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The Problem of Evil: The Challenge to Essential Christian Beliefs (B&h Studies in Christian Apologetics) Formato Kindle
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Serious Christian responses to the problem of evil are dominated by philosophers and I find this unfortunate. That is not because I think philosophical responses are problematic, rather they are inadequate. In other words, I believe they are necessary but not sufficient. Comprehensive theological, biblical and exegetical responses are wanting. It seems that a great deal of those who engage in systematic and biblical theology have conceded the problem to the philosophers and this is not helpful to the church at large.
Having said that, Evans’ contribution is a worthy effort, but overall, it is not entirely satisfying. First of all, because of the philosophical approach, this volume will be tough sledding for most readers. Although he does not get bogged down with standard scholarly philosophic/ logic notation and complicated syllogisms, there is enough philosophical language to keep non-specialists on their toes. The bottom line—only those who are conversant in at least moderate levels of philosophical discourse will be able to benefit from Evans’ work. However, there are many places where his argumentation is clear and pithy, making those sections more accessible and profitable for us neophytes.
Evans employs the Free Will Defense (FWD) as his basic approach to the problem. This is no surprise. Ever since the venerable dean of Christian philosophy, Alvin Plantinga, applied this approach to the problem of evil (especially in God, Freedom and Evil), virtually every Christian philosopher has followed suit. Plantinga presented a well-argued response to philosophers like J. L. Mackie and convinced many philosophers, both believing and unbelieving, that he provided an adequate ‘defense’ (not a thoroughgoing theodicy) to the problem of God and evil. Although libertarian free will has had its able defenders in secular accounts, I do not believe Christian philosophers have made a credible defense of it on Christian grounds. Perhaps more to the point, they have not made credible exegetical and theological arguments from the data of Scripture itself. In the case of Evans (and many others) he has not sought to defend the basic libertarian premises in his argumentation. Libertarian free will is assumed to be true without defense.
And this is precisely the point at which accounts like Evans falls short. Reformed/ Calvinistic theologians have provided far better exegetical and theological defenses of divine determinism over and against libertarian freedom from the data of Scripture that seems largely ignored in Christian philosophy. Furthermore, compatibilistic accounts of human freedom and responsibility accord more with the Scriptural data (see my forthcoming book, What About Free Will? Reconciling Our Choices with God’s Sovereignty – P&R Publishing, February 2016). I think Christian philosophy has become so myopic and specialized that scholars in the field are not conversant with serious theological materials that contribute to a more faithful theodicy. Furthermore, most works of Christian philosophy simply are not conversant with Scripture. Scripture is not the starting point for their apologetic. This doesn’t mean most Christian philosophers don’t seek to defend Scriptural doctrines. Scriptural concepts are retained in general, however, they are defended by appeal to rationalism first and revelation second. This is not always the case. Evans often makes appeal to Scripture and I applaud him for doing so. But it is often done in a cursory way. In other words, theology and Biblical exegesis plays the handmaiden to philosophy instead of the other way around. This is what leads to the wholesale acceptance of concepts like libertarianism that has scant support from the actual data of Scripture even though it serves to solve the dilemmas of theodicy much more conveniently.
Part of the reason for this, I believe, is because Reformed theology has historically been regarded as the harder theology to adopt an acceptable theodicy, even among Reformed theologians themselves. If libertarianism were true, it would solve the problem with greater ease and with greater acceptability among non-believing critics of the Christian faith. I think that is why it has been a more appealing avenue for Christian philosophers and Arminians in general. The problem is the data of Scripture gives unequivocal support for meticulous divine determinism on the one hand; and on the other, its account of human and divine responsibility does not in any way cohere with libertarian accounts of freedom.
Christian philosophers love to quote Augustine, Aquinas and the scholastics along with Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Kant, et. al. but have little room for Calvin, Luther, Owen, Turretin, Bavinck and Berkouwer. Historians have long acknowledged the genius of Jonathan Edwards, but few philosophers have grappled with his magisterial Freedom of the Will where he ably defends a nascent brand of compatibilism (the idea that human freedom and responsibility is compatible with divine determinism—that is, meticulous providence). Perhaps that is because he was a theologian first and a philosopher second. Ignoring Edwards has become unfortunate.
