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The Question of Evil
AUC chatgroup discussion: June 8,
2003-June 17, 2003
If someone asked you why God allows bad things to happen to good people,
what would you say?
Alan: This question elicits some of the most amazing answers. "God doesn't exercise total control"—either because He can't, or because He chooses not to, for reasons best known only to Himself. "Everything's really for the best—somehow." Once in a great while you'll hear someone challenge the platitude that God is good, just, merciful, and loving—but not often.
Ah, but aren't we made in God's image? Didn't he instill in us the
values that he has—justice, love, conscience, etc.? Many of our
beliefs are based upon this premise. So I don't know if I'm convinced by
the can't-understand-God theory.
Fair enough—if you believe that. I don't, myself.
Remember, it's based on a discredited biblical myth, the creation
story. One might argue that the idea of man being created in God's
image is one of the few things about that story that needn't be
considered discredited, but I would want to know why. No, I think
that idea is just the reverse of man creating God in his own image, to
which few in those days would have wanted to admit.
All our conceptions of the Deity—and I'm talking classical Unitarian
concepts—are based upon the assumption that God has given humans
attributes that he himself possesses. God is love, justice,
righteousness, etc. He has what we have, but to a superlative
degree. One of the reasons we reject the doctrine of hellfire is
that it contradicts our view of a just God of love. It
our conscience. Our conscience is what connects us to God. Our God is
transcendent, but he is not a mystery. He is near to us and in us. So we
need to have an explanation for why
things happen to good people that coincides with our view of a just God.
does this assumption [that God has given humans attributes that he
himself possesses] come from? I submit that it comes from wishful
How can we love something that we can't know or understand? For those of
us who consider ourselves Christian, we have the conviction that Jesus'
teachings are a reflection of Divine thinking. Jesus taught a God of
love and justice. He said we should view him as we would a father.
If a person develops Alzheimer's disease, one wonders how that reflects
any fault or failing of their own. If a person develops colorectal
cancer, ditto. If scores or hundreds or millions of people die in
a natural disaster, or in a terrorist attack, or in a holocaust, that's
pretty stern discipline. This is the true meaning of "bad
things happening to good people."
You make a good point. As far as I can tell, the ONLY reason an
omnipotent God of love would refrain from helping people in these sorts
of straits is because it violates one of his already-established laws.
So, in my opinion, God has tied his own hands. There are physical laws
and personal principles that he has set in place and over which he
cannot cross. I like to believe he WANTS to help (and will see to it one
day that we get what we deserve), but he is restricted by his own
The Gnostics had a solution to evil. The world is full of evil and thus
God could not have created the world. They believed that a part of God,
some might call Satan, created the world. But God him/herself did not
actually create the world. To us this sounds strange but it does offer a
solution to the idea of evil. The Gnostics believed that salvation would
be obtained by knowledge and learning and not necessarily by faith.
respectfully disagree with Alan on this. God created the universe
and its laws. As part of that creation, we have free
will. God does not determine what we will do. We can exercise
this freedom for good or for ill. Thus, we have an impact
on the future of the universe and are co-creators of the future of the
universe. In this sense, we are created in God's image. And in
this sense, God is neither omnipotent nor omniscient. If it was
otherwise, the world would, in effect, be dead. God did not create
a dead Universe.
We've actually had this discussion before (before Mr. Miano began
posting to the list), so at this point I'll defer to President Burton;
though, of course, I stand by my beliefs, I accept the fact that I seem
to be alone in them.
B: Sometimes I
cannot resist getting involved in the discussions we have on this list.
When I post to this list, I try to make it clear when I am speaking only
for myself and when I am speaking "corporately."
any event, on the point relating to free will, I was speaking for myself
and there is no need to "defer" to me. Although I do hope
that I can persuade you, we can obviously discuss and disagree on points
of theology and learn from one another and still be part of the
inclusive AUC family.
