Evil

On Faith and Floods – God’s Response (Part 3.1)

Over the past few months, I have engaged with the issue of evil and suffering from various angles. The job of doing so appears to be quite pressing at the moment, given what we have seen occur around the world. I began this series shortly after the devastating floods inQueensland. But the destruction they wrought has been dwarfed by the unimaginable numbers of dead and missing (not to mention the tens of thousands of homes destroyed) by the recent earthquake and tsunami off the coast ofJapan. And all the while, people in other parts of the world continue to endure violence and bloody suppression at the hands of unjust dictators, whether inLibya or Syria. To remain unaffected by these events probably means that one has not truly understood their magnitude, nor the suffering involved.

In previous posts, I attempted to grapple with the different interpretations of evil and suffering in the world, pointing out the deficiencies of an atheistic perspective whilst also trying to provide some rationale for belief in God amidst hardship and tragedy. However, those posts were written at the level of general philosophical engagement and speculation, and whilst they may have been successful in their respective aims (people perusing this blog will have to judge their success!), they were abstract renditions of the problem. Further, whilst they may have created space for belief in God, they in no way automatically validated the Christian faith. In these posts, I hope to provide a fully Christian account of evil and suffering, in addition to giving some insight into God’s response. I mean, it’s one thing to claim that the so-called “free will argument” (for example) makes the existence of God and the presence of evil theoretically consistent; quite another to claim the truth of the Christian faith and to tell the story of what God is actually doing about evil and suffering in the midst of a messy and chaotic world. I trust, however, that readers will have gained some insight into these issues by the time you finish these articles.

No account of evil and suffering that claims to be truly Christian can be so without a robust account of sin. These days, it seems that sin is a “four-letter word” (despite only having three). People – even some Christians – are reluctant to speak about it, and our increasing theological illiteracy (among other things) has made the concept opaque and offensive. But although unpopular, sin is a much-needed antidote to the rather shallow and trivial accounts of human wrongdoing that sometimes abound. Far from being an easily malleable species, whose perfectibility is simply a matter of the right environment, humanity has proven itself to be in dire spiritual and moral need. I am not arguing that human beings are incapable of goodness and of right moral action; the contrary is demonstrably the case. But what is clear – at least from the vantage point of Christian theology – is that humanity’s nature is deeply corrupt. Against the progressivist, who might argue that all people need is a good dose of post-Enlightenment thinking to see them on their merry way towards the summit of human existence, it is apparent that there is something intrinsically warped about humanity, which no amount of education or moral reasoning can completely ameliorate. That warped nature is ultimately the result of humanity’s ruptured relationship with God; a rejection of the One who has created this world and in whose image we have been made; and a repudiation of the source of goodness and truth. I said in my previous post on this topic that humanity has been endowed with free will, and that much of the evil and immorality that we witness is a consequence of free will’s abuse. That is indeed true, but a Christian interpretation goes further, making the claim that even free will has been strangled by human sin, such that God’s image-bearing creatures, who were made to reflect the goodness of their Creator, are now unable to escape the distorting effects of primal disobedience. Each of us has, to varying degrees (though I would not like to speculate on that point further), been “infected” by this spiritual, moral and ontological chaos, with the consequence that all are separated from God, and are confirmed in that separation through actions that render us both victims and perpetrators of seemingly irrevocable evil.

Paul speaks at some length regarding this existential predicament in his letter to the Romans. There, with broad brush strokes, the Apostle highlights the dire state of man (Rom. 1:18-32). Using the creation narratives in Genesis as a backdrop, he argues for the present state of humanity being both a recapitulation and reflection of the first man’s willful separation from his Creator. What is more, Paul makes the very startling claim that not only humanity, but all creation, is in a state of chaos, and that the latter’s “slavery” is bound up with the former’s rebellion (Rom. 8:19-22). God created this world as his good world; he launched his project of creation by bringing it forth from the chaos (Gen. 1:1-2, where water symbolizes chaos, a common motif in Jewish cosmology), and by giving humanity the task of stewardship – exercising his wise order over the earth he had made. But, humanity failed in that task, and rather than being an unambiguously good and fruitful place, creation became marked by the encroaching chaos – darkly signified by death, the ultimate manifestation of humanity’s separation from the Author of Life. Man has bowed to sin’s monstrous performance on history’s stage, and the litany of sins Paul reels off at the end of Chapter 1 points to his (man’s) estrangement from God as well as his willing embrace of evil. What we witness now, with horror and with tears, flows from that distorted inclination within man.

