J. Brian Huffling Discussion with Dr. Michael Shermer on God and Evil

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By J. Brian Huffling

Having seen Dr. Michael Shermer debate many times, I was excited to be able to get a chance to have a discussion with him. Shermer, the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, accepted Southern Evangelical Seminary‘s invitation to have an informal, but moderated, discussion with me on the topic, “Is the Reality of Evil Good Evidence against the Christian God?” This discussion was the culmination of a mini-conference on the problem of evil at SES. He was a delight to have, and the event was a blast.

My Discussion with Dr. Michael Shermer on God and Evil

I am not going to recount the whole debate. I am simply going to discuss some of the most important points and issues. (For those interested, Michael has a podcast of the debate/issue.)

What is ‘Evil’?

Michael was asked by the moderator, Adam Tucker (his thoughts on the discussion are here), to define what he meant by ‘evil.’ He said that evil is the intentional harm of a sentient being. There is no such thing, he said, of an entity that is evil, such as evil spirits, or anything that is pure evil.

I largely agree. Following Augustine, I hold that evil is simply the privation of good. In other words, evil is the corruption of a good thing. The classic example is blindness in the eye. The eye should have a certain power (sight) that it does not. It is lacking and is corrupted. Thus, it is physically evil. Then there is a moral evil. This happens when a person lacks virtues. Overall, though, Michael and I basically agree on what evil is and that there is no existing thing that is pure evil. For Christians, to exist is to somehow be like God, which is good. Further, following Aquinas, good seeks its perfection. Thus, there is a contradiction with an existing evil. Evil really has no goal or purpose in itself. Thus, an existing thing that is somehow good since it has being (in a sense like God) and that seeks its perfection cannot be pure evil.

At this point, we discussed the problem of evil and what it is exactly.

The Problem of Evil Briefly Stated

There are basically 2 forms of the problem of evil: the deductive form and the inductive form. The deductive form is also called the logical argument from evil and argues that the co-existence of the classical view of God and evil are logically impossible. This is the argument Michael used (from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy):

  1. If God exists, then God is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect.
  2. If God is omnipotent, then God has the power to eliminate all evil.
  3. If God is omniscient, then God knows when evil exists.
  4. If God is morally perfect, then God has the desire to eliminate all evil.
  5. Evil exists.
  6. If evil exists and God exists, then either God doesn’t have the power to eliminate all evil, or doesn’t know when evil exists or doesn’t have the desire to eliminate all evil.
  7. Therefore, God doesn’t exist.

This argument makes several assumptions. The most problematic in my view is that God is morally perfect. Many, if not most, Christian theologians take it for granted that God is morally perfect. However, I would argue that God is not the kind of being to be moral. That is not to say he is not good; he is just not morally good. I have written that God is not a moral being. I have also written that God’s goodness does not depend on what he does, but what he is. How does this relate to the problem of evil? If it is indeed the case that God is not a moral being with obligations to man, it makes all the difference in the world. I will not rewrite the articles above on God, morality, and goodness. I will summarize those positions here as they relate to the problem of evil.

As I said in the debate, J. L. Mackie, a notorious atheist of the twentieth century, said that if one gives up a premise in the problem of evil as just laid out, then the problem doesn’t arise (see The Problem of Evil edited by Adams and Adams, page 1). This is exactly what I said we need to do. There are certain assertions/assumptions that have to be made in order for this argument (the problem of evil) to work. I argue that the assertion that God is a morally perfect being is false. If we take that out of the problem, the problem falls.

I am not suggesting this simply to get out of this argument. There are really good reasons for not thinking that God is a moral being, at least in the sense we normally mean when referring to humans being moral. When we say a person is moral, we mean that he behaves well and as he should. In other words, there is a prescribed way in which men are supposed to behave. If they do, they are moral. If they don’t, they are immoral.

I am arguing that God has no prescribed way in which he should behave. There are no obligations imposing on God. God transcends the category of morality like he transcends time and space. Morality is a created category wrapped up in what it means to be a human. Without created beings to live up to some objective standard that God has created him to live up to, there is no moral law.

If this is correct, then God is not a moral being and thus cannot be a morally perfect being. But this is the linchpin of the logical problem of evil as Michael has argued. Once this assertion is removed, as Mackie says, there simply is no logical problem of evil. There is no contradiction with an omnipotent, omniscient being existing alongside of evil. Thus, the problem of evil does not even arise.

