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Sunday, November 24th 2013

16:31

More on the Problem of Evil

  • STATE OF EXISTENCE: somewhat chilled
Thanks to all those who have made comments on FB on this series, which I didn’t realize would become a series. The conversation is quickly turning to the topic of Calvinism versus Arminianism, which probably cannot be helped. Still, as I mentioned earlier, this is not where I’m intending to go with these blog entries. I’m not arguing for Calvinism here, but simply stating that it’s my position. (See my little piece Calvinism: Celebration of God’s Grace, where I take a somewhat more polemical stand.) If you read this and are an Arminian, I’m not trying to change your mind right now. Instead, where I want to head is that, in the final analysis Arminians and Calvinists have to face some of the same issues and use some of the same resolutions when it come to the problem of evil. Don’t get me wrong; I do think that this is an important issue, but it can also be a distraction when the focus should be on something else. Whenever a discussion gets to this point, I like to quote an incident that J. I. Packer mentions in his book Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (IVP, 1961, 13- 14).

Packer says: "It is instructive in this connection to ponder Charles Simeon’s account of his conversation with John Wesley on December 20, 1784 (the date is given in Wesley’s Journal)."

[I happen to own Wesley’s Journal, and, as is true for many items in his entries, the meeting receives just the barest mention, but is highlighed with an exclamation mark. The numerals refer to the time of day:

4 Prayed, Lev. xix. 17, select society, tea; 7 chaise; 10.30 Hatfield, M[iss] Harv[ey] chaise; 2.30 Hinxworth; 3 dinner, Mr. Simeon! writ society, tea, conversed; 6.30 Gal. vi 14! 8.30 supper, converse, prayer: 9.45.

John Wesey was clearly an "early to bed and early to rise" kind of person. I do not have a copy of Simeon’s journal, but I believe we can trust Dr. Packer's accuracy. He opens his excerpt as Simeon is addressing Wesley.]

‘"Sir, I understand that you are called an Arminian and I have been sometimes called a Calvinist; and therefore I suppose we are to draw daggers. But before I consent to begin the combat, with your permission I will ask you a few questions.… Pray, sir, do you feel yourself a depraved creature, so depraved that you would never have thought of turning to God, if God had not first put it into your heart?"

"Yes," says the veteran [Wesley], "I do indeed."

"And do you utterly despair of recommending yourself to God by anything you can do; and look for salvation solely through the blood and righteousness of Christ?"

"Yes, solely through Christ."

"But, Sir, supposing you were at first saved by Christ, are you not somehow or other to save yourself afterwards by your own works?"

"No, I must be saved by Christ from first to last."

"Allowing, then, that you were first turned by the grace of God, are you not in some way or other to keep yourself by your own power?"

"No."

"What, then, are you to be upheld every hour and every moment by God, as much as an infant in its mother’s arms?"

"Yes, altogether."

"And is all your hope in the grace and mercy of God to preserve you unto His heavenly kingdom?"

"Yes, I have no hope but in him."

"Then, sir, with your leave I will put up my dagger again; for this is all my Calvinism; this is my election, my justification by faith, my final perseverance: it is in substance all that I hold, and as I hold it; and therefore, if you please, instead of searching out terms and phrases to be a ground of contention between us, we will cordially unite in those things wherein we agree."’

Having said that, I do need to get polemical for just a moment here, though again, the point that I want to make is that if we are genuine Bible-believing Christians, even if we differ on such an important topic, we still have more in common than not. [Does that really need to be said?]

Two verses that Arminians frequently cite in order to refute the Calvinist version of the doctrine of election are 2 Peter 3:9, and 1 Timothy 2:4.

"The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9 NIV). 

"[God our Savior] wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth." (1 Tim 2:4 NIV). 

But think about it. Arminians who don’t want to invoke the Calvinist view of unconditional election still have to recognize that God proceeded to set up a system (one that involved free will) which God knew would not suffice for a large number of people to come to a saving knowledge of him. One can say, of course, that God has given every person an opportunity to decide for or against him, but initially at least, one must question how many people actually do get the opportunity to hear the gospel message clearly and coherently, presented in such a way that they can make an informed decision, understanding all of the consequences, to receive Christ as their Savior.

But wait! Surely there are ways of understanding these verses so that they do not clash with an Arminian theological perspective!