This, at least, is a compact Christian rendition of humanity’s – and hence, the world’s – predicament. Even here, in the prosperous calm of the west, we are not immune to the more banal expressions of evil. Thus, the question arises once more: what is God doing about evil in the world? Some might think that God is unmoved by the brokenness and the suffering that abounds; I mean, it does appear that he has simply left the world to its own devices, and is eerily quiet when disaster strikes. But no. God has provided the solution to the problem of evil – not by “solving” it philosophically, as if it were a puzzle; and not by vanquishing it through an awesome display of destructive, worldly power (though he has vanquished it, and has done so through power). Instead, he has defeated evil in the most surprising fashion. Evil – at least in principle – has seen the curtain come down on its presence, though not in the way one might expect.

Of course, I am referring to the ministry of Jesus, climaxing with Calvaryand the empty tomb. His advent was the culmination of a redemptive project that God began with the calling of Abraham (Gen. 12). Through Abraham’s descendents, Israel, God set about reclaiming his world. But Israel, too, proved to be infected with the same sin that had corrupted the rest of humanity; God’s chosen instruments of rescue needed rescuing themselves. So he did the unthinkable – he involved himself, radically and intimately, in the fate of his people, and thus, the fate of the world. The transcendent Creator achieved the apparently impossible feat of becoming part of his creation. And as redeemer, he made a way through sin and death and evil and injustice by allowing himself to be momentarily crushed by these forces, even as he nullified their power through the events of Easter. And so it is here that the cross and the resurrection take their rightful place together at the heart of Christianity’s answer to the problem of evil and God. So much could be said about this epochal event (and they must be taken together as one event), but here I want to concentrate on just a few passages that shed light on the nature of the climax of Jesus’ ministry, and through them, weave together a theological tapestry that presents the full sweep of God’s climactic response to evil’s malevolent cry. Many of us have asked God what he is doing about it all. Through Jesus Christ, he has answered. That answer, however, will have to wait for my next post.

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On Floods and Faith – Suffering, Evil and the Existence of God (Part Two)

In this particular post, I want to continue my exploration of the question of evil, suffering and God. A rebuttal of atheistic critiques is all well and good, but that in no way automatically validates a theistic position; what is also needed is a positive account of how God’s reality can be reconciled with the manifold suffering and evil that we witness in this world. For some, the question is not so great, since they may have embraced nothing more than some variation of deism (the notion that if there is a god, then he is nothing more than a “prime mover” or a “first cause”). Others may believe something else about the divine, including the notion that God may well in fact be evil and corrupt. If that is so, then the apparent tension between evil and God’s existent is, as it were, non-existent.

That may be the case for some, but the author of this blog is deeply committed to the god of Christianity. As such, I am not talking about a god who at one stage brought this world into being but now has nothing to do with it (deism). Neither am I talking about a god who is to be identified with the material world (pantheism). Instead, throughout this post, I will be implicitly referring to the god who is deeply involved in his creation, who willed it into being, who governs it, and who is still passionately interested in it. This god is good and loving, grieved by suffering and moved by evil. But if these claims about God be true, then how can he permit evil and suffering? Indeed, how can the presence of these tragic and (sometimes) destructive forces be reconciled with what Christians maintain about the One they worship and follow? Recent events – floods in Queensland and Brazil, deadly earthquakes in New Zealand and Japan, the manifest corruption of governments in the Middle East – sharpens the question somewhat, and once more forces us to ask: just how can the persistence of so much suffering (and those events are just the tip of the iceberg) sit alongside the historic Christian claim of a good, loving and powerful god?

