Book Review: The Problem of Evil

Evans_PoE

Trying to reconcile the notion of a good and powerful God with the existence of evil has been a perennial problem that Christian theism has had to face from its inception. The matter has been taken up in earnest over the last several decades. One contribution is The Problem of Evil by Jeremy A. Evans, an associate professor of philosophy at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Evans is part of the thriving resurgence of Christian philosophers that have proliferated the field of philosophy for some time now.

Serious Christian responses to the problem of evil are dominated by philosophers and I find this unfortunate. That is not because I think philosophical responses are problematic, rather they are inadequate. In other words, I believe they are necessary but not sufficient.  Comprehensive theological, biblical and exegetical responses are wanting. It seems that a great deal of those who engage in systematic and biblical theology have conceded the problem to the philosophers and this is not helpful to the church at large.

Having said that, Evans’ contribution is a worthy effort, but overall, it is not entirely satisfying. First of all, because of the philosophical approach, this volume will be tough sledding for most readers. Although he does not get bogged down with standard scholarly philosophic/ logic notation and complicated syllogisms, there is enough philosophical language to keep non-specialists on their toes. The bottom line—only those who are conversant in at least moderate levels of philosophical discourse will be able to benefit from Evans’ work. However, there are many places where his argumentation is clear and pithy, making those sections more accessible and profitable for us neophytes.

Evans employs the Free Will Defense (FWD) as his basic approach to the problem. This is no surprise. Ever since the venerable dean of Christian philosophy, Alvin Plantinga, applied this approach to the problem of evil (especially in God, Freedom and Evil), virtually every Christian philosopher has followed suit. Plantinga presented a well-argued response to philosophers like J. L. Mackie and convinced many philosophers, both believing and unbelieving, that he provided an adequate ‘defense’ (not a thoroughgoing theodicy) to the problem of God and evil. Although libertarian free will has had its able defenders in secular accounts, I do not believe Christian philosophers have made a credible defense of it on Christian grounds. Perhaps more to the point, they have not made credible exegetical and theological arguments from the data of Scripture itself. In the case of Evans (and many others) he has not sought to defend the basic libertarian premises in his argumentation. Libertarian free will is assumed to be true without defense.

And this is precisely the point at which accounts like Evans falls short. Reformed/ Calvinistic theologians have provided far better exegetical and theological defenses of divine determinism over and against libertarian freedom from the data of Scripture that seems largely ignored in Christian philosophy. Furthermore, compatibilistic accounts of human freedom and responsibility accord more with the Scriptural data (see my forthcoming book, What About Free Will? Reconciling Our Choices with God’s Sovereignty – P&R Publishing, February 2016). I think Christian philosophy has become so myopic and specialized that scholars in the field are not conversant with serious theological materials that contribute to a more faithful theodicy.  Furthermore, most works of Christian philosophy simply are not conversant with Scripture. Scripture is not the starting point for their apologetic. This doesn’t mean most Christian philosophers don’t seek to defend Scriptural doctrines. Scriptural concepts are retained in general, however, they are defended by appeal to rationalism first and revelation second. This is not always the case. Evans often makes appeal to Scripture and I applaud him for doing so. But it is often done in a cursory way. In other words, theology and Biblical exegesis plays the handmaiden to philosophy instead of the other way around. This is what leads to the wholesale acceptance of concepts like libertarianism that has scant support from the actual data of Scripture even though it serves to solve the dilemmas of theodicy much more conveniently.

Part of the reason for this, I believe, is because Reformed theology has historically been regarded as the harder theology to adopt an acceptable theodicy, even among Reformed theologians themselves. If libertarianism were true, it would solve the problem with greater ease and with greater acceptability among non-believing critics of the Christian faith. I think that is why it has been a more appealing avenue for Christian philosophers and Arminians in general. The problem is the data of Scripture gives unequivocal support for meticulous divine determinism on the one hand; and on the other, its account of human and divine responsibility does not in any way cohere with libertarian accounts of freedom.

Christian philosophers love to quote Augustine, Aquinas and the scholastics along with Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Kant, et. al. but have little room for Calvin, Luther, Owen, Turretin, Bavinck and Berkouwer. Historians have long acknowledged the genius of Jonathan Edwards, but few philosophers have grappled with his magisterial Freedom of the Will where he ably defends a nascent brand of compatibilism (the idea that human freedom and responsibility is compatible with divine determinism—that is, meticulous providence). Perhaps that is because he was a theologian first and a philosopher second. Ignoring Edwards has become unfortunate.

