The Problem of Evil

Last night, I met with a small group of Christians to discuss this article on the Problem of Evil. Mobile readers beware, that is a pdf. I’ll be referring to it throughout the post, so this might make more sense if you read that first.

Before I went, I wrote up a few pages of response to the article and thoughts on evil that came up while I was thinking about it, and took them with me. However, I was unable to make clear all of my points because I didn’t want to sit and read those pages – nobody else would have had much chance to talk, and that’s not a discussion. (Also, I’m simply not as articulate thinking on my feet as I am when given the time afforded by the written word.)

During the course of that conversation, I found that perhaps some of my interpretations of the article were wrong, or at least different than what the others saw. For instance, I saw an attempt at induction that turned out to be a Hasty Generalization fallacy where the article claimed some instances of what we might call evil on the part of Yahweh can be reasonably justified, therefore all of them can, even though we can’t understand those reasons. Nobody else saw that line of thinking in the article, so I assume I was wrong.

Therefore, I am going to re-read the article before deciding for sure which of my original thoughts I should include in this post. (As I write this paragraph, I have not yet re-read the article, but when you read it, I will have – what’s the tense for that, Grammar Expert?) I will likely consider most of them still valid points, maybe just not a response to this article.

Before going into rebuttals of the article or other Christian apologetics about the problem of evil, I want to make one thing very clear. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m largely going to pretend that I accept the assumption that an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving being could exist in the same world where multiple children under the age of 5 die every minute (not counting miscarriages and abortions). I’ll be arguing, instead, that Yahweh, especially in the Old Testament, is clearly NOT that being.

I want to give credit where credit is due, and this article makes one very good point: we should be working to solve evil. In the second paragraph, the author paraphrases Wright saying “evil is bad and needs to be dealt with”, and I could not agree more – that point needs to be made. However, I assert that we better take care of it ourselves, because no god has come through to help! Further, one need look no further than parents who kill their children because “God told me to” (like Abraham was willing to do so and Jephthah actually did in the end of Judges 11) or because of “faith healing” to realize that belief in god is not necessarily helpful to solving evil. Indeed, even Hitler was convinced he acted in the will of god, as surely were the hijackers on 9/11.

I do obviously agree that we should discuss “whether and to what extent the existence of evil counts as evidence against the existence of God”, although I would like to note that the argument of the problem of evil only works against certain god claims. For instance, although Norse legends place Thor as certainly more powerful than mankind, he is not considered all-powerful, so when evils happen, he might have been powerless to prevent them. I would mention that the legends of Zeus don’t claim him to be all-loving, but his numerous sexcapades might put lie to that. As with any person, if a god is not aware of the existence of an evil and powerful enough to prevent or fix it, that evil cannot be used to show that the being in question is not loving. Further, if a god is not all-loving, one can dismiss evils when questioning that god’s existence, the only exception being when the god is claimed to be perfectly loving but only to one group of people, in which case only evils that happen to members of that group can be brought up as problematic for that god claim.

It is my contention that Yahweh is much closer to a god who loves only one group of people than a god who is perfectly loving of everyone, and I intend to support that with the Old Testament, because when I “attend more carefully to what the Bible says about how God deals with evil” (end of this article’s third paragraph), what I see is Yahweh dealing OUT evil.

On an unrelated note, I find this article extremely difficult to understand for some reason, so I could easily misinterpret it. I’m not sure why, and I don’t think it’s a vocabulary issue. If I remember correctly from last night, I was not alone in this reaction.

A quibble I have is that I don’t think there is evil in everyone (page 4 of the pdf, 464 of the journal). This might be a semantics quibble, though, because I do think most people are capable of evil actions (exceptions largely being the severely underdeveloped and the mentally ill). But what makes an action evil instead of merely bad? Where’s the line between a child lying about whether he brushed his teeth and the Holocaust? I think it’s clear that Hitler’s actions were downright evil (at least in effect), whereas the child has done something merely bad (only harming himself, and possibly not that if he does this just once instead of habitually). Parenthetically, I don’t think that’s necessarily the least bad action one can do that is still a bad action, and I’m not convinced the Holocaust is necessarily the most evil possible action; these are just examples from recent history. My point is that I don’t know where the line between bad actions and evil actions is, and I’m not sure anyone else does either; most solutions I have heard deny the line is there (by claiming nothing or everything is evil) or draw it rather tenuously. (Please check out the flash “game” Socrates Jones for some philosophical explanations of morality and their problems.) In any case, it is clear that genocide and murder are wrong and most of us agree that they are evil and not merely bad.

Another reason to call that a quibble instead of a disagreement is because this conclusion is good: we should not be dividing people into “us vs them” or “good guys and bad guys”. I’m only claiming we are all good guys, not that we are all bad guys, as Christianity or at least these authors claim. The conclusion that we should not divide works either way. Unfortunately, there is a great deal of “us vs them” thinking in the Bible, especially the Old Testament, and religion has been a force of great division throughout history.

