Posted by: Ken Brown | April 2, 2009

Science Fiction, Fantasy and an Interventionist God

One of the issues raised by my post on God and Battlestar Galactica is how God can be just to intervene some of the time, but leave other evils to run their course. It makes sense to us for God to stop all evil or none of it, but a God who occasionally intervenes (sometimes in relatively trivial ways), but leaves many of the greatest evils unchallenged–how can that be just? Though I hinted at an answer in that post, I want to think though the issue a bit further here, drawing on another post I once wrote on Divine Invisibility. In the latter, I noted a couple of explanations for the occasional nature of God’s “visible” interaction with the world, particularly that however fair it might seem, if God truly were to always intervene that would essentially reduce us to the status of children:

For if God were to bombard us with constant miracles, not only would he render the world completely unpredictable, but he would undermine our own freedom and responsibility. What motivation would we have to study or grow, if we knew God would solve our problems for us? What need would we have to advance or learn in such a world? For instance, why would anyone become a doctor, if they knew that God would cure every illness within a week? Why would anyone avoid getting sick or injured at all? How could we learn to take care of ourselves in any way, if God did it for us? Indeed, if he ever failed to do so, would we not complain of his inconsistency: “you perform miracles every day, how can you not take care of this as well”?

In the end such a world would not be a good creation at all, but a prison. Indeed, the best illustration of this I have seen was in an episode called Justice on Red Dwarf (a classic British sci-fi comedy I’ve mentioned before). In this episode, they find a prison ship that somehow ensures that any time you attempt to harm someone else, you will only end up hurting yourself. So if you try to pick-pocket someone, you will only pick your own pocket. If you try to stab someone, you’ll end up stabbing yourself. If you try to kill someone, you will kill yourself instead. It’s an interesting approach to crime (and certainly makes for humorous TV), but it doesn’t take much thought to realize that such a system buys justice at the high cost of freedom and responsibility. Such might be just as an approach to the incurably wicked, but certainly not as a general rule for running the world.

If our freedom is to have any meaning at all, we must be capable of choosing evil at least some of the time but that, by necessity, means that God must refrain from intervening at least some of the time. And if that is the case, then no matter how rarely or commonly he did so, he could not avoid appearing unfair. Indeed, if God were to intervene most of the time, but not all of it, would we really consider him any more just than we do now? Would not the few unfortunate souls that God allowed to suffer seem that much more unjust? Unless we propose that a just God would not create a world of mortals at all, then as long as some of us choose to do evil, God must forever seem unjust–not because he is unjust, but because we can only see part of the picture. Thus, Ivan Karamazov’s famous claim that any God that permitted even one act of cruelty could not be good, simply doesn’t work. That such cruelty should not happen is undeniable and must never be forgotten, but to blame God for it is absurd.

The question, then, is not whether a God who sometimes intervenes can be just, but rather how often and in what way we should expect a just God to intervene. These questions are much harder to answer, however, since they requires us to weigh the importance of freedom against various hypothetical possibilities that we, as finite beings, can imagine but never conclusively predict. This issue has in fact come up in recent episodes of LOST (spoiler warning), where the show’s non-linear presentation of time allows the characters to face just these sorts of dilemmas: Is it just, or is it not, to eliminate a person’s freedom in order to prevent them from committing some terrible evil later on? Was Sayid just in attempting to murder young Ben, when he knew that if he did not Ben would go on to murder many other people? Or was Sawyer just to save Ben’s life, even though he also knew the consequences would be dire?

Such a situation raises further questions about the justice of “doing evil that good may result,” but the important point for us now is that these questions are difficult to answer even when we know the outcome, whereas in real life we rarely do. Thus we are hardly in any position to judge whether any particular evil act in our world should have been prevented by God, for we lack the knowledge to make such a judgment–how do we know whether things would have been better or worse in the long run?

Yet even if we admit that we are in no position to judge individual cases, what about in principle? Are there certain types of cases where we could expect that any good God would intervene? This is a dangerous line of argument, as it risks reducing God from a person to a principle, but it bears considering: Perhaps, we would say, God ought to at least prevent the worst evils from happening. A good God might allow some moderately bad things to happen, but nothing truly awful. We might think of a parent who wants to teach their children to be independent and responsible adults, and must balance their desire to protect them from harm with the need to allow them to learn for themselves. A good parent, therefore, would not follow their children around preventing every scuffed knee, but they would certainly do whatever they could to prevent them from getting hit by a car. Similarly, we might expect God to prevent the worst evils but leave lesser ones to our discretion.