Before I go on, I must admit to the inadequacy of words for some who have experienced tragedy. Whether you have lost a loved one, been battling with depression, or been the hapless victim of nature’s fury, my defence of God’s existence in the face of such hardships may seem somewhat uncouth. I am of course aware that the question of suffering is not, in the final analysis, a philosophical problem to be solved; it is instead a sometimes-monstrous experience with which people wrestle on a daily basis. I cannot stress that enough, for it is not something that can be understood by writing a blog about it in the comfort of one’s living room, or inquired of in a university lecture hall. No; it can only be truly understood if it is first lived. That is why my essay may prove to be of shallow consolation to those who have experienced first hand the evil of other men, or the destruction of a ravenous disease. Nonetheless, I do pray that this post uplifts and encourages those who have been hit by the effects of evil in this world. What is more, I should point out that these arguments do not automatically bring one to full-orbed Christian faith. They do, I believe, show us that belief in God can sit alongside the presence of evil in the world, and that there is even room for belief in the Christian god. There is indeed a great deal of overlap between the more general philosophical and theistic claims made here and the specific claims made in Christian theology, despite the fact that this particular series has not argued for the reality of God as he has been revealed in Scripture and Christian theology. What I present here does not take into account what the god of Christianity is actually doing about evil and suffering, and how Christian theology interprets these tragic phenomena. To use the language of faith, what I present here may reflect a generalized theology of creation, but it does not embrace a theology of redemption. That will have to wait.

The above caveats notwithstanding, it is important that a response is forthcoming. To begin with, we need to make a distinction between human evil (that is, suffering caused by the immoral or imperfect actions of other human beings) and natural evil (suffering caused by natural calamities, such as the ones I have mentioned in this, and my last, post). Of course, the distinction is not nearly as neat as it may first appear, and it is important to bear that point in mind. In any case, if we concentrate for a moment on human evil, we cannot explore the possible tension between its presence in this world and the claim that God exists, without taking into account the wider purposes of the Creator. Many (perhaps speculative) reasons could be offered, but in this post I will focus on just one. Specifically, I am thinking of God’s desire to not only create a world, but to also have a relationship with it, including of course those created in his image – human beings. This is a cardinal Christian truth, helping to explain the theological rationale behind the creation of humanity. God did not create us – or this world, for that matter – simply in order to study us, or to keep us at arms length whilst he admired us from a distance. No, he created humanity, in part so that he could have a relationship with it, to bestow his goodness upon it, and to give it the privilege of being in communion with him. But in order to develop a true relationship with his image-bearing creatures, he first had to endow them with what we might call free will. Only with free will is it possible to respond, freely and genuinely, to the intimate proposal for a relationship by another. Anything else would be a sham. And so it was, and is, with God and humanity. The endowment of free will was a necessary requirement for the creation of a group of people who would be able to come to God of their own accord; people who would be no more than automatons – prisoners of the efforts of a totalitarian god. Love and devotion can only come about through the freely chosen acts of the one expressing them, necessitating the presence of free will in humanity.

Of course, God took a risk when he brought humanity into existence. Free will can be used for good, but can quite easily be used for its opposite, evil. If this were not the case, it would not truly be free will. Similarly, if humanity was not free to choose to spurn God’s offer of a relationship, then neither was it free to accept that same offer. This applies to our relationships with each other as much as it does to our relationship (potential or actual) with God. For God not only created humanity to act morally towards himself; he also created humanity with a view to them acting morally towards one another. Moral responsibility – reflected in, and manifested by, our ethical treatment of other people – is a necessary corollary to one’s relationship with God. To claim the latter without committing the former renders both non-existent. But just as one’s relationship with God must be freely chosen, if it is to be a true relationship (and not just a fait accompli), so our moral acts towards one another can only be truly moral (in the sense that such morality becomes an deeply interwoven part of our identity) if they are, to some extent at least, truly and freely chosen. For instance, if one is forced to commit a moral act, we may say that the act itself is moral. However, the person committing it is not; he is simply adhering to a predetermined path, the nature of which does not impinge upon him. Humans have been created to be moral agents, freely choosing to pursue the good. And that necessitates the possibility of choosing the alternative, of rejecting the moral choice. That is one basis for authentic moral responsibility, rather than the product of divine pre-programming.

