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Posted by on Oct 26, 2007 in augustine, problem of evil | 15 comments

The problem of evil – “solved by Jesus”

Aaron has left a new comment on “Augustine on evil“. It’s below. Let’s discuss.

Augustine calls evil the “privation of a good” (Confessions Book 3 Chapter 7).

Good and evil are similar to light and darkness. Darkness isn’t a “thing” but the absence of light.

You appeal to science as revealing false the belief that we descended from Adam and Eve. You are entitled to this bare assertion but it is ironic that you turn around and talk about the evil of millions of years of animal suffering. What’s evil about animal suffering from the scientific standpoint? Isn’t it ultimately indifferent?

As you have indicated, Christians have a framework (whether or not you agree with it) for understanding what is good and what is evil.

What is your framework for believing in good and evil?

Ravi Zacharias helpfully explains,

“Some time ago I was speaking at a university in England, when a rather exasperated person in the audience made his attack upon God.

“There cannot possibly be a God,” he said, “with all the evil and suffering that exists in the world!”

I asked, “When you say there is such a thing as evil, are you not assuming that there is such a thing as good?”

“Of course,” he retorted.

“But when you assume there is such a thing as good, are you not also assuming that there is such a thing as a moral law on the basis of which to distinguish between good and evil?”

“I suppose so,” came the hesitant and much softer reply.

“If, then, there is a moral law,” I said, “you must also posit a moral law giver. But that is who you are trying to disprove and not prove. If there is no transcendent moral law giver, there is no absolute moral law. If there is no moral law, there really is no good. If there is no good there is no evil. I am not sure what your question is!”

There was silence and then he said, “What, then, am I asking you?”

He was visibly jolted that at the heart of his question lay an assumption that contradicted his own conclusion.

You see friends, the skeptic not only has to give an answer to his or her own question, but also has to justify the question itself. And even as the laughter subsided I reminded him that his question was indeed reasonable, but that his question justified my assumption that this was a moral universe. For if God is not the author of life, neither good nor bad are meaningful terms.”

The Christian “answer” to the problem of evil is not ultimately found in syllogism or equation but the Person and work of Jesus Christ. As the philosopher Peter John Kreeft put it, “Many Christians try to get God off the hook for suffering; God put himself on the hook, so to speak – on the cross.”

See also:


  1. Zacharias’ slippery argument slides thus:There is suffering;Suffering is Evil;Then there must also be Good;In which case there is Moral Law;There must be a moral Law GiverWhere to start? It’s so full of holes it’s more holey than holy!There can be suffering without their being some intrinsic, absolute, ontologically dependent Evil. So the very first step is invalid.But even if one accepts terms like evil and good, one can do so naturalistically, without reference to some higher “Moral Law”. There is nothing invalid or self-contradictory about the concept of a secular naturalistic moral systems, just as we have secular, naturalisitc legal systems. On this account, what is good and bad in life is a matter of the values we collectively choose and the protocols we personally exhibit; rather than being the arbitrary decree of a supernatural being.And no this communal, arranged aspect of morality does not make all moral concerns “relative” in some sense that demeans or invalidates such claims. Rather it makes the process of forming ethics a human, social process, and is a more mature conception of morality — alive to our fallibility and to the possibility of contrary perspective — than is simply falling back on the whims of God.Finally we are treated to the idea that Jeusus’ mythical self-sacrifice in some way explains or justifies the apparent neglect or apathy of God. Is it supposed to be a bit like when the CEOs of crisis-stricken companies sacrificially resign their position because they are taking responsiblity for some act of negligence, corruption or exploitation on behalf of the corporation? If so, then isn’t the cruxifiction an admission of culpability?!