Yet once again we lack the perspective to judge which evils God should allow and which he should not. We might think the Holocaust was too great an evil to be allowed, but compared to what? Compared to what normally happens in our world, it is heinous, but compared to global nuclear war or the countless other doomsday scenarios science fiction has imagined for us? The truth is, however bad our world may be, it is far, far better than it might be.

The point of all this, however, is certainly not to justify the Holocaust as not so bad after all. Rather, the point is to highlight the dangers of attempting to out-think God’s justice. We simply do not know enough to make such judgments, and any honest attempt to do so risks either exaggerating or trivializing the evil that does occur. God may or may not be just in his governance of the world, but until the story actually ends we are really not in a position to decide that question, whether on an individual or a global basis.

There is a great scene in The Return of the King, when Frodo and Sam are nearing the end of their long trek through Mordor and in danger of losing hope. Everything seems as bad as it could possibly be–they are dying of thirst in a wasteland ruled by a Dark Lord who seems on the verge of destroying all the goodness that remains in the world. Then suddenly Sam looks up, and for just a brief moment the dark clouds part and a few distant stars shine through. “Mr. Frodo, Look!” he says, “There’s light and beauty up there that no shadow can touch!” However bad things are–and they are indeed bad: How many had already died by that point in the story? How many more still would?–yet in the end, the evil they know is only a small part of the picture. As Sam himself had already noted at the end of The Two Towers:

It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end it’s only a passing thing this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come, and when the sun shines it’ll shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something even if you were too small to understand why. But I think Mr. Frodo, I do understand, I know now folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going because they were holding on to something.

In the end, of course, goodness did win out, and one might even attribute it to providence, but notice how it happened: through courage and sacrifice. Frodo and Sam did have “lots of chances of turning back,” but instead they courageously went into the heart of darkness; they risked their own lives to destroy the ring. It was precisely through their bravery and sacrifice that evil was defeated. This is, indeed, the way of all the best stories, and this is precisely how Christianity pictures God’s own interaction with the world. When God finally does come in all his particularity and “unfairness,” it is not as a conquering king, but as a “suffering servant.” It is on the cross that God finally resolves the tension between freedom and justice, when he allows us to do our worst to him. Or as Richard Bauckham put it:

The divine identity is known in the radical contrast and conjunction of exaltation and humiliation–as the God who is Creator of all things, and no less truly God in the human life of Jesus; as the God who is Sovereign over all things, and no less truly God in Jesus’ obedience and service; as the God of transcendent majesty who is no less truly God in the abject humiliation of the cross. These are not contradictions because God is self-giving love, as much in his creation and rule of all things as in his human incarnation and death.

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Responses

  1. ken, once again you make my brain hurt–but in a good way, heh. and i am amazed as always how it all comes down to love. thanks for hashing things thing through and pulling them all together.

  2. I thought I’d offer a few thoughts from the humanist perspective. While of course my conclusions differ from yours, please know that I’m not trying to pick a fight, but to honestly explore these fascinating questions with you.

    First, I think that a god could safely prevent all natural disasters – tsunamis, plagues, etc – without interfering with free will at all (ie, watch here). So I don’t see that any part of your argument excuses your god’s inaction on those points.

    Second, it is not at all certain to me that the capacity to do evil is necessary for freedom – see my recent post on free will for more on that. This is of course a matter of opinion (or, perhaps, personal taste). But it does bear on your arguments.

    Third, much of your discussion relies on an argument from ignorance: we cannot decide matters of ultimate justice, because we do not have complete knowledge of all the potential consequences of the “could haves” that we imagine. While true, this position seems to be used as a non-rational shortcut to believing whatever you wish. You can use it as an excuse to believe that your god is just, because maybe the stuff we don’t know adds up to things turning out better than they otherwise would have. I can use it as an excuse to believe that any god who might be in charge is unjust, because maybe the stuff we don’t know adds up to even greater injustice than we see.

