The oddity of theodicy: Why Captain Kirk could be a deep theologian

One argument that is commonly used against Christianity (possibly the most enduring argument) is the problem of evil, which has historically been such a matter of disagreement and debate that it has its own field of study, theodicy. Briefly, the problem is generally stated as follows, based on traditional understandings of God:

  1. God is good (omnibenevolent)
  2. God is all-powerful (omnipotent)
  3. God is all-knowing (omniscient)
  4. Evil exists

If point 4 is true, it follows that at least one of the previous 3 statements must be false. Various theologies have been suggested which sacrifice one or another of those in order to square the circle, but they remain outside mainstream Christian doctrine, regarded as “heretical”. I find it bizarre and frustrating that serious attempts to consider deep theological issues can be kicked into touch with the big boot of that H word, but that’s a topic for another post.

What interests me for now is how people have gone about reviewing point 4. There have been attempts to redefine evil in the light of points 1-3, so that anything which happens must not fit the description, or the omnibenevolent, omnipotent, omniscient God wouldn’t allow it. I hope my objections to this line of reasoning are obvious. A rather subtler form of this argument is that free will is such a valuable, overarching good that it’s worthwhile even if it allows evil things to happen as a result – what I call the Captain Kirk argument:

Without freedom of choice, there is no creativity. Without creativity, there is no life

Essentially, without freedom to make our own mistakes (and sometimes make others suffer as a result), we’re just drones, and few if any people would choose that if it was on offer – Kirk rejected benevolent imprisonment, no matter how gilded the cage. And you know what? I can see that. It’s a little bit of a fudge, I don’t think it eliminates all the problems entirely, and it would require some serious revisions to typical ideas of heaven, but as far as I’m concerned, it bumps the problem of evil down from a gaping inconsistency to a minor niggle.

Just as long as you don’t believe in an interventionist God.

Oh. Yeah. That’s not so helpful, then.

Because mainstream Christianity is completely wedded to the idea of an interventionist God, as it claims to have been founded in response to God becoming man. Many Christians believe God intervened in astonishing ways throughout history. They pray to Him in the expectation that He will intervene and make things better. Some even believe He gives them specific personal direction right here and now. There are liberal exceptions on the fringes (there always are), but essentially, Christianity is dependent on an interventionist God. See the problem?

If God’s prepared to intervene to sort out our trivial little whinges about how we want a nicer boss, or a better car, or we just can’t find a parking space, it blows that neat little argument about freedom of choice out of the water. If He can sort out even one tiny, insignificant problem, it means bad things aren’t an inevitable consequence of free will, and the problem looms as large as ever. If He can part the Red Sea, or raise a man from the dead, or even find you a parking space, He can wipe out diseases, stop mass murderers, prevent tsunamis. But He doesn’t.

I’ve heard some pretty convoluted arguments which attempt to rationalise this, most of which end up blaming the victim, either directly or obliquely, for their suffering, and we’re right back to either redefining the concepts of good and evil to the point of oblivion, or else granting God a sort of celestial diplomatic immunity for the various things He does (or allows to happen – it amounts to the same thing if you’re omnipotent). There are, I acknowledge, a few very subtle, delicate justifications based on the promise of eternal paradise (which is problematic, as noted earlier) or the good of humanity as a whole, but they tend to be very vague and speculative, and I regard them as special pleading.

There are still ways out for Christianity – re-evaluation of God’s characteristics, or a wholesale revision of Biblical interpretations along non-interventionist, essentially Deist lines are two that come to mind, but I can’t see either happening any time soon. As far as I can see, though, this is a massive problem for traditional Christianity.

The strange thing is that when I started on this post, I was expecting and intending to say that the problem of evil didn’t bother me all that much, because it never has, and I’ve always felt that was quite odd. Then as I started to set my thoughts out, I realised just how many little knock-on effects there were if the usual arguments were taken at face value, and I ended up virtually rewriting it. Maybe in time I’ll come back and revise it again.

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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

18 responses to “The oddity of theodicy: Why Captain Kirk could be a deep theologian”

  1. fancypantshansen says :

    I’ve also heard an argument along the lines (this is the really brief version) that we have free will, and we had to choose (starting with Adam and Eve) between God and sin. When we chose sin, we also chose death, and essentially gave satan control of this world. All the good we see is God doing his best to help us in the fallen world we chose, and all the evil (death, disease, pain, etc) is the result of satan being in charge. Like I said, it’s a really brief overview. If you’d like to read more detail, I have a paper I can get to you.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      Yes, I’ve come across that one as well. I didn’t want to examine it in any detail, because it’s essentially a repackaging of the same problem. To make it work, you still have to suppose that one of points 1-3 is false. Essentially, the question is: Did God create Satan? If He did, it’s His fault, and He either didn’t know what would happen (not omniscient) or didn’t care (not omnibenevolent). If He didn’t, He’s got an evil twin/rival, so He’s clearly not omnipotent. The way you describe it as choosing between God and sin is just the same. If He’s omniscient, He knew what would happen. Saying that He gave us the choice anyway comes back to the idea that free will is the ultimate good, which brings us back to the problems that poses for any interventionist model of God.

