Weblog of a Christian philosophy student

Weblog of a Christian philosophy student. Please feel free to comment. All of my posts are public domain. Subscribe to posts [Atom]. Email me at countaltair [at] yahoo.com.au. I also run a Chinese to English translation business at www.willfanyi.com.

Location: Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

A Theodicy For Natural Evil

A Theodicy For Natural Evil
Will G

There are three facts about the world that I think we, as Christians and/or philosophers can be fairly sure about, and that these facts combined together, when understood properly mean that the problem of evil is not a significant one. The problem of evil, by the way, being understood essentially in this way:

1. If God is all loving, he would desire to prevent evil.
2. If God is all powerful, he would be able to prevent evil.
3. If God is all knowing, he would know how to prevent evil.
4. Evil exists.
5. God does not exist (by modus tollens.)

Although at a glance this argument seems to be a strong one, it is not deductively valid. The conjunction of 1 and 2 does not entail that evil would be eliminated in all circumstances. For if omnipotence does not imply the capability to do absolutely everything (like make 2+2=5) and God could be limited in achieving some goods without evil, then it is reasonable to believe that God may allow evil for the sake of a greater good, which he could not otherwise achieve. As Plantinga argued regarding the free will defense, genuine free will necessitates the existence of moral evil, and this free will is a good thing to have. Thus God should allow moral evil for the sake of allowing free will, and neither moral evil nor free will are capable of being separated from each other.

Before making my theodicy there are three points I wish to make. These are 'starter' points that I feel point in the right direction that theodicy should take in answering this problem. They are things I believe we can be fairly sure about, hence their inclusion.

1. The first point is that natural evil makes up approximately 80% of the suffering in the world. I don't have exact statistics to back up this claim, but I have heard this quoted. War, the most destructive form of moral evil is a very rare event, generally, and diseases, cancer, earthquakes, tsunamis, droughts, etc... are common, especially in the third world, where conditions are sometimes catastrophically terrible. So the first thing that we can say about the problem of evil, is that if we can figure out the justifying reasons for why God allows natural evil, then the problem, as a challenge to the Christian faith is much less significant, because the amount of unjustified evil is quantitively smaller.

2. If we are going to offer an explanation as to why God allows natural evil, then according to the traditional philosophical response to the problem of evil, this explanation will have to involve evil that is a means to a greater good, that cannot be separated from that good. However regarding natural evil, what does this mean exactly? For example, suppose a child dies of leukemia, and 200 people die in an earthquake on the other side of the globe. Does God have a different justification for allowing each event? What I mean by this is, does God have a certain reason for allowing that child to die a premature and unjust end, but another, completely different reason for allowing an earthquake to occur? This might mean theoretically that there are as many justifications for natural evil as there are naturally evil events, a somewhat bizarre situation, and in any case not very parsimonious. It could mean that God has a justification for e.g. diseases, and another justification for e.g. earthquakes. But I would argue it is much simpler and easier to simply say that God has a justification for all evil as one 'block'. In other words, all evil results from God trying to achieve one greater good, and cannot be separated from this greater good. So leukemia is just a much a result of trying to achieve this greater good as are earthquakes. This entails a much simpler explanation and makes it so much easier for the philosopher, who may actually have a chance of finding out what it is. This I think, means that the explanation for natural evil will probably involve something like what I am about to describe, a 'block' explanation for all natural evil at once.

3. Regarding the nature of the traditional Christian explanation for the problem of natural evil, Christians have always maintained that natural evil is a result of the Fall of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. However the Fall is subject to an interesting philosophical query. If the world changed for the worse after the consumption of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and this was a one-time (single) event - i.e. it is not happening all the time with people now, then why did God not simply allow the Fall and reverse the natural evil of the universe back to the way it was? This is a great puzzle if we assume God would do everything he could to alleviate natural evil. The only answer, it seems, must be that the Fall, or at least its natural-evil causing properties, is still occurring even today. Thus just as Adam and Eve sinned incurring natural evil (somehow), when people sin today they encourage the same process to occur, resulting in naturally evil events. Natural evil may not necessarily be a corollary of how much moral evil is in the world, but it should relate to a general spiritual emptiness of humans and human beings' distance from God.

