Can God Triumph Over Night?

Elie Wiesel has published a new translation of his much celebrated Night that includes a new preface and forward as well as crisper translation into English by his wife Marion. The first hand account of a survivor from Auschwitz and Buchenwald is just as raw and disturbing as it was when it was first published in 1958. The deeply compelling narrative leaves one with images of unspeakable evil. Infants being thrown into a blazing fire; a young boy being hanged, though not heavy enough to die; living with no heat in the wintertime, and a death march 20 miles in the snow.

One might be tempted to say that Wiesel’s survival was a miracle, but that will not do. From Wiesel’s experience such supernatural intervention to save his life would be just as arbitrary as Dr. Mengele’s capricious wand of “selection.” Though, in the end, Wiesel retains some sort of faith in God he writes of the death of his faith after seeing his fellow Jews go up in smoke:

I shall never forget that night, the first night in the camp, that turned by life into one long night seven times sealed.
Never shall I forget that smoke.
Never shall I forget the small faces of children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.
Never shall I forget those flames that consumed by faith forever.
Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live
Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned by dreams to ashes.
Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as God himself.
Never.

Understandably, a claim has been made that even to assert faith in God, or worse, to propose a reason for allowing the Holocaust, is to disqualify oneself from the enterprise of moral reasoning. Nothing can be legitimately proposed in the face of Auschwitz, for nothing of any redeeming value could ever come from it. To propose a justification for God would make the Holocaust acceptable.

I was not planning on reading Night, but was introduced to this quote in William Hasker’s new book The Triumph of God over Evil (IVP, 2008). It is precisely with this problem of moral legitimacy Hasker begins his daunting project, “a theodicy for a world of suffering.” Some theologians try to respond to Auschwitz by simply condemning God and implore believers to call upon him to repent. For orthodox believers, however, this is not an option as it negates God’s perfect goodness. Hasker responds to this dilemma by citing a school of thought that sees the human person as morally and existentially significant. As human beings we have the capacities to enjoy much positive value and suffer negative value, as well as the capacity to determine oneself in a fashion that greatly influences value either positively or negatively for ourselves and others. Moreover, a perfectly good and powerful God is able to bring about an eschaton that will make human suffering seem light and momentary in comparison. Simply claiming that people have no right or reason to believe such things about both God and human beings is simply dismissive and illegitimately claims an implausible moral superiority over the believer who is just as horrified by Auschwitz as the nonbeliever.

What is essential to a free will theodicy is developed by Hasker in some detail. He sums up in four detailed propositions:

    [1] The world contains persons who are intelligent and free, living in communities with which they are responsible to and for one another. Human societies have developed by actualizing the inherent potentials of persons and utilizing these potentials for the development of progressively more complex social and cultural systems and progressively increasing control over the material environment.

    [2] The human world so constituted offers great potential good in the realization and fulfillment of the potential of human persons and the development of human culture; beyond that, persons have the opportunity to become children of God, enjoying the ultimate fulfillment human beings are capable of. The human world also offers the possibility, and indeed the reality of evil, as persons utilize their freedom to choose evil over good, short-term gratification over the common interest, hatred over love.

    [3] So far as we can see, no alternative world that does not share these general features could offer a potentiality for good comparable to that afforded by the actual world; only free and responsible persons are eligible to become sons and daughters of God.

    [4] Frequent and routine intervention by God to prevent the misuse of freedom by his creatures or to repair the harm done by this misuse would undermine the structure of life and community intended in the plan of creation; accordingly, such intervention should not be expected to occur.

    [5] In virtue of propositions 1-4, it is good that God has created a universe containing human society as described; there is not basis for holding God morally at fault for doing so or for supposing that a perfectly good Creator would have acted differently.

These propositions do not explain every particular instance of evil, but they do provide a framework for a way of viewing the world where particular evils occur. There really is no such thing as “the best of all possible worlds” but there are worlds that are better than others. These worlds contain creatures embedded in communal contexts that significantly free for moral and social purposes that cannot be obtained by pure determinism. In other words people, collectively and individually, do some pretty amazing things and some pretty disgusting things. Being human has that effect.

But what of natural evil, or that mode of suffering that comes through the violence of nature? Things like hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes or cancer, infant death syndrome, and mental illness don’t seem to have a “free will” and would be perfectly under God’s control. This seems to be a remaining problem. But for Hasker, he affirms that the creation does have a degree of autonomy that is analogous to our own freedom. He puts forward the following propositions for a way of viewing the natural world:

    [6] The actual universe is a complex, multileveled natural world containing creatures that are sentient as well as some that are intelligent. The world has developed to its present state through a complex evolutionary process and enjoys a considerable amount of autonomy in its functioning.

    [7] The universe so constituted makes possible a large amount of good, both in the order and beauty of the physical universe and in the development and flourishing of a myriad of living creatures. It also unavoidably contains a great deal of suffering and death.

