David B. Hart and the problem of evil

Why do evil and suffering exist if the world is presided over by a God who is all-knowing, all-powerful and perfectly loving? That is the “problem of evil” in a nutshell.  In an earlier post (and in the comments) I explained and argued against two common theistic responses to the problem of evil.  Now I’ll tackle a third response from Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart.

In the aftermath of the horrific Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, Hart addressed the problem of evil in a widely-read Wall Street Journal article, Tremors of Doubt: What kind of God would allow a deadly tsunami? He later expanded his argument into a second article, Tsunami and Theodicy, and a short book entitled The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? Because so many Christians have quoted Hart with enthusiasm (including Barry Arrington and Vincent Torley of UD in recent posts), it’s worth taking a closer look at his argument.

Hart emphatically rejects the idea that God sets out to use evil or suffering as necessary means to a greater good:

There is, of course, some comfort to be derived from the thought that everything that occurs at the level of what Aquinas calls secondary causality—in nature or history—is governed not only by a transcendent providence, but by a universal teleology that makes every instance of pain and loss an indispensable moment in a grand scheme whose ultimate synthesis will justify all things. But consider the price at which that comfort is purchased: it requires us to believe in and love a God whose good ends will be realized not only in spite of—but entirely by way of—every cruelty, every fortuitous misery, every catastrophe, every betrayal, every sin the world has ever known; it requires us to believe in the eternal spiritual necessity of a child dying an agonizing death from diphtheria, of a young mother ravaged by cancer, of tens of thousands of Asians swallowed in an instant by the sea, of millions murdered in death camps and gulags and forced famines. It seems a strange thing to find peace in a universe rendered morally intelligible at the cost of a God rendered morally loathsome.

He sees evil and suffering as things that God works around, not through. They emanate entirely from the “powers” and “principalities” to which our fallen world is in thrall:

The Christian understanding of evil has always been more radical and fantastic than that of any theodicist; for it denies from the outset that suffering, death and evil have any ultimate meaning at all. Perhaps no doctrine is more insufferably fabulous to non-Christians than the claim that we exist in the long melancholy aftermath of a primordial catastrophe, that this is a broken and wounded world, that cosmic time is the shadow of true time, and that the universe languishes in bondage to “powers” and “principalities”–spiritual and terrestrial–alien to God.

And:

In the New Testament, our condition as fallen creatures is explicitly portrayed as a subjugation to the subsidiary and often mutinous authority of angelic and demonic “powers;’ which are not able to defeat God’s transcendent and providential governance of all things, but which certainly are able to act against him within the limits of cosmic time.

This raises an obvious question: why would God create a world in which the Fall, and the resulting evil and suffering, are possible?  Hart says:

God has fashioned creatures in his image so that they might be joined in a perfect union with him in the rational freedom of love. For that very reason, what God permits, rather than violate the autonomy of the created world, may be in itself contrary to what he wills.

But if God chooses to permit evil and suffering, how does he evade responsibility for them?  Hart writes:

But there is no contradiction in saying that, in his omniscience, omnipotence, and transcendence of time, God can both allow created freedom its scope and yet so constitute the world that nothing can prevent him from bringing about the beatitude of his Kingdom.

In other words, as long everything ends well, God is off the hook for permitting temporary evil and suffering.  Yet Hart also wants us to believe that God hates evil and suffering, even of the temporary variety:

…when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy.

So in Hart’s bizarre world, we have a God who supposedly hates evil and suffering, yet chooses to permit them — and somehow this is all okay because it’s only temporary.  Good will triumph in the end.

Hart continues in this bizarre vein:

And while we know that the victory over evil and death has been won, we know also that it is a victory yet to come, and that creation therefore, as Paul says, groans in expectation of the glory that will one day be revealed. Until then, the world remains a place of struggle between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, life and death;

What sort of omnipotent and loving God, having already “won the victory”, would fail to end evil and suffering immediately?  It makes no sense, and neither does Hart’s argument.

The problem of evil remains as much of a problem as ever for Christians.  Yet there are obvious solutions to the problem that fit the evidence and are perfectly reasonable: a) accept that God doesn’t exist, or b) accept that God isn’t omnipotent, or c) accept that God isn’t perfectly benevolent.  Despite the availability of these obvious solutions, most Christians will choose to cling to a view of God that has long since been falsified.

