Tag Archives: Alvin Plantinga
[Adapted from Ronald H. Nash. Worldviews in Conflict: Choosing Christianity in the World of Ideas. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, pp. 34-45).
“The Christian Worldview”
The Christian worldview is theistic in the sense that it believes in the existence of one supremely powerful and personal God. Theism differs from polytheism in its affirmation that there is only one God (Deut. 6:4). It parts company with the various forms of pantheism by insisting that God is personal and must not be confused with the world that is his creation. Theism must also be distinguished from panentheism, the position that regards the world as an eternal being that God needs in much the same way a human soul needs a body. Theists also reject panentheistic attempts to limit God’s power and knowledge, which have the effect of making the God of panentheism a finite being (For a fuller discussion, see Ronald Nash, ed., Process Theology. Panentheism can be thought of as a position somewhere between theism’s belief in a personal, almighty, all-knowing God and the impersonal god of pantheism that is identical in some way with nature or the world order. While the god of panentheism is not identical with the world, this god and the world necessarily co-exist eternally Another basic feature of panentheism is the denial of the view that God can act as an efficient cause, a belief that precludes any belief in either creation or in such miracles as the Incarnation or the Resurrection).
Other important attributes of God, such as his holiness, justice, and love are described in Scripture. Historical Christian theism is also trinitarian. The doctrine of the Trinity reflects the Christian conviction that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three distinct centers of consciousness sharing fully in the one divine nature and in the activities of the other persons of the Trinity. An important corollary of the doctrine is the Christian conviction that Jesus Christ is both fully God and fully man (It is important for Christians to realize that the belief that Jesus is fully God and fully man does not involve them in a logical contradiction. Critics of Christianity like to deceive people into thinking that this Christian claim is similar to believing that something is a square circle. It is not). Christians use the word incarnation to express their belief that the birth of Jesus Christ marked the entrance of the eternal and divine Son of God into the human race.
The Bible begins with the words, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Many early Christian thinkers found it important to draw out certain implications of the biblical view of God and stipulate that God created the world ex nihilo (from nothing), which is an important metaphysical tenet of the Christian worldview. This was necessary, they believed, to show the contrast between the Christian understanding of Creation and an account of the world’s origin found in Plato’s philosophy, a view held by a number of intellectuals in the early centuries of the Christian church (For more on this see Ron Nash. The Gospel and the Greeks). Plato had suggested that a godlike being, the Craftsman, had brought the world into being by fashioning an eternal or matter after the pattern of eternal ideas that existed independently of the Craftsman. Moreover, this creative activity took place in a space-time receptacle or box that also existed independently of the Craftsman. Such early Christian thinkers as Augustine wanted the world to know that the Christian God and the Christian view of Creation differed totally from this platonic picture. Plato’s god (if indeed that is an appropriate word for his Craftsman) was not the infinite, all-powerful, and sovereign God of the Christian Scriptures. Plato’s god was finite and limited. In the Christian account of Creation, nothing existed prior to Creation except God.
There was no time or space; there was no preexisting matter. Everything else that exists besides God depends totally upon God for its existence. If God did not exist, the world would not exist. The cosmos is not eternal, self-sufficient, or self-explanatory. It was freely created by God. The existence of the world, therefore, is not a brute fact; nor is the world a purposeless machine. The world exists as the result of a free decision to create by a God who is eternal, transcendent, spiritual (that is, nonmaterial), omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, loving, and personal. Because there is a God-ordained order to the creation, human beings can discover that order. It is this order that makes science possible; it is this order that scientists attempt to capture in their laws. The Christian worldview should be distinguished from any version of deism. This theory dared to suggest that although God created the world, he absents himself from the creation and allows it to run on its own. This view and several twentieth-century varieties seem to present the picture of a God (or god) who is incapable of acting causally within nature (This certainly appears to have been the view of such twentieth-century theologians as Paul Tillich and Rudolf Bultmann. While the term naturalism will be explained later, there is some justification for describing thinkers like Tillich and Bultmann as religious naturalists. They may have believed in God, but their God was effectively precluded from any providential or miraculous activity within the natural order). While no informed Christian will argue with the assured results of such sciences as physics, biology, and geology, the Christian worldview insists that divine activities such as miracles, revelation, and providence remain possible.
The study of epistemology can quickly involve one in fairly sticky problems. In fact, one should admit that on many epistemological issues (for example, the dispute between rationalists and empiricists – For the reader unfamiliar with these terms, an empiricist is a person who believes that all human knowledge can be traced back to bodily experience. A rationalist, on the other hand, believes that some human knowledge can originate in something other than sense experience) a wide variety of options seems to be consistent with other aspects of the Christian worldview. But there do seem to be limits to this tolerance. For example, the Christian worldview is clearly incompatible with universal skepticism, the self-defeating claim that no knowledge about anything is attainable. The fact that this kind of skepticism self-destructs becomes clear whenever one asks such a skeptic whether he knows that knowledge is unattainable.
It also seems obvious that a well-formed Christian worldview will exclude views suggesting that humans cannot attain knowledge about God. Christianity clearly proclaims that God has revealed information about himself (I defend this claim in Ron Nash. The Word of God and the Mind of Man). Nor will an informed Christian deny the importance of the senses in supplying information about the world. As St. Augustine observed, the Christian “believes also the evidence of the senses which the mind uses by aid of the body; for if one who trusts his senses is sometimes deceived, he is more wretchedly deceived who fancies he should never trust them” (Augustine. City of God, tran. Marcus Dods. New York: Modern Library, 1950, 19.18.). In his own theory of knowledge, Augustine was a rationalist in the sense that he gave priority to reason over sense experience. Augustine probably had a good theological reason for defending the general reliability of sense experience.
He undoubtedly realized that many claims made in the Bible depended upon eyewitness testimony. If the senses are completely unreliable, we cannot trust the reports of witnesses who say that they heard Jesus teach or saw him die or saw him alive three days after the Crucifixion. If the experiences of those who saw and heard a risen Christ were necessarily deceptive and unreliable, an important truth of the Christian faith is compromised. In recent Christian writings about the theory of knowledge, philosophers apparently operating on different tracks have found agreement on an important point. In the case of my own track (a kind of Christian rationalism that received its first formulation in the writings of St. Augustine), it is a mistake to accept an extreme form of empiricism that claims all human knowledge rises from sense experience. Older advocates of this empiricism used to illustrate their basic claim by arguing that the human mind at birth is like a tabula rasa, a blank tablet. At birth, the human mind is like a totally clean blackboard; absolutely nothing is written on it. In other words, human beings are born with no innate ideas or knowledge. As the human being grows and develops, the senses supply the mind with an ever-increasing stock of information. All human knowledge results, in this model, from what the mind does with ideas supplied through the senses—the basic building blocks of knowledge.
My alternative to this extreme kind of empiricism can be summarized in the claim that some human knowledge does not rise from sense experience (I consciously reject an extreme type of rationalism that claims no human knowledge rises from sense experience. Plato held this latter view. But as explained earlier, Augustine did not; nor do I). As many philosophers have noted, human knowledge of the sensible world is possible because human beings bring certain ideas, categories, and dispositions to their experience of the world. The impotence of empiricism is especially evident in the case of human knowledge of universal and necessary truth. Many things in the world could have been otherwise. The typewriter I am using at this moment happens to be brown, but it could have been red. Whether it is brown or not is a purely contingent feature of reality. Regardless of the color my typewriter happens to be, it could have been colored differently. But it is necessarily the case that my typewriter could not have been brown all over and red (or any other color) all over at the same time and in the same sense. The necessary truth that my typewriter is brown all over and not at the same time red all over cannot be a function of sense experience. Sense experience may be able to report what is fact at a particular time. But sense experience is incapable of grasping what must be the case at all times. The notions of necessity and universality can never be derived from our experience. Rather, they are notions (among others) that we bring to sense experience and use in making judgments about reality.
How do we account for the human possession of these categories of thought or innate ideas or dispositions that play such an indispensable role in human knowledge? According to a long and honored philosophical tradition that includes Augustine, Descartes, and Leibniz, human beings have these innate ideas, dispositions, and categories of thought by virtue of their creation by God. In fact, this may well be part of what is meant by the phrase the image of God (I have explored the roots of this theory in the writings of St. Augustine in my book The Light of the Mind: St. Augustine’s Theory of Knowledge. Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, 1969). After all (Christians believe). God created the world. It is reasonable to assume that he created humans in such a way as to make them capable of attaining knowledge of his creation. To go even further, it is reasonable to believe that he endowed the human mind with the ability to attain knowledge of himself.
