Thursday, April 13, 2023

Dear Dinesh: On Evil and Suffering

[Dinesh D’Souza is a writer, scholar, filmmaker and Christian apologist.]

Dear Dinesh:

Thank you very, very much for your 2007 book, What’s So Great About Christianity? I regret having not gotten around to reading it earlier. What a fine piece of writing!

It seems to me it fills a very necessary gap in our growing corpus of apologetics literature: rather than merely defeating atheist reasoning (yet again), it rightly points to the need for a more positive take on Christian achievements. It is an apology without an “apologetic” tone, if you take my meaning; a confident treatise on the goods of faith, rather than a defensive reaction to the current round of atheist hate literature. More of this is what we need.

In the spirit of supporting that, I wonder if I could offer a thought that might further strengthen the case you are so courageously putting forward?

Towards An Even Better Position

It seems to me that your position — at least on one point — is potentially stronger than stated in the book. You may recall that in your chapter on the problem of evil, you write:

“Atheism may have a better explanation for evil and suffering, but it provides no consolation for them. Theism, which doesn’t have a good explanation nevertheless offers a better way for people to cope with evil and suffering.” (278)

Now, I think I see the reason for your deferential spirit there, but I wonder if that’s actually true. As a specialist in moral philosophy myself, I have searched far and wide and found no explanation in atheism for evil and suffering. True, one can put them both down to “nature red in tooth and claw”, but as you rightly point out, that is hardly consoling.

But more importantly, even that is hardly any kind of account of why we have ended up in the kind of universe we inhabit in the first place. Why does the universe include such things as suffering and evil, when in theory (at least) there is absolutely no reason why we should not have been inserted into a universe free of them altogether? The idea of an evil-free universe is certainly not conceptually incoherent. It’s not impossible one should exist. But there’s no One to blame and not even a point in looking for an explanation (atheistically speaking), since explanations are simply, utterly unavailable. Even to posit “meaning” to them is absurd, if Materialism is true.

The Kind of Universe We Inhabit

It is, as agnostic poet Thomas Hardy so poignantly wrote in his poem Hap (1898), that even the idea of a “vengeful god” would offer a kind of shake-your-fist-at-heaven-and-die kind of consolation: but the belief that suffering is all down to chance is surely the most dismal doctrine on earth.

“… How arrives it joy lies slain,
And why unblooms the best hope ever sown?
— Crass Casualty obstructs the sun and rain,
And dicing Time for gladness casts a moan …
These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown
Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.”

Chance, or “hap”, or the “purblind Doomsters” of fate could have just as easily given Hardy an easy and happy life, he thinks. But they did not. Or perhaps they could have so arranged that he would be born when evolution had completed its cruel mission of species refinement, and suffering was no longer necessary — but he was not. He was, as he called himself elsewhere, “one born out of time”: just plain unlucky.

Suffering of the Hardy type is worse than unjust, and even worse than ridiculous: it’s just bad chance. And with chance, there is no court of appeal. This is what atheism offers: you suffer because you weren’t lucky. It could have been otherwise — you could have been born someone else, or in other circumstances. But you were not. So suck it up. Or don’t. It makes no difference either way.

So far so good, eh? I’m sure you agree.

Evolution Did It!

In fact, in speaking of such an explanation as “better”, you were probably merely conceding to the atheist side that they have some sort of attribution for evil, as in “evolution did it”. And maybe because in Christianity suffering is left as somewhat of a mystery (as in Job, perhaps), we Christians have little more to say about it. We don’t just say “God did it”, but we also don’t say much more about it. Maybe, maybe …

But I have come to think we might do rather better. Maybe Christianity does have a much better explanation for the whole existence of evil and suffering than that. So in that hope, may I share my thoughts?

As a preliminary, I’d like to agree with your decision to separate human evils from natural evils (i.e. human evils = human-caused things like theft, slander and murder; natural evils = bad things not attributable to immediate human action, like earthquakes, floods and cancer). Good analyses of evil must always do this, of course. In any case, the problem of human evils is fairly well-explained by you in the book, I think. I appreciate your sensitivity and wisdom in avoiding “you deserve it” kind of explanations. And if I’m reading you right, your point would be that free will entails that sort of latitude that makes possible the harming of others and of the environment; and I would agree. For surely the option to choose in favor of God entails the option to choose against his will. “Ought” implies “can”. Well and good.

The Difficulty of Natural Evils

The sticky wicket here is always the natural evils, no? And when you say that Christians may not have a “better” explanation of suffering and evil than do the atheists, perhaps it is this to which you refer. After all, the atheist can always say, “We suffer because of evolution”; and though, as you rightly point out, that’s no kind of consolation, at least it suggests a sort of mechanism. And it seems to me (correct me if I’m wrong) that you would then say, “It’s true that Christians cannot posit a mechanism: but we’ve got a ton more going for us in the way of consolation; and in any case, the atheist explanation — even if right — isn’t any kind of hope.” Am I on point?

But as I say, I think perhaps we can do better. I refer here to Genesis 3. There, God asserts that suffering and death will follow Adam and his descendants, as a result of the first sin. (Let us leave aside for a moment the question of whether these are literal or symbolic events: we can work very nicely with the symbolism anyway.)

