This is Chapter 5 from K. Scott Oliphint's Book, Covenantal Apologetics: Principles and Practice in Defense of Our Faith. Posted with Permission
If God does exist as man’s Creator, it is as we have seen, impossible that evil should be inherent in the temporal universe. If God exists, man himself must have brought in sin by an act of wilful transgression. Hence, existence, as it now is, is not normal but abnormal. Accordingly, to maintain that existence, as it now is, is normal, is tantamount to a denial of man’s responsibility for sin, and this in turn makes God responsible for sin, and this simply means that there is no absolute God.1
The Good Fight
We destroy arguments (2 Cor. 10:5). That is one of the things that characterizes the ministry of the apostle Paul. We know that there is, and will always be, hostility to the Christian faith. We also know that anything that opposes Christianity is, by that very act, false. We know this not because we are smarter or more rational or more consistent than others. We know it because of what God has said and because of what God’s grace has done in our lives.
Paul knew that the intruders in the Corinthian church were building up their own cause by tearing down his ministry. He knew that an attack on his ministry was an attack on the truth of the gospel message itself. So he wrote the last four chapters in 2 Corinthians to respond to those attacks. The first six verses of chapter 10 form the general introduction to what Paul says in the rest of the letter. So he wants his readers to know the summation of his response: he will demolish arguments.
While it is true that Paul is describing in verses 4 and 5 his apostolic ministry, that does not mean that what he does and says is only descriptive. As an apostle of Christ, he is showing us how we should respond to attacks on our faith. If Paul was ready to demolish arguments, we must be ready as well. In other words, Paul meant for his statement to be applied by his readers also. One reason we know this is that Paul uses expressions in verses 4 and 5 taken from at least two different biblical passages. His notion of demolishing strongholds, in verse 4, is akin to the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) version of Proverbs 21:22. There we are told, “A wise man scales the city of the mighty and brings down the stronghold in which they trust.” Paul no doubt has this in mind as he thinks of the pseudo-sophistry of his attackers.
He also knows that some in the Corinthian church would have made this connection. By using this terminology and by referring them to the book of Proverbs, he is telling his readers that true wisdom consists of demolishing strongholds in which the mighty trust. It is not true wisdom simply to erect an argument, whether true or false, as Paul’s opponents had done. Rather, the wisdom that is from above must, at the right time, tear down the fortresses that are falsely erected. Christians who seek to be wise must also “pull down the strongholds” when the need arises.
The terminology Paul uses is also close to terminology used of the Sophists in Paul’s time. In this way, he is also getting the attention of his challengers. He is telling those “deceitful workmen” that their facades are going to fall. They may be intent on developing and selling arguments meant to refute and destroy Paul’s ministry, and thus the church in Corinth itself, but Paul is putting the church on notice that he himself will demolish the arguments advanced against him.
This is the “good fight of faith” (1 Tim. 6:12). It is the responsibility of every Christian to defend and commend the gospel. That defense is a process of demolition, a demolition of the arguments presented against Christianity. Paul’s word for “arguments” in 2 Corinthians 10:5 (logismous) is directed specifically against his opponents’ appeal to authority. They were attempting to establish themselves as authorities in the church solely because of their own expertise, their own intellectual power. So their arguments were only as strong as their own ideas.
Paul is reminding us that the arguments presented by these intruders were only as authoritative as the intruders themselves. And their authority, in the end, was merely in their own minds. It was in their own ideas and reasonings—quite literally a figment of their imaginations. So Paul is saying that he is going to go after and demolish the false authority on which these false apostles rested. (More on these false apostles in chapter 6.)
This will be the case whenever we engage in apologetics. Apologetics, in many ways, is simply a battle over authorities. It involves making plain just where we stand, or better, where we rest, with regard to what we claim. It also involves encouraging our opponents to make plain where they rest their own case. The authority issue is always primary.
The idea that Paul presents in the next clause tells us a good bit about the kinds of arguments he was opposing. The clause could be translated “every high thing raised up against the knowledge of God.” While Paul is alluding to the sinful pride of his attackers, he is also pointing out that the sophistry that had taken some of the Corinthians captive came under the pretense of sophistication and erudition. The arguments may have sounded lofty and substantial, and they may have been intimidating because of their vocabulary, but they were really, in the end, just one more rebellious opinion. They had as much authority behind them as did the false teachers themselves.
Paul is pointing out, as well, that these arguments are not just verbal debates. They are arguments that, if believed, will have eternal, and eternally damaging, consequences. Though they carry no authority, their sophistry can lead people to reject the gospel itself. The very danger of the arguments is that they are so subtly subversive of the gospel. They are, in fact, arguments raised up against the very knowledge of God itself.
The Western intellectual tradition is full of these kinds of arguments. This may be one of the reasons why many Christians have chosen to stay well away from that tradition. It can be intimidating and make us feel intellectually inferior.
Two related points might be useful to remember in this regard. First, we recognize that any argument raised up against the knowledge of God can be destructive to any and all who adopt them. Second, we remember that Christianity does have answers to these arguments. Even if we are unfamiliar with the precise terminology and technicalities of the arguments themselves, once we grasp the question those arguments are designed to answer, our understanding of Scripture can begin to supply the true and needed answer. So, in this chapter I hope to show how one particularly predominant argument might be demolished.
As we noted in the beginning, it is sometimes said that the apologetic approach advocated in this book has great difficulty with actual application. “Once the principles of your approach are laid out,” someone might say, “there is nothing left to do but preach the truth. A real argument is foreign to your approach.” Maybe there is some justification for this complaint. It may be that there has been a focus on the truths that make up the approach itself without much application to objections against Christianity. I propose, then, to present another example of an argument raised against Christianity and a response that is consistent with what I have thus far set forth and that demonstrates the force of anargument for Christianity.
Broadly speaking, apologetics includes anything we say or do that fortifies and demonstrates the truth of Christianity. Any time Christian truth is spoken or lived out, it is inevitably done in the context of some kind of opposition, whether from the sin that remains in us, or from the world, or from the Devil—or any combination of these. There is always something(s) opposing the truth. Such is the war that we as Christians are in.
More specifically, however, it is sometimes helpful to think of apologetics as including two distinct tasks—a positive one and a negative one. Positively, the task of apologetics is to commend the Christian faith to those who are affected by, even enslaved to, unbelief. This is perhaps most obviously done when we have a discussion with someone about the gospel in which objections to it are raised. Whenever we do that, we are commending the Christian faith in the face of opposition. This is what we called the “Christian context” in chapter 2.
Negatively, the task of apologetics is to refute challenges to the truth of the Christian position. Here the focus is on countering arguments that say Christianity is inconsistent or irrational. To use Paul’s terminology, the negative approach destroys the arguments, tears them down, and weakens, lessens, or in some way undermines whatever force they may seem to have. Often included in this negative aspect of apologetics is what we called the Quicksand Quotient in chapter 2. We seek to show that the position advocated against Christianity sinks of its own weight.
These two tasks, the positive and the negative, should not be separated; they can sometimes be incorporated and applied simultaneously, and it should be our goal to accomplish both, if possible. One can commend the Christian faith even while defending it against attacks. One can destroy an argument even while building another one. As we will see later, this is the best way to think about Christian apologetics, all things considered; we want both to defend and to commend.