Philosopher Alvin Plantinga has noted an important similarity between the role that God-given categories and dispositions play in human knowledge and what Reformed thinkers like John Calvin said about belief in God:
Reformed Theologians such as Calvin…have held that God has implanted in us a tendency…to accept belief in God under certain conditions. Calvin speaks, in this connection, of a “sense of deity inscribed in the hearts of all.” Just as we have a natural tendency to form perceptual beliefs under certain conditions, so says Calvin, we have a natural tendency to form such beliefs as God is speaking to me and God has created all this or God disapproves of what. I’ve done under certainly widely realized conditions (Alvin Plantinga, “Self-Profile,” in Alvin Plantinga, ed. James E. Tomberlin and Peter van Inwagen (Boston: D. Reidel, 1985), 63, 64. Plantinga’s quote comes from Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, bk. 1, chap. 3, 43–44).
Plantinga shows no reluctance to describe the idea of God as “innate,” that is, present in the mind from birth, not derived from experience. These are complex issues. But it is clear that the Christian worldview is no ally of skepticism. Human beings can know God’s creation; they are also capable of attaining knowledge about God. Nor should this surprise anyone. It is exactly what we should have expected.
The fact that all human beings carry the image of God (another of Christianity’s claims about human nature) explains why human beings are creatures capable of reasoning, love, and God-consciousness; it also explains why we are moral creatures. Of course, sin (yet another of Christianity’s important presuppositions about human beings) has distorted the image of God and explains why humans turn away from God and the moral law; why we sometimes go wrong with regard to our emotions, conduct, and thinking.
Because of the image of God, we should expect to find that the ethical recommendations of the Christian worldview reflect what all of us at the deepest levels of our moral being know to be true. As C. S. Lewis pointed out,
Christ did not come to preach any brand new morality… Really great moral teachers never do introduce new moralities; it is quacks and cranks who do that… The real job of every moral teacher is to keep on bringing us back, time after time, to the old simple principles which we are all so anxious not to see (C.S. Lewis. Mere Christianity, 78).
When one examines the moralities of different cultures and religions, certain differences do stand out. But Lewis was more impressed by the basic, underlying similarities:
Think of a country where people were admired for running away in battle, or where a man felt proud of doublecrossing all the people who had been kindest to him. You might just as well try to imagine a country where two and two made five. Men have differed as regards what people you ought to be unselfish to—whether it was only your own family, or your fellow countrymen, or everyone. But they have always agreed that you ought not to put yourself first. Selfishness has never been admired (Ibid., 19).
According to the Christian worldview, God is the ground of the laws that govern the physical universe and that make possible the order of the cosmos. God is also the ground of the moral laws that ought to govern human behavior and that make possible order between humans and within humans (Each of the areas dealing with God, ultimate reality, knowledge, ethics, and humankind includes its share of important but different questions that cannot be pursued in this study. One such problem in ethics is the precise relationship between God and morality. For some technical discussions of the topic, see Philip L. Quinn, Divine Commands and Moral Requirements. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978, and Robert Merrihew Adams, “A Modified Divine Command Theory of Ethical Wrongness” in Religion and Morality, Gene Outka and John P. Reeder, Jr., eds. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press, Doubleday, 1973).
Christian theism insists on the existence of universal moral laws. In other words, the laws must apply to all humans, regardless of when or where they have lived. They must also be objective in the sense that their truth is independent of human preference and desire.
Much confusion surrounding Christian ethics results from a failure to observe the important distinction between principles and rules. Let us define moral principles as more general moral prescriptions, general in the sense that they cover a large number of instances. Moral rules, on the other hand, will be regarded as more specific moral prescriptions that are, in fact, applications of principles to more concrete situations.
The difference between principles and rules has advantages and disadvantages. One advantage of moral principles is the fact that they are less subject to change. Because of the larger number of instances where they are applicable, they possess a greater degree of universality. One disadvantage of any moral principle is its vagueness. Because principles cover so many situations, it is often difficult to know exactly when a particular principle applies. Rules, however, have the advantage of being much more specific. Their problem is their changeableness. Because they are so closely tied to specific situations, changes in circumstances usually require changes in the appropriate rule. For example, St. Paul warned the Christian women of Corinth not to worship with their heads uncovered. Some Christians have mistakenly regarded Paul’s advice as a moral principle that should be observed by Christian women in every culture at all times. But a study of the conditions that prevailed in ancient Corinth reveals that the city’s prostitutes identified themselves to their prospective customers by keeping their heads uncovered. In the light of this, it seems likely that Paul’s advice was not a moral principle intended to apply to Christians of all generations but a rule that applied only to the specific situation of the Christian women of Corinth and to other women in similar situations (Even if my particular interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11 is challenged, my point can be made in terms of other New Testament passages. See, for example, Paul’s remarks in Romans 14 concerning Christians eating meat that had been offered to pagan gods).
The following chart may help clarify the points of the last paragraph:
Principles Universal Vague
Rules Specific Situational
I recognize that the distinction I am drawing here suffers from impreciseness. This is due in part to the fact that the difference between principles and rules is sometimes relative. That is, Scripture actually presents a hierarchy of moral prescriptions beginning at the most general level with the duty to love. This duty to love is then further broken down into the duties to love God and love people (Matt. 22:37–40), and then still further into the more specific duties of the Decalogue (Rom. 13:9–10). And, of course, the still more specific duties spelled out in the New Testament, such as the prohibition against the lustful look and hatred, are further specifications of the Ten Commandments (Matt. 5:21–30). The distinction between principles and rules suggests that whenever you have two scriptural injunctions, where a more specific command is derived from the more general, you can regard the more specific injunction as the rule and the other as the principle. It is possible to read 1 Corinthians 13 in this way. First, Paul proposes love as a moral duty binding on all. Then he proceeds to provide more specific rules about how a loving person will behave; for example, he will be kind and patient. Based on our distinction between principles and rules plus a careful study of the New Testament, we can draw several conclusions:
(1) The New Testament gave first-century Christians plenty of rules. But, of course, the rules cover situations that may no longer confront twentieth-century Christians, such as Paul’s injunction against eating meat offered to idols.
(2) The New Testament does not provide twentieth-century Christians with any large number of rules regarding our specific situations. The reason is obvious. The rules were given to cover first-century situations. A first-century book that attempted to give moral rules to cover specific twentieth-century situations would have become unintelligible or irrelevant to readers in the intervening nineteen hundred years. What moral help could the first-century Christians in Rome or Ephesus have derived from such a moral rule as “thou shalt not make a first strike with nuclear weapons” or “it is wrong to use cocaine”?
(3) At the same time, some of the New Testament rules apply to situations that have existed throughout time. Passages dealing with acts of hating, stealing, lying, and the like continue to be relevant because the acts are similar.
(4) But often what many people miss is the importance of searching out the moral principles behind the New Testament rules. These principles are equally binding on humans of all generations. A careful consideration of the Bible’s first-century rules enables us to infer the more general principles behind them, principles that apply to us today. It may be unimportant today whether Christian women keep their heads covered, but it is important that they avoid provocative dress and behavior. Though few Christians in our generation are bothered by pagan butchers who have offered their wares as a sacrifice to a false god, we can profit from the principle that we should do nothing that causes a spiritually weaker person to stumble (Another qualification may help some readers. I am not suggesting that Scripture presents us with a casuistic system of morality in which specific moral duties can always be deduced from more general moral statements. Casuistry always leads to a type of legalism that is condemned by Scripture. But I do think a recognition of a biblical hierarchy of rules and principles can help us determine our duty).
While a properly formed Christian worldview allows a great deal of leeway regarding the positions sincere Christians may take on many of the tough problems that rise in the formulation of an ethical theory, informed Christians will have to reject certain views. One such view is the position called situation ethics, which asserts that Christian ethics imposes no duty other than the duty to love. In determining what he should do, the situationist declares, the Christian should face the moral situation and ask himself what the loving thing to do is in this particular case. No rules or principles prescribe how love will act. Indeed, each loving individual is free to act in any way he thinks is consistent with love as he understands it. The point to situation ethics is, then, that Christian ethics provides no universal principles and no specific rules. Nothing is intrinsically good except love; nothing intrinsically bad except nonlove. One can never prescribe in advance what a Christian should or should not do. Depending on the situation, love may find it necessary to lie, to steal, even presumably to fornicate, to blaspheme, and to worship false gods. The only absolute is love.
A proper response to situation ethics will begin by pointing out that love is insufficient in itself to provide moral guidance for each and every moral action. Love requires the further specification of principles or rules that suggest the proper ways in which love should be manifested. Because human beings are fallen creatures whose judgments on moral matters may be affected by moral weakness, love needs guidance from divinely revealed moral truth. Fortunately, Christians believe, this content is provided in the moral principles revealed in Scripture.
