A Reply to Dave McPhillips on Bahnsen’s Treatment of the Problem of Evil
Here is what Dave wrote:
The problem of evil is not a problem for the believer but rather a problem for the unbeliever. what Bahnsen and Van Til were teaching is that if one wishes to hold a moral complaint against anything in this world one must have a standard of morality with which to evaluate between good and evil.Moreover,one must first define what they mean by "evil" given their espoused worldview and how that definition is meaningful. As a Christian I have a standard of morality by which to distinguish good from evil (i.e. the holy character of God) but as an unbeliever who holds that we live in a random chance universe that is material in nature, there would be no objective immaterial invariant moral standard with which to evaluate right and wrong. in the end all unbelieving systems of thought relegate morality to the realm of subjective relativism. if so, then who's to say whats right or wrong? it would simply be different strokes for different folks.
Consider the following relevant points which Christianity affirms:
1. The god of Christianity is real and it is supposed to be all-good, all-powerful and wholly perfect;Bahnsen considers a similar set of premises, explicitly affirming that the Christian god is all-good and all-powerful and affirming that evil exists (cf. Always Ready, p. 171). I have added the part about the Christian god being wholly perfect because Christianity in fact affirms this about its god as well. I have also included the fact that Christianity affirms that the universe was created by its god and that its god “controls whatsoever comes to pass” (Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, p. 160). As John Frame puts it, “God is the source of all reality” (Apologetics to the Glory of God, p. 70) and “we are never free from divine control” (Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought, p. 80). Thus the universe is supposed to have been created by an all-good, all-powerful and wholly perfect god which controls everything, and yet the universe is clearly saturated with evil and imperfection.
2. The universe (including everything within it) was created by the god of Christianity;
3. Everything that happens in the universe is controlled by the god of Christianity;
4. Evil and imperfection exist in the universe (i.e., in what the god of Christianity is said to have created).
So in response to Dave's claim that "the problem of evil is not a problem for the believer but rather a problem for the unbeliever," we can clearly see that the tension here is internal to Christianity. Just as apologists want to say that the Christian god provides the necessary preconditions for intelligibility, they must also concede that, according to their worldview, the Christian god provides the necessary preconditions for evil as well. It has nothing to do with what any non-Christian believes or disbelieves or cannot “account for.” Any non-Christian’s view or lack of ability is irrelevant to the matter.
Bahnsen thinks that the problem of evil can be solved by positing the notion of “a morally sufficient reason for the suffering and evil that He foreordains” (a statement which I have never read in the Christian bible). But notice that he nowhere validates such a notion. What could possibly be “a morally sufficient reason for the suffering and evil that [the Christian god] foreordains”? Bahnsen does not propose any that can be reviewed. He simply affirms the notion and leaves it at that. He provides no argument, nor does he even attempt to explain how such a notion is coherent. I suppose that if Bahnsen had a validation for the notion that he had any confidence in, he would gleefully present it. But instead, he simply affirms it and goes on, as if its validity were somehow self-evident. It’s not. In fact, Bahnsen’s proposed solution to the problem of evil simply means that morality, as Christianity informs it, is complicit with evil.
On the objective understanding of morality, the notion of “a morally sufficient reason” for evil is a contradiction in terms. Generally, morality is a code of values which guides man’s choices and actions. Objective morality is a moral code whose values are based on facts pertaining to man’s nature as a living organism that we discover by looking outward at reality (as opposed to concocting in our imagination, such as the notion of a god and its alleged demands). The good is that which furthers a rational individuals life by meeting his life needs and providing an incentive for continuing the effort living requires of him. The evil is that which threatens and/or destroys his life. As Ayn Rand puts it in her novel Atlas Shrugged:
All that which is proper to the life of a rational being is the good; all that which destroys it is the evil.
