Monday, 21 May 2012

Collateral Damage

Norman L. Geisler is a giant in the world of Christian apologetics.  He has taught at the university and graduate levels for more than 50 years, has spoken and debated all over the world, and is author or co-author of more than 70 books.

It is for this reason that I decided to read Geisler's recent book, "If God, Why Evil?".  As the back cover says, "The problem of evil is perhaps the most difficult question the Christian must face.  If God is all-good and all-powerful, why is there suffering in the world?  Can't God put an end to murder, rape, and starvation?  What about earthquakes, hurricanes and tsunamis?  Why couldn't a perfect God have made a perfect world?"

Among those who have given hearty endorsements to the book are Franklin Graham, Gary R. Habermas, Ravi Zacharias, and Lee Strobel.  For example, Strobel says, "This is classic Geisler--brilliant, incisive, succinct, convincing.  He's one of the great defenders of Christianity."

So, does "If God, Why Evil?" present "a new way" to think about the question, as the subtitle states?  I'll present my review in two parts; covering chapters 1 through 5 in this post, and 6 through 10 in the next.  The title, "Collateral Damage", will make sense once I am totally done. Let's jump right into it.

Chapter 1, "Three Views on Evil":

Geisler begins by saying that there are three basic answers to the overall problem...

"Pantheism affirms God and denies evil.
Atheism affirms evil and denies God.
Theism affirms both God and evil."

After dismissing pantheism, with little more than a wave of his hand (fine by me), Geisler comments, with nearly as much brevity, on atheism.  The thrust of his case here seems to be that, "we can't know something is unjust unless we know what is just.  But if there is a moral law demanding that we ought always to be just, this leads us right back to a Moral Lawgiver."  I've never found this to be a terribly convincing argument, and Geisler makes little attempt to defend it. As conscious beings, we can look around and see that some of our fellow creatures are experiencing great pain, for no apparent reason, and others great pleasure.  Why do we need a "moral lawgiver" to conclude that one situation is preferable to the other?

Geisler closes the chapter with a ridiculous illustration about a theist and an atheist walking in the woods.  They come across a glass ball, about eight feet in diameter, and agree that someone or something must have put it there.  But, "if we make the ball as big as the whole universe: would it still need a cause?".  I guess, in Geisler's mind, this is a real "gotcha" type moment.  But, of course, we know the glass ball was put there by "someone or something" because, hello, it's a glass ball!  Humans know how glass is made, and many of us have seen it in action.  Have scientists discovered something akin to a "Big Bang", for glass balls, suggesting that they might have come about through entirely natural means?  No, they haven't.  The whole argument is just silly.  Does Geisler really think that glass balls are perfectly synonymous with the universe?  It seems he does.

Chapter 2, "The Nature of Evil":

In this chapter Geisler attempts to argue against the idea that God "created evil".  After all, the Bible does say that God created all things.  His answer, basically, is to deny that evil is a "thing". So, much like a wound, evil exists only as a privation or corruption of something else (ie. a wound needs an arm to exist).  I do not intend to argue against this line of thought, but I do find it humorous to watch the way in which Geisler plays with words.  (He has to, in order to make his arguments work.)  For example, in trying to deny that Satan is "totally evil", he claims that "yes, he (Satan) is evil in a moral sense, but not in a metaphysical sense.  Just like fallen humans still have God's image, even so Satan has the remnants of good that God gave to him as a created angel."

Chapter 3, "The Origin of Evil":

If God is absolutely perfect, and God cannot create anything imperfect, than why is there evil? How can absolute good be the source of evil?  Geisler thinks the answer lies in free will.  Even a perfect creature is capable of evil, he says.  "Apart from the saints in heaven (who have it relatively), only God absolutely has the freedom not to choose evil.  The highest freedom is the freedom from evil, not the freedom of doing evil.  Here on earth, while we're still making our ultimate choice as to whether we'll do our will or God's will, we must have choice; otherwise we would be robots, puppets, or automatons."

But, what does Geisler mean exactly when he says that those in heaven have "relative" freedom? He doesn't explain it any further at this point.  Are those in heaven, "robots, puppets, or automatons"?  Surely Geisler doesn't think so.  And if this heavenly freedom is better, than the sort of freedom we have on earth, why did God not create it to start with?  Is God not capable of such a thing?  He is all-powerful, is he not?  After all, as Geisler himself says, "the highest freedom is the freedom from evil".  This will come up again, in chapter 6, so we'll re-visit the argument then.