Evans acknowledges that the real problem of evil is not the logical problem. Plantinga has solved this with the FWD and others who hold to divine determinism have shown the logical problem is not a problem at all (e.g. John Feinberg, Paul Helm, James Speigel, Thaddeus Williams). The notion of gratuitous evil is where the problem largely centers—and let’s be honest, this is where it has always centered. Why does God allow evils that have no apparent reason or purpose? Evans seeks to solve the problem first of all by putting theism in perspective. He argues that there are many other avenues of apologetic value that have sought to vindicate the existence of God. In this regard, he shows his hand as an evidentialist, the most common form of apologetics among Christian philosophers. I favor presuppositionalism.
Evans then provides 2 syllogisms:
1. If God exists, then gratuitous evils do not exist.
2. Gratuitous evils do exist (or, there is at least one gratuitous evil),
3. Therefore, God does not exist.
1’. If God exists, then gratuitous evils do not exist.
2’. It is very likely that God exists.
3’. Therefore, it is very likely there are no gratuitous evils. (28)
Evans obviously favors the second of these two arguments. Both arguments are valid, but which is more likely to be sound? The first argument hinges on whether there is sufficient evidence that gratuitous evils exist (premise 2). The second argument hinges on whether there is sufficient evidence for God’s existence (premise 2’). Whichever of these 2 premises has better support will determine which argument is more sound. Evans goes on to argue that God always has some good for evils we don’t understand. The fact that God does not reveal what those reasons are is no argument against their existence. There is of course nothing wrong with this argument. The problem is it does not have much persuasive power. When a mother holds the lifeless body of her 5 year son who caught a stray bullet from a drive-by shooting, saying God has an unknown reason for his death is not terribly helpful though perhaps true. This is where our efforts to construct a theodicy have to be far more pastoral than cold syllogisms.
One of the more fruitful arguments Evans provides is a sort of modified version of John Hick’s soul-making theodicy. He speaks of the defeat of evil. At this stage Evans’ theodicy is two-pronged. First, the FWD responds to the “why” of evil. Secondly, since evil cannot be prevented, there must exist a reasonable response to mitigate its unseemly characteristics. This is the “what now” response (59). It requires the defeat of evil—“To remove its hold on the content of our experience” (59). We must necessarily partner with God in the defeat of evil, because we can’t do it on our own. Trying to doing things on our own is what brought evil into existence in the first place (59). This defeat of evil has special value for the Christian. “The reason that conversion is the summum bonum of soul making [adopting Hick at this point] is that in the act of conversion the condition of the heart is restored” (49). I think Evans is on to some very provocative ideas here, unfortunately I do not believe he develops them enough. Furthermore, they are hampered by his endorsement of libertarianism. A more robust Biblical theology would tease these ideas out, but that moves beyond his philosophical focus.
Evans’ section on hell may be his best contribution to the problem of evil. The question revolves around the unfairness of the eternal nature of hell. Why would God punish finite sins with infinite punishment? Typically, Christians argue that those in hell never stop sinning and thus they ever incur fresh waves of never-ending judgment. Evans thinks this argument is weak. He says, “The real problem attending the denizens of hell is that they have a disposition that is bent against God” (100). “Sin deforms our character” (100) such that a person reaches a point at which he becomes perverse in his opposition to God. Evans highlights the fact that the word “transgression” speaks of a specific sin in Scripture that highlights “intentional defiance against God” (100). Evans cites Isaiah 59:12-13 for this (101). “Persistence in transgression… ultimately yields a heart hardened against God” (101). “Scripture indicates… the effects of transgression on a person is that as we persist in these choices we forge a character toward a particular destiny, the culmination of which (in the negative sense) is a completely hardened heart against God” (101). This corresponds to Pharaoh’s hardened heart (though I disagree with Evans’ libertarian interpretation of the account in Exodus) and Romans 1 in which God “gives people over” to greater indulgence in sin. Evans argues that this sort of abandonment and hardening of hearts takes place prior to the sinner’s entrance to hell. “Hell is not what hardens a person; instead, hell is a place for hardened persons” (102). He further argues that although hell is sheer horror and why would anyone want to remain there, that is not really the right question. The alternative is to embrace God and acknowledge his Lordship and repent of sin and that is decidedly more repugnant to the “denizens of hell” than the horror it holds for them (102).
