Sunday, January 02, 2005

God and Natural Evils

Keith Burgess-Jackson asks:

I have a question for my theistic readers. How do you reconcile the devastation wrought by the tsunami with your belief in an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent being? If God could have prevented the tsunami but didn’t, then God’s omnibenevolence is called into question. If God wanted to prevent the tsunami but couldn’t, then God’s omniscience or omnipotence is called into question. You can’t explain away the evil by citing free will, for no human being brought about the tsunami. (Surely you don’t believe in fallen angels.) Do events like this shake your faith? If not, why not? If death and destruction on this scale don’t make you doubt the existence of your god, what would?

Which is a fair enough question. My response:

Since my own view is that the existence of God admits of demonstration, and indeed multiple independent demonstrative arguments (along the lines of Scotus's triple primacy argument, and the major arguments that are like it), and that even if it didn't it holds the overwhelming balance of probability, it would take quite a lot to make me doubt the existence of God; it would take proof that the arguments I think demonstrative are not and a demonstration (or something close to it) that God does not exist. Atheistic arguments by and large tend to fall into three groups (with some overlap):

* arguments to absurdity

* arguments from superfluity

* arguments from evil

And this accounts for pretty nearly the whole set. Arguments from superfluity (that we do not need to suppose God for some sort of explanation) are very weak, so can be set aside; arguments to absurdity (that there is some sort of contradiction in positing the existence of God) have never really been given much plausibility except where they are also arguments from evil. Moral evil is not at issue here, and admits of fairly easy block (as a reason for atheism) in free will. This leaves natural evil and this brings us to Burgess-Jackson's question about how to reconcile the devastation caused by the tsunami with the existence of "an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent being". By 'reconcile' we might be asking about whether one can block a contradiction created by combining God is omnipotent, God is omniscient, God is omnibenevolent, evil exists. I don't see there is any such contradiction to block; I have never seen a satisfactory argument that there is such a contradiction to block; attempts to argue that there is a contradiction seem to me to be doomed because they require that we be able to say for certain that we know everything relevant an omniscient being would know about the matter; and since I think the first three are all demonstrable and I am sure evil exists, I am very certain there is no contradiction that needs to be blocked. By 'reconcile' we might also be asking for it to be shown that the four are consistent; in which case I would point back to arguments like Scotus's triple primacy argument which, if they work, as I think they do, show us that the four must be consistent. By 'reconcile' we might be asking for a precise account of how they are consistent (a more direct proof of consistency); and on this point I have none to give, anymore than I have any to give for most claims, and I suspect I can give none (for some of the same reasons I think there can be no proof of inconsistency). I do believe there are fallen angels, but not being in communication with them, I don't know any precise details about what they are doing, and don't particularly care. I have other things to worry about.

On whether events like this shake my faith, this is a larger question. My faith rests not on general claims about what divine providence should be doing but on specific claims about what it has done in Christ; and I don't see that they would be affected by this, having already withstood many centuries of plague, famine, war, and the like. What events like this do instead of shake my faith in God and Christ is strengthen my hope in the promise of glory that has been given in Christ; and also (I hope) my charity toward others, both those hurt by this devastation and everyone else (it highlights clearly the fragility and transience of our lives; as the prophet says, all flesh withers like grass and its constancy fades like the flower of the field). And may it be so with others, as well.