The Triumph Of God Over Evil- William Hasker
Hasker, an Evangelical philosopher, offers an interesting basic coverage of the issues and responses related to the problem of evil in the world. In this review of his book I’ll present some quotes of his along with paraphrases of other sections.
At the start he cautions against claims to know the mind of God and states that his material will only offer “possible reasons” for God to have permitted evil, leaving open the option that God’s actual reasons may be other and better than anything we have been able to think of.
He notes that the presence of evil in the world has always been the most formidable obstacle to theistic belief.
The book covers theodicies- justifications of God (justifying reasons) which show that God is not morally at fault for the presence of evil. These justifications are more for our benefit. God needs no justification.
Much of the argument relates to the triad of propositions (premises, assumptions) which state: “God is omnipotent, God is wholly good, and yet evil exists”. He proposes to show that these premises are not logically inconsistent. And later he goes into detail cautioning against locking oneself into a set of propositions that appear logical but may be simply a self-created system of reasoning that misses reality altogether. He also includes here a caution regarding our cognitive limitations.
I appreciated his comment that the enormity of actual suffering can render philosophical discussion a gross moral insensitivity. He offers the quote, “No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of the burning children (the Holocaust’s burning children)”. But he then notes that often people who quote this then go on to offer their own assessment of evil. He suspects they use this quote to silence responses they do not like and to claim moral seriousness for themselves which is supposedly lacking in opponents. This is intimidation, says Hasker. Later though, he does note that not everything that can be properly said in a philosophical discussion of the problem of evil is suitable for use in grief counseling.
However, he is not for a silence which refuses to learn as much as is possible about this greatest of problems that humanity has ever faced.
Hasker’s own position is that of open theism- that God is open, that is, God is affected by and responsive to the world that God has made and especially to free and rational creatures such as human beings. “God is more deeply affected by what occurs in his creation than we can ever imagine. God is also open to the future which is itself open, indeterminate and waiting to be determined both by God and by human beings. Open theism insists that God, far from being impassible, is profoundly affected by events in the lives of his creatures; he suffers with us when we are afflicted and rejoices when we find true happiness.
In his chapter on the Holocaust he notes the theology of protest- a dissenting spirit that quarrels with God, a confrontation rooted not so much in rejection of God but rather in recognition that such defiance is crucial in struggles against despair. The sufferers of the Holocaust demand an element of protest at God’s excessively and needlessly wasteful way of running the world. Hasker notes that there is a proper place for protest theology but it needs to be handled carefully lest it cause spiritual damage in becoming a form of repressed anger against God.
I found it helpful that Hasker does not let his Evangelical theology overly intrude into his line of argument and he even at times dissents from the orthodoxy of this tradition. He does a decent job of keeping his argumentation at the level of reason and not just theology or ideology.
It becomes clear why one Amazon reviewer commented that this was a good general overview of this subject of why evil exists. Hasker covers all the main arguments and responses thoroughly.
He even includes some of the more extreme arguments such as the argument that perhaps God is partly demonic. Or perhaps protests over the centuries have kept God ‘in line’ and prevented things from getting worse.
And of course, there are various theodicies that offer reasons such as that God permits evil to accomplish the greater good of moral development. Near the end Hasker does a good treatment of the problems with this sort of reasoning. It may actually undermine moral development.
Above all, the free will argument is most central to understanding the problem of evil. This is perhaps the most important proposed solution to the problem of evil.
“A world containing creatures who are sometimes significantly free (and freely perform more good than evil actions) is more valuable, all else being equal, than a world containing no free creatures at all. Now God can create free creatures, but he cannot cause or determine them to do only what is right…To create creatures capable of moral good, he must create creatures capable of moral evil…God did in fact create significantly free creatures…he could have forestalled the occurrence of moral evil only by excising the possibility of moral good”.
Freedom is at the heart of understanding moral evil (and he will also later show this to be true in relation to natural evil).
The great value of a world containing moral good means that God created a world with free and rational creatures and allowed them to exercise their freedom in choosing between right and wrong.
Along the way Hasker repeatedly cautions against viewing certain propositions as logically necessary and thereby creating for ourselves tight little cycles of logic that may not actually express or encompass what actually is occurring in the world (in the God/world relationship). He notes various other philosophers who have created a system of logic/reason to support their particular position and have excluded all other alternatives as wrong for not assuming the same set of propositions. His caution that none of our responses may actually express the divine purposes and reasons repeatedly comes to mind in response to these varying positions.
I think people will find especially helpful his sections on natural evil. As he asks, can we really understand creation? Can we understand the reasons God created and created as he has done? Again, we are cautioned about assuming what a Creator should or should not have done.
But then again, after making such cautions he also warns against going to the opposite extreme of thinking we should not therefore try to understand more. “If we have no idea whatever what sort of world an all-perfect God would be expected to create, then presumably we have little or no idea what is to be expected from such a God in any other circumstance and then, if this is so, reflection on our topic, the problem of evil, comes to an abrupt end”. We need an approach that combines due caution with a willingness to make assertions warranted by clear principles and not merely by overstretched imagination.