But these tasks can also be distinct. It is possible to defend the Christian faith, thus answering or responding to a particular attack on Christianity, without immediately offering it as the truth of the matter. One reason to do this might be to “clear the field” of an obstacle or obstacles to Christian belief, in order to offer its truths afterward. There is a place for this kind of defense; it is a good thing to clear the field. So we should not dismiss the negative aspect of apologetics as useless. It is true that a cleared field, to continue the metaphor, needs something beneficial planted in place of the weeds that have been uprooted or they will inevitably return. But clearing the field is itself an important task in its own right.
In the remainder of this chapter, we will look at an example that highlights this dual distinction.
Whenever our focus is to neutralize or otherwise weaken an objection to Christianity, we are engaged in (what we have called) negative apologetics. The initial goal of a negative apologetic is to ward off objections and complaints that come against Christianity.
There are a host of these and it would be impossible to address every objection. In negative apologetics, responding to attacks that come against Christianity has more to do with understanding the particular complaint in view than with (as in positive apologetics) commending Christianity as true. Both tasks are essential aspects of apologetics and should go together. But there may be occasions when the best response, at least initially, might be to address the complaint head-on with the hope that it would clear the way for commending Christianity. An illustration of how this could be done might be helpful here.
The existence of sin and evil in the world is as good a place as any to begin thinking about negative apologetics. It may even be that most of the objections against Christianity reduce down to the sin/evil problem in some way, shape, or form. In any case, it is one of the most obvious problems that Christianity has to face. Given the real incompatibility between who God is and the existence of evil, some have dubbed this problem the “Achilles’ heel” of Christianity; it is the one problem that brings the whole thing tumbling down. In its most generic form, it is typically called “the problem of evil.”
It seems that the problem of evil is the most implacable challenge that Christianity must face. It comes in various forms. The late atheist-turned-nonatheist Antony Flew told the parable of the “Invisible Gardener.” The parable included two travelers in a jungle who came across a perfectly manicured garden. One traveler insisted that the garden entailed the existence of a garden, but the other was not convinced. Whenever the first traveler was faced with new objections to his belief in a gardener, he would add qualifications that would support his belief, rather than give up on the belief itself.
The parable was meant to show that the God of Christianity has “died the death of a thousand qualifications.” That is, what Flew was trying to argue was that whenever an objection arose with respect to theism or Christianity, the response of the Christian or theist was to add yet another qualifier to God’s existence, such that the objection wouldn’t “stick.” Rather than give up on a belief in God, Christians just add qualification on qualification. Because of those qualifications, according to Flew, Christianity is not “falsifiable” and thus is itself a meaningless position to hold.
Of interest in Flew’s discussion, however, was his rationale for the parable. He was so taken with the reality of the death of innocent children that he set out the parable to try to show how ludicrous a belief in God is in the face of such horrific evils. His parable was designed to show that the best Christians are able to do in the face of a multitude of objections like this is continually to qualify their understanding of God in order to try to get him “off the hook” when such predicaments are posed. Thus, it was the problem of evil that motivated Flew’s conclusion that Christianity is meaningless.
The problem of evil itself goes back a few millennia and has been articulated by many thinkers throughout the ages. Perhaps David Hume sums up the problem as well as any: “Epicurus’ old questions are yet unanswered. Is [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”2 Hume, in quoting Epicurus, is highlighting the same problem that bothered Flew. How can it be, they ask, that a good, omnipotent, and omniscient God can exist when there is so much evil in the world? Surely if he is good, and if he knew what would happen, and if he is able to stop evil, there would be no evil in the world. But there is obviously much evil in the world. It must be, then, that this kind of God does not or could not exist.
This way of formulating the problem of evil, as it is discussed in Hume and others, has its focus on an intellectual difficulty. Its focus is on the obvious incompatibility between God’s existence and the existence of evil. But we should not think that this intellectual focus is onlyintellectual. As we mentioned above, the motivation for Flew’s parable was the fact that children suffer. So the intellectual problem has very real and practical applications and implications.
One of the reasons that the problem of evil is so powerful as an objection to Christianity is that it points to two actual truths. (1) There is an incompatibility between God’s character and the evil that exists, and (2) the evil that exists is real and touches everyone in deep and abiding ways. These two truths all Christians would affirm.
Because of its multifaceted character, there is more than one way to respond to the problem of sin and evil. There is a pastoral response, which would seek to show how the Lord himself provides comfort for those who suffer, and how he overcomes his enemies. This is, perhaps, the most central and important response to the problem. But the problem as stated by Hume has a strong intellectual component as well. There is something amiss, in this construal, when we try to hold the two truths of “God exists” and “evil exists” together in our minds. Surely these two truths defy our standard ways of thinking; we seem to lack the intellectual tools needed to bring them together in a satisfactory way. Thus, this aspect of the problem of evil has sometimes been called the “logical problem of evil.”
We should note, however, that to say that this problem has a strong intellectual component and that it is a “logical” problem is not to say that it is abstract, removed from daily life, or otherwise irrelevant. To say that it has a strong intellectual component, we should see, is also to affirm that it is a practical problem. We dare not succumb to an all-too-typical bifurcation of the theoretical and the practical. While such things can be virtually unrelated, there is no room in Christianity for such a dichotomy. If we have trouble thinking about some truth, then surely we will have difficulty applying it to our daily living and our worship. So our response to the logical problem of evil, if considered properly, will have direct practical consequences. It will affect how we think about God and our relationship with and to him.
A good example of negative apologetics can be seen in a response to this so-called logical problem of evil. As we saw above, the logical problem of evil is typically framed in such a way as to highlight the intellectual incompatibility between the existence of a good, omniscient, omnipotent God, on the one hand, and the existence of evil, on the other. Since the problem has often been framed in logical terms, it may be useful to attempt to give an apologetic response to it.
We should first mention that there are deep and knotty discussions surrounding a response. One of the best overall defenses of this problem has been set forth by Alvin Plantinga.3 We will adapt and adopt some of the principles of his response to the logical problem of evil below. In doing so, however, we will not adopt the view of free will on which Plantinga’s response depends; that view is outside the parameters of Reformed theology (because it is outside of Scripture) and therefore is not an option for a covenantal approach to this problem.
Without going into detail, a couple of points will help here. First, just to reiterate what we hope to do in this section, we should state clearly in response to the logical problem of evil that what we will offer is a defense. We are not yet interested in offering a theodicy.4 That is, we are not interested, at this point, in responding in a way that would seek to show how there can be both this kind of God and evil. We are not interested in actively commending the truth of God’s existence and his ways, given the existence of evil and sin, in this response. To do that would be to begin to advocate for the position we are defending.5
Rather, our concern is to stave off the attack, to show that it is in some way illegitimate, and therefore to take away its force. This is, we should note, a completely acceptable mode of argument, though it is a strictly defensive mode. It is useful, even at times necessary, to meet attacks head-on and to push them back so that their force is either weakened or altogether annihilated.
Perhaps it will help to think of it this way. Suppose you are an occupant of Edinburgh Castle in the early fifteenth century. Under Henry IV, England attempts to take the castle, but fails, owing to the strong defense of your army. You have successfully defended the castle. The attack has not succeeded. What is your position now with respect to the castle? You haven’t gained any new ground or territory; you haven’t gained anything, so to speak. You have not advanced your position in any positive way. What you have done is stave off an attack that would attempt to take the castle from you and place it under foreign control. In this sense, you have kept the castle strong.
