Bruce Little on "God and Gratuitous Evil"

As announced earlier I’m planning on reviewing every chapter in the new anthology on the problem of suffering titled, God and Evil: The Case for God in a World Filled with Pain,edited by Chad Meister and James K. Dew. [To read other entries in this series just click on the "God and Evil" tag below this post].

This time up is chapter three (pp. 38-49) written by Bruce Little, whose thesis is that "if or when gratuitous evil exists it would necessitate no denial or redefinition of any of the attributes of God, nor would it subvert the moral perfections of God." Gratuitous evil is suffering that admits of no over-arching purpose in God's scheme of things. In the vernacular, to admit gratuitous suffering is to admit that "shit happens," and if it does (he's not saying it does) then he argues it would still be consistent with God's perfect goodness.

I have an immediate gripe with his chapter. He often says that atheists are arguing that God must have a greater good purpose for everything that happens in the universe, except for one tiny parentheses where he admits "(and some theists)". Really? Who knew? In fact, I would guess that most theists have said this throughout the history of theology. Consider just two examples: “It is logically inconsistent for a theist to admit the existence of a pointless evil” (Terence Penelhum, “Divine Goodness and the Problem of Evil,” Religious Studies 2 (1967): 107, and “Unnecessary evil of any kind would certainly be incongruous with an absolutely perfect God” (Norman L. Geisler and Winfried Corduan, Philosophy of Religion, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), p. 371.)

Atheists are not the ones who first made this claim. We always take our cue from what Christians are saying. If they say X is true then we respond to X. If they change X to Y then we will respond to Y. It's that simple. So don't go around claiming we make this argument. It's ignorant and disingenuous. We are only responding to what Christians have claimed.

Little argues, along the same lines as Michael Peterson before him, against meticulous providence, which is the belief that God only allows suffering that serves a greater good. The central factor concerns human free will. Little quotes Peterson as saying: "God cannot completely prevent or eliminate gratuitous evil without severely diminishing free will. That would be logically impossible." So Little concludes, "God allows us to make real choices with real consequences because he respects his own created order. This makes gratuitous evil a real possibility without denying the moral perfections of God." He affirms libertarian free will, rejects meticulous providence "while affirming a traditional evangelical understanding of divine attributes of the trinitarian God of the Bible."

Okay so far? I didn't think so. There is a great deal of "metaphysical machinery" needed to defend this argument.

Most of this chapter is trying to convince fellow Christians who think God must have a greater good purpose for allowing for suffering based on the controversial libertarian view of free will. It's an in-house debate. It shows that atheists have a moving target here. Which leads me to say something important about what's going on in this chapter. It's called apologetics, pure apologetics. Here's how it works. There is a very serious problem to be resolved, one that William Rowe forced Christians to deal with based on a greater good theodicy that most all Christians adhered to prior to Rowe's arguments. Christians found it difficult to explain a greater good to come from his two cases, one involving a fawn that was roasted to death by a forest fire, and the other one about a 5 year old girl who was beaten, raped and strangled to death. What to do? Give up their faith? Of course not. No, find a way of least resistance, some way to resolve the pain of the cognitive dissonance knocking at their door. Do whatever it takes to resolve it even if it means denying almost all theologies of the past. Change what you believe. Call it progressive revelation if needed.

Likewise, if the doctrine of hell seems too painful to a polite civilized society then argue for annihilation. If the harsh statements in the Bible toward women or slaves or animals seem abusive then reinterpret them at will. If the passages in the Bible about genocide and child sacrifice seem too repulsive then just do a revisionist reading of them. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. Repeat again. Then future generations of Christians will forget what took place and think this is what Christianity has always taught. What we're witnessing folks, in light of skeptical responses against their faith, is a reinvention of evangelical orthodoxy. It is nothing short of theological relativism. The whole idea of progressive revelation leads us to it, for there is no point in the history of theology where any theologian can say they have the absolute truth. God's purported revelation in the past was "true" for Christians just as God's purported revelation for this generation is "true," and just as God's purported revelation will be "true" for future generations. In the last few decades I have seen what I can only describe as a massive revisionism of evangelical theology. They are even embracing Darwinian evolution. So don't talk to me about an absolute standard for theological truth. It doesn't exist. It never did. And never say again that the Bible has withstood all the arguments of the critics. No it has not. Christians have merely changed what they believed in the face of the arguments from the critics.