In spite of all this, life often confronts us with ambiguous moral situations in which even the most sincere among us may agonize over what to do. At times we simply do not know enough about ourselves, the situation, or the moral principle that applies to be sure we are doing the right thing. As many of us also know, weakness of will can hinder moral decision making.
In the unambiguous situations of life, Scripture teaches, God judges us in terms of our obedience to his revealed moral law. But how does God judge us in the more ambiguous situations where the precise nature of our duty is unclear? God looks upon the heart, Scripture advises. We are judged if we break God’s commandments. This is certain. But in those cases where we may not know which commandment applies or where we may have incomplete knowledge of the situation, God’s judgment will take into account not merely the rightness of the consequences of our act (something that we ourselves are often unable to determine in ambiguous situations) but the goodness of our intentions.
William J. Abraham provides us with an introduction to the complex subject of what the Christian worldview teaches about human beings:
Human beings are made in the image of God, and their fate depends on their relationship with God. They are free to respond to or reject God and they will be judged in accordance with how they respond to him. This judgment begins now but finally takes place beyond death in a life to come. Christians furthermore offer a diagnosis of what is wrong with the world. Fundamentally, they say, our problems are spiritual: we need to be made anew by God. Human beings have misused their freedom; they are in a state of rebellion against God; they are sinners. These conclusions lead to a set of solutions to this ill. As one might expect, the fundamental solution is again spiritual…[I]n Jesus of Nazareth God has intervened to save and remake mankind. Each individual needs to respond to this and to become part of Christ’s body, the church, where they are to grow in grace and become more like Christ. This in turn generates a certain vision of the future. In the coming of Jesus, God has inaugurated his kingdom, but it will be consummated at some unspecified time in the future when Christ returns (Abraham, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1985, 104-5).
What a paradox human beings are! The only bearers of the image of God on this planet are also capable of the most heinous acts. As Pascal put it, “What a freak, what a monster, what a chaos, what a subject of contradiction, what a marvel! Judge of all things, and imbecile earthworm; possessor of the truth, and sink of uncertainty and error; glory and rubbish of the universe” (Blaise Pascal. Selections from The Thoughts, trans. Athur H. Beattie. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1965, p. 68).
In another passage, Pascal wrote,
Man is but a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed. The whole universe need not arm itself to crush him; a vapor, a drop of water is enough to kill him. But even though the universe should crush him, man would still be nobler than what kills him since he knows that he dies, and the advantage that the universe has over him, the universe knows nothing of it (Ibid., 30).
The essential paradox here—the greatness and the misery of humankind—flows out of two important truths. God created humans as the apex of his creation; our chief end, in the words of the Westminster Catechism, is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. But each human being is fallen, is in rebellion against the God who created him and loves him.
Christianity simply will not make sense to people who fail to understand and appreciate the Christian doctrine of sin. Every human being lives in a condition of sin and alienation from his or her Creator. Each has sinned and fallen short of God’s standard (Rom. 3:23). As John Stott counsels, sin “is not a convenient invention of parsons to keep them in their job; it is a fact of human experience” (John Stott. Basic Christianity. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967, p. 61).
The sin that separates us from God and enslaves us is more than an unfortunate outward act of habit; it is a deep-seated inward corruption. In fact, the sins we commit are merely outward and visible manifestations of this inward and invisible malady, the symptoms of a moral disease…Because sin is an inward corruption of human nature we are in bondage. It is not so much certain acts or habits which enslave us, but rather the evil infection from which these spring (Ibid., 75-76).
In the writings of the nineteenth-century Christian writer Søren Kierkegaard, human alienation from God often rises to the surface in the form of moods like despair. As Kierkegaard described it in his technical way, two aspects of human existence (the finite/temporal and the infinite/eternal) compete for dominance in the life of every human being. Unless a person succeeds in getting these two dimensions into proper relation and manages somehow to unify them, he or she will never really be a self. Apart from God, each human being is a divided self.
Clearly, each of us is finite in many respects. We are limited and restricted by our bodies, our circumstances, our surroundings, our weakness of will. A constant and unavoidable reminder of the limitations of our existence is provided by death—the actual death of others and the realization of the inevitability of our own death. But there is also another side to our existence, a side that takes on dimensions of infinity or eternity. For one thing, our desires seem to transcend the finite limitations of our bodies. We always desire more than we have; we always want more than we can possibly achieve. No matter what we have accomplished or attained in the way of fame, fortune, pleasure, or happiness, we want more. In a very real sense, our appetites are never satisfied. This is not to ignore times when thoroughly satiated individuals pause, momentarily content with the most recent satisfaction of their desires. But the contentment soon disappears, and they are back on the trail, searching for more.
The frustration resulting from the human inability ultimately to satisfy all desires is just one manifestation of the tension between the finite and infinite poles of our being. Another example is the tendency of many to seek escape from reality through flights of fantasy. Rather than confront the truth about the closed frontiers of their existence, many people prefer to live in a world of dreams and illusions. In spite of their age, such people suffer from lifelong immaturity. They never really grow up.
Because most people never succeed in pulling the finite and infinite sides of their being together, they go through life suffering the spiritual and emotional consequences of being divided selves. Despair is one result of the failure to put the various parts of one’s life together. Despair is essentially enthusiasm that has gone astray, that has lost its bearings; it is a zeal for things that either disappear when they are most wanted or fail to deliver all that they seem to promise. If, in a person’s unconscious, he or she begins to feel that all the deepest yearnings of the soul will eventually end up unsatisfied, the onset of despair makes a kind of perverse sense. It is perfectly understandable how one’s unconscious, under these conditions, might react by repressing enthusiasm, thus producing the mood of despair.
The victim of moods like despair is frequently unaware of the problem. Kierkegaard clearly thought that despair is often unconscious. The individual senses dimly that something is wrong, without ever being able to put a finger on it. The great extent to which despair functions in human lives below the level of consciousness may be one more result of the refusal of many people to face the truth about themselves and their world. The truly unhappy person who mistakenly believes himself or herself happy tends to regard as an enemy everyone who threatens that illusion.
Moods like despair are also indications that the major source of human trouble lies within, not in external circumstances. Consider the contrast in the writings of St. Paul between sins, the overt acts, and sin, the depraved nature within. Human beings are not self-sufficient; we cannot cure ourselves. We can become selves, we can grow up and develop into complete human beings only through a proper relationship with God. The finite and infinite must be joined from without, by God himself. Despair is only one symptom of estrangement from God and consequently from the self. Divided selves can achieve the unity of selfhood only in a faith-relationship with God.
One final aspect of Kierkegaard’s analysis deserves attention. Moods like despair indicate that people are not wholly or ultimately made for this world. There is “something eternal” in us. We are to find the fulfillment of our passion for meaning and security, which is expressed in a distorted way by our typical immersion in these worldly projects, in a realm which is not subject to disappearance. A human being is not an absurdity, a futile passion, doomed either to repression or the most poignant unhappiness. He is, rather, a wayward child of God, whose restlessness and anxiety and despair can and should drive him into the arms of his Father. His despair is indeed a sickness, but it is curable when he finds his true home (Robert C. Roberts, “The Transparency of Faith,” The Reformed Journal. June, 1979, p. 11).
The eternal factor that God has implanted within leaves all of us ultimately frustrated, unhappy, and restless until we finally enter into his rest. As Augustine put it, God has made us for himself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in him. Human beings are driven to seek an eternal peace, in which everything will finally be in its proper place, in which perfect order both in the world and in the soul will be attained. Despair may be one way God informs us that we are to look beyond ourselves for our ultimate peace. It is one of several moods and affective states that ought to remind alert people that we should know better than to think that our highest good can be found in this life. The Christian worldview recognizes the human need for forgiveness and redemption and stresses that the blessings of salvation are possible because of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Christ’s redemptive work is the basis of human salvation. But human beings are required to repent of sins (be sorry for and turn from sins) and believe. Accepting Christ as one’s Lord and Savior brings about a new birth, a new heart, a new relationship with God, and a new power to live (See John 3:3-21; Galatians 2:20; Hebrews 8:10-12; and 1 John 3:1-2).
Christian conversion does not suddenly make the new Christian perfect. But the Christian has God’s nature and Spirit within and is called to live a particular kind of life in obedience to God’s will. Finally, the Christian worldview teaches that physical death is not the end of personal existence.
CHRISTIANITY’S “TOUCHSTONE PROPOSITION”
Even my short outline of the Christian worldview may seem involved to some readers. Is it possible to boil everything down to one proposition? In this connection, William Halverson makes an interesting observation:
At the center of every worldview is what might be called the “touchstone proposition” of that worldview, a proposition that is held to be the fundamental truth about reality and serves as a criterion to determine which other propositions may or may not count as candidates for belief. If a given proposition P is seen to be inconsistent with the touchstone proposition or one’s worldview, then so long as one holds that worldview, proposition P must be regarded as false (William H. Halverson, A Concise Introduction to Philosophy, 3d. ed. New York: Random House, 1976, p. 384).