To tell you the truth, I just deferred at that juncture because I didn't
see any point in going around in circles.
have to cast my vote with Mr. Cousin on this issue. Any human
interpretation of God's love, justice, compassion, or anything else
could be nothing more than anthropomorphism. We know better than
to assume that God looks like us; why would we assume that God thinks or
acts like us?
Ah, thank you! This discussion reminds me again of Isaiah
55:8-9: "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are
your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher
than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and
my thoughts than your thoughts." In context, Isaiah may have
been referring to specific
and thoughts, but I think
principle applies universally. God is
mystery; there is just no way that we, the finite, can comprehend the
infinite; that we, the temporal, can comprehend the eternal; or that we,
the imperfect, can comprehend the perfect.
David M: Why, if I didn't know any better, I would think you two were rejecting the very foundations of Unitarianism. We certainly allow for a multitude of beliefs, and I respect yours truly, but we do have certain central tenets that tie us together, one of which is that "true religion consists in proposing, as our great end, a growing likeness to the Supreme Being" (Channing, “Likeness to God”—I suggest you reread the whole sermon—it's a great one). How can we aspire to be like God, if we don't know what God is like? Why be moral if God isn't?
To me, being a Unitarian means believing in one, unitary God. If
it means anything else, perhaps I don't qualify.
Theologians have wondered about the nature of God for centuries.
I'm glad you've cleared it all up. Har har har.
Let's do a sort of thought experiment (not precisely the right name for
it, but it'll suffice for the moment). I give you three scenarios:
(1) a God creates a universe not knowing what will become of it; (2) a
God creates a universe knowing what will become of it, and not
necessarily liking it, but resolving to create it anyway and not to
interfere in it; and (3) a God who creates a universe with a purpose,
knowing how he will achieve that purpose.
might God have thought when he created any of these universes?
1: "I shall now create a universe. I don't know what
will become of it, but I'm going to create it anyway and see what
I would have to vote for Option #1. The very nature of our
universe is random. Not only are natural forces (e.g.,
earthquakes, lightning) unpredictable, but humankind provides the ultimate
wild card. We can be co-creators, or we can destroy anything we
Now there's a random creation indeed! A universe created for a
purpose, but with inhabitants who aren't part of the purpose?
Alan, I think we are closer than you think on this matter. I also would
opt for #3. And I agree that it may be difficult to ascertain what God's
purpose might be. That purpose is the key here to the question of evil.
from stepping in and stopping evil (here and now, anyway). So, I must
point out that you yourself are saying that God would
something about evil if he could. Indeed, can any being who is
wise and just not be good?
Alan: “You yourself are saying that God would do something about evil if he could.”
wasn't exactly what I meant to imply. I meant to imply that God
has chosen the purpose and the means to achieve it, knowing that those
means would be painful for his creatures.
Does every organism have to be part of the purpose? Were dinosaurs
part of the purpose? Is the AIDS virus part of the purpose?
Is every organism from amoeba to whales part of the purpose now?
If not, why do we assume that humankind has a special purpose but other
organisms do not?
Well, for one, we are the only living creatures capable of even
conceiving of a God and his purpose.
And just how do
that? If one
can know God, does one have to know God in our human way of knowing or
can other creatures/plants ("his creation") know the creator,
too? We assume too much, perhaps. The dolphins smile at us....
Perhaps it is an assumption, but it's based on our belief that we are
far more sentient than other creatures—that we have an ability to
conceptualize that they lack. I think it's a valid assumption,
though I'm sure I've run across animals who were a lot smarter than
you'd expect! :-)
You're sure about this? You've ruled out the possibility that
there are other creatures somewhere in the universe capable of
conceiving of God? And are you also assuming that one must be able
to conceive of a higher purpose to have a part in it?
was speaking of known creatures. Of course, there could be other
intelligent life—I'm not ruling that out—but the fact is that we
have the ability to conceive of a God and worship him, and we received
that ability from him. That's meaningful.
I would say that every organism is part of the purpose; each contributes
to it in some way, however minuscule or far in the past.
