Time, Empire, and the Logical Problem of Evil

The presence of evil—specifically human cruelty and suffering—in the world poses one of the greatest challenges to belief in God. People who do not believe in God wonder how a perfectly good and powerful being could allow even any of the pain that animals and humans experience, much less the abundance that we find around us. If God is completely good, he must have planned a completely good world, but if he is all-powerful, how could he have let this world get so messed up? This is not merely a philosophical issue. We all wonder if God cares when we experience pain or come face to face with evil that seems stronger than good. When such times come, some of us take comfort in our faith, believing that God loves us, that he wants us to be free of cruelty and suffering, and that he is working to restore this world back into the paradise he intended it to be. Others of us, however, find this faith more difficult. We insist on asking the difficult questions of life, and we feel compelled to poke holes in the easy answers sometimes offered. If you are like me, thinking philosophically about God and evil is both wonderful and painful. There is something beautiful and pleasurable about an inquisitive mind that keeps asking Why? At the same time, the contradictions of life can create a sense of division within our own minds, a break between what we would like to believe and the way things actually are. Personally, evil and suffering have challenged my faith more than anything else, and I don’t feel like it’s enough just to appeal to the mysteriousness of God. One man who has also felt this way about evil is the great philosopher J. L. Mackie. His article “Evil and Omnipotence” is a brilliant presentation of the logical case from evil against the existence of God. Even though it was written many years ago in 1955, it is still one of the most important essays written on the subject, and Christians and atheistic philosophers today are still writing about it. Even better, Mackie writes in a clear and enjoyable way that non-philosophers can understand. His ideas are being popularized by writers today, for example the New York Times best-selling author Sam Harris. For Mackie, Harris, and many others, saying that the world contains both a good, all-powerful God and evil is like trying to describe a square circle. False Solutions Mackie lays out his argument against the existence of God in the following four premises: First, “Good is opposed to evil in such a way that a good thing always eliminates evil as far as it can.” Second, “There are no limits to what an omnipotent thing can do.” Third, “A good omnipotent thing eliminates evil completely.” And finally, “That a good omnipotent thing exists and that evil exists are incompatible.” Simply put, the idea of omnipotent goodness and evil existing together in the world is an absurd idea.

Of course, Mackie readily admits that we can escape this logical problem if we deny that God is good or all-powerful or if we deny that evil really exists. Plenty of believers in God have done this, even Christians, but their arguments have not been very attractive or persuasive. Some have argued that God’s goodness is entirely different than our concept of goodness and that it is not necessarily opposed to evil. While it may be true that our finite minds cannot fathom just how good God actually is, this argument seems to say that our word good, however we define it, cannot apply to God. No Christian I know wants to say that. Others have argued that God is not all-powerful, that by choice or by his nature he cannot stop evil from happening any more than he does. But this leaves some wondering if such a God could inspire our worship or if he could inspire hope that evil might some day be eliminated. Finally, the easiest way out of the problem of evil is simply to deny that evil as we experience it is real. Some have claimed that evil is just the absence of good, or an illusion, or actually good in disguise. It seems safe to say that evil is not a thing like water is a thing, because God would never have created a thing called evil. Still, evil does exists as a characteristic of things that are not as they should be; it is a quality that feeds off the goodness of things and distorts them. To deny that evil exists is to claim that things are the way they should be and that the tremendous amounts of suffering and cruelty in the world are not really evil. Next, Mackie addresses four arguments that seek to solve the logical problem of evil without denying God’s goodness or his power or the existence of evil in the world. I feel like he has successfully demonstrated that each of these arguments is logically inconsistent. All four actually take small bits of information from the Christian Scriptures and run with them too far, ultimately communicating something untrue and illogical. Interspersed throughout the rest of this essay, I would like to share some of what the Bible teaches on this subject, not because I expect you to accept the Bible’s authority, but because it presents a much more honest and realistic approach to evil than many Christian philosophies do. First, Mackie addresses the claim that “good cannot exist without evil.” Some people claim that God could not be good, or at least we could not know him as good, unless there was evil in the world to compare him with. Mackie’s objection to this solution is right on the money: it “denies that evil is opposed to good.” In fact, it makes good a parasite of evil, rather than evil a parasite of the good. In the Bible, people frequently praise God by comparing his goodness to the cruelty of their oppressors. But we also find a description in the Old Testament of perfect angels who constantly sing in awe of God, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.” The God of the Bible does not need evil to compare with his goodness. It’s enough for him to create good beings who are not infinitely good. In fact, this is exactly what God did. In the Bible’s creation story, God responds to everything he creates by calling it good. But when he creates the first people, he calls them very good. He then commissions them to garden the earth, making it even better. Good can exist without evil; according to the story the Bible tells, one day it did, and someday it will again.

