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In Defense of Belief

Jacob Nielsen

Among the most perplexing occurrences that vex the agnostic and atheist mind is the utter unwillingness of Christians to give up their beliefs in light of the problem of evil. A supremely Good and all-powerful God supposedly governs the world; and yet the world is permeated with evil. Whatever the exact contours of the relationship between God and evil, the atheist is right to intuit that these two propositions do not fit well together. Even so, Christians go about their intellectual business acting as if this logical conundrum poses little or no threat to their faith. How can this be?

In this essay, I will consider J. L. Mackie’s formulation of the problem of evil and present a defense of the ordinary Christian who, being aware of something like Mackie’s critique, yet has good reason to continue to believe. First, I will present Mackie’s argument and briefly explain why traditional “solutions” to the problem of evil appear unsatisfactory. Second, I will argue that the logical problem of evil is founded upon the personal problem of evil; treating the problem independently of its personal character is only possible by means of a separation of the personal and the logical which, in reality, never occurs. Finally, I will explain how the Gospel of Christ serves as a solution to the personal problem of evil and provides the believer with good reason to accept propositions which, as we shall see, might otherwise be unreasonable to hold.

I. The Problem of Evil and Traditional Theodicies

In his essay Evil and Omnipotence, Mackie argues that the traditional doctrines of God’s goodness and omnipotence cannot be consistently maintained in light of the reality of evil. His point is to show that the religious believer must be willing to acquiesce to an “extreme rejection of reason” if she continues to hold these “essential theological doctrine[s].”1)1 Before we examine the specific theological doctrines in question, we must outline Mackie’s understanding of the nature of the “problem:” “The problem of evil, in the sense in which I shall be using the phrase, is a problem only for someone who believes that there is a God who is both omnipotent and wholly good. And it is a logical problem…”2)2 Mackie thus purports to show that belief in God is unreasonable. Mackie’s essential argument is as follows: the very things that believers must think about the God they believe in make it impossible to believe reasonably in that God. Let us now consider the actual propositions that make up the problem of evil:

In its simplest form the problem is this: God is omnipotent; God is wholly good; and yet evil exists… [granting that] good is opposed to evil, in such a way that a good thing always eliminates evil as far as it can, and that there are no limits to what an omnipotent thing can do… it follows that a good omnipotent thing eliminates evil completely, and then the propositions that a good omnipotent thing exists, and that evil exists, are incompatible.3)3

Of course, the logical contradiction disappears if we are willing to drop one of the premises. If we say that there are restrictions on God’s omnipotence or benevolence, or if we hold that evil is really just an illusion, then we no longer have a problem. However, all of these concessions appear to pose problems for the believer. On the one hand, to hold that God is not fully good would seem to be inconsistent with God’s self-revelation in the Scriptures. On the other hand, if we admit that there is a limit to God’s power, we seem to reduce God to the ontological status of a created being. Finally, if we say that there is no evil in the world, then how do we make sense of our universal, intuitive sense of sadness and outrage at horrific crimes and injustices throughout all of human history? Mackie concludes that the believer is bound to hold all three of these propositions in an unqualified manner.4)4

Within Protestant theology, Calvinism and Arminianism provide two potential responses to the problem of evil. In their work The Mystery of God, Steven Boyer and Christopher Hall argue that Calvinism and Arminianism both follow a certain line of logic regarding the relationship between human and divine agency: Calvinism fleshes out the implications of “the logic of sovereignty,” while Arminianism holds fast to “the logic of freedom.”5)5 The Calvinist begins with the fundamental principle that God is the sovereign Lord of all. Since God “works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will,”6)6 it follows, so argues the Calvinist, that everything which occurs is providentially guided by God. Now, the doctrine of God’s sovereignty is clearly a Biblical notion; not even a sparrow falls apart from the will of the father.7)7 However, when the question of the relationship among God’s benevolence, omnipotence, and the prevalence of evil is raised, the logic of sovereignty leads to a surprising conclusion. Since God is the sovereign and providential Lord of all, it follows that even evil is ultimately ordained by the will of God. Thus, the Calvinist answer to the problem of evil is that the sense in which God is “good” is a mystery.

Arminians respond to the Calvinists with a fundamental affirmation of the love and goodness of God. Gregory Boyd presents the Arminian position in his work Satan and the Problem of Evil. Boyd argues that “love is the reason God created the world.”8)8 God therefore grants human beings “self-determining freedom” in order that we might genuinely respond to His love. Thus, the Arminian response to the problem of evil follows the logic of freedom: evil is fully and completely a result of human free will; the only reason God does not immediately eradicate all evil in the world is that he limits his omnipotence so to create the possibility for genuine human freedom and thereby love.