Since Little did a fair enough job of arguing against the greater good theodicy, which after all, is indeed morally bankrupt when it comes to finding a greater divine good that would allow for so much horrendous suffering in the world, let me just offer five criticisms of the Peterson/Little's revisionist theology.

First, Little finds justification for his views in the Bible and the world. In the Bible God doesn't inhibit free choices that caused harm, nor does he do so in the world. Surprise! Therefore God doesn't meticulously intervene to prevent gratuitous suffering. What's going on here is mindlessly quote-mining the Bible rather than actually thinking about this issue. Little is on a problem solving mission, trying to harmonize his faith with the facts. Yes, this takes thinking, of course, but he takes for granted his faith rather than question it in the face of this very serious problem. You see, it says so right here in the Bible. And we see it in the world too. *cough* Special pleading is what he's doing. Of course God doesn't meticulously intervene in the Bible or the world. That's because the God of the Bible is totally unlike the perfect being theology of Anselm, if he exists at all (and I don't think he does). We find biblical statements contrary to this perfect being theology. Yahweh sends evil upon people (Isaiah 45:7), lying spirits to deceive, false prophets, he hardens hearts and causes people to believe a lie. [We even find statements where Yahweh does not know the future.] The omnibenelovence of God is not found in these texts. Oh, it says on occasion that he loves his subjects, but what kind of love is it for God to destroy people in floods, or genocides, or force mothers eat their own babies, send famines, droughts and locusts on people if they disobey, or send people into eternal suffering? This is not represented by perfect being theology at all. Such a God is modeled on the barbaric kings of the ancient times who were thought of as divine themselves. We know this.

In the Bible we even read this: "In the LORD's hand the king's heart is a stream of water that he channels toward all who please him." That's what it says. And yet God isn't meticulously involved in the world's affairs? Really? There are some pretty strong biblical statements to the contrary, like the many meticulous providence Bible verses, including (Gen 50:21; Isa 45:5-7; Acts 4:27-28 Rom 8:28; 11:36; Eph. 1:11). Which is it? It doesn't matter, for with faith anything can be believed or denied.

Second, Little presents an idealized view of libertarian free will that no one has. He quotes from his guru Plantinga who defined it like this, "...if a person is free with respect to a given action, then he is free to perform that action and free to refrain from performing it; no antecedent conditions and/or causal laws determine that he will perform the action, or that he won't." However, there are always antecedent conditions to all of our choices, many of them which are definitely caused. We don't have much free will, if we have it at all. [A topic I'll deal with in more detail when reviewing two other books].

Third, let's say Peterson/Little are on to something. Then the question arises that if God is not meticulously involved in our lives how can he help us in times of dire need? How can he answer prayers if they depend on changing the free choices of others? I know of a real case in my area where a guy drove up to the door of a good Christian mother and forced his way inside at knife-point. Right in front of her two small children, who had just prayed for God's protection, he forced her to perform a sex act on him. He tied them all up and got away with it (so far). I saw a program where a mother and daughter had stopped at a highway rest stop who were abducted, repeatedly raped and then their throats were slit with a serrated knife (the guy later confessed). Read your newspapers for many many more of these kinds of things. To admit of gratuitous suffering like this means we cannot count on God to help us at all.

Oh, but wait, Christians might ask me how I know God doesn't intervene on some occasions. Well, how do I know that there wasn't some stranger outside my window an hour ago who was seeking to rob and kill me, but God caused him to subjectively hear police sirens and see their squad car nonexistent lights, so he fled. The answer? Since so many other, more worthy cases than mine, go without any divine intervention there is no evidence God does anything. With faith anything can be believed, or denied. I need evidence, and the evidence from daily life is that God does nothing to help. So no wonder Little is willing to embrace a non-intervening God (or it seems). That's not a faith worth sinking one's teeth into. Do not expect any prayers to be answered for safety when it involves the wicked desires of other people. If that's the kind of God Little wants, he can have him, for a God who doesn't meticulously help us isn't worthy of worship either. Is his God lazy or something? Does he have better things to do with his time? Or what?