Second, Mackie rejects the proposal that “evil is necessary as a means to good.” Some have thought that the Bible teaches this, but it doesn’t. The Bible teaches that God allowed the world to fall from its state of perfection. It also teaches that he is working to restore the world in a way that enables human beings to experience and enjoy his justice and mercy and love, which reaches even to his enemies. But the Bible never makes the philosophical connection between these two truths that some people have made, that God needed the world to fall so that he could achieve something better by restoring it. Mackie is right that such a solution “obviously implies a severe restriction of God’s power.” While the Bible says that God permits evil, it does not ultimately give us a reason why he does. In fact, the Bible describes evil as something that opposes God’s good purposes for the world. If it were true that the world’s fall from perfection was necessary to achieve God’s good goal for the world, then that fall would not be truly evil, and the world’s restoration would not be a triumph over evil. We would not be talking about a struggle between good and evil, but simply a development from something unfinished to something finished. Evil, however, is much worse than just the need for development. The Bible claims that God intended the world to develop from something good to something better. Evil entered the picture later, infecting that development and putting the world in need of restoration. Thus, the solution to the problem of evil that claims, “evil is necessary as a means to good,” fails because it limits God’s power and denies the reality of evil. God is overcoming evil; he does not need it. Mackie’s third rebuttal is the most logically complex, but it really is a work of conceptual beauty. Some people claim that “the universe is better with some evil in it than it could be if there were no evil.” This concept proposes that certain virtues like compassion could not exist without evils like suffering. Evil here is less a means to good (false solution 2) as it is an obstacle for good to overcome and become better in the process. Mackie calls evils like suffering “evil (1)” and goods like compassion “good (2),” which seeks to eliminate suffering. He then makes this damning comment: “It follows from this solution that God is not in our sense benevolent or sympathetic: he is not concerned to minimize evil (1), but only to promote good (2), and this might be a disturbing conclusion for some theists.” God would then be most concerned about producing virtues that he does not possess himself, such as compassion. Ultimately, this solution fails because it denies God’s goodness, or at least it denies that God’s goodness is opposed to all forms of evil. It gets worse for false solution 3. Not only are there virtues like compassion that seek to eliminate suffering, but there are also vices like cruelty that seek to increase suffering. Mackie calls these evils “evil (2).” If God is not opposed to even the simplest level of evil, human pain, then he cannot be good by any normal meaning of the word, no matter how effective he might be at coaching virtues out of people. Granted, the Bible does teach that God sometimes allows people to experience suffering so that

through it he might create in them virtues like compassion. Still, the Bible also teaches that God is opposed to suffering in the first place. Given a world that is already full of suffering, Christians can respond to the question, “Why has God allowed this hardship to come into my life?” by answering, “Maybe he wants me to learn to show compassion to others who also suffer.” But as helpful as this answer can be on a personal scale, it does not work as an all-encompassing explanation for evil in general. God is truly benevolent and sympathetic; he is deeply opposed to both pain and human cruelty. Finally, Mackie takes on the most popular solution to the problem of evil, “Evil is due to human free will.” Biblically, this statement is actually true, but it does not solve the problem of evil the way some philosophers of religion expect it to. It is helpful to know that evil comes from misdirected human wills and not from the will of God. But if God is omnipotent, Mackie asks, “Why could he not have made men such that they always freely choose the good? If there is no logical impossibility in a man’s freely choosing the good on one, or on several occasions, there cannot be a logical impossibility in his freely choosing the good on every occasion.” The Bible actually envisions a future in which resurrected human persons live forever on this restored earth “freely choosing the good on every occasion,” as Mackie would put it. And if we accept that angels exist in the way the Bible describes, then we have another example of morally perfect free creatures. It is true that God chose to create free human beings rather than robots. Further, it is also true that he chose to allow people to exercise their free will in disastrous ways: this is where evil comes from. But it does not necessarily follow that he had to do things this way. Some people have claimed that wrong actions are necessary if human beings are going to learn to exercise their wills rightly, but this argument falls victim to the same problem as the solution, “evil is necessary as a means to good.” God becomes less than omnipotent, and evil becomes less than evil. It’s actually possible for human wills to develop without evil behavior. The Bible claims that the only morally perfect human being, Jesus of Nazareth, “grew in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man,” and that he “learned obedience.” Development is always possible without evil, even moral development. The Bible’s Solution So if God could have created a good world (which he did) and if he could have guided its development into a better world (which is the commission he gave its first people), then why did he choose to allow human beings to use their freedom to make such a horrible mess? I wish I knew. Evil is absurd. It is out of place in this world. I hate it; you hate it, I am sure; and God hates it. God and evil are a contradiction if there ever was one. The existence of evil is radically opposed to the existence of God,