There is value in seeing how Halverson’s suggestion applies to what has already been said about the Christian worldview. Does one touchstone proposition or control belief or ultimate presupposition that is the fundamental truth of this particular worldview also serve as the test that any belief must pass before it can be included as part of the worldview?
One proposition that may fill the bill is the following: “Human beings and the universe in which they reside are the creation of the God who has revealed himself in Scripture” (By Scripture I mean the 39 books of the Old Testament and the 27 books of the New Testament deemed canonical by the Protestant Church).
The basic presupposition of the Christian worldview is the existence of God revealed in Scripture. This linkage between God and the Scripture is proper. It is true, naturally, that this particular touchstone proposition allows the Christian ready access to all that Scripture says about God, the world, and humankind. While that is certainly an advantage, it is hardly an unfair advantage. What would be both unwise and unfair would be any attempt to separate the Christian God from his self-disclosure.
As Carl F. H. Henry points out, God is not “a nameless spirit awaiting post-mortem examination in some theological morgue. He is a very particular and specific divinity, known from the beginning solely on the basis of his works and self-declaration as the one living God” (Carl F. H. Henry, God. Revelation and Authority, vol. 2: God Who Speaks and Shows. Waco: Word, 1976, p. 7).
Any final decision regarding the existence of the Christian God and the truth Christian worldview will necessarily involve decisions about issues related to the Christian Scriptures. Since details of that worldview flow from the Christian’s ultimate authority, the Bible, any negative reaction to one will likely produce a negative reaction to the other. Of course, to turn the coin over, a positive evaluation of one side of this equation should bear positively on the other. The Christian cannot pretend that his worldview was formulated in a revelational vacuum.
While all mature, thinking persons have a worldview, many of them are unaware of the fact. People often evidence great difficulty attaining consciousness of key elements of their worldview. Most of us know individuals who seldom think deeply enough to ask the right questions about God, metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and humankind. As I have said, one of the important tasks for philosophers, theologians, and, indeed, for anyone interested in helping people in this important matter, is first to get people to realize that they do have a conceptual system. The second step is to help people get a clearer fix on the content of their worldview. What do they believe about the existence and nature of God, about humankind, morality, knowledge, and ultimate reality? The third step is to help people evaluate their worldview and either improve it (by removing inconsistencies and filling in gaps) or replace it with a better worldview. In the next chapter, I will examine recommendations regarding the best or most promising way to go about making a choice among competing worldviews.
The article above was adapted from Chapter 2 in Ronald H. Nash. Worldviews in Conflict: Choosing Christianity in the World of Ideas. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010.
About the Author: Ronald H. Nash (PhD, Syracuse University; 1936-2006) was professor of philosophy at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He also was a professor of philosophy and theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. He previously served for 25 years as Head of the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Western Kentucky University. Nash was strongly influenced by such evangelical thinkers as Gordon H. Clark and Carl F.H. Henry. He influenced and mentored many young Christian philosophers and apologists during his life. He was a Fellow of the Christianity Today Institute, and a prolific author. He wrote hundreds of magazine and journal articles, as well as authoring or editing over thirty books, including:
Worldviews in Conflict: Choosing Christianity in the World of Ideas. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010.
Is Jesus the Only Savior? Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010.
Life’s Ultimate Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010.
The Gospel and the Greeks: Did the New Testament Borrow from Pagan Thought? (Student Library). Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R Publishing, 2003.
The Light of The Mind: Saint Augustine’s Theory of Knowledge. Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R Publishing, 2003.
Great Divides: Understanding the Controversies That Come Between Christians. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1993 (Republished by Academic Renewal Press, 2003).
Social Justice and the Christian Church. CCS Publishing, 2002.
When a Baby Dies. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999.
The Meaning of History. B&H Academic, 1998.
Faith and Reason: Searching for a Rational Faith. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999.
Christian Faith and Historical Understanding. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999.
The Word of God and Mind of Man (Student Library). Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R Publishing, 1992.
Poverty and Wealth: The Christian Debate over Capitalism. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986.
The Concept of God. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983.
Probe an atheist or agnostic deeply enough about why they doubt God’s existence, and he or she will likely recount for you the problem of evil. This problem keeps many from faith in God altogether and rattles the faith of even the staunchest believers. It is an intellectual problem that has occupied much of my attention for all of my adult life. Even more, for the last thirteen years, wrestling with the reality of evil has been a personal challenge for me and my family. Things have happened that I must deal with every day for the rest of my life.
Though many religious believers and nonbelievers struggle with this problem, it is especially acute for adherents of a religion such as evangelical Christianity, which believes in an all-powerful and all-loving God. How can a God with those traits allow evil to beset his creatures? If evil is retribution for some horrendous sin, then perhaps its presence in the world is understandable. But even in cases of the most egregious sinners, some punishments seem to exceed the crime by quite a bit. For those who live a godly life, suffering from certain afflictions seems especially unjustified. In light of these things and my own experiences with suffering, you may wonder why I still believe in God at all, let alone remain a Christian. In the pages that follow, I want to explain why, but before I can, I must raise several preliminary items.
I have argued at length elsewhere that the usual conception of the problem of evil is too simplistic. Traditionally, this problem is portrayed as a dilemma centering on the logical consistency of three propositions: (1) God is all-loving; (2) God is all-powerful; and (3) evil exists in a world created by this God. Philosophers and theologians have assumed that this problem is the only problem of evil and that it confronts equally all theological systems that believe in an omnipotent and all-loving God. I have argued that this is not so, for there are many different problems of evil. I needn’t recount all of them here, but I should distinguish several of them.
First, there is a difference between the strictly intellectual questions that evil raises and the more personal crises of faith it precipitates. Those dealing with the intellectual questions of evil usually question whether evil’s existence is logically consistent with Christian doctrine about God. One could pose such questions in complete abstraction from actual evils being suffered. One could even ask these questions if one didn’t believe there is a God or that evil exists in our world. These are the problems that professional theologians and philosophers write about and debate. There are distinct intellectual questions raised by the existence of any evil, the amounts of evil in our world, the intensity of certain evils, and the apparent purposelessness of some evils. If theists cannot successfully answer such questions, continuing to believe in God (and holding to theologies that cannot solve these problems) seems unwarranted.
In contrast to the intellectual questions is the personal struggle that people have with suffering and affliction. Such experienced evils precipitate a crisis of faith. The afflicted person asks how a God of love can allow this to happen when he or she has faithfully followed God all of his or her life. Since God doesn’t remove the evil, it is difficult to worship him and even more difficult to serve him. Clearly, the relationship this person has with God is strained, and it isn’t likely that it can be restored merely by offering the afflicted information about how the experienced evil is consistent with an all-loving, all-powerful God, let alone simple platitudes about how God knows that this is ultimately for the best.
A further distinction relates to the intellectual problems. In recent decades, philosophers have argued that these questions can be posed in either a logical form or an evidential form. The former is the more traditional way the problem of evil has been conceived. In that case, the critic accuses a theistic system of containing views that collectively contradict one another. If any two of the three key propositions for theism mentioned above are true, the third must be false. Of course, any set of ideas that is internally self-contradictory cannot as a whole be true. Hence, if theistic systems are guilty of this error, they are false and should be abandoned. Since the charge of contradiction means there is no possible way the set of propositions can all be true, the theist needs only to show that there is a possible way for the three central propositions about God and evil to be true. Thus, it hasn’t been shown that the theist contradicts himself.
In recent years, largely because of the work of Alvin Plantinga in elaborating and defending the freewill defense, many atheists as well as theists have agreed that it is possible to hold the three propositions central to theism without contradicting oneself. However, critics have launched the attack on a second front. Even if a theological system isn’t guilty of contradicting itself over its views on God and evil, critics still argue that the mere facts of evil in our world make it unlikely that theism is true. Because instances of evil are seen as evidence against theism, this form of the problem of evil is called the evidential problem. Moreover, because the evidential problem claims that evil makes theism improbable, this form of the problem is also called the probabilistic problem of evil. In contrast to the logical problem of evil, one doesn’t explain why one’s theology is self-consistent. Instead, the theist must explain why, despite the evil in our world, theism isn’t improbable.
As shown elsewhere, the kind of answers appropriate for the logical problem are different from those needed to solve the evidential problem. Due to space limitations, I cannot respond to both forms of the problem in this essay. Since the logical problem is the one with the longest history and is most frequently discussed, I will focus on it. Moreover, the problem most frequently raised throughout the history of this discussion is the problem of moral evil. That question asks why an all-loving and omnipotent God allows moral evil, sin, in our world. Exactly how this problem confronts a given theological system depends on its account of metaphysics and ethics. Before turning to that matter, however, I should pause to clarify the basic strategy that most defenses and theodicies follow when attempting to solve the various intellectual problems of evil in their logical form. It is a fourfold strategy.
