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Monday, November 25th 2013


The Worst of All Possible Worlds

  • STATE OF EXISTENCE: Cold, but okay

Maintaining my resolve not to let this series be a polemic on the theological correctness of Calvinism or Arminianism, I shall continue with the problem of evil. In light of the FB discussion, I should also mention here that, despite the fact that we have somewhat different theological views and differ in the terminology we use to identify our positions, Dr. Norm Geisler and I are in basic agreement on the structure of this “Best Way” theodicy.

Please let me remind you of the points so far:

1.  Just because someone is including human free will in their approach to the problem of evil does not mean that they’re actually using a “free will defense.” The free will defense by itself is neither adequate nor actually used very often (if at all). Those who include a free will component for the most part actually use a “higher value” defense by clarifying that human free will is necessary to attain a higher value than would be possible without it. It is not possible (at least for a Christian) to say that God gave us a free will without making reference to the greater plan of God. God would not have given human beings a free will if he did not have a good reason for doing so.

2.  At this point those who believe in either a compatibilist or non-compatibilist view of the will should come together again because both groups should agree that ultimately it is God, not we, who will take us to the best of all possible worlds.

3.  In the meantime, we are experiencing the process, guided by God, to which we can refer as “the best of all possible ways to take us to the best of all possible worlds.” From our temporal perspective this process has to take time because it involves bringing out virtues that we have to learn. Furthermore, given the undeniable fact that there is evil in this world, apparently that process must also include the presence of evil along the way. Regardless of whether you believe that free will is a necessity for this process or that stipulating a morally significant will is sufficient, logic bears out that in order to realize some higher-order goods in us, it is necessary to experience some lower order evil.

4.  Still, we know that God, given who he is, will achieve his end, which will be a world much better than the one experienced by Adam and Eve.

I ended the last installment by mentioning the questions: But why so much evil? Why this particular evil? Why is God letting the process go on for so long?

And, of course I have no answers to those questions. But if I’m firmly committed to believing in an infinite, omniscient God, I can trust him to do exactly what is necessary. If I don’t believe in an infinite, omniscient God, I don’t have a problem of evil either. So, as I said before, the problem engenders the solution. In fact, the greater we understand the incompatibility of God and evil to be, the stronger the inference will be that God is taking us along the right path and that evil will be abolished. If you cut back on your understanding of God by diminishing his omniscience, omnipotence, love, holiness, etc., or the more you consider him out of control (e.g., by denying meticulous providence), the more you are also diminishing your assurance that God is implementing his victory. A drastic example of the result of such a reduction can be found in the works of some of the “open theists” (e.g., John Sanders), for whom God is actually working with contingency plans, not knowing (by his own choice) what the future will bring. I love the song by the Cathedrals, “I’ve Read the Back of the Book and We Win.” Let me quickly clarify, though, that obviously we don’t decide on the degree of divine sovereignty, and that we need to learn about God’s nature from his revelation (both general and special), not from our wishful thinking. Still, the Bible presents us with a God who holds his attributes without limits.

Why this particular evil? In most cases, if not all, I really can’t say. I know that the total evil in the world contributes to God’s overarching plan, but if you ask me why this or that particular person came down with cancer or whatever, I do not know. As a matter of fact, there are times when I think it verges on the offensive when people come up with some trivial rationalization of what strikes me as a pretty horrible amount of suffering.

Why so much evil? I will come back to this point, but I’m appalled at the amount and the kind of evil there is in this world. It’s never easy for me to come to grips with the holocaust, the present persecution of Christians, or the many kinds of suffering that people undergo. I don’t understand it. But that’s not where I start. I begin by knowing that there is a God in charge who has demonstrated his trustworthy nature to us by sending his son to die for our sins. So, even when I do not understand why God is allowing as much evil in the world as he is, I still know that his powers outstrips mine by an order of infinity.

Sustaining that kind of faith is not easy for me, and it should not be easy for you. God has made us to be greatly troubled by evil, and he hates it just as much as, or actually more than, we do. But he is God, and, consequently, if I’m serious about believing in him, I need to accept that his plan even includes such horrendous evils. It takes a lot of trust, and I can only trust a truly sovereign, infinite God, and even then it doesn’t always come easily.

Are we there yet? Or, why is it taking so long? For one thing, we can point to 2 Peter 3:9, which says that God is putting the world on reprieve, so to speak, to allow people to come to repentance. Beyond that, I cannot say why, from our vantage point, God is taking millennia to bring about the best of all possible worlds. It is the case, of course, as Peter points out in this context, that time for God is not what it is for us. If we understand God’s eternity to be timelessness, as we should, then the problem of duration is actually only one of our perception. But that doesn’t help because the problem of why we have this built-in perception of the duration of evil is no different from why there is evil. We’ve only moved things back from the reality of evil to the evil perception of evil.