By contrast, the Christian view of morality makes no reference to the biological nature of man’s life and his life’s requirements, but instead focuses on arbitrary demands placed on man’s shoulders by an alleged supernatural being which we can only imagine. On Christianity’s premises, “good” is whatever the Christian god does (whether it’s sacrificing its own child, wiping out entire civilizations with a worldwide flood, sending the Israelites to slaughter their neighbors, striking your loved ones with cancer, etc.), because it “reflects” its perfectly moral character. Likewise, “evil” is that which goes against the Christian god’s will (which can only really mean that, according to Christianity, there could be no evil since it already “controls whatsoever comes to pass” and since it only acts according to its wholly good character, whatever is in its control must be whatever it sovereignly wills). At no point is either the nature of man’s life or his life’s requirements taken into consideration. Man is merely a bystander in this conception of morality, for the facts that he faces a fundamental alternative between life and death and that his life is conditional have no bearing on the content of such a moral view.
In terms of how anyone could know what Christianity affirms as moral, reason has no place. The Christian god’s will is something that can only be “revealed” to man through some form of verbal disclosure on the part of the Christian god, imparting its will to man in what Christians call an entirely clear revelation (though no two believers seem to agree at every point on what it all means). No objective means of acquiring and validating knowledge will provide man with awareness of such a being, for it is not something that we can discover by looking outward at reality. Quite the contrary in fact, one must look inward at the contents of his imagination, emotions, wishing, etc., to “discover” that such a being exists and determine what it demands of man. This is the task undertaken by the witch doctor: he imagines a supernatural consciousness and appoints himself as its mouthpiece before men, claiming that he has received “revelations” from this imaginary deity which indicate what it demands of men. The witch doctor thus proceeds to tell men what they are commanded to do and what they are commanded not to do, and they are expected to obey without question. Clearly this is not a rational approach to morality, given its source in utter subjectivism and its crass rejection of reason. Thus it is most ironic to find Christians condemning anything for (allegedly) being subjective. Christianity is all about enshrining an imaginary subject in whose command all reality finds its source and to whose whims all reality conforms. And given the fact that the believer has no alternative but to imagine all this, his epistemological methodology is just as subjective as the metaphysical views he affirms about reality. You can’t get more subjective than this!
Now consider what the purpose of morality is. Since the task of objective morality is to teach man how to live and enjoy his life, objective morality consequently teaches man how to avoid that which is evil – specifically by teaching him how to identify that which poses a threat to his values and how to protect his values from such threats. Morality is just as much about preserving values as it is about achieving them in the first place. Thus unlike the Christian conception of morality, objective morality is consistently and absolutely opposed to that which is evil, which means that, on the objective view, there could be no such thing as “a morally sufficient reason” for allowing evil (let alone “foreordaining” evil!). Thus Bahnsen’s proposed solution to the problem of evil directly conflicts with the very purpose of objective morality.
In Christianity, the purpose of morality is essentially to satisfy the whims of an invisible magic being as an end in itself. This is why Christian morality is focused on obedience to commandments. But for the Christian, obedience is not a means to some end beyond it; rather, obedience is to be an end in itself so far as man is concerned. The believer is prohibited from supposing that obedience leads to rewards, since salvation is through faith, not through “works”. According to Christianity, one cannot earn his way to heaven, so the purpose of morality cannot be to achieve of such ends. Rather, its purpose is to place man permanently in a role of subservience to a being which he can only imagine and which he is to fear throughout his entire being.
And how is this obedience to be manifested in the believer? The answer of “Scripture” here is clear: he is to do this by means of sacrifice. The believer is not expected merely to sacrifice “material values” (as if this in itself were somehow already virtuous), but to sacrifice himself spiritually. This means total surrender of one’s entire being, including his conscious activity. Along with attachment to material possessions, the believer is to jettison his own judgment, his rational faculties, his very soul. He is to “deny himself” (Mt. 16:24), to present himself as a “living sacrifice” (Rom. 12:1), to hate his own family members and even himself (Lk. 14:26). One is expected to abandon everything in order to “follow Jesus.”