    [8] There is no reason for us to suppose that some alternative order of nature, capable of being created by an all-powerful God, would surpass the present universe in its potentiality for good or in its balance of good and evil.

    [9] In virtue of propositions 6-8, it is good that God has created the universe; there is no basis for holding God morally at fault for doing so or for supposing that a perfectly good Creator would have acted differently.

This view of the world differs considerably from traditional Christian conceptions that see God as creating the world in the not too distant past and as an intelligent designing agency that did not introduce the curse of death into the world until after his human agents rebelled against him. Though it would take quite an effort to overturn these beliefs with others derived from Scripture, it is an ingenious solution to a number of questions that come up in a theistic-evolutionist perspective. The world is made with inherent properties to flourish in both beauty and diversity, always increasing with levels of complexity. This explains the paradoxical reaction we have towards creation as being both beautiful and horrifying. He writes, “Natural evil, in the form suffering, pain and death, is the result of the overall order of the cosmos, an order which, taken as a whole, is good and admirable. Since we are part of this order–individually, each a very small part of it–we must expect that these things will affect us also; we are granted no exemption from suffering.

This sets up Hasker’s answer to the evidential argument from evil as articulated by William Rowe. Rowe’s argument is powerful and succinct:

    [10] There exists instances of intense suffering which an omnipotent, omniscient being could have prevented without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.

    [11] An omniscient, wholly good being would prevent the occurrence of any instance suffering it could, unless it could not do so without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.

    [12] There does not exist an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good being.

Many theists respond to this argument by rejecting [10]–the rejection of pointless suffering or what might be called gratuitous evil. This may be done simply turning the argument on its head:

    [13] God exists

    [14] the existence of gratuitous evils and God are incompatible

    [15] gratuitous evils do not exist.

This strategy usually hinges on one’s perception that the evidence for God’s existence is stronger than the existence for gratuitous evils. If this is judged to be inconclusive, another strategy is to deny [10] by being skeptical about its claim. It states that we are in no position to adjudicate the truthfulness of [10], because we are epistemically limited. This overturns [10] but it comes at a price. If we are to maintain such a skeptical position then we have no right to claim that such an instance of suffering could have a morally sufficient reason behind it. To make matters worse Rowe imagines the example of “Bambi”–a small deer that dies a painfully slow death from burns suffered in a forest fire–that exemplifies [10] and ably argues that there seems to be no point for such terrible pain.

In response to the disadvantages of the traditional theist strategies and the force of Rowe’s example, he accepts the possibility of [10]–gratuitous evils exist–and focuses scrutiny on [11]–God is compelled by his goodness and power to stop pointless suffering. This is a surprising move in that it is almost universally accepted by all theists that God only allows the lowest amount of evil in creation to achieve his good purposes. If evil exists, there must be a morally sufficient reason that it exists, but this is exactly what Hasker denies.

Hasker believes that [11] is wrongly embedded in consequentialist ethics and that there is a single, universal scale that ascribes value to all events in history. Some are good and some are evil, but each has a numerical value to them that make them fall or rise on the scales. This is entirely implausible. The same point undermines the idea that there is a “best possible world” because there is no way to distinguish the best from one a step below the best. What would it matter if a neutron flew in one direction and not another? Further, could we not always imagine a better world in which we live? The idea that there is way to weigh evils suffers from the same problems. Couldn’t it always be worse? Could there be one more rape in the world that tips the scales in one way and not the other?

Hasker continues in another creative fashion. He finds the belief that there is a good reason behind every instance of evil (so as to not make them gratuitous) to undermine our response to evil as something to be rid of. Why not think that evil is good for us? If everything is understood as coming from the “Father’s hand” then should we not resign to our sufferings and not revolt against them? If God doesn’t want us to waste our cancer, why go to the doctor? Would we not be trying to undo his good plan to bring us closer to himself and increase our joy? Why should we relieve the suffering of anyone? Thus, Hasker asserts the Principle of Divine Intention:

    [16] It is an extremely important part of God’s intention for human persons that they should place a high priority on fulfilling moral obligations and should assume major responsibility for the welfare of their fellow human beings.

For Hasker, this is most exemplified by Christ, and this is where he launches into a Christian theology of redemption. The gospel story is about God triumphing over evil, most definitively with Christ on the cross. Here, he interacts with NT Wright’s provocative book Evil and the Justice of God, and understands the gospel story to be the answer to the question, “Why doesn’t God do more?” Hasker believes that God is leading us to a reality that will make our suffering seem light in comparison, and all that choose to receive his grace will find themselves there. Others that reject it will not find it.

Many will not agree with Hasker’s ideas, his open theism, his theistic evolutionism; many will find his arguments against theological determinism (Calvinism) and middle-knowledge to be incorrect. It will strike many that Hasker has made God out to be less than all-powerful, but it would be a mistake to dismiss him out of hand. His arguments are careful, well-reasoned and cognizant of important objections. Even if one disagrees one will learn a great deal more about how to think seriously about the problem of evil as so eloquently expressed by Elie Wiesel.

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