Of course, my assertion that people are generally good undermines the argument on whether we can perform theodicy. There’s an interesting thought here in the quote from Wright: “there must be some substantial continuity between what we mean by good and evil and what God means, otherwise we are in moral darkness indeed.” I would be in substantial agreement if we were speaking only of Jesus saying “love thy neighbor”, “do good to those who hate you”, and the like, but we are speaking of Yahweh, too, and he said to kill or exile a man and his wife if they have sex when she’s on her period (Leviticus 20:18, although how that could be enforced by humans I have no idea) and destroy a cow if it was raped by a man (Leviticus 20:15). It is my understanding that those of us who have risen above the level of the Westboro Baptists, meaning those of us who admit that homosexuals are people, too, and deserve to be treated as such despite Leviticus 20:13 calling them abominations, have an understanding of good and evil that differs from what Yahweh says in the Bible. Are we in “moral darkness” in this case? On the issue of slavery, despite the complete lack of any command of Yahweh or Jesus to abolish it or phase it out, and further despite Yahweh’s command that beating one’s slaves is perfectly fine so long as they live at least a day or two after (Exodus 21:20-21), most of us see slavery as an evil, although there’s a lot of discussion to be had on whether working for minimum wage counts as slavery. Are we in “moral darkness” or is the Bible?

It follows that I cannot agree with with Wright’s second objection, as this author does. I have two problems with the “skeptical theism” arising from it, in fact, besides the obvious objection of “we are largely good, not permeated with evil”. (I’m here responding to page 5 of the pdf or page 465 of the journal.) First, if you accept that there could be a reason that makes genocide justifiable for Yahweh to command, then you must logically accept that there are or at least could be justifiable reasons for us to commit genocide. Second, if a different deity or a human were performing exactly the actions Yahweh is recorded as having done in the Bible, we would call that being evil and no “skeptical theism” could convince us otherwise. Let me explore these objections in more detail.

If you accept that there could be a reason that justifies Yahweh commanding genocide, you must accept that there are or at least could be justifiable reasons for us to commit genocide. This logically follows from the idea that our morality must align with the morality of god, which Wright put forth above, and any disagreement puts lie to the Bible, which orders us to “be ye holy even as your heavenly father is holy” (Matthew 5:48, apparently paraphrased or incorrectly memorized), and says we are “made in the image and likeness” of god (Genesis 1:27). The best the Christian can say in response is that genocide is never moral unless god specifically commands it and that he would never command it. This faces the immediate problem that Yahweh DID command genocide in the Old Testament, in 1 Samuel 15:3 specifically, and commands or performs murders in many other places.

My morality simply does not allow me to open the door that genocide could ever be justifiable for any reason. I don’t think there’s a reason I can’t understand because there are so many reasons to commit genocide that I do understand. Eugenics, tribalism, and racism come first to mind, and none of those reasons are what I would call justifiable. Indeed, I might call those reasons evil, which is why I am perfectly consistent when I apply the same label to Yahweh and Hitler for ordering such atrocities, whereas the Christian is not because they must retain the label “good” for Yahweh while condemning Hitler for exactly the same crime (assuming genocide is the same as genocide). I simply don’t see an escape or defense for Yahweh here. Would we allow such a defense in Court? “Your honor, my client is clearly innocent, for he had justifiable reasons to rape and murder Sally, although our limited human cognitive faculties cannot understand or even conceive of them.” Again, unless we fall into “moral darkness” according to Wright, our morals must align with those of god, so any excuse that works for anything he did can also apply to us. Asserting that there is something “mysterious” only prevents us from seeing the obvious answer: Yahweh is not loving, especially to the non-Israelites.

My second problem is that if a different being were performing exactly the actions attributed to Yahweh in the Bible, we would call that being evil and no “skeptical theism” could convince us otherwise. I can once again point to the fact that Hitler is condemned for ordering genocide, so it is consistent to condemn Yahweh for the same.

Let me put it this way: If Allah had ordered a complete genocide of every man, woman, child, infant, and head of cattle, would you say “Oh, maybe he had some reason I don’t understand” or would you say “This god is clearly not loving” (1 Samuel 15:3)? If Zeus, to win a bet, had allowed Hades to ruin a man’s life, including slaughtering his servants, cattle, and children, and giving him a horrible disease, and if the retribution the man received for continuing to praise Zeus throughout these trials was not to have those children come back to life but to have his wife birth more as though children are replaceable, would you say “Oh, maybe he had some reason I don’t understand” or would you say “This god is clearly not loving” (Job)? If Ra had murdered ten scouts for giving a true report of the inhabitants of a land he wanted the Egyptians wanted to conquer, would you say “Oh, maybe he had some reason I don’t understand” or would you say “This god is clearly not loving” (Numbers 14:36-37)? If Thor had plagued a whole nation with 9 plagues before killing every first born child just to show off his power, hardening the leader’s heart so he could continue showing off and murdering, would you say “Maybe he had some reason I don’t understand” or would you say “This god is clearly not loving” (Exodus chapters 7-12)? There are many more examples of Yahweh doing exactly this sort of thing in the Old Testament, and I am betting that any other being guilty of so many murders would be rightly condemned by Christians. Why does Yahweh get a free pass?