  2. I always find it vaguely insulting that as an atheist I’m not ‘allowed’ to have any kind of moral framework. Admittedly Ia. Would have trouble explaining why I think some things are bad and some not. and b. Probably derive a lot of my values from the fact I was born and raised in a wester, christianised country. But that’s no different from a person of religion. They generally take their values from their upbringing. If they came to the church later in life the chances are it was not a huge departure from their existing value system.So how do I define good? I’d be hard pressed to really. I can say I’m not a moral relatavist – good is good and bad is bad, although sometimes there are so many factors involved that it is difficult to tell. It would be nice if Socrates was right and knowledge was virtue – unfortunately I think it’s a little more complicated than that ;)So, I can know what is ‘good’ and the only person that ultimately sets these rules for me is me – not much different from god doing it really, except that I actually exist. As for christians having a framework for defining good and evil – that argument would hold more weight if they actually paid attention to all the rules laid down in the bible wather than just the ones they find convenient. Oh, and the fact that darkness is the absence of light does not mean that evil is the absence of good, or vice versa. We’re talking about wholly different subjects. A good act could potentially have bad consequences, and the other way around. A bit of a rambling answer but then I am supposed to be working here … ;)CheersMike

  3. Oh, and original sin? There’s a truly evil concept !!

  4. Bob said:There is nothing invalid or self-contradictory about the concept of a secular naturalistic moral systems, just as we have secular, naturalisitc legal systems. On this account, what is good and bad in life is a matter of the values we collectively choose and the protocols we personally exhibit; rather than being the arbitrary decree of a supernatural being.And no this communal, arranged aspect of morality does not make all moral concerns “relative” in some sense that demeans or invalidates such claims. Rather it makes the process of forming ethics a human, social process, and is a more mature conception of morality — alive to our fallibility and to the possibility of contrary perspective — than is simply falling back on the whims of God.Spot on Bob.There is no good reason to believe there are objective moral facts independant of human values and thought. There are certainly moral statements that garner near universal agreement, but there will always be (rare) individuals who do not agree. Calling those individuals morally deficient merely circularly defines universal morals.Even if there were in fact moral statements which garnered universal (human) agreement, there is no necessary reason why these could not arise naturally.If there were moral statements which it could be shown were valid independant of human thoughts, feelings and values, this no more necessitates a ‘law giver’ than the law of gravity does. These natural ‘moral laws’ could be a natural component of the universe.Back to naturalistsic moral systems.Aaron claims:it is ironic that you turn around and talk about the evil of millions of years of animal suffering. What’s evil about animal suffering from the scientific standpoint? Isn’t it ultimately indifferent?This is very similar to the old trpoe ‘without God there is no meaning’. Nonsense – without God we are free to choose our meaning.A natural origin of morality, for example one based upon the evolution of cooperative traits which confer a survival advantage on social animals such as empathy and reciprocal altruism does not preclude one grounding ones morality in a less arbitrary Secular moral framework, nor does it necessarily lead to moral relativism.

  5. There are good things and bad things, and I can tell the difference between them. Therefore, god exists!Nice 🙂 But I think there are a few steps needed in the middle there somewhere…

  6. I would have said pretty much the same thing as bob only probably less well. How do theists get around the problem of changing moral attitudes? If there is a ‘moral law giver’ is he changing the rules?

  7. I genuinely feel like I must be missing something really important, because these presuppositional apologetics just make no sense to me. In this instance, I suppose my problems are these.1) Ravi Zacharias was giving a talk about his Christian beliefs. In that context, it is obvious (perhaps only to me) that his interrogator was not questioning the existence of a God in general, but of the specific claims about the Christian God. Zacharias’ answer is therefore no answer at all; there may well be a “moral lawgiver” God, but the moral laws that s/he gives are by no means guaranteed to be those that Zacharias believes in.2) Is there such a thing as a “moral law”? Why should good and evil require a “law” to define them? The answer strikes me as only possible if one has a peculiarly legalistic vision of faith – for example, the Judeo-Christian vision, which is quite fixated on the “law”. Clearly there needs to be a distinction between “good” and “evil”, but to call it a law reveals more about the speaker than the concepts.3) Ditto “If, then, there is a moral law, you must also posit a moral law giver.” Surely this is just a semantic fallacy that relies on our acceptance of the phrase “moral law” being equivalent to our usual understanding of “law”. The laws of physics, as far as I’m concerned, require no such “lawgiver”, although tragically the presuppositional apologists would disagree.So please help – is it just me, or is the whole presuppositional argument here a complete fraud that relies on semantic tricks to confuse somebody in the audience who hasn’t encountered this type of approach before? I welcome any thoughts on this, as I’ve been running into a lot of these arguments recently.