Strategy of Defenses and Theodicies
First, for the theist divine omnipotence means that God has power to do all things logically possible for a being with his attributes. Actualizing contradictory states of affairs isn’t logically possible. Moreover, given God’s nature, he can’t sin, catch a cold, fail a test, and so on. But the crucial point in defining omnipotence is to exclude the logically impossible. If a theist believes that God can actualize contradictory states of affairs, then the language used to describe our world (the theist’s theology) will, of course, contain contradictions, but that will in no way prove that his system succumbs to the problem of evil. Hence, in order for the logical problem to be a significant challenge to the theist’s views, the theist must hold that no one, including God, can do the logically contradictory.
Second, the theist appeals to a commonly held moral principle: No one can be held morally accountable for failing to do what they couldn’t do or for doing what they couldn’t fail to do. That is, moral praise or blame can be correctly assessed only to someone who acts freely. In God’s case, if he can’t do something, he can’t be held morally culpable for failing to do it.
Third, the theist offers an explanation as to why God can’t (isn’t free to) both remove moral evil and accomplish some other valuable goal in our world. In other words, when contemplating which world to create, God could have chosen either a world with no moral evil or a world with some other value. According to the theist, God couldn’t have done both conjointly without generating a contradiction. The two options were mutually exclusive. Therefore, God could have done one or the other but not both. Depending on the theology in question, this other value might be creating the best of a possible world, making creatures with libertarian free will, or building the souls of his human creatures so that they grow from mere creaturehood to children of God.
The definition of omnipotence excludes the logically contradictory. God can’t actualize both of these values (removing moral evil and the other value) at the same time. But the ethical principle says that if one can’t do something, one isn’t guilty for failing to do it. It appears, therefore, that God is justified, but not quite. Critics may grant that God couldn’t conjointly remove evil and put some other value in our world, but they may complain that God chose the lesser of the two values for our world, and hence, he still isn’t justified. At that point, the theist adds the final element in the strategy. He argues that the item God put in our world is a value of such great magnitude that it either counterbalances or outweighs the moral evil that accompanies that value. Hence, God has done nothing wrong in creating our world; it is a good world.
Answers to the Logical Problem of Moral Evil
Given this strategy, how might one solve the problem of moral evil in its logical form? As suggested above, the problem confronts each theology differently. There are as many of these problems of moral evil as there are theological systems committed to the ideas that God is all-loving and omnipotent and that evil exists. Each theology has its own account of God and evil, and since the problem in its logical form is about whether the theist’s system contradicts itself, we must first clarify the system’s views on God and evil (i.e., its metaphysic and ethics).
While many distinct theologies fall under the rubric of evangelical Christianity, for our purposes I want to show how a traditional Arminian system and a moderate Calvinistic system (my own) would solve the logical problem of moral evil. Both theologies have the same general metaphysic and account of ethics, which I have elsewhere labeled modified rationalism, though they do differ in their understanding of free will.
Modified rationalism holds that God’s existence is the highest good in and of itself. Hence, by creating a world, God in no way enhances his value, for he is already the supreme value. On the other hand, God is free either to create or not create a world. Creating is a fitting thing for God to do, but not the only fitting thing; a decision to create nothing would in no way have decreased God’s value. In addition, modified rationalists believe that there is an infinite number of contingent, finite, possible worlds. Some are inherently evil, and God had better not create any of them, but more than one of those possible worlds is a good world. God is free either to create one of the good worlds or refrain from creating altogether. Modified rationalists reject the idea of a best possible world. Finally, according to modified rationalism, some things can be known by pure reason alone, whereas others can be known only by revelation. Many forms of evangelical Christianity incorporate a system of modified rationalist metaphysics.
As to ethics, modified rationalist systems hold one of two broad kinds, consequentialism or non-consequentialism. Consequentialist theories determine which acts are right or wrong on the basis of the results of the action. Non-consequentialist theories hold that something other than consequences (e.g., God commands it; therefore, it is our duty) makes an act morally right or wrong. As this relates to the problem of evil, a consequentialist theory says that the world as created had evil in it. However, that produces no moral stain on God, for he will ultimately use evil to maximize good. Non-consequentialism demands that the world as created contained no evil. Evil was introduced instead by the actions of God’s creatures.
Given such a metaphysic and an account of ethics, we can now specify exactly how the logical problem of moral evil would arise for a modified rationalist theology. The problem can be posed as the following question: Is the evil in our world (“evil” as the modified rationalist defines it) such as to refute the claim that our world is one of the good possible worlds God could have created? If the answer is yes, then the theological system is guilty of contradicting itself. On the other hand, if ours is a good world, despite the evil in it, then God’s goodness and power are consistent with the existence of evil.
Modified rationalists defend their theology by pointing to some feature of our world that shows it is one of the good possible worlds God could have created. In line with the four-step strategy already described, the modified rationalist argues that the aspect of our world that makes it a good world also makes it logically impossible for God to remove moral evil. Since he can’t both remove evil and create a world with the positive value to which the theologian points, he isn’t guilty for failing to do so. In what follows, I will present two such defenses to show that modified rationalists can in fact solve this problem in its logical form. One will be a defense a theological Arminian could use, and the other a defense a Calvinist could use.
The Freewill Defense
Perhaps the most frequently used Christian defense is the freewill defense. In contemporary discussions, its ablest defender has been Alvin Plantinga. Though this defense has its detractors, it successfully answers the problem of moral evil that confronts an Arminian theology. Many Calvinists have also invoked the freewill defense, but its notion of free will doesn’t fit Calvinistic systems committed to a strong sense of divine sovereignty.
The freewill defense presupposes a modified rationalist metaphysic and is nonconsequentialist in its ethics. Hence, it holds that God didn’t originate evil—the introduction of sin into our world is entirely due to God’s creatures, human and angelic. These evil deeds weren’t done or caused by God but were performed by the free acts of his creatures.
Some critics complain that even though humans in particular are responsible for sin in our world, God must also bear some responsibility, for he must have foreseen that we would abuse our free will to do evil, and yet he gave it to us anyway. Freewill defenders have a ready reply. For one thing, it is possible that free creatures will use their freedom to choose good, but there are no guarantees with creatures who possess genuine freedom. Good or evil acts must always be possible, and sadly, humans have frequently chosen to do evil. However, God knew when he gave us freedom that we could also use our freedom to do good. God reasoned that it is better to have creatures who do what is right (including love and obey him) freely because they want to, rather than doing right because they are forced or determined to do what is right. Hence, free will is a value of the highest order, one that God was surely right in putting into this world. Free will makes ours a good world, but, of course, if humans are genuinely free, there are no guarantees that they will never use their freedom to sin. God, therefore, cannot both give us free will and guarantee that there will be no sin, and since he can’t do both, he isn’t guilty for failing to do both.
Atheists such as J. L. Mackie aren’t convinced that the freewill defense succeeds. Since Mackie’s objection helps us understand the freewill defense better, it is worth raising. The freewill defense rests on the idea that there are no guarantees that humans will not sin if humans have genuine freedom. Mackie thinks otherwise. It is possible that someone will do moral good on one occasion. Freewill defenders grant this, but Mackie adds that it must also be possible that someone will use his or her free will on every occasion to do moral good. This is also possible, but then Mackie adds that this is possible for all human beings. If so, however, then an omnipotent God should be able to make it the case that all of us always freely choose to do what is morally good. The freewill defense says that if humans are truly free, there are no guarantees that they will do only good. Mackie’s objection says otherwise.
Though the answers to Mackie offered by Plantinga and other freewill defenders are quite intricate, they rest on a fundamental idea that seems difficult to resist. If God makes it the case or brings it about that we do anything, then we don’t do it freely. In essence, this suggests that Mackie’s proposal doesn’t incorporate “real” freedom (or that somehow he has misunderstood what freedom means). We might be inclined to leave the matter, merely thinking that Mackie has incorrectly defined “free will,” but the issue is more subtle than this. The fact is that Mackie’s notion of freedom differs from the freewill defender’s concept.
The concept of freedom espoused by the freewill defense is known as libertarian, contra-causal, or incompatibilistic free will. This notion of freedom holds that genuine free human action is incompatible with causal determinism. Hence, in spite of the direction causal forces point in a given situation, and in spite of how strong or weak the causes are, the agent can always do other than he or she does. The only way to guarantee a particular outcome is to causally determine the agent to do one thing or another. Since determinism rules out libertarian free will, however, no one, including God, can guarantee that someone will do moral good freely. Therefore, assuming that God gave us libertarian free will, without overturning our freedom, he can’t also guarantee that we will never sin. Did God do something wrong in giving us this kind of freedom? Not at all, since we can use it to love and obey him. Further, since nothing moves us to do good but ourselves, we know that our good deeds are what we really want to do. They aren’t forced upon us.
