Wednesday, January 17, 2007

the problem of evil

The name of this blog is Theodicy (thee-ODD-i-see). The term theodicy was coined by the philosopher/diplomat Leibniz, and is one of his most famous works, other than the invention of calculus and binary numbers (minor trifles by comparison).

Theodicy is simply the philosophical/theological desire to absolve God of any wrong doing. What type of wrong doing is God guilty of? All the evil that happens all over the world on a daily basis. After all, if he's a supreme being, he should easily be able to put a stop to it, shouldn't he?

Another way of phrasing the problem of theodicy is the age old question "Why do bad things happen to good people?" Or the famous question of college dorms "why does an allegedly good God allow evil on earth?" Of course these questions assume that we know what we are talking about when we use the terms "God" "good" and "evil." But it's always a good idea to define terms, so allow me to offer my own very simplistic, broad definitions:

GOD = The supreme being who created everything we can see and know. Specifically, the supreme being cited throughout the Bible of Christians and Jews.

GOOD = That which causes a person happiness, or at least alleviates their suffering.

EVIL = That which causes a person pain, or increases their suffering.

Now, just to be clear, when I talk about increasing or decreasing suffering, I'm talking in net terms--ultimate good or ultimate evil. It can be very painful to go to a dentist or surgeon to have things removed from your body, especially if cutting or drilling is required. However, the process is ultimately good if it results in the net alleviation of pain, suffering or death.

Likewise, something can be ultimately evil even if that which leads up to it is rather pleasurable. For instance, having sex with someone is often the ultimate in pleasure and happiness, but if that union should result in a person be contaminated with the AIDS virus, we can honestly say that ultimately a great evil has been done, given that the sexual partner knew that they were HIV positive.

So why is there evil? Well, the surprising truth is you cannot ask that question without also asking another: why is there good? And even a THIRD question: How do we know the difference between good and evil? In other words, you can't have one without the other. Why not? Well, how could you know one, without knowing the other? Of course there are beings on this earth who really don't know the difference: the entire animal and plant worlds for instance. No, not even the hallowed dolphin nor the noble gorilla can put forth opinions or observations on what is good or evil--that is the sole domain of men.

There are those who argue that good and evil are two sides of the same coin, and therefore there's just one coin. In other words, good and evil do not really exist, they are just convenient figments of our imagination.. Of course the intellectuals who makes these sort of pronouncements are almost always fully tenured members of esteemed institutions of higher education who are paid by the word to make silly proclamations in order to prove their intellectual superiority. Because of that, we can--of course--dismiss these sort of pronouncements out of hand.

Both you and I know exactly what good and evil are, and we know that they do--in fact--exist. How do we know? Because when something truly evil happens to us, we are sad, downcast, angry and/or depressed. When something truly good happens to us, we are happy, joyful, at ease and sometimes even grateful. And because most of us reading this blog are in the set of humans beings, we know what these concepts mean when they are used in a sentence.

Now, I do not consider the various extremes of nature as being good nor my system, they are simply acts of nature. While you may certainly consider it evil if a shark bites your leg off while swimming in the warm waters of Florida, in my system all that's happened is a hungry shark eating. He can't help being a hungry shark any more than you can help being a tasty snack. But you can choose to be, or not to be, in the ocean. Our friend the hungry shark simply does not have that option. He can no more walk out of the ocean on his tail fin and order a #2 at McDonald's than you can go swimming in the Atlantic, deep diving for tasty giant squid that live 5,000 feet below the ocean's surface. Yet we humans can take a submersible down to 5,000 feet, and live down there for quite some time; which illustrates another difference between us and the exciting but stupid world of animals: we make some really cool stuff. When gorillas begin to start designing jet airliners on advanced CAD/CAM systems, then you can start boasting to me about how human-like they are.

Same for weather: hot or cold, earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes and snow storms are just that: weather. They do not act with evil intent, nor are they particularly good nor evil, they just are. No more than a rock laying on the ground can be said to be good or evil.

The sets of all that is good vs. evil requires an agent who can determine what is good or evil, and act on either...whether willingly or under coercion. In other words, good and evil are really just adjectives that describe the actions and attitudes of our fellow human beings, or of ourselves. Good actions and attitudes cause us to feel happy, and evil actions and attitudes cause us to feel pain, anger, and sadness.