What we see around us, then, are the effects of the abuse of free will and the rejection of moral behaviour: murder, slander, corruption, exploitation, selfishness, greed. These are the inevitable consequences of the corruption of free will, which is itself the unavoidable concomitant of the creation of a group of beings that would be able to freely choose and freely love their Creator. This wider goal explains, in part at least, the persistence of evil in the world. The value God has placed on the free will of humanity is such that, even if is abused, as it has countless times throughout history, God does not necessarily remove it. In order to preserve part of the “essence” of humanity and its ability to freely come to the One who created it, the parallel preservation of free will, despite its corruption, is important.

Some may not like the above answer – that God apparently remains unmoved by the persistence of evil in this world. I shall respond to that objection in the next post in this series. Others may object that the presence of so much suffering does not make the preservation of free will worth it. To that, I would argue two things. On the one hand, I am quite sure that those who might be tempted to adopt this line of thinking would dispense of it once they could see its implications. If the history of the world has been consistently marked by human iniquity, then it has also been consistently marked by the struggle for human freedom. It is a prize to be upheld; not discarded because of the way it has been grievously abused. Of course, that is of no comfort to the one who has lost his spouse to the destructive behaviour of a drunk driver. In my effort to provide an explanation for the importance of human moral choice and free will, I do not wish to minimize such a tragedy. Nevertheless, I can only return to the answer I have supplied: that present free will is a necessary element in an authentic relationship with God, and an authentic moral existence. On the other hand, I would suggest that a freely chosen life with God – not to mention the choice to act morally towards others – is of such incomparable beauty that its reality cannot be jeopardised. If God is what traditional theism says he is – the great architect, who has not only created this world but continues to uphold and animate it – then some kind of relationship with him is a relationship with the foundation of life, truth and goodness. It takes us beyond our own finiteness, mortality and moral ineptitude since we have come into contact with a god who is beyond all three. What is more, according to a specific Christian theological account of the situation (which I will discuss in a future post), it is the very rejection of this reality that has led to the pervasive evil that we witness in the world. Once again, the creation of morally responsible, morally free individuals who possess the ability to choose the ultimate good – to choose God – could not proceed without the possibility that those individuals would end up choosing its opposite.

This important point may help to explain human evil, but it cannot necessarily be applied to the suffering caused by natural calamities, such as the ones we have witnessed in Australia and elsewhere recently. Climactic conditions and the earth’s convulsive movements cannot be explained via moral categories (at least, they cannot be held morally accountable for what occurs). There is (apparently) no intentionality, no moral responsibility – only causation. Of course, I have already made the point that the distinction between human evil and natural evil is blurred. An earthquake may shake buildings and structures, but the presence of a city on a known fault line, as well as the shoddy nature of building construction in the area, can lead to a high death toll. Similarly, floods may wreck havoc on a hapless village or town, but the creation of dams could have stopped such a tragic event from occurring. Moreover, one may suffer from a seemingly inexplicable form of cancer, but given the many risks posed by certain foods and environments, it is impossible to rule out human action in such an event. Thus, even when a natural disaster strikes, one cannot so easily discount the effects of human action, which may lead to or exacerbate human suffering.

Nevertheless, we face a problem, for in many cases, human activity cannot account for the destruction wrought by a natural calamity. God’s existence and human evil can be explained via the argument from free will, but how does one account for the presence of natural evil? Surely God has control over nature in a manner that is unlike his relationship to humanity? Indeed, this is the case, but not to the extent that one might first assume. I spoke earlier about the free will argument as an explanation for the presence of human evil in spite of the claim that there God who is loving and powerful. Much the same could be said of the natural world. Just as free will explains human evil – and its corollary, human suffering – so free process explains the sometimes destructive nature of, well, nature. At this point, I should acknowledge the influence of John Polkinghorne, the British physicist and priest, whose work in developing this concept has been significant. I don’t want to follow him too far down this road (he also apparently claims that the future is unknown to God, with which I disagree). However, the point is well made. Rather than controlling the world like a puppet-master pulling the strings of his lifeless minions, God has endowed the world with the ability to freely develop, much like he has endowed humanity with the capacity to freely choose. Creation is not static; it is instead dynamic. And although its development has sometimes been messy and chaotic, the metaphysical independence of the natural world (and by “metaphysical independence,” I am referring to the distinction between God and his creation) is preserved in this developmental freedom.