Mackie would respond that neither the Calvinists nor the Arminians successfully solve the problem. In reality, both “solutions” qualify one of the essential theological propositions in such a way as to retain it only in appearance; whereas the Calvinist solution seems to implicitly deny God’s complete goodness, the Arminian solution results in a denial of His omnipotence.9)9 It is not my purpose here to decisively assess the merits and pitfalls of Calvinism and Arminianism. However, Mackie is right to point out that both accounts at least appear to add dubious qualifiers to essential theological doctrines.10)10

As potential solutions to the problem of evil, both Calvinism and Arminianism come at great theological price. Thus, if there was another response to the problem of evil—one that did not emphasize either God’s goodness or His omnipotence to the apparent exclusion of the other—then the reasonableness of either the Calvinist or Arminian solution on its own would be somewhat reduced. But could such a third way be possible? Has Mackie not shown that the problem of evil leaves no theodicy intact?

II. The Personal vs. The Logical

What both Mackie and his Calvinist and Arminian opponents have failed to take into consideration is that the problem of evil is not primarily logical—first and foremost it is personal. Granted, most anyone would agree with Mackie that there is evil in the world. Even the theologian who maintains that, strictly speaking, evil has no positive existence but is a lack of existence, does not mean to say that evil is merely an illusion. But what is the sense in which we hold that “evil exists,” and why is it a problem?

In a primary way we come across evil in particular experiences. This is clearly seen in Ivan Fyodovich’s lament in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s masterpiece, The Brothers Karamozov.

These educated parents subjected the poor five-year-old girl to every possible torture. They beat her, flogged her, kicked her, not knowing why themselves, until her whole body was nothing but bruises; finally they attained the height of finesse: in the freezing cold, they locked her all night in the outhouse… they smeared her face with her excrement and made her eat the excrement, and it was her mother, her mother who made her… can you understand why this nonsense is needed and created?11)11

Clearly, Ivan’s lament concerns the problem of evil. But why does Ivan take evil to be a problem? Not primarily because of its logical incompatibility with God’s goodness and omnipotence. In the first place, “evil” is encountered as a specific, tragic situation. This means that, for Ivan, the problem of evil is primarily a particular problem, not a conceptual one. Granting that our own experience of outrage at particular sufferings resonates with Ivan’s, we may conclude that the primary sense in which evil is said to “exist” is experientially—and particulars, not concepts, are the objects of experience.

Mackie makes the passing comment that the problem of evil “is a problem only for someone who believes that there is a God who is both omnipotent and wholly good.”12)12 On this point, Mackie and Ivan seem to be in complete agreement. Whether Ivan realizes it or not, his outrage is directed at God. Ivan explains that there may in fact be some future moment when he will glorify God along with all humanity “looking at the mother embracing her child’s tormentor” saying, “Just art Thou, O Lord!”13)13 But significantly, Ivan does not want to say such words, and he certainly does not want to mean them. Even if complete “harmony” may be reached in the end, and the “mysterious” ways of God are revealed, the past cannot be undone. Therefore, Ivan seems to conclude that God has betrayed his creation. Ivan speaks of God much in the same way that a brokenhearted lover speaks of the one who betrayed her. And so, in wounded defeat, Ivan concludes, “It’s not that I don’t accept God… I just most respectfully return him my ticket.”14)14

Ivan’s experience of evil is certainly not immune from the problem which Mackie identifies. Logically, there does not seem to be a way to fit the horrifying reality of evil into a world supposedly governed by a fully good and omnipotent God. But this logical problem is only a problem because of the personal problem that lies beneath it. Ivan, who in some sense wants to believe that God is good, cannot accept that He is—Ivan’s anger is fueled by a sense of betrayal. And while concepts do not betray us, persons certainly do. Thus, the logical problem of evil is founded on the personal problem of evil. The logical problem is only a problem for the believer, who, due to his own experiences of evil, has come to question how the God who claims to love that believer personally, who does not want evil to exist and has the power to utterly eliminate it, still allows evil things to happen.