Evans also has a profitable discussion of a divine command theory of ethics, which states that an action’s moral value is determined by God. This is commonly met with the Euthyphro objection: “Is something good because God loves it, or does God love something because it is good?” (136). The Euthyphro objection presupposes that attributes of God exist independently of him. Evans answers this with an exposition of the doctrine of divine simplicity which indicates that God cannot be divided into parts as if attributes are added to his person. The reality is they exist as essential to his very being. Evans contends that the notion “God is good” should be “more precisely phrased ‘God is identical with goodness’ (quoting Norman Kretzmann). To be more specific, “God is goodness made real, not just the property of goodness. He is the reality of goodness” (180). Thus the very nature of God is the ground of ethics and of human moral obligation.
Evans moves on the application of divine command theory to one of the more thorny problems in this regard: Genesis 22 and the command to Abraham to kill his son Isaac. Evans makes a remarkable statement. “Every moral command imposed by God has as its root the same concern, namely whether one holds anything in a higher priority than one’s relationship to God” (193). I love this statement. Basically, Evans argues that God’s intention with commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac was not to bring about a particular state of affairs (i.e., in this case, the death of Isaac), rather his intention is “to bring about obedience with regard to the content of what is commanded” (194). The intention of God is the same in every command he gives to human beings. “What is this intention? To obey the known commands of God and have no other perceived good to be held in higher esteem than him” (195). Evans quotes Hebrews 11:17-19 to vindicate his argument that God never intended the death of Isaac; although Genesis 22:12 confirms this analysis when God tells Abraham that he knows that he “fear[s] God” above the son he loves.
All this discussion sets up Evans’ attempt to exonerate God from culpability for evil. Although Evans endorses libertarian freedom for humans, he denies it to God since God maintains perfection in his attributes and therefore cannot act contrary to his nature. He appears to affirm a higher theology of providence that Arminianism, but one that falls short of the divine determinism embraced by Calvinists. Here is where interaction with compatibilism would have been fruitful for Evans, but alas, no mention of it. He sounds awfully close to speaking like a compatibilist but staunchly maintains his libertarianism. He quotes Hugh McCann to show that God’s providence is like that of an author to a novel. God creates and determines the circumstances in which human choices play out, yet somehow those choices remain independent of any causal connection to God. This seems rather odd in light of an analogy used more often by Calvinists than Arminians (I am thinking specifically of Wayne Grudem and John Frame). Unfortunately Evans does not tease out some of the implications of his model of providence which would have been helpful.
All-in-all Evans’ book has some useful material for evaluating the problem of evil. He develops some fruitful avenues of thought in seeking to solve at least some of its problems. I believe the work is marred in two ways. First, it embraces libertarianism as a given. If libertarianism is shown to be insufficient as an explanation, then the basic Free Will Defense Evans (and most Christian philosophers) employs fails significantly. Secondly, he does not employ the solid work of standard Christian Systematic and Biblical theologies. In particular, I believe Reformed theology provides the most faithful and rigorous exposition of Christian doctrine. The work of John Frame, John Feinberg, D. A. Carson, and Paul Helm provides some important perspectives that remain untapped among Christian philosophers with regard to the problem of evil. Feinberg and Helm, in particular, are quite conversant with philosophical accounts of the problem of evil; and Feinberg’s massive tome, The Many Faces of Evil, is rarely consulted in other works of theodicy. This is unfortunate. By all means, read Evans, but read widely from these others as well.
