God in the dock 7 Morality and the Christian account of God (Atheism & God’s goodness continued)

So how does the God revealed in Scripture and worshipped by Christians do when it comes to the morality question? Once again, we are back to the question of evil and suffering and why a good God can permit these things to happen.Now, there are two charges to respond to here. The first is that if there is a sovereign God supreme over everything, then he is the cause of evil and suffering.  That’s the kind of big or meta philosophical question. The second one is that when you look at the Bible and the description of what God says and does, then he doesn’t actually come out of it too well: that his actions are immoral and unloving against the very standards that the Bible sets.

I want to spend a little bit of time exploring the first question a little bit further.  It is something that we will need to come back to again and again as we explore the big questions about who God is, who were are and why we are here.  So, there will be other bites of the cherry if we don’t get to grips with everything here. At the same time, we won’t want to deny that this is a big and a difficult question. Theodicy is the big question that theologians and philosophers have wrestled with down through the ages. So, it would be slightly arrogant of us to think we’ll get this one done and dusted in one article here.  I also think that it’s a good thing to say “I don’t know” some, if not a lot, of the time.

Attempts to explain evil and suffering

In “Evil and the Cross”, Henri Blocher identifies three categories of explanation for suffering.  These are “The solution by universal order”[1], “The solution by autonomous freedom”[2] and “The solution by dialectical reasoning.” [3] Let’s take each in turn.

By “The solution by universal order”, Blocher means those theodicies[4] where evil is seen to have a place in the progress of creation and humanity.

“To the angry or anguished question, ‘Why?’ asked by human beings confronted with evil, Christian thinkers had to find an answer. The one most often put forward, at least in ancient times and in the great periods in the history of the church, is closely related to optimism. Moreover it reflects the influence of philosophies that we have classified under the heading ‘optimism’, such as Stoicism and the Neoplatonism of Plotinus.  The strategy consists of erasing or blurring the most scandalous aspects of evil, and choosing a perspective which appears to diminish the anomaly.  It is rather as if the existence of evil and the goodness of God are the two lips of a wound that have to be brought together, and you must find as many clips as possible – the clips being in this case the rational considerations that suggest harmony.”[5]

From this perspective, the seriousness and extent of evil is in effect played down. In fact, it is literally reduced down to nothingness or ‘non-being.’

This “explanation of the origin and the function of evil rests on an interpretation of the nature of evil that roots it in finitude. Every creature is finite, it does not possess being in all its fullness; therefore there may be detected in it a lack of being, the mark of non-being.”[6]

The point here is that God did not cause or create evil, at least not in the same way as he created the heavens and the earth and formed animals and people.  Evil is the absence of goodness, the absence or limit of the things God has created.  For example, “Blindness is the absence of sight, injustice is the absence of justice, lies or error are the absence of truth.”[7] One proponent of such a position, Teillard De Chardin, treats evil as “the waste product of evolution.”[8]

We have already met the idea that evil’s existence has its roots in autonomous freedom because it is the position of open theists. Indeed, this is probably the best known and widely used of all the arguments.  As well as open theism, variants of this approach are found in the writings of CS Lewis, Francis Schaeffer and Rob Bell.  Blocher comments that, “This explanation of the problem of evil through freedom is presented in a wide variety of forms, some highly speculative, others commonplace and popular.”[9]

In autonomous freedom based arguments,

“Evil is considered as a possibility that is inherent in freedom: it would make no sense to call a creature free if it were not a priori possible for it to do evil. Secondly, the free choice of a personal agent, human or angelic, could not (for defenders of this solution) be determined in advance by God. It goes without saying that, if my choice is free, no-one, not even God,, has made a decision about it ahead of me.  Lastly, since freedom is held as an extremely high, if not the highest, value, being essential to any relationship of love, it was good for God to ‘take the risk’ of creating free agents. God had to do so, if he wished to be loved, for that is not possible except where there is freedom.”[10]