This response is part of the "teleological" argument, which
dates back at least to late antiquity.
"problem of evil" arises because God is postulated to possess
the following attributes:
of which is by way of saying that the "problem of evil" is a
function of a particular conception of God that, in my view, cannot
withstand the pressure put on it. It can be solved by changing
one's conception of God.
I think God is perfect, but not in this sense; rather, in the sense of
being complete, lacking nothing, absolutely whole, self-sufficient,
self-existent, and infinite. In my view, omniscience, omnipotence, and
perfection go together; God could not be perfect if he were not
omniscient and omnipotent; he would not be truly omnipotent unless he
were omniscient. I agree [that the problem of evil goes away when you
relax the postulates]; because my definition of "perfect"
pertains to "natural" attributes rather than
"moral," I personally don't acknowledge a "problem of
evil." Here again I agree [that God's sense of goodness or justice
is different than our own]. It is possible to believe that God is
good—even, generally, as we understand it—if we accept that God's
transcendence to mean that his goodness and his eternal aims transcend
what we consider good. These points are where the idea of God breaks
down to me. I can't conceive of a perfect (i.e., complete),
eternal, infinite God without perfect, eternal, infinite power and
knowledge. It may be my failing, but to me it just seems like an
irreconcilable contradiction. Of course, inconceivability does not
equal impossibility, but it does mean, for me, that the probability of
the existence of an eternal, self-existent Being who is not perfect,
infinite, omnipotent, omniscient, etc., is, as I like to say, "vanishingly
agree with Alan that perfection suggests omnipotence and omniscience.
And a further problem that arises, I think, from relaxing any of these
postulates is that God somehow becomes more human and then we should
wonder how much he deserves to be revered.
But there's a paradox, if not a contradiction, between God being
sovereign, and his sovereignty being limited, even by his own
choice. God is not like a human king, who might limit his own
sovereignty out of understanding his own personal limitations and
fallibility. God is not fallible or limited, so there is no reason
for him to limit his own sovereignty. He knows what is best for his own
creation, and it would seem to me that he owes it to himself to enact
it; if he creates a universe with a purpose, and allows that purpose to
be frustrated, he has betrayed himself.
But you're practically saying the same thing that I am. If his purpose
is what governs his actions, if, as you say, "he owes it to
himself," then his power is still being limited by something that
he determined beforehand. He betrays himself if he interferes. He still
looks on at the evil taking place, and it must affect him somehow
emotionally—at least I'd like to think so. But he is powerless to act,
because he made a pact with himself.
Yes, in this instance we are practically "on the same
page." We both seem to be saying that God could intervene if
he wished, but has chosen not to do so, for reasons of his own. But
to someone who believes in a "good" God (as we define
"good"), I don't see that that answers the problem.
The answer is not as complicated as we make it out to be. Evil is not a
mistake, it is a side-effect of free will. God knows that if humans have
no free will then concepts of virtue, and the soul have no meaning. If
human beings cannot choose to be evil they cannot choose to be good.
There is some disagreement among us about free will. I, for one, do
not believe in it, because I believe it is incompatible with God's
omnipotence and omniscience. I make a distinction between free
will on the metaphysical level and free will on the physical level,
maintaining that it does not exist on the former, while it (apparently)
exists to us on the latter.
in mind that there are two types of evils: human evils and natural
evils. Human evils are, ostensibly, a by-product of free will, but
in reality they result from a lack of good—a lack of love, a lack of
tolerance, a lack of understanding, or a lack of economic goods.
