Sunday, 10 June 2012

Collateral Damage, Part 2

What follows is the second half, of my review of Norman L. Geisler's "If God, Why Evil".  If you haven't read part one, please do so now.  We have a lot to cover, so let's not waste any time...

Chapter 6, "The Avoidability of Evil":

In this chapter Geisler attempts to answer the question, why did God not choose to make a better world?  He suggests five possibilities:

1. No world at all;
2. A world with no free creatures in it;
3. A world with free creatures who could not sin;
4. A world with free creatures who would not sin;
5. A world with free creatures who would sin, but all would be saved.

Geisler's basic approach, in cases one through four, is to argue that these worlds are not in fact morally better.

In case number 3 he (finally) addresses the argument that I raised, in my discussion of chapter 3, namely, why did God not just create heaven to begin with?  His answer is nothing, if not gutsy, "...some things cannot be created directly; some things can be produced only through a process. Again, patience is produced through the process of tribulation (Romans 5:3 KJV).  Trial forms character (James 1:2), and there can be no sense of forgiveness without sin.  In short, God has to create free creatures who could sin before He could produce free creatures who can't sin...God had to give us lower freedom (freedom to do evil) in order to achieve a higher freedom for us (freedom from evil)."

Wow.  So let's take the example of a child who dies from starvation in Africa.  According to Geisler God's purpose, in allowing this to happen, is to build character through suffering.  Just for a moment let's suppose this were true.  Let's suppose that God is trying to teach the mother, of that starving child, patience, or trust, or some such noble thing.  As despicable as that sounds, even on the face of it, there is a yet bigger problem.  Doesn't this turn the child into nothing more than a meaningless pawn in God's (rather sick) system?  Was the child also supposed to be refined (morally) through the process of their own starvation?  Was God's ultimate goal merely to turn them into a better person, through suffering, so that they would be ready for the sort of (perfect) freedom heaven offers?  This seems to be precisely what Geisler is saying, and it makes me physically ill.

Let's skip forward to number 5, where he argues, "a free world where all would be saved may not be actually achievable".  This one word, achievable, is very key to Geisler's argument; and, in fact, to the premise of the entire book.  "A world with even one person in hell would not be the best world conceivable.  But granting that creatures are truly free, a world with an untold number of people in hell may be the best world achievable.  This is because not everything logically possible is actually attainable."  In other words, sure, perhaps you or I could conceive of a better world, but that doesn't mean it's achievable!

Geisler sums up chapter 6 as follows, "This present world is not the best of all possible worlds, but it is the best of all possible ways to the best of all achievable worlds."

And lest you accuse God of an "ends justifies the means" ethic remember, as we established in chapter 3, "God is not producing or promoting evil means, to attain a good end.  He is permitting them."

Poor God, you've really got to feel sorry for the guy.  This was clearly the best he could "achieve". Cut him some slack, won't you?

Chapter 7, "The Problem of Physical Evil":

If all moral evil can be explained by free choice, as Geisler believes it can, than how to explain "physical evil"?  After all, "no one wills a lightning strike or a tsunami...".

Geisler's solution is to try and connect all physical evil to free moral agents, either directly or indirectly, come hell or high water.  And when he can't blame it on humans he resorts to, you guessed it, evil spirits (demons).  "Some have suggested that these spirits could be behind the other physical evils not attributable to human free choices (e.g., see Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil)."

How convenient.

"According to one view, Adam's sin alone could account for all physical evils.  Add to that the evils inflicted by Satan and evil spirits and one need look no further for the possible explanation of all physical evil."

Of course, in order to do so, one must completely ignore (as Geisler does) modern scientific evidence against Adam & Eve.  In fact it now seems quite clear, to anyone versed on the issue, that they didn't exist.  One must also try really hard to forget totally about the fact that there is not one shred of credible evidence suggesting the existence of invisible beings like Satan, demons, or, for that matter, angels of any kind.

Chapter 8, "Miracles and Evil":

Even if evil is the result of free choice, God could still intervene to prevent undesirable physical consequences; so why doesn't he?  "For example, every time a would-be murderer attempted to kill an innocent person, God could intercept the bullet before it hit its victim.  Every knife used in an attempted assault could be miraculously turned into jelly.  In every attempted choking, the noose could be turned into a noodle.  All poison aimed at killing someone could be chemically neutralized, and so on."

Geisler formulates the argument this way:

1. If God is all-powerful, He could supernaturally intervene to stop all physical evils.
2. If God is all-good, He would miraculously intervene to stop all physical evils.
3. There is much physical evil that God does not intervene to stop.
4. Hence there is no all-powerful and all-loving God.

