The Problem of Good

Dan Valade —  October 16, 2010 — 2 Comments

The Problem of Good

Philosophers and theologians have argued and debated for years about the problem of evil.  The problem, for the theist, is to reconcile the existence of evil in the world with the existence of a god who is all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful.  The standard form of logic would dictate that if god truly possessed these qualities he would not allow evil to exist at all.  Of course theists have always responded that there is no problem at all.  They offer various answers in attempt to nullify the logical dilemma presented, however the argument itself stands as a major stumbling block for them. “The existence of evil is the greatest mystery in the life of the world and causes the greatest embarrassment to official theological doctrine and to all monistic philosophy.”

The great need for an adequate response has always been high and continues to present a significant debate within the church and the world.

This post will attempt to explain why the problem of evil continues to cause debate and discussion after so many years and why so many individuals involved in the argument take it so personally.  The origins of the problem as well as the potential responses will be considered before any official position is offered.  Further, a brief overview of the free-will defense theodicy will lead to a final discussion of a new problem, the problem of good.  The argument ultimately taken is that the problem has always been asked backwards, in that the existence of evil does not prove there is no god, but the existence of any good proves there is.

Of all the discussions that can be engaged in with regards to the existence of a god the problem of evil is perhaps the most personal and emotional.  On one hand the discussion can regard evil as a far away, distant occurrence.  On the other hand it is difficult to imagine anyone who has not felt the effects of evil in their own life through personal suffering.  It is because of the extremely personal nature that the discussion allows that Dr. Brad Burke comments, “The questions surrounding God and our suffering represent some of the most personal, heartrending, and difficult questions ever asked in all of history.”

In addition to the already heated debate of theism versus atheism the problem of evil now exists on two levels.  The level of intellect and logic and the level of the heart.

The problem itself was first stated by Epicurus (341-270 B.C.E.) and classically formulated by Dvvid Hume (1711-1776) who said,

Epicurus’ old questions are yet unanswered.  Is he [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able?  Then he is impotent.  Is he able, but not willing?  Then he is malevolent.  Is he both able and willing?  Whence then is evil?

Even after all these years the question has not changed.  The potential responses have not changed over the years either.

In essence, there are five logically distinguishable responses to this problem.  One may (1) deny that God exists (atheism), (2) deny that God is all-loving (dualism), (3) deny that God is all-powerful (finitism), (4) deny that evil exists (illusionism), or (5) affirm that all three of the propositions in the list above are true (theism).

The first four options all have their own intricacies and nuances as their implications are explored.  For the purpose of this paper, discussion will be limited to the last option, deism, and the answers therein.

Throughout the years there have been several answers offered, called theodicies.  A theodicy is simply an answer to the problem of evil and it usually distinguishes between natural evil and moral evil.  Natural evil being those catastrophic events of nature that occur without warning, wreck havoc, bring damage, and often cause death to human and animal life.  Moral evil is the willful actions of human beings that hurt, take advantage of, or cause the death of other human beings.  Unfortunately this divide does not always help to alleviate the problem.  Evil is evil no matter what kind  it is and the existence of any kind of evil is the crux of the problem.  To distinguish between the two types and choose one as more evil than the other simply doesn’t prove anything.  As Jerry Garcia said, “Constantly choosing the lesser of two evils is still choosing evil.”

While there are sometimes distinctions made between these two kinds of evil, the Christian response usually combines the two, at least in terms of their philosophical source.  The most popular Christian response is found in the free will theodicy.  This theodicy states that in God’s desire to create free beings who would be loved by Him there necessarily exists the potential for their rejection of His love and their rebellion from His goodness, “if God created beings who were free to sin, he could not at the same time guarantee that they did not sin.”

Therein lies the heart of the theodicy, in order for God to bring about the ultimate amount of goodness in the world, the existence of evil had to be allowed, thus evil is part of God’s plan.

This is seemingly inconsistent with the doctrine of His goodness, for how could an all good God allow any form of evil?  How could a loving, caring God allow any form of suffering, even if it was part of a greater plan?

All suffering, no matter what it is, falls under the umbrella of God’s permissive will.  Satan may occasionally be used as a “hit man” or an instrument of such suffering, but in the end it is God who allows the tragedy as an integral part of his sovereign will.

The doctrine and belief in Satan stands to personify the existence of evil and to offer an scapegoat who can be blamed for it but the logical conclusion to his existence is that he to is part of God’s ultimate plan.  This poses severe dilemmas for the Christian.