Often they result from fear. These "evils" have defined
God's earthly creation since humans first walked upright and gathered in
evils are just that: natural. If we humans just so happen to be in the
wrong place at the wrong time (to catch a virus or to encounter an
earthquake or fall off a cliff), the evil happens to us because of what
we chose or happened to do. Did God have anything to do with it?
interesting point: a part of Creation that is both essential to our
lives, and inherently dangerous to them (unless we recognize the danger
and protect ourselves). What do you make of that? I take it
you'd agree that God knew this would be the case, and that lives would
be lost due to harmful sunrays.
rock question is actually more interesting than it looks at a
glance. My first inclination would be to say that, no, God cannot
create a rock too heavy for himself to lift, because all physical things
have finite mass, whereas God's power is infinite. The difference
between finite and infinite is not only quantitative, but
qualitative. But of course my first answer begs the question,
"Why couldn't God break his own rules (i.e., the rule that all
physical things are finite) and create a rock of infinite
mass?" In that case, the rock would have to have either
infinite volume or infinite density, but presumably God could still do
it. To me a more pertinent question would be, "Why would
"Absolute equality of opportunity" should define God's
position—not just opportunity for us humans, but opportunity for
all—viruses and bacteria exist and have an opportunity, no matter how
inconvenient to us...we are certainly an inconvenience to them with our
medicinal efforts. It balances out somehow, in spite of us. That
may be closer to the Big Picture from the
perspective…this email thread keeps looking at everything from the
human position as the penultimate. If everything has an equal
opportunity, there is no good nor evil, only one thing or the other in a
position of power, temporary as it may be. This is a more neutral
outlook, and needs no philosophical delving into the whys and
wherefores…the flow continues. We accept where we can and fight what
we deem undesirable, but from the other side's viewpoint, our fight
against the evil of the disease is a killing of that organism…not a
good thing for it, even though we think it is. Balance. Objectivity.
This is an interesting way to put it, but I think you're essentially
saying something similar to what I say—that everything has a place in
God's purpose. Of course it's true that we have been examining
this issue from a strictly human perspective. That's not too
surprising, for two reasons: (1) human is what we all are; and (2) it's
natural for us to take for granted that, since we believe we have
greater sentience than any other species, our impressions count for the
most. Certainly they do to us!
Yes, and that is my point...we are trying to look at what God is
thinking or reasoning, and we are looking at it from our perspective
only. If we would step back and look from another point of view we might
see that what we think isn't all that important in the whole
picture...if everything had equal importance, including us, as it would
from God's view perhaps, then the total picture could be quite
different. Surely we are not so arrogant as to believe that we are so
supremely important as to discount all else??
So, let's say someone gets AIDS. And they pray to God for help. God's
reply would be: "…and kill that poor HIV? I don't think so!"
On the other hand, why did God create the AIDS virus in the first
place? Or any other viral or bacterial disease? I would say we are
capable of religion for the same reason we're capable of love, honor,
patriotism, etc.—it's part of our intellectual and emotional
evolution. I think we must admit that ultimately all human
conceptions of God are just that—human conceptions. Although I
believe there is a God, who created, sustains, and rules our universe, I
also believe that all the gods we humans worship are of our own
making. Yes, God gave us the ability to pray and to worship, but I
don't believe that connects us to him in any special way.
interesting discussion! I’ve just gotten caught up, or as close
as I’ll get :)
Thank you, Nathan...Someone sees! We are so human-centered we
cannot get beyond our myopia. As you say, has anyone prayed away those
things? "Absolute equality of opportunity."
V: I am
persuaded Jacqueline and Alan press the most persuasive perspective
regarding a reason for the existence of evil as ultimately within
the mystery of God. I am further persuaded we err when we consign
to "natural" events the quality of evil.
best understand evil in the human context only, which for me is
best conveyed in the defining of sin as "chosen"
evil, which I think puts me firmly in the school, I think,
espoused by D. Burton as rooted in our free will.
quandary this leaves me in, I think, is that I am suggesting (more
correctly agreeing with more erudite predecessors) that we are
exercising free will in a preponderantly deterministic universe.