135 thoughts on “David B. Hart and the problem of evil

  1. Lion IRC: A personal Creator / parent.

    Do you not see the difference between a human and a god?

    If you believe humans are as powerful as god, then there is no need for a separate god.

    If you believe they are not equivalent in power, then you cannot claim their behaviour to be equivalent.

  2. petrushka,

    Thats right, God does bear ultimate final responsibility (credit) for giving us parents/life. If we wished we had never been born then we will eventually be eternally happy with our non-existence and our total lack of memory of anything.

  3. YES OF COURSE I BLOODY WELL SEE THE DIFFERENCE!!!!

    I have not claimed humans are omnipotent. But neither are humans totally lacking in any volition or ability.    

  4. As an omniscient being, god is the direct cause of every evil and of all suffering. This is not necessary, because suffering does not exist in heaven. If suffering exists in hell, it does so because god created it and knowingly created people destined to inhabit it.

  5. Lion IRC:YES OF COURSE I BLOODY WELL SEE THE DIFFERENCE!!!!

    I have not claimed humans are omnipotent. But neither are humans totally lacking in any volition or ability.

    Humans are clearly lacking the abilities of a god and you clearly do not see that if you can make a statement that compares the two as equals in the making of decisions.

    If you believe otherwise, show me an example of a human displaying the abilities of a god.

    If you can’t, then humans clearly do not have the same options available to them that a god does.

    You cannot compare the two as peers when it comes to decisions.

  6. Lion IRC,

    The real issue is that parents (like God) deliberately choose to bring people into a world where temporary suffering is likely/possible/probable.

    In my example, the choice God makes is completely unlike the choice made by the parents. The parents bring their child into the world thinking that she will most likely have a good life. The God you worship brings the child into the world knowing that she will die, alone and in despair, in the filthy corner of a heroin den.

    What sort of a God would do that to a child? Why do you consider such a God worthy of worship?

    I predict that you will fall back on more of this nonsense:

    What He thinks is a good idea and what we think is a good idea arent necessarily identical…especially when, unlike Him, we dont see the bigger picture.

    In other words, if God does something that appears horrific and evil, we should ignore the evidence and assume that God is actually perfectly loving. Why? Because Lion IRC wants to believe that God is perfectly loving. No other reason.

    If the illogic of your position isn’t obvious, consider that the opposite argument is just as (un)compelling:

    Anti-Lion CRI believes in a God who is omniscient, omnipotent and perfectly evil. We challenge this belief, pointing out the “problem of good”: If God is perfectly evil, why does he allow good things to happen? Anti-Lion responds that we don’t see the Bigger Picture. If we did, we’d understand that God really is perfectly evil after all.

    In other words, if God does something that appears loving and good, we should ignore the evidence and assume that God is actually perfectly evil. Why? Because anti-Lion CRI wants to believe that God is perfectly evil. No other reason.

    The arguments are equally ridiculous and unconvincing.

  7. I don’t think Lion understands the theodicy issue and the various arguments that have been tried by philosophers and theologians to answer it. This appears to be the first time he has encountered it; and he doesn’t appear to know how to handle it other than to try to segue it into a preaching opportunity about “atheists.”

    Indeed people have free will; and one of the arguments is that the existence of such a deity is not logically inconsistent with free will.

    But that still doesn’t address the issue of what constitutes morality. People often would like to have the ability and foresight to head off disaster and make the world a better place. If you are omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent, you could do anything you wished to make the universe better and alleviate suffering.

    The problem faced by sectarian claims about their deity is why does the deity, who is alleged to have such powers, not have the morality that humans can muster and learn from experience? Why is the deity less moral than humans? Why does a being with lower moral standards than most humans have such powers? Why should such a being with such low moral standards be followed and worshiped?

    What kind of “religion” would peddle such a deity as one to be followed and worshiped?

    Humans can imagine superheroes with super powers swooping in to “save the day” and stop bad people from doing bad things. They don’t care for super villains who do super bad things. Humans can imagine using super powers to do good things.

    So what is supposed to be the attraction of a deity with all those super powers doing everything that super villains do?

    Human morality evolves; and it has evolved beyond the morality attributed to a deity that was concocted back in the bronze age and passed down by legends to today.

  8. One of the reasons for that is that when you take a position where the “evidence” is made up by yourself then you can adjust that “evidence” as things proceed. Hence, long threads as you encounter objections that are new to you but the rest of the rational world, not so much. 