The third approach treats evil and good as somehow in tension and necessary to each other. They are in effect two sides of the same coin. There is an element of dualism in the thought process. Blocher explains that:

“The thinkers in the third category probably differ among themselves even more than the advocates of the solutions we have already discussed. Using reason in a very free and speculative manner and enjoying the delights of paradox, they have two principal affirmations in common.  First, they consider that evil has been present from the very origin of the world, as a qualified power which opposes Good. This evil is often called non-being or nothingness….but it is given actual reality, either in God or with God.”[11]

We also see as we look at these different approaches that attempts to explain evil either fulfil some form of purpose in God’s overall plan[12]such as the manufacture of souls,[13] negate or lay down its place, extent or horror, treat good and evil as equals in tension and/or in conflict (dualism) or take a fatalistic approach to evil and suffering as an unavoidable aspect of existence.[14]

Evaluation

Listening

Now, I want to suggest, carefully, that each of the main accounts of evil have something to say to us.  For example, those accounts that describe evil as negation are picking up on something vital as they consider its ontological nature.  As a number of people throughout history have argued – including Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas and, in modern times, CS Lewis – evil is not a substance that God made; rather, evil is the negation of the good. Evil is parasitical on goodness.[15] That is to say that we want to put it in its right context: the bigger picture is of God’s infinite glory and beauty, the goodness of creation and the future joy of eternity.

This means that Augustine makes a helpful distinction between how God is sovereign over good and evil.  God is sovereign over good as its creator. However, He is sovereign over evil as ruler. He acknowledges that God uses evil for good, but not as its originator because it is not a thing to create.[16]

Secondly, there is a sense in which the evil of suffering is formative.  This is Paul’s point in Romans 5, the argument even of some secular psychiatrists and psychologists and the experience of many believers through history and around the world. One of the privileges of pastoral ministry is hearing the testimony of people who have grown in godliness and closer to God through suffering. To hear someone who has suffered terribly through a long, debilitating, terminal illness say “God has been good to me” is truly humbling.

Thirdly, unless we are fatalists, then we do need to give an account for human freedom and this will have something to say about evil and its causes.  A reformed understanding of God’s sovereignty and a strong denial of open theism does not exclude the place of free will.  So, for example, John Calvin, along with Augustine of Hippo, is most closely associated with a theology that emphasises God’s sovereignty over and against human autonomy, but he says about Adam in his pre-fall existence:

“Therefore God has provided the soul of man with intellect, by which he might discern good from evil, just from unjust and might know what to follow or to shun, reason going before him with her lamp….to this he has joined will to which choice belongs.”[17]

The idea here is that true freedom is found in a will directed towards trust in the true and living God because Adam, before he sinned, was able to reason fully and so make wise choices.  The will was “submissive to reason”.[18] Calvin allows for the real possibility that Adam and Eve could have withstood temptation, commenting that “Adam, therefore might have stood if he chose, since it was only by his free will that he fell.”[19] So when Calvin (and also Luther[20]) talk about human beings lacking free will, they are primarily talking about our state after sin and this lack of freedom is not so much about our finite state, but our fallen state. We are unable to make free choices because we are enslaved to our sinful desires so that Calvin has little time for “those who …still seek for free will in man, notwithstanding of his being lost and drowned in spiritual destruction.”[21]

Challenging

The problems we see with these attempts to explain evil is that they still fall a long way short both in giving an answer that satisfies our intellects and our emotions and in doing justice to the Biblical accounts as well.

So, whilst it is helpful to see evil as parasitic and to talk about it as negation, we cannot deny its painful reality.  The cancer sufferer and the assault victim are very much aware of evil’s presence and horror. Furthermore, the Bible does not shy away from the reality and enormity of evil and suffering.  As Blocher says, “Scripture never tires of denouncing the reality and the danger of evil; it is evil totally, radically and absolutely.”[22] This is seen both in God’s judgement on wickedness – “Nothing shows the evil reality of evil better than the wrath of God against it and the eternal perdition of those who choose evil and remain devoted to it”[23] – and in his solution, the Cross.