Further, that this is a uniquely human attribute (sorry Jacqueline) and
that Plato's cave provides an ameliorating metaphor to enable living
with the seemingly inherent contradiction. The probable existence of
similarly "superiorly sentient" beings elsewhere in the
universe is no bar to asserting our primacy among earth’s lifeforms,
but merely coequal status with them in relationship to God.
think I have a headache now, so I will now retire. A belated Happy
Father’s Day; mine certainly was.
is certainly appropriate to pray for strength, serenity, or guidance in
times of trouble. But, in my opinion, unless you believe that God
caused the bad thing that happened to you, there is no reason to pray
that God do something about it. This is just another version of
the Santa Claus prayer. And there is certainly no reason to expect
God to spare us from the foreseeable results of our own actions.
Prayer will not help the student who does not study for an examination,
or the man who insists on building his house on a flood plain, or the
pilot who does not make sure his plane is in proper working order before
taking off, or the person who refuses to take the medication prescribed
to control a potentially life-threatening condition. In the words of
Robert Green Ingersoll, "In nature there are neither rewards nor
punishments; there are only consequences."
My HIV anecdote was not intended to be a comment about prayer. Perhaps
it wasn't the best illustration of my point, which is that I don't think
God believes the happiness of a virus is as important as our happiness.
Why? Because viruses can't experience happiness.
Now it's God's responsibility to make people happy? Still sounds
anthropocentric to me.
the capability for happiness. I think he does everything for a reason.
There is a difference between giving the capacity for happiness and
giving happiness itself. If God gave us anything, he gave us the
power and responsibility to work things out for ourselves.
[Regarding the first scenario] Not necessarily. God may do these
things for a purpose, but it need not be for punishment. That's a
particularly anthropocentric view.
I was thinking of the second scenario. And yes, it still is an issue,
because we are assuming God can see
He can see people dying in natural disasters. How does it make him feel?
Would he not feel some degree of responsibility for what is happening?
If someone lets their
dog out without a leash, and it bites somebody, whose fault is it?
Quite right. If God can stop something, but allows it, it's as
much his doing as if he caused it willfully.
Kurt: "I think he does everything for a reason. Don't you?"
Referring back to the New Testament, it seems to me to indicate that God
is intimately aware of and involved in our fates, as well as those of
all his creatures. It says God has counted the very hairs of our
heads, that not a sparrow falls without his knowledge, that he feeds the
birds of the air and clothes the flowers of the field.
see no reason to believe that God feels
the way we feel things, least of all guilt. Emotion of any kind is
another human function, which I think we ought not to ascribe to God.
God has no feelings? I find this difficult to accept. He invented
emotion. And he created things that evoke emotion. No, God feels. He may
not feel guilt, but he certainly loves.
Obviously I question that, but as to God feeling in general, let us not
forget that feelings are a result of human evolution, and they are a
biological function with discernible anatomical loci. There is no
reason to suppose God would have them.
Actually, I am inclined to agree with [Mr. Miano]. But it is still
You've got it reversed. God is theomorphizing.
David Miano's original question was, "If someone asked you why bad
things happen to good people, what would you say?" I think
this has to be taken to include natural occurrences—in fact, because
there's little or no choice involved in many (or most) such occurrences,
that is the true meaning of the problem. Bad things don't happen
to us as a
result of our bad choices—we bring them on ourselves, we make them
happen. But, for example, when a good person contracts any of
several types of cancer, or Alzheimer's disease, that's when something
bad has happened
to him or
her. That's when people have the most legitimate grounds to ask,
"Why would God do this (or let this happen)?" That's
where free will isn't a factor, and God's goodness, justice, mercy,
love, omnipotence and omniscience really come into question.
Right. And this is why the "equal opportunity" theory does not
work. It doesn't explain natural disasters. Does a tidal wave come and
destroy a village because God wants the water to have equal opportunity?
Does a tornado destroy people's homes because God wants equal
opportunity for the wind?
quite agree. The great bulk of human advancement has been aimed at
are you saying that God cares for humanity, but individuals are
Yes, I guess that is
I am saying. Humanity comes first—individuals second. I think that
helps explain a lot. It reminds me of the laws of robotics that Isaac
Asimov developed for his robot novels, if you'll forgive the analogy.
not permitted to harm individual humans, but they have an overriding
program—they are not permitted to harm humanity. Sometimes the first
law must be sacrificed in order to obey the second.
