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Good GodThe Theistic Foundations of Morality$

David Baggett and Jerry L. Walls

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780199751808

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199751808.001.0001

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(p.217) Appendix B: Outrageous Evil and the Hope of Healing

(p.217) Appendix B: Outrageous Evil and the Hope of Healing

Good God
Oxford University Press

In chapter eight, we assessed a series of arguments from the problem of evil, and argued that there are responses to those arguments that allow us to maintain rational belief in an Anselmian God in the face of the stiff challenge that critics pose on this score. This problem is far from a mere intellectual puzzle, however, and for many people it is an existential issue that tears at their heart in such a devastatingly personal way that it makes it difficult for them to believe there is a God of love. Here we wish to extend our discussion of the problem of evil in a more existential direction by probing the practical implications that flow out of our beliefs about the ultimate source and nature of morality. In particular, we will show that a theistic ethical vision of the type we have defended offers just the resources we need to take fully seriously our moral outrage in response to evil, but without succumbing to despair. Indeed, it equips us to maintain hope in the face of evil and suffering as well as our resolve to work for its defeat.

Moral Outrage

One of the most distinctively human things about human beings is their sense of moral outrage. This sense is rooted in our awareness that there is a profound gap between the way things are and the way they ought to be. The sense of outrage we have in mind goes beyond the fact that we make moral judgments and evaluations. It is a deeply felt conviction that some things, such as the cruel mistreatment of innocent children, are so unspeakably bad that they deserve our severest condemnation. In its most extreme form it can make us feel that the gap between the way things are and the way they ought to be is so wide that reality itself must be indicted.

(p.218) When moral outrage reaches these proportions, it can intensify the problem of evil to the boiling point, and make belief in a God of perfect power and goodness seem utterly implausible for the many who feel the pressure of this problem. If a God with such attributes had created our world, so it is argued, he would not have designed it in such a way that these sorts of outrages could occur. And if, despite all appearances, there is a God responsible for creating our world, our sense of outrage makes clear that our foremost moral obligation is to rebel against him.1

But often the reaction to horrendous evil goes beyond rebellion to the complete loss of faith. Elie Wiesel no doubt speaks for many who experienced the unspeakable atrocities of the Holocaust in his following memorable lines.

Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust.2

Wiesel's description of how this experience destroyed his dreams illustrates what Marilyn Adams has recently called “horrendous evils.” What makes such evils “so pernicious is their life-ruining potential, their power prima facie to degrade the individual by devouring the positive personal meaning in one swift gulp.”3

Moral evil, particularly when it is so brutally heartless and performed at such an overwhelming magnitude as the Holocaust, is especially prone to evoke moral outrage. However, natural evil can also seem cruel to the point that it too elicits moral protests. The stunning devastation of the 2004 tsunami affected many people that way and provided skeptics with further confirmation of their conviction that our world cannot be the creation of a loving God.4 Writing in the New York Times, David Brooks urged that events like this make it clear that we are mere “gnats” in an indifferent universe. “The earth shrugs and 140,000 gnats die, victims of forces far larger and more permanent than themselves.”5 Indeed, the tsunami may well become for this generation the symbol of natural evil that is the counterpart to the Holocaust as the symbol of moral evil, although the recent tragedies in Haiti and Chile make the earthquake another contender. The massive scale of these events magnifies the horror of evil and intensifies the outrage against a world where such things happen.

This intense sense that there is something radically wrong with our world, that so many things happen that ought not to happen, is a profound recognition that we and our world are in desperate need of deep healing if our lives are to be fully meaningful. In what follows, we want to begin by examining more closely the very moral outrage that signals our deep sense that things are askew. For now, we simply want to observe that the legitimacy of moral outrage is often taken for granted by those who deploy evil as a weapon to assault faith in God. That is, it is tacitly assumed that moral outrage has the same significance and meaning regardless of whether or not one believes in a good God, or even whether or not one believes in God at all.

We shall contend that this assumption is far from obvious, and requires careful scrutiny. To bring this claim into sharper focus, we shall briefly consider four starkly (p.219) different options with respect to the nature of ultimate reality and then highlight the differences in how each of these accounts for our sense of moral outrage. To put it another way, we must examine the ontology of outrage in order to assess these matters honestly. To get at this ontology, we shall consider the view that there is no God, the view that God is supremely powerful but not good, the view that God is perfectly good but limited in power, and finally the classical view that God is both supremely good and powerful. We shall conclude with some reflections on the distinctive resources of Christian theology for addressing horrendous evil and renewing our deepest dreams.

What shall emerge is that the meaning and significance of moral outrage varies considerably, depending on our view of ultimate reality, and the practical implications do as well. We shall see that these beliefs determine not only how seriously we should take our sense of outrage but also what realistic hopes we have for healing the huge gash that separates the way things are from the way they ought to be. The practical implications we shall focus on have to do not only with how we should think about the victims of evil, but also with what realistic hope we have that our efforts to oppose and defeat evil might succeed. A healthy view of evil, we shall suggest, is one that is not only honest in the face of evil, but also allows us to retain hope. Denial and despair, by contrast, are unhealthy alternatives to an honest grappling with evil that maintains hope. The account of morality we have defended in this book underwrites honest hope.

