Chad Meister and James K. Dew Jr., eds. God and Evil: The Case for God in a World filled with Pain. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013).
God and Evil is an expansive collection of nineteen essays (plus a sizeable appendix featuring the transcript of a debate between William Lane Craig and Michael Tooley). The book takes on one of the biggest topics of all with a clearly specified goal, to establish that belief in an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God is consistent with the existence of evil (11). In that sense it is both a work of philosophy of religion and apologetics. It is also written at a level that seeks to reach an educated lay audience without compromising the rigor of the essays.
Meister and Dew have divided the essays into four sections: Part One (What is evil and why is it a problem?), Part Two (Some Reasons God Might Allow Evil), Part Three (Evil and Other Relevant Themes) and Part Four (Issues in Dialogue). The essays themselves touch on a broad range of philosophical, theological, scientific and practical topics.
My review of the book will proceed in three stages. I’ll begin on a positive note by noting some of the things I liked about the book. Next, I’ll note some general criticisms of the book. And finally I’ll turn to a bit of critical engagement with some of the essays. Obviously given the length of the book my critical engagement will be highly selective and will serve merely to give the reader a sampler of the kinds of critical discussions the book encourages.
I liked this
If you are going to remember one thing about this book let it be this: value. This is a book of nineteen essays, 360 pages, with InterVarsity Press’s quality type-setting and cover art, and all for twenty bucks US list price and (at the time of this review) a dirt cheap $11.96 on Amazon. My friend, that’s a bargain. This is a lot of bang for your buck.
Further, the essays uniformly achieve a good balance between rigor and accessibility, giving the motivated lay reader a solid familiarity with the ongoing philosophical discussion relating to the problem of evil.
Finally, I’d like to commend the editors Meister and Dew for the yeoman’s job they did in commissioning a diverse and ecclectic collection of essays on a wide range of topics. God and Evil is an excellent contribution to the literature. If you’re interested enough to read this review, then you should probably order the book (which you can do at the bottom of this review).
I’m not so sure about that
Now to the gripes.
My first complaint is that I didn’t find the four categories into which the essays were divided particularly helpful as a means of organization. The third part — “Evil and Other Relevant Themes” — deserves special mention since it seemed less like an informative category than a catch-all for all the essays that didn’t fit into the other three categories. Let me give you a particular example. Both Charles Taliaferro and Gary Habermas contributed essays that were dropped into this section which were concerned with practical and pastoral issues (prayer and disappointment/suffering). Given the distinctive pastoral and practical tone of their essays, they would have been much better served by being placed in a “Practical and Pastoral Concerns” section.
My next gripe concerns the quality of the essays. Let me immediately note that most of the essays were of a high quality. However, there were a few disappointing contributions — about three by my count — that could have used the firm guidance of an editor. The final essay of the book, “Evil, Creation and Evolution,” comes to mind. It certainly has distinguished authors in Karl Giberson and Francis Collins. But that doesn’t change the fact that the essay zigs and zags all over the place, often wandering far from any discernible argument. To compound matters, the authors write about several topics in philosophy of religion with a simplicity more akin to a lay person than an academic. To take one example, at one point in the essay the authors take to discussing God’s relationship to time. After noting that philosophers and theologians divide on whether God is temporal or atemporal (though there are more nuanced positions they ignore) they offer their blushingly simplistic resolution: “there is no compelling reason to reject the claim that God could not be both outside of time and capable of acting within it.” (286) This is a deeply problematic assertion in at least two ways. To begin with, the (consistent) atemporalist doesn’t deny that God acts in time. Instead, he adopts a particular static theory of time and then accounts for God’s action as a timeless willing with temporal effects. As a result, the atemporalist can consistently say of particular events in history “God did that.” So the atemporalist already affirms that God is “outside time” while “capable of acting within it.” It seems that what Giberson and Collins are really asserting here is that God might simultaneously be atemporal and temporal which is simply contradictory, unless they can provide a non-contradictory explanation. Were I an editor of this book I would have flagged this and several other sections in this essay for revision.
My third gripe concerns the relatively narrow perspective of the diverse group of essayists. As you read the book it becomes increasingly evident that most of the essayists match the following profile:
Evangelical Christian philosopher who accepts a libertarian view of human freedom.
