• True Reason: Christian Responses to the Challenge of Atheism: A Refutation, Part 12

    Chapter 14: The Problem of Evil and Reasonable Christian Responses, by John M. DePoe

    In this chapter DePoe responds to the common argument popularly called the Problem of Evil.

    In the beginning of his chapter DePoe writes how the Problem of Evil “raises legitimate questions” and that atheists who raise such objections ought to be “willing to hear whether there are reasonable solutions to the problem.” (149) In the same vein, I believe reasonable Christians ought to respond to reasonable atheists who have thought deeply about these issues. It is unfortunate that DePoe did not engage more fully with atheists who directly responded to many of these arguments, such as John Loftus or Graham Oppy, citing only briefly John L. Mackie about free will and the Problem of Evil. (157)

    DePoe begins by arguing that it is a “dubious assumption that a wholly good Being would desire his creation not to experience any pain, suffering, and other challenges presented by the existence of evil at all other costs.” (151)

    I do not see how he can justify this premise. If humans were created in god’s image (Genesis 1:27) then surely we would be like god in many ways. One way, one would think, is the desire not to see others suffer. Human beings often work very hard to avoid suffering and pain and to help alleviate conditions that cause it, and to help those who are in need of help. If human beings were created in god’s image, why do humans have this desire to help others, but god apparently does not?

    Similarly, if god is considered to be “the greatest conceivable being and therefore, the highest good,” quoting William Lane Craig from his debate with Sam Harris from Chapter 5, then it is only logical that “if there were simply a best world for God to create (not a best possible world), he would have no other choice than to create it.” As William Rowe argues, “to do less good than one could do is to be lacking in wisdom or in goodness.” [1] Given god’s stated attributes, it only makes rational sense for him to eliminate suffering in the world. If the “sinful” and “imperfect” human beings are capable of such lofty acts, then surely the so-called “maximally great being,” to quote Alvin Plantinga, would have a deep desire to carry out those desires to an even greater degree.

    Leaving these issues aside, DePoe’s first argument is that evil is necessary for the “opportunity of character development.” He argues that without traumatic circumstances to find ourselves in human beings would not have the opportunity to develop the “goods of moral character,” such as “courage and patience.” (151) He makes it clear how he believes that “virtues like courage and patience cannot exist without evil. In order to be courageous, one must practice courageous acts. In order to practice courageous acts, there must be some evil that a person confronts in the right way. And since people are on the whole better beings if they are courageous than not, it follows that a wholly good Being has a morally sufficient reason for allowing some evil to exist.” (151-152)

    I do not believe this argument holds up. I like what Corey Washington said in his debate with William Lane Craig: “We’ve got to hold theists to what they say […] If they say God is omnibenevolent, God is omnibenevolent, if they say God is omnipotent, God is omnipotent. We can’t let theists to sort of play with these words. They mean what they mean. And if God is omnibenevolent, God will not have any more harm in this world than is necessary for accomplishing greater goods.” [2]

    According to DePoe, evil exists to allow humans to be virtuous and practice courageous acts and patience, but it should be more than obvious that there is much more suffering and evil in the world than is necessary to allow humans to accomplish these virtuous acts. The Holocaust was an unspeakable tragedy and surely there were many brave people who sought to protect Jews from being taken away to the concentration camps, but were the millions of deaths proportionate to the amount of virtuous acts by those few who stood up to the Nazis? I honestly do not believe anyone who has a properly working moral compass can say there was. And given god’s alleged omnibenevolence and “loving” nature, such a being would have stopped these massacres before they even got started.

    There is an even greater problem that theists must solve if they propose this argument. John Loftus quotes William P. Alston who writes how,

    [A] perfectly good God would not wholly sacrifice the welfare of one if his intelligent creatures simply in order to achieve a good for others, or for himself. This would be incompatible with his concern for the welfare of each of his creatures. [3]

    John Loftus follows up this line of argument, writing,

    Therefore, the theist has the difficult task of showing how the very people who suffered and died in the Nazi concentration camps were better off for having suffered, since the hindsight lessons we’ve learned from the Holocaust cannot be used to justify the sufferings of the people involved. It’s implausible that their suffering did more to teach them [or anyone else] the virtues of character and cooperation than would banding together to win an athletic contest or help someone build a house. [4]

    The largest problem with DePoe’ argument, however, is his framing of the discussion in such a way that he defines courage as “the characteristic where a person is disposed to confront evil in the right way.” (151) However, this is not accurate. Courage is defined as the “ability to disregard fear; bravery.” [5] Merriam-Webster defines courage as “mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty.” He takes the same tactic when it comes to his definition of patience. DePoe defines patience as “the trait that disposes a person to endure evil in the right way.” (151) I’m sorry but this again is inaccurate. Patience is defined as “the ability to endure; perseverance; forbearance.” [6] Merriam-Webster defines the act of patience as being “able to remain calm and not become annoyed when waiting for a long time or when dealing with problems or difficult people.” (The search for “patience” redirected me to the word “patient.”) Neither courage or patience requires evil to exist in order for god’s creatures to develop courage or patience.