The Ontology of Outrage

To get a preliminary idea of the argument, reflect on the following statement from C. S. Lewis's spiritual autobiography describing his mindset before his conversion. “I was at this time living, like so many Atheists and Antitheists in a whirl of contradictions. I maintained that God did not exist. I was also angry with God for not existing. I was equally angry with him for creating a world.”6 As this comment suggests, some reactions of anger are profoundly misguided. To be rationally warranted, moral outrage, at least as it is commonly expressed, requires certain beliefs—beliefs that may not in fact be accepted by the one expressing that outrage.

To bring this claim into sharper focus, let us begin with the view that there is no God. The first point to highlight here is that, if this is true, then ultimate reality is amoral. If ultimate reality is matter, energy and natural laws, and if we along with our universe are the products of such impersonal causes, then our moral sentiments have the same origin. Our moral feelings and our tendency to make moral judgments have been produced by a reality that has no such feelings and makes no such judgments. In other words, our moral sensibilities, as well as our other mental and personal faculties, have risen above their source.

Given this shaky pedigree, it is highly doubtful that morality, including our sense of outrage, can have the same status and significance that it has in traditional thought. As we have seen in this book, naturalists themselves often admit that traditional ideas of moral obligation and objective right and wrong make little sense in a world whose ultimate constituents are matter and energy and whose resources for explanation are physical and biological. Consider for instance the comment of noted naturalist moral philosopher Peter Singer on the implications of explaining our moral principles in such (p.220) terms: “Far from justifying principles that are shown to be ‘natural,’ a biological explanation can be a way of debunking what seemed to be eternal moral axioms. When a widely accepted moral principle is given a convincing biological explanation, we need to think again about whether we should accept the principle.”7

What Singer acknowledges about particular moral judgments and principles applies more broadly to the notion of obligation itself. To whom or to what could we be obligated in a fully naturalistic world? Do we owe it to the natural order to behave in a certain way? Does it have the will or the power to hold us accountable if we choose to live selfishly, to deceive and to cheat, and moreover, if we have the savvy and resources to avoid getting caught?

Of course, naturalists will insistently remind us that they take morality quite seriously and can account for it in their own terms. We have already noted the view of Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson, who believes that the “struggle for men's souls” in this century will be over precisely the issue of the origin of morality. Over against the traditional view that morality has a transcendent or supernatural source is the view that morality is a human creation. The essence of this latter view is that human beings have been genetically disposed over generations of biological evolution to make certain choices. Through the process of cultural evolution, some of these choices have hardened into laws and obligations. If the predisposition to so choose is strong enough, it is accompanied by the belief that the behavior in question is commanded by God, or in some other fashion required of us in an objective and absolute sense.

It would take us too far afield to pursue the details of this fascinating account of our moral feelings and judgments, but one point is worth emphasizing. According to this account, a crucial factor that gives morality its force over us is the influence of some beliefs that are objectively false, in particular, the belief that morality has behind it divine sanctions or some other such objective warrant. In an article written with Michael Ruse, Wilson put the point quite bluntly: “In an important sense, ethics as we know it is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate.”8 In other words, evolution has wired us to believe morality is objectively binding on us, that we are categorically obligated to take it seriously and live by its dictates. In reality, there is no such obligation as we are inclined to believe, but the illusion is nevertheless a useful one for it moves us to cooperate and get along with each other.9 Living by the rules of morality is a mutually beneficial thing, generally speaking, and obviously promotes survival, the one sacrosanct value of naturalistic evolution.

The same basic analysis goes for moral outrage for those who accept this account of morality. We have been wired to have this feeling about certain actions, and the disapproval this generates not only discourages such behavior but also moves us to punish it and to empathize with those who are the victims of it. This outrage, it must be emphasized, partakes in the illusory character of ethics that Wilson and Ruse identify. For the outrage stems from the deeply rooted conviction we feel that certain actions are violations in the most profound sense, and that such actions are utterly forbidden on pain of supernatural sanctions.

Next, let us consider the possibility that there is a God who is enormously powerful, powerful enough to create our world, but who is not morally good. Let us assume this (p.221) God is indifferent to our moral values and judgments, even our most basic ones. Let us assume he does not value our flourishing and happiness and that he is not committed to truth.

Given such a God, it is natural to ask why he would create us so that we have the moral sensibilities that we do. Here we could only guess. Perhaps he did so because he finds it amusing or takes a certain aesthetic pleasure in our moral expressions. Maybe he has even wired us to believe that he shares our deepest and best moral judgments. He wants us to believe he values what we call justice and that he is opposed to innocent suffering and that he can be counted on to support our own efforts in their behalf. But perhaps in reality, he is indifferent to our idea of justice and is entertained by human misery.

