. 11 June 2015. http://www.hurricanescience.org/history/storms/2000s/hurricaneivan/.
2. National Weather Service. "Tropical Cyclone Introduction." JetStream - Online School for Weather. National Weather Service, 29 May 2012. Web. 11 June 2015. http://www.srh.noaa.gov/jetstream/tropics/tc.htm.
3. Sugg, Arnold L. "Beneficial Aspects of the Tropical Cyclone." J. Appl. Meteor. Journal of Applied Meteorology 7.1 (1968): 39-45. Web
4. Associated Press in Los Angeles. "Gay Bathhouses across US Face an Uncertain Future." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited, 23 Aug. 2014. Web. 11 June 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/aug/23/gay-bathhouses-us-face-uncertain-future.
5. Leckie, Kate. "Man Arrested for Child Pornography: Workers Hired to Repair Tornado Damage Discover Large Cache." The Frederick News-Post. The Frederick News-Post, 4 Oct. 2004. Web. 11 June 2015. http://www.fredericknewspost.com/archives/man-arrested-for-child-pornography-workers-hired-to-repair-tornado/article_d39909d5-8d5d-5e11-b57a-52dfae471d07.html.
Photo courtesy Roger and licensed via the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) License

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

What Counts as Natural Evil?

The problem of evil is one of the most difficult issues Christians must deal with when defending their faith. While I've spent a few columns discussing how to answer the problem of evil generally, these responses focus primarily on what philosophers would call moral evil. Moral evils are evils perpetrated because people are sinful and do sinful things. God would be required to stamp out the freedom of man in order to stop the evil for which he is responsible.



That's all well and good, but what about those evils that man has no control over? What about the child born with cancer or natural disasters and earthquakes? Stopping those things doesn't take away free will, so why doesn't God at least do something about them?

Separating Natural Evil from Moral Evil

In addressing this question, one must think carefully about exactly what is to be included in the category of natural evil. For example, not all medical ailments fall into this category. Heart attacks are bad, but if an individual is obese and smokes two packs of cigarettes a day, it isn't surprising. If that person were to have a heart attack, blaming God for it is disingenuous. He or she had abused their body and reaped the consequences of his or her actions.

Other medical issues may be due to moral evil even though they aren't immediately visible. For example, the Hooker Chemical Company used a small portion of its land holdings near Niagara Falls to bury some21,800 tons of toxic waste in the 1940s and early 50s, all with the knowledge and approval of the federal government.1 In fact, a Reason investigation reports that various federal agencies used the land themselves to dump their own toxic wastes.2 Hooker Chemical was pressured into selling the land by the Niagara Falls Board of Education, who sought a cheap way to meet their need for large empty lots to accommodate new schools. Schools were then built on some of the property, sewer lines were constructed, perforating the waste area and allowing the chemicals to be carried by rainwater residential sections of the city. The School Board then sold the rest of the land in 1960 to another developer who had no knowledge of its toxic past.3

Of course, the results of what came to be known as the Love Canal Disaster wouldn't be evident for decades. It wasn't until the late 1970's that a reporter for the Niagara Gazette began an investigation as to why there were an inordinate number of y birth defects reported in their community.4 Until a severe storm that surfaced some of the chemical containers and the subsequent investigation, people did not attribute the birth defects, epilepsy or other various medical maladies to the moral failings of people.

What Can't We See?

It's quite clear that the Love Canal disaster was a result of moral evil. I don't know if Hooker Chemical took all of the proper steps when first disposing of their waste. I do know reading the transcripts of the School Board's minutes, the Board itself got greedy and improperly resold the land to subsequent developers, setting up a series of tragedies that ultimately caused people pain and grief. Yet, this is one example of which we know the facts; how many other supposed natural evils are really caused by the immoral actions of humans? We don't know but many natural evils may actually be a result of some chain of events that began with the choice of free moral agents.