According to Geisler, "God made evil possible by creating free creatures; they are responsible for making it actual."  To this I would simply respond, so what?  It's like saying that when I took my child to the home of a known rapist, for a little sleepover party, I only made the subsequent evil "possible".  After all, I'm not the one who made the rape "actual"; that part, of course, is completely the rapists fault.  Right?  So I guess I'm off the hook.  Hardly!  God is still responsible for making evil possible, even if we grant Geisler's entire argument.

Chapter 4, "The Persistence of Evil":

Geisler begins chapter 4 by stating "the argument from the persistence of evil" this way...

1. If God is all-good, He would destroy evil.
2. If God is all-powerful, He could destroy evil.
3. But evil is not destroyed.
4. Therefore, no such God exists.

After some equivocation re: the word "destroy", Geisler replaces it with the word "defeat".  At that point his question becomes, "Can God defeat evil without destroying freedom?".  Yes, Geisler says, because God will surely one day defeat evil.  "Because if God is all-good, He wants to defeat it, and if He is all-powerful, He is able to defeat it.  Therefore, evil will one day be defeated." In other words, "if Christianity is true, which I've already decided it is, this is the only viable option I am left with".  Of course, Geisler would never say it in quite those words.

Notice as well that he doesn't yet attempt to explain why God does not "defeat" evil right now. (We'll get to his views on that in the second half of the book.)  Instead he just makes a bold, question begging assertion, namely that God will defeat evil someday.  How does Geisler know this?  He doesn't, but it must be true because it's literally the only conclusion he can think of that is consistent with his Christian worldview.  In other words, he takes it on faith.

Chapter 5, "The Purpose of Evil":

Geisler begins chapter 5 by admitting that an "all-good" God must have a good purpose for all suffering.  "If He didn't, then he wouldn't be an all-good God."  I have to give Geisler credit for at least facing up to the logical conclusion, his ideology requires, in this respect.  Can he defend it?

Over the next several pages he tries to insist, in a variety of ways, that there simply must be a good purpose for all suffering.  There just has to be!  He gives reasons such as: a) that we don't know a good purpose for some evil does not mean there is no good purpose for it, b) it should not be expected that we know the purpose for everything, and c) an infinitely good mind knows a good purpose for everything.

This paragraph, in particular, jumped out at me, "Not only can no mortal assert with confidence that there can be no good purpose for some suffering (because we do not know it), but we can affirm with certainty that God does know the good purpose for all suffering and other evils.  Why? Because God is omniscient, and an all-knowing mind knows everything.  Further, God is omnibenevolent, and an all-good God has a good purpose for everything He does or permits. Hence we know for sure that there is a good purpose for all suffering--including the apparently unjust or innocent kinds--even if we do not know it."

This is circular logic in action folks.  Geisler might as well just say, "I know my worldview is correct, because my worldview is correct".  And notice how he employs words like "certainty" and "for sure".  There is nary a doubt in Geisler's mind, about what he is asserting, even though he has given virtually no good evidence for it.  He is also conflating the probable and the possible. Technically I agree that, "no mortal can assert with confidence that there can be no good purpose for some suffering", but the problem is we're not arguing about what's merely "possible" here.  The fact still remains that the atheist's view remains far more probable, than Geisler's view, given the evidence we have to work with.

So Geisler admits, in a somewhat roundabout way, that Christians simply don't know the reason for all suffering.  He is perfectly fine with this, because his Christian faith tells him that God knows the reason.  It's as simple as that.  Does he expect non-believers to find this rationale convincing?

Hey, here's a thought...maybe gratuitous suffering really is gratuitous.  Maybe, when toddlers suffer and die from cancer or starvation, it isn't part of a master plan.  Maybe it just sucks.  Full stop.  Maybe the simplest explanation (that there is no God overseeing it all) is the correct one. Geisler is not prepared to consider this option because he has already decided that there must be a reason.  It's the only possibility he is willing to even entertain.  I, Norman Geisler, am utterly convinced that Christianity is true; therefore, there is a reason for all suffering.

This brings me to the halfway point, of "If God, Why Evil?", so I'll pick it up right here next time for a discussion of chapters 6 through 10.


  1. Wonder what the mother's in Africa are thinking when they prayed and prayed for rain so they could feed their babies and then the rains come and create mud slides. If the god of the bible loved children like the bible says then they would not have to watch their children and babies starve to death! Looking forward to part two.

  2. **The thrust of his case here seems to be that, "we can't know something is unjust unless we know what is just. But if there is a moral law demanding that we ought always to be just, this leads us right back to a Moral Lawgiver."**

    That he begins with such presuppositionalist bull**** is pretty much ends the discussion for me. I'd read on, as you did, but that argument is fallacious and nonsensical. It ignores the basic reality that morality evolved with consciousness and the adaptation of humanity into a cooperative collective.