Evans acknowledges that the real problem of evil is not the logical problem. Plantinga has solved this with the FWD and others who hold to divine determinism have shown the logical problem is not a problem at all (e.g. John Feinberg, Paul Helm, James Speigel, Thaddeus Williams). The notion of gratuitous evil is where the problem largely centers—and let’s be honest, this is where it has always centered. Why does God allow evils that have no apparent reason or purpose? Evans seeks to solve the problem first of all by putting theism in perspective. He argues that there are many other avenues of apologetic value that have sought to vindicate the existence of God. In this regard, he shows his hand as an evidentialist, the most common form of apologetics among Christian philosophers. I favor presuppositionalism.

Evans then provides 2 syllogisms:

1. If God exists, then gratuitous evils do not exist.

2. Gratuitous evils do exist (or, there is at least one gratuitous evil)

3. Therefore, God does not exist.

1’. If God exists, then gratuitous evils do not exist.

2’. It is very likely that God exists.

3’. Therefore, it is very likely there are no gratuitous evils. (28)

Evans obviously favors the second of these two arguments. Both arguments are valid, but which is more likely to be sound? The first argument hinges on whether there is sufficient evidence that gratuitous evils exist (premise 2). The second argument hinges on whether there is sufficient evidence for God’s existence (premise 2’). Whichever of these 2 premises has better support will determine which argument is more sound. Evans goes on to argue that God always has some good for evils we don’t understand. The fact that God does not reveal what those reasons are is no argument against their existence. There is of course nothing wrong with this argument. The problem is it does not have much persuasive power. When a mother holds the lifeless body of her 5 year son who caught a stray bullet from a drive-by shooting, saying God has an unknown reason for his death is not terribly helpful though perhaps true. This is where our efforts to construct a theodicy have to be far more pastoral than cold syllogisms.

One of the more fruitful arguments Evans provides is a sort of modified version of John Hick’s soul-making theodicy. He speaks of the defeat of evil. At this stage Evans’ theodicy is two-pronged. First, the FWD responds to the “why” of evil. Secondly, since evil cannot be prevented, there must exist a reasonable response to mitigate its unseemly characteristics. This is the “what now” response (59). It requires the defeat of evil—“To remove its hold on the content of our experience” (59). We must necessarily partner with God in the defeat of evil, because we can’t do it on our own. Trying to doing things on our own is what brought evil into existence in the first place (59). This defeat of evil has special value for the Christian. “The reason that conversion is the summum bonum of soul making [adopting Hick at this point] is that in the act of conversion the condition of the heart is restored” (49). I think Evans is on to some very provocative ideas here, unfortunately I do not believe he develops them enough. Furthermore, they are hampered by his endorsement of libertarianism. A more robust Biblical theology would tease these ideas out, but that moves beyond his philosophical focus.

Evans’ section on hell may be his best contribution to the problem of evil. The question revolves around the unfairness of the eternal nature of hell. Why would God punish finite sins with infinite punishment? Typically, Christians argue that those in hell never stop sinning and thus they ever incur fresh waves of never-ending judgment. Evans thinks this argument is weak. He says, “The real problem attending the denizens of hell is that they have a disposition that is bent against God” (100). “Sin deforms our character” (100) such that a person reaches a point at which he becomes perverse in his opposition to God. Evans highlights the fact that the word “transgression” speaks of a specific sin in Scripture that highlights “intentional defiance against God” (100). Evans cites Isaiah 59:12-13 for this (101). “Persistence in transgression… ultimately yields a heart hardened against God” (101). “Scripture indicates… the effects of transgression on a person is that as we persist in these choices we forge a character toward a particular destiny, the culmination of which (in the negative sense) is a completely hardened heart against God” (101). This corresponds to Pharaoh’s hardened heart (though I disagree with Evans’ libertarian interpretation of the account in Exodus) and Romans 1 in which God “gives people over” to greater indulgence in sin. Evans argues that this sort of abandonment and hardening of hearts takes place prior to the sinner’s entrance to hell. “Hell is not what hardens a person; instead, hell is a place for hardened persons” (102). He further argues that although hell is sheer horror and why would anyone want to remain there, that is not really the right question. The alternative is to embrace God and acknowledge his Lordship and repent of sin and that is decidedly more repugnant to the “denizens of hell” than the horror it holds for them (102).