Evans (2013) writes this book within the context of the problem of evil's pervasive resiliency, an object of age-long philosophical and theological thought. Theism has been plagued by this issue for centuries, if not millennia. In fact, one particular threat it has posed to theism is the logical problem of evil, which points out the logical inconsistency between God's praiseworthy attributes of moral goodness, omnipotence, and omniscience and the reality of evil within the world (Peterson et al., 1998, p. 118). Fortunately though, this ominously logical threat to theism has since faded, almost completely, since Alvin Plantinga offered up his Free Will Defense in response to it. Nonetheless, Plantinga's effective response to the logical problem gave rise to the increase of discussion centered upon the evidential problem of evil, an increase which became saliently obvious in the 1980s (Peterson et al., 1998, p. 121). Nonetheless, this strand of the problem along with a more recent one, namely, the deontological problem of evil, is ever-threatening to faith in the Divine (Evans, 2013, "Prolegomena to the Deontological"). Therefore, Evans (2013) seeks to bring the reader up-to-date on the most prominent issues within the literature of the problem of evil and, as a positive externality of sorts, hopes that it may help to comfort victims of evil when they are ready to tackle the more theological aspects of their tragedies ("The Problem of Evil," "Concluding Thoughts"). To accomplish the goal of informing the reader of traditional and recent developments within problem-of-evil literature, he sets out to discuss and respond to the more traditional issues in chapters one through seven and then handles the more current issues throughout the rest of the book, doing so after making his intentions abundantly clear from the start: "[I]t is my contention that no one theodicy suffices to answer the problem of evil, but that each theodicy has its application in particular domains of the conversation. I will allow this line of thinking to develop with the flow of the book" (Evans, 2013, "The Problem of Evil").
Evans' Thesis and Argument
The overall structure of Evans' book is akin to an IBS `recurrence of interrogation by interchange' design, in layman terms, a progressive repetition of presenting an issue and then offering (or beginning to offer) a solution for it. In chapters one through seven, he covers the logical, evidential, divine hiddenness, hell, and natural problems of evil. However, starting with chapter eight and throughout the rest of the book, he introduces the deontological problem of evil in chapter eight, responds to it in chapter nine, offers support for it in chapter ten, describes a rebuttal to his response in eleven, and reflects on (as a result of introducing it in eleven) the implications of "perfect being theology" in twelve. After this twelfth chapter, he offers some final remarks.
What Evans Seeks to Accomplish
Again, within this volume, Evans wants to express how there is no one theodicy that can adequately address all the issues presented by the problem of evil. In fact, he makes this intention known again: "[T]here is no one way to address these issues, for there are many problems from evil" ("Concluding Thoughts"). Also, although it does not seem to be his primary aim, Evans hopes that the reader, especially if she has been a recent victim to tragedy, could walk away from the book with different ways to process the meaning of the evil that has beset her. This auxiliary aim, although only being implicit throughout the rest of the book, becomes evident in the very last paragraph of the entire book:
I recognize that some people are not looking for answers to these questions as they undergo suffering. In times of suffering we usually need the comfort of friends, not the counsel of scholars. However, these questions persist for a reason-- we cannot help but ask such questions when the emotional element has subsided, and we try to make some sense out of our experiences. I hope this volume provides some helpful insights when that season of life arrives. ("Concluding Remarks")
How He Seeks to Accomplish It
Once more, his strategy for accomplishing the aforementioned aim, i.e. to show how a one-size-fits-all theodicy does not exist, is to address traditional issues first and then approach more current ones. He does this throughout the book by first presenting the problem and then responding to it, providing a range of preliminary to more in-depth solutions to each issue precipitating from the problem of evil.
