Thursday, August 03, 2006

Exbeliever on Problems of Evil Part I

Friday, July 28, 2006
Problems of Evil
I don't think it is an atheist's duty to make an argument against the existence of a god or gods anymore than it is an aleprechaunist's duty to make an argument against the existence of leprechauns. As I argued here, it is up to the person who is claiming to know of the existence of a being outside of another person's experience to give that other person reason to believe the existence of this being is possible. In other words (and as I have also argued elsewhere), it is reasonable for a person to be skeptical of existence claims outside of that person's experience. It is reasonable for that person to ask for reasons to believe in a being outside of her experience if another is making an existence claim that is, in fact, outside of her experience.

Does an aexternalworldist have to provide an argument against the existence of the external world? Or does the believer in the external world have to prove that the external world exists.

Let's take another issue, causal relationships. According to David Hume, when we make a causal inference, what we immediately experience is
1) a spatial contiguity
2) a temporal succession
3) a constant conjunction between event types

This, however, does not entail that one event necessitates another. The idea that causal necessity exists does not, according to Hume, come from our experience. It is something that comes naturally to us; we can't stop thinking in terms of on event causing another, but there's nothing given in our experience that proves that causal necessity exists. The existence of causal necessity is outside our experience, and can't be proven by a priori reasoning. By exbeliever's argument, the acausalist is completely victorious. But I'll bet exbeliever continues to cling irrationally to his blind faith in causal relationships, and when he goes to six-story building, he always leaves by the door and not the window.
I do not believe in a god or gods because I have seen no reason to believe such an entity or entities exist. The reasons that I have seen or heard for the existence of a god have all been unsound.

I do not disbelieve because the case for a god or gods has been disproven, but rather because the case is still unproven. I invite Christians and other theists to present their reasons for believing something like a god can exist.

Do we need to prove that the God can exist, or that he does exist? If that's all there is to the burden of proof, I'll shoulder it gladly. As I indicated earlier, there is no contradiction in the idea that "God exists," therefore, it God can exist. QED.

EXB: That said, however, I think there are problems of evil [not a singular "problem of evil"] that make the Christian belief that a good god exists improbable. While I am not so bold as to claim that these problems disprove the existence of any god or gods, I do contend that they place Christians in an awkward, defensive position in which they must adopt several ad hoc, and unconventional, beliefs in order to maintain their god's goodness.

EXB: That said, I will now present a few arguments that I believe are problematic for Christians. While none of them may be unanswerable, I believe that they force the Christian to accept answers that stretch the credibility of their openness to the "falsifibility" [forgive the word invention, I can't think of a better one] of their beliefs. In other words, I believe the "answers" that Christians invent for these problems demonstrate that their faith is not subject to falsifibility, and that their faith is, therefore, not subject to reason.

Argument #1:

P1: An omniscient, omnipotent, and omni-benevolent being would not commit an evil act.
P2: Ordering an army to kill non-combatant women, children, and infants is an evil act.
P3: The Christian God ordered an army to kill non-combatant women, children, and infants.
C: Therefore, the Christian God is not omniscient, omnipotent, and omni-benevolent.

I have seen an exchange between EXB and Steve Hays of Triablogue on this. See here and EXB's reply here

Interestingly enough, John Beversluis presented these kinds of issues in letter to C. S. Lewis, and Lewis responded by saying:

Yes. On my view one must apply something of the same sort of explanationto, say, the atrocities (and treacheries) of Joshua. I see the grave danger in doing so; but the dangers of believing in a God whom we cannot but regard as evil, adn then, in mere terrified flattery call Him "good," and worshipping him, is a still greater danger. The ultimate question is whether the doctrine of the goodness of God or that of the inerrancy of Scxripture is to prevail when they conflict. I think the goodness of God is the more certain of the two. Indeed only that doctrine renders this worship of Him obligatory or even permissible...

But, ... having said all this, we must apply it with fear and trembling. Some things which seem to us bad may be good. But we must not consult our consciences trying to feel a thing good when it seems to us totally evil. WE can only pray to God if there is an invisible goodness hidden in such things, GOd, in his own good time will enable us to see it. If we need to For perhaps sometimes God's answer might be "What is that to thee?" The passage may not be "addressed to our (your or my) condition" at all.

In other words, EXB's argument presupposes that a Christian theist is committed in some absolute sense to inerrancy. Now an inerrantist may want to defend the biblical ban on the Amalekites, and we might want to see as far as possible what reasons could be given for God's actions here. But this would not be a requirement for the Christian theist per se, unless you want to argue that C. S. Lewis was not a Christian theist.


steve said...

Hi Victor.