Fourth, this brings up the issue I raised earlier with regard to the way apologists gerrymander the three divine attributes, omniscience, omnipotence and omnibenelovence. Listen, I am a white male who is not butt-ugly (or so a few people tell me), who grew up in a middle class family with all the privileges of my upbringing. I have had a good education. I have never spent a day in the hospital so far, and never had a broken bone. I have never gone hungry either. I have had my wits about me, most of the time anyway. ;-) By comparison to most people on the planet now and in the past I have been born with a silver spoon in my mouth, so to speak. But I am here to tell you that life is hard, really hard for me. Life is not for the weak, that's for sure. I have experienced pain, some suffering, loss, and failure. This life has tried me to the core without any horrendous suffering in it. So we do not need it if my life is any indication. All that God must do is to care enough to eliminate the horrendous kinds of suffering in our lives, the kind I have not experienced. That's not too much to ask of a perfect being, is it? There is plenty of suffering left in this life to try our souls. If you name me any specific example of horrendous suffering in this world I can show you how an omnipotent God could have eliminated it, which would still leave plenty of suffering from people who exercised their free will choices to try our souls. But according to Peterson/Little God does not care that much. In order to save their faith from refutation they must only allow God's perfect goodness to go so far, and no farther. He is not meticulously involved in the affairs of our lives because he cannot care that much to do so. This is where God's omnibenelovence ends you see, where the apologist needs it to end to solve a problem for faith. Go figure. Typically Christian.

Lastly, let's talk about the possibility of gratuitous suffering itself as an answer to Rowe's atheological arguments. To refresh your memories here is his argument:
  1. There exist 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. [This is the factual premise].
  2. An omniscient, wholly good being would prevent the occurrence of any intense suffering it could, unless it could not do so without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse. [This is the theological premise]
  3. (Therefore) There does not exist an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good being.
There is a good objection to Peterson/Little's kind of theology, but as far as I know neither Peterson nor Little have responded to it. In Little's 2010 book on this subject, God, Why This Evil?,he never mentioned Nick Trakakis's book, The God Beyond Belief: In Defense of William Rowe's Evidential Argument from Evil,published three years eariler in 2007. And Little doesn't mention Trakakis's book in this 2013 chapter or notes either (surely at least a note is required, after all, he's dealing with Rowe's arguments and Trakakis is defending them). Just like James Dew ignored Graham Oppy, so also Bruce Little ignores Nick Trakakis. This is particularly egregious since Trakakis has a whole chapter called, "The Compatibility of Gratuitous Evil with Theism." Is this the kind of scholarship that passes muster among evangelicals? When there is an argument you either don't want to deal with, or possibly can't, then sweep it under the rug. Ignore it. Maybe no one will notice, right? ;-)

Here's one of the things Trakakis wrote in criticism of Peterson:
In evaluating Peterson’s attempted reconciliation of theism with gratuitous evil, the following remarkable fact quickly comes to the surface: virtually every critic of Peterson’s case (that I am aware of) has objected that Peterson is guilty of employing an idiosyncratic conception of gratuitous evil. And as I will proceed to argue, this does in fact represent the Achilles heel of Peterson’s argument. It is unfortunate, therefore, that Peterson has not, in print at least, felt the need to discuss this objection. The importance of this objection, however, does not rest there, for it also helps to clarify the relationship between the goods invoked by the theodicist and the evils such goods are intended to justify.

To see what is wrong with Peterson’s account of gratuitous evil, consider the paradoxical nature of his claim that a given moral evil may be gratuitous even though God is justified in permitting that evil for the sake of preserving human freedom. That there appears to be something incoherent about this claim has not been lost on many commentators.
Continuing, Trakakis tells us what it is:
Peterson is either equivocating in his use of the term ‘gratuitous evil’ or employing a very peculiar conception of gratuitous evil, one not employed by Rowe himself....The somewhat surprising result is that Peterson turns out to be a ‘closet theodicist’. By proposing that the benefits accrued from free will and a law-like natural system constitute God’s reasons for permitting moral and natural evil, Peterson “remains embedded in the greater good tradition,” as Chrzan puts it. The reason this comes as a surprise is that Peterson is adamant that Rowe’s factual premise is true. Indeed, Peterson argues that to reject the factual premise is not only self-defeating but also inconsistent with Christian theism. His argument, briefly put, is that many of the evils of our world appear to be gratuitous – that is to say, it is part of our common human experience that many evils strike us as pointless. But if the factual premise is false (if, in other words, there is no pointless evil), then we must regard human experience as well as the moral and rational categories which condition it as essentially unreliable. This kind of scepticism, however, runs the risk of being self-defeating as well as conflicting with the belief that God created humans with generally trustworthy rational and moral faculties.

Peterson, then, finds himself in a quandary: he cannot reject the factual premise without the credibility of Christian theism being diminished in his eyes, and he cannot reject the theological premise without importing a nonstandard definition of gratuitous evil.
On these considerations the Peterson/Little proposal fails, just as the greater good proposal failed before them.