Of course, not all free moral agents are human. If Satan is a real being as Christianity holds, then he can also be responsible for pains and ills that we would otherwise assume have no moral origin. We read in Job that Satan was able to summon great winds that would collapse houses or inflict Job with a severe illness causing sores all over his body. Satan and his demons are the source of Job's suffering; their actions would also be categorized as resulting from oral evil, and not natural evil.

Not all evil can be dismissed as moral evil, though. As the recent earthquake in Nepal shows, God did fashion the world to work in a certain way. I take up that portion of the response in this post. For now, simply realize that the evil men can do may have consequences beyond what we immediately see. Moral failings have far-reaching implications and it isn't fair to blame God for the evil that men do.

References

1. Zuesse, Eric. "Love Canal: The Truth Seeps Out." Reason.com. Reason Foundation. 01 Feb. 1981. Web. 10 June 2015. http://reason.com/archives/1981/02/01/love-canal/1.
2. Zuesse, 1981.
3. Zuesse, 1981.
4. "Love Canal Timeline." Niagara Gazette. Niagara Gazette, 26 July 2006. Web. 10 June 2015. http://www.niagara-gazette.com/news/local_news/headline-no-love-canal-timeline/article_a049cccd-77a1-5692-a824-706a200b927f.html.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Why God Doesn't Reduce the Evil in the World?



The invention of the automobile was a pivotal moment in human history. The locomotive had been around for nearly 100 years and was instrumental in moving people and goods long distances. But the fact that locomotives ran on rails didn't make it functional for short trips to varying destinations. People still had to rely on horses or horse-drawn buggies.

When the mass-produced automobile debuted, it changed everything. People had significantly more freedom once they owned an automobile. They could choose to go where they wished at any time they wished. They could take luggage and supplies with them. Roads, being much cheaper to build and maintain than rails, also began to appear everywhere and highways stretched across the country opening up even more opportunities.

Of course, as the number of drivers increased, the number of accidents increased as well. Cars could be dangerous, especially to pedestrians. If cars were placed on tracks, the number of fatalities could have been decreased, but doing so would defeat the purpose of the automobile. A car on rails is an amusement park attraction, not an automobile.

God Created Humans as Free Creatures

I offer the automobile as one kind of illustration to help answer one objection for God's existence. When I'm on college campuses, I usually hear the question "Why would an all-good and all-powerful God allow evil in the world?" I normally offer the Free Will defense, stating God wanted to not simply create creatures, but he desired creatures that could freely choose to love him. Some may acquiesce to the idea that God would have to allow people to choose and therefore some kind of evil is inevitable, but many offer a second objection. They usually ask, "But why would a good God allow so much evil? There's just too much suffering in the world for God to exist."

Of course their objection is loaded with assumptions. One may be that God could just remove all the truly evil people in the world. The first question I have is where should God draw the line? How much evil should he allow and how much should he quell? You may think that a gang-banger who kills people should definitely be included, but then we've lost a Nicky Cruz, who later event on to become a powerful evangelist, leading thousands to Christ. What about cheats and liars? How did you do on your taxes last year? God will at some point remove all the evil in the world; that day is known as Armageddon, the end of the world. Until then, God allows the rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike.

Couldn't God just suppress the evil people do?

Another assumption is that God can somehow tamper with someone's evil desires, yet not have people lose their autonomy. They seem to be saying that we could have a world much like our own, where human beings are truly free, yet their freedom to choose evil ways is suppressed. Just how does God do that? An all-powerful God could take away the ability of people to choose to kill or rape or steal, but what would be the result? God would be making them something less than full human beings. They would be limited to run on the tracks that God provided for them rather than have the freedom to choose their own path.

If we recognize God as wholly good, it would be an evil thing for God to change a free creature to something that is less than free. No one wants to be a Stepford Wife against his or her will. Just as an automobile is reduced to something less when it is placed on tracks, so human beings are reduced to something less when their ability to make free choices is removed.

