Theodicy and Free Will

Good discussion today, we covered a lot of ground.

The conversation began around the problem of evil, something we have touched on before This is an ancient problem. It was formulated by the Greek philosopher Epicurus.

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.

Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.

Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?

Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

— The Epicurean paradox, ~300 BCE

To help us out on this, we watched the Crash Course Philosophy video on this topic,

We explored a couple of different responses to this argument. The first is that the argument, in a way, undermines itself. If you say that the allowance of suffering by God is “evil,” but then conclude that God does not exist, you are at pains to explain the basis for your definition of “evil.” It’s a case of begging the question. A way out of this would be to argue that the system is only internally incoherent. It is not necessary for the arguer to agree with Christianity’s definition of good/evil in order to point out that its God’s actions appear to be evil by the rules of its own system. It is not necessary to agree with the premises of an argument in order to demonstrate that it is faulty. The problem is then to show how, by Christianity’s own rules, God is acting in an “evil” manner. Then the question comes down to Biblical evidence. And the Bible consistently reiterates that God is good, and that everything he does is good, even if it is to allow evil, natural or otherwise.

There are other responses. One common defense is the free will defense, which says that God, in his omnipotence, has allowed humans to have free will, and that humans misuse this free will. That explains human evil, but it doesn’t explain natural evil. And isn’t this another way of saying that God isn’t all-powerful, even if it’s his decision to become less powerful? If you have human free will (as it is commonly conceived, i.e., God does not control what people do), then you don’t have an all-powerful God.

But there are even more problems. In the free-will formulation, God’s saving grace is an outstretched hand, which we freely grasp. But there are problems with this on the basis of the doctrines of sin and atonement. In the doctrine of sin, man’s heart is inherently corrupt, and it is impossible for him to save himself; it is impossible for him to turn his heart toward God. God has to act first, and that’s part of what the crucifixion was all about–God’s act of salvation. Instead of an outstretched hand that we freely choose to grasp as we are drowning in sin, it is a hand that reaches down into the water and pulls us out when we don’t even know that we are drowning, don’t even have the good sense to look for a hand to save us. If we are able to freely grasp the hand–to choose salvation–then what was the point of the cross? Merely an invitation? (And wouldn’t this mean that, theoretically, it were possible that all men choose against salvation, and then that Christ had died completely in vain?) If we follow this train of reasoning, it seems we must continue to limit God’s power and efficacy; he is not omnipotent.

If God is omnipotent, does his sovereignty mean that we don’t make decisions, that we are not responsible, etc.? Not necessarily. Only a certain formulation of free will says that it is incompatible with God’s sovereign control (hence the parenthetical  “as it is commonly conceived”). But another formulation says that the two can coexist, in the same way that light, studied under one circumstance exhibits the qualities of a wave, while under another exhibits the qualities of a particle. We don’t have the categories in which these two can coexist, but does that mean it is not possible? No.

God’s absolute sovereignty and initiative in salvation raises the specter of predestination, and its distasteful offspring, double predestination (God destines certain people for heaven, and others for hell, apparently arbitrarily). As offensive as these doctrines are, their offense does not prove them false. We will wrestle with this issue another time.

If the free-will defense fails and God is in sovereign control, then it appears that he is ultimately responsible for evil, even if we try to dodge the issue semantically by saying he merely “allows” it. How can else can we overcome this issue?

Another potential response attempts to dismantle the argument itself. The problem of evil asserts that the allowance of suffering is an unforgivable crime that God commits. But why is it a crime? Is the allowance of suffering bad? Is suffering the worst thing? We can all see how good often comes from suffering. The suffering in itself is unpleasant, and therefore probably “bad,” but if God is ultimately responsible for it, he has at least included in its design the reality that it can produce some sort of greater good, and in Christianity, he has taken responsibility for it by himself becoming a human and undergoing suffering, and using that suffering ultimately as the means of our own salvation.

You ask: Why does it have to be suffering? Why couldn’t he have chosen a less painful way to shape the world and work out his good purpose? Well, to ask these questions is to assert that you have a pretty good idea about the way the universe works–in fact, such a good idea that you can then assert that it would have been better if it had been designed differently from how it was. The proper retort, and the one that comes at the end of the Book of Job, is: are you in the businesses of creating universes? If you are, feel free to go ahead and create a better one than this. If not, then you are not in a position to judge the creator of the universe in his business of creating it. By many accounts, the assumptions behind the problem-of-evil argument are ones of unsupportable arrogance, grossly overestimating mankind’s understanding of and position in the universe.

This is a frustrating answer, because it doesn’t offer a counterclaim; it doesn’t give a reason why God allows suffering. But it rebuts to the problem of evil in two ways that seem sufficient to me: it says that no one has any business raising the objection in the first place, and additionally observes that even if we don’t know the reasons for God’s allowance of suffering, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any.

Although this type of discussion tends to exclude those who are not of the Christian faith, some found it helpful to be reminded that the religious system they object to as an atheist or agnostic is not a holistic system with all points of doctrine agreed upon by all adherents. There are many internal issues in all of these systems–Christianity, atheism, etc.–some of which are of crucial importance not only for those who subscribe to them but also to those who reject them.


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