In contrast to libertarian free will, Mackie’s brand of freedom is known as compatibilism or soft deterministic free will. According to this definition of freedom, genuine free human action is compatible with causal conditions that decisively incline the will, so long as those conditions don’t constrain the will. To act without constraint means that one acts in accord with one’s wishes or desires. Acting under constraint means that one acts contrary to one’s wishes. It should be clear now why Mackie thinks God could bring it about that humans freely do good. According to compatibilism, factors decisively incline the will in one direction or another; there can be guarantees about what we do. But as long as we act in agreement with our wishes or desires, our act is free even though causally determined.
Based on the preceding, several things should be clear. First, compatibilism and incompatibilism contradict one another. Second, any theological position that holds that God is absolutely sovereign and exercises that sovereignty to decree and accomplish whatever he wills cannot at the same time hold that our actions are done with libertarian free will. If God exercises his sovereign power to guarantee certain outcomes, then many actions must be causally determined, which rules out libertarian free will. Most typically, Calvinistic theologies hold this strong notion of divine sovereign control over the world.
This discussion of different notions of free will raises another issue, and it is crucial for the logical problem of evil. Since the logical problem is about whether the theist contradicts himself, we must ask what views freewill defenders hold. Do they hold Mackie’s compatibilistic free will? Not at all; they are incompatibilists. But then it should be clear that if one defines freedom as freewill defenders do, Mackie’s objection has broken the ground rules for handling the logical problem of evil. Mackie attributes his notion of freedom to the freewill defense and then accuses it of failing. Indeed, if freewill defenders are compatibilists, their freewill defense doesn’t work for precisely the reason Mackie stated. But since Mackie’s view of freedom isn’t the same as that of the freewill defender, Mackie hasn’t shown that freewill defenders contradict themselves. The message is clear: If one holds incompatibilism and offers the freewill defense as the answer to the logical problem of moral evil, one’s system is logically consistent. The freewill defense solves this problem for systems committed to libertarian free will.
Integrity of Humans Defense
The freewill defense answers the logical problem of moral evil for theologies that incorporate libertarian free will, but what if one’s theology is Calvinistic and/or incorporates compatibilistic free will? My Calvinistic theology presupposes modified rationalism and non-consequentialist ethics. There are three stages to this defense.
I begin by asking what sort of beings God intended to create when he made humans. Here I am referring to the basic abilities and capacities God gave human beings. At a minimum, I believe he intended to create beings with the ability to reason, with emotions, with wills that are compatibilistically free (although freedom isn’t the emphasis of this defense), with desires, with intentions, and with the capacity for bodily movement. God did not intend for individuals to be identical in respect to these capacities. God also intended to make beings who are finite both metaphysically and morally (as to the moral aspect, our finitude doesn’t necessitate doing evil but only that we don’t have God’s infinite moral perfection). Thus, human beings are not superhuman beings or even gods. Moreover, God intended for us to use our capacities to live and function in a world suited to beings like us. Hence, he created our world, which is run according to the natural laws we observe, and he evidently didn’t intend to annihilate what he had created once he created it.
None of these features were removed by the race’s fall into sin, but because of our fall into sin, these capacities don’t function as well as they would have without sin. Likewise, the fall didn’t overturn the basic laws of nature and physics by which our world runs. The fundamental features of humanity and the world are still as God created them.
How do I know this is what God intended? By looking at the sort of being he created when he created us, and by noting that the world in which we live is suited to our capacities. Some might think this same line of thinking could be used to show that God also intended to create moral evil, because it exists. However, that is not so. Moral evil is not something God created. God created substances, including the world and the people in it. God intended for us to act, for he made us capable of acting. But he neither created our actions nor does he perform them. Hence, we cannot say God intended for moral evil to exist. God intended to create and did create agents who can act; he didn’t create their acts (good or evil).
How do we know, though, by looking at what God did that he really intended to do it? Don’t people at times act without fully understanding their intentions? While human beings don’t always know what they intend to do, that is not true of an omniscient being. By seeing what God did, we can be sure what he intended to do.
If humans are the type of creatures I have described, how do they come to do moral evil (sin)? This brings us to the second stage of the defense: consideration of the ultimate source of evil actions. In accord with James 1:13–15, I hold that morally evil actions stem from human desires. Desires in and of themselves aren’t evil, nor do they perform the evil. James says, however, that desires (epithumia) are carried away (exelkomenos) and enticed (deleazomenos) to the point where sin is actually committed (conceived). Many moral philosophers would agree that the point of “conception” is when a person wills to do the act if he or she could. Once that choice is made, it remains only for that person to translate the choice into overt public action.
Morally evil acts, then, ultimately begin with our desires. Desires in and of themselves aren’t evil, but when they are aroused to lead us to disobey God’s prescribed moral norms, then we have sinned. Desires are not the only culprit, however, for will, reason, and emotion, for example, also enter into the process. But James says that individual acts of sin ultimately stem from desires that go astray.
If humans are the sort of creatures described, and if moral evil arises as suggested, what would God have to do to get rid of moral evil? This brings us to the final stage of the defense. Clearly, if removing moral evil is God’s only goal, he can accomplish it. However, my view of divine omnipotence doesn’t allow God to actualize contradictions. Hence, if by removing evil God contradicts some other goal(s) he wants to accomplish, that explains why God can’t remove evil.
It is my contention that if God did what is necessary to remove moral evil from the world, he would (1) contradict his intentions to create human beings and the world as he has, causing us to wonder if he has one or more of the attributes ascribed to him, and/or (2) do something we would not expect or want him to do, because it would produce greater evil than there already is. To see this, let’s consider how God might get rid of moral evil.
Some may think all God needs to do to remove moral evil is arrange affairs so that his compatibilistically free creatures are causally determined to have desires only for good and to choose only good without being constrained at all. For each of us, God should know what it would take, and he should be powerful enough to do it.
However, this isn’t as simple as it sounds. If people are naturally inclined to do what God wants, God may need to do very little rearranging of our world to accomplish this goal. If people are stubborn and resist his will, it may take a great deal more rearranging. God would have to do this for every one of us every time we resist his will. But changes in circumstances for one of us would affect circumstances for others. What might be necessary to get us to do good might disrupt others’ lives, constrain them to do something that serves God’s purposes in regard to us, and perhaps even turn them toward doing evil. Upholding everyone’s freedom may be more difficult than we suppose. It is likely that the free will of many will be abridged as a result of God’s attempts to convince certain people to do good.
There is another reason why it may be more difficult than we think for God to get us to do right. God didn’t create us with an inclination toward sin, but even Adam in ideal surroundings and circumstances sinned. According to biblical teaching, the race inherited from Adam a sin nature that disposes us toward evil. In light of that sin nature, it isn’t likely that a minimal rearranging of events, actions, and circumstances would achieve the goal of getting us to do good without constraining us. God would have to constrain many people in order to rearrange circumstances to convince a few of us to do the right thing without constraining us. Of course, that would contradict compatibilistic free will. We may begin to wonder how wise this God is if he must do all this just to bring it about that his human creatures do good. Why not make a different creature who would be unable to do evil? But, of course, this would contradict God’s decision to make humans, not subhumans or superhumans.
There is yet a further problem with this method of getting rid of evil. It assumes that if God rearranged the world, all of us would draw the right conclusion from our circumstances and do right. Our desires, intentions, emotions, and will would all fall into place as they should without abridging freedom at all. This is most dubious, given our finite minds and wills as well as the sin nature within us that inclines us toward evil.
Perhaps there is a simpler, more direct way for God to get rid of evil. First, he could remove moral evil by doing away with humankind. Not only is this a drastic solution none of us would think acceptable, but it would also contradict his intention to create humans who aren’t annihilated by his further actions.
Second, God could eliminate all objects of desire. Without objects of desire, humans would not be led astray to do moral evil. However, to eradicate all objects of desire, God would have to destroy the world and everything in it.
Since sin ultimately stems from desires, a third way for God to remove moral evil would be to remove human desires. Problems with this solution again are obvious. God intended to create creatures who have desires, but if he removed all human desires, such an act would contradict his intentions about the creature he wanted to create. Moreover, removing desires would also remove the ultimate basis of action so that people wouldn’t act. This would contradict God’s intention to create beings who perform the various actions necessary to remain alive.
Fourth, God could allow us to have desires but never allow them to be aroused to the point at which we would do moral evil. If God chose this option, he could accomplish it in one of two ways. He could perform a miracle to stop our desires whenever they started to run rampant, or he could give us the capacity to have desires that can be aroused only to a certain degree, a degree that would never be or lead to evil.