To be sure, there’s nothing wrong with evangelical Christian philosophers who accept a libertarian view of human freedom. Indeed, I too match that profile. However, it would be nice if a few Catholics, Calvinists, open theists and/or process theists (to name a few possibilities) could have been included in the conversation.
My final gripe concerns a couple lacunae in the book’s treatement of evil. First, let me stress that I recognize no book on a topic as vast as God and evil can offer a comprehensive treatment of topics. Nonetheless, it seems to me that these are significant gaps.
The first (and more glaring) gap concerns the topic of biblical atrocities ranging from biblical genocides and warfare to slavery and the apparent brutality of Torah law. In recent years the topic of biblical violence has moved to the center-stage of Christian apologetic discussion, spurred on by the violence of 9/11 and the furious protests of the new atheists. The result has been a growing list of essays and monographs addressing the topic. It seems to me that at least one essay in this collection could have been devoted to this important topic. (Ideally, I would have preferred it if Part Four “Issues in Dialogue” had included two essays on the problem of (non-eschatological) biblical violence offering different perspectives on the issue.)
The second gap is less obvious but, in my view, still important. While the book has a couple essays engaging with evolution and one essay on original sin, none of them seriously considers how to think of the origin of moral evil set against the backdrop of an evolutionary account of human origins. Judging by the tone of the book, it still seems to treat evolution as a novel, contentious speculation about human origins rather than the reigning paradigm for the origin of all life (Giberson and Collins’ essay being the notable exception). At a time when anthropologists are making dizzying advances in our understanding of our recent evolutionary history from Australopithecines through Homo erectus to Homo sapiens, all based on a dizzying range of disciplines from genetics to archaeology to dentition, this skirting of the issue was a missed opportunity to engage a fascinating and highly relevant topic.
Okay, now for the critical engagement with specific essays. Let me preface this section by stressing that the sporadic critical engagement I will undertake here is indicative of the engaging quality of the essays.
In chapter 4, “Natural Evil: A ‘Free Process’ Defense,” Garry DeWeese argues that natural evil (or much of it) can be attributed to God’s desire to create a world with chaotic systems. Given that those systems are intrinsically indeterminate, they result in some suffering but this is more than compensated for by the increase in the overall dynamic nature of such a world. This is an interesting argument and one with which I have significant sympathies. But far be it from me to allow general agreement to preclude nit-picking.
So here’s my nit-pick. At one point DeWeese considers the objector who asserts that God could create a world with natural laws while intervening to ensure that agents acting within that world never act in such a way as to inflict suffering on each other. For example, what if Al gets angry at Bo, grabs a Louisville slugger, and aims to hit Bo’s melon out of the park (so to speak)? The objector asks: “Why couldn’t God simply dematerialize the baseball bat when it approached poor Bo’s head and rematerialize the bat on the other side?” (60) In this way God could have created a world in which baseball bats regularly hit balls out of the park while also ensuring that when those bats are aimed at heads they do no damage. What would be wrong with this?
DeWeese counters the objection by arguing:
“The denizens of that world would have no reason to live responsibly and act morally, since they would have learned from history or experience that they could never do anything really evil. Consequently, morality and responsibility would be undermined. That world might contain freedom of thought, but not of action; it would not, then, contain genuine moral good.” (60)
This strikes me as an unpersuasive response. Jesus taught that sin is rooted in the thought life, not simply in the external action. Consequently, even if Al lived in a world where he knew he could not successfully whack Bo, this world would still be consistent with Al’s having the desire to hit Bo, and perhaps developing an elaborate fantasy in which he hits Bo, and having a dart board with Bo’s face on it, and a punching bag called “Bo”, and so on. And if Al still has ample opportunity for immoral behavior despite the inability to inflict suffering on Bo, then he also has ample opportunity for moral behavior. Thus, the kind of world described by the objector would still have ample room for moral good, and thus the claim that such goods would be lost cannot be a reason why God didn’t create that kind of world.
My next sample critical engagement comes with James Spiegel’s essay “The Irenaean Soul-Making Theodicy” (chapter 6). This essay provides a helpful overview of the venerable soul-making theodicy first suggested by Irenaeus and notably fine-tuned by John Hick. According to this theodicy, God’s goal in creation is not simply minimizing the pain of his creatures, but bringing his creatures into moral maturity. And that requires experiences of suffering, loss and pain. For example, it is as we suffer our own pain that we learn to be wounded healers for others. It is as we suffer want that we learn the value of sharing. And so on.