Part one. After offering a general background for the problem-of-evil literature, Evans begins the first half of the book by `antisepticizing' the logical problem of evil. In a fairly common way, he presents the nature of this issue, talks about Plantinga's Free Will Defense to it, and then supports Plantinga's position, personally believing the logical dimension to evil's reality to have been sufficiently addressed. From there, in chapter three, he presents the evidential dimension of the issue, uses theological skepticism (namely, "God's ways are not our ways, neither His thoughts our thoughts") to combat it, and offers surface-level support for theological skepticism. With the evidential problem still yet before him, he continues to respond to it in chapter four, the chapter he deems to be "the most important chapter in the book." Here, he claims that the many evidences of evil in reality are simply opportunities for humanity to challenge and defeat evil, if and when it is possible. From there, he offers ideas as to how this can be implemented before moving on to chapter five. In the subsequent chapter (that is, chapter five), the author--by discussing and responding to the divine hiddenness issue--advances his argument of how no one theodicy can effectively handle all the issues arising from the problem of evil. Divine hiddenness presents a problem for theism because God's apparent absence in the midst of our suffering calls His compassion and goodness into question. This is why Evans goes on to discuss both failed and successful attempts to address such an issue before building on Paul Moser's The Elusive God, in which Moser proposes that "cognitive idolatry" is the reason God may not respond to our requests in a time of need; more clearly, we cannot expect God to respond to us "when we see fit to determine the parameters of" how God should reveal Himself in the midst of our circumstances ("Divine Hiddenness"). Once this chapter is complete, Evans presents an auxiliary issue related to the problem of evil: the problem of hell. The problem of hell is relevant to the problem of evil discussion due to the fact that it, one, pertains to claims about how God will ultimately deal with evil and, two, shows how these claims may (in themselves) create doubt about God's goodness, justice, and mercy. The issue of natural evil is Evans last point of focus under the banner of traditional theodicy issues. In that this is yet another issue arising from the problem of evil, it too contributes to the diminishing hope of an all-encompassing miracle `cure' for the dilemma evil presents for theism. Fortunately though, for Evans and C. Stephen Layman, the explanatory strength of theism compared to non-theistic naturalism is substantially greater when attempting to understand the many instances of natural evil.
Part two. Again, with no one theodicy `remedy' within immediate reach, the problem of evil comes in many different `infectious' forms. A more recent form of the problem is the deontological argument from evil. This is what Evans presents in chapter eight and, using "divine command theory of ethics," begins to address in chapter nine ("Prolegomena to the Deontological"). Because the deontological problem of evil charges God with being equally culpable as the evil He allows, the divine command theory of ethics defeats this problem by asserting that no moral standard exists outside of God and, thus, that no one can hold God accountable for not preventing an evil ("Prolegomena to the Deontological"). In chapter ten, the writer offers support for the divine command theory right before introducing the Euthyphro rebuttal to it in chapter eleven. The "Euthyphro dilemma...comes from the Platonic dialogue Euthyphro" and is potentially damaging to divine command theory because it poses this question: Given that "good" and "bad" are determined by some moral standard, how can anyone say that God is good if no moral standard independent of Him is said to exist? From here, Evans discusses how this dilemma presents complications for theology, mentions different responses to it, and ends the chapter by asserting that God is simply and "necessarily morally perfect," which means that all moral obligation is defined by Him ("Evil and the Worship"). Therefore, it is better to say that God is morally perfect instead of saying that he is "good." Finally, before going into his final thoughts, in chapter twelve, Evans draws out the implications of God being "necessarily morally perfect," which calls into question the notions of God's freedom, omnipotence, and whether or not it can be said He is worthy of worship.
Therefore, due to all the issues that arise from the problem of evil and the varying level of efficacious responses to them, this is why, in his "Concluding Thoughts," Evans reiterates that there is simply no single cure-all response to the unremitting problem of evil.
A Critical Analysis of the Work
From the very onset of the book, Evans assumes that "no one theodicy suffices to answer the problem of evil" ("The Problem of Evil"). To his credit, he does support this belief by discussing a range of issues stemming from the problem of evil and the preliminarily to sufficiently adequate responses to them. However, his approach only indirectly proves his thesis, leaving him in need of, at least, an appendix of sorts to more directly prove whether or not it is impossible to arrive at a single theodicy to deal with all issues. Is he assuming that such an elusive theodicy belong to the realm of the Kantian noumena? Even if it does, a more explicit discussion on this matter would have been helpful.