So it is with a negative apologetic defense. In your defense of the castle, you are not arguing for your rightful place in the castle. You could do that (and should do that, if possible), but the need of the hour is to respond to the attack, to hold your ground. So you seek only to keep the attacks at bay, so that the walls and gates remain strong and resistant to the enemy. You are defending your position without commending your position. This is what a negative apologetic defense, strictly speaking, is meant to do.
How, then, could we defend our position against the attack above? Remember, the attack centers on the logical problem of holding both that God exists as (at least) good, omniscient, and omnipotent and that evil (or sin) exists as well. A negative response may require some perseverance on the part of the apologist (and the reader!). But it is oftentimes necessary in order to diffuse the initial supposed strength of the attack itself.
The first thing to note is that the logical problem of evil is not, in fact, a logical contradiction. That is, there is no violation of the canons of formal logic when it is asserted that both God and evil exist. It is not, after all, an assertion that (1) God and evil exist and (2) God and evil do not exist. (That would be a contradiction.) So the logical problem is not one of logical contradiction.
Perhaps the logical problem of evil is best understood as a problem, let’s say, of incompatibility. This kind of problem is not as clear as a problem of contradiction would be; it is a bit more difficult to define precisely. The problem may be that there are properties inherent in the existence of God, on the one hand, and of evil, on the other, that we are unable to explain or to bring together in our own minds. They seem mutually to exclude each other. We have either no information or too little information to make their coexistence intelligible.
How can we make sense of the fact that God is good, is all-knowing, and is all-powerful, and yet that evil is a daily, painful reality? Given the obvious existence of evil, so the argument goes, it must be that the “not so obvious” existence of God must be given up.
So the respective propositions—i.e., (1) God exists and (2) There is evil—are thought to be incompatible. This, we should recognize, is exactly right; it is a problem, and Christians should acknowledge that. How can it be that a God who is indeed good and who knows all things and who is all-powerful would allow for the presence, even the overwhelming presence, of evil and sin in the world?
An “easy” (albeit unorthodox) way out of this dilemma would be to deny one of the three attributes above ascribed to God so that the incompatibility disappears. For example, if God were not good, then even though he is all-knowing and all-powerful, the existence of evil would be understandable since it would be consistent with his character. He would be, as Hume notes above, malevolent. Or if God were not all-knowing, we could explain the existence of evil and sin as something that even God did not know would happen; we could assert that it caught him by surprise. In the same way, if God were not all-powerful, then evil and sin could be explained as that which God was unable to stop; he simply did not have the requisite power to ensure that evil would not come into the world.6
But this way of explaining things is a high price to pay for Christians. It goes against the biblical teaching of who God is, and, as might be expected, it goes against the Christian tradition’s teaching about God’s character. Christianity has historically affirmed that included in God’s character is his sovereign power over all things created. To reduce or otherwise negate one of these attributes is not, in other words, a biblical option for the Christian.
So we have two statements—(1) An omnipotent, omniscient, and good God exists, and (2) There is evil—which themselves are not easily brought together. How could such statements be more easily merged together?
Plantinga notes that what is needed is a third statement, (3), that is consistent with (1) and that entails (2). In other words, another statement that does not conflict, but is consistent, with the fact of God’s existence, but which also includes the fact of evil’s existence, would help us see how the incompatibility might be overcome.
Not only so, but as Plantinga evaluates the objection, he rightly contends that the incompatibility between God’s existence and the existence of evil, in order to be a substantial objection, must, for anyone lodging the complaint, itself be a necessary incompatibility. For the argument/attack to have its force, it would need to be necessarily the case that the existence of God and of evil are incompatible. This is the case because if the existence of God and of evil were only possibly (and not necessarily) incompatible, then the existence of God and of evil would possibly be compatible, and the problem would lose its punch. So those complaining about the lack of compatibility between God and evil must show that lack of compatibility as necessarily the case. They must, in other words, hold that it is impossible (not just improbable) that God and evil coexist.
But that claim is, as a matter of fact, a bold one. On what basis could one assert such an impossibility? Plantinga works through some very technical arguments in order to show that it is possible that the existence of God and of evil are compatible.7Without looking at the details of a response to this argument, the point to observe here is that the attack can be fended off by introducing another truth or situation that could allow for the compatibility of the existence of God and of evil.
So what we need is a statement that includes God’s existence and entails the existence of evil—a statement that we have labeled (3). One prime candidate for (3) is this: “Adam responsibly and freely8 chose to disobey God, to eat the forbidden fruit, after which time he and all of creation fell.” This statement, we should note, is consistent with (1)—it is consistent with the existence of a good, omniscient, and omnipotent God. And it is consistent with (2)—it entails the existence of sin and evil since the fall of Adam and all of creation brought evil into the world. So is it possible, we could ask, that the fact that Adam responsibly and freely chose to eat the forbidden fruit brings together God’s existence and the existence of evil such that they are now seen to be compatible? That is, in affirming (3)—“Adam responsibly and freely chose to disobey God, to eat the forbidden fruit, after which time he and all of creation fell”—do we avoid denying (1)?
Given (3), God’s goodness, omniscience, and omnipotence all can be affirmed, and we also have an explanation for (2), the entrance of evil and sin into the world. Thus, while we still maintain that God and evil are contrary entities, we can see how both exist by virtue of Adam’s responsible and free choice.9
One objection to proposition (3) might be that it introduces a claim that presupposes the truth of biblical revelation. Any understanding or knowledge of the predicament of Adam and Eve assumes what is taught in Scripture. Because of that, an objector might say, it is illegitimate to appeal to something that the objector himself does not believe. Perhaps he thinks the argument can only be answered in the context of an agreed-upon source or authority. It is at this point that we need to be careful to focus on those things that lay behind the objection itself. If we do, this objection will have little force, and for at least two reasons.
First, because the incompatibility between (1) and (2) is only a possible incompatibility, all that is needed is that (3) itself be possible. That is, one does not, initially, have to contend for the truth of (3) (though it is true; but remember we are offering a defense here, not, at this point, a commendation of the Christian faith), but only that (3) itself be possible and plausible. What might make the appeal to Adam and his action plausible and not simply possible?
Perhaps that it is a central tenet of Christianity, that it has been believed by countless Christians (and Jews) for millennia. Though the objector may not believe it himself, that is no argument against its truth or plausibility, and certainly not against its possibility. Remember, the objector is asking us to make sense of the existence of God and of evil. Because the objector does not believe in the existence of God, he will also not likely believe the answer provided, but that is no argument against its plausibility or against its truth.
Second (and this is a monumentally important point that is never brought out in these discussions), consider that the problem of sin and evil itself, as posed by the objector, is a problem that includes within it the existence of God. That is, although an atheist does not believe in God’s existence, the problem that he poses to Christianity at this point is not a problem that attaches to atheism, at least not directly, but rather is one that attaches to Christianity; it is a problem that obtains in such cases when a good, omniscient, and omnipotent God is affirmed.10
There are at least two ways to interpret this problem as presented. Maybe the atheist is saying, “I can’t believe in this kind of God, given the ubiquitous problem of evil; if I could see compatibility, that would remove at least one objection.” On this scenario, the atheist sees incompatibility as an obstacle to belief. But maybe the atheist objector is saying, “You can’t believe in both God and evil, given the incompatibility between the two.” In this case, the objector is accusing the Christian of believing (some kind of) irrationality or falsehood. So the objection could be an attempt to remove a problem with Christianity (as the atheist sees it), or it could be an attempt to show one instance in which Christianity is itself not true or rational.