and vice-versa. But this does not mean that Christians have no answer to the logical problem of evil. It does not mean that the world Christians describe is the logical equivalent of a square circle. The Bible does not tell us why God and evil both exist, but it does tell us how it is possible for them to both exist in the same universe. Mackie’s presentation of the problem of evil seems air-tight, but it leaves out one crucial element: time. Time is precisely the answer the Bible gives to how God and evil can both exist. Remember Mackie’s first and third premises: “Good is opposed to evil in such a way that a good thing always eliminates evil as far as it can,” and “A good omnipotent thing eliminates evil completely.” True enough, but the Bible is essentially the story of how that good omnipotent thing is presently eliminating evil completely through a process that takes time. Most stories throughout human literature have a similar basic structure: a good beginning complicated by a terrible problem, then some kind of difficult process through which that problem is overcome, followed some kind of resolution or happy ending. We dislike stories with artificial or trite happy endings, so much that stories with little resolution or even a bad ending are considered more realistic or artistic. Still, happy endings are more popular, and it might be comforting to know that this preference in human beings reflects something true about our destiny. We all have a deep longing for resolution that comes out in the stories we tell, and God is in the business of fulfilling that need. Evil will not always exist, and only a good, all-powerful being can guarantee that it will be completely eradiated— and that once it is eradicated, it won’t come back. We might object that time does not solve the problem of evil because it undermines God’s goodness: how could a good God take so long to eradicate evil when he could easily do it right away? The Bible’s authors were not always happy with this process. One of its poets famously exclaimed out of his suffering, “How long, O Lord? How long?” Before we answer that God’s goodness is simply different from ours, we should consider something that Jesus said. He once told a story in which he contrasted God with an unjust judge who took too long to bring justice for an oppressed widow. He said, “And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly.” God’s goodness leads him to care just as much about speedy justice as Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, who famously said, “Justice delayed is justice denied.” The problem isn’t that we misunderstand God’s goodness; the problem is that we don’t see time the way he does, and we don’t think about eliminating evil the way he does either. Consider these words from the New Testament: “They will say, "Where is this 'coming' he promised? … But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not

wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” God is waiting to destroy evil completely because he does not like destroying evil people. The Bible teaches that God is all-powerful and that he has not relinquished this power even by creating free creatures. He governs all events and actively chooses to permit every evil thing that happens. God is still all-powerful in the sense that there is nothing he cannot do and there is nothing that happens outside of his permission. Nevertheless, this does not mean that God is presently exercising his power to the full extent of his desire. As mysterious as it seems, there is a big difference between what God chooses to permit and what he wants to happen. Jesus began his mission announcing “The reign of God is near,” but he ended it lamenting the fact that people used their freedom to reject him and God’s reign. There is a sense in which God has always been in control of what happens, but there is another sense in which this world has been operating outside of and against God’s will. This world is not in one piece; it needs Jesus to bring God’s reign into it. Somewhere else the New Testament says, “God was in Christ [Jesus] reconciling the world to himself.” Two of the most difficult Christian teachings for secularly minded people to accept are the effects the Bible claims for Jesus’ death and the reality of his resurrection from the dead. I understand this difficulty. Still, it is central to the Bible’s message about evil that God did something through Jesus— through his life, teachings, voluntary weakness, rejection, crucifixion, and resurrection from the dead— which has broken the hold that evil has on this world and begun to put it back together again. Someday, God will finish this process and will overcome cruelty and suffering. In fact, God will overcome evil so much that when we look back, we will actually see that God turned even the most painful events for our good. The process the Bible describes for God defeating and eliminating evil from his world conflicts with the process Western and American imperialism imagines for the same goal. Because we tend to think that a good powerful thing must destroy evil as quickly and as completely as it can, we tend to justify the violent expansion of government authority beyond established limits and territories into areas where evil is happening. We tend to think that a tolerant, non-interventionist response to evil that happens beyond a government’s sphere of authority cannot be good. We tend to put our faith in violence as the most efficient means of bringing order into the realm of chaos. All of these political feelings are rooted in how we think about the problem of evil. The omnipotence of God can easily become a projection of our minds of our own desired omnipotence, and the goodness of God can easily become a foil for the benevolence of our own ambitious empire. Granted, no just government tolerates injustice happening within its sphere of responsibility. And the world certainly needs a quick, non-violent, international process for establishing new legitimate governments to deal forcefully with situations in which a state turns against its own people with genocidal violence. But we simply cannot conclude that a good state

will always expand its authority, with violence if necessary, whenever evil happens outside its walls. As painful as it may be for us to admit, if God is both good and all-powerful, then he is tolerating evil while he waits around for more people to choose the good by their own free wills. He didn’t have to decide to do things this way, but he did. All questions have not been answered. You may still really want to know why God allowed evil if he didn’t need it; I’m right there with you. I hope that by presenting the Biblical story about God and evil, I have shown that Christians are not speaking nonsensically when we talk about God’s goodness and power in the midst of real, undeniable evil and suffering. We mean it when we say that God cares deeply about human suffering. On a personal and emotional level, the doubt that you and I feel about God when we experience evil is a perfectly appropriate way to feel in a broken world. Evil is a challenge to God’s goodness and his presence, a challenge even to God’s existence, and feeling that challenge is normal. Christian faith doesn’t sugar-coat reality by denying evil and suffering; instead, faith looks back to Jesus’ resurrection as the establishment of God’s restoration in the world, and it waits eagerly for a future we hope is coming soon.

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