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

Sunday, December 26, 2010

A possible solution to the problem of evil

An easy solution to the problem of evil is just to say that God is not very powerful. That is, God wants to help us with our pain and suffering, but for various reasons just can't.

This is not a very good 'solution' because it undermines our ability to trust God. If God isn't very powerful, then can God save us from our sin? Can this God really guarantee an eternal existence of goodness, contentedness, and peace forever?

But I believe you can rework this 'easy solution' into something that does not undermine our ability to trust God.

What if you limited God's power in a key way? What if you, with surgical precision, cut out aspects of God's power that do not undermine our ability to trust God and yet answer the problem of evil?

How about this: as long as there is sin in the world, there must be evil and suffering. As long as there is sin in the world, God can't get rid of evil and suffering. BUT God can easily and quickly get rid of our sin if we let Him. So God can easily and quickly get rid of all evil and suffering in the world forever if we let Him take away our sin.

If you said this, then you could explain why there is evil and suffering in the world even though God could take it all away in a moment.

You could say for those who aren't Christians, God could take their suffering away in a moment if they let God take away their sin, through Christ.

For those who are Christians, God could take away our suffering in a moment, but then our ability to influence non-Christians to follow Jesus would be 'shut down' as a result, for some reason. Maybe people need to leave this world to enter eternal life? So we could not (effectively?) encourage others to let God take away their sin if God took our suffering away, because the end of our suffering would mean the loss of our ability to evangelise.

Therefore, God can take away humanity's suffering in a moment, but will not do so either because people have not freely let God take away their sin or, alternatively, God has taken away someone's sin, but they need to continue to suffer in order to be able to influence non-Christians to accept Christ (so God can take away their sin).

There's a parable that sort of connects to this issue from Matt 24:24-30:

Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.

“The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’

“‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.

“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’

“‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”

In one interpretation of this parable, if God took away the suffering of Christians as soon as they accepted Christ, then, yes, our suffering could go away in a moment, but then we wouldn't be able to influence a whole lot of people to accept Christ as well. As a result some wheat would be 'pulled up' because making eternal life happen so quickly would prevent lots of people from hearing and accepting the gospel.

There are several issues that arise if this idea is pursued.

One big assumption is that evangelism to non-Christians gets shut down if God takes away the suffering of Christians. So you can't get incredibly happy and contented Christians, who are already experiencing eternal life, hanging out normally with non-Christians for some reason. I'm not exactly sure why this is the case. Maybe eternal life can't be experienced in the world in which we live.

Another assumption is that God can't evangelise very well if there are no Christians on earth.

Another is: why can't God take away suffering as long as there is evil in the world?

A preliminary answer to this is that although the idea of limits to God's power may make a lot of people uncomfortable, most Christians are on board with the idea that God cannot make 2 + 2 = 5, or make it so that you have never existed and have always existed. So perhaps the idea of a world with sin that doesn't have a lot of suffering in it implies a logical paradox, for reasons we don't know.

I think that reality may have unknown aspects that guarantee evil and suffering while there is sin in the world, which operate in mysterious ways. I can't explain any more of this though - why humanity's sin should generate a hurricane, virus, or earthquake somewhere is inexplicable.

Fourthly, why does God taking away our sin involve free will? But this is not extremely controversial because respecting free will usually makes God sound more loving.

A fifth issue is: how does this relate to God's word?

Not having an encyclopedic knowledge of the Bible I can't speak about the general Biblical picture on this point with confidence, but here are some relevant Bible verses:

Romans 5:12-14: "Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned - for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come."

Romans 8:20-23: "Against its will, all creation was subjected to God's curse. But with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God's children in glorious freedom from death and decay. For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering. We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children, including the new bodies he has promised us." (NLT)

Romans 6:23: "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord."

Matthew 23:37: "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones God's messengers! How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn't let me."

One thing that would be good to get from this idea is that there's a solution to the problem of evil that could make sense given the truth of some assumptions which are not too outlandish.

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Sunday, December 19, 2010

A discussion about Biblical slavery

Someone wrote something criticising the God of the Bible for allowing or even endorsing slavery in the Bible, and this is what I wrote in response (which I've edited a bit), which I thought might be worth sharing:

I want to point out that there are some 'ameliorating' factors here.

One is that there was no social security system in Israel back then, apart from having a large family. In the West, we're used to the idea that even if we have no job and no family to live with that everything will still end up OK. But in the ancient near east, this situation may lead to our death. So suppose someone was out of work for a while in ancient Israel, without family or social security, then they would probably starve. So if God allows people to sell themselves into slavery, then there is a kind of social security in that for people who can't get a job as long as the slaves have lots of rights securing their protection from harm etc.