The Christian understanding of morality is not about living and enjoying life, but about suffering and dying, about sacrificing oneself and surrendering everything he values for the sake of a being which the believer can only imagine and which would have no use for his sacrifices in the first place. The ultimate model for this is the Christian god’s treatment of its own child Jesus. The New Testament portrays the Christian god as sending its own child to die, and while Jesus is being tortured and led to his cross, the Christian god stands by and watches the brutality as the destruction to Jesus proceeds, and does not lift a finger to preserve what it supposedly values. Abandoning values is the very core of Christian “morality.” This is why I refer to it as a code of death(see my blog The Moral Code of Life), for man cannot live without values, and the Christian code is to abandon values.
When Jehovah commands Abraham to prepare his son Isaac as a burnt sacrifice as we read in Genesis 22, Abraham did precisely what was expected of him: he simply obeyed without question or resistance. At no point in the story is Abraham portrayed as expressing concern for his son’s welfare. The purpose of this instruction, according to the story itself, was not to fulfill some need that the Christian god might have (for it “has no needs at all (Acts 17:25)” [John Frame, “Divine Aseity and Apologetics,” Revelation and Reason: New Essays in Reformed Apologetics, p. 115]), but to test Abraham’s faith. Believers often object to the raising of the example of Abraham and the dutiful, unquestioning willingness to kill his own child that he is portrayed to have when commanded to do so, by pointing out that the story does not in fact have Abraham kill his son. And in fact, this is true – Abraham was stopped right at the last moment. In fact, it wasn’t even Jehovah who stopped Abraham, but “an angel of the Lord” (Gen. 22:11). What this angel says to Abraham answers such objections: “for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou has not withheld thy son, thine only son from me” (Gen. 22:12). The issue is not whether or not Abraham killed his son. Rather, the issue is that Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son when commanded. This is the mindset desired of the Christian given its “morality” of obedience and sacrifice, for his obedience is held up as a model of faith for believers to emulate in Hebrews 11:17, which states: “By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac.” Thus the objection that “an angel of the Lord” intervened so that Isaac could be spared misses the very point of the story.
Elsewhere, the Old Testament abounds unapologetically with stories about Jehovah’s cruelty, vindictiveness, and brutality against human beings. If the Christian god is supposed to be a “good” god, I really don’t see how an evil god could be any worse. To call the Christian god, as it is portrayed in both the Old and New Testaments of the Christian bible, a “good” god, is to gut the meaning of moral concepts altogether.
So when Christian evangelist Paul Washer says, “I want my sons to put their life at God's disposal,” what could he mean? What does he envision by this? Does this mean that if the Christian god chooses to make them suffer in this world (for the Christian god is said to have “a morally sufficient reason for the suffering and evil that He foreordains”), he will not intervene in order to lessen or stop their suffering? If it is the Christian god’s will that a person should suffer, then it seems that acting to alleviate that individual’s suffering is an act of defying the Christian god. Should Mr. Washer do as the Christian god is portrayed as having done when its own child was being readied for crucifixion, and simply stand by and refrain from intervening and protecting his children if they are stricken with boils, diseases, and injuries? It seems that, if one truly believes that the Christian god is real and yet actually cares for his children, he would do anything to protect them from its destructive actions. But Christians are to adopt the mindset of Abraham, to stand by and allow their values to be destroyed by their “all-good” god.
what Bahnsen and Van Til were teaching is that if one wishes to hold a moral complaint against anything in this world one must have a standard of morality with which to evaluate between good and evil.
Reason rests on the axioms (namely the axioms of existence, identity and consciousness), the primacy of existence and the objective theory of concepts. Consequently, reason is not fully within reach of an individual whose worldview compromises any of these. That is the predicament in which the Christian finds himself given the anti-rational stance of the worldview he has chosen to adopt for himself. The notion of a god, especially as it is informed by Christianity, represents a wholesale denial of the foundations of reason. The very notion of supernaturalism constitutes an outright denial of the axioms (while needing them in the very act of affirming supernaturalism). The notion of a universe-creating, reality-ruling consciousness constitutes an affirmation of the primacy of consciousness (cf. wishing makes it so), and thus a rejection of the primacy of existence. Christianity’s doctrinal notions, such as “creation,” “sin,” even its understanding of good and evil, constitute an anti-conceptual assault on the human mind. At every point, Christianity stands opposed to the necessary preconditions of reason.