Here is the cornerstone of the response. However the objector wants to frame the problem, the response will generally be the same. Since the problem posed operates with the working assumption that God exists, and that he has certain characteristics (i.e., goodness, omniscience, and omnipotence), it is consistent with the problem, as posed, to appeal to the place wherein we learn of these characteristics and where “the problem of evil” is itself discussed.
Given that the objection itself operates with the working assumption that there is a God who has these characteristics, the all-importantfocus and central question to ask is this: On what basis does the objector posit a God who is good, omniscient, and omnipotent? Certainly he does not believe in such a God. Rather, he knows that it is we Christians who believe in that God, and believe him to have (at least) these characteristics. Not only so, but since the objector presents the problem as one intrinsic to Christianity, there is no fallacy or logical breach if one answers the objection from the same source in which the alleged problem itself, including the characteristics of God, is found.11
So the fact that the objector may not believe (3) is not relevant to the response that we give, nor is it relevant to whether or not there is an answer to the problem. He does not believe in the existence of God either, but he posits such in order to lay out the problem. So what the objector himself believes is not directly relevant to our answer, even as it was not directly relevant to his objection.
This is an important point and should not be glossed over lightly. It is sometimes thought or assumed by both parties in a debate of this kind that the context, including the response, we posit must be one that each party in the debate will gladly accept. But there are too many other factors present that do, or could, block one or both parties from accepting a particular response. What is needed, in this case, is not a statement that the objector will accept, since the very problem that he poses—the attack that he wages—is one that includes a statement Christians accept, but the objector does not accept, namely (1). So the acceptability of a certain state of affairs (i.e., the existence of God) is itself not a part of the objector’s own beliefs. It can hardly be untoward, therefore, to respond to the objection in a way that is consistent with the challenge itself, even though it is not consistent with the objector’s position; his very objection is inconsistent with his own position!
Think of it this way: the objector comes to us and says, “You Christians believe two propositions which themselves are incompatible. It is your responsibility to show me how these propositions can be compatible.” Now suppose the objector also demands that you show the compatibility of these truths on the basis of the objector’s own atheistic position. That, of course, cannot be done. The only way to show the compatibility of the two propositions is by appealing to the source and substance of those propositions themselves. And the first statement, “God exists,” is absent the atheist’s position. No response, therefore, can take that position as the proper context for an answer.
Thus, we have an objection that stipulates the incompatibility of two truths, both of which are integral to Christianity. In that way, the objection presupposes two truths of Christianity, which truths themselves could only be known by way of God’s own revelation. It is no stretch, therefore, to introduce (3), which itself is another truth of Christianity, in order to show how (1) and (2) can be seen to be compatible.
As a matter of fact, it is the only legitimate way to respond. If the objector cries foul, if he deems the response illegitimate, he has introduced or attempted to interject something else into the discussion that he has not made explicit. He has changed the rules. If that is the case, then more needs to be discussed, and perhaps it is time to begin commending the Christian faith, rather than just letting the defense rest. We will discuss the commendation of Christianity, in light of this objection, in the next section.
The point I want to highlight here is that to the extent that our response is successful, the so-called logical problem of evil is severely weakened. The attack has come; the response is meant to beat back the attack so that it lacks force. No attempt has been made, in the explanation that we have given above, to move the discussion to the grounds of what we believe, or positively to introduce the objector to the realities of the Christian gospel.
Such things can and, as opportunity is given, should be introduced (more on this below). But we should not conclude that unless such things are introduced, no real defense has been given. Though primarily negative, this approach has a proper place and can be useful in apologetic dialog and discussion.
In the previous section we have attempted to weaken the force of the logical problem of evil, which has been offered as an atheistic objection, that is, one that seeks to conclude for the nonexistence of God. We have construed the objection as one of incompatibility, rather than of contradiction. This construal is uncontroversial.
We have also attempted to offer two aspects to our initial response. The first aspect focuses on the force of the objection itself. This aspect recognizes that an objection of this sort, in order to have the impact it is presumed to have, must see the coexistence of God and of evil as impossible. There must, therefore, be a necessary incompatibility between God’s existence and the existence of evil. If the incompatibility is merely probable rather than necessary, then the two are possibly compatible and the argument loses whatever strength it was presumed to have.
An illustration here may help. It is true that in a round of Texas Hold’em, the card dealer probably will not deal four aces to me. But it is also true that he might give me four aces. So any argument against my having four aces cannot exclude the possibility that I could have four aces in my hand. Though improbable, it is not impossible.
So also for the coexistence of God and of evil. Any argument that concludes for the improbability of the coexistence of these two is no strong argument against it. Improbable things happen all the time. If all the argument produces is an improbability, it is no real objection to Christianity; improbability of this kind oftentimes has more to do with opinion and predisposition than with logical force (more on this in chapter 6).
The second aspect of our response took into account that the objection itself draws its content from a conception of God consistent with Christianity. In so doing, the objector has, by way of his own objection, opened himself up to a response that would take seriously just how it is that we know such things about God. That is, the objection assumes that God is good, omniscient, and omnipotent.12 And we know who God is only by virtue of his revelation to us. Once the topic of revelation is introduced, as it is at least implicitly by the objection, it is legitimate to pursue a response that would utilize the teaching of that revelation.
In other words, the objector is asking us to “make sense” of our belief that God exists, that he has the aforementioned characteristics, and that evil exists. The way to “make sense” of that is the way that the objection surfaces in the first place and is the same way that we know God to be good, omniscient, and omnipotent—by way of revelation.
In the course of our response above, however, it may have been obvious that there was another aspect of the objection that has not yet been addressed. There is, one might have recognized, another objection to our above-proffered solution to the logical problem of evil that the objector may want to set forth and that is implicit in what we have offered as an answer thus far.
The further objection to our response could look something like this: “You have stated that Adam responsibly ate the forbidden fruit and, thus, we have the entrance of sin and evil in the world. But you have not yet explained in any way how Adam could be responsible for his disobedient choice, given God’s own character.” In other words, the incompatibility that is suspected in the original objection could easily reduce down to an incompatibility between specific characteristics of God and the reality of evil, to which this same God is opposed.
This is a legitimate inference from the original objection posed. It may indeed be that the general objection in the problem of evil is now more specifically directed against the Christian in order to require him to make sense of Adam’s responsible choice in the context of God’s omniscience and omnipotence. Let’s call this the Incompatible Properties objection (IP), in that it focuses the incompatibility on specific characteristics or properties that each—God and man (or creation)—has.
In Plantinga’s response to the problem of evil, noted above, this IP objection becomes the crux of the issue. The problem, in other words, is not simply a general incompatibility between God’s existence and the existence of evil or sin. Rather, the problem implies a more specific incompatibility that is assumed when it is affirmed that God has the characteristics mentioned above, on the one hand, and that Adam brought about a state of affairs that was and is in opposition to this God.