What I can conclude by bringing all of these thoughts together is that this is, in fact, the worst of all possible worlds. And I find comfort in that thought. Let me explain.

I’m convinced that God exists, and I can’t possibly deny that evil is real. I can’t make evil go away with a cogent theodicy, nor can one eliminate God, if he exists, with an anti-theistic argument from evil. God and evil are both here, and so, to repeat this point once more, God will eliminate evil once it has served its purpose. God will not allow any more evil in this world than is absolutely necessary, nor will he simply stop some evil if it serves his purpose. Those conclusions are unavoidable given his nature. In short, God is allowing the world to be as bad as his plan calls for, but no worse.

So, when I say that this is the worst of all possible worlds, I’m clearly not invoking a “possible world” along the lines of modal logic. I can conceive of worlds that are much worse than this one; so, what is logically possible in that sense is not the point. What I’m focusing on is the metaphysical aspect. God will not allow any more evil into this world than is necessary for him to use. There is a limit to it, both in the amount and in the time for its infestation of the world that he created. Thus, speaking metaphysically, this world is as bad as God could possibly allow it to be. Or, the best of all possible ways to take us to the best of all possible worlds must be the (metaphysically) worst of all possible worlds.

Why is there any value in this statement? What, other than engaging in a clever semantic exercise, have I gained by saying that this is the worst of all possible worlds? It gives me a different perspective on confronting the evil that I see in the world.

1.  I can recognize evil for what it is. It allows me to come to terms with the fact that, yes, whatever evil and suffering we encounter is not just something that someone slipped in when God wasn’t watching.

Let me illustrate this point with the preface that sometimes when people have gone through a lot of problems, it can be a relatively small matter that serves as the last straw to send one’s ability to cope crashing.

Quite a while back now, one of our sons had some pretty drastic medical issues. We needed to do a lot of driving to hospitals, doctors, and a few times to some special medical supply stores. Our car at the time was pretty old and worn. Towards the end of that particular time period, it was not worth a whole lot any more, with engine problems and a sagging undercarriage that was likely to drag on bumps in the asphalt of uneven country roads. Unfortunately bad country roads were really the only option for us to drive on because there was no way I could venture onto a real highway with that vehicle any longer. The financial situation, needless to say, was problematic as well. In short, things were not looking very good one day when we needed to drive to Muncie, a nearby town, in order to pick up some item or other from a medical supply store. On our way there, using the back road, we suddenly came up on a “Road Closed” sign. I thought I knew a different way to go that would avoid that obstacle and drove a long semicircle of many miles, only to wind up at that very same place again. So, I thought things through, and thought of another way to go, and this time we did not get back to that earlier “Road Closed” sign. Instead, we wound up at a different “Road Closed” sign.

For a moment there I came close to an internal meltdown. I am happy to say that I did not, but my psyche did hit a rather serious low point. And we did get to where we needed to go and made it home safely as well.

Afterwards June and I talked about the events of the afternoon, and it was she who reminded me of my philosophical idea that I was forgetting to implement. She said, “You know, as much as we don’t like it, we should keep in mind that, after all, this is exactly what we should expect if this really is the ‘worst of all possible worlds,’ and there’s no reason not to trust God as we’re going through this time.” Or words to that effect. As strange as it may sound, I really had not made the connection between my nice theoretical idea and its practical application to this scenario in our real life. Of course, she was right, and, thus, what started out as a point of philosophy I had written a year earlier became a moment of comfort. Recognizing God’s plan, we can see the world realistically and don’t have to explain away the problems that we have to deal with on a daily basis. This is not to say that we can ever take any evil or suffering lightly, let alone just cover it up by invoking a phrase or an idea. Still, the reality of evil does not mean that my faith in our sovereign Lord is misplaced.

2.  It reminds me that there is a limit to evil. Logically, the world could be worse. Logically, there might never be an end to suffering. But, if I may quote myself from somewhere, “the worst of all possible worlds is still so good that someone as astute as Leibniz could confuse it with the best of all possible worlds.” I can experience whatever pain and suffering may come my way, accept it for what it is without rationalization, and know that I’m still in the hands of a loving God, who has already won victory over evil and is merely now in the process of implementing it.

A free will defense on its own (which is an exceedingly rare thing to find), could only explain why it is beyond God’s responsibility that there is evil in the world. A theistic theodicy gives us at least a hunch why God may have permitted evil, and it also provides us with a foundation for counting on God to eliminate all evil.

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