I listened to another Nick Peters’ podcast last night. This one was from November 2, 2013. It was with David Wood, and it concerned the problem of evil: the question of whether the existence of evil is compatible with the existence of an omnipotent, benevolent God. Does the existence of evil mean that an omnipotent, benevolent God does not exist?
See here to listen to the podcast.
Here are some thoughts:
A. I first heard about David Wood when I read Nabeel Qureshi’s Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus (for my review of that book, see here). Not only was David Wood a significant character in Qureshi’s personal story, but so were Christian apologists Gary Habermas and Mike Licona (the latter is Peters’ father-in-law). To be honest, I did not care for them that much when I read about them in Qureshi’s book. They just seemed to me to be smug, overly self-assured about their beliefs, and arrogant.
I have come to like them a lot more, however, after listening to them in online interviews, and the reason is that they come across as much humbler than they do in Qureshi’s book: they are sharing their personal journeys, and they appear (to me at least) to understand why people might object to certain Christian apologetic spiels. In a recent episode of the British radio program Unbelievable, Gary Habermas was talking with skeptical scholar James Crossley about Jesus’ resurrection, and Habermas said that, while he includes the early Christians’ visions of the risen Jesus in the minimal list of things that the vast majority of New Testament scholars agree are historical, he does not include the empty tomb traditions in that list. (If only William Lane Craig showed that same humility in his debates!) In Lotharlorraine’s interview with Mike Licona, Licona acknowledged that there are other ways to account for the empty tomb and Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances besides saying that Christianity is true; one could say that space aliens did it (and yet Licona does not believe that is the best explanation). And, in the podcast that I heard last night, David Wood was saying that he does not find every theodicy he has heard convincing, and that he is aware that some may not believe that free will is a good enough reason for God to permit moral evil. When Christian apologists acknowledge difficulties and qualify their positions, I tend to be more open to what they have to say—-maybe because that sort of approach makes them look more open or smarter, or it preserves my own choice in evaluating evidence and arguments, something that beating me over the head with the “obvious truth” does not do. It also shows more respect to those who disagree, since it acknowledges their points rather than treating them as stupid.
B. Wood wrote a Ph.D. dissertation for Fordham University entitled, “Surprised by suffering: Hume, Draper, and the Bayesian argument from evil” (see here). He is no intellectual or academic slouch!
C. I have to admit that I was asleep sometime between Wood’s narration of his own personal story, and his arguments regarding the problem of evil. This is not because the podcast was boring: it was the middle of the night, and it was time for me to sleep. When I woke up, Wood was questioning whether atheists, within their naturalistic worldview, really have the authority to offer moral objections to how God does things, or, more accurately, to say that certain theodicies do not work or are inadequate. I think that Wood was making a similar point to what I have heard other Christian apologists say: that atheistic naturalism does not provide an adequate basis for the existence of morality or the trustworthiness of human reasoning, and so it cannot legitimately offer a moral objection when it comes to the problem of evil.
I do not want to get into the question of whether atheistic naturalism provides an adequate basis for those things, at least not in this particular post. Let’s assume for a minute that Wood and many Christian apologists are correct that it does not. Would that invalidate the problem of evil? Well, part of me can see how it could, but part of me is rather skeptical. The reason part of me is skeptical is that the problem of evil strikes me as rather hypothetical (this may not be the proper use of the term “hypothetical,” but bear with me): IF there is an omnipotent, benevolent God, as Christian theism says, then why does this God permit evil and suffering? Are the omnipotence and benevolence of God—-the picture of God that many Christians embrace and advocate—-inconsistent with what we see in real life, namely, evil and suffering? Obviously, the atheists asking this question do not think that this God exists; they are not morally challenging a God whom they think is real. The problem of evil appears to be raising the question of whether Christian theism is internally inconsistent in some of its tenets, or the implications of some of its tenets, and if reality accords with what Christian theism says about God. In my opinion, atheists can legitimately ask this question, whether or not their naturalism provides an adequate basis for a belief in morality or the adequacy of reason. Atheists can question the existence of God, not necessarily on the basis of their own moral convictions or reason, but on the basis of what Christians themselves say about God’s nature, God’s attributes, and morality: is the world as it should be if Christians are correct about the existence of those things? I hope that I am making sense here, and that what I am saying is not too muddled.
