The “Problem” of Evil

"This world is not a preparatory school for human beings. It is a spiritual leper colony." -- Lutheran apologist Angus Menuge
This world is not a preparatory school for human beings. It is a spiritual leper colony.” — Lutheran apologist Angus Menuge

Why the quotes? Because the phrase “the problem of evil” is often expressed to mean that it is a problem for those who believe in God. It’s not. It is a problem for those who don’t. Not in that they can’t logically explain it from their premises (their question should be “Why is there any good in the world?”), but that they do not see that they – we all – are the cause of the problem.  God is not, as C.S. Lewis put it, “in the dock”.

Please note that what follows deals with evil apart from the realities of concrete situations. In such cases, words explaining evil often fail – as the book of Job shows in spades (also see this* from current LC-MS President Matthew Harrison after the 2004 Tsunami when he served as the Director of LC-MS World Relief).

In their book Faith Has its Reasons, Kenneth Boa and Robert Bowman Jr. share points made by Christian apologist John Hare:

“…there is no one explanation for each instance of evil. Bad things happen for a variety of reasons: to develop and refine a person’s faith and character, to bring about a revelation of God’s glory, to experience suffering vicariously in someone else’s place, to punish people for their own acts of evil, to alert people to physical dangers (biologically useful pain), to learn the consequences of evil, or to alert people to their need for salvation.” (p. 190)

These answers are not bad, but there is still something important that is missing. That something is also missing when Boa and Bowman talk about how Hare notes that “the likelihood of God’s existence will depend largely on whether, apart from the reality of evil, one sees good evidence for God’s existence” (p. 189). Along with the earlier quote from above, Boa and Bowman call Christian apologist Robin Collins to the stand to mount his defense. According to them, he argues that while there is “good, objective data” from which to derive a positive argument for God’s existence (i.e. the “anthropic principle”), this is not the case with “the evidential argument from evil”: “we have no way to quantify the relative amounts of good and evil that have been and will be produced in the universe….we know only a small fraction of the good and evil that have occurred and will occur in the universe….” (p. 190).

So, what is that thing that is missing? A serious acknowledgement of the amount of sin in the world – even if we cannot “quantify” it. And without this serious discussion of sin, we do not have a serious discussion about man’s culpability (which I focused on quite a bit in my recent series endeavoring to strengthen John Warwick Montgomery’s apologetic: see part II, and part III in particular).

Enter Lutheran philosopher of science and apologist Angus Menuge. In the recently released book Making the Case for Christianity: Responding to Modern Objections, Menuge has an essay titled “Gratuitous Evil and a God of Love”, and he is in top form.

In discussing what he calls the “creaturely conviction soul-making theory” Menuge says:

“On this view, even if we cannot know it, we may as well agree with [William] Rowe that there is morally gratuitous evil. Such evil is not especially “deserved” by its victims (John 9:3): in the sense in which it is deserved, we all deserve it (Luke 13:1-5). Nor is it allowed or inflicted in order to achieve a greater moral good, as if God’s will would not have been done without it. We can admit that people in concentration camps and the five year old girl [who is sexually abused and then murdered] in Rowe’s example suffered hideous evils which, for all we can tell, did not make the world a better place and would not be “morally justified” if they had. What good came of these horrors depended entirely on the gracious providential gifts of God. In admitting this, we can avoid the triumphalist theodicy which, as [D.Z.] Phillips says, betrays people’s suffering by misrepresenting it: ‘Betrayal occurs every time explanations and justifications of evil are offered which are simplistic, insensitive, incredible, or obscene.’ But in a world of such evil, all but the most willfully self-deceived can see that God’s creatures and the whole creation are dependent on God.” (pp. 160-161, the bold are Menuge’s original italics – in following quotes as well).

Menuge notes that this theory is promising but incomplete. In order to “understand the worst evils – horrendous, unjustified evils – we must focus more closely on the work of Christ”.**

Menuge begins:

“As Jeffrey Mallinson has argued, Lutheran theology affirms not only a theology of the cross, but an epistemology of the cross (a theory of knowledge which says we know God through Christ’s work on the cross). Unlike philosophical theism, which attempts to understand the divine by abstract reason, the epistemology of the cross insists that God is most clearly revealed in the persons and work of the God-man, Jesus Christ, and especially in his suffering on our behalf. Theodicies and defenses are developed within a framework of a thin philosophical theism which provides little insight into who God is, how we have rebelled against him, and what he has done for us in loving response. For this kind of insight, we need a history of God’s interaction with humanity, within which we can hope to find a narration of evil.” (pp. 161-162).

Note the focus here on history and the incarnation (see part I of the Montgomery series). Here, in what I think is a relevant side note, I quote Boa and Bowman again:

“The evidentialist [apologist] is not closed to using theistic arguments to make belief in God more plausible or acceptable. Unlike the classical apologist though, he does not think such arguments are necessary. According to evidentialism, the historical evidence for God’s intervention in space and time is sufficient of itself to establish God’s existence” (p. 194).