This does not mean that we follow the god of deism after all; just because God has given the natural world the ability to freely develop in its own way does not mean that he also does not have unfettered freedom to involve himself in its affairs. We should not think that because God has endowed his creation with this kind of dynamic quality, he is therefore bound to refrain from activity within it. I have already dealt with this point above, in my discussion of human evil. Suffice it to say, God has created a world with a freedom to develop in a distinctive manner, just as he has created humans with a moral freedom that enables them to choose good or reject it. Because of that freedom, the natural world sometimes heads in a direction that occasions pain and destruction, and that is deeply contrary to God’s purposes. That does not mean that the world is simply chaos; there is enough order and regularity to suggest otherwise. But there is also enough unpredictability and flexibility within the natural world to suggest that it is more than just an animated diorama. And with that flexibility comes the sometimes-painful reality that nature will cause human suffering.

Such is the complexity of this issue that I have not been able to touch upon all aspects of it. What’s more, I have obviously not touched upon the specific Christian claims regarding evil and suffering in any detail. Thus, this post does not take into account the relationship between human sin and the corruption of creation. Nor does it note the pernicious effects of sin on human beings themselves. Furthermore, many questions remain. For example, what role does God’s providence play in a discussion like this? I have argued that humans have free will, but how does that relate to God’s activity in the world? Human free will is not unfettered, but when – and how – does God actually intervene in the affairs of his creation? Why does he appear to stop evil in some cases, and not in others? Why might he rescue a drowning child, but not millions of people dying at the hands of corrupt governments? And even if free will does help explain the presence of human evil, why has God not put a stop to it already (given that Christians believe he will do so at some stage)? Why does God allow human free will to remain, even in cases where it means the suppression of another’s free will? It could be said that God simply giving ample opportunity for people to freely choose the good, even if they continue to indulge in immoral acts, but the tension still lingers. Also, when should suffering be construed as a consequence of divine judgment? This may have more to do with a Christian perspective on the question of evil, but it arises nonetheless whenever God is invoked. Finally, how does God remain sovereign over the natural world, whilst also giving it a freedom to develop in its own, sometimes-destructive, manner? These questions may never receive adequate answers (though in upcoming posts, I shall attempt to do so), for to know them properly is to know the mind of God. Hopefully, however, I have given some account of how a belief in God is not inconsistent with the presence of evil in this world.

 

  

On Floods and Faith (Part One)

Suffering is, unfortunately, a part of life. Whether it is the loss of a parent to cancer, or the break-up of a long marriage, people endure hardships with tragic consistency. Recent events this year have reinforced this truism, as the country has witnessed the desperate plight of many tens of thousands of people in the state of Queensland. Entire towns have, it seems, been swept away by the fury of nature. The ferocity of these floods has been breathtaking, as has the widespread destruction. As if that weren’t enough, the state has been battered by cyclonic storms that have devastated livelihoods with ease. These disasters are indeed reminders that suffering is an ever-present part of life, which for some undermines belief in God’s existence. It is to this issue that I want to speak, using the Queensland disasters as a springboard.

In later posts, I will provide a particular Christian interpretation of disaster and suffering, including what we have seen recently. Right now, however, I wish to interrogate the non-believer’s response to such suffering and hardship, perhaps creating intellectual room for a Christian perspective to take its place. Indeed, it is important to provide some sort of apologetic, albeit a partial one, since such a disaster may prove ripe for the spiritual sceptic (I should point out that when I speak of spiritual sceptics or non-believers, I am referring to people who are, at the very least, sceptical of God’s existence. I am not yet referring to non-Christians). Even in the face of such destruction and loss, the church does have something to say as it seeks to respond. That may be news to some, but the Christian story does supply meaning to an otherwise meaningless situation. Although non-believers may declare that the Queensland floods (or any other event, such as the Christchurch earthquake, that occasions pain and suffering) prove that God does not exist, or that the persistence of belief in God despite such a tragedy is absurd, I would ask people to consider the alternative for a moment.

