Fresh on the heels of yesterday’s widely read and discussed post about The Issue, which came by way of a debate on the Unbelievable? podcast, is this timely debate on evil and suffering, between Clay Jones, a professor of apologetics at Biola University, and atheist philosopher Richard Norman.
The discussion begins with Norman’s conceding that the logical problem of evil doesn’t hold. The logical problem, popularly formulated by David Hume, is this: “Is he [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?”
No, Norman agrees that if God has good reasons for permitting evil—in spite of God’s goodness and power—then there is no logical problem. But, he says, the only justification that a Christian can give for those reasons is to appeal to mystery: we trust that reasons exist, but we don’t or can’t know what they are.
This appeal to mystery is very popular in mainline Protestant seminary: “Don’t even go there,” we’re told. “Don’t even try to explain evil and suffering. It’s all a mystery.”
Oh, please! I am weary of these platitudes. Aren’t you? We don’t want to be glib about it. But we can articulate some reasons, in general, for evil and suffering, even if we can’t say with certainty why God allows a particular instance of evil and suffering. While there are many things we can’t know about evil and suffering, this isn’t to say it’s a mystery as to why God allows them in the first place.
Be that as it may, in his defense of God’s goodness and power, Clay Jones doesn’t appeal to mystery:
We know why God allows evil. The Bible tells us, and I’m going to be presenting the biblical case for why God allows evil. But some listeners… may go, “Well, I don’t agree with the things taught in the Bible.” I understand that, but that’s an entirely different debate. If you want to know why the Christian thinks God is right to allow the evils he allows, then the Christian is going to have to appeal to the Bible. And the fact the skeptic doesn’t agree with that explanation isn’t relevant. They say, “Yeah, but I don’t agree with the Bible.” But that’s not the point. The Christian isn’t trying to defend a God the skeptic will agree with.
To convince the skeptic that the Bible is right about the God revealed therein is a different task, he says.
Here are Jones’s seven reasons that God allows evil:
- “God chose to create beings with free will. And it is impossible even for God to create free beings without allowing those free beings to use their free will wrongly.”
- God created humans with free will, warned them that death would follow as a consequence of using their free will wrongly. When they did so, God cursed the ground, enabling all kinds of pestilence, and then removed their access to the rejuvenating power of the Tree of Life, “and we’ve been attending funerals ever since.”
- “Natural” evil—tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes, cancers, etc.—is largely a result of living in a cursed world.
- Although God could intervene regularly to stop suffering, he wants humans to learn the consequences of rebellion and their own actions, which is life without his constant protection.
- Natural laws must work in regular ways if our actions are to mean anything at all.
- “The knowledge we are learning about the consequences of rebellion against God is preparing us to be fit citizens of God’s kingdom—where we’re going to have free will, but choose not to sin because we’ve learned that sin here is stupid.”
- “Those who learned that rebellion is stupid and trust Jesus will be given eternal life, and that eternal life—very important point—will dwarf our sufferings to insignificance.”
He goes on to caution that he would normally spend 24 hours unpacking each of these points.
I largely agree with each of these. I would emphasize in points 2 and 3, however, that the creation of free beings capable of rebelling against God extends to the spiritual realm, where free angelic beings also chose to sin. They have a causal relationship to natural evil in our world—even if we can’t say with certainty what that relationship is.
I also wonder to what extent so-called “natural evil” existed from the beginning—with the understanding that we humans ascribe “evil” to an otherwise neutral, natural event—and humanity’s expulsion from the Garden meant that they were now exposed to what was already in Creation.
In other words, could it be that life outside the Garden was always harsh, and the Fall meant that Adam and Eve were no longer protected from this harsh reality? If humankind had remained in a perfect relationship with God, God would have ensured that they not be caught within the path of a tornado, for example—not that the tornado didn’t exist. Do you see the difference? This is all speculative, of course, and it doesn’t matter for Jones’s argument.
Most of the debate centered on points 1, 4, and 5, which form the heart of the “free will defense.” Norman conceded that, to some extent, God couldn’t create beings with free will who couldn’t be free to misuse that freedom. Nevertheless, why couldn’t a benevolent and all-powerful God create a world in which my misuse of free will wouldn’t cause the suffering of others? Why not simply allow my sin to affect me and not others?
For one thing, Jones said, if we possess love for others, then other people’s suffering—even if they bring it on themselves—would cause suffering for the people who love them.
For another, if God intervened every time one person’s actions would harm someone else, God would be intervening in our world literally millions of times a day. What then becomes of a world governed by predictable natural laws? Point 5 would go out the window.
Yes, Norman said, but Jones was still thinking about life in this world. Couldn’t an omnipotent God have created another kind of world in which we don’t suffer consequences from other people’s evil actions?
When Jones challenged him to explain what that world would look like, or how it could be different from ours, Norman said that wasn’t his problem: he isn’t an omnipotent God. But there’s no logical reason why God couldn’t make such a world happen.
Perhaps, Jones said, but it couldn’t be world in which we are as free as we are in this one. And God wanted us to be as free as we are in this world. Even Norman conceded the point.
Jones’s defense is nothing short of brilliant. Listen for yourself, and I think you’ll agree.