As Eleonore Stump explains in her essay, Second-Person Accounts and the Problem of Evil, personal problems call for personal solutions. Stump distinguishes between first-person, third-person, and second-person experiences. In a first-person experience, one is consciously aware of oneself as a person.15)15 In a third-personal experience, one is aware of another as an object, not as a person. Second-person experiences are more difficult to explain, precisely because the nature of a second-person experience is such that it cannot be reduced to the first- or third-person terms employed in ordinary explanations.16)16 So what is a second-person experience?

In Stump’s words, “It is necessary for a second-person experience, as it isn’t for a first or third person experience, that you interact consciously and directly with another person who is conscious and present to you as a person.”17)17 The second-person space is not constituted by an individual person knowing himself, nor by an individual person knowing something other than himself as an object. Rather, a second-person experience involves a person knowing another person as a person. An example of a second-person experience would thus be that ineffable “something” that transpires between a mother and her child when the mother first looks into her baby’s eyes—not as the eyes of a “thing,” but those of a person18)18.

If fundamentally the problem of evil is more like a mistaken judgment of personal betrayal than a logical puzzle, it follows that the proper solution to the problem is not a first- or third-person explanation, but the promise and assurance of God that He is, in fact, trustworthy. And as Stump argues, it is precisely this sort of personal “answer” which God has given to his people.19)19

III. The Gospel of Christ: The Person as the Reason

The Gospel may be viewed as a second-person encounter with Christ. According to the Scriptures and the Church, the Eternal Word of God became incarnate as a man, lived and suffered face to face with those whom He made, endured a wretched death upon a cross, and ultimately rose from the grave, giving Himself “for the life of the world.”20)20 When the Gospel of Christ is proclaimed, either in word or sacrament, Christians believe that they are receiving the grace and comfort of Jesus Christ personally. In other words, the God who seemingly is to blame for the evil which we experience in the world comes and sweeps His beloved off her feet, providing a personal answer to the personal problem of evil.

As moving as all this may be, Mackie may object, none of this is relevant to the problem at hand. Even if the logical problem of evil is founded upon the personal problem of evil, an answer to the personal problem does not eliminate the logical one. To this I reply that Mackie has misunderstood the significance of his own argument. The logical problem of evil purportedly disavows the believer of any claim to the reasonableness of his faith. However, since the logical problem is founded on the personal problem, a satisfying answer to the personal problem gives the believer a reason to believe, in spite of the logical problem.

Does the Gospel of Christ, understood as a second-person response to the problem of evil, undermine Mackie’s claim that the Christian necessarily falls into “an extreme rejection of reason”?21)21 Consider Josef Pieper’s remark on the difference between believing “something” and believing “someone.” “If now we were to ask one who truly believes: ‘What do you really believe?’ he would not need to name individual items of his creed; but if he wished to be perfectly precise, he would have to point to his authority and reply: ‘I believe what that person has said.’”22)22

If the evidence presented by the prosecution seems to demonstrate “beyond a reasonable doubt” that a man committed a murder, then, by definition, it would be unreasonable for the jury to find that man innocent. In this scenario, the jury would be a “third party” reasonably finding a man guilty upon third-person evidence. But what if the person whom the man murdered was his wife’s brother? Certainly this would be a case wherein his wife would find herself suspecting that her husband had betrayed her. If, then, the husband personally came to his wife and presented himself to her in such a way that he earned back her trust, would she be acting reasonably if she believed her husband when he confessed his innocence?

What this example conveys is a possible scenario wherein two parties standing in different types of relation to one person can both reasonably come to different conclusions concerning some state of affairs that the person is involved in. On the basis of third-person evidence, the jury reasonably concludes that the man is guilty. On the basis of trust stemming from a second-person encounter, the man’s wife reasonably concludes that he is innocent. Is the wife therefore unreasonable by holding that her husband is innocent in spite of the evidence against him? Not if her husband has otherwise proved himself so trustworthy to her as a person that it would be an unwarranted act of personal betrayal for his wife to fail to trust his testimony. Such is the case, Stump and Pieper suggest, in regard to man, God, and the problem of evil.

Let us now reconsider Mackie’s critique of belief in God and see whether or not, in light of this critique, the Christian has good reason to continue to believe. The problem of evil that Mackie introduces is the logical incompatibility of simultaneously holding three concepts together, those of God’s goodness, His omnipotence, and the reality of evil. The fact that any believer in God is bound to believe all of these propositions seems to render belief in God to be logically absurd. Some schools of thought have tried to solve this problem by highlighting the mysterious sense in which God is “good;” others have argued that evil is utterly and only the result of human free will. But maybe such attempts to fit this puzzle together on Mackie’s own terms miss the point.

