The Problem of Evil and God’s Moral Character

Criticisms over the last decade have been raging from the particularly atheistic side of literature in regards to the moral atrocities caused in the name of religion. A true hallmark of criticism would soon result in a loud secular battle cry from the September 11 attacks when the two twin towers fell due to an act of extreme political and religious terrorism. As R.C. Sproul rightly accounts in his book, When Worlds Collide (2002):

Since the September 11 attacks on the United States, there has been much public discussion about the role of God in our lives. [1]

A manner of criticism however comes from the neo-atheistic movement often identified as the “New Atheists”. Though as I am sure most of us are familiar, these group of individuals – notoriously associated with the “Four Horseman of Atheism”: Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett – have become widespread in hope of a new age of secularism (or according to the International Academy of Humanism in 2005, “Toward a New Enlightenment”). One area of first importance that I hope will theme this post comes from Richard Dawkins’ famous passage from his book The God Delusion (2006), where he writes:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty, ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully. [2]

This surely seems to be a dashing blow to the knees of Christianity; the struggling Christian may be left to stand tough grounds against the “hermenuetically inclined” skeptic, while in reality however, that very Christian has yet to uncover the superfluous rhetoric and sophistry associated with this New Atheist retort.  As Paul Copan rightly recognizes in his 2011 book, Is God a Moral Monster?: “the Neo-atheists’ arguments against God’s existence are surprisingly flimsy, often resembling the simplistic village atheist far more than the credential academician” [3]. Indeed, as Rodney Stark puts it:

To expect to learn anything about important theological problems from Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett is like expecting to learn about medieval history from someone who had only read Robin Hood. [4]

In this post I hope to deal with the several accusations against the supposed Christian dilemma of the existence of evil and its inconsistency with the goodness of God. Manifestly, these arguments gain “ammo” from the apparent moral atrocities committed in “the name of God” under the Old Testament record. God, as the argument goes, presents himself as obsessed with “his own superiority over rival gods and with the exclusiveness of his chosen tribe” [5].

Modern Thinkers and Objections

William Rowe in his volume, God and the Problem of Evil (2001) has an interesting analysis of various views from philosophers of contradicting traditions in regards to the Problem of Evil. In context of the more logical versions of the argument, Rowe writes:

Two statements are logically inconsistent provided it is logically impossible for both of them to be true. If we can prove that GOD EXISTS and EVIL EXISTS are logically inconsistent, we will have proved that God does not exist, for it is obvious to any rational person that evil exists in the world. But can it be proved that GOD EXISTS and EVIL EXISTS are logically inconsistent? [6]

This question, which some philosophers have taken the burden of demonstrating to be the case, lies at the center of two given truths: (1) God’s goodness and (2) the existence of evil. The center or foundation between both would be the level of logical consistency we hold them both to be true. Mackie explains:

In its simplest form the problem is this: God is omnipotent; God is wholly good; and yet evil exists. There seems to be some contradiction between these three propositions, so that if any two of them were true the third would be false. [7]

Mackie’s position is that the theologian “cannot consistently adhere to all three” (Ibid. p. 78). My view however, is inclined to take Richard Swinburne’s path in suggesting that “we may still have stronger evidence to show that there is a God which outweighs the counterevidence, which suffices to make it rational for us to believe that there is a God” [8]. As such, the theist is not inclined to abandon all modes of rationality in holding these three propositions as true and logically consistent [9]:

  • God is Good.
  • God exists.
  • Evil exists.

An example of a more existential objection can be found in Walter Sinnott-Armstrong’s essay “Overcoming Christianity:

The Old Testament… began to look questionable, not only because its historical accounts were implausible in light of available records, but also because many of its moral teachings were repulsive. I could not see any reason to drown so many innocent children in Noah’s flood. Why didn’t God tell Noah to take some children along with the animals on his ark? [10]

Edwin Curley (an atheist philosopher) in a more conclusive manner also suggests that “to permit something to happen when you could have prevented it, and when you knew what would happen if you didn’t act, is not to escape responsibility for it” [11]. This is generally the consensus regarding God’s relationship with human affairs and its relation to evil. Some more harsh views, like from that of Bertrand Russell, is the view that Christianity is “the principal enemy of moral progress in the world” [12].