We do see a lot of evil in this world. But that doesn't mean God is doing nothing about it. We see God working to stem the evil through his teachings and through his church. That's one reason Christians are so passionate about issues like human sex-trafficking, feeding the poor, and ministering to those with drug and alcohol problems. It's also why we're so passionate about issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, where others would resist these moral principles. We want to stand against evil, even though it can be unpopular. However, to assume there can be less evil in the world without substantially altering the free choices of human beings is to assert more than one can prove.

We can think of it this way: the first and greatest commandment is to love God with one's heart, soul, mind, and strength. To not love God is a sin; it's evil. Believing in God would go a tremendous way in stopping murders and rapists from their evil ways, too. So, how many atheists are willing to let God forcibly change their minds about His existence?

Image courtesy Thomas Mielke and licensed via the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic (CC BY 2.5) License

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

God Allows Evil for the Good


There is a lot of evil in the world. I don't think that's controversial statement; most people would agree with it. But is the presence of evil good evidence to hold that God does not exist? That's what many atheists argue. They claim an all-good God could have created a world where no evil exits. Some have gone so far to argue that the fact that evil exists at all proves an all-good God doesn't.

But is this argument sound? I don't think so. In his book God, Freedom, and Evil, Alvin Plantinga lays out a very careful argument for why an all-good God would create a world where evil exists. Plantinga writes:
A world containing creatures who are significantly free (and freely perform more good than evil actions) is more valuable, an else being equal, than a world containing no free creatures at all. Now God can create free creatures, but He can't cause or determine them to do only what is right. For if He does so, then they aren't significantly free after all; they do not do what is right freely. To create creatures capable of moral good, therefore, He 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. As it turned out, sadly enough, some of the free creatures God created went wrong in the exercise of their freedom; this is the source of moral evil. The fact that free creatures sometimes go wrong, however, counts neither against God's omnipotence nor against His goodness; for He could have forestalled the occurrence of moral evil only by removing the possibility of moral good.1
I think this argument is correct. God valued significantly free creatures so much that he allowed them the ability to choose to do evil. I've previously offered a digestible example in a short video you can find here.


Plantinga, Alvin. God, Freedom, and Evil. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977. Print. 30.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Why Would a Loving God Allow the Earthquake in Nepal?

Like most people, I grieve for the tremendous tragedy the Nepalese people are suffering after a violent 7.8 earthquake and its aftershocks devastated much of the nation on Saturday. According to the latest reports, over 4,800 people have dies and at least 9,200 have been injured in the disaster.1 Those numbers are staggering and help is desperately needed for the survivors.

Of course, when a tragedy like this happens, questions of why arise. I saw one meme that shows an image of a girl praying with the superimposed text:
 "Dear God, please help the victims of that terrible earthquake — wait, aren't you the one that created it? Why are we asking you for help? This makes no sense!" (Emphasis in the original.)

As with most memes, this is a dramatic oversimplification of an issue that seeks to sound good without thinking through its underlying assumptions.

I don't think there's any doubt that this meme is meant to argue against the existence of God. It seems to be implying at least two reasons to hold that belief in God is unreasonable. The broader question is "Why would a loving God create something as devastating as earthquakes?" But another question may be "Why would a loving God allow such a devastating earthquake strike such an impoverished nation like Nepal where the death toll would most certainly be high?" Let's look at each in turn.

Earthquakes and Life

The causes of earthquakes are studied by geologists in a rather new field of science named plate tectonics. As this LiveScience article explains, scientists believe the Earth's outer layer is like a hard shell broken into several plates that move over the earth's mantle. When the mantle pushes and pulls these plates, they rub against one another in certain ways, causing earthquakes. Sometimes plates are pulled apart, such as the process that forms the deep trenches in the oceans, sometimes they rub sideways like those like in Los Angeles's San Andreas fault, and sometimes one plate is pushed underneath another, like the plates that for the fault in Nepal.2 The plate movement in Nepal is much faster than most other plates on earth, and it is the reason why eight of the ten highest mountains on earth fall within the borders of the small nation.3