Yes, that would be my position too. God's purpose for humanity has
more to do with the species' development than with the welfare of any
At some level,
it is a simple fact with respect to creation that all individual
organisms clearly are "expendable" since they (we) all
I fear I must be extremely dissentient in your explication of
evil. Once any man or woman is perceived, not just slightly lesser
than God, but only equal to the great horned owl or snail-darter, then
any man or woman may be "sacrificed" to save them at the whim
of the powerful at any time in history. This position is Comtian
altruism adust, which says one must
for the demands of the good of the whole; in fact, altruism demands
it. This misguided thinking is the basis of Marxism, NSDAPism,
Fascism, and almost every totalitarian scheme in the past two hundred
years. No, no. This position must be rethought at the most
basic philosophical level. Life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness
is for humans, not dinosaurs. We, of course, compromise in saving
life, but never to granting "degree" rather than
"kind" to lesser creature, for whose care we have been charged
by the Hebrew God.
don't think any of us are endorsing an attitude that individuals can and
should be sacrificed for the greater good. We're talking about God only.
He is all-knowing. He is the only one who understands what is really
for the human race. We trust his judgment. We humans cannot make those
sorts of decisions, so we best not. We leave that up to God.
great bulk of human advancement has been aimed at overcoming
things. He's not doing it to
It happens naturally. He simply refrains from protecting us from it.
Exactly. God alone can make these decisions, and appears to make
them all the time, if his infinite judgment, wisdom, and sovereignty are
But this takes
us back to the one of the original concerns—if God isn't sending them
directly, God, as the creator, is certainly responsible for their
existence in the first place. Nature is a system built by
God. If tornadoes are part of that system, then we have to wonder
why, as you stated, God refrains to protect us from them. God
therefore would be doubly guilty-once for creating something
so dangerous to us, and twice for refusing to protect us.
And that's the problem of evil.
If it's true that God "maketh his sun to shine" and "maketh
the rain to fall," then it seems to me that it is not too much of a
leap to say that God sends natural disasters—whether by causing them
directly or by allowing them.
it does take us back to one of the original questions, but it's
debatable whether this makes God doubly "guilty." If it
were true that God created a system in which he had no intention of ever
interfering, he is only responsible for creating a dangerous system in
the first place.
Unless I misunderstood Mr. Cousin's agreement with [Mr. Miano’s]
statement, there is no real difference between God's deliberately
sending a disaster or simply allowing it to occur. Whether God's
purpose is to punish or to challenge, we are still assuming that God is
doing something to impact humanity. This is anthropomorphism,
however you slice it.
assuming that the disasters happen for no other purpose except to impact
humanity somehow. Now that’s
Does everything God make have to do with us? No. The disasters affect
us, but that don't have to be for
not my assumption. I have said all along that disasters happen
"For our own good" depends a lot on your perspective.
The biblical perspective is that earthly punishment equals chastisement,
which would be for our own good. But punishment on the grand scale
of a natural disaster is more apt to be retributive, I think. I
would say that for God to indulge in retributive "justice" is
to assign to humankind and its actions a lot more innate significance
than they warrant. But you have a point; there is a fine line.
understood my agreement, but I differ with your conclusion. If God
sends or allows natural disasters as a stimulus, it has to do with his
ultimate purpose, not with our welfare as such. I regard it as
thoroughly theocentric. Fundamentalists do view AIDS as a
punishment. But it is only a matter of perspective to us, not to
again, I would say [randomness] would indicate a haphazard and negligent
Tornados happen in predictable areas...if people choose to live in these
areas, is this God's fault?
You're right. Life doesn't have to be perfectly safe. And this doesn't
mean God is negligent. Why does everything have to be created for our
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