Here he goes into the fact that God has created the best possible world. And if God creates a world with freedom then God voluntarily gives up part of his own power to determine how things go in this world.
All sorts of arguments come in here along with counter points to such arguments. Is utilitarianism the best way to understand things? That moral good is where the most amount of good is done to the most people?
Freedom repeatedly returns as central to any understanding of this issue of evil. “If human beings are to be free and responsible, their freedom will constitute a limitation, self-imposed by God on God’s ability to bring about any possible world. It is part of God’s greatness and generosity that he both wishes and is able to create other beings who along with him determine the outcome of his creation”.
Other points are made along the way- that for us, perfection is only fully appreciated by way of contrast with imperfection.
Then more on natural evil- this is evil that comes about through natural processes and is not directly the result of moral failure on the part of human beings. Many apparently feel that natural evil presents a greater difficulty for belief in God than moral evil. Nature is overwhelmingly successful on the whole but shows no concern whatever for the wastage of individual lives along the way.
But is an ideal, perfect world possible? Such a world would be static and insufferably boring. Without death life increases geometrically and some living forms would soon overrun the planet. So the best world may be the world we have, “a dynamic messy world filled with tragedy, comedy, romance, and adventure. There never was any other world”.
Here he notes the argument that suffering instead of being contrary to the love of God is actually a medium through which his love can be experienced. Should we not recognize the chance to experience God’s love in what we suffer? But as with similar arguments, he notes the problems with such views.
In the world of interconnected events so much is beyond our control. In such situations “an individual’s only real freedom is the manner in which he or she responds to untoward events beyond control”. Our inclination, says Hasker, is to feel that things ought to have been arranged differently so as to spare us the need to undergo suffering. But whether such a world could have been better arranged is beyond our cognitive limitations and so we cannot answer this question of whether a better world could have been created.
Hasker notes that we overvalue ourselves and measure the worth of the world by its ability to meet our desires and hence we miss the glorious richness and beauty that exist.
And this note- “The notion that a person must have compelling answers to all the objections that may be raised against belief in order to be rationally entitled to believe as he or she does is fundamentally unsound and if pursued consistently would reduce virtually everyone to a state of perpetual agnosticism. In practice, this requirement is only insisted on when it seems an opportune way to put pressure on a belief system one dislikes, in the meantime, one conveniently forgets or ignores unanswered questions that may be lurking in the vicinity of one’s own preferred way of understanding things”.
Returning to natural evil- “If, as I shall argue, nature itself has been granted a degree of freedom and autonomy by God we cannot immediately conclude that in causing suffering and pain the natural processes are fulfilling a specific divine intention”.
Nature operates according to its own intrinsic, God-created laws, which are impersonal in form and do not have regard to the lives and welfare of particular individuals. Such laws are best suited to overall good but in many individual instances they can result in individual suffering and pain.
Again the author cautions repeatedly surface against overconfidence in our ability to discern God’s purposes. Our lack of wisdom should always restrain us. But on the other hand, “if we have no idea whatever of the sorts of things God can and cannot be expected to do, the notion that God is good in some intelligible moral sense lacks all content”. Hasker then suggests that there is absolutely no need for the theodicist to insist that any given thing is God’s actual reason for permitting evil much less that it is God’s only reason for doing so.
He then does a section on the structure of the world: the basic features of our world. And the various forms of natural evil arise as a consequence of these structural features.
One feature is that it is better a world exists than not. To deny this world is utter nihilism.
Also, the world we have is complex and multi-leveled. Many different entities exist and interact in many ways. And creatures have a lot of autonomy. They are self-ruled. While all are created and depend on the Creator for existence from moment to moment, they still have freedom to operate according to inherent capabilities. There is an element of chanciness or indeterminacy in the fundamental processes of the world. In this evolving world there is a considerable degree of autonomy in its operations.
We try to imagine a better world, says Hasker. God could have created any world, we reason. This is a mistake, says Hasker. Our grasp of the details of our imagined better world is so poor as to make such a project incoherent.
He then covers various things behind natural evil- volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis. He explains that a planet that was geologically dead would have little prospect of harboring life forms like ourselves. A molten interior is needed for earth to have a strong magnetic field which shields life from damaging solar and cosmic winds. Key transitions in evolving life came about through volcanic eruptions that were catastrophic in their immediate results but were immensely creative in the longer term.
Such things as plate tectonics result in mountains and earthquakes- they cause harm and destruction on occasion but also provide good conditions for the life and growth of living creatures much of the time over much of the earth’s surface.
And would we prefer that water not drown people? But the physical and chemical properties of water provide many benefits to life and cannot change when air-breathing creatures are in danger of drowning. These fundamental properties of nature and laws of nature are impersonal. This is the natural world. It is not responsive to human wants and needs. The world is not cruel, it lacks the capacity to be cruel. It just is natural. Impersonal.
