Friday, July 2, 2010

God, Chance and Evil

Next week I shall be travelling to Oxford, England, to attend a conference with the theme "God and Physics". This conference runs from July 7 to July 10 and is sponsored by the Ian Ramsey Centre for science and religion in the University of Oxford. It will celebrate the 80th birthday of John Polkinghorne, a physicist-turned-anglican priest, who has written extensively about the interaction between science and religion.

I shall be presenting a paper on "God, Chance, and Evil."

Polkinghorne--and many others--believe that chance plays a large role in this world. Chance is thought to help solve the Problem of Evil: if God is loving and all-powerful, why does He allow evil to exist? Allegedly, God wanted to make creatures that would freely love Him; this requires autonomous human free-will, which in turn requires chance. The point is that God cannot predict our choices and hence cannot know the future. The creation of freely-loving humans necessarily involved the risk that they might sin. Since the evil of human sin is supposedly outweighed by the good of human freedom, God is absolved from moral evil. Similarly, the making of free creatures via evolution requires a "free process", which entails the necessary risk of natural evil--pain and suffering due to natural causes, such as disease and earthquakes. Hence God is absolved also from natural evil.

The price for this is that God voluntarily limits His power and knowledge, which leads to Open Theology. But if God's limitation is purely voluntary, why does He not intervene to prevent drastic evils, such as the holocaust? It would seem that, to solve the Problem of Evil, the risks that God takes must be genuine. This demands that His power (and knowledge) must be limited essentially, rather than merely voluntarily. This leads to Process Theology. For such reasons, many of the major players in the science/religion dialogue promote either Open Theology or Process Theology, both of which are far removed from orthodox Christianity.

I argue, contra Polkinghorne, that genuine chance is neither possible nor necessary. Genuine chance amounts to positing that an event happens without a cause. This contradicts the Principle of Sufficient Reason, which affirms that every event has a sufficient cause. Further, the Biblical God is the primary cause of everything; He sustains the world from one instant to the next. God usually works through secondary causes, due to the creatures that He upholds in existence. However, if an event has no physical cause, this merely means that God is the direct cause. It is inconceivable that the Biblical God could create an entity who actions are unpredictable by God. Indeed, if God is to sustain the universe in existence then God must know in advance what the state of the world will be in the next instant.

Concerning free-will, we, unlike God, cannot sustain ourselves in being. We continue to exist only through God's providential power. Hence all our acts and choices must likewise depend on God's power. It follows that we cannot act or think autonomously, independent of God. Moreover, chance does not help free-will. Finally, if my choices are due to chance then I have no real control to make a real choice. If I have no control over my choices then I cannot be held responsible for them. Chance thus undermines both freewill and moral responsibility.

A better view of free-will is compatibilism, which asserts that our freedom consists of making choices freely, without coercion. We choose what we want. This entails that we have a measure of control, so that we can be held morally accountable. We make our choices in accordance with our character and circumstances. Therefore God, Who knows us perfectly, can fully predict our choices. Such human freewill is consistent with divine sovereignty.

What about evil? Evil is part of God's plan. It is necessary for a number of goods. These include the value of human virtuous responses to evil (e.g., forgiveness, healing, compassion, courage, patience). More importantly, evil is needed for God to display His forgiveness, justice, mercy, goodness and glory. God will finally conquer evil, punish evil-doers, and reward the righteous in Heaven, where they will celebrate His glory.

Does this not make God responsible for evil? Yes, to some extent:
1. God is the ultimate cause of everything, including evil
2. God created a world where evil was inevitable, given its initial conditions.
3. God uses evil as a necessary means to proclaim the glory of His righteousness, justice, love and mercy.
4. God allows evils he could easily prevent.
5. God upholds the sinner and gives him the power to sin.

Yet God is not the direct doer of evil; hence he is not its author in that sense. His motivation and purpose differ from the actual doer of evil. Since we are not forced against our will to sin, but act knowingly and willingly, we are fully accountable for the evil we do.


Anonymous said...

Well, I wish you well in England!

Ecc 3:10 I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with.
Ecc 3:11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man's heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.
Ecc 3:12 I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live;
Ecc 3:13 also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil--this is God's gift to man.

And then that pesky evil:

Ecc 3:14 I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him.
Ecc 3:15 That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away.
Ecc 3:16 Moreover, I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, even there was wickedness, and in the place of righteousness, even there was wickedness.
Ecc 3:17 I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time for every matter and for every work.

And a bit of advice to boot, perchance you go through the doors of God's House:

Ecc 5:1 Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil.
Ecc 5:2 Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few.
Ecc 5:3 For a dream comes with much business, and a fool's voice with many words.

Henrietta said...

And one can also add , still from the same Book:
Ecc 7:24 That which is far off, and exceeding deep, who can find it out?

I think in the Open Theology debate, we eventually have to say that we as humans on this side of heaven will not have the final answers.

MSC said...

This is an excellent summary of a biblical theodicy, thanks! I have benefitted greatly from your treatment of free will in "The Divine Challenge." I encourage everyone to read that book.

steve said...

I'd also note that talk about God taking risks is misleading, even on its own terms. When we talk about somebody taking a risk, this normally means that the individual in question is putting himself at risk, not that he's putting a second party at risk.

But even if, for the sake of argument, we grant open theist assumptions, then God himself was never in harms' way. Rather, according to open theism, God is putting his creatures in harm's way. He is risking their wellbeing. And, what is more, since God doesn't know the future, this isn't even a calculated risk. For all God knows, or doesn't (a la open theism), this could be a suicide mission for his creatures.

How that's supposed to improve on what libertarians find objectionable in Calvinism is hard to say.