Saturday, April 13, 2024


Rationalizing Evil Away : Koukl's Theodicies

by Francois Tremblay

The Problem of Evil is universally acknowledged as the most powerful argument for strong-atheism. Indeed, it is so overwhelming that some theologians have even claimed that it was the only argument available to us (to put it mildly, a misunderstanding).

While I strongly doubt that it is the most powerful argument, it is certainly the most convincing argument prima facie, because we experience its premises first-hand. Of all the premises that concern us in atheology, it is certainly the single premise that is the most readily available : one only needs to turn on his television to experience it.

There have been a number of theological defenses against the Problem of Evil, and we can classify them in three general categories : those that limit a hypothetical god (by making it unable to bring about possible universes), those that empower humans as equals to a god (by making their volition necessary and unchangeable), or those that try to rationalize the existence of evil itself (by postulating it necessary or non-existent). Most defenses are of the first category.

Here I will examine a response of the last category, an argument which seeks to rationalize evil away by making it appear metaphysically dubious. The article in question, A Good Reason for Evil, is authored by Gregory Koukl, one of the authors of the Stand to Reason web site. The article is written in a very casual style, but it is clear that Koukl thinks he has conclusively solved the Problem of Evil.

There are three main propositions discussed in the article, which we can describe as such :

1. Evil is a lack of good, and has no existence of its own. God only effected good. 2. There is a good reason for God to permit evil. 3. The atheist has no hope of redeeming evil.

I will now examine each of them in turn.

1. Evil is a lack of good, and has no existence of its own. God only effected good.

Koukl begins by trying to establish that evil has no ontological status :

“When I say that evil has no ontological status, I mean that evil, as a thing in itself, does not exist. (...) Evil isn’t like some black, gooey stuff floating around the universe that gloms onto people and causes them to do awful things.”

He gives no justification for these statements, however. So we must accept, as a premise, that evil has no ontological status and is not an entity.

For a strict materialist, this proposition is obviously false. As any other concept discussed by human beings, “evil” exists as a concept in people’s minds. From a subjective perspective, we can say that it forms a distinct mind-entity and does indeed exist as a thing in itself. However, this position is irrelevant to the Problem of Evil. If evil exists only as a concept, and is not actualized, then there is no evil action, and there is nothing problematic.

More relevant is the fact that there is indeed such a thing as evil actions. We do indeed recognize that there is natural evil (i.e. evil that happens to human beings as a result of non-man-made phenomena) and human evil (i.e. evil that is committed by human beings). Therefore evil does have an ontological status. Certainly it is not an entity in itself : I am not assuming idealism or any other such flight of fancy. Rather, it is clear that evil is a property of actions, which themselves are properties of individuals.

This is not controversial. Surely even Koukl agrees that truth exists, or that justice exists. Yet those things are thrice removed from entities. They are properties of propositions, which themselves are properties of minds, which are properties of brains.

The ontological confusion that Koukl seems to be plunged in, may stem from a dualist stance on the nature of evil. He states confusedly that :

“Our actions are what cause evil-or the loss of goodness-in us, and that loss of goodness does have an impact on future actions, giving us a predisposition to cause further evil.”

It is difficult to make any sense out of this. If evil is not a property of actions, but rather are caused by our actions, and it is not a predisposition, but “gives us” a predisposition, then what is evil ? He seems to be describing some kind of homunculus or, more plausibly, imposing some kind of pseudo-attribute on the Christian notion of a soul. At any rate, he seems to be defining evil out of existence, when it is clear that the kind of concept used by the Problem of Evil is a property of actions. Thus his semantic sidestep is invalid.

Assuming that evil is ontologically bankrupt, he continues and tries to establish that evil is more specifically a lack of good, by making three analogies. One is an analogy with cold as an absence of heat, another is an analogy with donut holes, and another is shadow as an absence of light :

“Cold itself isn’t being “created.” Cold is a description of a circumstance in which heat is missing. Heat is energy which can be measured. When you remove heat, the temperature goes down. We call that condition “cold,” but there is no cold “stuff” that causes that condition.”

The example itself is valid. The ontological existence of “cold” is subjective, that is to say, it is a result of our minds interpreting lower molecular movement as perceived by our sense of touch.

However, these analogies do not apply to evil. In all these cases, the negative term is used to designate a subjective appraisal of the absence of something by what appears to be its opposite. It seems to us that there is such a thing as cold, shadow and donut holes, but we know that this is false.

On the other hand, as I’ve already pointed out, we know that evil exists as a property of actions. In this sense, it is more analogous to light and dark colours. Colour is a property of the molecular structure of surfaces, which changes the frequency of photons. Both light and dark colours are manifested by different photon frequencies, just as good and evil are manifested by different values effected by our actions.