    Just as there are many ways of learning courage, such as becoming a lion tamer or performing daring stunts, of which no harm would come to anyone else but yourself, there are many ways one can learn patience without having to endure hardship. A slow, methodical game of chess or checkers can test almost anyone’s patience, as does having children. But these acts do not inflict needless harms upon innocent people. If god is truly “the greatest conceivable being and therefore, the highest good,” then there is no logical reason why god would not choose for his creations to develop the virtues of courage and patience via activities that avoid needless suffering, rather than the other options like the Holocaust or a pandemic. In sum, there are numerous ways one could go about practicing courage, and especially patience. For instance, one could force themselves to attend as many Black Friday sales each year as possible. Or one could find the most rude and the most inattentive waitress and insist you are waited on by her. I’m sure these would instill in one great degrees of both courage and patience, but they do not require evil (unless you believe buying loads of useless stuff just because it’s cheap, or rude and inattentive waitresses are evil).

    I believe DePoe’s argument ultimately fails because he has defined both courage and patience in such a way that necessitates evil, when there are many ways in which someone can “practice courage” and “practice patience” that are not a result of evil. The next argument DePoe cites is that of free will. He writes,

    A second morally sufficient reason a wholly good Being has for sanctioning the existence of evil is for the purpose of granting free will. To make this point, there are two propositions that I will support. First, I will contend that free will is an intrinsic good that is outstandingly valuable. Second, I will argue that the existence of evil is necessary for the existence of free will. Taken together, these two claims provide the rational grounds for believing that a wholly good Being has a morally sufficient justification for permitting some evil to exist. (155)

    He continues to argue how free will “makes it possible for people to be morally good or evil. […] A robot that has been programmed to vandalize private property is not a morally evil agent; in this case, the evil agent is the person who made the free choice to program the robot to commit acts of vandalism. […] In order for something to be a moral agent it is necessary for it to have the capacity to act in a free and responsible way. […] It is only with free will that anything is capable of being morally good or evil.” He concludes by saying “that the capacity for moral agency is an intrinsic good of enormous value. In order for the intrinsic good of moral agency to exist, creatures must be endowed with the capacity for free will. All things being equal, it is better for creatures to be endowed with moral agency than not. Most people recognize that it is better to be autonomous agents that freely control their own choices rather than automata with no ability to freely govern their own actions.” (155-156)

    DePoe quotes a counter-argument by John L. Mackie who asks,

    If God has made men such that in their free choices they sometimes prefer what is good and sometimes what is evil, why could he not have made men such that they always freely choose the good? If there is no logical impossibility in a man’s freely choosing the good on one, or on several, occasions, there cannot be a logical impossibility in his freely choosing the good on every occasion. God was not, then, faced with a choice between making innocent automata and making beings who, in acting freely, would sometimes go wrong: there was open to him the obviously better possibility of making beings who would act freely but always go right. Clearly, his failure to avail himself of this possibility is inconsistent with his being both omnipotent and wholly good.

    DePoe responds to this argument:

    Mackie’s reasoning contains an assumption, and once it is revealed, it is easy to see what is wrong with his reasoning. Notice in the first sentence from the quotation above that Mackie begins by stating, “if God has made men such that in their free choices they sometimes prefer what is good and sometimes what is evil…” The assumption here is that all that is required to choose freely to do good is to have a preference to do what is good. Now if free will was only a matter of following one’s strongest preference, then Mackie would be correct. God could have created all people with the strongest preference to do good, rather than evil. However, I think it is a serious mistake to think that a person is free by acting according one’s strongest preference. In fact, if it is true that people always act according to their strongest preference – and people are not free to choose what they prefer most strongly – it follows that people would not act freely by following their strongest preferences. […] If one’s will could be controlled this way, it wouldn’t be free will. (157-158)

    It appears that when he says, “I think it is a serious mistake to think that a person is free by acting according one’s strongest preference,” he is arguing that if god restricts our overall choices of our actions we are not truly free and, thus, do not have free will. I do not agree with DePoe’s line of reasoning.

    What if our options are simply limited, as in Mackie’s example? For the sake of argument let us argue that a person had a choice between four books to read: The God Delusion, god is Not Great, Breaking the Spell, and The End of Faith. Due to the arrival of an alien species who on their home planet considered the Four Horsemen to be kings, they destroyed every other book in existence. Now, you only have a choice between these four books. By doing this, did the aliens take away everyone’s free will? No. They simply limited options, but their free will remained intact because they could freely choose between the options available. Similarly, if god only allowed “good” actions then he is simply limiting our options, but we’d still have the free will to choose between a range of “good” actions to take in our daily lives. If that’s not free will I don’t know what is.