Of course, there are. My point is simply that verses such as these belong both on the Arminian as well as the Calvinist doorstep. If you prefer to maintain the Arminian line, that’s fine with me for present purposes, but please do not think that God’s sovereign plan for the universe has no role to play in a sound interpretation of verses such as those. It is awfully easy to deduce a skewed theology from too limited a base.

What follows is to a large extent a summation of Corduan and Geisler, Philosophy of Religion, 2nd ed., now available from Wipf & Stock, and in my No Doubt About It.

This is how far we have come in the present discussion: The incompatibility of God and evil is best understood as something that, if it has not yet been resolved, will be dealt with in the future. In the meantime, there is no question that there is evil in the world, and, thus, given God’s attributes, it stands to reason that such evil must serve to bring about a secondary good of a higher order than would be possible without it.

Another question immediately rears its head: Doesn’t that turn evil into something good? No. We need to differentiate between the nature of something and the purpose it may serve. By its very nature, evil can never be good (metaphysically it’s a privation of some essential good), but it can be seen as functioning in bringing about a good, or (with St. Thomas) it can be an unavoidable secondary consequence of bringing about a higher good. Either way, it is never good.

So, here are a couple of illustrations of the logic of how this process is supposed to work. If God, due to all of his properties, will create the best creatures, then some of those creatures need to manifest the highest virtues. For example (and this is really just a microcosm at best), God wants creatures who display altruistic love. But that is a virtue that, by its nature, must be learned. And, as Norm Geisler puts it, God cannot "learn" people anything. God can provide the opportunity for them to learn it. However, to acquire the virtue, people need to go through circumstances in which they can acquire it. Such circumstances, in turn, must have some kind of deficiency for such specific virtues. In other words, a certain amount of evil is necessary for human beings to acquire such virtues as altruistic love, benevolence, pity, and so forth.

To continue with these initially trivial- sounding illustrations, one cannot learn courage without danger; one cannot learn humility if there is no opportunity for pride. And to take a big leap forward, one cannot experience God’s glory in hissovereign grace apart from sin. God manifests his glory in taking us to a state of glorification, and this cannot happen without a process that takes time or that can be attained apart from evil in the world. [Remember my comment in a previous post that God is not simply restoring us to Adam and Eve's state of innocence.]

Now, I’ve stated that these examples are illustrations of the logic involved. In the microcosm in which I've displayed them, most of them do not go very far because they appear to be trivial. But, just in case we need reminding, God is omniscient; we are not, and so we are limited in our understanding of how precisely God is carrying out this process. Even though I believe in "meticulous providence," that does not mean that I have "meticulous omniscience" and can identify for each individual evil how God may be using it to bring about which particular good. In fact, much of the time I’m really bothered when people try do that in cases where, from my perspective, the evil I see is still a whole lot worse than whatever puny good people may claim to be its outcome. Events and their consequences are interlaced in complex patterns. I’m not omniscient, and I need to trust God, not my personal rationalizations.

But the argument does not depend on my having "meticulous omniscience." God, given all of his attributes, must have chosen the best of all possible ways to take the universe to the state of being the best of all possible worlds. The best of all possible ways must include an encounter with evil because without permitting evil the results that God is bringing about would not possible. The ultimate goal is God’s glory, and that’s not just an abstract term because God’s glory includes our glorification, having passed through a world infested with sin and evil. I’m still be possible.

I'm still not quite there with the "worst of all possible worlds," and I don’t want to rush it. In the meantime, let me address one further concern that’s been voiced. How can I get a decent apologetic out of this?

It’s actually pretty straight-forward because it is God-centered. The problem, as I have stated, is that there is a conflict between God and evil. I don’t need to engage in soft-pedaling the problem here and talk about an inconsistency, let alone an apparent inconsistency, between two propositions. God and evil are in conflict. If I do not affirm that reality, I’ll never get anywhere with any theodicy. However, it is precisely the reality of the conflict that also entails the possibility of a resolution. If God does have all of those attributes that are incompatible with evil, then these corollaries must follow:

1) God will abolish evil.

2) God is allowing evil for a time in order to bring about a world that is better than it would be without allowing for evil.

3) Statement 2) is plausible. We can see its logic illustrated in the fact that, for example, certain virtues could not be learned by human beings unless there were some evil that catalyzes the learning process.

But why so much evil? Why this particular evil? Why is God letting the process go on for so long? Next installment.

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