Without God, these tragedies are nothing but the consequences of the blind, impersonal forces of nature. We may be able to offer immediate causes for what happened. We can, for example, talk about the heavy rains and the aberrant weather patterns that caused the floods in Queensland. We can talk about the persistent failure by state governments to build dams that would control and manage the flow of rivers in the region. We could even talk about the green ideology that has (perhaps) exerted some influence over the reluctance to build such structures. These are all viable reasons for what, in the instance of Queensland’s tragedy, occurred. And yet none of them can provide a deep – one might even say existential – reason for this or any other disaster. Like all natural calamities, the Queensland floods and storms have shown us that, in the final analysis, man is at the mercy of nature. What is more, whilst the non-believer might derive some sense of satisfaction from facing what they think is the cold, hard reality of the world, their perspective does little to offer meaning in the midst of human misery. To them, this simply happened; one can talk about why it happened, but that question cannot be pressed too far. At the end of the day, the atheist or non-believer can only admit that such things simply happen. Events are merely brute facts, without ultimate intelligibility. If the universe is the product of blind chance, then its various goings-on cannot thereby possess meaning. They simply are. According to the non-believer’s scheme, events (both good and ill) do nothing more than occur. They do not mean anything, for they happen within a purposeless universe that has come into being without reason.

This is all the atheist or non-believer can offer when a tragedy strikes. If they follow their philosophical presuppositions far enough, then they have to admit that disasters such as the ones we have witnessed recently do not bear meaning. The cosmos does not possess any overarching structure, or goal-oriented significance, whilst the occurrences contained therein cannot be explained in terms of anything greater – or deeper – than the brute fact of their existence. That has to be conceded. To be sure, this does not mean that the existence of God is thereby proved. But when the atheist or non-believer scoffs at the attempt to shore up belief in God during a time such as this, one has to ask whether the interpretation he (or she) offers is any more satisfactory. All they can say is that such a calamity has occurred; nothing more, nothing less (without over-anticipating what I want to say below, to even call an event a “calamity” would be stretching the interpretation of the event, since that implies an attempt to explain the inexplicable according to moral categories that have no place within a purposeless universe). Mere happenstance is all that remains.

Such reasoning flies in the face of the persistent human need to ascribe and construct meaning. Humans are driven by a need to interpret things according a certain purpose, to view events and happenings through an interpretive grid. This is no fleeting, transient whim; it is instead a deep-rooted yearning, leading us to bestow order upon chaos and to discover purpose for our lives and the world at large. The atheist’s assumption that the universe is “blind, pitiless and indifferent” (to paraphrase Richard Dawkins) jars horribly with this human need to find meaning. How does a purposeless universe give rise – without forethought or planning – to beings that are driven, enlivened and animated by purpose? That is a particularly vexatious question, and comes with even greater urgency when a disaster like the Queensland floods befalls a segment of humanity. The search for meaning at a time like this is particularly acute, and the atheist cannot offer anything substantial. He is forced to admit that there is no reason for what has happened, just as there is no reason for why anything happens. That can only darken the existential void in which people of calamity often find themselves.

At the same time, the non-believer cannot escape the other logical implications of his worldview. If there is no purpose to the cosmos; and if it is just the random movement of molecules and particles; then one cannot speak of good and evil, joy and suffering, in any meaningful sense. The reductionism of atheism – which necessarily embraces a materialist outlook on life – becomes obvious when its proponents assign cause to purely physical factors. The notion of transcendence is completely anathema to such a worldview. What this means is that any talk of morals, ethics, or events that either enrich or diminish life, is disingenuous from a materialist point of view. All is simply the random shifting of atoms. The death of a loved one – or, in this case, the devastation of floods and cyclones – cannot be ascribed any more meaning than one might ascribe to the particles under a microscope. Similarly, to speak of morals is specious, since the objective foundation upon which any robust conception of morality must rest does not exist. If the universe does not care, then why should we? Why should we care about the deaths of people swept away by a torrent of water? Why should we recoil in horror when we see the carnage wrought on a South Sudanese village by government-backed militia? These things, broken down to their constituent parts according to a materialist, atheistic worldview, are nothing more than the outward manifestations of inward physical occurrences. There is nothing beyond the biological, and the biological does not work according to a greater scheme – moral or otherwise. It simply is. So, if we take the Queensland floods as an example, the non-believing perspective cannot even discuss such a calamity using moral categories, since those moral categories cannot fit into the purely physicalist account of tragedy and suffering. The biological is ultimate, and moral discussion – which relies on some notion of objectivity or transcendent framework to maintain coherency – is without basis.

