CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Worldviews and the Problem of Evil

Apr 20, 2007

All worldviews have to wrestle with the problem of evil. New Agers, secularists, atheists and theists all must come up with some sort of account of it. Indeed, any worldview worth its salt has to look not only at the issue of ethics (right and wrong), but other big ticket items, such as metaphysics (the nature of reality) and epistemology (what we know and how we know).

While no worldview can offer a complete or perfect spin on any of these core issues, some may be more coherent, consistent and in sync with the real world than others. I of course maintain that the Judeo-Christian worldview best deals with the big questions of life.

It may not answer every particular question (no worldview can) but it offers substantial and reasonable explanations for the key philosophical questions. While it does not offer exhaustive truth, as Francis Schaeffer used to say, it offers true truth.

To continue with his terminology, there is a God who is there, and he is not silent, but has communicated real truth to us. On the topic of good and evil, there are a few basic truths which, when teased out, offer a rational and viable explanation. Simply stated, the Biblical account for good and evil is this: genuine goodness, beauty and altruism are possible because we are made in the image of God. The fact that we share in his likeness means we can see substantial goodness and kindness. Mother Teresa, for example, is understandable from the biblical worldview.

But the entry of sin into the world explains the evil and selfishness and mayhem we find throughout. The concept of sin, along with the belief in a supernatural and personal evil being, helps explain the Virginia Tech shootings, the rise of Hitler, and the selfishness that every one of us display. There exists real evil, in other words.

And into this situation, God has entered the world, with Jesus Christ suffering a cruel substitutionary death so that the just punishment for our sins might be dealt with, and forgiveness offered, if we are willing to receive it.

This, very briefly, is the biblical account of good and evil. Moreover, God knows all about suffering. He is not immune from our grief and suffering. He lost his only son – a son who was totally innocent – to the hands of evil men. Thus God has been there and done that. So he can offer comfort and help, in addition to providing us with a way out of the predicament of sin and the suffering that it causes.

These are the broad brush strokes. There still remain plenty of questions, but this is one way to assess good and evil, and I believe it is the best one going.

One commentator whom I almost always find myself in agreement with is Chuck Colson. His latest Breakpoint commentary (April 19, 2007) on the Virginia Tech case offers more Christian reflection of the issue of evil. Says Colson, “As we seek to understand what happened and why he did this, it is vital that we not exclude an important part of the equation: evil.”

He continues: “Faced with this kind of horror, we automatically assume that we are dealing with a madman – a word the media has already used to describe the killer. That’s because we can’t imagine ourselves or anyone we know doing anything remotely like this. Therefore, we conclude that something must have been ‘wrong’ with the perpetrator. And, since our culture is defined by what sociologist Philip Rieff called the ‘therapeutic ethos,’ the ‘something’ that’s ‘wrong’ must be a psychological defect. Mental illness, not human evil, is our preferred explanation for what happened in places like Blacksburg or Columbine.”

This disbelief in evil, and the elevation of the concept of mental illness to explain such actions, is certainly becoming the common wisdom. Colson mentions a visit to a Norwegian prison years ago in which he witnessed a pretty blatant example of this kind of therapeutic thinking:

“Throughout the tour, officials bragged about employing the most humane and progressive treatment methods anywhere in the world. I met several doctors in white coats. That prompted me to ask how many of the inmates, who were all there for serious crimes, were mentally ill. The warden replied, ‘Oh, all of them.’ I must have looked surprised, because she said, ‘Well, of course, anyone who commits a crime this serious is obviously mentally unbalanced’.”

The naturalist worldview, which knows of no angelic or demonic realities, is left only with mental illness. Says Colson, “Stated differently, there is no such thing as sin and evil, and the only reason why people might commit serious crimes is that they are mentally ill. Thus, the best – and perhaps, only – response to crime is behavior modification and all of those other up-to-date psychological techniques. While the Norwegian approach would strike most Americans as very naïve, the difference between them and us is one of degree not kind. We also blame crime on external factors, like mental illness, culture, dysfunctional childhood, and the like.”

He continues, “We are uncomfortable attributing events like this to human evil, much less to a kind of evil that seeks to undo God’s creation – what Christians call the demonic. Yet without this idea, events like this massacre can never be understood. We might learn that the killer was ‘mentally unbalanced’ or on anti-depressants. But, absent evidence that he was clinically delusional, this knowledge will not explain why he walked onto a college campus, locked people in a lecture hall, and killed them.”

Concludes Colson, “Events like this not only horrify us – they unsettle us. We think of sin and the demonic as not-so-quaint relics from a superstitious age. And even more destructive, random events like this remind us how little we know about ourselves and what we are capable of, as well. But failing to call evil evil misleads us about the world we live in and our need for God’s grace, the only real answer and hope for any of us.”