Evans also has a profitable discussion of a divine command theory of ethics, which states that an action’s moral value is determined by God. This is commonly met with the Euthyphro objection: “Is something good because God loves it, or does God love something because it is good?” (136). The Euthyphro objection presupposes that attributes of God exist independently of him. Evans answers this with an exposition of the doctrine of divine simplicity which indicates that God cannot be divided into parts as if attributes are added to his person. The reality is they exist as essential to his very being. Evans contends that the notion “God is good” should be “more precisely phrased ‘God is identical with goodness’ (quoting Norman Kretzmann). To be more specific, “God is goodness made real, not just the property of goodness. He is the reality of goodness” (180). Thus the very nature of God is the ground of ethics and of human moral obligation.

Evans moves on the application of divine command theory to one of the more thorny problems in this regard: Genesis 22 and the command to Abraham to kill his son Isaac. Evans makes a remarkable statement. “Every moral command imposed by God has as its root the same concern, namely whether one holds anything in a higher priority than one’s relationship to God” (193). I love this statement. Basically, Evans argues that God’s intention with commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac was not to bring about a particular state of affairs (i.e., in this case, the death of Isaac), rather his intention is “to bring about obedience with regard to the content of what is commanded” (194). The intention of God is the same in every command he gives to human beings. “What is this intention? To obey the known commands of God and have no other perceived good to be held in higher esteem than him” (195). Evans quotes Hebrews 11:17-19 to vindicate his argument  that God never intended the death of Isaac; although Genesis 22:12 confirms this analysis when God tells Abraham that he knows that he “fear[s] God” above the son he loves.

All this discussion sets up Evans’ attempt to exonerate God from culpability for evil. Although Evans endorses libertarian freedom for humans, he denies it to God since God maintains perfection in his attributes and therefore cannot act contrary to his nature. He appears to affirm a higher theology of providence that Arminianism, but one that falls short of the divine determinism embraced by Calvinists. Here is where interaction with compatibilism would have been fruitful for Evans, but alas, no mention of it. He sounds awfully close to speaking like a compatibilist but staunchly maintains his libertarianism. He quotes Hugh McCann to show that God’s providence is like that of an author to a novel. God creates and determines the circumstances in which human choices play out, yet somehow those choices remain independent of any causal connection to God. This seems rather odd in light of an analogy used more often by Calvinists than Arminians (I am thinking specifically of Wayne Grudem and John Frame). Unfortunately Evans does not tease out some of the implications of his model of providence which would have been helpful.

All-in-all Evans’ book has some useful material for evaluating the problem of evil. He develops some fruitful avenues of thought in seeking to solve at least some of its problems. I believe the work is marred in two ways. First, it embraces libertarianism as a given. If libertarianism is shown to be insufficient as an explanation, then the basic Free Will Defense Evans (and most Christian philosophers) employs fails significantly.  Secondly, he does not employ the solid work of standard Christian Systematic and Biblical theologies. In particular, I believe Reformed theology provides the most faithful and rigorous exposition of Christian doctrine. The work of John Frame, John Feinberg, D. A. Carson, and Paul Helm provides some important perspectives that remain untapped among Christian philosophers with regard to the problem of evil. Feinberg and Helm, in particular, are quite conversant with philosophical accounts of the problem of evil; and Feinberg’s massive tome, The Many Faces of Evil, is rarely consulted in other works of theodicy. This is unfortunate. By all means, read Evans, but read widely from these others as well.

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One thought on “Book Review: The Problem of Evil

  1. This is a great review. I have often wondered why the Free Will Theodicy is so prevalent among Christian philosophers. I agree that it is an “easier” defense but I just don’t see it in scripture. It is not in Job or Habakkuk, and Jesus doesn’t mention free will with regard to the eighteen who died in the Siloam tower incident. In fact the only place the the actual term “free will” is mention in the bible to my knowledge is with regard to the free-will offering in Exodus and Leviticus. And here it simply means optional, or voluntary as opposed to mandatory.

    I find it interesting that Plantinga never defines free will in “God, Freedom and Evil”–if memory serves me correctly.

    I also find it ironic when FWD proponents bring up Euthyphro. The defense is that God’s very nature is “good” therefore it is a false dilemma. But this argument doesn’t work if God is capable of choosing against His own nature. But libertarian free will demands that one has the ability to choose the opposite alternative. For man to be free God must give the neutral ability to accept or reject–in other words to sin or not to sin. And as God can not sin than God does not have free will!

    I’m reading your book “What About Free Will” right now and am finding it very helpful. I’ll start reading “The Many Faces of Evil” next. Thanks again for the book recommendation and this review.

    – Mike Ranieri,
    Toronto , Canada

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