He concedes points 1 and 3, but he spends a fair bit of time trying to refute number 2.  In doing so, Geisler gives numerous reasons that God does not always miraculously prevent physical evil. Included in his list are things like, "It is not possible to have a regular miraculous interruption of the natural order", "constant miracles would defeat the conditions for moral improvement", and, my personal favorite, "continued miraculous intervention would eliminate an important pre-condition for achieving the best world possible".  In other words, "No pain. no gain.  Without danger, the virtue of courage cannot be developed.  Without trials and tribulations we can have no patience.  God has to permit sin before we can experience forgiveness.  Higher order virtues are dependant on allowing lower-order evils.".  This last sentence is probably one of the most important, in the entire book, since it cuts to the heart of Geisler's overall case.  But even if one fully accepts the suggestion, that evil can be used to refine us, and create "higher order virtues", how does that account for the especially gratuitous examples?  How about the child who dies of cancer?  Or the one who is locked in a basement dungeon, year after year, and repeatedly raped by some crazy sicko?  According to Geisler these children, and others like them, are just ***God's collateral damage***; an unfortunate side effect of his much larger plan to ultimately create the best "conceivable world" (in heaven).  Geisler claims that God already does stop as much suffering as he possibly stop even one more person's suffering would somehow destroy his master plan.

Do I even need to explain why I find this objectionable (and utterly unbelievable)?

Chapter 9, "The Problem of Eternal Evil (Hell)":

I've written before, about some of my problems with an eternal hell, so I'll do my best to be quick here.  In this chapter Geisler discusses his reasons for rejecting various of the "category alternatives", to an eternal hell (ie. "rehabilitationism", or "annihilationism" etc.).

Before he even gets into this discussion though, Geisler engages in more circular logic, arguing for things like, "Jesus affirmed the existence of Hell", "The Bible affirms there is a Hell", "The Cross Of Christ Implies Hell", and so on.  I need not refute these individually or, frankly, even comment on them at all since, as I say, they are entirely circular on his part.  It matters not to me that the Bible teaches there is an eternal hell, for example, since I no longer accept the Bible as either authoritative or necessarily correct on any given issue.  Let's move on.

Most of Geisler's arguments, or should I say counter-arguments, in this chapter center completely around the premise (popularized by CS Lewis), that the gates of hell are "locked from the inside". Everyone in hell is continuing in their rebellion against God, thus they still deserve to be there (and this will remain the case eternally).  But does Geisler really believe that not one of the people in hell will realize the error of their ways and cry out for mercy?  Actually, yes he does!  From within Geisler's impenetrable bubble, there is literally no one on the face of the planet who rejects Christianity for intellectual reasons.  All unbelievers are living in willful rebellion against a God they know exists.  Period.  As he states, near the end of the chapter, "All who go to hell could have avoided going there if they had chosen to do so.  No pagan anywhere is without clear light from God so that he is without excuse."  Since I reject this premise (and, to be honest, have difficulty even taking it seriously), I need not refute the rest of Geisler's points.  Pretty much his entire argument, in chapter 9, hangs and is built on this.

So, in the interests of brevity, allow me to simply offer myself as a refutation...

I, Respectful Atheist, rejected Christianity for intellectual reasons.  I am not in rebellion against God, nor do I hold any acrimony against him or my Christian experience.  If it turns out that I am wrong, in my honest assessment of the factual claims of Christianity, I will indeed cry out for mercy in hell, admitting fully the error of my ways and asking for God's forgiveness.

Geisler only has two choices remaining: a) call me a liar, or b) revise his argument.  Truth be told, there are probably millions of people who reject Christianity for very similar (ie. mostly intellectual) reasons.  They, like me, are just not convinced that Jesus was the Messiah, the Bible was inspired by God, and so on and so forth.  To Geisler, this is tantamount to bald faced "rebellion", and it deserves eternal punishment.

Chapter 10, "What About Those Who Have Never Heard?":

In Geisler's final chapter he speaks to the eternal fate of those ("multimillions") who have died, or will die, without ever having so much as heard about the gospel of Christ.  Are they condemned to hell also?

"There are two basic responses to this question by orthodox Christians: inclusivism and exclusivism.  The first view (inclusivism) claims that while no one can be saved apart from the work of Christ, they can be saved without knowing about that work, providing they meet certain prerequisites.  The second view (exclusivism) holds that they cannot be saved apart from the work of Christ, nor can they be saved without knowing about the work (called the gospel) and believing in it."

If inclusivism is true, evangelical churches need to seriously re-think their approach to missions work.  According to this view it would be better for someone to never know about the gospel, than to hear and reject it.  A person in this first situation (never having heard) may still find themselves in heaven but, in the second (hearing and rejecting), they are surely condemned to hell.  The problem is, statistically speaking, the majority of people who hear the gospel do reject it, so this makes missionaries, and those who support them financially, foolhardy at best.  It's like playing Russian roulette with people's eternal souls.  It would be far more compassionate to allow the unreached people groups to remain unreached, if inclusivim were true.  In any event, Geisler is an exclusivist, so I need not say anything further about inclusivism.

"For exclusivists, the problem of those who have never heard has an even greater intensity.  How can God be all-loving if He condemns people to eternal hell who have not even had a chance to hear the plan of salvation?"  Geisler answers this question with four points.  I'll comment on each briefly.