Views like that of Russell’s and others can be found in many other critical philosophers of Christianity can be found in such works by Ludwig Feuerbach, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud. Nietzsche and his critique of the Christian ethic is of particular interest, since he was a bit more rippling than the other mentioned philosophers in regards to their stance on religion. H.L. Mencken’s notable commentary on the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche makes the point clear:

Nietzsche’s astonishing keen and fearless criticism of Christianity has probably sent forth wider ripples than any other stone he ever heaved into the pool of philistine contentment [ … ] Christianity, says Nietzsche, is the most dangerous system of slave-morality the world has ever known. [13]

This ‘philistine contentment’ discussed by Mencken is most exemplified in Nietzsche’s later work, ‘The Antichrist’ (Der Antichrist) where he writes:

I condemn Christianity and confront it with the most terrible accusation that an accuser has ever had in his mouth. To my mind it is the greatest of all conceivable corruptions, it has had the will to the last imaginable corruption. The Christian Church allowed, nothing to escape from its corruption; it converted every value into its opposite, every truth into a lie, and every honest impulse into an ignominy of the soul. Let anyone dare to speak to me of its humanitarian blessings!… I call Christianity the one great curse, the one enormous and innermost perversion, the one great instinct of revenge, for which no means are too venomous, to understand… [14]

Nietzsche is definitely on board with the postmodernist regime in regards to his critique of religion. Earlier in his book he writes that a “religion such as Christianity which never once comes in touch with reality, and which collapses the very moment reality asserts its rights even on one single point, must naturally be a mortal enemy of the ‘wisdom of this world’ – that is to say, science” (Ibid. p. 51).

The God of the Old Testament

As the criticisms go, surely there are strange acts in the Old Testament that can be deemed “appalling” and “repulsive”. To name a few examples:

  • David’s plot to kill Uriah the Hittite so that he might lay with his wife Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11:1-4, 17).
  • Lot was seduced by his daughters who would later give birth to his children (see Genesis 19:31-36).
  • God drowns the entire population of the earth (Genesis 7:21-23).
  • God kills all first-born Egyptian children (see Exodus 12:29).
  • A concubine was raped and left to die; then was later divided into twelve pieces by a Levite priest (see Judges 19:23-29).

And of course the list abounds. However, a matter of commenting before we continue is in order. As Wesley Morriston writes in his paper, Did God Command Genocide? (2009), “At some point, any thoughtful Christian who believes the Bible to be ‘inerrant’ must come to terms with the harsh and sometimes shocking behavior of the God of the Old Testament” [15]. Most modern Christians in being faced with these tough questions are often left in silence for a reply; the task of a response is perhaps sometimes even unattainable. Paul Copan writes:

As people of the Book, Christians should honestly reflect on such matters. Unfortunately, most pastors and Christian leaders are reluctant to tackle such subjects, and results are fairly predictable. When uninformed Christians are challenged about these texts, they may be rattled in their faith. [16]

As a matter of concern, the opinions of many modern thinkers in regards to Old Testament texts have been grounded upon their own hermenuetically ignorant scrutiny; to which, when examined closely, do not withhold consistently compared to proper understandings and readings of the text that they criticize. Consider for example Abraham sacrificing his son Isaac:

Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”

Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”

Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?” “Yes, my son?” Abraham replied. “The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”

Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together. When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied. “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.” (Genesis 22:2-14; NIV)

This passage, according to Dawkins, is an easily deemed case of “child abuse” and “bullying” (Dawkins, 275) which will result in “psychological trauma.” Dawkins then later identifies the essence of Abraham’s actions to be tantamount to the atrocious Nuremberg Defense: “I was only obeying orders”. Other interpretations of this passage (Kierkegaard) suggest that faith is the “teleological suspension of the ethical” – i.e., “in serving God, one is beyond all consideration of good and evil. One ‘acts by virtue of the absurd” [17].

Dawkins then finishes in his critique of Genesis 22 that “modern theologians will protest that the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac should not be taken as literal fact” (Dawkins, 275). Of course, as seeing this response as absurd, Dawkins considers the matter of interpreting Abraham’s story as allegorical to be an “obscene piece of special pleading” (Ibid. p. 275).

