September 30, 2014

The Problems with "The Problem of Evil"

In the course I am co-teaching, The God Debate, one of the issues we are covering is the problem of evil. The problem of evil goes something like this:

If God is all good, and if God is all powerful, no evil would exist. Evil exists.

The only solutions to the problem appear to be either:
  1. God is not all good.
  2. God is not all powerful.
  3. There is no God.
The problem, as stated, is a formidable challenge. It can not be dismissed easily. To address this challenge, it is critical to recognize that the atheist has a legitimate (e.g., a good and logical) and an illegitimate (e.g., illogical, unfounded) reason for raising this as a problem.

First, the atheist can legitimately raise this challenge if s/he believes that this as an inconsistency--a contradiction--in the Christian worldview, such that holding these attributes of God (i.e., God is good and all-powerful) can not be made compatible with the other premise (i.e., evil exists). Indeed, if these cannot be made compatible, if they can not simultaneously be held, then the Christian worldview collapses.

The first problem for the atheist is that the Christian worldview is compatible with the existence of evil. Here's the Christian worldview of evil:
  • The Christian worldview explains the entry of evil into our world (Genesis 3). 
  • The Christian worldview recognize evil and suffering as something alien to the world. It is not as it should be (Romans 8: 20-23).
  • The Christian worldview offers the sure hope that evil will end (Revelation 21:1-6).
More specifically, the Christian worldview is compatible with a sovereign, good God and the existence of evil. Scripture teaches several things in regards to this:
  • God  does not do evil (James 1:13). He is holy, perfect, and without sin (Leviticus 20:26; Isaiah 6:3).
  • God is sovereign over all things, such that nothing (including evil) can occur without Him ordaining it. This is tough to understand and deal with, but this conclusions is unavoidable.  Indeed, the most heinous evil was expressly predestined by God (Acts 2:23).
  • God uses evil and suffering to accomplish His ends. Those ends, though, are not always clear. God uses suffering for direct punishment for particular sin (e.g., 2 Samuel 12:10-12); he uses suffering to show his power (John 9:1-3); he uses suffering as a test of faith (e.g., Job; James 1:2-3; 1 Peter 1:6-7; 2 Corinthians 12:7-9). God promises that He uses all things (including evil) to work for the good--i.e., for the sanctification--of His people (Romans 8:28). 
The Christian can not provide a fully satisfactory answer for why evil exists. The Bible simply does not tell us why God allowed evil to enter the world or how or why he uses evil in every case. However, the plain teaching of Scripture (and hence, the Christian worldview) is that evil is compatible with the good, omnipotent God of the Bible. As such, the atheist's legitimate reason for raising the problem of evil does not stand. It does not show that the Christian worldview is self-contradictory or incompatible. (Much more could be said about what is "good" and what is "evil," but for the purposes of this blog-post, this is sufficient.)

The second problem for the atheist in raising this problem is that, once the compatibility problem is handled, they can only raise this problem illegitimately. It is illegitimate because the problem challenges the consistency of the atheists' worldview. The atheist's worldview says that the world began out of chaos (a "big bang"), operates, in some sense, under randomness (e.g., chance mutations) via purely natural, blind, purposeless (albeit strangely enough, constant) laws of nature. Under these conditions, suffering and evil would be exactly what one would expect. In this worldview, suffering and evil fit quite well--too well. Evil and suffering are not a problem; they just are. They are part of the normal, purely natural, physical undetermined world.

Moreover, the atheist is faced with another problem along these lines because s/he cannot establish an objective basis for identifying evil that extends beyond space and time. As such, they have no case against God on the basis of evil without borrowing from the Christian worldview. Only by taking on the definitions--the absolute standards of good and evil--from the Christian worldview can they make a case about evil.

In summary, it is illegitimate for the atheist to raise the problem of evil because (a) there is no reason to see evil as a problem because it is what would be expected in their worldview and (b) they have no objective basis for determining evil.

Most fundamentally, what this problem reveals is that the atheists' worldview suspends reality by pretending God does not existence, and as such, it can not stand under its own weight. Their worldview would say that suffering and evil are expected and as such are not a problem, but this does not fit with the way we speak and act in the real world.

Evil is problem. It is a problem for atheists; it is a problem for Christians. Only in the Christian worldview, though, can evil and suffering be properly recognized as something alien and foreign and  is there found the solution to evil--Christ.

August 26, 2014

Reason for God: Introduction

[A few years ago, I taught a topic-based, freshmen writing course, The Case for God. Throughout that course, I reviewed several chapters of Tim Keller's book, The Reason for God, since we used it in that course. I did not finish that project, but now that I have an opportunity to use the book again in another course that I am team-teaching called, The God Debate, I plan to periodically pick up and review some of the chapters/concepts covered in the book that I have not already reviewed. Today, I begin that new class, The God Debate, and students will be reading the introduction to Keller's book. Below are a mix of some of my reflections on this chapter and a sketch of some ideas that I have for my opening comments to the students.]