1. Everyone Has General Revelation in Nature.

The Bible says that unbelievers are "without excuse", because God has "been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made...".  I suppose this would be a reasonable argument, were it not for the fact that science has progressed in leaps and bounds, over the past few thousand years, calling this very premise into serious question.  In "Bible times", there was little (if any) rational alternative, to "God did it", but this just isn't the case today.  As Richard Dawkins is famous for saying, "after Darwin, you can be an intellectually fulfilled atheist".  So, it seems to me that, contra what the Bible says, us heathens in fact have some pretty great "excuses" for not believing.

2. No One Can Be Saved Apart From the Knowledge of Christ.

Uhhh.  Isn't Geisler just re-stating his conclusion here, using slightly different wording?  How is this even an "argument" at all?  (Back to that circular logic thing again.)  Next point please.

3. Everyone Who Seeks God Finds God.

This is perhaps the most dubious of Geisler's four points.  What proof does he have, for such a bold claim?  I can certainly understand how it would make him feel better, but there is no good reason to believe it to be true.  Besides, there are many who "seek" God, but do NOT find him. For example, there are large numbers of atheists who, like myself, arrived at their current beliefs only after seeking God and finding nothing.  Geisler makes no attempt to defend this claim (other than quoting Bible verses...surprise, surprise).

4. God Has Many Ways to Get the Message to Those Who Seek Him.

Geisler wraps up his final chapter with another blanket statement that he is unable to demonstrate (just a couple of anecdotes, and more Bible verses).  Perhaps it is fitting.

"If God, Why Evil?" closes with three appendixes; "Animal Death Before Adam", "Evidence for the Existence of God" and "A Critique of The Shack".  I won't take up any more of your precious time, by analyzing these sections.  They're not part of Geisler's core argument and, frankly, I think I've said more than enough in response already (especially for a book that runs less than 175 pages in total).

If you've read both parts, of my review, you might have the impression that I think this is a terrible book.  I don't.  Geisler does a fair job here, of defending the Christian perspective on suffering and evil.  It's as good as most anyone could probably do (as I pointed out, at the beginning of part 1, Geisler is no dummy).  But therein lies my broader point, and the reason I even took the time to put together this review; at the end of the day, after the ink is spilled and all the hand waving is done, the problem of evil still stands.  It remains a highly potent objection to the Christian faith (arguably the most potent of all), and Geisler's book does nothing to change that fact.


  1. I'm going to have to read this now. You were pretty kind to ol' Norman - thus the moniker, I suppose :)

    I don't think I'll manage to be nearly so kind. I have a couple posts on my blog that delve into a lot of issues. To me, this issue is the godkiller, more than any other. It doesn't compute.

    Thanks for the in-depth review!

  2. The prime problem with these mind sets is not the belief in God. As any honest intelectual can easily determine, The concept of a creator at this point is still the most logical belief, and the position most supported by science. However, That doesn't proove it to be so.

    The prime failure is the belief that a book is the innerant word of God. This is 2 things.

    1 - The belief in scriptural innerancy is Idolatry.
    2 - The belief in scriptural innerancy is a Mental Disorder.

  3. Well. There's much I could say here. For one, I agree that 5 is morally preferable to 1-4. I believe allowing 5 is the only way to get 4. 3 is a paradox: a creature that can't sin isn't free.

    You ask a great question, one I've wrote much about in various comboxes but haven't quite assembled into a post of my own: why didn't God create Heaven on the first go? My answer is tied to what I just wrote above.

    Lastly, at least for now, you wrote,

    "Geisler only has two choices remaining: a) call me a liar, or b) revise his argument."

    I think you may have overlooked a third option. He could reply that you are honest and sincere but just deluded by the sin nature. In fact, I bet that's the option he'd take. For me, the matter is too complex to be packaged so neatly.

    1. Cl, I believe you give the Christian establishment and orthodoxy and those who follow it too much credit. Like our friend the Respectful Atheist, I was submerged in this dogma for quite some time and am still exposed to it, so I well know its inner workings.

      Needless to say that most Orthodox Christians would likely reply that a soul's ability to repent after being damned to hell is irrelevant since the punishment is by its nature, eternal. Although by this answer they would only demonstrate that they fail to realize the greater ethical implications of such a God that determines the value of sincere repentance based on no criteria other than the time in which it occurs (before or after death) and the fact that this contradicts their general theories of child-rearing which suggest that moral sensibility is only possible through heavy-handed physical discipline...

      (I.e. the "God doesn't care about your repentance in hell" argument makes the assertion that repentance which comes about as a result of punishment/suffering is not as good/is no good compared to represented that comes about do to fear of the possibility of said punishment/suffering. If you know anything about human learning, you know we are very stubborn creatures, and the stereotypical example of "burning your hand on the stove" as a child generally holds true.)

      Aside from this, one must inevitably look upon any God who would conduct himself in this way with moral revulsion. Indeed, if there is any "unconditionally loving" God, would it not follow that he would be more forgiving, more amiable, more inclusive than perhaps any human can possibly imagine? It seems that worse than lacking any evidence for their claims, theists hold theology which blatantly contradicts the supposed defining characteristics of God.