These points if taken together then entail three things. 1. If you solved the problem of natural evil, then you would not have so great a problem left. 2. The most likely explanation for natural evil is a 'block' explanation that covers all kinds of natural evil at once and in the same way. 3. Christian theology implies that natural evil was not a one-time event of the Fall, but is a continuously ongoing event due to human's spiritual failings. These three things indirectly entails, as I will argue, the following theodicy.

Natural Evil Theodicies

In regards to a theodicy for natural evil, the form it must take will be something like this: X evil is logically connected to good P. Good P is thus not attainable without X evil. Good P is a greater good than X evil is evil. God should allow X evil for the sake of greater good P. And it should be noted this seems to be the only way God could co-exist with evil.

As I will argue, if we have previously provided for natural evil as something that is continually being caused by human sin, then it is possible to construct a theodicy based on this very idea that God should not intervene to remove natural evil. For if human sin is constantly causing natural evil, and human sin is based on free choice, then surely the only way God could prevent natural evil would be to prevent human free choice. Thus one could under the above model say:

'Natural evil is logically connected to free choice. Free choice is thus not attainable without natural evil, and is a far greater good than natural evil is evil. God should therefore allow natural evil for the sake of free choice.'

However this theodicy has one problem. For this theodicy to be true then it must entail that the propositions 'no natural evil' and 'free choice' are logically incompatible. However according to Christian theology, they are compatible in a way that is transcendentally obvious to any Christian. In the afterlife, in heaven, all Christians will be perfect. As it says in the Bible, 'God will wipe away every tear from their eyes'. To maintain as this theodicy does, that natural evil is necessarily implied with free will implies grave problems for God's omnipotence and the Christian afterlife.

There is however a way of improving the theodicy regarding this free choice element that in no way detracts from it. In Christian theology, as just mentioned, a perfect free will is something that can and will occur in humans. However it needs the prior acceptance of Christ. In fact, in the gospels, it is only through the 'narrow way' of the acceptance of Jesus that any person can come to be saved - and thus to become a perfect person. Hence Christian theology implies that free choice and the prevention of natural evil are compatible, however only if a person accepts Jesus Christ. Hence if a person does not accept Jesus Christ, then God cannot make that person perfect in the afterlife and then, and only then, will the existence of free choice, and spiritual depravity, imply natural evil.

However, does this solve the problem? After all, God could simply force everyone to accept Jesus. He would thus end natural evil and cause universal belief in Himself. But this is a gravely unorthodox solution according to Christianity. In fact, the free choice of Christ must be free to have any worthwhile meaning, as God is good and desires people to freely (not compulsorily) love him. Thus God has two objectives. He wishes to eliminate natural evil, and wishes to preserve free will, especially of the free will of people to reject Christ. Although he can make everyone perfect and accept Jesus, ending the problem of natural evil, he will not do so because that would make heaven and the afterlife worthless. Thus there is a conflict between the greater good of ending natural evil and having everyone accept Christ, and the latter takes precedence. This means that my theodicy can be expressed in this way:

1. Only perfect free choice is compatible with no natural evil.
2. Perfect free choice is only possible with the acceptance of Jesus Christ.
3. Not everyone will freely accept Jesus Christ.
4. Free acceptance of Jesus Christ is a greater good than the prevention of natural evil.
5. God should allow natural evil for the free acceptance of Jesus Christ.