A question for you. I assume that, unlike Elizabeth Anscombe, C. S. Lewis supported England’s counteroffensive in WWII.

If so, did he regard the carpet bombing of Germany by the RAF as licit or illicit? I ask because I wonder what moral distinction he would draw between the indiscriminate fatalities from carpet bombing, and the indiscriminate fatalities from OT holy war.

exbeliever said...

In other words, EXB's argument presupposes that a Christian theist is committed in some absolute sense to inerrancy. Now an inerrantist may want to defend the biblical ban on the Amalekites, and we might want to see as far as possible what reasons could be given for God's actions here. But this would not be a requirement for the Christian theist per se, unless you want to argue that C. S. Lewis was not a Christian theist.


You are absolutely correct. That's why I said this when I supported the premise:

"Christians who are familiar with the Bible and believe in its infallibility will understand that P3 is supported by the Bible itself."

Perhaps, I should have said "inerrancy" instead of "infallibility," because someone who believes the Bible is merely infallible could maintain that the narrative leads the believer in the right direction of faith without being exactly true. Anyway, my comment was meant to exclude non-inerrantists.

I would be interested in what you think about the arguments that Steve and Paul Manata made about this (you linked Steve's).

Paul says that the women, children, and infants (and perhaps the donkeys too) were "criminals worthy of death" (In responding to this argument, he wrote, "It is not inconsistent with God's nature to justly put to death criminals worthy of death."). He also wrote, "The Christian God ordered an army to put to death people who justly deserved death."

Paul believes that God did give this order but suggests that God is justified in doing so because these women, children, and infants were "criminals worthy of death." Do you agree with this sentiment?

Similarly, Steve justifies these actions because he believes that God is not "exacting judgment on the sins of each individual victim," but rather is engaging in an "indiscriminate" holy war.

First, this seems odd given the fact that God specifically orders his soldiers to target these non-combatants, so they are not merely "collateral damage."

Second, this seems not to provide any answer at all because it simply begs the question, "Well, is it okay to order any indiscriminant war?"

I think CS Lewis' answer is the only one that defeats the argument. Only if one denies that God really did order the deaths of infants can God be freed from this immoral act.

I wonder, though, if you agree with Paul Manata that these women, children, and infants are "criminals worthy of death," or with Steve who says that God is justified in ordering an army to engage in an "indiscriminate" holy war.

Further, do you believe that God actually did give this order to kill women, children, infants, and animals?

Don Jr. said...


First, I must say it is nice to see another (theist or non-theist) engage in a discussion of the problem of evil honestly and rationally. Personally, I lean toward your view of there being several specific problems (with an 's') of evil rather than a singular "problem of evil." I do not believe, though you may differ with me here, that there is a logical problem of evil; which is to say, I think the existence of a Christian God and the existence of evil can be, and have been, successfully shown to be compatible. Where I think the real problem comes up is not with "How could God allow that?" because I think those sorts of issues—no matter how tame or how severe—are all a matter of free will; but rather, where the real problem (at least for me) come up is with "How could God do that?" This is where the Bible comes in because it conveys certain actions of God.

Because this issue, as I see it, rests on what God does (not on what God allows) and thus on what is in the Bible (where God's actions, God's "doings," are presented) it really isn't an issue, for me, ultimately concerning God but, instead, the Bible. As I didn't come to believe in God because I believed in the Bible (rather I came to believe in the Bible because I believed in it's God) I'm not going to disbelieve in God if I have to reject the Bible (though I don't think I have to do that either).

Your "Argument #1" (the "evil act" argument) is simply a formal presentation of what every honest person thinks when coming across some of the stories in the OT. The question that arises is "How could God do that?" The idea behind your argument is very straightforward: if God committed an evil act then He is not a good God. Ordering an army to kill non-combatant women, children, and infants seems to be a very evil act. The only question then isn't (as most would assume) "Is it?" but "Was it?"—meaning, was that particular act in that particular circumstance an evil act? Shooting an elderly lady—is that an evil act? One can't answer yes (or no) for all circumstances. If the elderly lady was simply walking down the street, then yes. If she was trying to kill you and shot at you five times already, then no. Thus one can't simply answer the question concerning God's act from a blank slate, that is, without any knowledge of OT times or of the entire circumstances of the situation. Glenn Miller of Christian Thinktank has provided two analyses—two very long analyses—of these sorts of OT issues here and here.

I will now offer what I think I can say (which is not very much) on these sorts of issues. I do not want to slip into a theological discussion of the OT here, which may be easy for one to do; so I will try very hard to stay on the subject—namely, whether or not God's act was in fact an evil act. We assume the taking of the lives of those innocent non-combatants was an evil act and not a good act. (Well, first we assume that they were innocent, but I'll let that pass.) But how do we know it was. Maybe if God would have instructed that they were not to be killed they would have been tortured brutally or treated cruelly. Who's to say? Maybe it was in fact a good act, an act to save them from such pain and suffering.