The objector protests that God could surely achieve these benefits in the individual wholly apart from actual suffering, simply by creating virtual scenarios which the individual experiences and through which the individual learns to become morally mature. For example, God could have his creatures experience a virtual tornado in which they have to learn to help one another, but with nobody actually suffering the loss inflicted by a tornado. Spiegel quotes Daniel Howard-Snyder in response:
“If God were to set up a world in which there was only illusory evil to which we could respond in the formation of our character, something of immense value would be missing. No one would in fact help anybody else; and no one would be helped. No one would in fact be compassionate and sympathetic to another; and no one would receive compassion and sympathy. [And so on.]” (Cited in 87)
Spiegel then concludes: “Real character development demands real life situations with response to real suffering and injustice.” (87)
I don’t think Spiegel has done nearly enough to establish this very important point. Pilots can become very skilled by using flight simulators. So if God could develop a flight simulator indistinguishable from real flying certainly pilots could develop with all the skills identical to that of a real pilot in that divine simulator, even if they had never logged any real flight time. Is it obvious that God couldn’t arrange for virtual scenarios in which people learn to develop virtues of character without actually facing danger and suffering? This seems plausible to me.
Let’s say that real suffering will bring a person to a “5” on the virtue scale while virtual suffering will bring a person to a “4” on the virtue scale. In that case, the theodicist would be obliged to think that the breathtaking degree of suffering actually experienced in the world is worth the additional point on the virtue scale. In order to appreciate how striking this claim is, we should turn to consider a true moral horror. In the Bosnian genocide a grandfather was forced to eat his grandson’s intestines before he was himself impaled to a tree. What virtue could there be that would require this horrifying event to be actualized such that greater goods could be achieved through it?
In her essay on “Leibniz and the Best of All Possible Worlds” (chapter 7) Jill Graper Hernandez provides an articulation and defense of Leibniz’s claim. To her credit she observes:
“contemporary academic feminists have (perhaps rightly) observed that Leibniz’s argument is divorced from the lived suffering of people. (Leibniz’s discussion of evil might be too abstract, especially since he typically discusses moral evil as needing to be possible, but does not engage in significant discourse over pernicious harms.) Theists who work in theodicy should use this criticism as an opportunity to discuss whether God cares about particular instances of suffering, rather than just creating the best in general.” (105)
It seems to me that Leibniz still suffers from the specter of Pangloss in Voltaire’s Candide. I have heard Alvin Plantinga speak in Leibnizean terms of the best worlds including incarnation and atonement, and as a Christian theologian I resonate with the claim. But must the best of all worlds include moral horrors like a grandfather who is forced to eat his grandson’s intestines?
Paul Copan’s essay on “Evil and Primeval Sin: How evil emerged in a very good creation” raises two objections from me. The first is his choice of puns. For example, Copan quotes Norman Geisler as saying “The trouble wasn’t the apple on the tree but the pair on the ground.” Copan then comments: “This statement is unimpeachable, but for a more fruitful discussion, we’ll have to plumb the depths of this topic.” (118, emphasis added. For another egregious violation of good joke protocol see his reference to a “ra’ah deal” on 110.) In his book Theology and the Problem of Evil Kenneth Surin argued that theodicies ironically add to the sum total of evil in the world. I don’t think Surin is right about that, but I have my doubts about Copan’s puns!
More seriously, I was a bit disappointed that Copan chose to engage R.C. Sproul Jr. as a representative of the Calvinist position that God introduced evil into the world as there are many more worthy potential interlocutors who have defended this position.
In his second essay, “Evil and Original Sin” (chapter 9), Paul Copan quotes Michael Rea’s definition of original sin:
“All human beings … suffer from a kind of corruption that makes it inevitable that they will fall into sin, and this corruption is a consequence of the first sin of the first man.” (Cited in 129-30)
While it is a good essay set against the backdrop of a traditional Adamic framework, the essay also represents a missed opportunity to engage seriously with an evolutionary understanding of total depravity. This is doubly unfortunate because evolutionary psychology and Neo-Darwinian denials of true altruism in nature offer a rich repository for conceptual reflection on original sin emerging through evolutionary processes.