How could it be, to put the matter more specifically, that God’s omnipotence and omniscience could not “protect” or prevent Adam from bringing the created world into ruin? Surely, as omniscient, God would have known what Adam would do in any possible circumstance, so could he have determined not to bring about those circumstances. Or, given his omnipotence, he could have stopped Adam from eating the forbidden fruit so that evil and sin would not have brought creation into bondage.13
Plantinga’s response to this more specific problem was to construe God’s particular characteristics—specifically his omnipotence—in such a way that the creation of Adam imposed limits on God’s essential power. That is, once God determined to create Adam, it is possible, Plantinga would say, that God’s omnipotence was itself limited by the fact of Adam’s moral and ethical responsibility before God.
This particular understanding of the relationship between God and man is not a new one and is one that brings together the incompatibility between God’s power and man’s ability by attributing to man the power to live and act independent of God’s control. Thus, though God is powerful, he restricts his power in order for man to be able to choose freely. But difficulties remain with this particular response.
The problem, to be clear, is not that God’s omnipotence is thought to be limited simpliciter. Like all attributes of God, his characteristics must be understood and defined according to his own revelation of himself. So, for example, God’s having all power does not mean that he has the power or ability to lie. This “inability” is not a lack in God; it is rather contained in the very character of who God is. So “all-powerful” is not defined in terms of “can do anything”; that definition remains abstract and assumes a notion of possibility that is foreign to biblical Christianity. “All-powerful” rather means that God can do anything that is consistent with his own character. He can do, as the children’s catechism states, “all his holy will.”
So the problem with Plantinga’s response is not that he restricts the “omni” in omnipotence. Everyone in Christian theology must qualify the “omni” of omnipotence. The problem, rather, has its focus in just how the omnipotence is thought to be restricted. It is thought to be restricted, as Plantinga makes clear, by virtue of Adam’s (libertarian) free will, a will that itself could bring about a state of affairs that God’s own power could not bring about. In other words, Adam’s will was such that it acted independent of God’s control. Or God is not sovereign over Adam’s choices; those choices must be independent of God. Any will acting in conjunction with God’s control, so the argument goes, could not be free and therefore could not be responsible. Moreover, any will acting in conjunction with God’s will would put the responsibility for its acts squarely on God. Thus, God would be the author of sin.
But this response which construes God’s sovereignty as limited is not open to one who embraces a covenantal apologetic. It is not open to anyone who holds that the theology reaffirmed during the Reformation is itself most consistent with biblical truth.14 Anyone holding to Reformed theology will need to find another way to respond to this objection.
It just so happens that there is another way, and it is a way that moves more explicitly and intentionally toward the reality of the gospel as the only real solution to the problem of evil and sin. It seems to me fair to say that no other approach or response to this problem so naturally moves to the good news of the gospel. And that seems to be a fatal flaw with any other approach to this problem.
Perhaps this particular objection can best be illustrated by way of a fictional dialog between the atheist objector (AO) and a covenantal apologist (CA). Any fictional dialog of this sort will invariably be “cleaner” than a real dialog, but it should at least provide some general parameters within which a suitable response to this IP objection could be given. The atheist objector begins:
AO: If I understand where we are at this point, you have attempted to argue that my objection must include the necessary incompatibility of the coexistence of God and evil. You have also introduced a proposition (concerning Adam) that has its source in biblical revelation, and you have justified that by insisting that the objection itself has its source (at least in part) from biblical revelation. I am prepared to concede these points. [Remember, I said this dialog would be “cleaner” than most in real life.]
What you have not explained, to my satisfaction, is the crux of my objection. The objection is not simply that God and evil cannot coexist, but rather that this kind of God, with all the attributes enumerated, cannot coexist with evil. It is specifically God’s omniscience and omnipotence that rule out his compatibility with evil (since no theist will concede that God is not good). Given the overwhelming evidence for evil’s existence in this world, it is irrational to conclude that this kind of God exists as well.
CA: In order to respond to your objection, it might be useful to frame it in its more general context. The objection, taken generally, argues that there is an incompatibility between who God is, on the one hand, and some property, or properties, of creation, on the other hand. In other words, the objection entails certain assumptions with respect to God and creation, assumptions that are involved in the conclusion that, given this property, or these properties, in creation, God cannot exist.15 You are specifically concerned with the incompatibility of the properties of God, on the one hand, and man (in this case, Adam), on the other.
A couple of clarifying points before we address the objection directly. First, just how do we go about understanding “compatibility” here? This question could take us too far afield, so perhaps we can agree on a fairly general definition: “Two statements e and h are compatible if and only if neither of them logically implies the negation of the other.”16
Now the objection that you offer indicates that the existence of God as omniscient and omnipotent is not compatible with the existence of evil. In terms of our definition, we could say, the existence of evil logically implies the negation of the existence of this kind of God. And let’s just say, again for the sake of brevity, that logical implication, as used here, simply means that the truth of the existence of evil ensures that a God of this kind cannot exist. In other words, the implication relation is such that the reality of evil’s existence rules out the reality of (this kind of) God’s existence. So far, so good.
At this point, however, we need to clarify a few more general points in order to move to the more specific ones. Generally, we are considering exactly how God and the world are, or can be, related. You will understand, of course, that I approach this consideration from the standpoint of Christianity. Though you may mean the objection to cover all forms of theism, you must understand that responses to the objection depend on a particular understanding of who God is. My response depends on an understanding of the God of Christianity.
In any understanding of the God of Christianity, it is affirmed that God exists necessarily. That is, it is not possible for him not to exist. He is not self-caused, but rather is acausal. His existence just is who he is; he needs no causation in order to exist. As a matter of fact, he needs nothing in order to exist and to be who he essentially and necessarily is.
Not only is God necessarily who he is, but everything else that exists, does so only by virtue of his free decision to create and sustain it. He did not have to create, but he freely determined to do so.
Once God creates, he establishes a relationship with his creation, and a special relationship with those made in his image. Those made in his image, unlike the rest of creation, are responsible to “mirror” his character; they are to be human replicas of who he is.
Instead of mirroring God’s character, as we have said, Adam violated God’s character by eating of the forbidden fruit and thus plunging himself and all of creation into ruin—a ruin that man himself cannot fix. If there was going to be a remedy to this problem, God alone would have to provide it.
By this point, the objector may be getting impatient. He may suspect that we are on the verge of launching into a recitation of redemptive history. He may also suspect that we are moving away from his objection. So the covenantal apologist continues:
CA: Just how God provided the solution will be addressed in a few minutes. What we have to highlight at this point is that God’s solution to the problem that Adam brought about was that he himself would come down, in the person of the Son of God, to remedy the problem of sin.
AO: Oh, I see. When I present to you a problem of incompatibility, your immediate reaction is to start to preach to me about such absurdities as God dying on a cross. Surely this response is a massive red herring. How does this address the compatibility problem between God and evil?
CA: I do want to talk to you about such “absurdities,” but it is exactly the compatibility problem that I am trying to introduce here.
As you may know, Christianity is so-called because it has its focus not in some generic god, but in the triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I acknowledge that you do not believe such things, but as I said, that is not relevant to our particular discussion, or your specific objection.
You are not asking me to make sense of the coexistence of God and evil given what you believe. Since you do not believe in God, such a request would indeed be absurd. But you are asking me to make sense of it given the existence of God. I am simply stating what Christianity has believed since its inception.
Since we are discussing God’s relationship to creation, generally, you should be aware that the central, quintessential, and primary example of God’s relationship to creation is found in the person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Christianity has held that it was in the condescension of the Son of God, in taking on a human nature, that the relationship of God to creation reached its climax.