    I think it’s more appropriate to simply make an assessment based on what we do perceive, while acknowledging that we don’t see the complete picture. And what we perceive is that there is a lot of suffering that seems unnecessary, and whose prevention by a loving god would not seem to undermine our freedom to make meaningful choices.

    Finally, I can’t help but point out that the existence of evil is only a problem if you actually do believe in an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent god. To a humanist, the existence of evil is a simple consequence of the fact that there is no great moral force behind the universe. Morality springs from human nature (and to some extent, the nature of other social animals). Thus, we are the only moral forces in the universe.

    The only “problem of evil” a humanist faces is therefore how to make the world a better place by one’s own actions. That responsibility is something you and I both acknowledge.

    I guess I just don’t envy you the additional burden of having to find excuses for your god’s inaction in the face of avoidable suffering.

  3. Hey Timothy, thanks for the interaction! I’ll try to be brief:

    1. Re natural evil: I agree that the above does not address that issue, though I think they are related. I tend to think that a large majority even of non-human evil is preventable (e.g. malnutrition and its countless side-effects), so the blame still falls on us for allowing it, and falls under the first observation that if God did it for us, we’d be left as children (or slaves) indefinitely. Nevertheless, I think this is the toughest issue Christian theism faces, and do not for a minute think that solves the problem.

    2. Re free will and evil: Your post is interesting, and in fact I express a rather similar view here (esp. in the comments), but I’m not seeing how it shows that freedom does not require the possibility of doing evil (BTW, I’ve read Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, and found it fascinating but ultimately misguided. Still, he has influenced my thinking in a number of ways, particularly on the impressiveness of evolutionary algorithms).

    3. Re the argument from ignorance: Your observations are fair, but my point is not an appeal to ignorance, but to perspective–not just our own limited perspective but also perspective in the sense that the fact that things have turned out as well as they have is at least as remarkable as the fact that bad things happen. Further, this was only one part of the argument and meant more for ground-clearing purposes than anything else.

    In the end, I agree that such arguments could be used to support either conclusion, but that is just the point: there are too many unknown variables for the argument from evil to be conclusive. In other words, this argument is not meant to prove God’s existence or goodness, but to show that, if we are convinced of those things on other grounds, the existence of evil (even great evil) is not sufficient to disprove them.

    4. Re evil only a problem for theism: I disagree. Theism and atheism (or humanism) have different problems of evil, but they all have them. Theism has the problem to explain why, if ultimate nature is good, there is evil. Atheism has the problem to explain why, if ultimate reality is amoral, the difference between good and evil strikes us as so much more than just preference.

    The two go hand in hand: The only reason “the problem of evil” is such a big problem is because we all do recognize that evil is far more than merely “what I don’t want”, but rather a violation of the deepest principles of what life should be like. But how do we explain such an impression? Is it merely a by-product of our evolution, or are we actually recognizing something fundamental about the world? Either way, there is a major problem to solve, and either way, we are unlikely to ever arrive at a full answer (in this life ;)).

  4. Ken, as always your thoughts are clear and kindly put. I agree that your arguments point out how an omnipotent and good god may be consistent with the existence of evil.

    I wouldn’t say that evil is only a problem for theism. But it does present special problems for theistic viewpoints that it does not for non-theistic viewpoints.

    There are ample hypotheses that present plausible means by which we might have acquired our moral sense through natural selection. So I would say that atheists have access to “origin of morality” explanations just as theists do. I find explanations based on a creator god to be flat and unsatisfying; many theists find evolutionary explanations of our morality to be similarly unsatisfying. As you say, neither approach is likely to provide a full and certain answer in this life. We must each decide for ourselves which uncertainties we are more comfortable with.

    So, from the perspective of explaining where morality comes from, I’d say we’re more or less equal. But the problem of evil that you address in your post – ie, how a good god can allow evil – is a problem that only theists face.

    I don’t say that accusingly – just as an observation. Clearly it is not a burden that you find oppressive.

  5. […] Problems of Evil In response to my post on evil and the fairness of God, Timothy Mills offered a few friendly but probing questions from an […]

  6. […] Carnival CCLXXI This week’s Christian Carnival is up at Fathom Deep. It includes my post on science fiction and the fairness of […]

  7. […] but I think this is a fascinating question to explore. I’d like to point you all to a post by Christian blogger Ken Brown, in which he explores the implications of an interventionist god who […]


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