Engraved on the college's library is the phrase, "The truth shall set you free," and written within the center of the official seal of the college, is John 8:32, a reference to this phrase. I suspect that the college uses this phrase because it plays a duel role. It gives a (covert) head-nod to the historical relationship with the United Methodist church, but suggests something of the liberal arts education--the idea that knowledge, education, or "truth" is liberating.

The phrase, though, in its original context, has nothing to do with the liberation that education brings. Jesus used these words to describe Himself (i.e., He is the Truth; see John 14:6) and his mission (to set people free of their sins; see John 8:34-36). The context makes this clear. 
"So, Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, 'If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." (ESV; John 8:32)
Notice that "the truth" is found in Him--Jesus. It is found in His word. This point is profound in many ways, but place this in the context of the course I am teaching; knowledge--all truth--can only be rightly understood if you know and understand God. Knowing God is an epistemological necessity. The Christian apologist, Scott Oliphant, makes this point. He writes "To claim to know something while thinking it independent of God (or to deny that there is a God) is to fail to know it for what it really is" (Covenantal Apologetics, p. 43). He goes on to say, "... since the fall.... we became, in the truest sense of the word, irrational. That is, we sinfully and deceptively convince ourselves that what is actually true about the world is not true. We create a world of our own making, where we are all gods" (p. 45). Let me then, in that light, make a not-so-bold-claim: to be truly educated necessitates that you deal with God's existence. 
-- -- -- -- -- 
Reason for God Introduction

To that end, Tim Keller opens his book with an introduction. He points out that there are three barriers to the faith. One is intellectual. There are reasonable questions and challenges in the faith (e.g., the problem of evil). Another is personal. People carry with them baggage and problems and experiences with religion--some of which create barriers to belief. A third is social; it is a problem finding a community that supports those beliefs. The course I am teaching will deal primarily with the intellectual barrier. It is why, perhaps, that apologists sometimes call apologetics per-evangelism. It is showing people that the intellectual barriers they place in front of belief are not really there. Indeed, in my study, I have become more sure of my faith by studying the skeptics' arguments. 

And to that end, Keller offers a challenge to both believers and unbelievers. To the believers, he asks that they raise doubt. Give faith an honest look. "People who blithely go through life too busy or indifferent to ask hard questions about why they believe as they do will find themselves defenseless against either the experience of tragedy or the probing questions of a smart skeptic. A person's faith can collapse almost overnight if she has failed over the years to listen patiently to her own doubts, which should only be discarded after long reflection" (p. xvii). On a personal note, the examination of my beliefs in preparation for this course has brought to my conscious why I believe what I believe. The word "faith" is  inappropriately, but frequently used to trump the skeptics, as though, mere belief on the basis of nothing is enough. R. C. Sproul refers to this as credulity, not the Christian faith. There is reason to faith.

To the unbelievers, Keller asks they recognize that there doubts are based on their own beliefs, which should be tested with the same level of analysis. "The only way to doubt Christianity rightly and fairly is to discern the alternate belief under each of your doubts and then to ask yourself what reasons you have for believing it" (pp. xviii-xix). 

These are the challenges I offer to my students today.

August 21, 2014

Introduction to My Upcoming "God Debate" Course With My "Religious Bio"

In an attempt to awaken my blog from the Internet dead, I am pleased to announce (again) that I will be team-teaching a course called The God Debate starting next week. My hope is (no commitment because my blogging has taken a back-seat to many, many other obligations) to post updates, brief sketches of arguments made in the class, and reflections on the course. I hope others will find this useful and interesting.