     

    But kindly do your fellow readers the courtesy of not speaking on everyone elses behalf.

    Yet you speak for your deity. On what basis, oh high priest?  

  9. DNA_Jock wrote : All that you have offered up here is to state that omnipotence and omniscience are not mutually exclusive!?! Nobody has asserted otherwise

    Lion: Yes they have!

    Robin wrote : I brought up that issue of omniscience and omnipotence earlier and Lion offered no rebuttal. I can only assume at this point that Lion recognizes the defeat of his argument, but refuses to admit such.

    False claim, Lion. You need to work on your reading comprehension. Nowhere in what I wrote did I state or imply that omnipotence and omniscience are not mutually exclusive. Try again.

    What I did note is that decisions made by an entity with omniscience and omnipotence cannot not be accurately compared to any decisions made by entities without omniscience and omnipotence. Once again, someone without omniscience cannot know in any sense of the term what suffering a given offspring will face or even whether said offspring will face ANY suffering. And, alas, said person without omnipotence can’t do anything about any such conditions anyway. Not so for an entity with either omniscience or omnipotence.

    Bottom line, your argument is defeated.

  10. Can someone explain to me what Lion is getting at here? This makes absolutely no sense to me. For instance:

    Lion: And since nobody here (including you) has demonstrated any logical inconsistency between God’s omnipotence and our ability to recognize pain…

    WHAT??!?! Who here is even attempting to make such a claim in the first place? What does this have to do with anything already addressed?

    There’s no relationship between omnipotence and the ability recognition of pain. Omnipotence is all powerful – complete, unlimited, universal power and authority over all conditions. That’s the definition. The ability to recognize that some things cause pain does not include ANY power over that reaction, never mind that definition doesn’t include anything about any kind of power. So the two concepts have nothing in common.

    Words have discrete meaning. You might want to try to learn some if you wish to have your ideas and concepts understood. Right now, the claim above appears meaningless.

     

  11.  How many ways do we have to explain this, Lion, before you see the point?

    The child sitting in a dentists chair (because they didnt obey one of their parents’ten commandments – brush their teeth) doesnt necessarily think going to the dentist is a good idea. (They might even think the pain of needles and drilling a theodicy their parents hasnt explained sufficiently) But with the later benefit of hindsight that child will agree it all worked out OK in the end.

    Instead, consider a child undergoing surgery to fix a cleft palate. The parents may decide that the pain of surgery is worthwhile, in the long run. However, if the mother is Hermione Granger (or any highly competent witch with a background in dentistry*), she has a third option: to painlessly and magically fix the cleft palate.

    You are trying to equate a Muggle parent’s decision to submit their child to surgery with Hermione’s. We are trying to point out that because Hermione has a third option, the decision process is not analogous. 

    You are now retreating to the following position: “Mrs. Weasley chose the painful surgery for Hugo for reasons we cannot comprehend” also known as “God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform”.  None of this is new. But by invoking the ‘mysterious way’ “explanation“, you are admitting that your analogy is false.

     

    *Sorry, couldn’t resist.

  12. Why exactly is it God’s fault that we construct buildings which cant withstand earthquakes and drive cars at 60 MPH expecting them never to crash?

    Why exactly would an entity with unlimited power and control have to allow earthquakes to occur in the first place? Why exactly would an entity with unlimited power and control make it possible for crashes to exist? In other words, an entity with unlimited power and control could in fact create ANY conditional outcome for every unique event. Thus, the entity could just “poof” away all earthquakes on a planet with plate tectonic activity and could turn all car components into shock absorbing foam rubber at the instant of any impact (and immediately “poof” the car back the split second after) leaving no damage to anything.

    The whole point is that an omnipotent being could do literally ANYTHING, making a world completely non-sufferable. Yet for some bizarre reason, your mythical Casper-the-Unfriendly-Deity doesn’t do such stuff. So, either it actually isn’t omnipotent and doesn’t have control over this world, or it is in fact directly responsible for everything bad that happens.

    Why is it OK for humans to drop atomic bombs claiming that the end justifies the means but the Canaanites cant attack the Amalekites?

    This clearly makes no sense. Who said it’s “ok” for humans to drop atomic bombs? Who says that the Canaanites should not have attacked the Amalekites? Whose making these claims anyway?

  13. The “mysterious ways” argument fails at a rather important level. If we cannot comprehend the ways and motives of god, how are we rationally to choose to worship him? On what basis do we choose god over Satan? Raw power?