Secondly, if God truly is sovereign over the detail of everything,[24] then we cannot really get him off the hook by detaching him from the events.  If God is constrained to permit by principles outside of himself, then he is subject to a higher and impersonal authority; he is weak and not truly sovereign. If God permits out of choice, then that begs the question “why” just as much as if he directly authored it.[25]

Putting a picture together

So, we have to admit that we don’t have a neat, tidy answer to the problem of evil and suffering.  That, of course, is the reality of being humans. We are small, finite creatures in a massive Universe trying to understand an infinite God.  This does not stop us from asking the questions or from continuing to look for answers though. Nor does the questioning and searching compete with the call to trust – and that may well be part of the point of it all, as we’ll consider very shortly.  Before that, I want to make a few other suggestions for consideration.

First of all, we come back to the point that if God is sovereign, then everything which happens must in some way serve to fulfil his purpose and to glorify him.  Secondly, that Scripture is clear that glory is not about “might is right”; worship is as much a response to goodness as it is to greatness and so we can expect these purposes to be for good. In fact, Scripture is clear is that God works all things together for our good, not just His. Thirdly, it is important as always to make careful distinctions.  So, just as Augustine distinguishes God’s sovereignty as creator over good from his sovereignty as ruler over evil, so he and Calvin also make another vital distinction. This time, they distinguish between God’s intentions behind his decrees and human intentions in fulfilling them.  Calvin, quoting Augustine, observes:

“Man sometimes with a good-will wishes something which God does not will, as when a good son wishes his father to live, while God wills him to die. Again, it may happen that man with a bad will wishes what God wills righteously as when a bad son wishes his father to die and God also wills it.”[26]

Examples of this include in the Old Testament where Joseph tells his brothers that they had intended to harm him by selling him as a slave, but this was actually fulfilling God’s plan for all their good. Then, in the New Testament (and I think Joseph’s experience is intended to point us forward to this image), we have evil men conspiring to kill Jesus. They do this to stop him, to destroy him, to further their own selfish ambitions, but God had planned the crucifixion before the start of time.

Now, this is where trust comes in. There is the sense in Scripture that present sufferings are incomparable to the joy waiting in eternity. Quite how that will come to be true, I don’t know.  Christians have never expected to know all the answers here and now.[27] Nor can I pretend to fully understand the exact detailed nature of God’s overarching purpose or why this exact creation and history was the necessary way for God to do this.

I can come back to one or two suggestions or clues to what He might have in mind. First of all, some theologians suggest that the emphasis is on God’s purpose to call to himself a people who are chosen by grace and learnt to love and enjoy grace.  In that sense, it’s not so much the Open Theism argument that we must be free so that we can freely choose to love God as that the story is set up so that he freely chooses to love us. You see, unconditional love means giving even when we don’t deserve. I like this approach with its emphasis on grace.[28]

I also want to come back to the question of freedom at this point.  I do think that even the Open Theists are onto something when they suggest that freedom is important as we learn to love.  The problem with Open Theism is that it makes God the one who needs us to love him freely back. He becomes dependent on us, wanting our love.  If God is love and God is Trinity, then he isn’t dependent on us loving Him. His love for us is given freely; it is an act of grace.  However, by giving me the experience of freedom, God gives me the opportunity to make choices so that I can genuinely experience what it means to love.

Finally, I think that The Doctrine of the Trinity gives us an important clue as to God’s purposes. The Father eternally loves the Son and so wants to glorify him. It is through the history of Creation, Fall, Redemption and New Creation that the Son is glorified. Similarly, it is through this that the Son is able to love, obey and honour His father.

But I’m still living with incomplete answers. There are still questions. So, in the meantime, we keep asking, thinking, learning and trusting.  How do I trust when the answer is incomplete? Well, to do that, I look back and see what God has done so far. Has God proved trustworthy? That’s why we need to come back to the other part of our discussion. Does the God revealed in the Bible prove himself to be trustworthy, faithful, loving and good?