Moreover,one must first define what they mean by "evil" given their espoused worldview and how that definition is meaningful.
But while we’re at it, it may be instructive to ask: How exactly does the bible define ‘evil’? If Dave should provide this, I would like to examine it.
It seems that the Christian must walk a most dubious and unlikely tightrope in all this. For example, when a human being kills another human being simply because he chooses to, it is considered evil. But curiously, when the Christian god kills someone, it does so simply because it chooses to (nothing forces the Christian god to do this), and yet Christians do not consider this evil. This appears to be a clear case of double standards, one that plays fast and loose with the notion of evil as such. However the bible defines 'evil' (supposing it even does), it would need to be compatible with such cognitive self-abuse.
As a Christian I have a standard of morality by which to distinguish good from evil (i.e. the holy character of God)
Moreover, since “good” and “evil” according to Christianity are not based on facts pertaining to man’s nature as a biological organism and his life’s requirements, they can have no relevance to his life insofar as they can serve as a guide to his choices and actions. Thus, “if the Lord wills,” the choice to act irrationally against one’s own interests can be considered “good” while the choice to act rationally on behalf of one’s own interests can be considered “evil.”
Consider the message of the story in Matthew 19 about the “young man” who asks Jesus what he should do that he “may have eternal life” (v. 16). When Jesus instructs him to “keep the commandments” (v. 17), the young man replies that he has done this “from my youth up” and asks “what lack I yet?” (v. 20), even though Jesus had not indicated that he yet lacks anything. At this point Jesus tells him, “if though wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me” (v. 21), which by all accounts appears to be an instructed premised on the notion that one can earn salvation by “works,” a view which is rejected elsewhere in the bible. But according to the story, “when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions” (v. 22). The implication is clear that preserving one’s values for oneself is contrary to the Christian ideal. Indeed, the story goes on to vilify the accumulation of values (vv. 23-24):
Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.
One does not achieve wealth by surrendering his values once he's earned them. On the contrary, the creation of wealth requires intense focus and rational self-interest. But the New Testament urges believers against this: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition” (Phil. 2:3) and asserts that “the love of money is the root of all evil” (I Tim. 6:10). Of course, no arguments are given to support of these sayings; readers are expected to accept them as true on the bible’s mere say so.
The bible’s attitude towards wealth reflects a very small-minded and petty mentality, one which breeds only envy and resentment towards those who have undertaken the task of creating wealth. Its attitude also indicates that its authors either did not grasp the moral meaning of money, or that they did grasp it and consequently condemned it. It’s as though its authors never considered the alternative to money, or that they preferred some unstated alternative to money. But what is the alternative to money? Since man requires values, and values require effort to achieve and preserve, men are naturally going to need to trade with one another. Money is the means by which men can do this on the widest possible scale. As Rand points out (“Egalitarianism and Inflation,” Philosophy: Who Needs It, 127):
Money is the tool of men who have reached a high level of productivity and a long-range control over their lives. Money is not merely a tool of exchange: much more importantly, it is a tool of saving, which permits delayed consumption and buys time for future production. To fulfill this requirement, money has to be some material commodity which is imperishable, rare, homogeneous, easily stored, not subject to wide fluctuations of value, and always in demand among those you trade with
So you think that money is the root of all evil? . . . Have you ever asked what is the root of money? Money is a tool of exchange, which can’t exist unless there are goods produced and men able to produce them. Money is the material shape of the principle that men who wish to deal with one another must deal by trade and give value for value. Money is not the tool of the moochers, who claim your product by tears, or of the looters, who take it from you by force. Money is made possible only by the men who produce. Is this what you consider evil?