My biggest complaint with Gary Habermas’ “Evil, the Resurrection and the Example of Jesus” (chapter 12) is the poor title which doesn’t accurately convey the content of the essay. (As I noted above, the section in which it is placed also obscures its content.) Habermas’ essay is a practical and pastoral exploration of the way people process suffering (and how we can help each other in the midst of suffering). One important theme which comes from Habermas’ background in psychology relates to the extent to which interpretation of events contributes to the perception of them as suffering. As he writes:
“even our worst emotional pain is not usually caused by what happens to us. Rather, the majority of this pain is derived from the mistaken or irrational beliefs that we hold regarding what happens to us. Thus, rather than being caused by external events, sicknesses and so on, most of our very worst pain is produced by how we ‘download’ these things.” (168)
I remember hearing Habermas lecture on these topics a few years ago at a conference and it was a fascinating and eminently practical discussion. I was especially moved by Habermas’ description of the death of his own wife to cancer and the way he came to accept it, as well as the hope he now places in resurrection and reunion (171-72). Upon reading this section and the way that Habermas came to accept his suffering and that of his wife against the backdrop of Christ’s suffering, I recalled the powerful three page chapter “God’s Suffering: A Commentary” in Elie Wiesel’s memoirs in which he explains the suffering of the Jews in history and Nazi Germany in particular against the backdrop of God’s suffering.
In “Evil in Non-Christian Religions” (chapter 13) Win Corduan undertakes a survey of how evil is treated in Islam, Animism, Zoroastrianism, Jainism, Buddhism and Hinduism. As you can imagine, Corduan is forced to make what he calls “vulnerable generalizations” (189) in such a sweeping survey. The question is whether those generalizations are not so vulnerable that they undermine the whole exercise. Frankly, after reading more than three hundred pages on Christianity and evil, I find it wince-inducing to think of reducing Christianity’s treatment of evil to a page or two. So perhaps I can be forgiven for having winced more than a few times in this chapter.
I enjoyed David Beck’s essay on “Evil and the New Atheism” (chapter 14), but I wish he had devoted more time to engaging Sam Harris’ important book The Moral Landscape. I must also note that Beck at one point refers to a “genuine 1964 Shelby Mustang”. Given the context it is unclear whether he believes such a car might exist, but for the record the first Shelby Mustang came in 1965.
I really appreciated Gregory Ganssle’s essay “Evil as Evidence for Christianity” both for the way it effectively demonstrated how the concept of objective moral value from which evil is a derivation fits most appropriately with theism as well as his observation that Christianity theism provides the best framework of belief in which to work to overcome evil (222). However, I did disagree with Ganssle’s claim “That human beings have libertarian freedom supports Christian theism.” (222) It may support theism simpliciter, but I don’t know why it would support Christian theism per se, especially given that many Christians are soft determinists and some are even hard determinists.
William Lane Craig’s essay “Diversity, Evil and Hell: A Particularist Approach,” (chapter 16) is characteristically clear and well argued. (However, Craig mistakenly claims that John Hick’s first book was Christianity at the Centre. It was in fact Faith and Knowledge, 1957.) Craig helpfully maps the terrain of soteriological debate by distinguishing universalism/particularism, exclusivism/inclusivism/pluralism and accessiblism/restrictivism. He then develops a case for Christian particularism against objections. In his argument Craig defends the possible truth of
“5. God has created a world that has an optimal balance between saved and lost, and those who never hear the gospel and are lost would not have believed in it even if they had heard it.” (238)
I’d like to focus for a moment on the second part of this proposition. There are countless ethnic groups throughout history that have become extinct without ever hearing the gospel. Craig is asserting that none of the individuals from any of these ethnic groups would ever have accepted the gospel. I’m not saying this isn’t possible, but the claim that so many white Europeans, Filipinos and Koreans (at least of late) have been so open to the gospel while countless other ethnic groups have been hopelessly intransigent should give any apologist pause. I suspect this may be a case of winning an argument but losing your audience in the process.
In that respect I’m much more sympathetic with the counterpoint essay to Craig’s, Kyle Blanchette and Jerry L. Walls’ “God and Hell Reconciled” (chapter 17). The essay begins with an engaging reference to Rob Bell’s provocative “Gandhi in hell?” story before it moves on to argue that God offers optimal grace to every person for salvation, and that this could possibly include a posthumous purgatorial process. At the same time, I disagreed with a few points in the essay. Let me note two.