“It is good that there be such a creation, endowed as it is with enormous potentialities for the enrichment of life and existence. The relative autonomy allowed to both human beings and to nature means, however, that the good endowments of the creation are open also to the possibility of the events and actions we identify as evil…God steps back (Jewish Kaballah theology) in order to allow the creation room for an existence of its own…it is important to acknowledge the existence of evil in the world as a pervasive reality. This evil mars and obscures but cannot hide or obliterate the goodness inherent in the creation. Nature is inhuman- and how could it be otherwise?”
But people still argue- could not God have created a better world? We have no ability to really understand this imagined better world. Our ignorance is exposed in the example of fine-tuning. The constants of nature are so finely balanced over an extremely narrow range for the existence of life. Martin Rees’ Just Six Numbers is noted here. This is the only universe and world that could have harbored life. There could not be a significantly different world with different natural constants in which intelligent observers could live and raise philosophical questions about its existence. We have no basis for supposing there is some other system of nature open to God that would have been better than the one we presently inhabit.
Further, it is an open question whether every instance of natural forces in operation that harm people are carrying out God’s purposes. Solutions offered here have included the argument that such things as natural disasters bring us closer to God, or are punishment for sin, or make us better people, and so on. But these solutions while seeming apt are also completely unsatisfactory. “We are then left with the sense that God ‘has some purpose or other’ which may however be completely incomprehensible to us, the assurance that God’s purpose is fulfilled in our suffering becomes not a comfort to faith but a burden”.
“God allows the physical world to be itself…that independence which is Love’s gift of freedom to the one beloved…where the exploration of possibility by chance will lead not only to the evolution of systems of increasing complexity but also to the evolution of systems imperfectly formed and malfunctioning…God no more expressly wills the growth of a cancer than he expressly wills the acts of a murderer, but he allows both to happen. He is not the puppetmaster of either men or matter”.
“Our freedom is our supreme dignity that makes us children of the Most High. We can enjoy it only by living in a partly chancy world and that means a world in which there will be goods and evils of fortune distributed according to the laws of chance”.
He then does a section on the hiddenness of God. That God is not absent (an impossibility- omnipresence is an essential property of which God cannot divest himself) but rather there is a restraint on the ‘manifestation’ of the divine presence. A strong presence would annihilate or nullify individuals as distinct from God. God’s ‘withdrawal’ is part of the autonomy granted to created agents. To allow freedom to be exercised fully.
Other issues- Is God ultimately the cause of everything that happens? Hasker holds that the libertarian view of free will is essential for any adequate solution to the problem of moral evil. Individuals without true freedom would not be human beings at all.
Also, and this is critical to understanding the presence of evil in the world, “a world in which there can be no pain or suffering would also be one without moral choices and hence no possibility of moral growth and development…no distinction would exist between right and wrong action. No action would be morally wrong, because no action could ever have harmful consequences, likewise no action would be morally right in contrast to wrong…whatever the values of such a world, its structure would not serve the purpose of allowing its inhabitants to develop from self-regarding animality to self-giving love”.
Other points- love in the deepest sense is sacrificial love, but sacrifical love requires an occasion for sacrifice and most often this involves suffering of some kind.
“Life is hard for human beings because we do this to ourselves. Or more often, we do it to each other”.
Again, near the end he takes on another of the triad of propositions around which the problem of evil is constructed. This states that gratuitous evil exists. God and gratuitous evil are incompatible. So God does not exist. As Hasker notes, you can easily reverse the logic here when your reasons for rejecting the conclusion of an argument are stronger than one’s reasons for accepting one or more of the premises. Such arguments are more compelling in terms of logic depending on the relative strength of the evidence supporting the different premises.
“Beyond our ken” is also a central point here. “If the good for the sake of which God might permit some evil is one of which we have no understanding whatever, it is obvious that we don’t have evidence what would enable us to rule it out”. So he again reminds us of our cognitive limitations. “The reminder is perhaps especially in order as directed against philosophers; we sometimes tend to think that given a piece of paper, a ballpoint pent and a couple of hours free of interruptions, we can figure out just about anything. We can’t and it is important to be reminded of that”.
“Any instance of evil may be a necessary condition for some good state of affairs of whose nature we have no conception whatever”.
Right near the end he does some material on the argument that the primary benefit of suffering is to make people more likely to turn to God, to draw closer to God and that this outweighs all the suffering and pain people have to endure. He describes this argumentation and its attitude toward suffering as absolutely appalling. It undermines our moral attitude toward life and in particular toward the suffering of others. It produces a passiveness in the face of evil and undermines persistent effort to overcome obstacles and leads people to refuse alternatives (i.e. to other promising treatments of illnesses) because people accept some illness as ‘God’s will’.
“Such passivity in the face of terrible evil is, I am claiming, a natural consequence of the doctrine that in the providence of God ‘all is for the best’”.
“God initiated the world’s existence, sustains it in being and governs its operations by general strategies, he does not however, endorse and insure the operation of a detailed plan that includes all those tragically evil events”.
“There is no possible world God would prefer to the actual world in any respect”.
He ends on this note from Isaiah: “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations, he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken” (25:6-8).