Protest as it might, modern secular society simply has no persuasive and rational account for something like the Virginia Tech massacre. That is because such worldviews have no real philosophical basis for understanding good or evil. Moreover, in the naturalistic version of events, not only are such occurrences just stuff that happens, but there is no reason to believe they will ever cease.

On the other hand, the biblical worldview makes it clear that while evil is real, and terrible, it is only short-lived. One day, evil will be brought to a complete halt. One day, every wrong will be punished and every right rewarded. Justice, so elusive in this age, is coming and the terrors we witness today will soon be no more.

www.breakpoint.org/listingarticle.asp?ID=6394

[1139 words]

10 Responses to Worldviews and the Problem of Evil

  • Hi Bill,

    I have difficulty with your emphasis on evil as a noun, rather than an adjective. It is easy to understand that a person may have evil thoughts, or do evil deeds, but the notion of evil as some kind of ethereal entity seems very strange to me. Are you really suggesting the Devil made him do it?

    An aspect of this massacre that has not received much attention is the anonymous group hatred that appears to have motivated the killer. Apart from the fact that he acted alone, he was little different from the typical suicide bomber who sets to create mayhem because of hatred for a particular cultural, racial, ethnic or religious group, even though the individual members of the group are complete strangers. The basis of this is well within human understanding. We all harbour feelings of anger or hatred at various times, or lose our temper and maybe rant and rage. For most of us this results in nothing more than a rush of blood followed by a feeling of embarrassment afterwards depending on how stupid our actions were, and whether we possess enough critical reasoning ability to put aside our own ego and sense of righteousness. I am not qualified to make any comments about the criminal mind, but most of us would be incapable of killing a fellow human, so there has to be something seriously amiss with a killer’s mental processes.

    In most cases our rage is directed at a particular individual who has aroused us, e.g. that idiot on the road. The difference with mass killers like this that their hatred is extreme and is directed at anonymous groups rather than individuals. The Virginia Tech killer apparently hated “rich kids”, but killed at random without necessarily knowing many of his victims.

    This is a fundamental issue for society, because group hatred has been a common feature of humanity in every culture. In today’s society it is common to despise entire groups of people because of their politics, religion, sexuality, class, race, ethnicity or football team. Yet we don’t know these people as individual humans, only as members of a group. Their individual personality and character are suppressed in favour of the dark nature we ascribe to them as members of the group.

    I disagree with you that secular society has no answers here. For a start, selling guns to people with a history of mental illness is simply incompetent government, no matter how much people may bleat about their precious freedom to possess deadly weapons. We can also teach our children to respect and love other people as individual humans, and to overcome our phobias about groups. Organised religion has a part to play here too, but all too often religious leaders are part of the problem.

    Finally, I am curious about your expectation that a day of judgment is coming “soon”. How soon is soon?

    Alan Simpson, Queensland

  • Thanks Alan

    As a Christian I believe that not only is there such a thing as objective goodness, but objective evil as well. Thus I believe that there is a good God, as well as an evil, personal, supernatural being, as I already said. We make choices and we are responsible for them, but yes, evil influences are at work. But we are not blaming the devil here, just acknowledging the reality of evil in the spiritual realm.

    As a secularist – I take it that is your position – what do you have to offer to explain good and evil? You mention tightening gun laws. But that does nothing to deal with the actual problem of evil – only the symptoms. An evil person will still kill, be it with a knife, a stick, or what have you. Dealing with evil in the human heart is the issue here, not mere superficial remedies. A police state can take away many of the conditions for allowing murder to take place, but it has not dealt with the real source of murder: the human heart.

    Indeed, your understanding of evil is quite limited. You claim that most people are not capable of killing another human being. As usual, Jesus cuts to the quick here, and exposes our self-righteousness. He said that anyone who hates his brother is the same as one who murders (Matthew 5: 21-22).

    That does not go down well with human pride, and those who think they are too good to need God’s redemption. But it is realistic and accurate. We are all capable of great evil. It is only the grace of God – along with laws, etc – which keep most of us in check.

    A good example is when a major city experiences a blackout for a length of time: watch the explosion of crime of all kinds committed by all sorts of “decent” people during these periods. The veneer of civilisation is very thin indeed, and when fear of consequences or retaliation is removed, most people start showing their true colours.

    Again, this is all sensible and explicable from the biblical worldview, but not so sensible from various secular perspectives.

    And your proposed remedies (teaching kids to respect others, etc), while right intentioned, is simply insufficient from the biblical point of view. As sinners, we have an orientation to self and sin, and without God’s help, trying to just get long with one another simply won’t happen to any reasonable degree. Indeed, I would have thought that history provides enough examples of the emptiness of such a quest.