      But the Fall is an interesting topic. I see the story as a very powerful one, an instinctive cry that things shouldn’t be like this, and I think we can all relate to that, even if a lot of the detail’s likely to prove more controversial. I’ve got my own ideas about what it signifies, but that’ll have to wait until I can draft a decent post on it.

  2. tildeb says :

    It might help reveal the incoherency of premises 1-3 to remain true if one alters the notion of the problematic term ‘evil’ to the much simpler notion of ‘suffering’.

    Its a fatal problem.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      Could be. I often use the words interchangeably when discussing this subject, depending on context, but made a specific effort to stick to the same word for consistency. Maybe that was a mistake.

  3. tildeb says :

    Moderation? You gotta be kidding me!

  4. tildeb says :

    You are looking at this too anthropomorphically don’t you think?

    When one looks at ‘nature’ one sees a an entire system of prey/predator. It is predicated on suffering. For a benevolent designer to be responsible for this is travesty when it could be designed otherwise is to admit that he’s ethically warped in comparison to the much more benevolent, compassionate, and moral standard we ourselves bring to the recognition.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      I’ve been meaning to reply to this for ages, but I’m still not quite sure how. I largely agree with you, but I think it gets a lot more complicated if you drag the feelings of animals into it, because it drags the discussion onto the unprovable question of whether animals are truly conscious, feel pain or whether that even matters. The first chapters of Genesis give believers a handy escape route from that line of argument, at least to their own satisfaction.

      I suppose I find it an easier topic to address without getting bogged down in that particular issue.

      • tildeb says :

        It IS hard to respond to <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epicurus"Epicurus&#039; problem of evil/suffering. Be assured, I’m not dragging ‘feelings’ into it at all; I’m pointing out the indifferent viciousness of a nature red in tooth and claw. Needless and brutal suffering is part of reality and is incontrovertible evidence that the notion of an omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, benevolent and loving god is simply incompatible with reality. Any serious position of faith in such a god must either deal with this problem effectively (hasn’t happened yet) or choose to blithely ignore its fatal effect on the integrity of the belief. This is SOP for most christian believers: they’d prefer not to have to consider its central importance to the incoherence of their feel-good faith. After all, it’s easy to pull a Francis Collins and marvel that the beauty of nature indicates a god. But the flip side is to see what’s actually going on in that beauty and realize that to god we owe all the horrendous stuff too.

      • Recovering Agnostic says :

        Fair enough. I see where you’re coming from, and the point about all the horrible stuff in nature is a good one. David Attenborough’s point about parasitic worms, for example, is a powerful argument against theism, but personally I’ve had difficulties when extending that line of attack to include animals hurting other animals. It tends to go a bit like this:

        Sceptic: Animals surviving by eating other animals…
        Believer: What’s the problem?
        S: Er, apart from the pain and death?
        B: They’re part of creation, God gave us dominion over them.
        S: So they don’t matter?
        B: Not really, any more than grass or trees.
        S: Says who?
        B: God!
        S: I don’t think so – Genesis is a creation myth, not a rule for life.
        B: You’re wrong.

        And we’re moving in an entirely different direction, arguing about inerrancy. That’s not necessarily a problem (although it’s a good example of shifting goalposts when this sort of argument’s deployed by people who claim not to be literalists), but I think it’s a complication I don’t want to deal with when I’m trying to set out my thoughts on an issue like this.

      • tildeb says :

        You write:

        Sceptic: Animals surviving by eating other animals…
        Believer: What’s the problem?
        S: Er, apart from the pain and death?
        B: They’re part of creation, God gave us dominion over them.
        S: So they don’t matter?
        B: Not really, any more than grass or trees.
        S: Says who?
        B: God!
        S: I don’t think so – Genesis is a creation myth, not a rule for life.
        B: You’re wrong.

        That last point is where the problem lies: we know Genesis is a creation myth and not a rule for life because its central characters, Adam and Eve, have never existed in fact. And we know this for a fact because the narrowest possible population from whom humans have descended is about 10K. The proof is your and my DNA. The time span between the first man’s (Adam) and the first woman’s (Eve) contribution to our DNA is somewhere in the neighbourhood of 50,000 years difference. What this evidence shows (beyond the richness of mythical symbols found within the stories) is that the lineage by which man supposedly ‘fell from grace’ is a myth. At best it’s a metaphor, which means the Jesus story of dying on the cross is to factually die for a metaphorical sin. This is another incoherent basis for christian faith because any need for a factual Jesus and his death are not necessary for a metaphorical redemption.

