The problem with the problem of evil

The Confusion of Terms

Mainstream Christian apologetics from the Western world attempts to wrestle with the big questions. The problem of evil is arguably the biggest of them all. In today’s world the threats range from unprecedented forms of global terrorism to fears of environmental collapse due to global warming. I believe the problem of evil needs to be re-examined.

On November 14, 2015, the city of Paris experienced the most horrific attacks since the end of World War II. Members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) orchestrated the attacks and proudly claimed responsibility for it. Over a decade since 9/11 these acts have become an unfortunate feature of the world we live in with no end in sight in the near future. The Paris attacks were a potent reminder that the Western world is in no wise safely cocooned from the daily atrocities committed by terrorists on ordinary people around the world.

Paris caused a major global reaction. The response from the majority of the Muslim world was shock and outrage. They felt the name of their god and his religion had been publicly and shamefully blasphemed. Many peaceful Muslims are looked upon as terrorist in many parts of the world. They are persecuted because of those who wear the same name but act so differently from them. On the other hand Islamic extremists rejoiced over the successful attacks. Appealing to the primary Muslim sources the Koran, Hadiths and the Sira literature they claim they are precisely following the example of Mohammed in Holy War. For them they are not senselessly killing but they are fighting to bring the vision of a global Islamic utopia. In social media the world started a “Pray for Paris” campaign to show solidarity with the people of France and provide a beacon of hope. One atheist however responded poignantly by saying people should stop for praying for Paris. It was not that he had no compassion for the victims and their families nor was he sympathetic towards ISIS. For him if God did exist he absolutely would not have let that happen. There was simply no one to pray to.

I have not brought up Paris to be trite. Far from it. Rather, I want to demonstrate clearly that the problem of evil is not an interesting philosophical riddle but a real human problem. All who heard the news reacted to it because pain and suffering is a chronic part of the human condition. The last response from the atheist is how classically the problem of evil is raised. Whilst they spoke about prayer he reminded them as a society they had largely shed their Christian heritage and they had to act accordingly to their modern/postmodern worldview. The Islamic response at both ends of the spectrum was not just a mere question of theology, it was also a worldview response. What I want to point out is that not only are the answers different but the way the questions are raised differ depending on the worldview that a person is subscribed to.

The problem of evil as it is classically raised is, If there exists an all-loving, all-knowing, all-powerful god why is there evil in the world? Without going into the various options when Christian apologists attempt to answer the question they operate within a similar framework of presuppositions as their atheistic counterparts.

This is a gross generalization but the Western worldview is largely deistic. In the deist worldview the god(s) are far removed from the world. The ancient Epicureans espoused this worldview and more recently the great American statesman Thomas Jefferson was a self-proclaimed deist. In a strong form of deism the god(s) are unknowable. Sometimes they are so far removed from human affairs that for all intents and purposes those with that worldview live as practical atheists if not fully professing ones like the atheist commentator I mentioned. With such a framework terms like “supernatural intervention” appear. Since god is removed from the world he can only “intervene” in its affairs otherwise it runs along without external interference. Christian apologists and materialist both run with this definition of the miraculous as a suspension of the ordinary laws of nature. They only debate whether it can happen.

This brief sketch of the Western Enlightenment worldview is obviously not the only way of looking at things. I call it “obvious” because as a Ghanaian who has lived most of his life in my native country I know a different way of thinking. The anti-miraculous stance is sometimes a manifestation of cultural imperialism exemplified by David Hume and his racist tendencies. Even though the Western culture has indelibly marked the world there are many other worldviews which tell conflicting stories.

Atheistic worldviews and theistic worldviews obviously differ. However, there are different kinds of atheism such as materialism and classical Buddhism which properly has no concept of god or gods. Buddhism and Western style naturalism obviously have very little in common. Though the different types of theism generally agree that ultimate reality is something greater than the individual self they agree on little else. The dominant theism in ancient world where the Bible was formed was polytheism. A lot of Holy Scripture is a polemic against that worldview. Judaeo-Christian theism is not only distinct from paganism it also very distinct from the Western Enlightenment view of God. Instead of the absentee landlord of deism we have a good creator who is intimately involved in creation from moment to moment. As such there are no miraculous interventions per se since he is always there, always working.

The deist worldview posits that even if the gods were good they are too far away for it to matter. We must therefore find our own way instead of calling on absent on even non-existent other worldly powers. There is no ultimate meaning behind the pain the millions endure in this world other than it is a brutal fact of mortal existence. The polytheist raises the problem of evil in a different way. The gods like deities of the Biblical world are very much involved in every aspect of creation. However there were multiple gods in charge of everything from rain to a man’s fortunes. These gods were capricious. Sometimes they were benevolent but other times they were decidedly not. The problem of evil unlike in the Western worldview was personified in these entities. The whole cultic system of worship was put in place to appease these powers and garner their favour. In return the gods got unquestioned obedience and service. It was a quid pro quo arrangement.

In both naturalism and polytheism morality is not a primary concern. It is about how to survive, whether it is by human wit, evolutionary advantage or by negotiating with unseen forces, a pragmatic ethic dominates human behaviour. In spite of these similarities they view evil very differently. The forces of evil in a polytheistic worldview are seen as real personal (meta-personal) entities which are represented in different ways. Any atheistic or even deistic worldview fails to capture the personal nature of evil.

Naturalism often posits the problem of evil to prove the personal god of Christians in particular does not exist. However, their understanding of the word “god” is completely different from  the Biblical view, even from what the scriptures criticise namely ancient paganism. Their definition of evil is also different. The Judaeo-Christian and pagan worldviews both agree on the personal nature of evil even though they sharply disagree about what that evil is like. The classical statement of the problem of evil according to naturalistic presuppositions works on different definitions of god and evil compared with the scriptures. When we try to answer these questions according to a Western worldview it results in the gross misinterpretation of the scriptures both by the sceptic and the well-meaning Christian apologist.

Evil is a worldview issue because sooner or later we must all encounter pain and suffering in the world. However, how we understand evil as well as the questions we raise based on that understanding differ. Worldviews do not only deal with what is wrong with the world (however that question is raised.) They also deal what is the right thing to do. In dealing apologetically with the question we tend to mistakenly neglect the problem of the good. According to Dr Ravi Zacharias anytime a person raises the question of evil they presuppose there is something such as good. When you say something is wrong you are also saying something is not right, which assumes there is something such as “right.” Both the questioner and the apologist must wrestle with the question: What is good?

Like the definitions of god and evil, there is no one universal concept of good. As with the Paris attacks some events are viewed as perfectly good and justifiable whilst others may interpret the same thing as pure evil. I am not collapsing everything into a meaningless relativism. I am simply pointing out the plurality of worldviews and ideologies, demonstrating there are differences. Mostly these differences are not just superficial, they are mutually exclusive. They cannot all be true. What then is the Christian response?

We need to appreciate what the Bible means by “god”, “good” and “evil.” These terms are often taken for granted but humanity does not speak the same language regarding these matters. Whether it is apologetics or in our personal struggles we need to frame the questions according to the Biblical metanarrative. Other than that the game is rigged. Answers from the scriptures will never be sufficient because we playing on a different turf according to different rules. There are of course points of agreement. We live in the same world, observing and experiencing similar things as humans. However our interpretation of these things affects how we live in the world.

The problem of evil cannot be resolved without raising it according to the correct narrative. The correct narrative is the truth, which we claim to have as Christians. This truth is the Gospel. We need to be able to think and clearly articulate the worldview that birthed the Gospel. In this case it is very pertinent in addressing the problem of evil. We need to know how to ask the right sort of questions because a wrong question never has a right answer.


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