[1] Blocher, Evil and the Cross, 19.

[2] Blocher, Evil and the Cross, 36.

[3] Blocher, Evil and the Cross, 65.

[4] A theodicy is a theory or explanation for suffering and evil.

[5] Blocher, Evil and the Cross, 19.

[6] Blocher, Evil and the Cross, 19.

[7] Blocher, Evil and the Cross, 20.

[8] Blocher, Evil and the Cross, 22.

[9] Blocher, Evil and the Cross, 37.

[10]  Blocher, Evil and the Cross, 37. I wonder if there is a little truth in this. Not God’s need for love but giving us the experience of freedom enables us to love others freely. I need to experience the choice to experience love. It’s not, though, that God needs my reciprocating love and so in a sense he can still predestine from the eternal angle.  I also learn to trust.

[11] Blocher, Evil and the Cross, 65.

[12] See Keller, Walking with God through pain and suffering, 18 & 89-90.

[13] Keller, Walking with God through pain and suffering, 89.

[14] Keller, Walking with God through pain and suffering, 18.

[15] Augustine, Answer to an enemy of the Law and the Prophets, 1.5.7. Cited in Shapers of Christian Orthodoxoy, 246-7.

[16] Augustine, City of God, 361.

[17] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, I.xv.8. (Beveridge, 1:169).

[18] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, I.xv.8. (Beveridge, 1:169).

[19] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, I.xv.8. (Beveridge, 1:169).

[20] C.f. Martin Luther, Bondage of the Will.

[21] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, I.xv.8. (Beveridge, 1:169).

[22] Blocher, Evil and the Cross,85.

[23] Blocher, Evil and the Cross, 86.

[24] Blocher, Evil and the Cross, 90-91.

[25] See John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, I.xviii.1. (Beveridge, 1:198-199).

[26] Augustine, cited in John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, I.xviii (Beveridge, 1:203).

[27] The old hymn “I Cannot Tell” is a good example of this. The hymn states a number of propositions which the author is unable to fully comprehend or explain including why Jesus came and how he will put everything to right. However, running through it is the refrain “but this I know” where the author falls back on the clear revelation of Scripture and the experience of his testimony that God acts in loiving kindness to heal and forgive.

[28] Though noting caution here. There’s an ongoing if slightly obscure debate within reformed theology between Supralapsarianism and Infralapsarianism. The debate/discussion is about the logical order of things. Specifically, was it that God’s first decree is to choose a people by grace and then the Fall followed logically from that or does the decree to choose /create a people by grace follow logically as a consequence of the Fall? Supralapsarians are those who want to emphasise God’s plan to choose a people by grace. Infralapsarians recognise a healthy caution in trying to go back beyond the fall in our discussion of evil given that Scripture’s focus on evil sticks to revealing how it came into the world and how God has responded since. See the discussion in John Frame, Doctrine of God, 336-339.

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2 thoughts on “God in the dock 7 Morality and the Christian account of God (Atheism & God’s goodness continued)

  1. The god revealed in scripture isn’t agreed upon by Christians, which makes it rather hard to have a coherent discussion about how it does with the morality question. Christians can’t agree on what morals this god supposedly wants us to follow because they all have different interpretations on what the bible actually means. Since morals can and do change in humanity over the years, theists must try to shoehorn modern morals into a book that was written by men several thousand years ago. There is no evidence of a divine absolute morality or any evidence of a divine being at all.

    However, if one accepts the claims of the bible, it does say that this god is the cause of “everything” and the bible has this character state exactly that. Isaiah 45. Now, some interpretations of the bible try to claim that it’s not really “evil” that God is saying, it’s “calamity”. But this is not the case and is an instance of deception on the part of Christians trying to whitewash their god. The word used in the quote is “ra” in Hebrew and ra doesn’t mean calamity, or woe or discord or disaster. It means evil. To condense from the blog post on Daylight Atheism “Little Known Bible Verses V: God creates evil” the term ra is used fairly often in the bible and in no case does it mean disaster, discord, etc. It is the tree of the knowledge of good and “ra”= evil, not the tree of good and calamity. God did not say that he wanted to destroy humanity in a flood because of its “discord”, it is for its “ra” wickedness/sinfulness.

