Who believes in the God that the argument from evil would seek to refute?

(This started off as a response to Christ Hallquist’s very provocative account of the Argument from Evil. My original idea was to respond to him point by point, which didn’t work out for various reasons. So I wrote this post that makes a broader argument.)

The argument from evil, whether evidential or logical, seeks to refute the existence of God as both all powerful and all loving. As a Christian who studies natural theology, I don’t see how the argument challenges anything I believe.

As a natural theologian, I claim it is simply wrong to insist that a proof for the existence of God requires raising the question of whether he is both omnibenevolent and omnipotent. If I could prove that there were, for example, some intelligent being transcending the universe that created the universe and is the source of every good, then I’ve proved that God exists, period. I do not need to affirm or deny omnipotence or omnibenevolence, still less do I have to affirm or deny the peculiar sense of omnibenevolence that is presumed in the argument from evil, which is something like “to actually do every possible good”or “to omit doing no goods” (Why can’t God be omnibenevolent in the sense that every good that exists or could exist reduces to the action of his will? Why can’t God be omnibenevolent in the sense that he extends an infinite good to man? So plese, no hand wringing about “if God doesn’t stop every evil, I can’t see what it would mean for him  to be good”. There are all sorts of things omnibenevolence could mean) As a natural theologian, therefore, the argument from evil seems like a rather minor dispute that might, at most, rule out one sense of what it means for God to be omnibenevolent. It is simply not true that the argument from evil rules out the existence of every being that could be called omnibenevolent, still less that it rules out the existence of every being that would deserve to be called God.

As a Christian, however, I believe that God is all powerful and omnibenevolent from the beginning. Here the argument from evil initially makes more sense. But as a Christian, my usual disposition is accepting the unity of two things whose unity I can’t understand: this man is God; some accidents have no substance; Christ had the beatific vision and the most profound suffering, God is absolutely simple and yet tripersonal, etc. the paradox of omnibenevolence and evil has to take a number and stand in line. But this is all secondary. Christianity is utterly incoherent without the doctrine of original sin, which promises and insists upon the suffering and toil of the human race as a consequence of the divine goodness (namely, his justice). We can call this doctrine impossible or absurd, but we can’t very well say that we get the idea that God is omnibenevolent and omnipotent from Christianity and then turn around and say that we have no idea why the human race suffers. Omnipotence and omnibenevolence are a part of a package deal with original sin.

So who believes in the God refuted by the argument from evil, regardless whether they believe in God because of rational argument or grace? By reason, all the AFE rules out (at best) is one sense of omnibenevolence, by faith in Christ, the argument dies even before it can begin, since this faith assures us that man must suffer as a consequence of the divine goodness (since justice is good).

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7 Comments

  1. RP said,

    September 13, 2010 at 2:41 am

    “all-good” means God always does the right thing – i.e., God does no evil – therefore, it is good for God to allow evils; “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and injustice of those men that detain the truth of God in injustice: Because that which is known of God is manifest in them. For God hath manifested it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made. His eternal power also and divinity: so that they are inexcusable.” (Romans 1, 19-20)

    Why is verse 18 not part of the argument for God’s existence? For it clearly says God is revealed in our sufferings due to our injustices (our own and those of others; i.e., evils are an argument for God’s existence, not an argument for his non-existence). As for 19-20, it does not say there is a philosophical argument that would wrap up conclusively God’s existence. Rather, the evidence for God’s existence is the beauty of creation (P. Blosser)

  2. September 13, 2010 at 3:50 am

    Right. It’s important to see God’s allowing of evils as an abandonment of the evil doer – the image is not that God examines each evil like a jeweler and then declares with a mysterious glee “let this one happen!”, but rather that his children have been left to themselves. The fall is like this too – it is more an abandonment than anything else “If you do this, I will be with you and your decedents, if not, not”. We are living in the wake of that choice.

    I think it’s also important to see that, as soon as one is arguing from revelation, he is arguing within a context where the existence of evil and human suffering is already taken or granted as proceeding from goodness. Without suffering caused by the fall, the motive of the incarnation and redemption is lost. Someone like Moltmann fails to see this only because he refuses the doctrine of the fall of man.

  3. phil_style said,

    September 28, 2010 at 1:44 am

    I’d be interested to know what your description of “original sin” and “the fall” are. Does it require an historical perfection (or at least sinless goodness) time, after which such things as predation, pain, death arrived in the material world?

    If so, do you then posit that one MUST be a young-earth creationist, or believe in a historical adam-and-eve couple in order to have a theology that is less/not affected by the arguments from evil?

    If the answer to the above is “yes” then this proves quite problematic for those of use who accept the findings of geology, biology and genetics with respect to the development of humans and culture.

  4. September 28, 2010 at 3:44 am

    1.) Yes, for those in the garden. Scripture shares no information about what or whom was outside of Eden before the fall, and the subsequent narrative is not as clear as we would like about some crucial details. But even had the human race not fallen, I’d still hold that there would be predation, pain and death among non-human living things. Adam (whoever and whenever he was) was given a supernatural relief from the ordinary course of nature (which imitates the eternity of God by generation and corruption), and was supposed to pass it on to his descendants. But he lost it, and so now no one has it.

    2.) No.

    3.) I agree.

  5. phil_style said,

    September 28, 2010 at 4:35 am

    Thanks for the clarification James. I’m currently enjoying the series on Scott McKnight’s blog on ” Theology after Darwain”; the lastest of whch is here: http://www.patheos.com/community/jesuscreed/2010/09/28/being-human-after-darwin-1-rjs/

    Be interesting to see how Thomist thelogies interact with the content of Nothcott & Berry (et. al.)..

  6. Peter Hardy said,

    October 13, 2011 at 12:49 pm

    Excellent post, thank you. Are you aware of the ‘The Spiritual Dimension’ by the contemporary Catholic philosopher John G. Cottingham? He mentions this issue as part of a broader discussion of problems with Analytic philosophy of religion- in particular the exclusion of all religious postulates other than generic theism.

  7. Peter Hardy said,

    October 13, 2011 at 12:52 pm

    And of course Marylin McCord-Adam’s ‘Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God’ deals with your topic head on.


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