It is also not obvious at all that lack of ontological status, or being a negative term, necessarily makes a concept irrelevant or that God could not create it. Could God not create cold or obscurity? If we accept that it is able to create heat or light, it seems to follow that it could also create cold or obscurity. Koukl evades the issue of proving that negative terms are irrelevant or cannot be created. If they are part of the universe, God must be able to create them directly or indirectly.

As for Koulk’s premise that the concept of an ontological negative is irrelevant in reality, we might advise him to read the book “The Existence of God”, where Wallace Matson points out :

“It may console the paralytic to be told that paralysis is mere lack of mobility, nothing positive, and that insofar as he is, he is perfect. It is not clear, however, that this kind of comfort is available to the sufferer from malaria. He will reply that his trouble is not that he lacks anything, but rather that he has too much of something, namely, protozoans of the genus Plasmodium.”

2. There is a good reason for God to permit evil.

After explaining this, Koukl moves on to try to explain why God permitted evil. As he states,

“The next question is, if God created everything good, why would He allow evil to infect His creation?”

There is a major contradiction here. If evil does not exist, why even ask the question ? God did not allow anything, from this perspective. There is nothing that infects Creation, only an illusion. Perhaps Koukl realizes that his position will not be widely accepted and that he still should try to mount some kind of argument.

His first argument, as it turns out, is a rewording of the free will theodicy. In essence, God is whitewashed because Satan and humans are the sources of evil :

“Satan would be the first example of an independent a source of evil. Adam and Eve would also be a source of evil with regard to the human race. They didn’t get Satan’s evil; they initiated their own.

(...) God did not create Adam and Eve with bad stuff in them. What He did was to create them with a capability to rebel against Him or choose to do wrong. This is called moral free will, and it’s a good thing, but it can be used for bad.”

And here we see the contradiction in action. God did create a positive property which, according to Koukl, made evil possible : moral free will. Therefore, by that token, God did create the possibility of evil. Even if we accept a libertarian account of free will, which many Christians do in a feeble attempt to escape the problems that plague the free will theodicy, God still created the free will for individuals to do evil, and therefore can be pointed to as the ultimate cause of evil.

Certainly a hypothetical Creator does have responsibility for the possibility of evil. And this is not something that an omnibenevolent being could do.

Granted, it may not have direct responsibility for each evil action, but that is a straw man. It cannot be the case that a hypothetical Creator is directly responsible for each evil action unless it intervenes in the mental states of individuals.

In the same way, if hypothetical parents decide to genetically alter their future baby to have homicidal tendencies, Christians would not hesitate to call these parents evil. No talk of “ontological status” and “independent source of evil” would prevent Christians, and perhaps even Koukl, from wanting to have them put in jail. While we acknowledge that the person who will be ultimately responsible for the evil actions is the child, we blame the parents for acting in an evil manner, with full knowledge of what they were doing.

All that is sufficient for a hypothetical Creator to be source of evil is for evil to be reducible to existents. And we know that evil, just like good, is reducible to moral actors and their environment. Thus the Problem of Evil is not countered by using free will as an argument.

Also, like the other free will theodicies, this argument does not explain natural evil. If God created nature, then God’s act of creation is also subject to morality. And since we acknowledge the existence of a great number of natural evils, and those evils are not dependent on human free will, no free will theodicy answers the Problem of Evil on that aspect.

Koukl’s second argument, however, does seem to apply to both human and natural evil. It consists of rationalizing suffering as a source of second-order goods.

“I’m sure God had a good reason for allowing evil. It has caused a lot of suffering, but that suffering has, in turn, also brought about a lot of good under God’s direction. (...) It’s not good to promote evil itself, but one of the things about God is that He’s capable of taking a bad thing and making good come out of it. Mercy is one example of that. Without sin there would be no mercy. That’s true of a number of good things: bearing up under suffering, dealing with injustice, acts of heroism, forgiveness, long-suffering. These are all virtues that cannot be experienced in a world with no sin and evil.”

This is all very well and good, but just as the free will theodicy presumes a god unable to create a good free will, this variant of the soul-building theodicy presumes a god unable to create a free will endowed with second-order goods.

Assuming that first-order human and natural evils exist for second-order goods also brings about a number of problems in the incompleteness of the relation :

* Many second-order goods could still exist without evil, such as mercy, heroism and forgiveness. * It does not account for the suffering of the individuals chosen by God to provide incentive. * It does not account for all overwhelming suffering, which cannot bring any positive result. * It does not account for the isolated suffering of non-moral agents.