While I do not deny that things which occur in the natural world cause us to be happy or sad, I do not believe things in the natural world are working from a a motive of good or evil. It might be a good, beautiful thing to watch a morning sunrise, and it might be a bad, awful thing to be attacked by a swarm of killer bees, but the sun and the bees are only doing what they do because of what they are. The sun cannot choose to rise or set, the bees cannot choose to swarm and sting, they do it because that is their nature.

But humans--and humans alone--act by choice, even if the choice is made only unconsciously or by default.

So, to sum up, we can assign acts of nature to the good or evil category if we want to, in terms of how it makes us feel, but my point is that the good and evil judgments we make are actually the product of the hearts, minds and will of men, not nature. We have choices to make, the natural world does not.

In general, we assign murder, rape, violence, pillaging, and taxes to the category of "evil" Notice how all these things can be verbs and adjectives--actions and descriptions--not things. And yes, you certainly can--and are--being taxed.

Likewise, charity, love, generosity, gentleness, and giving are normally assigned to the category of "good" Again notice that these are verbs and adjectives, actions and descriptions, not things.

The point of all this? Things in themselves are neither good nor evil, it is the intent and will and actions of men that are truly either good or evil.

(Note to feminists reading this blog: I'm intentionally using the third person pronon "men" in the sense of it being inclusive of all human beings, because it's a much more poetic term than "human beings". And besides, I don't subscribe to feminist ideology anyway...)

Men can certainly choose to act in an evil or good manner; there is really little to stop you either way. Not so the rock, the shark, or the sun.

If I may, I think a better and more accurate question we need to ask is the following: "Why do men do evil things, and why doesn't God stop them?" But then again, there is a converse question also implied: "Why do men do good things, and why doesn't Satan stop them?" One cannot discuss evil, without it's converse: good. Why is it that no one wonders why there is good on earth? Why does evil take such an unfair share of our attention?

Theologians say that God is ultimate good, therefore he should not allow people to do evil things. And if He were really, really good, it would always be sunny and 72 degrees outside, with only the most gentle of breezes...and the sun would rise promptly at 6 am, and go down promptly at 9 pm. Shoot, if we want him to be good, we might as well get specific.

Well, for reasons that are rather simple to understand, God has deemed man, above and beyond all the animals, to have the knowledge of good and evil, along with the ability to act in either fashion. This is His gift to us, and it is a GOOD gift. It is that which separates us from the brute beasts and plant life.

NEXT TIME: How we got the gift of the knowledge of good and evil (Hint: we stoled it.)

<>< TM


trevor said...

Good work. Thee ODD I See, is an excellent topic to undertake. We need to face it, and find God's resolution in the depths of the cross, and all that this means to the human race. As to our use of terms, yes, we need to be clearer. It has been well quipped: 'There is no such thing as good and evil, there is only God and Satan' (G.C. Bingham). Think it through, and I reckon you will agree.
Cheers, Trevor

(A great book to help is P.T. Forsyth 'The Justification of God' written in 1917, and republished by New Creation Teaching Ministries)

glazier said...

If evil is derived from the actions of man then what can we decuce from, for example, plague. Plague is evil. Man didn't create it, so that means God must have. If a pestilence is sent to give us the opportunity to prove ourselves in the eyes of God, then what about the innocent that die from it? The only conclusion can be that God is partly evil.

Anonymous said...

I don't see the issue of future omniscience (redundant, I admit)discussed much in connection with theodicy. If God can see all the future then he could see the outcomes of his creatures
s' free will choices. In that case, why not redfrain from giving life, souls, whatever to those he knows will abuse them. That doesn't violate the free will of those He lets come into existence--God just knows in advance that they will use that freedom to choose good. Any comments?

theodicy said...

"...why not redfrain from giving life, souls, whatever to those he knows will abuse them. That doesn't violate the free will of those He lets come into existence--God just knows in advance that they will use that freedom to choose good...."

Evil is a product of human free will, where poor choices are made, however, an evil person can have a conversion experience and repent for his bad behavior, and a good person can go off on a self-righteous tangent and become responsible for a lot of evil...there are none who are either "good" or "evil" in a binary sense, from the womb to the tomb. Even the most evil of people are capable of doing some remarkably good things, and some very good people are capable of great evil.

But more importantly, evil has a very special and important role to play in this life, and to eliminate it's presence would be, as strange as it may sound, a violation of free will, for if you are unable to choose evil or good, you do not have free choice.