Theological Response to Genesis 22

Matters of first importance suggest that in this passage Abraham was in fact being tested (“Some time later God tested Abraham” – v. 1). As Matthew Henry writes in his commentary, “The author of the trial: God tempted him, not to draw him to sin but to discover his graces, how strong they were, that they might be found to praise, and honor, and glory, 1 Pet. I. 7″ [18]. Even more so, what is the significance of Abraham’s statement in verse 5? – “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.” (v. 5; NIV, emphasis mine). It is the case that:

  • Abraham knew that God would raise his son Isaac from the dead. (cf. Hebrews 11:19)

Support for the above statement can be in God’s promise to Isaac later on in Genesis 26:3, “Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you and will bless you, for to you and to your offspring I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham your father” (NIV; see also vv. 2-5). Especially in Genesis 21:12 where God says, “Whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for through Isaac shall your offspring be named” (NIV). As Paul Copan states to emphasis my point: “God assured Abraham that Isaac, not Ishmael, was the promised son” (Copan, 48).

Passing Response to the [Logical] Problem of Evil 

In Norman Geisler’s ‘Introduction to Philosophy’ (1980), he rewrites the logical problem of evil in different fashion:

  • (1) God exists.
  • (2) Evil exists.
  • [(3) There is no good purpose for evil.]
  • (4) Therefore, both (1) and (2) cannot be true.
  • (5) But we know (2) is true.
  • (6) Therefore, God cannot exist. (p. 324)

The burden at this point then falls on the atheist claiming to know several things that William Rowe himself pointed out above: (1) the logical inconsistency of God and evil, (2) no morally sufficient reasons for allowing evil, and (3) the mind of God. As the argument goes, the atheist cannot adequately account for all three. Since, as Geisler writes, “an important point sometimes overlooked by the non-theist is that since the point disputed here is logical or conceptual, all the theist needs to do is show some possible explanation for evil to defeat the non-theist’s claim. Theists are not obligated to show in fact that this is the case” (p. 324).

Matters of exposing the logical compatibility between the three propositions (a) God exists (b) God is good and (c) evil exists is neatly addressed by Alvin Plantinga. You can also see my other posts on the Problem of Evil addressing these points.

________________

Notes:

  • [1] R.C. Sproul, When Worlds Collide (Crossway: 2002) p. 12
  • [2] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Mariner Books: 2006) p. 51
  • [3] Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster (Baker Books: 2011) p. 17
  • [4] Rodney Stark, What Americans Really Believe, 120
  • [5] Dawkins, 37
  • [6] William Rowe, God and the Problem of Evil (Wiley-Blackwell: 2001) p. 75
  • [7] J.L. Mackie in Evil and Omnipotence, quoted from William Rowe, p. 78
  • [8] Richard Swinburne in Evidential Argument From Evil, quoted from William Rowe, p. 240
  • [9] We will examine later after this point a critique from Alvin Plantinga in regards to Mackie’s position – i.e., God and Other Minds, 2nd edn. (Cornell: 1990) p. 131
  • [10] Walter S. Armstrong in Philosophers Without Gods, ed. Louise Antony (Oxford: 2007) p. 72
  • [11] Ibid., p. 81
  • [12] Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian (Simon and Schuster: 1957) p. 21
  • [13] H.L. Mencken, The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (Barnes&Noble: 2006) p. 89, p. 93
  • [14] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist (Barnes&Noble: 2006) pp. 74-75
  • [15] Wesley Morriston, Did God Command Genocide? in Philosophia Christi (vol. 11, No. 1, 2009)
  • [16] Paul Copan, p. 20
  • [17] Sidney Hook, Modern Knowledge and the Concept of God in Critiques of God, ed. Peter Angeles (Promotheus: 1997)
  • [18] Matthew Henry, The Matthew Henry Commentary (Zondervan: 1961) p. 40

5 responses to “The Problem of Evil and God’s Moral Character

  1. A beautiful mind produce clear thinking in Christ for the glory of God and joy of his people. Thank you for showing what thinking for the majesty of God is as you go in depth to tackle what I consider hard questions of God’s character.

    • My apologies, I know the post ends rather abruptly, but there is a continuation that finishes in response to the logical problem of evil coming up (part II if you will).

  2. Pingback: In Response to the Logical Problem of Evil | Hellenistic Christendom·

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