  8. Aaron’s comments are interesting, but it is hard for me to understand how they help.Zacharias’ argument rests on the contentious premises that (1) for there to be a moral law, there must exist a moral lawgiver and (2) that moral lawgiver can only be God. Is (1) really true? G.E. Moore vision of ethics presented in his Principia Mathematica does not include a lawgiver. Even if Zacharias is right that a moral lawgiver must exist in order for there to be a moral law, why think that the moral lawgiver is God? Social contract theorists will contend that the lawgiver is the community of rational persons who have bound themselves together; Hume thought that moral prescriptions arise from the character of our own subjective, human nature; Kant held that that the categorical imperative arises from the autonomous exercise of practical reason. In this connection, I recommend Christine Korsgaard’s excellent book The Sources of Normativity. So, Zacharias may be right, but the argument is not the quick and defeater of the problem of evil Aaron suggests it is.Secondly, it is unclear to me how Jesus’ death really helps resolve the problem of evil. Which premise does it deny? Which inference does it challenge? Lastly, I thought I would provide a link to my Animal Theodicy.

  9. Ja, I agree with most of what has been said.One thing: I think you can get around most of the “good and evil” baggage by referring to the problem of “suffering” instead. ‘Good’ and ‘evil’ can be defined in many different ways, some of which do imply some fixed moral order (not that a diety inexorably follows from this, of course). Suffering, on the other hand, has no such metaphysical difficulties, and is no less of a challenge to conventional supremely benevolent gods.Notice that there is actually no defence made at all re: the problem of suffering, save a rather incomprehensible (I thought) last paragraph. A prize to the first person to decode it?

  10. Evil being the privation of a good….This claim has unfortunately been made by some theolgians. But, are we really to take seriously the idea that the evil associated with the Holocaust or the September 11 terrorist attacks can be understood as having not been “real”? And even if it could somehow be shown that the evil of such events is “unreal” in some abstract metaphysical sense, would that take away the reality of our feeling that it was evil? Would it take away the reality of our suffering?I don’t have time to get into the debate if there are moral laws. But, assuming there are and there is a devine law maker as claimed, then Aron and theists will be faced with the following common problem. Is an act moral or immoral solely because God either commands us to do it or prohibits us from doing it? Let’s be more concrete and use an example, i.e. torture, and look at an immediate dilemma that this argument faces: Is torture wrong because God prohibits it, or does God prohibit torture because it is already wrong? While a theist takes the the first route (torture is wrong because God prohibits it), a non-theist takes the last one. If a good God prohibits torture he does so because torture is intrinsicly wrong, not merely because he declares torture to be wrong by divine command. But if torture is intrinsicly wrong, then it is wrong regardless of whether or not God exists. Either certain acts are wrong regardless of anyone’s opinions or commands (including God’s), or else all that we mean by “torture is wrong” is “God prohibits torture.” Rather than grounding the objectivity of ethics, the theist’s argument completely undermines it by insisting that God’s commands (like those of individuals or societies) do not require justification in terms of any external objective principles. Thus, the theist’s argument takes the form of moral relativism: what’s “Right” or “Wrong” is what one’s God (like one’s self or one’s society) says is “Right” or “Wrong”, and there are no moral standards apart from this. Yet if God said that 2+2=100, this mathematical statement would nonetheless be false because 2+2=4 is true regardless of what God says. The same point holds for moral propositions like “inflicting unnecessary suffering solely for fun is wrong.” If that proposition is true, then it is true regardless of whether God commands or prohibits inflicting such suffering.