The Bible presents several characteristics of God which include omniscience (all-knowing), omnipotence (all-powerful), and wholly good (His justice is pure).  This presentation of God is one that does not include any form of evil in His being.  Yet throughout the Bible the notion of sin is present, being the source and form of evil in the world.  Today, one would be hard pressed to deny the existence of evil, call it suffering or sin.

For the atheist the problem is far easier to deal with.  Without belief or acknowledgement of a god there is not much to discuss.  “The problem of evil, in the sense in which I shall be using the phrase, is a problem only for someone who believes that there is a God who is both omnipotent and wholly good.”

This claim also reduces the argument for those who choose to modify the definition of God and his apparent characteristics.

However, the Christian does have the option to argue from supra logic, pointing to an understanding of good and evil that is beyond human understanding.  The supra logic that good is the ultimate goal, and that God is ultimate goodness allows the contradictions on earth to stand with an eye to the eternal as the elimination of them.

Bishop Butler, whilst holding that none of the attempted solutions of the problem of evil are adequate, admitted that the virtue and happiness of creatures must be the chief end of a wise and good Creator, though the best means to the attainment of that end may not be as yet be comprehensible.

That it is incomprehensible takes the matter out of the hands of the philosophers, the theologians, and the working class and allows God to deal with it and answer it as He sees fit.  This is an ultimate reply to faith.  For the Christian there can be much comfort in allowing this theodicy to stand, to “give it to God” and to be reminded that the clay has no right to question the potter.  But this is an insufficient response as it does not adequately consider the atheist, or agnostic.  How can the existence of evil be explained to them?

It is now proposed that perhaps the problem has been reversed all these years.  As such, no adequate answer could be compelled from anyone with the question being the opposite of what it should be.  Instead of attempting to show that the existence of evil disproves the existence of God, let it be proposed that the existence of good proves the existence of God.  On one hand this is not a new argument,

Muslim philosophers and theologians respond to the problem of suffering in various ways.  They argue, for example, that the evil in the world is relatively much less than the good in the world.

It should be easily shown that this is true, there is much more good than there is evil.  Even when evil happens, both natural and moral, good inevitably rises out of the darkness and shines all the brighter.  When men kill and, others heal.  When tornadoes, hurricanes, and other natural disasters threaten lives and destroy homes, strangers travel great distances to help.  The fact that any fundraising happens anywhere stands in sharp contrast to the selfishness most people think of others.

The Christian can look at the world, realize the existence of Satan and be overwhelmed at the potential evil that could happen.  There is no way but to understand the God is an active force of good in this world, feigning off much evil.  “God has definitely been hard at work to limit the amount of evil in our world – even if it doesn’t appear so.”

That it doesn’t always appear so is often because no one wants to look for it.  The media knows how to feed the appetite of men by focusing on the evil.  “The problem of evil” is stated with evil as the primary focus, instead of “the problem of good”, which focuses on the good.

This reversal of the question and focus on the goodness in life instead of the evil still does not fully answer the question.  It does offer a more approachable position.  From here it is easy to distinguish eight avenues that God has indeed brought goodness to the world in spite of the presence of evil.

  1. God shortened the lifespan of humanity.  In their original state mankind lived upwards of 900 years!  With the entrance of sin into human existence God brought the lifespan of man to a maximum of 120 years.  On one hand this seems to be a punishment for sin, and it is, but on the other hand it is a curb to the amount of power individuals could gain and the amount of evil anyone could carry out.  God acted so that humans could still experience Him and His grace but at the same time exercised protection that did not limit freedom.
  2. God instituted governments.  The garden state was a true sovereign state.  God interacted with mankind directly.  However, orderly human conduct was required after the fall to ensure that evil would not reign supreme.  While those in western cultures will argue that democracy and the free state are the ultimate expression of that instituted government, even socialist, or communist states, where there is no allowance or consideration for a deity provide more good to their citizens the a full anarchist state.
  3. God scattered the nations.  At the tower of Babel mankind worked together and found themselves in the midst of evil deeds.  In the separation of mankind into smaller people groups, spread over geographical boundaries, the banding together of proud hearts was eliminated, at least for a time.  This allowed good to flow in various forms, for various cultures and denied evil the momentum to overthrow all.
  4. Wicked nations were punished.  Not all people groups were left alone to define themselves and create governments.  Those nations that exercised wild abandon and poured themselves into the pursuit of evil were punished.  From Sodom to Nazi Germany evil has been extinguished every time it sought to rise over the entire world.
  5. The weather provides natural avenues for mankind to turn to God.  In times of severe natural disaster mankind is afforded the opportunity to love the stranger, to turn to God for comfort and aid and to have the pride and arrogance of modern advancements kept in check.  Man is constantly reminded that for all the knowledge and power accumulated there is still much that is beyond control.
  6. The law.  God sought to communicate to the world, first through the nation of Israel.  They were given a law, which provided safety and well being for those who would seek to follow it.  In the New Testament this is furthered by becoming a moral law that indicates the state of mans heart.  Other world religions all have some sort of moral law or code that is communicated to its people in order for order and goodness thrive and for evil to be averted.
  7. It is through these world religions that the entire world was kept in check.  While the Bible clearly shows that there is one true God and that the worship of false gods is an evil in itself, it is through these false religions that the spiritual element of men was kept alive and moral codes were spread.  For the Christian apologist it is far easier to witness to someone who already believes in a deity and a creation than a complete atheist.  Even through false religions evil was averted.
  8. The Spirit of God Himself  is sent to indwell His church.  The Spirit of God works in the lives of Christians to continually weed out evil in their lives, to continually become more good.  It is only through the Spirit that they can grasp onto the supra logic of the work of God.  It is through the Spirit that the church is called to be the “salt of the earth” and to exercise humility, love and grace to all those around them.

