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Sunday, 21 October 2007

Theodicy and Evolution

The problem of evil has haunted humanity from ancient times and it is a frequent topic in the ancient scriptures (eg. Psalms, Job, Ecclesiastes). Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do the wicked seem to prosper, oblivious to, or unfazed by, the pain and sorrow they are causing? How can an all powerful, all loving, all knowing God allow evil to exist? Traditional theology states that evil originated with human sin / rebellion. However, this view is impossible to reconcile with the evidence of modern science, and it is not even clear that this is a good theological statement. So where does evil originate? If God is all-powerful and all knowing, why did he not prevent it? Is the benefit of “free-will” actually worth the price of evil?

This is the problem of theodicy, and it still perplexes modern Christians today. It perplexes me. Over the centuries, Christians have provided many lines of reasoning to address the theodicy issue. However, no single argument has captured Christian minds, probably because none comes without its flaws.

Those who wish to expose Christianity as a sham delight in highlighting the problem of evil. For atheists it is a good strategy since, in my opinion, it is their best (and maybe only good) argument. The other arguments frequently put forward (eg. “I can’t see any evidence for God, therefore he doesn’t exist.”, “There are lots of errors in the bible, therefore Christianity must be wrong”, and “The scientific evidence supports evolution, so God didn’t create the world”) pale in comparison. But theodicy is very difficult, and I suspect that a debate limited only to theodicy would prove very uncomfortable for any Christian.

Opponents of evolution like to state that, since it demonstrates “nature red in tooth and claw”, evolution makes the problem of evil even worse. After all, how could a loving creator be so inefficient and allow so much death and destruction? But is this so? I really don’t see how evolution increases the theodicy difficulty. It adds details to the process of how we have been created, but is irrelevant to the central problem of long eons of death and extinction. Whether one explains the fossil record by many progressive creative acts, or the gradual creative process of evolution, the fact remains that much pain and death have occurred.

I certainly do not have a complete answer to the problem of evil. So rather than articulate a partial solution to the puzzle, I’ll simply provide some pointers to resources I’ve found helpful so far:

  1. Probably the closest thing I’ve found to a satisfactory answer is John Polkinghorne’s “Free Process Theodicy”. The best place I’ve seen this outlined is in “Science and Providence: God’s Interaction with the World” pages 59-68. (I do not have a link to a good overview on the net – can anyone help me here?)
  2. William Dembski has an interesting article entitled “Christian Theodicy in Light of Genesis and Modern Science”. I am not very comfortable with Dembski’s solution but it is a well reasoned and consistent proposal. I would like to hear the opinions of others on this. For some reason, I haven’t seen much discussion on this paper. This is odd since, to me, it seems much more interesting than some of the other things Dembski has written.
  3. Since sin and evil are so intertwined in Christian theology, I’d also like to point to an excellent article on the origin of sin by George Murphy entitled “Roads to Paradise and Perdition: Christ, Evolution, and Original Sin”.
  4. I’ve previously mentioned Cliff Martin’s series on the relationship of entropy to evil. Cliff has just posted the second part of his “Theodicy: A New Approach”. If you are interested in discussing the question of theodicy, I highly recommend you visit his blog, as it is indeed (I think) a new approach. My suggestion is to read the following posts in order:
Finally, I have put “The Doors of the Sea: Where was God in the Tsunami?” by David Bentley Hart on my “To read” list after seeing two shining reviews (here by Cliff and here by Chris Tilling).


John Farrell said...

I'd like to add this for consideration: Mike Liccione's Problems of Evil.

Steve Martin said...

Hi John,
Excellent link! Thanks. And it is posted in ... 1999??!!! I didn't even know blogger existed in 1999. And its the only post on the blog. Well, not bad I guess ... 100% of his posts are excellent.

Cliff Martin said...

I scanned Mike Liccione's piece (I hope to give it a more through reading later). I do like his approach. I find his way of dealing with evil compatible with my own. I especially appreciate how he takes a Biblical principle like the benefits of suffering, and the overcoming of evil, and enlarges it to a macrocosmic scale. I do the same thing with themes like nonresistence, resurrection, love and goodness being more powerful forces than evil, etc. If these principles are true, and if they "work" in the everyday life of a believer, why should we not expect to see them as themes playing out on the cosmic stage?