I shall address the former option when I discuss in general the option of God removing evil by performing a miracle. As for the second option, there are several problems. For one thing, it contradicts God’s intention to create people who aren’t stereotypes of one another. Whenever someone’s desires would be allured in regard to something forbidden, those desires could be enticed only up to a point that would not be or lead to evil. What would be true of one person would be true of all. In every case, we would have to be preprogrammed to squelch the desire before it went too far.
There is another problem with God making us this way. When a desire would start to run amuck, one would have to stop having the desire (or at least not follow it), change desires, and begin a new course of action. A person’s daily routine would be constantly interrupted (if not stopped altogether) and new courses of action implemented only to be interrupted again. Life as we know it would come to a standstill, contradicting God’s intention to create us so as to function in this world.
Perhaps the greatest objection to this option is that for us to function this way God would have to make us superhuman both morally and intellectually. We would have to be willing to squelch our desires whenever they would lead to evil, and we would also need to know when desires would lead to evil so that we could stop them from being overly enticed. To do so, we would need to be more than human. Of course, such a situation would contradict God’s intention to make non-glorified human beings, not superhuman beings.
Fifth, God could remove evil by removing intentions that lead to evil in either of the ways mentioned for handling evil-producing desires (by miracles or by making us so we would never develop intentions that lead to evil). However, this option creates the same problems raised with respect to desires.
Sixth, God could eliminate evil by removing any act of the will that would produce evil. We could will good things freely, but whenever we willed evil, the willing would be eliminated. God could do this either by miraculous intervention or by making us so we would never will evil. However, this option again faces the same objections that confront the desire and intention options.
Seventh, God could eliminate moral evil by stopping our bodily movement whenever we try to carry out evil. He could do this either by a miracle or by making us in such a way that we would stop our bodily movement when it would lead to evil. The same problems result as with the desire, intention, and will options.
If all of these options are problematic, perhaps God could remove evil through miraculous intervention. Several problems beset this method, however. First, if God did this, it would greatly change life as we know it. At any moment, God could miraculously stop desires, intentions, acts of the will, or bodily movements if he knew they would lead to evil. Since we wouldn’t always know when our actions would lead to evil, we wouldn’t always know when to expect God to interfere. We might become too afraid to do, try, or even think anything, realizing that at any moment our movements or thoughts could be eliminated. Under those circumstances, life as we know it would come to a standstill, contradicting God’s desire to create people who live and function in this world.
Second, it is one thing to speak of God miraculously intervening to prevent evil, but it is another to specify exactly what that means. Take bodily movement, for instance. God would probably have to paralyze a person as long as necessary to stop bodily movements that would carry out an evil act. Of course, such an act would alter the nature of life altogether and again contradict God’s intention to make creatures who can live and function in this world.
In addition, it is difficult to imagine what miracle God would have to perform to remove a desire, an intention, or an act of willing that would lead to evil. Would God have to knock us unconscious or take away our memory for as long and as often as needed to remove evil-producing thoughts? Such acts would bring life to a standstill and be inconsistent with God’s intention to make us so that we can live and function in this world.
A final objection to removing evil miraculously is that it would give us reason to question God’s wisdom. Would a wise God go to all the trouble to make human beings as they are and then perform miracles to counteract them when they express that humanness in ways that would produce evil? Of course, had God made us differently so that he wouldn’t have to remove evil by miracles, that would contradict his intention to make the sort of beings he has made. So either God must perform miracles and thereby cause us to question his wisdom, or he must change our nature as human beings. But that would contradict his goal of making humans rather than superhumans or subhumans.
This discussion about what God would have to do to remove moral evil shows that God cannot remove it without contradicting his intentions to make the kind of creatures and world he has made, which would cause us to doubt his wisdom.
Someone may suggest that God could avoid these problems if he made creatures without desires, intentions, will, and bodily movement. This would likely remove moral evil, but it would also remove human beings as we know them. Anyone who thinks there is any worth in being human would find this option unacceptable.
Someone else might suggest that moral evil could be avoided if God made us superhuman. But humans as we know them are a value of the first order. Scripture says humans are created in God’s image (Gen. 1:26–27). When God finished his creative work, he saw that all of it, including human beings, was very good (Gen. 1:31). Psalm 8:5–8 speaks of God crowning us with glory and honor and giving us dominion over his creation. In light of this evaluation by God, who are we to say that human beings as created by God aren’t valuable?
As a modified rationalist, all I need to show is that our world is one of those good possible worlds God could have created. It seems clear that a world with human beings in it is a good world. Neither I nor any other modified rationalist needs to show that our world is the best or even better than some other good world God might have created. We need only show that ours is one of those good worlds God could have created. I have done that by pointing to human beings and arguing that God cannot both create them and remove evil. Hence, I have solved my theology’s logical problem of moral evil.
Can God remove moral evil from our world? I believe he can, if he creates creatures different from human beings. He also can if he creates humans and then removes evil in any of the ways described above. But we have seen the problems that arise if God follows any of those options.
Has God done something wrong in creating human beings? Not at all, when we consider the great value human beings have and the great worth God places on us. We can say that moral evil has come as a concomitant of a world populated with non-glorified human beings. Still, it is one of those good possible worlds God could have created. God is a good God. Our world with human beings demonstrates his goodness.
The Religious Problem of Evil
In the preceding pages, we have seen that it is possible to solve the intellectual problem of moral evil in its logical form and to do so for more than one theology. Because this and other intellectual problems of evil are capable of solution, I see no reason to reject Christianity on the grounds that it succumbs to these intellectual problems. However, that isn’t the end of the story. What about the experience of evil? Is Christianity sufficient to see someone through even the most difficult of trials? Is Christianity religiously bankrupt at a moment of personal crisis?
These questions have confronted me in vivid and unpleasant ways over the last ten to fifteen years. I have been interested in the problem of evil for much of my life, and in various degree programs I wrote theses and dissertations addressing the intellectual problems evil raises for a theist. For many years, I thought the intellectual answers I had constructed would be sufficient for someone in the midst of trials and afflictions. All of that changed for me in 1987 when my wife was diagnosed with Huntington’s disease.
Huntington’s disease is a genetically transmitted disease that attacks both mind and body and involves the premature deterioration of the caudate nucleus of the brain. On the physical side, the symptoms involve a growing inability to control voluntary movements. Among other things, this results in a loss of balance, difficulty in swallowing, slurred speech, and involuntary twitches in various parts of the body. Psychological symptoms can include memory loss, deterioration of attention span and mental function, depression, hallucination, and finally paranoid schizophrenia. The disease develops slowly, but over a period of decades it takes its toll, and it is fatal. In my wife’s case, symptoms first appeared when she was twenty-eight. As bad as this is, however, just as bad is the fact that Huntington’s is controlled by a dominant gene, so each of our children has a 50–50 chance of getting the disease. At the time we received this diagnosis, we already had three children. Since that time, progress has been made in research about this disease, but to date there is still no cure.
When news of this disease came, a host of emotions came with it: bewilderment, a sense of hopelessness and helplessness, a feeling of abandonment, and anger. As a Christian, I knew we aren’t promised exemption from problems and trials, but I never expected something like this. With one diagnosis, a dark cloud had formed above my family that would not dissipate for the rest of our lives. At that point, the problem of evil moved from an intellectual problem that I could calmly reflect on in the solitude of my study to a real-life trauma that has to be confronted every day of my life.
One of the reasons for my confusion over what was happening was the previous thinking and writing I had done about the problem of evil. If anyone should have been ready for this crisis, it was I. But during this time of emotional and spiritual turmoil, none of the intellectual answers proved to be even the least comforting. As I thought about that, I came to an important realization. The religious problem of evil, the crisis of faith precipitated by suffering, at rock bottom is not primarily an intellectual question but an emotional problem. There are, of course, intellectual questions that the sufferer asks, and at an appropriate point in the grieving process when the afflicted is ready to hear the answers, it is appropriate to offer them. However, that point rarely comes during the shock of the terrible news. At that point, the sufferer needs comfort and care, not a dissertation on the logical consistency of God’s existence and evil.
While there are many things one can say and do that won’t help the afflicted cope with trials, other things can and do help. In what follows, I will present what helped in my case, not as a how-to for comforting the afflicted but rather as a personal testimony and explanation of why I am still a Christian in spite of the evil that has befallen my family.
One of the first things that helped came in a conversation with my father. I was bemoaning the fact that this had happened and that I had no idea how I would be able to cope as my wife’s condition became progressively worse. My dad responded, “John, God never promises us tomorrow’s grace for today. He only promises today’s grace, and that is all you need.” Though at the time I wasn’t handling well the reality of my wife’s situation, I hadn’t completely collapsed. More importantly, my wife was still quite capable of functioning. Part of the grace for those early days was finding out the diagnosis at a time when the full burden of my wife’s care didn’t fall on me.