Notice that I am not saying I want an answer for why Yahweh would permit evil, but for why Christians allow excuses for Yahweh committing evil that they surely would not accept for any other gods. The story of the Egyptian plagues is especially problematic, because Yahweh specifically says he is hardening Pharaoh’s heart to show off how powerful he is (see Exodus 9:14-16 and 11:9 for Yahweh’s reasons, and Exodus 4:21, 7:3, 7:13, 9:12, 10:1, 10:20, 10:27, 11:10, 14:4, 14:8, and 14:17 for Yahweh hardening the heart; for those interested, Exodus 8:32 and 9:34 as well as 1 Samuel 6:6 do say Pharaoh hardened his own heart). When Yahweh is giving a reason, why argue that he had a different one?

Page 6 of the pdf (page 466 of the journal) appears to fall prey to begging the question. If we are discussing the question of whether a god can exist, which is part of how this author defines the problem of evil, we cannot come to a conclusion about this problem by assuming the existence of god. He is certainly right that the conclusion that god is justified in permitting evil is obvious if we accept both that a good god exists and evil exists, but that does not say anything about whether evil can be used as evidence that god does not exist. Indeed, for someone in my position, who sees the existence of evil as extremely clear evidence against the existence of a loving god for exactly the same reasons a father abusing his child would be evidence against the existence of his love for that child, the problem of evil must be answered before I can come to accept that a loving god might exist. (I suppose this goes against what I said earlier about assuming that wasn’t the case and focusing only on Yahweh, but it is a point that needs to be made.)

The article goes on to discuss whether we can arrive at some ideas about the problem of evil by studying the Bible as “second person” narratives. Specifically, the stories of Job, Abraham and Isaac, and Samson are mentioned, although no detail is given as to what they might reveal about the problem. I must admit, I have never seen Samson used in this sort of discussion, so it might be interesting to see what Eleonore Stump would have to say about it. I’ve talked a bit about the other two stories previously in this post, and neither provides to me at this point any satisfactory insights about the problem of evil. Treating children as replaceable isn’t good and loving; it’s heartless, especially if you have the demonstrated power to raise the dead (1 Kings 17:17-24, 2 Kings 4:20-37, and 2 Kings 13:21). Ordering a man to kill his son and only stopping him at the last minute isn’t good and loving; it’s cruel to both father and child, and the fact that Abraham ended up not killing Isaac only makes the story marginally better, especially when the later story of Jephthah does have him killing his daughter to fulfill his vow.

I think I see where I got the idea that there is a hasty generalization. Essentially, Stump claims that it is possible to arrive at a theodicy, or justification for the evil god permits, using some of the Biblical stories. Taken with the rest of the article, I do find myself thinking again that the author might be falling prey to that fallacy, because he seems to think that possibly being able to arrive at good theodicy sometimes means a complete theodicy is possible, although we probably can’t understand it.

Naturally, the author never arrives at a true argument, and his conclusion states that such was never his intention. However, as the Bible is the only source we have for the actions of Yahweh, the god the Christians claim exists, that is where we must turn to learn how Yahweh acts about evil.

This is why I have focused so thoroughly on the Bible stories and pointing out god’s atrocities in the Old Testament. Regardless of whether these stories actually happened, the Bible is held up by Christians as truthful in some sense. According to Christianity, we are supposed to learn something from them, and it is often claimed that what we learn is about how much god loves us. In particular, this Eleonore Stump appears to want to use the stories of the Old Testament to solve the Problem of Evil. I simply don’t see how this is possible, as the Old Testament is little more than story after story of god ordering, causing, or implicitly condoning people to be tortured in horrific ways, often for things that weren’t even their fault. Do you really think there were NO innocent newborn or unborn babies in Sodom and Gomorrah?

In bringing up all of these awful stories, I am not saying that they describe literal truths (they almost entirely describe no historical or scientific truths) but that this is what the Bible says. The proposition that we can learn about morality from the story of Job opens that story up to criticism, regardless of the literal truth of it. Besides, if anything in your holy book that you don’t like can be dismissed as metaphorical for ad hoc reasons, in what sense is it holy? If, whenever there is a conflict between the empirical evidence and your holy book, you go with the evidence, and this has happened until almost nothing in the book is left that can be taken at face value, why bother accepting any of that? The only reason I can see is a presuppositional commitment to Christianity.