        In addition, we know that evolution is a mindless, agency-less physical process that is true in reality. We know this as well as we can claim to know anything at all. Every avenue of inquiry supports it and we utilize this knowledge in medical technologies and therapies that work consistently and reliably well. Any notion of a creator is unnecessary to explain how life has come to be the way it is. I addition, there is no evidence for any suspicious interference in this process. That’s why deism, that places god so far out there to be irrelevant is the only theism that doesn’t conflict directly fits with the knowledge we do have.

        Taken together, we know that the Genesis myths cannot be any kind of rule for life because it’s factually wrong when taken literally and incompatible on the literal level with the knowledge we do have about reality. So we know that claims of dominion are absolutely baseless in reality. We are directly related to every other life form on this planet. We are kin and have no good reasons or evidence from reality to suggest that we are somehow special or separate from this common heritage. That means that we can demonstrate why other critters who share the same nervous system we have should react to the same pain stimulation we do. And, not surprisingly, they do.

        In addition, we come equipped with mirror neurons that allow us to activate our brains in sympathy with what we see occur to others. And we are not the only species to have this kind of neural development; many other mammals do too, which indicates that distress at the suffering of another should activate their sympathetic nervous system the same way ours does. Sure enough, this is exactly what we find. The argument that we do not know for sure if another critter suffers is highly improbable to be true. By all other measurements save self-reported language, the responses in brain activity, chemical releases, and physical behaviour are the same as our own. There is nothing BUT good evidence that other critters suffer as we do. Any belief contrary to this accumulation of positive evidence needs to account for this data and this is where theists abdicate their intellectual integrity by simply pretending some divine agency has endowed with with privilege and favour. It’s simply borne out by the evidence we have and stands incompatible with what we know to be true in reality.

      • Recovering Agnostic says :

        I don’t disagree with any of this, although as I’m almost pathologically fair-minded, I should acknowledge that there’s potentially some wiggle room between literalism and rejection of Genesis, where the story can be interpreted as having a deeper message regardless of literal accuracy, like a parable.

      • tildeb says :

        Of course the Genesis creation myths have great value… as myths. If you could read it as is, without the bizarre christian interpretation of it, you would find it chalk full of wisdom pertinent to your life today. But the resurrection interpretation of it has zero to do with this meaning and directly contradicts and interferes with its central message.

      • Recovering Agnostic says :

        Uh? I have no idea what you’re talking about. You seem to be arguing against things I haven’t said and don’t believe. I don’t even know what “resurrection interpretation” means here.

      • tildeb says :

        You wrote there’s potentially some wiggle room between literalism and rejection of Genesis, where the story can be interpreted as having a deeper message regardless of literal accuracy, like a parable.

        I agreed – if we read it as the stand-alone myth it is.

        But christians don’t leave it alone; they utilize the myth to create a need for redemption for our ‘fallen nature’ in a very literal sense. Enter Jesus, who ‘redeems’ us by dying in our place. This ‘redemption interpretation’ of the creation myth applies a literal historical act – Jesus dying – with the need for a metaphorical redemption based on the Genesis story we know is neither factual nor literal. It’s a bizarre reading of the myth, a perversion of its symbols to produce an incoherent reason for us to appreciate Jesus’ death. Not only do I NOT need Jesus’ death to gain value from the myth but I gain much more value if I read it as a stand-alone myth.

        I draw your attention to this because you introduced it and wrote the most extraordinary thing about the topic of suffering and whether or not it is FATAL to the notion of a benevolent yet powerful god: the unprovable question of whether animals are truly conscious, feel pain or whether that even matters. The first chapters of Genesis give believers a handy escape route from that line of argument, at least to their own satisfaction. Not only is there no escape route in Genesis, handy or not, but it fails to address the very real suffering animals undergo. I’ve tried to point out how we know this to be true (what you assume is unprovable is no such thing in fact) but it seems like you don’t really want to examine whether or not these assumptions you throw out in the aether which underlie the excuse to sideline the problem of suffering are or are not true in fact when you write Uh? I have no idea what you’re talking about. You seem to be arguing against things I haven’t said and don’t believe. My point is that you ARE willing to accept them if it seems to get rid of the problem of suffering while keeping god alive… in spite of very good evidence against the beliefs being true. I’m not so willing because the assumptions necessary to avoid the problem of suffering are not true in reality and I’m a great supporter of respecting reality’s role in determining what is true about it.

  5. tildeb says :

    Let’s try that link again: and see if the tag works this time.

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