  11. Rambler, I can’t see how the Divine Command Theory would cause Theists problems? At least not “true-faith” theists. I assume you got your information from this link? let me state I’m pretty much Atheist, I’m just playing devils advocate.I would say that if you believed in a All Powerful God it seems plausible that your moral system could be dictated by Him, and Him alone. The argument that God’s will is in someway lacking because it is His subjective view seems a little lapse. His God for Gods sake 😛 It’s like appealing to the ultimate expert. This problem would only occur when you don’t have people holding true faith. Anyone who was like Kierkegaard’s view of True Christian Faith could easily argue God’s will is final. If we feel it’s wrong it’s us that is in error, not God. Just look at the story of Abraham and Isaac. The above can be helpfully supplied here; all I’d say Bob sums it up nicely. Could someone tell me if Sartre’s Existentialism & Humanism comes into play here? As in where we get our Morals from without appealing to God.We don’t need a God to come up with the statement “Do onto others as they would do onto you.” In fact he may have written himself out of the moral argument there…Do you think we’ll ever get to the bottom of the problem of evil?Scott.

  12. Theists always seem to want to divert debate over the POE into a debate concerning meta-ethics. To prevent this I think its best to present a version of the POE that doesn’t involve the idea of right and wrong.In other words, instead of saying “it would be inconsistent with God’s goodness for him to allow extreme unnecessary suffering” its best to approach the issue by saying “it would be inconsistent with God’s loving nature to allow extreme unnecessary suffering he could prevent”. The second doesn’t in any way involve the concept of right and wrong—simply the inconsistency between supposed disposition and behavior.This isn’t to say I yield the field to theists on meta-ethics. Far from it. I think the Euthyphro dilemma is devastating for any meta-ethical theory based on God. But its an entirely separate issue when the POE is framed properly and should be dealt with as such.

  13. I completely agree with David. I personally have seen this diversion occur in many a conversations with theists. I also agree with Rambler that the Euthyphro dilemma does immediately create a serious problem for any theist trying to argue for a ethical theory based on god.I would be curious to read stephen law’s thoughts on this post – any chance we will be graced with this?

  14. Shall try to find time shortly, Pip. I am aware that I have left several discussions hanging recently (e.g. also the private schools debate and the Richard and Judy case). Perhaps I shouldn’t be quite such a butterfly…

  15. I think along similar lines to Jeremy and David. My favourite version is that the following set is inconsistent:1. God exists.2. God is all-powerful (and, if needed, all-knowing).3. God is all-benevolent.4. (Real) suffering exists.5. An all-benevolent being strives to eliminate suffering.6. An all-powerful (and, if needed, all-knowing) being is able to eliminate suffering.Of course there’s a quick way out: simply deny 3. and claim that God’s goodness does not consist in all-benevolence but in some other quality such as a disposition to promote higher-order goods (e.g. compassion) or in providing for the exercise of libertarian free will. But that’s a heavy price to pay – I would find it very disturbing if I were a theist and had to reach that conclusion. If we can argue separately against libertarian free will, as I believe we can, the implication is even more disturbing: God’s goodness is such that he wants a world just like this, in order to achieve His higher purpose.Denying 5. would also carry a heavy price: so God’s supposed all-benevolence is not what we naively think it is? That’s discomforting, to say the least. Denying 6. does not seem possible – and if it is then that’s also very discomforting.This version of the logical problem is not conclusive against the existence of the Abrahamic God, as 3. and 5. and can both be denied. But it does a great deal of damage to the attraction of the Abrahamic conception of God if we must deny one of them.The argument could doubtless be put in other forms that might be even stronger, e.g. by changing the word “suffering” the expression “unnecessary suffering” throughout. With that change, it is very difficult to deny 5. and even more difficult than it was to deny 6. The Abrahamic theist must try to deny either 3. or 4. I’ve discussed 3. Denying 4. carries a terrible cost: it means claiming that all suffering is, in some relevant sense, “necessary” (e.g. necessary for God’s higher purposes). That is extremely implausible.At no point do these arguments rely on complications about whether “evil” is “objective”, or anything similar. The problem is simply the tension between the existence of (so much) suffering and the existence of an all-benevolent being with the power and knowledge to prevent it.

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