AO: I thought we were going to discuss compatibility. Is it really necessary to get into the fine points of your religion in order to discuss such things?
CA: As a matter of fact, we are not discussing the fine points of Christianity, but its very essence. If you are honestly asking for a response to the problem of the compatibility of God’s existence and the existence of evil, then I must give you an honest answer, one that will get at the heart of our disagreement.
Now to the problem of compatibility.17 In one of our historic creeds, the Chalcedonian Creed (AD 451) (which has its genesis in the text of biblical revelation, which we can delve into later if you wish)18 the description of the incarnation of the Son of God was that he was “acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, and inseparably.”
The creed goes on to affirm, concerning this “hypostatic” (or personal) union, that with regard to these two natures, “the distinction of natures [is] by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature [is] preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Let me emphasize here that this understanding of “God in the flesh”—of the Son of God taking on a human nature—is affirmed by both Catholic and Protestant churches. There is nothing that I have said so far that veers from the basic historic norm of Christian theology.
If you look carefully at what Christians have believed for almost two thousand years, you will recognize that the way in which God relates himself to creation in the incarnation is by the union of two distinct and otherwise separate natures in one person.
These natures, we might say, are incompatible. God, as infinite, is united with a finite human nature, for example. When the Son of God took on a human nature, he did not cease to be who he was and is—he did not give up his infinity, eternity, immutability, aseity, etc.—but rather he took on something he did not previously have: a human nature, with all that it entails. In so doing, as the creed reminds us, he remained one and the same person—the Son of God—but now also with a human nature.
In other words, given the Christian understanding of the Trinity, the Son of God is himself fully and completely God, as is the Father and the Spirit. Because each of these three persons is fully and completely God, each person has (and is) all the essential properties of the one God. Each, therefore, as the one God, is “in and of himself infinite in being, glory, blessedness, and perfection; all sufficient, eternal, unchangeable, incomprehensible, everywhere present, almighty, knowing all things.”19
Now notice that the Chalcedonian Creed affirms that when the Son of God took on a human nature, there was no confusion of natures, there was no change in the natures, no division of them, and no separation.
That is, the natures did not blend together to make a third nature, each property essential to each of the two natures did not change; nor were the two natures divided orseparated. The union of natures, in one person, in the incarnation did not negate the distinction of natures, but the properties of each nature are preserved in the union. All of this is affirmed even as these two natures are said to be “concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Can you see where I am going with this? What Christians have confirmed and believed for millennia is that there is compatibility between the essential characteristics of God and the essential characteristics of (in this case) man, such that the two can be united in one person without the properties of either of the two natures changing. What some would take to be essentially incompatible characteristics are actually united in one person.
AO: This is where I have to cry foul. I was willing to put up with your discussion of Adam, even of Christianity. But now you are offering a model of compatibility to me that, even by the reckoning of Christianity, is sui generis. How can you establish a notion of compatibility from something that is a one-time miraculous event according to your own religion?
CA: You are right to recognize the unique character of the incarnation. I do not want to undermine that in any way. But here is the point to notice before we move on. In the person of Jesus Christ, according to Scripture, and as given in our historic creeds, we have a unifying of the divine and the human. So, at minimum, we have to recognize that there is no intrinsic or essential incompatibility between properties that God has necessarily and the essential properties of creation, even of human beings.
God was able to bring them both together—to unify them—without violating any of the respective properties. Any notion of compatibility will have to allow that if this is true, then there is no incompatibility between God’s character and the character of human beings. God can unite them both into one without merging or changing either.
What, then, does this compatibility look like? In part, it looks like the life of Christ, as we have it in Scripture. Consider, for example, Christ in the garden of Gethsemane (Matt. 26:36ff.; Mark 14:32ff.). Here is the Son of God, the Word himself, the One who was in the beginning with God and who is God (John 1:1). He is about to take on the agony of suffering for sin. And what does he do? He prays to his Father. And what does he pray? That this suffering might be taken away from him, that there be another way to remedy the sin problem.
Does this mean that the suffering of the cross was merely and only a contingency, that it was ultimately possible that it would not take place? Scripture is clear (Christ himself is clear) that the cross was necessary for Christ (cf. Matt 26:54). How, then, can it even be meaningful for this same Christ—who knew what Scripture demanded, who knew what his task of obedience to the Father entailed, who knew before the foundation of the world what he must do, who even planned the cross itself—to go to his Father and plead for another way?
It is meaningful in the same way that it is meaningful that Christ himself has two distinct natures, which are unified (made compatible) in one person. The relationship of God and creation generally is unique such that it is up to God to determine exactly how the two will be related and brought together.
That is, the necessity that is God’s alone is not negated or undermined when God determines to take on contingent (covenantal) properties (such as wrath, grace, etc.) in order to relate himself to creation. Or, to be more specific, just because God speaks to Moses on Mount Horeb does not in any way negate that he is eternal and therefore transcends temporal categories. He can remain eternal even while he speaks to Moses. He can remain omnipresent and infinite even while he is located on Mount Horeb.
To put the matter more generally, God can and does remain who he is essentially even while he freely relates himself to all of creation. He brings both together without violating the properties of either.
AO: But wait a minute! You are trying to explain compatibility by pointing to something that is ultimately inexplicable! You are asking me to believe that aspects of God’s character and of creation are compatible just because God made them compatible, even though I have no categories of thought that allow me to see how these things can be! Surely you don’t expect a reasonable person to check his brain at the door and just bow to the unreasonable as an explanation, do you?
CA: That is a very good question; it deserves a response. As you might expect, my understanding of the world and of reality is quite different from yours. That is one reason we are having this discussion.
Whenever questions of what is reasonable or unreasonable arise—just like questions of what is compatible or incompatible—they can only be answered according to larger questions of what the world is like and how we might know what it is like. According to Christianity, that which is reasonable is that which is consistent with Christian truth. So, for example, Christians understand the world as it is now to be abnormal, rather than normal, because of the entrance of sin. That can be the case only if the “norm” for what the world should be is given some place other than experience. Surely, given experience only, the world is “normally” a mixed up, and sometimes awful and horrible, place. But it was not created that way. The “measuring rod” for determining what the world is like is what God has said in Scripture. This is basic to Christianity.
AO: So now I suppose you are going to tell me that the “measuring rod” for determining what is rational or irrational is what God has said in Scripture. If that is what you think, it seems you have now thrown out any and every standard of thinking, including our typical laws of thought. This is nothing but utter irrationality. Now contradictions can be “normal,” which means, of course, that they are not “normal,” which is a contradiction. And on it goes.
CA: You’ve got it partly right. The “measuring rod” for determining what is rational is the revelation of God, including the Word of God in Scripture. But this in no way destroys or eliminates our standard ways of thinking, any more than Scripture being the “measuring rod” for what exists destroys the existence of my laptop computer.
As the “measuring rod,” Scripture sets the parameters within which we live and think. It does not destroy or essentially alter the world; it guides our understanding of it. I should say at this point that the only alternative to this scenario is that we assume we ourselves are able, in and of ourselves, either individually or as a group, to determine these things. Surely the history of thought has shown this to be highly suspect, at best. Now, just as the ecumenical creeds have adequately expressed the biblical truth of the incarnation, so also have they expressed the biblical truth of the Trinity. For example, in the Athanasian Creed, the church has confessed the following: “This is what the catholic faith teaches: we worship one God in the Trinity and the Trinity in unity. Neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the substance. For there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, another of the Holy Spirit. But the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit have one divinity, equal glory, and coeternal majesty. What the Father is, the Son is, and the Holy Spirit is.”