  14. Indeed! This the first time I’ve seen someone try to use the “Alzheimer’s God” argument. Or maybe it’s just the selective-memory god. Or better still, the PTSD god…

    I wonder if Lion’s god does drugs and if so, does it get the munchies?

     

  15. Lion, I’m curious about your perspective on this. Here’s a hypothetical situation:

    A friend comes to you and says he’s going to kill another person. The friend shows you his gun and shows you it’s loaded with bullets. The person the friend said he is going to shoot comes walking by and your friend pulls out his gun and points it at this victim. The friend then pulls the trigger killing this victim.

    Now, what do you think the odds are that just about every court – if not all courts – in the US would find you guilty of accessory to murder for not doing anything?

     

  16. The story with this particular deity appears to be something like a protection racket; another all-too-human concoction.

    The only protection from a bad deity with mojo is a good deity with mojo. You are then imbued with mojo. Except, there is a problem; the good deity in the white robe is really the bad deity in the black cloud.

    It all sounds a bit like 3-in-1 snake oil.

  17. Page=1 #comment-19230

           Robin wrote : Nowhere in what I wrote did I state or imply that  
           omnipotence and omniscience are not mutually exclusive.

    Thanks. Thats what I thought.
       
    Option A. Mutually exclusive. (paradoxical) 

    Option B. Not mutually exclusive. (compatible.)

    I agree that you definitely didnt state or imply Option B.         

  18. DNA_Jock wrote : All that you have offered up here is to state that omnipotence and omniscience are not mutually exclusive!?! Nobody has asserted otherwise

    Lion: Yes they have!

    Robin wrote : I brought up that issue of omniscience and omnipotence earlier and Lion offered no rebuttal.

  19. I never understood why God’s omnipotence is mentioned by atheists trying to make a theodicy counter-apologetic. (A bit like a boxer leading with their chin.)

    a) God has to exist in order to be omnipotent. So the argument rests on the premise that He does exist. And that being the case, His divine fiat and supreme wisdom trumps human incomprehension of a temporary situation.
    You cant accuse such a Being of not knowing or doing whats best. That would be like the patient lecturing the doctor. 
      
    b) The aspect of God’s omnipotence which problem of pain arguments ultimately boil down to is why did you create me knowing that humans have the (extremely valuable) ability to differentiate pleasure from non pleasure – an umbrella category of stuff for which we have invented the word ”pain”. So, without God to complain to, the accusation from atheists must alternatively then apply to parents.

    Child – “You knew I would suffer. Could you have avoided creating me?”
    Parent – ”Yes. But I chose to do so anyway”  

        

  20. Lion,

    To support your “Yes they have!” claim, you need to quote someone on this thread asserting (prior to 2:18 am Jan 8th) that omnipotence and omniscience are mutually exclusive. Robin’s subsequent statement about what he/she did not say doesn’t do it, for two reasons.

    Then, and more importantly, you need to address the point that God’s omnipotence renders your analogy to an ‘atheist’ parent totally meaningless.

    I note that you have chosen not to address this point. You crack me up.

  21. Lion IRC: Child – ”You knew I would suffer. Could you have avoided creating me?”
    Parent – ”Yes. But I chose to do so anyway”

    You’re close, but not quite there.

    Child – ”You knew I would suffer. Could you have avoided creating me?”

    God – ”Yes. But I chose to do so anyway”

    Parent- “Since I do not have the powers of god, I couldn’t know if you would suffer.”



     

  22. This is silly. As humans we do not condemn our children to suffer. We give them a life in the same world we inhabit, warts and all.

    Unlike god, we do not make the rules or the playing field. 

  23. Lion IRC: Parent – I dont know what God knows.

    Yes, and that’s the point, that humans and gods are not peers.

    You cannot equate their decision-making capabilities.

     

     

     

  24. I wonder if it can logically be said that an omniscient god makes decisions at all. Human decisions imply all sorts of contingencies that it wouldn’t make sense for an omniscient god to need to consider. He HAS no contingencies.

  25. Ever hear of logical constructions beginning with “if”? One can reason about hypotheticals.

    The problem is not that god created people who can feel pain, but that he created an existence that guarantees pain.

    The (hypothetical) existence of heaven is proof that at least in western religion, god is capable of creating an existence without suffering.

     

  26. Lion IRC:

    Parent – I dont know what God knows.