    As to coming judgment, I have no timelines. But from the standpoint of eternity, it will appear to be soon enough.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Bill,
    My perception of good and evil is grounded in reality, not in primitive superstitious beliefs about gods and demons. My life experience is that most humans are intrinsically good rather than intrinsically evil. Civilisation would not exist if that were not so. You seem to have an incredibly pessimistic view on life.
    Alan Simpson, Queensland

  • Thanks Alan

    I would say that I am being realistic here, not pessimistic. The first step in dealing with the problem of evil is to take it seriously, and not minimise or trivialise it. The fact that people manage to do a modicum of good is because of God’s common grace to all people, and laws which keep evil in check to varying degrees.

    The Christian gospel cuts through all our pretense and self-righteousness. Human pride will not accept the Biblical assessment of humanity: “All our righteousness is like filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6). The Biblical message demands that we stop deluding ourselves and take the reality of sin and selfishness seriously.

    That is why in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus makes it clear that we are all guilty before a holy and righteous God. Those who look at another with lust have already committed adultery, said Jesus. Hatred is as murder. The standard Jesus demands, in other words, is nothing sort of perfection.

    None of us measure up. That is the bad news. But the good news is that those who humble themselves and admit their need will be able to avail themselves of the grace of God in Christ. As Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17).

    So this whole discussion boils down to just one point: will we let God be God and take his version of events, or will we seek to usurp his place, and tell him what is right and wrong, true and false?

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Hi Alan,

    I believe Bill is being realistic with his views. Being pessimistic is to look at the worst aspect of things, not the true aspect of things. I find Bill to be sharing a positive outcome anyway. He says that the good news is that those who humble themselves and admit their need will be able to avail themselves of the grace of God in Christ.

    Failure to believe in the existence of burglars puts us in a position to be burgled. Same goes for the Devil. Please do not be naive. I am not saying that people who do know the Devil exists are not getting harmed by any other means. I am saying that knowing he exists helps in the preventative aspect.

    Paul Spyrou, Victoria

  • Hey Alan,

    This article written by Bill does depict a slightly pessimistic world view. You said, “My life experience is that most humans are intrinsically good rather than intrinsically evil. Civilisation would not exist if that were not so.” People are not intrinsically good or evil for that matter. The way people act has everything to do with what they believe in, how they were raised, belief systems, etc.

    A baby is not born evil, its imperfect but not evil. As it grows into an adult it will gain world views, opinions and a belief system based on what it has experienced.

    The responsibility of creating these positive experiences, opinions and beliefs is on us. The Bible is in fact quite a good resource to find positive beliefs, morals and experiences. It was written to help you and I to live as close to perfection as humanly possible, (mind you, at humanities best we don’t get close to perfection). Unfortunately we have sin and the fall of man to thank for that.

    We live in a very negative, tall-poppy, self-centered society that is not optimistic at the best of times. This is reality.
    Many people suggest that the Bible is out of date and out of touch in relation to todays problems in society. I strongly disagree. If you actually read the book and not just slander it you find that it contains positive teaching.
    I, being a Christian, believe that with help from the Bible we can restore some good in the world utilizing its teaching. It has keys to overcoming evil and being a light in the darkness.

    I am curious to know what you yourself would bring to the table?

    Ben White, Victoria

  • Alan,
    Being realistic, is nearly all of the good we do for our own benefit? We try and do something good so we feel better about ourselves. Now isn’t that somewhat selfish? Bad even? Now I’m sure there are some exceptions. But in the real world this is how it is. We are all bad by nature, and are born into sin. Now Christ was the exception, being perfect, and doing ‘good’ for no gain for himself.
    Caleb Podhaczky

  • Dear Alan,

    In response to your comment: “You seem to have an incredibly pessimistic view on life.” Bill is merely stating the truth as it is, but then bringing hope and light to the situation which is by far the opposite of being pessimistic. The positive spin is the message of the Gospel which can bring hope and light to any situation.

    The facts are, that we live in a volatile world full of much immorality and wickedness. You say that, “most humans are intrinsically good,” and you may be right in saying that. Most people are quite good but on what grounds are you founding that statement? On man’s definition of goodness or God’s?

    Yes you could say nearly all humans have a nature that is inclined to show kindness, gentleness, love and generosity but also can display hatred, arrogance, pride and selfishness in whatever way that is, whether small, big or thinking it. Whatever way it is, it questions the nature of oneself being completely good and therefore poses the question of what is good?

    This being the reason for our need to put on the nature of Jesus Christ who reflected and was, everything that was good and perfect, the Son of God who came as man in flesh and blood, who brings forgiveness, hope and life to all who believe in His name.

    Nick Foord.