Actually, there weren't supposed to be any poor people in Israel at all because of God's very generous welfare laws (Deu 15:4, Lev 25:35-7). But there has to be a backup plan in case that fails.

Slavery for Israelites was supposed to be voluntary and they are supposed to be treated as "hired workers", i.e. like employees (Lev 25:39-42). They are supposed to work for a maximum of 7 years, and at the end of that time to be released with a generous supply of goods (Deu 15:12-14).

Note though that slaves who were sold to Israel from other nations (in the international slave trade) did not have the right to be released every seven years. But we read in Deut 23:15-6:

"If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand him over to his master. 16 Let him live among you wherever he likes and in whatever town he chooses. Do not oppress him."

Which means that slaves can choose to be free by running away (but not everyone agrees with this interpretation, see here).

Note also that God doesn't endorse the slave trade, because the Bible condemns 'men stealing', i.e. kidnapping to sell into slavery, in 1 Tim 1:9-10.

In terms of protections for slaves, they got to have a Sabbath (Ex 23:12), and in every seventh year slaves had the same right as wealthy people, free people, etc. to the harvest of that year (Lev 25:6).

Moreover, if you killed any slave, then you yourself would be killed under the 'life for life' clause (Gen 9:6). If you inflicted any permanent marks or injuries on a slave, then the slave had to be set free to compensate (Ex 21:26-7). If a slave owner beats a slave without inflicting permanent marks or injuries, but leaves them bedridden for more than two days, laws would apply that punish the owner (Ex 21:23-7). Now, this is still not acceptable, but it's quite different to American slavery.

One view on why slavery exists in the Old Testament is that there is a good reason to have something to provide social security and God compromised with the Israelites so that turned out to be slavery rather than e.g. an income tax and pension system, like in modern developed economies. The Bible says that God let Moses compromise regarding divorce and polygamy (Matt 19:7-8), so God may have allowed this with slavery as well but if and only if it has a strong social security benefit where there is no other way to provide social security.

A good verse on slavery from the New Testament (apart from the one that condemns 'men stealing' for the slave trade in 1 Tim 1:9-10) in the Bible comes from Eph 6:9 which destroys the institution of slavery without actually making it illegal. In Eph 6:9 slave masters are told to "obey [their] [slaves] with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men" when read in conjunction with Eph 6:5-7. This isn't just telling slave owners to be nice to slaves, but is telling them to serve their slaves like someone might serve God, or like people in marriage should serve each other. Doing this would create a pretty weird dynamic in a slave-owning house and would make the institution ridiculous.

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Sunday, December 12, 2010

Why God can't just forgive sin

Forgiveness doesn't do a lot of things. For instance, it doesn't necessarily make people better. If I forgive someone for stealing from me, then I won't seek revenge, but it won't necessarily mean they'll stop stealing. So forgiveness won't necessarily make the forgiven person better.

This could be a problem for religious people if you need to be perfect to be with God. If you have to be perfect to hang out with God forever, then it raises the question: how is God's forgiveness going to make people perfect? If my forgiveness doesn't make someone who steals from me perfect, actually they could easily steal again, then how is God's forgiveness going to make a religious person perfect? Maybe the religious person will feel so grateful or remorseful that they'll never do anything wrong ever again. But experience teaches us that this is unlikely...

This is partly why Christianity teaches a type of forgiveness where forgiveness DOES make someone better. When Jesus died for us on the cross, God put our evil onto Christ, as well as the punishment for it. You can imagine all our badness, like a great pool of black sludge, being poured onto Christ on the cross. So "We know that our old sinful selves were crucified with Christ so that sin might lose its power in our lives" (Rom 6:6) and in return we will "be found in [Christ], not having a righteousness of [our] own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ (Phi 3:9). Luther called it the 'Great Exchange'.

2 Cor 5:21: "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God."

Isaiah 53:12: "Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors."

Unfortunately, Christians still do the wrong thing a lot because God has decided that what Jesus did for us will be fully manifested at a later date. Until then, "The sinful nature wants to do evil, which is just the opposite of what the Spirit wants. And the Spirit gives us desires that are the opposite of what the sinful nature desires. These two forces are constantly fighting each other, so you are not free to carry out your good intentions" (Gal 5:7). In fact, in our present state, "If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us" (1 John 1:8).

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