Christian doctrine rests on the authority of God’s self-revelation. Primarily, belief is in “someone,” not “something.” When Christians experience evil, God’s character is thrown into question—how could a good God allow such misery when he could certainly prevent it? For the Christian, the problem of evil is therefore first and foremost a personal problem. If one’s mistrust of God’s character is mistaken, God must show that He is, in fact, trustworthy, in spite of the evidence against Him. In other words, God must confront persons individually in an encounter that earns back their trust. This is exactly what Christians believe happens when people come face to face with the Gospel. Through the Gospel—in its various forms—persons confront God in the person of Jesus Christ, and God shows the great extent to which he is willing to suffer for that individual’s sake.

The Christian, then, has a response to the problem of evil, but it is not a response that will satisfy Mackie on his own terms. This is due to the unique, second-person relationship between God and the believer. The believer has been won over by the Gospel and thus believes whatever God reveals on the authority of His character—even if the various doctrines seem to conflict. And this is precisely the most reasonable response the believer can have. To qualify God’s omnipotence (like the Arminians) or his goodness (like the Calvinists) so that the logical problem of evil disappears is a mistake. The believer does not need to explain how the things which God has revealed fit together, if he has good reason to believe that they are all true.23)23 And the Gospel, as a second-person encounter with the person of Christ, supplies such a profound reason to trust God and his revelation, that many believe that God is both fully good and omnipotent, in spite of the reality of evil—a fact that may be less outstanding to the philosopher if he pauses to consider the sense in which evil is a problem in his own experience and the nature of God’s response in Christ.



1 J. L. Mackie, Evil and Omnipotence, in God edit. Timothy A. Robinson (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2002), 230.2 Ibid., 231.
3 Ibid. Emphasis added. 4 Ibid.5 Steven Boyer and Christopher Hall The Mystery of God: Theology for Knowing the Unknowable (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, 2012), 149, 157.
6 Ephesians 1:11
7 Cf. Mathew 10:298 Gregory Boyd, Satan and the Problem of Evil (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2001), 50. 9 Ibid., 233.
10 The tendency to add dubious qualifiers to fundamental theological assertions has been criticized by positivists such as Anthony Flew: “A fine brash hypothesis may thus be killed by inches, the death of a thousand qualifications.” The concern expressed by Mackie is that the logics of both Calvinism and Arminianism result in qualifications which tend dangerously close to flat out denials of orthodox theological doctrines.11 Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, Trans. Pevear and Volokhonsky (New York: North Point Press, 2002), 242.
12 Mackie, Evil and Omnipotence, 231.
13 Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, 245.
14 Ibid., 245.
15 Eleonore Stump, “Second-Person Accounts and the Problem of Evil,” In Faith and Narrative (Oxford University Press), 87.
16 Ibid., 88.
17 Ibid., 87.
18 It might be objected that examples of this sort do not point toward some sort of second-person dimension of reality, distinct from subjective (first-person) and objective (third-person) dimensions. To this objection Stump replies that we can imagine someone who has never met her mother and yet knows many propositions about her. When the child meets her mother in person for the first time, we would want to say that she learns something in this second-person encounter, even if she gained no new propositional knowledge about her. Stump contends that such examples point towards the reality of a second-person dimension which is not reducible to either the first- or third- person dimensions. (I am grateful to Kate Bresee for bringing this objection and response to my attention).
19 Ibid., 96.
20 John 6:51
21 Mackie, Evil and Omnipotence, 230.
22 Josef Pieper, Faith, Hope, Love (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1984), 31.
23 It is my suspicion that readers will find this conclusion somewhat incomplete. Even if the logical problem of evil rests on the personal problem, Christians still do not want to abandon the quest for a theodicy which can explain how God’s goodness and omnipotence can be rendered logically consistence with the reality of evil. While cautioning Christians against adopting Mackie’s framework (for it assumes that the logical problem of evil is to be handled apart from the personal), I by no means wish to suggest that Christians ought to abandon reason altogether. Rather, as with the doctrine of the Trinity and the Incarnation, Christian theology relies heavily on a doctrine of mystery which, rather than abandoning reason, opens up the door for the possibility for the transcendence of human reason. Of course, mystery is not a “get out of jail free card” for theologians. On the contrary, see Boyer and Hall’s Mystery of God for a careful explication of the concept of mystery and its role in Christian theology. At best, this essay serves as a footnote to their study.


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