  • The concept of “intrinsically good” (or bad) may be easily misunderstood. You can’t necessarily grasp what is normally meant just from the terms alone. In theory, human nature could quite easily have a mix of both intrinsic moral good and intrinsice moral bad. Any sane person knows both tendencies reside at least in adults: recall the cliche of angelic and devilish alter-egos on each shoulder? If that’s what’s meant, they’re not mutually exclusive, and it does indeed boil down to one’s outlook as a pessimist or not. If your cup is at least half full, you haven’t yet lost all faith in humanity…

    Instead, I think what’s meant is something like “most fundamental tendency.” That is, if it were possible to remove all constraints, such as social disdain and ridicule, jail, vengeance, the effect of having had upstanding parents, and so on, would human beings tend towards self-interest or altruism? What if Hitler had had a nicer mummy? What if Mother Teresa had won a lottery as a child? All other things being equal, do we tend to be selfless or selfish?

    Now our conscience produces feelings of guilt – certainly a strong disinsentive. But what if we could block that chemical process? Insofar as we can freely choose to act against our conscience, we must hypothetically remove it from the equation. We want to ask how human nature tends, in a moral sense, at its most basic (with no undue extrinstic influences, either way).

    No cheating now. Altruism, not a social contract…

    …of course if you’re a secular evolutionist, altruism is but a pact of the genes. This is the salient point of both Bill and Colson here: if evil and good aren’t objective standards, then we can’t meaningfully speak of human nature and behaviour as wrong. Human nature just is. To be, or not to be… to kill, or not to kill… to serve, or not to serve… to eat cornflakes or wheeties… all decisions with practical consequences perhaps, but nothing whatsoever to do with genuine morality.

    Peter Grice

  • FAILURE of argument that God and evil are logically incompatible:
    * IF God causes a person to make a specific choice, then the choice is no longer free in the libertarian sense.
    * Thus, if God grants people genuine freedom to choose as they like, then it is impossible for Him to guarantee what their choices will be.
    * All He can do is create the circumstances in which a person is able to make a free choice and then, so to speak, stand back and let him make that choice.
    * Suppose, then, that in every feasible world where God creates free creatures some of those creatures freely choose to do evil — In such a case, it is the creatures themselves who bring about evil, and God can do nothing to prevent their doing so.
    * Thus it is possible that every world feasible for God which contains free creatures is a world with the possibility of their choosing sin and evil. Moreover, as for natural evils, Prof. Alvin Plantinga points out that these could be the result of demonic activity in the world. Demons can have freedom just like human beings, and it is possible that God could not preclude natural evil without ALSO removing the free will of demonic creatures.

    * The chief purpose of life is not bliss on earth, but the knowledge of God. One reason that the problem of evil seems so intractable is that people tend naturally to assume that if God exists, then His purpose for human life is happiness in this world and that God’s role is to provide a comfortable environment for His human pets.
    * But on the Christian view, this is false. We are not God’s pets, and the goal of human life is not happiness per se, but the knowledge of God–which in the end will bring true and everlasting human fulfillment.
    * Many evils occur in life which seem utterly pointless with respect to the goal of producing human happiness; but they may not be pointless with respect to producing a deeper knowledge of God.
    * It may well be the case that natural and moral evils are part of the means God uses to draw people to Himself. So let us not stumble when we see surprising things happening in the world. Rather let us ask, ‘What is the relevance of this event to the kingdom of God?’ Or, if strange things are happening to you personally, don’t complain but say, ‘What is God teaching me through this?’… We need not become bewildered and doubt the love or the justice of God…. We should … judge every event in the light of God’s great, eternal and glorious purpose.

    “…there is one last point which needs to be made which constitutes a defeater of any argument from evil against the existence of God, namely, that moral evil proves that God exists. For in our discussion of the axiological argument for God’s existence, we saw that it is plausible that apart from God objective moral values do not exist.

    But then we can employ the atheist’s OWN premise as part of a sound argument for the existence of God:
    13. If God did not exist, then objective moral values would not exist.
    14. Evil exists.
    15. Therefore, objective moral values exist. (from 14 by definition of ‘evil’)
    16. Therefore, God exists. (MT, 13, 15)
    Premise (13) was the key premise of the axiological argument, which is accepted by many theists and non-theists alike. Premise (14) is furnished by the problem of evil itself. (15) follows by definition from (14), for if one grants that some things are truly evil, then one has admitted the objectivity of moral truths.
    * Since objective values cannot exist without God and objective values DO exist (as shown by the evil in the world), it follows that God exists.
    * Therefore, evil in the world actually proves that God exists. This argument demonstrates the co-existence of God and evil without attempting to give any explanation at all for why evil exists- we, like Job, may be totally ignorant of that -but it nonetheless shows that the existence of evil in the world does NOT call into question, but on the contrary, implies God’s existence.

    In summary, the intellectual problem of evil – whether in its internal or external versions – can be satisfactorily solved.”
    (Excerpts from an examination of The Problem of Evil byWilliam Lane Craig at http://www.bethinking.org/suffering/the-problem-of-evil

Leave a Reply