I’m not sure the best place to put these last few points, so they may appear somewhat disconnected (because they mostly are).

You must remember that, if Yahweh exists and is really all-powerful, he could have done things differently, or at least made the stories written down differently. He could have refused to prove anything to Satan, or rewound time after winning the bet so Satan would remember but Job wouldn’t (and his children and servants would not have to remain dead), or simply raised the people and animals he let Satan kill back to life (which would give us a direct and personal example of Yahweh undoing the evil of Satan). He could have not hardened Pharaoh’s heart or softened it so Pharaoh just let the Israelites go, and not killed all the innocent first born babies. He could have found a different way to test Abraham’s faith, one less traumatic for Isaac – or he could have just exercised his omniscience. If the point of that story is to show that human sacrifice is no longer acceptable, would it not have been much more clear to specifically say “DON’T kill your children”? And what about the story of Jephthah, wherein he actually did follow through with killing his daughter for god? How can anyone not see this as confusing at best?

Further, if you want to argue that Yahweh is perfectly loving, it must follow that all of the Old Testament atrocities were the most loving ways possible for him to act. Do you really believe it was more loving for Yahweh to give Job more children than it would have been for him to raise the ones he allowed to be killed back from the dead as he did with his own son (Jesus)? Do you really believe that it was more loving to allow Jephthah to offer his daughter as a sacrifice, rather than letting a goat exit the house first? Do you really believe it was more loving for Yahweh to order Abraham to sacrifice his child causing what must have been the most traumatic three days in both their lives than to, I don’t know, not do that? Of course you don’t!

Look, I used to ignore the atrocities of the Bible (and of present day life) without ever thinking that they needed a good explanation. But now that I realize how horrifying they really are, I simply can’t accept that any god who would allow himself to be associated with them could possibly be loving. Again, it doesn’t matter if the stories are true; Yahweh (if he exists) has allowed them to be associated with his name for too long for us to assume he minds that we can see him as capable of ordering genocide. At best, Yahweh of the Old Testament only loves the Israelites, and cares not at all if all of the other nations die.

Even the character of Jesus is not really portrayed as perfectly loving. Is the most loving reaction to being hungry and not finding figs on a tree cursing it so it withers and never again bears fruit (Matthew 21:19-20)? Is the most loving way to deal with money changers in the temple to start flipping tables and whipping people (John 2:15)? Is it really loving to command people to hate their families in favor of you (Luke 14:26)? Think if a boyfriend asked that of his girlfriend; we have a word for that, and that word is “abusive”.

In the group last night, an argument was brought up that might be the best explanation for the problem of evil that is possible within Christianity; namely, that Heaven will make up for all of the evil we have experienced in this world, so the problem is non-existent. The main problem I can see with this is that it doesn’t answer how Hell could exist with a loving god, and therefore exposes an even worse version of the same problem of evil, which doesn’t help the case for Christianity at all. In other words, this argument can only be said to work if we have a 100% guarantee of Heaven. I’m not entirely sure it works then, because it doesn’t explain why a loving being can allow so much suffering, it just says the suffering will be nothing compared to the joy.

I’m almost finished, but I’d also like to point out that atheism explains evil in a much more satisfying way than any religion with a loving being that is aware of our suffering and can do something about it. Perhaps more accurately, if we don’t believe in any gods, we don’t need to explain evil; it exists because nothing can stop the forces of nature from destroying us, because nothing can stop us from torturing each other except ourselves. There isn’t any contradiction between the complete lack of a god and millions of children under the age of 5 dying every year because who could possibly prevent it? Indeed, that’s a great example of how we ourselves are working together to solve evil, as the child mortality rate has been dropping over the last several years, and this is not an isolated case. It wasn’t any deity who stopped Hitler; it was man. It wasn’t any deity who cured leprosy; it was man. It wasn’t any deity who eradicated smallpox; it was man. It won’t be a deity who stops Kim Jong-Un; it will be man (or nobody, but probably man). This is a pattern we see over and over and over, and we should treat it as a call to action: if we want evil to disappear, we must do it ourselves, because any gods that exist are deaf to our pleas or simply inept.

I think I’ve rambled on quite long enough, and I hope I’ve built a convincing case for why evil is a real problem for Christianity. I’m going to end with a question from Ebon Musings’ Religion 101 Final Exam (thanks to reddit user tourist420 for pointing me to it):

You are a product tester and frequently bring your work home. Yesterday, while dressed in a flame-resistant suit (up to 3,000 degrees) and carrying the latest model fire extinguisher, you discovered your neighbor’s house on fire. As the flames quickly spread, you stood by and watched the family perish. Which of the following best describes your behavior?

One thought on “The Problem of Evil

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