First Blanchette and Walls note that God could override human freedom that opts for hell, but he chooses not to because “Without genuine moral freedom, this experience, and all of the goods connected to it–such as genuine love and morally significant relationships–would be impossible.” (253) This is a common claim, but I’m not persuaded by it. To begin with, if you look up classic definitions of love (agape and phileo) you will not find those definitions including the requirement that the agent who loves another not be determined to love the other. So there is no reason to think that God cannot override an individual’s rebellious will such that the individual loves God as a result. Further, such a free-will override would not be constant (as is often assumed). Let’s say I’m on a diet and I ask God to override my will when necessary to ensure that I stay on the diet. I may have my libertarian freedom unimpeded 23 hours every day. It is only in those patches of ten minutes here and fifteen minutes there when God would have to intervene to override my free will so I wouldn’t choose the mocha cheesecake or take a handful of potato chips.
For the sake of argument, let’s grant Blanchette and Walls’ claim that a determined person wouldn’t have genuine moral relationships or love. Note that we would never know that fact since God’s subtle determination of some persons at some times would be indistinguishable from his non-determination of others. Now ask yourself which of the following two scenarios you’d prefer for your child:
Scenario 1: your child retains significant moral freedom and chooses hell, resulting in maximal eternal suffering.
Scenario 2: your child loses significant moral freedom (but nobody save God knows this) and chooses heaven, resulting in maximal eternal bliss.
Which would you choose for your child? Doesn’t this question answer itself (and not in Blanchette and Walls’ favor)?
My second objection relates to Blanchette and Walls’ defense of eternal conscious torment as eternal rebellion. They note that it is implausible to think that people might be damned eternally for finite sins committed in this short life. So they instead propose “the possibility that the damned, having formed thoroughly evil characters, continue to sin in hell.” (255) So on this point hell consists of people eternally cursing God with their middle fingers raised toward heaven. Really? How’s that to be reconciled with the fact that God acted through Christ to “reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Colossians 1:20)? Does it make sense to say that every tongue acknowledges Jesus Christ as Lord to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:11) when an indeterminate number of those tongues are spitting out his name like a curse word?
Finally, I agree with William Dembski’s argument in “Evil, Creation and Intelligent Design,” (chapter 18) that the theory of evolution offers no advantage when it comes to the problem of natural evil. The only way that Giberson and Collins (“Evil, Creation and Evolution,” chapter 19) can make it seem otherwise is by treating impersonal aspects of nature as if they were free agents. For example, they write:
“The behavior of electrons, both inside and outside atoms, is genuinely free in the sense that the behavior is not the result of outside influences or prior history.” (278)
But this isn’t freedom, it’s indeterminacy. Imagine for a moment that Jim’s four limbs are “free” in the sense that they could, at any moment, flail in any particular direction. Would we say “Wow, Jim’s free! Or at least his arms and legs are! Now they can do what they want!” Of course not. Jim clearly wouldn’t be free and as for his arms and legs, the concept of freedom wouldn’t even apply to them, even if their movements were truly undetermined. The only way that Giberson and Collins can sustain their argument is by subtly (and not so subtly) treating the natural world as if it were an agent. Consider this passage:
“When God, as a loving Creator, withdraws from complete sovereign control over his creatures and grants them freedom, this means–in ways often difficult to understand–that those creatures can now act independently of God.” (280)
It is important to understand that Giberson and Collins are not simply applying the term “creature” and “free action” to human beings and other sentient creatures, but also to things like protons and ocean waves and rocks. This is monumentally confused, and it isn’t a peripheral point. Rather, it constitutes the core of their rebuttal to William Dembski which means that this argument falls flat on its face.
Okay, that’s enough for now. This is a really enjoyable book and as I said the degree of critical interaction I’ve undertaken in this review should be taken as an indication of the quality of the essays contained therein. As I also said, the book is a real bargain. It belongs on the shelf of any person interested in the topic of God and evil as well as on the syllabi of required readings for untold numbers of undergraduate and seminary courses in philosophy of religion and apologetics. If you want to pick up your own copy from Amazon click here.
Thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing a review copy of this book.