    Now if one can ignore these verses in the bible, why accept any of them since they have exactly the same evidence for them: none?

    However, if God is responsible for evil, then to resist it is against this god’s will aka his “plan”. This doesn’t set well with most Christians who are more than happy to ignore JC’s absolute pacifistic stance and it doesn’t set well with most humans since we are empathic and don’t want others to suffer. We will take a stand against evil. It also doesn’t work well with the claim that god is somehow anti evil, because this god has had many times, per the story, to destroy evil and it never takes that step. Lucifer rebels, and this god could have destoyed him/the fallen angels, but didn’t and left them to supposedly corrupt humanity. If one believes the original sin nonsense, rather than having humans start afresh, this god chose to push evil forward forever; or at least until it needs to work with evil again to corrupt believers in the end times fantasy of Revelation.

    It’s always curious that Christians want to ignore their bible and come up with excuses on why they do. There is nothing in the bible that says that this god didn’t create evil just like it created everything else. To claim that evil is simply the absence of what this god created is an attempt to redefine evil, which is a common Christian tactic. Good becomes anything that this god wants (as determined by each Christian) and evil is anything that they want to pretend that their god doesn’t want. This unsurprisingly is the might equals right argument. The claim that this god didn’t create evil is also problematic in that this god did indeed do so, if one is to believe that it created Satan and chose not to destroy it. It did this with the supposed perfect foreknowledge of what the result would be. Of course, one can claim that this god doesn’t have perfect foreknowledge or perfect power, etc, but then it wouldn’t be the god that Christians claim it is.

    The claim that evil exists because freedom exists requires one also ignore the bible. There is no free will mentioned in the bible, and the actions of its god abrogate free will at every instance that this god interferes, which it does constantly, from placing the tree of the knowledge of good and evil within reach to claiming that there are humans who will never accept this god because this god wills it. There is also the problem that the claims about heaven disintegrate when it is claimed that free will requires a possibility for evil. I personally find the idea of free will nonsense, but I do believe we do act like we have it.

    One of the popular claims about free will and evil, is that free will is required for love, and many Christians wish to claim that their god is love personified. However, this god doesn’t even come close to the description of love in 1 Corinthians. If it isn’t love, then there is again no need for free will. There is a need for absolute obedience, as the bible shows again and again where those who disobey are murdered by this god or worse. As an example, if there is free will, why does this god murder David’s son because of David’s actions?

    The claim that evil is required by this god is often used by Christians. They claim that God is teaching someone something by allowing evil to happen. Of course this teaching often requires the abrogation o the free will of another by their death, or some harm coming to them. This is one of the more disgusting Christian claims, that a child deserves to be harmed, born with birth defects, just to “teach” them something. How sadly selfish. It’s also curious to see Chrisitansn claim that evil and suffering is an “unavoidable aspect of existence”. Again, how does that work with the claims of heaven?

    The claims that Christians invent to excuse their god certainly do have much to say to humanity. The claim that God “uses” evil for good is amusing and only works if this god isn’t omnipotent. If it *must* do something, then it is constrained by laws outside itself and is not the “first cause” that Christians claim. If it must cause a child to be born with microencephaly from the Zika virus to teach someone something, then it is impotent to simply bring itself closer to people without causing harm to a human being. To hear that “God has been good to me” after disaster is nothing more than self-editing, the desperate claim of someone who has so much of their self-worth wrapped up in a myth that they cannot admit that they are wrong. It’s the words of the sycophant who has been whipped and still hopes if they say the right thing, the punishment will stop. Suffering also seems less than beneficial when this god himself tries to make up to a human that he intentionally allowed to be tormented, Job.