All of these are fine arguments for the Christian.  The dilemma of the atheist or agnostic still stands in light of them and likely will continue to.  The problem if evil cannot be argued or proven to someone who is looking for evil.  For those who are willing to reverse the question and look for the problem of good the avenue towards faith in the Christian God is short.

It is only in the Christian faith that the existence of evil makes any sense, and it is only at the cross that the answer to the age old question can be found.  At the cross there is the crux of all humanity, the collision of good and evil once and for all.

It is only in the cross that the depth of both human evil and of God’s mercy receive their fullest manifestation.  Rather than explaining evil or explaining away the scandal of the suffering of the innocent, the cross reveals the depth of divine love and frees the disciple to face the suffering other in a posture of charity.

It is at this cross that one can understand the love of God and the goodness that He offers overthrows the evil in the world.  It is at the cross that the problem truly becomes focused on the goodness and grace of God.

Bibliography

Basinger, David, William Hasker, Michael Peterson, and Bruce Reichenbach. Reason and Religious Belief: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion. 3 ed. New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 2002.

Berdyaev, Nicolas. The Divine and the Human. Enl ed. London: Semantron Press, 2009.

Burke, Brad. Why Does God Allow Suffering?: An M.D. Examines. Acambaro: Victor, 2006.

Burke, Brad. Why Doesn’t God Stop Evil: An MD Examines. Acambaro: Victor, 2006.

Hume, David. A TREATISE OF HUMAN NATURE, BOOK I, II, III IN ONE VOLUME. Oxford: The Clarendon Press., Oxford, 1949.

McLean, George. Karol Wojtyla’s Philosophical Legacy. New York: The , 2008.

Philosophy of Religion: Selected Readings. 3 ed. New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 2006.

Shields, Charles. Philosophia Ultima (Amer Philosophy, Religion). Bedford: Applewood Books, 2009.

Taylor, James E. Introducing Apologetics: Cultivating Christian Commitment. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2006.

Yaran, Cafer S.. Islamic Thought on the Existence of God: Contributions and Contrasts With Contemporary Western Philosophy of Religion (Cultural Heritage and Contemporary Change. Series Iia, Islam, V. 16). Washington D.C. : Council For Research In Values And Philosophy, 2003.

Dan Valade

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Jesus Follower, Pastor, Church Planter, Husband, Father Church planting in the small town of Belle River, ON.
  • http://www.perpetualproverbs.com Pumice

    In 1975, while in Seminary, I wrote a paper on “The Problem of Good.” My professor wrote on the title page, “Is good a problem?” I earned an A- on the paper.

    I think I had a broader definition of evil than you were working with. One of the points I made was the finality of evil. You can spend 25 years raising a child to be Godly and responsible and your work can be wiped out by a drunk driver in a moment. There is no reprieve.

    The reason that this is important is that goodness keeps emerging out of the pool of evil. The only possible source of this goodness is from God. Dying for someone else is not a survival trait but it is what love motivates us to do.

    Interesting.

    Grace and peace

  • http://northshorechurch.ca Dan Valade

    Pumice,

    Thanks for the kind words and congrats on the A-! You are absolutely right, good continues to rise out of evil. Even the Chilean miners are an example of this.

    Dan