This thus is the situation. When God created the world, he created Adam and Eve who were perfect in the garden of Eden. However they both Fell and set up a system whereby the world would be affected by natural evil. God wished to remove this natural evil (being a good God) however he could not do so because natural evil is being continually caused by, and is a result of, ongoing human free choice. It is a result of human spiritual depravity. The only way God can remove the evil is by 'fixing' humans up, however such a fixing would entail forcing everyone to accept Jesus Christ, and his Holy Spirit who brings perfection. Thus since not everyone would wish to freely accept Christ, then God must allow people to freely choose evil, causing natural evil. The greater good of not forcing people to accept Christ outweighs the evils of natural evil. And God's sovereignty is in no way undermined as he can at any time alleviate evil that humans suffer; it is only that he has a greater reason for not doing so.

A Possible Mechanism - Panentheism

Although this theodicy may seem like an interesting and hopeful solution to the problem of evil, what is the mechanism by which human sin structures reality? Indeed, this would seem to entail a somewhat unconventional view on how the universe interacts with human thought. In exploring this view it is interesting to note that there are both unsatisfactory and satisfactory explanations of how human sin structures reality. A satisfactory explanation of course being an orthodox one. However there is one unsatisfactory explanation, that we know of, which can prove useful as it highlights the fact that such explanations are possible. This is the doctrine of panentheism.

Panentheism is a doctrine that, if true, would explain the situation vis a vis continual natural evil quite well. Under panentheism the universe is part of God, but not all God. One could think of the universe as the smallest, most infinitesimal portion of God's being, or that God has 'leased' or 'loaned out' to human beings for the duration of human existence. And because the universe is part of God, then moral actions (thoughts) may be able to affect it. For if the universe is part of God, and humanity has a bad relationship with God, then as the unvierse is God's body, a bad relationship with God might result in a bad relationship with the universe. If humanity sins and is unable to experience the goodness of God, as humanity lives in God's body then perhaps we may be unable to experience the goodness of God's reality. Thus, humanity experiences a lack of goodness in reality, just as in our relationship with God, and this lack of goodness manifests itself to us as random evil events, like hurricanes or earthquakes.

The fact that panentheism works as an explanation does not make it true, or mean that Christians should prefer it to simply having a theory with no mechanism. However it does make it more likely that there is another mechanism that does work. After all, 'there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy.' We can probably be quite confident that if panentheism works and is an explanation, even if it is not quite orthodox enough, that there will be other orthodox explanations that do work. Thus we can justifiably believe in this theodicy without an explanation. And since natural evil constitutes the vast majority of evil that humans suffer, then the problem of evil is really not so significant as originally thought.


Post Note

I would just like to mention a possible problem with my argument raised by a couple of posters regarding the idea that God cannot achieve perfect free choices in this life. According to what you might call a 'strong' view of God's power, God is capable of achieving a world in which that does in fact, happen, where people are able to always freely choose the good. Hence moral evil and hence natural evil need not occur.

Now there is a good prior reason for a Christian not to accept this in full, because it creates a troubling difficulty regarding the use of the free will defense (although it is by no means at all a position that a Christian cannot have.) The problem is that if God is capable of achieving full free will and fully good choices, that there is no reason for there to be moral evil. The free will defense doesn't work, and this opens up the logical problem of evil again (I would say.) Plantinga answered this with the 'transworld depravity' defense, whereby individuals suffer from transworld depravity in which they will sin at least once in every possible world. I prefer something else entirely, which I outlined in my article: Mackie's Objection to the Free Will Defense. In this defense, the more perfect something is the closer it is to God. And moral perfection, for a being with a soul is the key, or central 'thing' that can be perfect. So the more morally perfect something is, the closer it is in unity with God. And thus if something is 100% morally perfect, and good in every way (as morally loving/good as God) then it is God. Thus God could create humans that were very good, but not perfect. The answer as to how God will create perfect people in the afterlife, in heaven, is that humans have three components, a body, a spirit and soul. In my theology, while our bodies and spirits will remain separate from God, our spirits will become one with the Holy Spirit, and thus we will have the ability, through this union with God, to always choose good things. And this of course needs acceptance of Christ to work. (I should note though that an explanation of the goodness of angels needs a bit more work than is offered here.)