As we learn more about the earth's plates and their movements, astrobiologists and geologists are beginning to discover just how crucial plate tectonics is for life to exist. In their book Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe, Drs. Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee note that of all the planets we observe in our solar system, only the earth has signs of shifting plates in the form of mountain ranges and ocean basins.4 Some of the key benefits they list concerning plate tectonics are:5
  • It promotes high levels of global biodiversity as species as they must adapt to different environments which ensures they don't fall extinct easily.
  • It manages the amount chemicals that form carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, helping to keep the earth's temperature stable, keeping liquid water abundant on the planet.
  • It creates ocean basins and lifts dry land out of the sea, allowing advanced life like humans to be land-dwelling animals.
  •  It also recirculates the minerals that erosion has deposited in the sea,
  • Finally, it creates earth's magnetic field, sheltering life from "potentially lethal influx of cosmic radiation, and solar wind "sputtering" (in which particles from the sun hit the upper atmosphere with high energy) might slowly eat away at the atmosphere, as it has on Mars."
Ward and Brownlee conclude that if there were no more earthquakes, the earths temperatures would quickly become unlivable and "planetary calamity for complex life would occur shortly after the cessation of plate movement."6 Earthquakes are necessary for you and me to exist on earth at all.

Why would such a poor country be hit by such a big earthquake?

At this point the atheist may narrow his claim and simply ask "OK, but why would God allow such devastation in an area where there are so many people?" AS I explained above, there are many areas such as the sea floor where these kinds of earthquakes occur and they hurt no one. But land-based earthquakes are necessary to do some of the things I mentioned above. It is no surprise that Nepal is prone to devastating earthquakes. The Himalayas attest to the fault's activity. In fact, the last devastating quake happened in 1934, killing about 10,000 people. Geologist Hongfeng Yang said that geology of that part of the world is "generally consistent and homogenous" and the region should expect a severe earthquake every four to five decades.7

I live in Southern California, with my house very close to the San Andreas Fault. We know that the San Andreas is overdue for a very large earthquake. While we don't know when it will come, it is a recognized danger. Both private citizens and the government have made preparations for when "the big one" hits. In Nepal, the warnings of the 1990's were ignored, as Samrat Upadhyay explained in his recent article in the Los Angeles Times.8 My survival may depend on having emergency supplies in my home if an earthquake hits. But in other areas of the world, planning and infrastructure buttressing may be thwarted not by God but by the corruption or greed of those responsible for such safeguards. While no one can assume there would be no loss of life in any natural disaster, the loss of lives can be significantly mitigated by those who live in the area.

 The meme seeks to blame God for creating earthquakes.  Yet, without them, our world may be a sterile as Mars or as lifeless as Venus. People have the capability to prevent a significant amount of damage and loss of life from the quakes. Perhaps we should begin by investigating why no one acted on the warnings instead of trying to point an uninformed finger at God.

References

1. Watson, Ivan, Jethro Mullen, and Laura Smith-Spark. "Nepal Earthquake: Death Toll Climbs above 4,600." CNN. Cable News Network, 28 Apr. 2015. Web. 29 Apr. 2015. http://www.cnn.com/2015/04/28/asia/nepal-earthquake/.
2. Oskin, Becky. "What Is Plate Tectonics?" LiveScience. TechMedia Network, 04 Dec. 2014. Web. 29 Apr. 2015. http://www.livescience.com/37706-what-is-plate-tectonics.html.
3. McClain, Sean, and Shirley S. Wang. "How the Nepal Earthquake Happened Like Clockwork." WSJ. The Wall Street Journal, 26 Apr. 2015. Web. 29 Apr. 2015. http://www.wsj.com/articles/how-the-nepal-earthquake-happened-like-clockwork-1430044358.
4. Ward, Peter D., and Donald Brownlee. Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe. New York: Copernicus, 2000. Kindle Edition. 194.
5. Ward and Brownlee, 194.
6. Ward and Brownlee, 206.
7. McClain and Wang, 2015.
8. Upadhyay, Samrat. "Nepal Earthquake: We Had Been Warned." Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 28 Apr. 2015. Web. 29 Apr. 2015. http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-0428-upadhyay-nepal-earthquake-20150427-story.html.
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