In other words, the church has historically confessed that God is one in essence and three in persons. Moreover, the church has also recognized that it is impossible fully to comprehend this. How can it be, one might ask, that each of the three persons can be fully and completely God—not partly God—and there not be three Gods? The answer given in Scripture and supported in Christian history is that Scripture will allow neither a diminishing of the three persons nor an addition to the one God. Both the threeness and the oneness are true.
Is this an irrational truth? It certainly is beyond our ability to understand it. We lack the intellectual tools to bring these truths together in what you might think is an “ordinary” way. But that simply points us to a standard beyond our own brains; it points us to God’s character and his Word as our standard, even though his character is above our intellectual capacity to comprehend fully.
This should be no surprise, even to one who does not believe in God. If God exists, surely he would not be God if his creatures could fully comprehend his character (nor, if we could do such a thing, would we be creatures, for that matter).
This brings us back to the matter at hand. What you are seeking in your objection is an answer to the problem of evil, a problem that, as we have seen, has its focus on the incompatibility of certain properties of God and of evil. With respect to compatibility generally, however, we have already noted that there is no incompatibility between God being who he essentially is and his having a real, dynamic relationship with creation, including man. This he does quintessentially in the person of Christ.
And in the person of Christ, as we saw earlier, this unifying of the divine and human natures entails no essential property change in either nature. The divine remains fully divine, and the human remains fully human. There is no divinizing of the human, nor humanizing of the divine. Both natures remain what they are, but they are also unified, brought together, functioning in harmony, in the person of Christ. Christ was not schizophrenic. There is no indication that he struggled to hold his two natures in harmony. He simply operated, as the God-man, according to each nature in a way appropriate for each.
Now we need to discuss all of this within the context of your particular objection. In some answers to this objection, it is argued that God’s omnipotence is not such that it can affect our choices. As a matter of fact, so it is said, the opposite is the case. We choose, and those choices form the initial basis and foundation for God’s actions and reactions to us and our choices.
But this response has no warrant in Scripture. As some who hold this view admit, it is based on a particular understanding of free will, which itself has its source in certain experiences and common beliefs.20 However, since the world is “abnormal,” we need a more suitable guide as to which intuitions and common beliefs are legitimate and which are not. Common beliefs and experiences have to be seen through the lens of Scripture in order properly to be understood.
The reason why this notion of free will is brought into the discussion, however, is understandable. It has its roots in a number of related concepts and ideas with respect to God’s character. God’s foreknowledge and sovereignty are often thought to negate any notion of freedom, or contingency, including our responsibility in matters we choose.
Surely, some would say, if God is in any meaningful way in control of all things, or if he knew in eternity exactly what I would choose, can that choice be meaningfully free? What God knows in eternity will take place; it follows, some would say, that God’s control must include his responsibility in what is controlled. So free choice and responsibility seem to be negated by the necessity of what God knows, or the direct action of God’s sovereign control.
So let’s frame the discussion in terms of the compatibility of necessity and contingency.
AO: Wait a minute. I have patiently listened to you work through your theological tenets, but now it looks like you are moving away from the IP objection. The IP objection sees a conflict, for example, between God’s omniscience and, as you have presented it, Adam’s responsible choice. How does that relate to the general categories of necessity and contingency and their compatibility or lack thereof?
CA: That is a very good question, and I hope to get to it soon. If you can bear with me just a little bit longer, I think you will see the connection.
Suppose, as the Christian tradition holds, God is a se. That is, he is, in and of himself, self-complete, lacking in nothing, and altogether absolutely independent. For God to be God, he must not be dependent on anything outside himself to be who he essentially is.
If that is the case, it is also the case that when God freely creates the universe, he knows everything about that which he creates. There is nothing hidden from him; there is nothing that would or could take him by surprise. All that he creates, he exhaustively knows. As One who transcends time, he exhaustively knows the past, present, and future of everything that is.
Now, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, once this God creates, he also condescends to relate to his creation. To put it simply, he takes on the property of Creator, which he did not have prior to his creating activity; God is now related and (self-)bound by something that did not previously exist. Not only so, but as he issues commands to his creation, he takes on the property of sovereign authority over what he has made. As Scripture says, he works all things according to the counsel of his own will (Eph. 1:11). There is nothing—absolutely nothing—outside of his meticulous and sovereign control.
Is it the case, then, that God’s working “all things” is incompatible with the contingency and responsibility of our choices? Certainly not according to what Scripture tells us. According to Scripture, God knows and plans the end from the beginning (Isa. 46:10), but this in no way relieves his human creatures from the responsibility of their choices. In fact, when God declares his omniscience and omnipotence, it is that very declaration that should motivate us to listen to him (Isa. 46:12) and to heed his Word.
Or, to go back to our discussion of Jesus Christ as the second person of the Trinity, the God-man: did Jesus conclude that because he knew and planned the end from the beginning, the contingency and responsibility of prayer were thereby taken away? On the contrary, in the garden, he prayed in such agony that “his sweat became like great drops of blood” (Luke 22:44). He petitioned his Father “with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death” (Heb. 5:7).
Was the Father really able to save him from death? Didn’t his eternal decree, his omniscience, and omnipotence negate his ability to save his Son? No, it didn’t; not according to Scripture. He remained able to do it, but he was not willing. Indeed, it was the will of his Father to crush him (Isa. 53:10). And he was willing to do that because he knew that there was only one way to destroy and eradicate the horrendous sin and evil that we had foisted upon his good creation. In order to solve the problem of evil, the One who was himself God had to take on that evil and bring it with him to the grave (2 Cor. 5:21). The only way to conquer the evil that we brought into the world was for God himself to destroy it by dying.
AO: So let me get this straight. Are you trying to tell me that the perceived incompatibility between the existence of (a wholly good, omniscient, and omnipotent) God and evil is simply a perception problem?
CA: In one sense, yes. It is not a perception problem in that clearly God and evil are not compatible. But it is a perception problem in that the problem itself forces us to see the world, and God’s participation in it, according to how God describes it, rather than how we might construe it ourselves.
You see, as long as you insist on viewing the world according to your own principles, you will never understand the world that you think you know. The only way properly to see yourself, the world, or anything else is through the spectacles of Scripture. Because Christians view the world through those spectacles, the issue of compatibility—whether of God’s triunity, or of the incarnation, or of his decree and our responsibility, or many other things—has to be seen in light of the incomprehensible mystery that just is God himself.
AO: So what you are telling me is that the incompatibility that I perceive is due to my refusal to accept God at his Word. Can’t you see that this response is only true if Christianity is true, and it in no way offers me, an atheist, a satisfactory answer?
CA: I do see that. But you need to remember two things. First, you asked me how I can affirm compatibility between the existence
of God and evil. I have told you how I can do that. You have not asked me, nor could you, how on an atheistic basis I can affirm the two. On an atheistic basis, there is no such problem because you think there is no God. I know God exists, and so my answer has to have access to exactly how I know that.
