The Problem of Evil–Pt. 2–Context and Ground Rules

Posted: December 20, 2010 in Uncategorized

Context:  Setting the Stage

As if the subject under consideration was not already complex, John S. Feinberg comes along and adds to the complexity.  Contending with the problem of evil (singular) is hard enough.  Dr. Feinberg, however, shows us “that there is no such thing as the problem of evil.”[i]  He notes that “there are different problems of evil and that no one defense addresses all problems of evil, nor does it intend to do so.”[ii]  Since there are many problems that arise due to the presence of evil in the world, one can expect to, and does, find a wealth of literature with a wide variety of approaches being produced.  Any discussion of the problem of evil must acknowledge the varying views being advocated.

This is not a new subject to be given attention, as though the ancients were unaware of the problem of evil. The Bible itself acknowledges the dilemma.  Habakkuk cries out, “How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen?  Or cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not save?  Why do you make me look at injustice?  Why do you tolerate wrong?” (1:2-3). In the book of Lamentations we read, “But you, O Lord, reign forever; your throne endures to all generations.  Why do you forget us forever, why do you forsake us for so many days” (5:19-20).  Throughout the Bible we see the biblical authors expressing their struggle with why evil and suffering is allowed to continue.  The problem of evil is an old one.

As the centuries have marched on, history continues to put evil on display.  The philosopher Hegel stated that history is “the slaughter-bench at which the happiness of peoples, the wisdom of states, and the virtue of individuals have been sacrificed.”[iii]  Following this line of thought John K. Roth would write that “history itself is God’s indictment.”[iv]  Many have picked up on this idea and sought to either argue that the presence of evil is too much to overcome or that there are plausible explanations.

For someone who is interested in reading some of the approaches throughout history, I would suggest reading “The Problem of Evil:  Selected Readings”, edited by Michael L. Peterson.  Within that little volume one can survey writings from St. Thomas Aquinas, David Hume, Albert Camus, Alvin Plantinga, St. Augustine, Richard Swineburne and a host of others.

The point of this section is simply to acknowledge that numerous positions are advocated by men and women of great intelligence.  Therefore, making sure one has read widely is the only safe way to begin to navigate these waters.  Otherwise, ideas and positions that one may adopt will often be without root and unable to stand in the face of critical analysis.

Laying Some Ground Rules

As we move forward it would be helpful to establish some ground rules that must be followed as we seek to formulate a possible explanation of the problem of evil. As D.A. Carson has noted, “if certain biblical ‘givens’ can be tied down, then among believers any discussion that happily sacrifices those ‘givens’ (wittingly or otherwise) will not prove very attractive.”[v]  In fact, as one who writes from the conviction that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, I cannot accept any resolution that contradicts biblical doctrine.

It would be beyond the scope of these posts to argue these “givens” at length.  Instead, certain convictions will simply be stated and biblical support cited.

First, the goodness of God is a non-negotiable.  The Bible is clear in regards to the goodness of God.  Everything the Lord does is good, and all that is good flows from Him.  Limiting Gods goodness cannot be an option as the Bible consistently points to the absolute and unstained goodness of God (Psalm 25:8, 119:68; Jeremiah 33:11; Nahum 1:7).

Secondly, the absolute power of God must be retained.  John Piper goes to great lengths to show that God is sovereign over Satan and his angels, in the midst of persecution, sickness and death, in the wake of natural disaster, in the use of plants and animals, in Satan’s attempts to tempt, and over Satan’s blinding power.[vi]  Nothing falls outside of God’s control (Daniel 4:35; Isaiah 46:10; Lamentations 3:37-38; Proverbs 19:21).  Who is sovereign?  “God is.”[vii]

Thirdly, evil exists.  This may seem like a pointless statement.  However, as one begins to discuss the problem of evil it will soon be discovered that some answer the problem by denying the reality of evil.  Randy Alcorn lists this idea first in his section that describes six worldviews that look at this problem in various ways.[viii]  Evil is seen as merely an illusion or some type of non-being.  It is enough to note, as John Frame does, that even the illusion of evil is evil, thus evil exists, and is not an illusion.  In addition, and more importantly, the Bible speaks clearly.  Evil is not treated as an illusion but as something to be hated and eradicated (Genesis 6: 5; Psalm 14:3; Romans 12:9).

Fourthly, mankind is held responsible for his/her actions.  The Bible never hints at men and women not being held accountable for what they do.  In the end it is our very deeds that we will give an account for (Revelation 20:13).  No matter what our solution to this problem is, we must remember that man has always and will always be held responsible for his actions (see Mark Talbot on Acts 2:22-23 for an excellent example in Suffering and the Sovereignty of God, pgs.50-51).

With these ground rules (not sacrificing any of the four above statements), and there are many others we could list, we are now set to look at some approaches to the problem of evil and see where we will land.  I will begin by surveying some interesting approaches and showing where I feel they fall short.  These surveys will not be an in-depth analysis of each position.  That task would require much more space, time, and knowledge than I currently have.  I will then attempt to show where my thinking has landed for the time being and why I am landing at this particular location.

[i] Feinberg, John.  The Many Faces of Evil (Wheaton, Il: Crossway Books, 2004), 21.

[ii] Ibid. 27.

[iii] Davis, Stephen.  Encountering Evil (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 7.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Carson, D.A.  How Long O Lord? (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 1990), 178.

[vi] Piper, John and Justin Taylor.  Suffering and the Sovereignty of God (Wheaton, Il: Crossway Books, 2006), 19-27.

[vii] Ibid. 29.

[viii] Alcorn, Randy.  If God is Good (Colorado Springs, CO: Multinomah Books, 2009), 30.


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