Koukl does not think that these objections are relevant, however, because in balance suffering may provide more good than evil :

“Apparently God thinks that, on balance, the good is going to outweigh the evil that caused the good, or else He wouldn’t have allowed it to happen.”

But surely Koukl realizes that he is mounting a straw man. The problem is not that God did not create the best universe possible, or effected more evil than good, but rather that creating or permitting evil at all is not an option for an omnibenevolent being (especially given that it always has the option of not creating). As such, invoking second-order goods is not a sufficient rebuttal, as it does not disprove the existence or permission of evil. There seems to be this idea amongst Christians that finding some reason for suffering disproves the Problem of Evil, but explaining the source of something does not make it non-existent.

But Koukl’s problem is even worse, since he only presumes that there may be a higher total of good than evil. As he says, he cannot tell us that there is a higher total of good than evil, since “the only One who could ever know that is God”. If this is true, then he cannot invoke such a proposition in his argument. There may very well be more good than evil in the universe, but unless we can know this in some way, and unless it is relevant to the Problem of Evil, the point is entirely hypothetical and presupposes that a Creator exists.

Koukl does propose another, slightly different version of the soul-building theodicy. He also proposes that evil exists because God wants us to develop in a certain way :

“There are aspects of enjoyment, but the ultimate reason we were created was not so we can have fun and enjoy life. God’s purpose for creating us was to develop us into certain types of people who were fit to spend eternity with Him. (...) When you think about it for a moment, doesn’t it strike you as odd that we’ve developed a view that in order for us to acknowledge God as good, He must give liberty to all of our passions?”

Here we have yet another straw man. It is not necessarily the case that a perfectly good universe “gives liberty to all our passions”. Indeed, it is not obvious that we would have passions at all. This is an assumption that needs to be developed. Pointing out evil does not require us to point things that frustrate us in our passions.

Does a Jewish victim of concentration camps “give liberty to all his passions” when he points out the Holocaust as proof that there is no god ? Do social workers “give liberty to all their passions” when they desire dying children to be cured ? Do we give liberty to our passions when we rightly conclude that if a Creator of such things exists, it is not worthy of worship ?

More to the point, this argument gives yet another limitation to God, by making it unable to create individuals worthy of “spending eternity with Him” without plunging them in evil. Does Koukl really think that an infinitely powerful being needs such an imperfect and sorrowful process in order to bring about “types of people” ? Is his god so limited that he can only create imperfection in his own eyes ?

Certainly there is no reason to think so. Not only does it not disprove evil, but it gives another ad hoc rationalization for its existence. None of Koukl’s theodicies disprove the Problem of Evil.

3. The atheist has no hope of redeeming evil

Koukl demands that we answer the question : “What would you say to a dying child?”. Lack of answer, according to him, is problematic :

“You see, in that circumstance, there’s no possibility of redemption for that evil. In fact, it doesn’t seem to make sense to even call it evil at all if there is no God. (...) But with God, at least there’s the possibility that the evil can be used for good. That’s the promise of the Scriptures.”

Why should we make redemption of evil a standard, or to believe in some higher standard of redemption ? Why do we need to say anything about it ? We can comfort the child, comfort ourselves, make our lives better by the use of reason and science. Reason has permitted us to realize the importance of cooperation, peace, freedom. Science has made our lives longer and easier. Good thinking people have made these things possible. Not God or religion !

Our universe contains good and evil, and this is a consequence of natural processes. We can explain it by examining the natural laws that give rise to natural and human processes. the Christian cannot and can only reply that “well, there has to be a reason”. Of course one can fabricate any hypothesis, if one assumes that there is an infinite Creator. But such an assumption is incoherent.

This circularity is nowhere more apparent than in Koukl’s closing words :

“And so, instead of the syllogism, “God created all things, and evil is a thing, therefore God created evil,” we start from a different point. “All things God created are good-which is what the text says-and evil isn’t good, therefore God didn’t create evil.” Then we can progress to, “If God created all things, and God didn’t create evil, then evil is not a thing.””

Of course presuming the existence of God gives us a conclusion compatible with God’s existence. That much is obvious. But as we have seen, it leads to contradictory results and ad hoc rationalizations, which any reasonable person cannot accept.

Interestingly, Koukl’s statements come in direct contradiction with Isaiah 45:7, where it is clearly stated that God created evil :

“I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.”

This is, of course, compatible with attempts to show that there is more good than evil, and that this good is engendered by evil. But such attempts, while interesting, are fundamentally irrelevant. Explaining the reason for evil does not make evil disappear, and trying to “solve” the Problem of Evil by explaining why evil exists is a red herring.

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