Thursday, January 27, 2022

Contemplating Evil

The most popular course in the Religion and Culture department of one Canadian university is a course titled “Evil and Its Symbols”. It’s the one course where there never seems to be enough room to fit all the applicants. One student quipped that the homework assignment was probably “Go home and do evil.”

Maybe not. But people sure are fascinated with the topic. Why evil exists is a challenge for any Christian to explain; perhaps the biggest. Still, two things bear remembering right away: firstly, that to say that it’s a challenge does not mean that the challenge cannot be met, and secondly, that to explain the existence of evil is not a challenge unique to Christians or even to theists more generally — it’s equally necessary for atheists. Not only that, but it’s a lot harder for them.

Let me justify those statements a bit further in a moment; but first, let me set the stage for today’s post.

Types of Evil

In her book Evil in Modern Thought, philosopher Susan Neiman has pointed out that there are two different types of things that people generally refer to when they speak of there being “evil” in the world. They are:

  1. moral evils — which are things done by humans, such as theft, rape and murder.
  2. natural evils — things such as earthquakes, tsunamis, cancer, malaria mosquitos and house fires, behind which there is no human agency, just forces of nature and things like that.

Now, Neiman’s forgotten one. The third possible category might be spiritual evils — Satan, demons, and so forth. But skeptics are usually not inclined to believe in such things at all; consequently, they don’t tend even to raise this possibility. So let’s stick with responding to what the critics do say, not what they don’t say.

The Evils That Men Do

That leaves us with just the big two. The first one, moral evil, is generally not difficult for the average theist to explain. If human beings have free will, then that rationally entails that they have the choice to do what God would wish (i.e. good) or something contrary to that (i.e. evil). Philosopher Peter Kreeft gives his take on the subject in this short and entertaining treatment:

Kreeft also throws in a very good analysis of why atheism as a philosophy has no moral categories, and thus can’t even coherently use words like “good” and “evil”. It’s worth a few minutes of your time, for sure.

In Kreeft’s account, some details remain to be worked out, as you can see; but the general direction of his answer certainly provides a reasoned response to the skeptics: free will. Human evil is the fault of the humans who do it, or those who by their indifference give license to others to do it.

Only Calvinist-leaning theists are left with no answers for moral evil. But this is their own fault; for their determinism, which will not allow them to put any stock in the idea of human free will, keeps the problem artificially alive for them. However, most Christians are not burdened with Calvinist foibles, so that as long as there is something called “free will” in human beings (an assumption even the most ardent Calvinists cannot avoid living out in practice), moral evils are rationally explicable with reference to human choice.

Natural Evils

That’s all well and good for the question of moral evils. But the explanations generally supplied for the existence of natural evils tend not to be quite as satisfying. If a mugger assaults a helpless old lady and takes her purse, we can blame the mugger, but how do we account for helpless people being swept away by a tidal wave? Tidal waves have no free will, and however terrible they are, they are not morally criticized for what they do. They are an impersonal kind of evil, and yet one capable of causing even more suffering sometimes than human evils.

So let’s pose the question bluntly: if God exists, what possible reason could he have for allowing us to live in a world in which horrible things like landslides, sickle-cell anaemia and forest fires happen? What’s the reason for natural evils?

Proposed Solution

Interestingly, the answer may also go back to the idea of human free will — but in a rather surprising way.

Let us accept that, analytically, the idea of free will requires any being possessing it to be able to make some sort of choice. If that being has no choice at all, is there any meaningful sense in which we can call it “free” or attribute genuine “will” to it? Surely not. Okay so far.

Now let me ask you this: if human beings are fallen and have free will to choose good and evil, where can they live? What environment is suitable to such persons and their free will?

Explanation for Natural Evils

At present, we have a situation in which human beings have free will to do good or evil and they live in a world in which natural forces also sometimes do good things and sometimes produce bad ones — a place similar to the nature of the beings inhabiting it.

Now try to imagine the alternative.

Go ahead … find any alternative that works.

You can’t.

For example, imagine a world in which human beings have knowledge of “evil”, but the environment itself remains perfect and sinless, protected from evil by God. The garden of Eden would be like that, assuming we mean it would remain unfallen, but be inhabited by fallen humanity. Would that arrangement allow human freedom?

No, it wouldn’t. In fact, the combination of fallen humans and an infallible environment would create quite an awful overall situation. People could desire or even long for evil, for sure; but they could not do any. How would that be genuine free will?

Actualizing Evil

I think most people will realize it would not. Essentially, the world would would be full of people who have a potential for freedom they are not ever allowed to actualize. We have a name for that: we call it “prison”.

You see, to choose means not just to want something but also to have the possibility of acting on that desire, of bringing it about in the world. Anything short of that is surely not genuine free choice. So they have to have the alternative of enacting their internal desires upon the external world. The environment itself has to be open to flaws and evils, or beings living in it do not have genuine freedom to choose good and evil.