    Now that he has addressed the actions of “free agents,” what about “the existence of non-moral or natural evil (e.g., diseases and natural disasters)? Surely an all-powerful and wholly good Being would eliminate these evils since they seem unnecessary for the existence of free and moral agency.” (159) DePoe continues,

    Contrary to initial appearances, a closer inspection of natural evils shows that we cannot rule out the possibility that they are intimately connected with free agency. There are two reasons for this. First, the mechanistic workings of the natural world are essential to exercising free will. If the natural world was not governed by stable laws, we could not make meaningful free choices. For example, if I wanted to choose to help someone, the way in which I would try to help would depend on whether I had good reason to believe my actions would result in helping, rather than harming, that individual. My ability to make meaningful, moral choices depends on the world being a place where I can reasonably predict the effects of my actions. After all, if there were no laws of nature (in other words, the natural world was chaotic with no patters of regularity), how could I reasonably expect my actions to result in good or evil? […]

    There is a second way in which natural evil is connected to free will. Natural evils, like hurricanes, tornadoes, and viruses, are not intrinsically evil. For instance, if a tornado touches down in the middle of a desert and harms no living thing, it is not an evil event. Likewise, it is not evil for a deadly virus to exist, if it does not ever make contact with living creatures. What makes these natural events evil is when their existence intersects with moral agents. […] The implication of this insight is that what is often called natural evil is ultimately due to the exercise of free agency. If people had not chosen to settle in an area prone to tornado activity or on a fault line, there would be no associated evil event such as tornadoes or earthquakes. […] It is important to notice that the claim is not that people who have chosen to live in proximity to potentially dangerous natural events necessarily deserve the natural evil that befalls them. […] If God prevents natural evils, it negates the responsibility and consequences that follow from the exercise of free will. (159-161)

    He concludes that if “either of these two reasons are right, then it follows that natural evil is justified on the same grounds as moral evil – it is necessary to preserve free will.” (161)

    I do not agree with DePoe’s line of argumentation. If god created the laws of nature, as DePoe likely believes, then god has the power to tweak those laws even momentarily to save the life of an innocent person in a tornado’s path for instance. This does not necessarily require the entire upending of the entire laws of nature, to the extent that we would not be able to determine the outcome of our actions. Remember, according to Christians, god is omnipotent, which means he can do anything, so why not tweak the laws he allegedly created to save his beloved creations from undue harm? To quote John Loftus,

    The theist typically believes God created the universe out of nothing, and if he can do that, he can do anything in his world. Christian scholar Richard Swinburne agrees. “When theism claims about God is that…he can make planets move in quite different ways, and chemical substances explode or not explode under quite different conditions from those which now govern their behavior. God is not limited by these laws of nature; he makes them and he can change or suspend them – if he chooses.” […] Besides, since this present ecosystem is causing so much intense suffering, the question for the theist is why this ecosystem is necessary when God could create one without so much suffering […] [7]

    While I would agree with DePoe that entirely upending the laws of nature might cause humans to be unable to determine how our actions will effect the world, I do not view this as a good argument against suffering. I would propose that god does not entirely upend the laws of nature, only tweak them on occasion to stop tragedies from occurring to his innocent creations. To go back to an earlier line of argumentation, god is considered by Christians to be the very embodiment of love and goodness. If this is true, then surely he would love his creations enough to keep them from undue harm. DePoe quotes John Hick who argues that “God’s relationship to His creation [is very much] like the relationship between parents and children.” (153) While I’d agree with Hick that “[g]ood parents do not try to shelter their children,” good parents are likely to do all they can to make sure that no undue harm comes to them. For example, if an out of control car was bearing down on a toddler standing on the sidewalk the parent would no doubt risk their own life by leaping in front of that car to grab their child from out of its path.

    If miracles that Christians claim happen on a continuous basis are occurring around the world and changing peoples’ lives, and these many interventions have not caused the world to go haywire, I do not believe a little more drastic intervention by stopping natural disasters from occurring is in any way an impossible goal for an allegedly all-loving and omnipotent god. If a human’s love is supposedly not nearly as great as god’s then it stands to reason that god would want to save his creations from undue harm, even if it was a result of a poorly thought out decision, since humans are often compelled to do exactly that.

    The final section briefly addresses how much evil in the world is too much and essentially argues that this argument is faulty because humans’ minds are not capable of figuring out an answer because the subject is “too complex for any human to get a reasonable grip on.” (162)

    I do not believe DePoe has satisfactorily addressed the Problem of Evil. In one instance, his very premises were flawed and in the second, he did not seem to consider other options, other than the extreme example of upending the laws of nature in their entirety. The Problem of Evil is an issue I do not believe has ever been successfully answered by any Christian, past or present.

    1. Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity, by John W. Loftus, Prometheus Books, 2012; 219

    2. Ibid.; 228

    3. Ibid.; 239

    4. Ibid.; 239

    5. The Oxford Desk Dictionary and Thesaurus: American Edition, Oxford University Press, 1997

    6. Ibid.

    7. Why I Became an Atheist; 247

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    Article by: Arizona Atheist