Back to Menuge:

“Philosophical theism adopts an epistemology of glory, which begins with the greatness of God and sees evil as a difficulty to be rationalized. By contrast, the epistemology of the cross ‘does not explain away or try to show how particular instances of evil produce some greater good. [Mallinson, 32]” Rather it starts with the evil and suffering found on the cross. On the cross we see the refutation of many glib theodicies and defenses, because Christ suffers wholly undeserved, unjustified, gratuitous, and horrendous evil, and he does not do so primarily because he wants to make this world a better place, or merely to set us a moral example.

The cross embodies both Law and Gospel in the most powerful ways. On the Law side, we have an accurate description of the horrific load of sin which infects us all, and of the just punishment which it deserves. When we complain about the problem of evil, we would prefer to make it an external theoretical or political discussion, rather than an internal, personal problem that blinds us to reality. Like a street urchin recruited into a terrorist militia, we are conceived in iniquity (Psalm 51:5) and our complicity with evil prevents us from seeing it clearly. For that, we must be confronted with the counter-perspective of a sinless outsider. In this bright light, evil cannot be contained in the tidy, coherent categories of a theodicy. This world is not a preparatory school for human beings. It is a spiritual leper colony.

Yet, on the Gospel side, we see that Christ is not here not [sic] to punish us but to affirm his solidarity with fallen mankind (Hebrews 2:17-18; 4:15), bearing our sin, suffering every evil and taking the full measure of wrath which we deserve (Isaiah 53). As Ed Martin notes, ‘There is an unquantifiable kinship of spirit that happens between those who have suffered in like manner.’ This includes the most horrendous and gratuitous suffering that Rowe emphasizes, because it is only the one who has suffered evil who understands it. Ravi Zacharias concurs:

‘It is the woman who has been raped who understands what rape is, not the rapist… It is  only the One who died for our sins who can explain what evil is.’

God does not answer the problem of evil by providing intellectually satisfying formulas. That would be appropriate if evil were a problem from which we were detached – like a problem in theoretical physics. Since evil is an immersive, existential condition, God answers by actions of love. His goal is not moral improvement, but to show us our true condition, our inability to save ourselves from that condition, and hence our absolute dependence on Christ for salvation. As Paul writes, ‘Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!’ (Romans 7:24-25)

Christ is God’s answer to the problem of evil. Therefore, any apologetic for the problem of evil should not waste time in philosophical theisms which paint blurry pictures of who God is, who we are, and how we can be saved. It should be a defense focused on the historical case for Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. In this context, we see more clearly what evil is, what God has done about it, and what he will do. The resurrection of Christ’s glorified, imperishable body also points to a final answer to evil, a new heaven and a new earth in which evil will have no dominion.” (pp. 162-163)

Menuge’s whole article is an excellent and thoughtful tour of current Christian approaches to theodicy. I highly recommend this book, if not for this essay alone. You can listen to an interview with him about the essay here.

FIN

 

Notes:

*“What does [the fact that Jesus Christ forever remains the ‘”crucified one” (I Cor. 1)] mean for a tsunami? I don’t finally know the mind of God. But I do know from the cross that God works His most profound deeds in suffering. And so I plunge my feeble mind into the suffering of Christ and know that amidst trials and crosses and disaster upon disaster, God loves us in Christ. And there, only there, I find consolation amidst the devastation. In faith, I know that resurrection follows Good Friday. The women stood at a distance and watched Him die. Hopeless. The end. “God hates this Jesus … and us,” they may well have thought. Or perhaps even, “There is no God, or certainly no God who cares about us.” Yet right there, on Good Friday, God the Father was doing what He had prepared to do from all eternity for the salvation of the world. The most loving act of God in history was veiled and hidden by a bloody, wretched cross. Where was God in this tsunami? Where He always is— in Christ, in suffering, in the cross.” (read the whole article here)

**Menuge distinguishes here between the logical problem of evil and the “evidential problem evil” which involves our trying to come with grips with evils that seems like they could have no purpose. It is interesting to note that regarding the logical problem of evil, C.S. Lewis said, concerning the nature of love:

“In order for love to be genuine, the agent has to have the ability to choose not to love. Unless there is freedom of one’s will to either love someone or hate them, it isn’t really love.”

It seems strange to say about one as great as Lewis, but Pastor John Fraiser points out some very real problems with this argument.  That is why I propose the following instead:

“Only freely given love is genuine love. Love that is forced is not free, and therefore not genuine love. In that case, we might as well be robots.”

I know it is audacious to correct Lewis, but take a look at Pastor Fraiser’s article.


Menuge pic: issuesetc.org.

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