But surely this also means that the natural world itself cannot any longer remain perfect, but must be infected with the same possibilities that human beings now have. I suggest that that is why God cursed the ground; not because he was having a hissy fit, but because he knew that human beings needed an environment suitable to their new condition, a place habitable for them, and one in which their free choices could be actualized.

Explanation for Mortality

We have seen that perfect environment, one not open to the actualizing of evil, would not be possible as a habitation by free beings. This scenario presents fallen humanity living in an environment that is preserved against any potential of them actually choosing contrary to the will of God and acting upon it. An environment that is open to natural evils is the only workable alternative.

But this surely raises a second problem: if God, in his mercy to fallen humanity, puts off the judgment so richly due to them for moral evil, for how long can he legitimately do this before his goodness comes into serious question?

The answer clearly has to be something short of “forever”. God can suspend judgment, but he cannot forgo it permanently and still be just. And he cannot allow moral evil to reign unchecked, as it is utterly destructive to life and to the planet. So mortality has to be built into this new environment — evil must be kept within limits. The worst of all possible worlds is one in which human beings have evil inclinations and potentials but have unrestricted opportunity in which to enact them.

An Act of Mercy

Interestingly, this makes the eviction from Eden an act of mercy upon all creation. Here is how the Bible itself explains the motivation:

“Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever” — therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden.”

Hey, don’t miss the “therefore”. It’s there for something.

The very reason that God prevents man from eating from the tree of life is that man had come to have a fallen nature and potential for enacting evil. For him to be allowed to live forever in that condition would be no alternative that a righteous or merciful God would ever allow. Cementing into place a termination point was an act of mercy — make no mistake about it.

Explanation for Injustice

Okay, Eden’s no good anymore, and mortality is a necessary limit to evil. Well, what about this: what if God allowed human beings knowledge of good and evil, but made sure that good choices were always attended by good outcomes, and evil ones were inevitably attended by bad outcomes? Does that not seem a more fair world than one that is open to natural evils? For natural evils do not just claim evil people but good ones too, sometimes. Tidal waves aren’t particular about whom they drown. Wouldn’t it be fair, though, if God only allowed them to drown bad people? Or wouldn’t it be fair if God mandated that only bad people could get cancer, and that only good people got long life and happiness?

At first glance that might seem right. But think again: in such a scenario, the incentives for choosing the good would be uniformly strong, and the incentives against choosing evil would be every bit as strong. Yes, free will of a sort might be granted; but it would only be granted in theory. In practice, the punishments for choosing any alternative to the good would be so certain and so severe that no person would ever dare to make a contrary choice. We have a name for that situation: we call it “operant conditioning”.

Operant Conditioning

“Operant conditioning” is a term coined by psychologist B.F. Skinner to describe how a strict system of rewards and punishments can be used to teach lab rats to behave in some ways and avoid behaving in others, regardless of their real wishes or inclinations. Skinner didn’t care about “free will” for his rats; that wasn’t the point. The point was to render his subjects obedient and predictable. Likewise, a world that operated this way would be nothing more than a giant “Skinner box”, with God as the experimenter and people as the helpless lab rats.

You can see that if the world is to be a place where human beings are allowed to have genuine free will, it cannot have a strict, predictable and proportionate system of rewards and punishments in place. The connection between positive outcomes and good actions, and between negative outcomes and bad actions must not be automatic; or else the (inherently just) environment would merely make the good the only kind of action that had any rewards, and again the possibility of choosing the not-good would not any longer be a live option.

If this is correct, then human freedom can only be enacted in a natural environment that (at least for a time) is not premised on an automatic feedback loop between good people or good actions and desirable outcomes or justice of result. In other words, injustices must be allowed to take place.

Of course, this situation cannot go on forever without calling into question the goodness of God itself. Judgment must come; but until it does, the effects of human evils must be allowed their scope within the human living environment, the natural world.

The Payoff

If all this whole analysis of the situation is correct, or if it’s even close to correct, then it is no longer possible for the skeptic to say that there is no reasonable explanation for natural evils like tsunamis, floods and cancer. They could well be explicable on the basis that any possible world in which human beings are given genuine free will would have to include them.

Now admittedly this is a short post to deal with such a huge subject. But all I’m hoping to do for you at the moment is show this: that far from being gobsmacked by the skeptic’s challenge about the existence of evil, the Christian stands possessed of good resources for thinking about and addressing the question — not just in regard to moral evils, but even the more challenging matter of why natural evils exist.

Atheists … not so much. The longer you talk to them, the more you realize that what the Kreeft video says is true: For atheism, even the category “evil” is undefinable.

The question “Why does evil exist?” should be a conversation opener, not a closer.


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