Or, maybe it was not necessarily either good or evil. Of course the taking of something that is not yours is an evil act, but who's to say that in "taking a life" God is actually taking something, or at least taking something that isn't His? If a parent gives a child a room to stay but for whatever reason decides to move that child into a different room, the parent isn't taking something that isn't his or hers, and the parent isn't engaging in an act that is either good or evil (it would simply be a morally neutral act, like tying one's shoes). The room is the parent's; it was simply given, for a time, to the child. It is now simply being replaced with another room. God, I would argue, isn't in fact taking a life. Christian theism entails immortality. God gives life; He never takes life. Once that life has been given, He simply changes the room. (Note: Just as an outsider can't rob the child of his room because he didn't give it, a human cannot rob another of his life on Earth because he didn't give it.) Though I know it is not much, this is all I can personally say on the matter. Please refrain from the idea that I do not myself struggle with such passages (and others) which are in the Bible. A lot of people (Christians and non-Christians, maybe even more Christians than non-Christians) confuse "accept" with "ignore." Because I accept the Bible doesn't mean I ignore the difficulties.

Anonymous said...

Don Jr. Your defence is simply: God is God.

And why do you suppose God instructed the midianites (I think it was) to save all the virgin female children for themselves? How lucky was that? I don't suppose those horny hebrews would have thought that one up by themselves.

Anonymous said...

"If God allows evil for reasons unknown to us, then what grounds do theists have for judging him to be morally good? Making that determination requires at least some understanding of motive and intent. If we have no idea at all why God does what he does, if the reasons for his actions are incomprehensible to us, then to be consistent we would have to say that we do not know whether he is good or evil. Certainly there is no obvious reason why disasters happen as they do, so how could any theist know that the true reason, whatever it is, is for the better and not for the worse?

To proclaim God to be good and then assert that he has unknown purposes for allowing evil is an inconsistent position. Most theists do not hesitate to ascribe benevolent motives to God when they believe he has done something that benefits them, such as the miraculous healing of an illness. But when something happens that would tend to cast doubt on God's goodness, such as a destructive tsunami or an epidemic, they draw back and claim that we cannot understand God's motives. This is special pleading in its purest form. We would not hesitate to judge a fellow human being's character by both the good and the bad actions they perform, nor would we go on blithely assuming that they had a sufficient justifying reason no matter how many seemingly evil deeds they commit.

Additionally, if God has an important purpose for permitting evil, then why do we try so hard to stop it? How do theists know they are not working in opposition to God's will every time they vaccinate a child or give money to a poor man? A consistent follower of the unknown purpose defense would never try to stop suffering, since any suffering that God does allow must be needed for some greater good; otherwise he would not have allowed it. Of course, almost no one actually behaves this way when confronted with tragedy, which is fortunate. Nevertheless, by their compassionate actions, theists show that they themselves do not believe this."

Victor Reppert said...

First, in response to Steve, Lewis explicitly says that "It is much more certain that he ought not to murder prisoners or bomb civilians than he can ever be about the justice of a war. It is perhaps here that "conscientious objection" ought to begin. I feel certain that one Christain airman shot for refusing to bomb enemy civiliams woul dbe a more effective martyr...than a hundred Christians in jail for refusing to join the army. (God in the Dock,p. 327). And I believe he condemned the bombing of Dresden, but I haven't found the passage yet. And Lewis's view on the atomic bombing of Japan should be perfectly clear.

I can understand the ban on the Amalekites up to a point. I understand the importance of not being polluted by pagan religion. But I have not seen anything that reconciles the Amalekite ban with my moral intuitions. So I accept Lewis's argument that God's goodness is a more fundamental doctrine than the inerrancy of Scripture, a doctrine that I don't so much disbelieve as consider to be profoundly unclear. Either the ban was not of divine origin, or else aspects of the situation that I do not understand justify God's actions.

steve said...


Thanks for the clarification.

HiveMaker said...

I find the comparison of a man being hacked limb from limb, his dying sight being three hebrew soldiers hastily stripping off their loincloths and drawing lots to see who gets to be first to rape his daughter, to "a child being moved across the hallway" to be so repulsive as to be beneath answering.

This is an illustration of a point I made earlier. When one is put in the position of having to be an apologist for genocide, one forces air out through one's teeth, or makes a clickety-clack noise on a keyboard, so that it looks as though they are speaking plain English when they say "God is good", but in fact they mean no intelligible proposition at all.