    Lion,

    You blurt these things out without thinking them through. As Toronto points out, that statement defeats your earlier argument. You claimed that a parent is in the same position as God when answering a child who asks “Why did you bring me into the world?” That’s clearly not true, as your own statement demonstrates.

    You admit that the parent doesn’t know what God knows, which puts her in a completely different position from God. She doesn’t know how her child’s life will turn out, and she doesn’t have the power to guarantee that it will be all roses. If her child is miserable and asks “Why did you bring me into this world?” her mother can say, “I did my best with the knowledge I had. I hoped that you would be happy on balance, as most of us are, and I did what I could to help things turn out that way. I did my best, but it wasn’t enough.”

    An omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly loving God cannot use that excuse. His every action must be perfect, or else he isn’t.

    That puts you in the embarrassing position of arguing that the following are the actions of a perfect God: God creates a girl, orphans her, gives her a miserable childhood in the home of an abusive relative, then consigns her to a life of drug addiction and prostitution followed by an early death from AIDS. Praise God! That was the perfect thing to do! How do we know? Because Lion IRC says so.

    As I put it earlier:

    In other words, if God does something that appears horrific and evil, we should ignore the evidence and assume that God is actually perfectly loving. Why? Because Lion IRC wants to believe that God is perfectly loving. No other reason.

    If the illogic of your position isn’t obvious, consider that the opposite argument is just as (un)compelling:

    Anti-Lion CRI believes in a God who is omniscient, omnipotent and perfectly evil. We challenge this belief, pointing out the “problem of good”: If God is perfectly evil, why does he allow good things to happen? Anti-Lion responds that we don’t see the Bigger Picture. If we did, we’d understand that God really is perfectly evil after all.

    In other words, if God does something that appears loving and good, we should ignore the evidence and assume that God is actually perfectly evil. Why? Because anti-Lion CRI wants to believe that God is perfectly evil. No other reason.

    The arguments are equally ridiculous and unconvincing.

    It’s ironic that the skeptics participating in this thread have thought about your God far more carefully and seriously than you have, Lion. We actually understand the problem of evil and the implications of omnipotence and omniscience. You haven’t even scratched the surface.

  27. Lion IRC asserts: God has to exist in order to be omnipotent. So the argument rests on the premise that He does exist. And that being the case, His divine fiat and supreme wisdom trumps human incomprehension of a temporary situation. You cant accuse such a Being of not knowing or doing whats best. That would be like the patient lecturing the doctor.

    You claim that humans can’t know what God knows. Yet you assert that God knows best. How do you know that?

    In fact, how can you claim to know that god is omnipotent and omniscient? How can you claim to know that your deity is good?

    On the other hand, you CAN compare moral acts. If a human dictator did the things your deity is alleged to have done, would you approve? Would you assert that we just don’t know what the dictator had in mind and that maybe his wisdom trumps ours?

    You appear to be attempting to justify the acts of a being you claim we can’t possibly know or understand by definition. Is that because someone told you this is a deity?

    Some dictators were asserted to be deities. Does that justify their immoral acts?

    How do you justify immoral acts for one being and not for another? Just because there are stories floating around that one of them is a deity and the other is not?

    Are you by any chance a middle school or high school student encountering this issue for the first time? Your responses suggest you aren’t familiar with the issue or with logic.

  28. Robin wrote : Nowhere in what I wrote did I state or imply that  
           omnipotence and omniscience are not mutually exclusive.

    Thanks. Thats what I thought.

    Option A. Mutually exclusive. (paradoxical) 

    Option B. Not mutually exclusive. (compatible.)

    I agree that you definitely didnt state or imply Option B.

    I didn’t state or imply anything about their exclusivity or lack there of in either direction. You’re non sequitur is noted and ignored for lack of validity. Nice try though.

  29. Lion: “Parent – I dont know what God knows.”

    Ehhh…you get only partial credit for this realization. Not only does the parent not know what your supposed “god” knows, the parent didn’t create the surrounding world and the rules governing said world and universe, the parent has no specific knowledge on what the future will be in said world or universe, nor does said parent have the power to change specific given rules (or all rules for that matter) of said world and universe – all things that your supposed “god” has as supposed attributes. Odd then that you seem to think gods and parents are analogous.

     

     

  30. Lion IRC has been dropping by the last couple of days but hasn’t posted anything.  I guess he or she has given up on defending his/her God.

     

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