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January 02, 2005

The Problem of Evil

Midwest Conservative Journal alerted me to an erroneous Wall Street Journal op-ed by David Hart, and Eastern Orthodox theologian:
The Christian understanding of evil has always been more radical and fantastic than that of any theodicist; for it denies from the outset that suffering, death and evil have any ultimate meaning at all....

When confronted by the sheer savage immensity of worldly suffering--when we see the entire littoral rim of the Indian Ocean strewn with tens of thousands of corpses, a third of them children's--no Christian is licensed to utter odious banalities about God's inscrutable counsels or blasphemous suggestions that all this mysteriously serves God's good ends. We are permitted only to hate death and waste and the imbecile forces of chance that shatter living souls, to believe that creation is in agony in its bonds, to see this world as divided between two kingdoms--knowing all the while that it is only charity that can sustain us against "fate," and that must do so until the end of days.

David Hart has it backwards when he says, "The Christian understanding of evil ... denies from the outset that suffering, death and evil have any ultimate meaning at all." In fact, Christianity gives the only possible dignity to suffering: it claims that it is part of God's plan, deliberate, purposeful, and, since God is good, useful, even when we cannot see the use.

I got this idea from Perry Miller's excellent old bio of Jonathan Edwards, where he contrasts this with the liberal view that suffering is not part of God's plan-- in which case the sufferer has the extra indignity of knowing that he is involved in a thwarting of God's will. This seems to be Mr. Hart's position-- that the world is fallen, and the Fall is no part of God's plan. God, for him, is not powerful enough to save those dead children in Sumatra. This makes for a weak God indeed, since even Man could have saved some of those children if we'd cared to. A few billion dollars in tsunami warning stations in 2000 would have done it, and we, like God, knew that a tsunami would come sooner or later.

For the atheist, suffering similarly lacks meaning, though the atheist does not have to deal with the impotent god that the liberal theist does. Suffering is bad, pure and simply, and the sufferer has zero possibility of comforting thoughts that his suffering might be for some greater good he cannot see.

Contrary to Hart, those who believe in God's power and purposefulness are not blasphemous. We are humble. We do not think that we know how the world should be run in all its details. Hart is like those people who think the world would be better off if there were no death-- but forget about the mass senility and overpopulation that would be the result. The best metaphor I've found for the Problem of Evil is that I am like a toddler who is taken away from my mother by men in white coats who stick me with needles, suffocate me with a mask, and cut me with knives while I'm asleep. To the toddler, this is pure evil. To the adult, it is an operation necessary to save the child's life. The wise toddler trusts his parents, even when he cannot understand why they are hurting him.

Posted by erasmuse at January 2, 2005 09:27 PM

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