Piling On

Okay, so then it says this:

“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, to cultivate the ground from which he was taken. So He drove the man out; and at the east of the garden of Eden He stationed the cherubim and the flaming sword which turned every direction to guard the way to the tree of life.”

(Gen. 3:22-24, NASB)

Now, when I first read this passage in my childhood days, I thought of this as a sort of “add-on” punishment — like when a parent spanks a child, then afterward sends him to bed with no supper … a kind of “piling on” of punishment, because being made to die and having the ground cursed were not quite enough to do the whole job. I didn’t see it as a separate consideration. But I now think that it is.

To see why, we need to consider a few things. Firstly, that the judgments against Adam, Eve and the serpent are all separated from it by the clothing of Adam and Eve (v20-21). God has already stopped punishing, and started providing for his fallen children, I would suggest. So why then would he suddenly turn around and heap additional punishment on them?

Everlasting Evil

May I suggest he isn’t? Might I suggest that there is a separate reason why God does not permit the return of Adam and Eve to the garden, and it has nothing to do with punishment?

Well, with what, then, might it have to do? To answer that question, we need to consider what God says would have happened IF he had not prevented the return to the perfect environment. He says that Adam “might stretch forth his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”. (v22)

Well, what’s so bad about that? What could be bad about living forever?

Consider it for a second: eternal evil. Adam, still in a fallen state, would have become an everlasting being. But everlasting life is incompatible with evil: the wages of sin is death. The environment into which Adam would have returned would have been incommensurate with his moral state, no?

What would that have looked like? We cannot know, but we’re told it would not be good. But additionally, I think it points to a deep, philosophical explanation for the existence of natural evil: that fallen human beings, now possessed of free will, cannot live within an environment that is either eternal or pure. If eternal, Adam would die but nothing else could. And surely, within such an environment, the pure “second Adam” (Christ) could not die either. No redemption, then.

Free Will in a Perfect World

But in the matter of free will, the situation is also impossible. How can Adam exercise his free will when he exists in an environment that is impervious to the evil actions he might take, and only susceptible to the good ones? What’s “free” about a will that can only be actualized in good, never in any alternative? As Plantinga has playfully suggested, can we imagine a scenario in which murder became impossible because all murder weapons automatically turned to rubber in an agent’s hands, or where the air itself refused to bear forth the syllables of slander or abuse, so that the words died as they fell from the speaker’s lips? How, in such a world, could we speak of a “freedom” to choose good and evil, when evil itself would be prevented automatically?

The problem for free will is even deeper. For even if the natural environment were such that good and evil actions were predictably attended by appropriate and just consequences, free will would be severely curtailed. If I knew that every time I hurt someone else, I was instantly going to be hurt just as badly, how much “freedom” to choose my actions toward them would I have? And if I were able to anticipate that by giving $100 to charity I would instantly receive my money back, what sort of charity would that be? Thus it is logically necessary that, as a free agent, I must live in a Job-type universe: one in which, as it seems to all appearances, the rewards and punishments of evil and good are meted out in unpredictable and ostensibly unjust ways: for only in such a natural environment as that can human freedom be actualized.

Thus, in Genesis I see a philosophical answer to the problem of evil in the natural world. For a creature with radical moral freedom, the only place where he can enact his moral freedom is in a natural environment compatible to that: that is, in an environment wherein suffering and evil coexist with good and blessing in ways that are not entirely predictable.

Goods of Very Great Value

And there is one more blessing of such an environment. That is, that certain goods of very great value are only possible in such a world. I speak here not merely of human freedom, but also of mercy (which presupposes guilt), kindness (which presupposes that someone lacks), forgiveness (which presupposes that someone has done wrong), reconciliation (which presupposes a rupture in relationship), love (especially agape, which must not merely be a product of the worth of the recipient but a free gift of the Giver), and above all, salvation (which means nothing if nobody is lost). To bring such gifts into existence might well be the sort of overwhelming “good” that might well justify at least the temporary tolerance of both human and natural evils.

Forgive me for the length of this message, please. I hope it has been worth it. For perhaps the Christian answer for the problem of evil and suffering looks much, much stronger than it did before. In fact, I cannot see any way in which this Christian explanation is not “better” than the atheist attempt. And if I am right in making my implications from Genesis 3:22-24 as well, then perhaps this is also the biblical explanation of natural evil.

I think it is.

In any case, blessings upon you as you continue your work of standing firm for the Lord “in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation”, and may you there continue to “appear as [a light] in the world” (Phil. 2:13).

Original photo: Mark Taylor

1 comment :

  1. "live in a Job-type universe: one in which, as it seems to all appearances, the rewards and punishments of evil and good are meted out in unpredictable and ostensibly unjust ways: for only in such a natural environment as that can human freedom be actualized."

    What you are implying though is that God's original plan was to create a being that really did not have the actualized freedom we have nowadays to choose between good and evil since in paradise there was only one single way to choose by way of the tree. So it would seem that, with God being omniscient, he knew from the beginning that paradise then was the wrong place for his creation and could only be the right place after humanity experiences all the consequences of disobedience in the type of world that we are in. Unfortunately, this then leads to fairly randomized and frequently severe suffering due to sharing in Christ's atonement for the transgressions of so many. It is clear of course that an atheist will not buy into that because a Good with that cruelty is not very realistic. (See this excellent debate between Evangelical and Atheist scholars).