Martin LaBar said...

I agree with you on Dembski (and, by the way, you didn't spell his name right -- possibly an example of unintelligent design) that it's an interesting paper, and not like much of his other writing.

If the Flood was world-wide, or even if it was local, God seems to allow, or even cause, death on a very wide scale, to accomplish His purposes.

Thanks for writing.

elbogz said...

Those who wish to expose Christianity as a sham delight in highlighting the problem of evil

For me, it wasn’t evil, it was 2 years of listening to fundamentalist Christian Radio.
My favorite was how they could prove scientifically the story of Noah to be actual world history.

Beginning in Genesis 6:1

When men began to increase in number on the earth and daughters were born to them, 2 the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose. 3 Then the LORD said, "My Spirit will not contend with man forever, for he is mortal [b] ; his days will be a hundred and twenty years."

Does “Sons of God” mean, um, Sons of God?


5 The LORD saw how great man's wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. 6 The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain. 7 So the LORD said, "I will wipe mankind, whom I have created, from the face of the earth—men and animals, and creatures that move along the ground, and birds of the air—for I am grieved that I have made them."

A very good verse to explain when considering “God’s Perfect Creation”


But we are given the promise,

From Genesis 8

"Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.

Is it just me, or does this have real contradiction to the book of Revelations, and all of Jesus’ talk of the ends of the earth?

So, if the flood was to cleanse the world of the man’s wickedness, then, why didn’t it?

So onward to Genesis 9

20 Noah, a man of the soil, proceeded [a] to plant a vineyard. 21 When he drank some of its wine, he became drunk and lay uncovered inside his tent.


24 When Noah awoke from his wine and found out what his youngest son had done to him, 25 he said,
"Cursed be Canaan!
The lowest of slaves
will he be to his brothers."

So the most righteous man in the world, gets off the Ark, gets drunk, falls down naked, and causes his son to sin in such an egregious manner that he is cursed the rest of his days. Not much of a cleansing if you ask me.

But the most important story of Evil, is the book of Job. Job’s lot in life had nothing to do with good and evil, it had to do with him being a victim of God and satan's curiosity.

Steve Martin said...

Egads! That is embarrassing – once again demonstrating that my editing skills need lots of improvement. I traced the problem back to spelling Dembski’s name incorrectly in a previous post (my selected bibliography post). Unfortunately the error was faithfully copied to a future generation. You will notice the spelling has evolved back into a more palatable form – proof of Intelligent Tinkering to be sure. Thanks for pointing it out.

So are you accepting Liccione's definitions & limits of “defense” and “theodicy” and turning your posts into a defense rather than a full-blown theodicy? (I suspect not :-) ).


Not sure I’d call the promise to Noah & the apocalyptic descriptions in Revelations as “contradictions” – I would agree that they provide an “interpretive challenge” (which I’m sure you will simply see as a euphemism for contradiction :-) )

On Job, I don’t think it has anything to do with God’s curiosity; God was not in the least bit surprised by how Job acted. I admit though that this is a perplexing and troubling section of the bible. “Job: Challenging a Silent God” by Nick Overduin is on my “To Read” list as well.

James F. McGrath said...

Peter Vardy actually has a really interesting treatment of free will, evolution, and the problem of evil. For those that consider the existence of beings with free will to be an aim of creation, it becomes possible to argue that creation through evolution was, if not the only way to accomplish that, at least an understandable one.

If God created human beings fully-formed as adults, would he pre-program their brains with all the things we learn while growing up? That doesn't lead naturally to free will. So would he make them as infants? What then? Would they be raised by angels? Again, not particularly conducive to free will. Creation through evolution, on the other hand, provides humans with epistemic distance, with room to exist and be genuinely free.

Cliff Martin said...

Interesting! Do you have a website where I could read more about Vardy's views?

John Farrell said...

Hi Steve,
Actually, I think Mike created the Problems of Evil blog recently, but just as a holding point for the one article, which he wrote in 1999.