Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Problem of Evil: Three Views

With the recent spate of evil rearing its ugly head, it strikes me that now would be a good time to discuss the problem of evil in the world.  There are essentially two types of evil: natural evil that does not involve human willing or acting and moral evil that does involve the choice and action of free moral agents.[1]  Regrettably the problem of evil has kept many from coming to saving faith in Jesus Christ.  Before discussing three common solutions to the problem of evil, Erickson warns his readers not to set our expectations too high in attempting to deal with the problem of evil in the world.[2]  Sound advice!

Three solutions to the problem of evil are offered along with Erickson’s response to each.  I will offer a brief description of each and an evaluation of Erickson’s response.
Finitism: Rejection of Omnipotence – put simply, one way to solve the problem of evil is to deny the idea that God is omnipotent.  This idea takes a number of forms including:

·        Dualism – the notion that there are two principles in the universe: God and the power of evil.[3]  The most clear-cut case of this idea is found in the ancient Iranian religion (Zoroaster) which Ahura Mazda represents good and Ahriman represents evil with the universe serving as their battle ground.[4]  Here this view is that God would overcome evil if He could but is unable to do so.  There is a sort of dualism in Christianity though not in the same sense previously described.  In Christianity God is supremely good and Satan is evil though Satan is a fallen creature that will ultimately be excluded from the universe.[5]

·        Personalism – Erickson states that Brightman developed the idea of God as a personal consciousness of eternal duration though Elwell states Brightman was a pupil of Borden Parker Browne who was the progenitor and most influential exponent of this movement.  Either way, most forms of personalism adopt nontraditional theism.[6]
·        Surd Evil – the view that there are intrinsic goods which are good in and of themselves and there are also instrumental goods which may be the means to to good but which may also become an instrument of evil.  An excellent example of this provided by Erickson is that of the train carrying a saintly person and a group of criminals to the same city.[7]  Unlike other things that can serve good when used by God, surd evil is not expressible in terms of good no matter what God does.  This effectively limits the power of God.

In responding to the rejection of God’s omnipotence, Erickson rightly points out that this is really no solution at all.  Finitism offers an explanation for evil but provides no hope that evil will be overcome since God has been battling evil for eternity.[8]  There is no comfort to be drawn from this view.  In fact, I see little reason to oppose evil in the first place.  If God has been battling evil unsuccessfully for eternity, what hope does man have to stand against evil?

Modification of the Concept of God’s Goodness – the notion is that we need to understand goodness in a different sense than we usually do.  Here, the staunch Calvinist Gordon H. Clark[9] insists that God causes all things including human acts.  Clark also insists that human will is not free will.  God’s will is described as having two distinctions: preceptive will meaning what ought to be done and decretive will meaning that God has willed something and it will be done.  Clark says without hesitation that God is in fact the cause of sin as He is the ultimate cause of everything.  He is careful to point out that God does not actually commit sin and is not responsible for sin.[10] 
Erickson responds in several ways.  First, he rightly points out that in this scheme the meaning of God is good loses all meaning.  Secondly, Erickson challenges Clark’s basic assertion that God is not bound by His own nature and either God’s decretive will or preceptive will is arbitrary.  Finally, the idea that God cannot be responsible because there is no other higher than God to hold Him accountable meaning that accountability determines morality.  Erickson states that this view comes very close to the position that right and wrong are a matter of expediency.[11]  I agree though I do believe that Erickson could have taken a stronger stand against Clark’s position.

Denial of Evil – found in various forms of pantheism, this solution suggests the reality of evil be rejected eliminating the need to explain how it can coexist with God.[12]  A less complex version of this view is offered by Christian Science in declaring that evil is an illusion, a trick of the senses and that God is actually everything.  Under this view, disease and death are illusions.  The solution to sickness is right belief.

In response, Erickson immediately points out several flaws in this solution to evil.  First, while the existence of evil is no longer a problem, the illusion of evil most certainly is and that illusion is as large a problem as the one they ignore.  Second, how to explain the illusion.  Third, why do all Christian Scientists succumb to disease and/or old age and die?[13]

Erickson’s responses to each of the three common solutions are succinct and provide an overview of the most common solutions offered for the problem of evil.  I would have liked to see him go deeper in this area though as this is something that most everyone in ministry will have to attempt to explain sooner or later.  The fact that there are many passages of Scripture that God indirectly brought about some kind of evil such as the story of Joseph in Genesis (37:4,5,8, 11, 20, 28) where his brother sold him into slavery.  Later, Joseph tells his brothers that God used their evil act for good (Gen 45:5; 50:20).  There is the story of the exodus from Egypt where God repeatedly says he will harden Pharaoh’s heart (Ex. 4:21; 7:3) long before Pharaoh hardened his own heart (Ex. 8:15).  There are passages concerning the sin of David (2 Sam. 12:11-12; 12:15-18) and what of Job (1:12, 15, 17, 19)?[14]  Further discussion about these and so many other passages of Scripture would be helpful.

For now this will have to be sufficient.  I am hoping a discussion here at the blog will follow!

[1] Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology 2nd Edition. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), 437-38.
[2] Ibid, 439.
[3] Ibid, 440.
[4] Elwell, Walter A., ed. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology 2nd Edition. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 357.
[5] Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology 2nd Edition. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), 440.
[6] Elwell, Walter A., ed. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology 2nd Edition. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 909.
[7] Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology 2nd Edition. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), 440-41.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Dr. Mitchell describes Clark as an “ultra Calvinist” in his views calling him “more Calvinist than Calvin” in the video lecture for lesson 19. 
[10] Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology 2nd Edition. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), 442-43.
[11] Ibid, 444.
[12] Ibid, 445.
[13] Ibid, 446.
[14] Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 322-31.

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