Again, I must remind people that all of this in no way automatically validates the Christian, or even merely theistic, worldview. But it does show up the atheistic view for what it is. Further – and this is closely aligned with my point just above – the non-believer’s case against God, which he bases upon the supposed contradiction between God’s goodness and the presence of evil, becomes incoherent once one follows that atheistic view through to its logical conclusion. How can one speak of the contradiction between the claimed goodness of God and the persistence of evil when one’s own worldview has no room for transcendent moral categories? Surely the worldview in question subverts the specific claims made against God whenever disaster or tragedy strikes, for one cannot squeeze out objective morality on the one hand and use it to score a philosophical (or atheological) point on the other. Of course, the atheist may claim that he does adhere to the notion of objective morality. But why? Why, if the cosmos that gave rise to humanity is actually blind and morally indifferent, should those very same beings be committed to such an outlook? I leave that question for readers to ponder.

None of this will be of comfort to people who have seen and experienced tragedy, pain, suffering and hardship. I don’t expect that to be the case. What will comfort them are wise pastoral counsel and the persistence of sacrificial love. However, my aim here is to engage with the various philosophical and ideological interpretations that use such events to deny God’s reality. I will continue to do so over the next few posts.

UPDATE

Recently, I took part in an online  discussion, where I used some of these arguments to critique the atheist’s position, including the rather unsatisfying account of morality (as I see it, anyway). Indeed, my argument there – that the biological reductionism and naturalistic conception of humanity that seems to be part-and-parcel of an atheistic worldview – was much the same as the one I have used here. Anyway, I was accused of attacking a straw man by offering this characterisation of atheists’ views on humanity. My inerlocutor told me that when it comes to humanity, morality and the rest, atheists’ views are as diverse as their fingerprints. That may be, but two things suggest that the strawman may have become a real one after all: the logical (and, I would say, inescapable) implications of a naturalistic conception of the world and humanity; and the fact that atheists have said exactly what I have said in my characterisation of humans as, at base, a collection of atomic particles. 

First, if one is going to commit oneself to a naturalistic worlview (which goes hand-in-hand with atheism) then it becomes exceedingly difficult to suggest that humanity is, in the final analysis, anything more than an amalgamation of physical parts. My interlocutor that day said he was much more than a “collection of atoms” (yes, I know, a rather pithy line on my part). He said that he was that, but that he was also a thinking, feeling individual with loves, desires, hopes and dreams. But if humans are to be reduced to their constituent parts – which means one’s atomic “kit” – then I am not sure how those parts can end up constituting, not just a physcial entity (eg. a human being), but one that is able to think, feel, love and apply meaning to his/her existence. I mean, how did my online discussion partner become the thinking, feeling empatheitc indvidual he believes himself to be? Mere physicality (which is what we are reduced to in a naturalistic view of the world) is not enough. Random mutation, natural selection and deep time alone could not have produced atomic structures that go beyond their physical paramaters in this way. In other words, if (according to naturalism), our “essence” is really no different to that of other, even non-sentient, physcial structures, I wonder how those physical structures could make the transition from things that merely “existed” to sentient beings that are able to confer upon the world meaning and significance. As much as atheists try to claim otherwise, I can’t see how one can escape this reductionist thinking, or the problems associated with it. 

The philosopher John F. Haught, in talking about critical intelliegence as a problem for naturalism, poses a question along similar lines (Is Nature Enough? Meaning and Truth in an Age of Science):

“…is the essentially mindless, purposeless, self-originating, self-enclosed universe of scientific naturalism large enough to house your own critical intelligence?”       