    One can also point out that why is someone suffering a long debilitating illness when the bible repeatedly says that baptized believers can heal? Is the bible wrong on this too?

    It’s curious that you would try to claim that John Calvin is for free will when predestination is entirely opposite that claim, and we see that demonstrated in Romans 9 where it is claimed that there is no choice but only this god’s whim. As for the quote that this god has given man intellect to discern this god, most if not all religions make the same claim. And none of you have any evidence at all that your gods exist. If God directs anything, then there is no free will. And there is no evidence at all for free will existing before the “fall”. This is one more made up bit of theology in order to retcon the bible, something quite like how fans of Star Wars will invent events that never were shown to explain how inconsistencies can make sense.
    Again, open theology and what you are advocating are opinions based in nothing more than navel gazing. They are the same in their lack of evidence for their claims.

    It is claimed that the solution to evil is the “cross”, but again that is belied by the bible and by reality. IF the solution was the cross, then why does this god work hand in hand with Satan in Revelation?
    There is a reason you don’t have a neat and tidy answer. It is because the bible was written by humans and the god depicted therein is a contradictory mess. It requires the industry of apologetics to make up stories to explain why such nonsense should be believed, rather than thrown on the dung heap of history with the religions that came before it. Christians themselves can’t even agree on what the answer is.
    Considering that you have no answer, there is no evidence for your god and there is no evidence for any of the essential events of the bible, and the god depicted in the bible creates and works with evil, there is no reason to trust this book or what Christians say. Saying “believe no matter what” is not an answer, it is the attempt to remain in power.

    If this god can’t work without evil, then it is not a god worth worship. If you must say “Believe, it has to make sense honest.” Then there is no reason to believe you. The bible is clear that glory is exactly “might equals right”, worship is a response to fear that this god will harm you if you don’t worship it; it is not a response to “goodness” in the bible. The bible repeatedly has this god murdering people for not obeying it, not worshipping it “correctly”, and commands its believers to kill those who don’t worship it. There is no question about goodness about it, this is the usual “God equals good” as discussed above.

    The quote from Calvin quoting Augustine does an excellent job of showing how prayer is worthless. If a good man cannot get this god to change its mind and do something, then prayer for aid is pointless and claims that prayers were answered are nothing more than wishful thinking or intentional lies. It’s awfully convenient to say “hey, I planned this before” when there is nothing to show that it is the case.

    Unsurprisingly, you rely on the baselss claim that the suffering here on earth will be justified by the supposed pleasures of heaven. But heaven can’t work with your prior claims. There is no reason to trust that heaven exist any more than there is reason to trust that God exists. The claims that you are suddenly ignorant of what this god wants or does is also terribly convenient, but it does try to dissuade people from asking questions about your claims. If this god is what you claim, then nothing is “necessary” for it, for if it were so, this god is under the control of laws beyond it and that’s not what Christians claim. As for unconditional love, that’s a silly claim since your god has condition after condition for its supposed love for humans. It’s called the bible: do this or be damned to eternal torture. And if there is only grace, then there is no choice to accept this god or not.

    You disagree with other Christians. You claim that they are wrong and cannot show that ths is the case. You claim you are right and again cannot show this is the case. IF the trinity is true, then there is no need for one part to need to glorify another part if they are the same. How does a omnipotent being want? Why does it need humans to do this if this god is alpha and omega, all and everything? There is nothing to show that the son can’t love honor and obey, beause it is the same thing.

    Has God proven trustworthy? Well, where is the evidence it has done anything claimed? The bible says that this god is to be trusted, that it does good, that it loves, that it destroys in a flood, that there was a savior. But evidence for this? There is nothing. The bible is the claim. You need evidence to support that. It’s the same evidence you would ask for from any other religion.

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  2. Morning Club. It might be helpful to note that lexicon definitions of the Hebrew word ra’ do include calamity, distress and adversity. Check out The Brown Driver Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon p 948 for example which includes a list of verses where it is used in those senses.

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