When you accept money in payment for your effort, you do so only on the conviction that you will exchange it for the product of the effort of others. It is not the moochers or the looters who give value to money. Not an ocean of tears nor all the guns in the world can transform those pieces of paper in your wallet into the bread you will need to survive tomorrow. Those pieces of paper, which should have been gold, are a token of honor—your claim upon the energy of the men who produce. Your wallet is your statement of hope that somewhere in the world around you there are men who will not default on that moral principle which is the root of money. Is this what you consider evil?
Have you ever looked for the root of production? Take a look at an electric generator and dare tell yourself that it was created by the muscular effort of unthinking brutes. Try to grow a seed of wheat without the knowledge left to you by men who had to discover it for the first time. Try to obtain your food by means of nothing but physical motions—and you’ll learn that man’s mind is the root of all the goods produced and of all the wealth that has ever existed on earth.
But you say that money is made by the strong at the expense of the weak? What strength do you mean? It is not the strength of guns or muscles. Wealth is the product of man’s capacity to think. Then is money made by the man who invents a motor at the expense of those who did not invent it? Is money made by the intelligent at the expense of the fools? By the able at the expense of the incompetent? By the ambitious at the expense of the lazy? Money is made—before it can be looted or mooched—made by the effort of every honest man, each to the extent of his ability. An honest man is one who knows that he can’t consume more than he has produced.
So yes, I agree that it is important to be able to distinguish, on solid philosophical grounds, between good and evil. Unfortunately, Christianity fails miserably on this score.
but as an unbeliever who holds that we live in a random chance universe that is material in nature, there would be no objective immaterial invariant moral standard with which to evaluate right and wrong.
Second, it’s not clear what Dave means by “objective” here. If the universe were random and chance-ridden, this would be a fact about the universe, and it would thus be a fact about the universe independent of anyone’s wishes, preferences, likes or dislikes, imaginings, etc. So this would not be enough to obviate objectivity.
Third, Dave is projecting, which is a presumptuous habit of Christian apologists. I have nowhere affirmed that “we live in a random chance universe.” It appears Dave is apologetically prepared to deal only with those worldviews which conform to the standard presuppositionalist clichés. Objectivism does not affirm that the universe is random and chance-bound. On the contrary, it is Christianity that must make allowance for chance and randomness given its affirmation of miracles. I explain all this in my blog The Concept of “Chance”: Right and Wrong Uses. It puts Dave’s would-be objection to eternal rest.
in the end all unbelieving systems of thought relegate morality to the realm of subjective relativism.
If Dave were truly concerned about achieving and preserving objectivity, he would abandon theism altogether. What could be more subjective than the view that the universe is a product of an act of unfettered will? According to theism, a supernatural consciousness – i.e., a subject - wished the universe into existence. Such a view assumes the primacy of consciousness – i.e., the subject of consciousness holds metaphysical primacy over its objects – i.e., subjectivism.
But I gather that Dave is like most other theistic apologists, using terms like “objective” and “subjective” more for their connotative impact than for their actual meaning. It will not do to condemn subjectivism while at the same time pointing to a supernatural subject to whose will everything in the universe conforms. To do so means that either that one is quite unconcerned about contradicting himself, or he really has not thought through what it is he is trying to say.
We need objectivity because (a) we need a reality-based standard to guide the choices we make in our reasoning, and (b) we can make mistakes in our inferences. Moreover, the fact that it is possible for us to confuse what we imagine for what is real, makes our need for objectivity all the more imperative. But like virtually all other theists, Dave expresses no concern for this possibility. And yet, how exactly do we reliably distinguish what Dave calls “God” from what Dave may merely be imagining? I have posed this question to theistic apologists for years now, and none have been able to present a methodology which addresses this concern while at the same time preserving their theism. Dave and other apologists can argue for their god’s existence until they’re blue in the face. But if I still have no alternative but to imagine the god they have claimed to prove by the time they arrive at their conclusion, then they have made no progress toward their purported goal. A god that I can only imagine is still just a figment of the imagination. As such, it provides no basis for objective moral truths.
if so, then who's to say whats right or wrong? it would simply be different strokes for different folks.
by Dawson Bethrick