All of this is to say that God has no obligation to how he orchestrates the universe. To say that God is morally obligated means that he has to treat his creation in a certain way. This is the basic thrust of the problem of evil. To put it another way, as Michael did at one point, the problem of evil boils down to this: “If God really does exist I would expect the universe to be different/better.” The assumption here is that God should operate the way we think he should. He doesn’t. The inference is that he doesn’t exist.

Again, if we take away the assumption/assertion that God is morally perfect then the problem of evil not only fails, it never gets off the ground. (Please remember we are talking about the academic/philosophical issue of evil and not the emotional/pastoral concern.)

This is not to say God is not good; he is just not morally good. He is metaphysically good and perfect. Given our definition of evil, this just means God lacks nothing. His existence is perfect and cannot be corrupted.

The story of Job illustrates my point that God is not obligated to treat his creatures in any certain way. In the opening chapters of Job God basically dares Satan to attack Job. God maintains to Satan that Job will not curse him (God). Satan agrees. The only caveat is that Satan cannot touch Job. Job’s family (except his wife) is killed, and he loses all of his many possessions. Yet he does not curse God. God gives Satan another chance, but this time Satan can inflict Job with disease; although he cannot kill him. Job is inflicted with sores and physical issues. Still, he does not curse God.

Job’s friends show up and stay with Job, silent, for a week. For many chapters after this Job’s friends argue about what Job did to bring this judgment upon him. They maintain that God would not do this without some (just) cause. Job maintained his innocence and wanted to take God to court and try him for being unjust.

At the end of the book, God shows up. Does he try to explain to Job why he did what he did? Does he offer a theodicy or defense for his actions? No. He basically asks Job where he was when God made all of the wonders of the world. Job cannot answer and repents. In short, God does not try to get off the hook, as it were. Rather he says, “I’m God, and you are not.”

I think this illustrates my point that God does not have to act in any certain way with his people. He is not unjust in dealing with Job the way he did. However, let’s put a human in the place of God and Satan in this story. If a human did to Job what God and Satan did, we would almost certainly say the human would be unjust. However, we would not, presumably, say that God is unjust. Why? Because he’s God. There is no standard by which to judge him. God transcends morality and yet is still perfectly good.

Philosophy vs. Science

This above point is one that I could not get Michael to acknowledge. He did not want to stray from his scientific position. (By ‘scientific’ I mean the modern sense of the word to refer to the natural sciences like biology and chemistry. This should be contrasted with the historical sense of a discipline’s conclusions being demonstrated via first principles and logic. In this latter sense, philosophy and theology were considered sciences.) This is unfortunate because the issues of God and evil are inherently philosophical. As I have written, natural science alone cannot demonstrate God’s existence. Thus, to adequately deal with the issues of the discussion we have to delve into philosophy. Michael would have none of it.

Michael’s main point here is that if God is not measurable, then we can’t know he exists. As I pointed out this is a category mistake as God is not a material being. Thus, even if he did exist, we could not measure him–which Michael acknowledged.

Throughout the debate, Michael approached the issue from the point of view of natural science. I approached it from philosophy. In short, the questions of God’s existence and evil cannot be decided by natural science since they are not physical things in the natural world to be studied: God is not a being in nature and evil is a description of the nature of being (a philosophical concept).

Michael offered a lot of red herrings. I will not deal with those here as they are, well, red herrings.

Conclusion

The problem of evil is not a problem concerning God’s existence if God is not a moral being. Further, questions of God’s existence and evil are inherently philosophical. If you are interested in this topic, I recommend Brian Davies’ The Reality of God and the Problem of Evil.

 


J. Brian Huffling, PH.D. have a BA in History from Lee University, an MA in (3 majors) Apologetics, Philosophy, and Biblical Studies from Southern Evangelical Seminary (SES), and a Ph.D. in Philosophy of Religion from SES. He is the Director of the Ph.D. Program and Associate Professor of Philosophy and Theology at SES. He also teaches courses for Apologia Online Academy. He has previously taught at The Art Institute of Charlotte. He has served in the Marines, Navy, and is currently a reserve chaplain in the Air Force at Maxwell Air Force Base. His hobbies include golf, backyard astronomy, martial arts, and guitar.

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