Second, you are right that on an atheistic basis this answer is not satisfactory. But there are no satisfactory answers to any of these questions on an atheistic basis. Atheism is an illusion, an attempt to suppress what is patently obvious. How, then, could an illusion provide a real, concrete answer to the problems and questions that surface in the real world? That, you see, is the true incompatibility. An illusory belief will never be made compatible with the real world; it cannot make sense of it. The two simply cannot be made to go together.
AO: Well, much as I disagree, you have given me much to ponder. I hope we can renew our discussion at a later point.
As one can readily see, conversations such as this one could go in a number of directions, and the way this one went was only one possibility. However, what can also be seen in this conversation is that the principles of Christianity are powerfully and persuasively able to address the problem without in any way compromising the truths of a covenantal approach to a Christian defense. Specifically, that the problem of evil can so readily and easily move the conversation in the direction of the gospel is unique to this approach.
We will not be content merely to point out generic aspects of God and of our choices in order to show a possible compatibility. Rather, having (negatively) dismantled the (presumed) strength of the objection, we can then (positively) challenge the very root of the problem itself, which is the objector’s presumed autonomy, and his notion of compatibility that is built upon that presumption. Our aim is to highlight his need to remove his self-made and rebellious spectacles and, positively, to put on the spectacles of Scripture by entrusting himself to him who knew no sin, but who became sin for us, that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21).
’Tis mystery all: th’Immortal dies: Who can explore His strange design? In vain the firstborn seraph tries To sound the depths of love divine. ’Tis mercy all! Let earth adore, Let angel minds inquire no more. ’Tis mercy all! Let earth adore; Let angel minds inquire no more. 21
1 Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed., ed. K. Scott Oliphint (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2008), 85.
2 David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, 2nd ed. (London: 1779), 186.
3 Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (New York: Harper & Row, 1974). Plantinga is arguably the most influential Christian philosopher in the English-speaking world today. Much of what he develops can be helpfully adapted and utilized in a covenantal approach to apologetics. The points made below about a defense all come from his work.
4 One reason I borrow heavily from Plantinga’s approach here is that it is such a fine example of what a defense is. For a more detailed analysis of, and response to, Plantinga’s defense, see K. Scott Oliphint, Reasons for Faith: Philosophy in the Service of Theology(Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2006), 259–301.
5 I will attempt to show how to commend the Christian faith in the context of this objection in the next section. All I mean to do here is to show how the negative and positive aspects of apologetics can be distinct. We should not, however, think thereby that they can or should be separated.
6 This latter option, i.e., altering our understanding of God’s omnipotence, is the sum and substance of many answers given to this problem. In Plantinga’s response, the possibility that God, given the creation of man, could not in any meaningful way control what man would do alleviates the incompatibility between his existence and evil. Once he chose to create man, he simply could not be sovereign over what manmight do.
7 I should say here that I have taken an initial stab at a Reformed response to Plantinga and to the problem of evil in Reasons for Faith. I do agree that the one objecting to the intelligibility of the coexistence of God and evil needs to see such an incompatibility as necessary or the argument is merely one of degrees of possibility/probability. This does not destroy the objection, but it does significantly weaken its assumed force.
8 I use the word “freely” here defined according to the Westminster Confession of Faith 9.2: “Man, in his state of innocency, had freedom, and power to will and to do that which was good and well pleasing to God; but yet, mutably, so that he might fall from it.” “Freely” here does not include Molinism.
9 There is obviously more that needs to be said here, especially with respect to the contingency of Adam’s choice, but it would take us too far afield and would necessitate technicalities that might obscure our basic point. To see how this might be worked out, see Oliphint,Reasons for Faith, chapters 14–16.
10 One might want to insist that this problem is a problem of theism generally, which it may be. However, this does not require, nor is it possible, that one’s response be one of generic theism. It is perfectly acceptable to appeal to Christian theism in this case, since the problem is contained in its truths.
11 It should be said here that to respond to the atheist objector by noting that he himself has no ground for asserting something as evil or wicked (since no absolute standard exists in atheism) is not to speak to the specific objection or problem posed. There certainly is a problem with respect to atheism and the ground or standard by which one could determine evil, but the problem here has to do with the compatibility of the existence of God and evil. It is, therefore, a Christian problem, not an atheistic one, and should be seen as such, so that aChristian answer can more naturally be given.
12 Just to reiterate, it is not the case that the objector believes this about God. Rather, it is the case that the objection requires this understanding of God. Thus, the objection assumes a certain knowledge of God and just how that knowledge is obtained is directly relevant to the objection itself.
13 The IP objection, it seems to me, is the crux of the problem. Without going into detail, it seems also that the Molinist or Plantingan response to the IP objection still leaves huge questions unanswered. Though Plantinga’s response is meant to be a defense only, it does border on a theodicy in that it distances God’s control from the act of sin or evil itself. For example, in Plantinga’s construal, it is possible that God could not strongly actualize a state of affairs that was only morally good. But if that is the case, surely he knew what Adam would do, even if that knowledge was so-called middle knowledge. If he did know, why then go ahead and create?
14 In theological terms, Plantinga opts for a kind of Molinism, in which God’s acts are determined by his middle knowledge, which itself takes account of man’s libertarian choices. This is akin to the position of historic Arminianism. Reformed theology has opposed this notion, and for good reason. For more on these distinctions, see Oliphint, Reasons for Faith, 262–72 and chapter 14.
15 These kinds of incompatibility arguments, as we noted in chapter 1, are the sum and substance of Michael Martin and Ricki Monnier, eds.,The Impossibility of God (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2003). For a more technical discussion and response to this notion of incompatibility, see K. Scott Oliphint, “Something Much Too Plain to Say: A Systematic Theological Apologetic,” in Resurrection and Eschatology, ed. Lane G. Tipton and Jeffrey C. Waddington (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2008).
16 Mario Augusto Bunge, Critical Approaches to Science and Philosophy (Piscataway, NJ: Transaction, 1998), 57.
17 By now, a pattern should begin to be evident in my response. This pattern takes tenet 1 seriously and offers a response that is distinctively Christian. This pattern should also make clear that it is the substance of the Christian faith that offers responses to many of the objections out there, since only in Christianity has God condescended, and preeminently so in Christ.
18 For a look at some of the passages relevant to this discussion, see K. Scott Oliphint, God with Us: Divine Condescension and the Attributes of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), chapter 3.
19 Westminster Larger Catechism, answer 7.
20 To cite two examples: “Molinism is most properly viewed as the philosophical development of prephilosophical beliefs which are widely shared both within the Christian community and beyond it. . . . Far more common, at least in my experience, is the reaction that Molinism is but an elaboration of a view which they have held implicitly all along.” Thomas P. Flint, Divine Providence: The Molinist Account, Cornell Studies in the Philosophy of Religion (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998), 76. And: “Free will theists of all types point to experience to support their belief in libertarian free will. That we act freely at least some of the time is a matter of intuition. Determinism is counterintuitive.” Bruce A. Ware, ed., Perspectives on the Doctrine of God: Four Views (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2008), 157. In fairness, Olson does argue that free will is taught in Scripture, but his examples point to texts that say God relents and repents. For a discussion of these texts and their meaning, see Oliphint, God with Us, esp. chapter 5.
21 Charles Wesley, “And Can It Be,” 1738.
This is Chapter 5 from K. Scott Oliphint's Book, Covenantal Apologetics: Principles and Practice in Defense of Our Faith.
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