To get started, I share a couple of things. First, I developed a webpage with many links to resources on Christianity and Christian apologetics. Also, the first assignment in the course is for students to provide a brief, personal religious biography. This is not intended to be a statement of faith, but a personal religious experience. To give the students a feel for this, my colleague and I have provided our religious biographies. Here's mine:
In a sense, there was never a time in my life where I was not a Christian. I grew up in a house with Christian parents, who taught me and my siblings the truths of the Bible, led family devotions, and saw to it that we regularly attended church. When I was probably 7- or 8- years old, I recall professing my belief that Jesus was my savior and my parents leading me in prayer, and I was probably 10-years old when I made a public profession of faith and was admitted to the Lord’s table in my church. So, in another sense, I might mark the beginning of my Christianity to these points. I was thoroughly “churched,” even in my education. I attended my church’s school from 1st-12th grade. I memorized the children’s catechism in elementary school and the shorter catechism (which is not all that “short”) in junior- and senior- high school; I took Bible courses throughout my primary and secondary years in school and even had fairly advanced courses in church history and a survey of the Old Testament in high-school. In short, God was always a certainty in my life, and I always considered myself a Christian. With that said, this doesn’t mean that I have mindlessly accepted my beliefs. Also, it doesn’t mean that I have been consistently fervent in my faith. Indeed, one of the struggles I sometimes wrestle with is having the “head-knowledge” about the faith without the “heart.” There were periods in my life, while never rejecting or even having a desire to move away from the faith, I merely carried the name of Christian, yet there were other periods in my life, where I was profoundly moved to learn and commit myself to my faith. Upon reflection, these latter periods are tied to my exposure to sound preaching, regular Scripture reading, and fellowship with other believers. A difficult part about maturing in the Christian faith is that the more I try to become Christ-like, the more I realize how monumentally I fail to live up to this call, so I am thankful for the grace of God through Christ Jesus, who accomplished my salvation on the cross. One of the many ways I fail to live up to my calling is my timidity to share the gospel with others, so it is for this reason that I am both excited to give “a reason for the hope that is in [me]” (I Peter 3:15) and anxious about this course.

April 21, 2014

The Christian Life (Book Review Series): Every Good Endeavor

What does it mean to be a Christian in this life? What does it look like? How do we live as Christians? These are important and difficult questions. Over the last couple of years, I have read several books on Christian living. Most of them have been very helpful. So, this is part of a series reviewing some of these books. You can see my first post in this series on Pilgrim's Progress here. In this post, I will review Timothy Keller's book, Every Good Endeavor

In Every Good Endeavor, Tim Keller partners with  Katherine Alsdorf to address the Christian's vocation. (In this review, I'll refer to this as Keller's work and words, as a short-hand). Katerine Alsdorf's name is less known than Tim Keller's, but her role says something about the importance of and intention of this book; she is Redeemer Presbyterian's (the church Keller pastors) director for the Center of Faith and Work. Keller urges his readers to consider such ministries at their own church and lives. His stated purpose is to "feed your imagination and stir your action with the richness of what the Christian faith says (directly and indirectly) about this inexhaustible subject" (p. 24).

The structure of the book is telling in terms of Keller's theological framework for vocation. The first part (four chapters) is titled "God's Plan for Work" and includes discussions on God's intention for work. The second section (four chapters) is titled "Our  Problems with Work" and includes discussions on how sin (e.g., making work an idol) and the effects of sin (e.g., the frustrations of work) impact our work. The final section titled "The Gospel and Work" (four chapters and an epilogue) provides a discussion  on re-conceptualizing work under the Gospel and even specific examples of what this would mean in various fields of work.  In case the section titles are not obvious enough, Keller uses the creation--fall--redemption/recreation categories to describe work.

If the point was to "feed [my] imagination," the task was accomplished--home run style! My copy is highlighted and annotated. Keller is profoundly thoughtful, rich in wisdom, and deeply engaging with a smooth, easy-to-read delivery-style.

As I understood the work, Keller sees the Christian's vocation as something that is redeeming the culture and the world along side of Christ, something that will appear and build (or be built into) the new creation. Christians do this by turning work into a Christ-like approach to serve others. Keller says that "our daily work can be a calling only if it is reconceived as God's assignment to serve others." (p. 66). While Keller offers some interesting ways of doing work differently as a Christian, Keller's most striking call is to think about work differently.

As someone who is sympathetic and partial to a 2k theology, I am skeptical about the soundness of parts of this thinking, even while I was (and am) profoundly inspired by it. I am skeptical about the work that I do as part of the new creation or re-creation/redemption. I am more confident in the completed work of the cross (John 19:30) and the home Christ builds (2 Corinthians 5:1-5) in the new heavens and the new earth (Revelation 21:1-4) than I am in my own work as redemptive. On a practical level, many in the secular, non-Christian world see work as a service and preform that service very well. I find that they do work-as-service better in some incidents. As such, service to others may not be the distinctive mark for Christian work.

However, Keller raises several points that I want to affirm. Sin has destroyed work, and we need to draw our attention to how we make work and the fruits of our work (i.e., money) idols. We should also be more thoughtful in serving God in our work (Colossians 3:17). The Gospel really does change everything, not just religious things, as Keller notes. It should change the way we work, the way we interact with others, and all aspect of our lives. While I don't know how or if work plays a role in redemptive history, I am convinced that all should be given over to Christ. Even if our daily work--the actual behavioral tasks--do not change, Keller raised my consciousness about my work's relationship to God and the Gospel profoundly, and for what it's worth, I found myself approaching my work differently after reading the book.