At this juncture, especially in light of the absence of a more explicit discussion of his thesis, I wonder if there is a need for philosophers to begin (or continue, if already begun) epistemological discussions on the literature of the problem of evil. What arguments can we make to believe that we may never arrive at a single theodicy? What arguments can we make to believe it may be possible? Also, if this is a worthy enough suggestion that I am making, would our arguments take the forms of those echoing back to modernism or of those that claim a place for post-modernism, e.g. epistemological, linguistic, and metaphysical holisms (Murphy, 2007)? Intuitively, it seems likely that most discussions may rule in favor of Evans' thesis; however, is it not a part of the very nature of philosophy to challenge assumptions? If so, Evans' thesis is an assumption that is currently unchallenged, at least in a more up-to-date philosophical fashion.
Nonetheless, I must say that, though slightly incomplete in my opinion (with respect to more direct argumentation of his thesis), Evans' work does offer a compelling case as to why it seems reasonable to believe that various approaches are needed to address the problem of evil, as well as its many permutations. Just conducting a brief survey of the literature on the problem of evil shows how theistic philosophers and theologians have yet to come up with a singularly effective theodicy; the issues emerging from the problem of evil are simply too pervasive, variable, and unrelenting.
Lastly, this brings me to whether or not a recommendation is in order. At this, I must say that I do recommend this book, but before I can explain my recommendation, I must also confess that I do not recommend this book. Here is what I mean. With respect to urging a reader to steer clear away from this book, I discourage reading this book for a reader who may not be fully grounded in her faith, that is to say, one who is still looking for reasons to believe in God. It is my personal opinion, (I am alluding to Thomas Aquinas here) that apologetics can only supplement faith, not provide a foundation for it. Perhaps this is why the Apostle Paul reminded his Corinthian converts: "...When I came to you, ...[m]y message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God's power" (1 Cor. 2:1-5, New International Version). Nevertheless, for a reader who is foundationally strong in her faith, especially if she is a minister, Christian counselor, or theology student, I would strongly recommend this book. Like a theodicy first-aid kit of sorts, Evans' book offers many different ways of providing a thoughtful response to a hurting parishioner who is emotionally and spiritually ready to consider such a discussion, a client who has been pressed by a nagging theodicy question that threatens to shatter his assumption of life's "meaningfulness," or a fellow classmate who rants on endlessly about the irrationality of theism (Janoff-Bultman, 1992, p.8).
All in all, The Problem of Evil by Jeremy Evans is a very commendable survey of the problem-of-evil's terrain. He states his belief about there being no one way to address the problem of evil and proves it indirectly by bringing the reader up-to-date on the millennia-old problem evil creates for theism. Nevertheless, although he strictly discourages attempts to monolithically approach the many issues pertaining to the problem of evil, perhaps it would be helpful, if possible, to show the implications of his self-admitted "perfect being theology" in light of the more traditional issues of the problem. In addition, for one seeking to contribute more to the literature, perhaps Evans' presentation here indicates a need for a formal discussion of problem-of-evil literature's epistemological ramifications, i.e. will it ever be possible to create a singular theodicy? Is not Evans' claim just another epistemological assertion that stands to be challenged--or supported? If the problem of evil is here to stay, we might as well begin to postulate why this may or may not be the case.
Evans, J. A. (2013). The problem of evil: The challenge to essential Christian beliefs. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishing Group. Kindle file.
Janoff-Bulman, R. (1992). Shattered assumptions: Towards a new psychology of trauma. New York, NY: The Free Press.
Murphy, N. C. (2007). Beyond liberalism & fundamentalism: How modern and postmodern philosophy set the theological agenda. Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International.
Peterson, M., Hasker, W., Reichenbach, B., & Basinger, D. (1998). Reason and religious belief: An introduction to the philosophy of religion (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
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