With this reminder from my dad, I began to readjust my focus from imagining what the disease would be like in the future to dealing with it in the present. I began to ask God each morning for the grace I would need to make it through that day. As I saw those prayers answered each day, I became more confident that when things got worse, I would still need only one day’s grace at a time, and it would be there.
At other times during my struggles with this disease, I am reminded that despite what is happening, God has been gracious to us in other ways. First Peter 5:7 tells us to cast our problems on God, because he cares for us. At times it doesn’t seem this is true, but it is. In our case, I realize that despite my wife’s disease, there are other problems that God has kept from us. Some people lose their spouse to cancer or a heart attack or in an automobile accident, but that has not happened to us. God doesn’t owe us such protection, but he has graciously given it to us. That is a sign that he really does care.
There is another realization that is difficult to swallow, but it is true. When tragedy strikes, we often blame God, but God didn’t give my wife this disease. In Romans 5:12, Paul explains that through Adam sin entered the human race, and death resulted from sin. In other words, people die as a consequence of sin. I am not suggesting that this has happened to my wife as recompense for being a horrendous sinner. Rather, we live in a fallen world, and death is a consequence of sin. The particular death that befalls a person doesn’t come from a specific sin he or she commits, but rather from the fact that the human race as a whole has fallen into sin. But if people die because of sin, they must die of something. One of the causes is disease, and some of those diseases are genetically controlled.
So while it is human nature to blame God for what happens, Scripture is clear that these things happen because we live in a fallen, sinful world. If we are going to be angry, our anger should be directed toward sin, not God. Our problem ultimately stems from not seeing the gravity of sin. But when we stand at the graveside of a relative or friend, or when we receive a diagnosis, we begin to see just how serious a matter sin is. The realization that something bad has happened because we live in a fallen world is not likely to comfort the afflicted, but it can help to assuage our anger at God, and it should help us redirect that anger to the proper target.
Some may grant the point about the cause of affliction but still object that an all-loving, all-powerful, all-gracious God should prevent evil from happening. Such a suggestion reflects a misunderstanding of what God’s attributes obligate him to do. Many think that because God is all-loving, he is obligated to do every loving thing possible. His grace obligates him to do every gracious thing possible, and so on. However, this is an incorrect assessment of God’s obligations. In my judgment, it would be very loving for God to make us all multimillionaires, but I can’t think of anything that obligates him to do so. God’s love doesn’t obligate him to do every loving thing possible. Rather, everything he chooses to do (though he isn’t obliged to do everything he can do) must exhibit his attribute of love. As to God’s grace, at most it means that the things he chooses to do will exhibit his grace, but even here we must be careful. Grace as undeserved favor is by definition never owed, so we can hardly demand that God act graciously toward us. The key point is that before we mount a case against God for failing to do what his character requires, we must be sure that we understand what he is obligated to do.
In spite of this point about God’s attributes, I still felt something was amiss. Granted, my wife’s disease resulted from the sinfulness of the human race, and granted, God didn’t owe us exemption from this problem because of his attributes, but still, not everyone has to deal with such a burden, so why should we? It seems God has been unfair in letting this burden fall on us when others escape such problems.
I believe this complaint is at the heart of why many believers and nonbelievers alike turn from God in the midst of affliction and feel justified in doing so. God hasn’t treated them fairly, so he doesn’t deserve their worship and devotion. As I reflected on this matter, several things came to mind. First, as I reflected on God’s fairness or justice, I began to think of my philosophical training about matters of justice. Philosophers often distinguish between distributive and egalitarian justice. Distributive justice gives to each person exactly what they are owed, reward or punishment. Egalitarian justice requires that each person receive exactly the same thing.
With this distinction in hand, I realized the nature of my complaint. I was angry because God gave me something different from what he gave others. Egalitarian justice requires that each of us get the same thing. Others escape such problems, so we should have too. As logical as this sounds, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t think of any biblical or nonbiblical principle that requires God to deal with us according to egalitarian justice.
In contrast, Scripture teaches that God functions in his relations with us in accord with distributive justice. Distributive justice is about what we have earned—what we deserve and what is owed to us. If we want God to treat us justly, that means we want what we deserve. But what do we deserve? Given God’s moral governance of our world and the fact that we have broken his laws, we deserve punishment. None of us deserves exemption from problems and punishment for sin, for all of us have sinned against God. We may chafe under this system of moral government, but God as Creator has a right to set things up this way. And given this setup, he has done nothing unjust by not exempting my family from this affliction. If we are speaking in terms of justice, God owes none of us egalitarian justice, and in terms of distributive justice, he owes none of us blessing.
Still, I harbored residual anger toward God. Though I came to see that my desire for egalitarian justice was wrong and that according to distributive justice I didn’t merit exemption from affliction, it seemed unfair that others who don’t deserve exemption from problems have not been asked to bear this burden. Eventually I came to see that my complaint was that God has dealt with others in grace, and I felt that I should get the same grace.
As I pondered such thoughts, however, I came to see how wrong they are. I was demanding grace as though God owed it to me because he gave it to others. But grace is unmerited, undeserved, unearned favor. That is, you get something good that you don’t deserve, haven’t merited, and aren’t owed. Grace is not given to reward good deeds or upright character; it’s not a reward at all. It is given out of the generosity of God’s heart. As unmerited blessing, grace is never owed—that’s why it’s grace and not justice. So God has done nothing wrong if he gives you grace that he doesn’t give me.
One of Jesus’ parables beautifully illustrates this principle. In the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matt. 20:1–16), a landowner hired workers at various times in the day. Those hired early in the day were promised a denarius for the day’s work. Others were promised only that the owner would do right by them, and still other workers were simply told to go to work. At quitting time, those hired last were paid first. The landowner paid them each a denarius, even though they had been hired a mere hour or two before the end of the day. In fact, he paid every worker a denarius. When the landowner paid those hired first the denarius he had promised, they were angry. They had worked the entire day, but those hired near the end of the day had received the same wage. Their complaint amounted to the following: Somebody got a better deal than I did, and that’s not fair!
The landowner replied that he had not treated them unfairly. They had made a deal, and he had given them exactly what he had promised. Justice says you give people what they earn and what you owe. But if the landowner wanted to be generous with the others, what’s wrong with that? If he wanted to extend them grace, why is that wrong? Whose money (whose grace) is it anyway? The message of the parable is clear: Our standing in the kingdom of heaven depends on God’s grace, and God has a right to give grace and withhold it as he chooses. Never begrudge someone the grace that God gives them, especially when he doesn’t give you the same grace.
Coming to this realization about whether God owed me exemption from this trial was a major breakthrough in my experience. It made me realize that if I were to mount a complaint against God over what he had or hadn’t done, I had no ground for such a case. I had been angry at God without adequate reason. While this realization did not remove the affliction, it made me feel more comfortable with God. After all, he had not caused the affliction, and he didn’t owe me release from it. But he hadn’t abandoned me either. He gives me grace to sustain me through each day. I don’t deserve that either, but it is there!
A final major factor in helping me adjust to what had happened and removing my anger were the many tangible signs of God’s love and care for us. Many people displayed generosity and kindness, showing us that there are people who care and who will help when things grow worse. But why do these people show us this love and concern? I know it is ultimately because God moves them to do so, and hence, we have periodic reminders that God cares for us and loves us.
There is much more to our story and many other things that also helped me cope with this affliction. I would not delude myself into thinking that everyone’s situation is like mine or that what I have said will solve the personal crises of faith others confront. However, much of what I have said touches on very common, human themes, so others may find it helpful.
Though the intellectual problems of evil and the experience of affliction can be major detriments to belief in God, they needn’t be. Of course, one can choose to remain angry at God, but I hope this chapter will help you to see that in the face of the intellectual and personal problems of evil, one need not sacrifice intellect to continue believing in God, nor does one need to hold on to God in blind faith without any explanation as to why afflictions happen and without any comfort or relief of the pain. Undoubtedly, it is easier to write about these things than to live them, but through God’s sustaining grace, it is possible to cope with evils and to do so in ways that are pleasing to God and a positive testimony to others.
About the Author: Dr. John S. Feinberg is Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology and Chairman of that department at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is the author of several books, including Crossway’s No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God; Ethics for a Brave New World (with Paul D. Feinberg) and The Many Faces of Evil (For a more thorough treatment of what is covered in this article see this EXCELLENT BOOK – pictured above), and is general editor of Crossway’s Foundations of Evangelical Theology series. The article above was excepted from the book edited by Norman L. Geisler and P.K. Hoffman entitled Why I am a Christian: Leading thinkers explain why they believe (237-254). Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2006.