I think that moral honesty is a necessary precondition for intellectual honesty. Mr. Reppert is to be commended for standing his ground against the morally grotesque.

Don Jr. said...


My "defense" was not "God is God." If anything it was "God is good" (and by saying "God is good" I'm not saying any action attributed to God is to be declared good by default, otherwise there would be no issue here whatsoever). But my "defense" isn't even "God is good," given that I didn't present a defense at all. I offered "what I think I can say (which is not very much) on these sorts of issues"—that is not a defense. Dr. Reppert presents much better, and much more tersely, my position on the matter:

I can understand the ban on the Amalekites up to a point. . . . But I have not seen anything that [fully] reconciles the Amalekite ban with my moral intuitions. So I accept Lewis's argument that God's goodness is a more fundamental doctrine than the inerrancy of Scripture, a doctrine that I don't so much disbelieve as consider to be profoundly unclear. Either the ban was not of divine origin, or else aspects of the situation that I do not understand justify God's actions.

Don Jr. said...


Are you saying that in order to judge one's actions one must be as knowledgeable, at least in regards to the circumstances (extenuating and otherwise) of the action, as the one who has engaged in the action? I'm willing to agree with that. But because one might not be able to judge another's particular action doesn't mean one can't judge another's character.

For example, if you have a friend who you know to be the nicest, most loving person (not just at certain times, but continually) that you've come in contact with, then, upon finding out that he or she whacked one of your neighbors across the head with a bat, I doubt you would instantly change your view of his or her character; rather, you would question the report. No doubt, given that you know not all the circumstances (extenuating and otherwise), you will not be able to judge the particular action, but you would be a rather capricious individual to regard your friend as evil (or his action as evil) without having adequate information to overrule all else you know about your friend. Maybe your friend was acting out of self-defense or defense of another; or maybe he didn't do it at all and it's just a big mix-up. Who knows? My point is that one is not being inconsistent in proclaiming a person (whether it be God or not) to be good while asserting that one doesn't have adequate information to judge certain actions of that person.

God permits evil; but God permits good as well. What you say in your last paragraph about God permitting evil could just as easily be said about God permitting good.

Don Jr. said...


I apologize for being unclear. I did not at all mean to suggest a comparison between the actions of a man dying and a child changing rooms. You're absolutely right that that would be repulsive. The child changing rooms was an analogy meant to show that God "taking a life" may not be the great, monstrous evil that most just simply assume that it is. (I must say, though, that it seems a matter of emotional rhetoric to paint the killings as "being hacked limb from limb." Even if that is the way it happened, God did not command that.)

In regards to dying, Socrates—not a Christian, obviously—says this (in Plato's Apology):

No one knows whether death does not even happen to be the greatest of all goods for the human being; but people fear it as though they knew well that it is the greatest of evils. And how is this not that reproachable ignorance of supposing that one knows what one does not know? But I, men, am perhaps distinguished from the many human beings also here in this . . . that since I do not know sufficiently about the things [in the place of the dead], so also I suppose that I do not know.

He also says this about men who do shameful things to avoid death:

They suppose that they will suffer something terrible if they die—as though they would be immortal if you did not kill them.

The points made here by Socrates are what I was trying to get across in my child-changing-room analogy. People simply make the assumption, without argument, that it would be an evil thing for God to "take a life" (though on Christian theism he never literally takes a life since traditional Christian theism holds to the immortality of the soul). I was simply questioning that assumption, HiveMaker. I wasn't meaning to equate a child changing rooms with "being hacked limb from limb." That would definitely be repulsive. You may not agree with either point, but hopefully you can see now that I wasn't making that repulsive comparison that you thought I was making. (I can easily see how one could come to think that I was making that comparison; but I assure that I was not. I should have been clearer.)

Blue Devil Knight said...

Tough to follow who is arguing for what in the original post. Under one reasonable reading, just given the editing, Victor has given an argument against Christianity.

Don Jr. said...


The editing does make the dialogue confusing. Some paragraphs that needed to be put in bold (because they came from Exbeliever) were not put in bold. In the fourth block of text there is a paragraph (with no separating space) that begins with "I do not believe in a god or gods because . . ." That is from Exbeliever and should be in bold. Also, all the text from the paragraph beginning with "That said, however, I think there are problems of evil . . ." to the end (conclusion 'C') of "Argument #1" is also from Exbeliever and should be in bold. (As an aside, the final two bold paragraphs are from C. S. Lewis.) I'm sure you probably figured it out on your own but if not maybe this helps clear some of the dialogue up.

Victor Reppert said...

I have made some editing changes to make sure you don't think I said what exbeliever said. Thanks for pointing this out.