Evil: Why Does God Allow It?
The problem of evil is not exactly defined by the question, "Why do bad things happen to good people?" Yet, the intent is not completely off-base. Malevolence happens to humankind without regard for race, gender, socioeconomic status, or religion; it is no respecter of persons. As a concept, evil as both moral reprehensibility and the infliction of harm. The former alludes to human free will while the latter represents ambient danger beyond one's control. Thereby, the problem of evil includes both "moral" and "natural" categories, the second implying malice that occurs without human input. The evil of 9/11 was very much a choice for the terrorists bent on hatred and murder. The 2,753 people that died in the World Trade Center and the forty that were killed on Flight 93 experienced the harshest evil a human being can visit upon another: murder. Conversely, the 2004 tsunami that destroyed about 250,000 lives across Indian Ocean coastlands cannot be directly associated with human behavior. In both circumstances, it is likely there were honorable people among the dead, so the problem of evil is not always the direct result of human wickedness. Many secularists in the West are confused by events such as 9/11 and the 2004 tsunami because they have rejected evil as a real problem. The forces of economic globalization caused many to overlook the interaction between "moral" and "natural" tribulations. Simply put, one does not have to believe in God to be impacted by the problem of evil. Agnosticism, the position that absolute right and wrong cannot be known objectively, does not shield its adherents from dealing with the problem.
A skeptic only has two solutions to evade an absolute standard for morality: 1) To say that secularist philosophy gives humankind reason to seek a greater good for the sake of cooperation, or 2) To say there are no grounds for a greater good. The second option is the premise for the term dysteleological surd. If teleological means a condition with a cause and a purpose, then dysteleological describes circumstances in which no greater good can be served. Surd is a term mostly commonly used in mathematics to classify irrational numbers—values that cannot be accurately expressed. Likewise, surd evil alludes to malevolence that cannot be contextualized toward some greater objective. So a dysteleological surd is a situation so despicable that no rational explanation, whether it is theological or philosophical, can do it justice. However, the agnostic still must have some idea of ultimate good to make such a judgment. Therefore, dysteleological surd as a concept does more to beg the question than it does to eliminate absolutes.
Evil & God's Omniscience
It is clear that skeptics employ the dysteleological surd as a deliberate, formulaic attempt to invalidate God's existence. The idea is that surd evils such as ethnic cleansing and sex trafficking are so gratuitous that an ultimate Being would have no choice but to interfere. Just about most cynical arguments against divinity source from the Epicurean dilemma, which basically tries to disprove the existence of God according to the continuation of wickedness. There are very few critics of theism that dare suggest evil is a mere illusion. However, everyone recognizes issues in the human experience that leave more to be desired. All people have a standard of fairness and consider violations thereof to be "injustice." In keeping with this mysterious a priori knowledge, Christianity names the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to be its author and finisher. On the other hand, an atheist believes that morality is purely a function of human survival and that no abstract realm could possibly exist. Agnosticism represents varying degrees of unknowable inquiry, ranging to near atheism to approximate faith.
For the Epicurean dilemma to effectively dismiss the notion of God, one must admit to the reality of evil. Otherwise, the whole argument is pointless from the start. Theists contend that if malevolence can be sensed and perceived, so can righteousness. In the same way the skeptic asks, "Where does evil come from?," to nullify God's existence, the theist wants to know, "Where does goodness come from?," in order to prove it. The reductio ad absurdum goes both ways and there is an impasse between them. Yet, both sides mutually agree—at least for rhetorical purposes–to a divine being that is all-knowing, all-powerful, and morally absolute. The skeptic wins if God's existence could be reduced to absurdity by negating his omniscience and omnipotence. However, theism succeeds if it can prove divine benevolence as God's own choice to limit his otherwise boundless abilities. Of course, there is the hard-line determinist approach that says God plans out both good and evil. To the contrary, John's gospel opens by asserting Jesus as Logos (John 1:1-3; G3056), a title rich with philosophical overtones about the world's original and final causes. The evangelist indicates that God created the world as attested by the Genesis creation account by speaking Jesus Christ as Logos, who is the physical manifestation of his essential nature. God could not have created the universe according to mere whim. Creation demonstrates order and complexity, which reflects God's will. Therefore, all universal and moral laws are intricately tied to Logos. Therefore, evil does not contradict God's existence, but he allows it to continue for his own morally sufficient, universal reasons. Paul of Tarsus wrote that Christ put aside his equality with God and emptied himself of his omniscience and omnipotence to die on a cross to save humankind from evil (Phil. 2:5-8). For this to happen, God must have withdrawn his powers sometime before so that Christ's incarnation would not constitute a change in his nature. By allowing evil to be a possibility, he limited his abilities to give humankind free will. So the kingdom of heaven inaugurated by Jesus during his earthly ministry represents God's solution to wickedness—a sharing of responsibility and atonement. The Christian tradition often speaks of God's perfect will and his permissive will to separate what he ultimately wants from the possibilities he temporarily permits. That God puts aside his omniscience and omnipotence is a deliberate achievement, however, not an essential flaw.
When I first began my studies, I immediately sided with the "free will defense" as the solution to the problem of evil. In fact, I composed a paper on the topic by appealing to the arguments of Irenaeus of Lyons (c. AD 130–c. 202), Gottfried Leibniz (1646–1716), John Hick (1922–2012), and Alvin Plantinga. Even though I got an "A" on the assignment, the professor dismissed my position as "tortured." I felt somewhat offended at first but ultimately negated his critique as skepticism. Two years later, I bought Evil and the Justice of God (IVP, 2006) by N. T. Wright and my thoughts about the problem of evil were solidified at once. In his opening statements, the author talks about how philosophers neglect to integrate the cross into their defenses and theodicies while most Christians do not consider Jesus' crucifixion to be a direct solution to wickedness. Conversely, God did intervene in history to solve evil by sending his only-begotten Son. Thereby, he is vindicated for tolerating evil because he has shared humankind's burden of anguish and struggle.
Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection brought about victory over evil. In the historical premillennialist view of the end times, Satan was bound in the first century. Paul indicated this much when he told the church at Thessalonica, "You know what is now restraining him, so that he may be revealed when his time comes. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work, but only until the one who now restrains it is removed" (2 Thess. 2:6-7). Likewise, Jesus' parable of the strong man alludes to Satan's ongoing captivity (Matt. 12:25-29). Even though evil has existed for two millennia since Christ's earthly ministry, Satan has not been allowed to thwart the gospel from being acknowledged. Even Paul was able to write in his own time, "The gospel . . . has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven" (Col. 1:23). In keeping with Jesus' charge to make disciples of all nations, Christians are also part of the solution to evil. So I agree with Wright when he assigns Christendom an active role in defeating sin. It is not enough for Christians to avoid becoming overcome by evil; they are to overcome evil with good (Rom. 12:21). While Jesus' passion and resurrection are the source of evil's downfall, the kingdom of heaven carried out by the Christian church is a continuing resolution toward the same end. After all, he promised that the gates of Hades will not prevail against his church (Matt. 16:18). On the last day, all malice will be destroyed by Jesus and only what has been performed in his name will remain (1 Cor. 3:10-15)—there will be no more surds or invariables.
Blessed are you, LORD our God, King of the universe, whose blessed Son came into the world that he might destroy the works of the devil and make us children of God and heirs of eternal life: Grant that, having this hope, we may purify ourselves as he is pure; that, when he comes again with power
and great glory, we may be made like him in his eternal and glorious kingdom; where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
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