D. Wood was saying that God may allow the world to be as it is because that can produce character in us. Wood made clear that he is not looking at this so much at the individual level: he is not saying that suffering people are guinea pigs for the moral maturation of the well-off people, as the suffering people provide the well-off people with opportunities to show compassion and to help. Rather, Wood is looking at the group level. He is asking what kind of world would be more conducive towards human beings working together and building character.
I actually like Wood’s way of looking at this. One can ask, as some atheists have, whether the pain and suffering that exist in this world are overkill, whether, if there were a God, this God could accomplish the job of building character in us without allowing pain and suffering to the extent that they exist. This is a legitimate question. Where it boils down to for me personally is that I believe in God, and, that being the case, I feel as if I have to account somehow for why God allows pain and suffering. Just saying that God is higher than we are and we do not know the reason for suffering is not sufficient for me, for this sort of agnosticism can be used to justify all sorts of positions; it comes across as a cop-out. Saying that God allows pain and suffering for our moral improvement at least provides a reason for the pain and suffering, a reason that I think is plausible, on some level.
E. Wood was contrasting the world as it is with the hedonistic world that he believes atheists think would exist if there were a God. Wood seems to believe that the world as it is is preferable, in terms of us developing morally. My understanding is, however, that many Christians would say that a hedonistic world is not out of the question for God. Many Christians believe that life was good before the Fall of Adam and Eve. Many Christians, along with Jews and Muslims, conceive of an eschatological paradise, or paradise in the afterlife. This should be addressed by Christian apologists. From an evolutionary standpoint, I have issues with the historicity of a literal Adam and Eve, and I can conceive of God making a world that falls short of our standard of perfection, since such a world would allow us to grow and to develop morally. Can I envision an eschatological paradise? Yes, in a sense. I believe that the world is as it is for a reason, because this is how it is supposed to be at this stage of history, but that God may have a legitimate reason for the world to be different in the future—-maybe because God will conclude that we no longer need to be in the school of suffering, or that we have learned lessons from it to teach our children and grandchildren.
F. Wood was also saying that God is not obligated to help the world, since the world is in rebellion against God. I am not entirely convinced by this: God commands us to love our enemies, so is it not reasonable to expect God to live up to the same standard? Moreover, there are enough times in the Bible when God does help people, so God is not choosing to be entirely aloof from the world on account of its sins. At the same time, I wonder if there is something to what Wood is saying. Whether or not one believes in a literal, historical Fall, could our sins be one reason that we do not have the divine protection that we, as a world, may want? I would rather not see God as overly punitive; at the same time, I can understand why God may choose not to honor sin.
Again, I do not think that Wood is looking at this on an individual level: I am suffering because God is punishing me for a sin that I personally committed. Rather, Wood seems to be looking at the issue communally: we as a world have sinned, and God may be responding to that by becoming more aloof, by not extending the level of divine protection that we may like, or by allowing the consequences of our sins to play out.
G. Wood made the interesting point that the problem of evil emerged with Epicurianism (at least that is my understanding of what Wood was saying). Epicurus placed a high value on hedonism. If we are not happy, does that cast questions on the existence of God, who is supposed to make us happy? (My understanding is that Epicureans believed that the gods were aloof anyway, but Wood’s point seems to be that an emphasis on hedonism set the stage for the problem of evil to become a problem, in terms of leading people to question the existence of God.) According to Wood, the apostle Paul did not wrestle with why a good God was allowing him to suffer.
I had to think some about Wood’s point here, in terms of the Bible. I would say that, in an overall sense, Wood may be on to something. Job and the Psalmist lamented about their sufferings, and maybe even went so far as to question God’s love and justice. They did not conclude, however, that God did not exist. At the same time, when Israel suffered, other nations would ask them, “Where is your god?” Israel’s suffering reinforced in the other nations’ minds that Israel’s god was not as powerful. (At least that was one take on it: other nations also believed that Israel was suffering because her own God was punishing her for her sins.) That, in my opinion, may be a little closer to the problem of evil: casting question on the legitimacy of a religion, because the adherents to that religion are suffering.