As far as I can see, this is an inescapable question for the atheist (and therefore, naturalist), based on the indissoluble connection between atheism and a naturalistic conception of humanity. We could take this further, and suggest that the very mindlessness posited by a naturalistic account of the universe (where all is the product of the essential purposelessness of natural selection) should make one quite suspicious of one’s own thinking. If one’s thoughts are the result of random atomic occurrences (and nothing more), should one place supreme confidence in one’s capacity to understand the world and interpret it coherently? The fact that we do, and are able to provide some account of the world that is commensurate with reality suggests that there is more going on in our minds than just the product of mindless evolutionary processes. Further, efforts to develop a moral account of human behaviour – indeed, a moral “grid”, if you like – seem to suggest that humans are more than the accidental products of an ultimately mindless, amoral universe. In any case, this reductionsim seems to be inherent within naturalism, and protests to the contrary will not do.

Second, a number of atheist academic, both past and present, have expressed their views on humanity in terms that are quite close to my own (admittedly pithy) characterisation. Here’s Betrand Russell, the now deceased British atheist, describing human beings:

“…the result of accidental collocations of atoms” (Russell, Why I am not a Christian).

Or Stephen Jay Gould:

“If the history of life teaches us any lesson, it is that human beings arose as…a kind of glorious cosmic accident resulting from the catenation of thousands of improbable events” (quote taken from John Blanchard’s Does God Believe in Atheists?).

Or what about Richard Dawkins, writing in his book, The Selfish Gene?:

“[Genes] swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots…they are in you and me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence.”

As far as I can see, the “strawman,” of which my interlocutor spoke, is very much alive. 

This all has implications for moral reasoning. If the universe is essentially purposeless, and we are inextricably bound up with the universe and its ultimate nature, then on what shall we base an account of morality? More than that, why should we even speak about morality as if it had something to do with an objective standard of the good? And it’s not just believers in God who are aksing these questions. A recent article in The Guardian newspaper spoke about Peter Singer, the Australian atheist philosopher, and his struggles with providing a robust foundation for moral decisions. In it, he said that his previous confidence in utilitarian thinking has now been shaken, and he is more and more inclined towards a moral objectivity (Mark Vernon, “Without Beflief in Moral Truths, How Can We Care About Climate Change?”, May 25th, 2011). He’s no closer to God, but as the article says, “Only faith in a good God finally secures the conviction that living morally coincides with living well.” A bold claim, but I think that God provides a strong foundation for confidence in an objective moral ontology.

The Tragedy of Queensland’s Floods

Over the past days and weeks, I have watched with dismay and horror as Queensland has been lashed by nature’s fury. So, I thought it necessary to offer some remarks over the coming days and weeks regarding this calamity. For now, I can only say that I will pray for God’s protection and ask that he would move during this time. Although it may be of scant comfort to those who have lost so much, I want to assure people that the Creator God is also the Redeemer God. He is the one who has triumphed over every manifestation of brokenness and sin, of corruption and decay. He is the one who has paved the way for a world where pain and suffering are not known, and in this we may be encouraged. Floods may have inundated parts of Queensland recently – causing great harm and anguish – but for those who place their faith in what God has accomplished through Jesus, there will eventually come a time where such hardships, of whatever kind, will vanish completely.  

We may not see that triumph in the present, but we know that God has achieved it through the death of his own Son, Jesus – verily God and verily man, the perfect human and the embodiment of divine wisdom. However, through Christ’s life, ministry, death and resurrection, God has not only made a way for sin’s defeat (and with it, the redemption of the world); he has also experienced humanity in the most intimate of ways, even to the point of giving up his own life. Thus, to those who may be wondering why this has happened, all I can say (at this point, anyway) is that we Christians follow a god who is not distant or aloof, nor impassable or unmoved by the suffering of his creation. He actually knows what it is to suffer, because he himself has experienced it as one of us. That, too, is a comfort.

Stay tuned for further posts on the question of evil, suffering and God.