What this points out is that the idea of an amoral God creating us with the moral sentiments we have is deeply incoherent. A creator who designed us to have such strong feelings about justice and the like but did not share them himself would not be amoral, but rather, devious at best. If we were to discover that there actually were such a God, we would be deeply distressed. We would feel deeply deceived and the victims of a perverse delusion. So, given our strong moral valuations, if the one who created us to have them does not share them, the notion that he is morally indifferent is eliminated and we are left with an evil deity.10

Next, let us consider the idea that there is a God of limited power, but who is morally good. He may or may not have created our world, but he does not have sovereignty over it in anything like the traditional sense. Given this view, it is not altogether clear how to describe this God's relationship to the world. If he did not create the world, are God and the world mutually dependent? Did God somehow emerge from the physical world in something like the manner that naturalistic evolutionists believe human consciousness emerged?

Unlike the previous view, there are variations of this account of God that have been popular in contemporary theology. In some of these variations, God is a personal being, but in others it is less clear whether he is or not. Sometimes those who speak of God in these terms seem to think that our moral sensibilities and inclinations are themselves “God.”

For the sake of discussion and in the interest of clarity, let us assume that this God is a personal being who is at least capable of communicating his will to rational creatures such as ourselves. Given this assumption, we could describe our moral sensibilities as a reflection of God's own moral nature. That is, our moral intuitions and judgments at their best are a response to what God has proposed to us with the intention of enhancing our lives and the overall beauty of the world. In this sense, we have God's support for our moral efforts and projects to improve the world.

Finally, let us consider the traditional view that there is a God of perfect power and goodness. On this view, ultimate reality is moral in the strongest sense possible. This world and all that exists were created and are sustained by a God of perfect love. We were created in his image, so our moral intuitions and judgments at their best are a reflection of God's very nature. Morality is neither a deceptive delusion wired into us by a devious deity, nor an illusion “fobbed off on us by our genes,” but rather one of the best clues we have to understand ultimate reality and the meaning and purpose of our (p.222) own lives. Morality is as deeply rooted as it could possibly be, because it is grounded in the nature of a being who not only desires that justice and goodness will prevail, but who also has the power and wisdom to ensure that it will. This is the account of morality we have defended at length in this book.

Theodicy at Auschwitz?

The practical ramifications of these various views are perhaps already becoming apparent, so let us turn now to articulate these explicitly. As a preface to this discussion, we want to reflect for a moment on a couple of statements from an author who challenges the whole enterprise of theodicy. In contrast to the classical attempt to make rational sense of evil, Kenneth Surin urges a “practical theodicy” that seeks to take concrete action to relieve suffering and to do whatever is possible to eliminate it. In contrast to such practical measures, Surin alleges that traditional theodicy may even be immoral, for the attempt to explain how evil is compatible with the existence of God may subtly justify it in a way that makes it seem acceptable. In this sense, the project of theodicy is actually complicit with evil. To emphasize the contrast, Surin cites the view of J. B. Metz that “there can be prayer after Auschwitz because there was prayer in Auschwitz. But, and this is now the crucial question, was there ‘theodicy’ in Auschwitz? Could there have been ‘theodicy’ in Auschwitz?”11 Prayer is seen as a practical attempt to cope with evil, whereas theodicy is a theoretical attempt to account for evil in rational terms. In the same vein, Surin quotes Irving Greenberg as follows: “No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of the burning children.”12

Despite Surin's intention, what we think these statements actually show is that it is profoundly misguided to set practical theodicy in opposition to theoretical theodicy. We can see this is in his suggestion that prayer is appropriate after Auschwitz, whereas theodicy is not, which simply begs a number of crucial questions. For a start, what must be assumed to make prayer a meaningful activity? Not only must God be a personal being, but he must also be a good being who cares for us. Moreover, he must have the power to help in some way. These are the very claims the traditional theodicist wants to affirm are compatible with the reality of evil in our world. To deny any of them is to make prayer a profoundly misguided activity, or at best an instinctive visceral utterance or primal cry with no rational content or intention whatever. To appeal to prayer while dismissing these claims as irrelevant is only a pious evasion posing as a higher form of sensitivity to the harsh reality of evil.

The hard reality is that all of us have to decide what we shall believe about God in light of the fact that terrible things happen in our world, not only due to horrendous choices of our fellow human beings but also due to natural forces that are utterly beyond our control. What we believe about this most fundamental of all questions, moreover, has enormous implications for the victims of such tragedies. In particular, what we believe about God determines what sort of hope there may be, if any, that the tragedy that befell them can be rectified. Furthermore, we have to decide what makes the effort to fight against evil worthwhile, and what, if anything, we should do to relieve the suffering of those whose lives have been devastated by tragedies.

(p.223) What we think about these matters also has significant implications for our own psychological and emotional health. Psychologist Robert A. Emmons notes that there is a rapidly accumulating literature on “stress-induced growth” and that this literature places considerable emphasis on the notion of meaning as crucial for positive change in response to suffering. He notes the irony in the fact that many philosophers have cooled to the topic of the meaning of life while social scientists have been warming to it and investigating it with fruitful results.

The scientific and clinical relevance of the personal meaning construct has been demonstrated in the personal well-being literature, in which indicators of meaningfulness predict psychological well-being, while indicators of meaninglessness are regularly associated with psychological distress and pathology. … The conclusions that a person reaches regarding matters of ultimate concern—the nature of life and death, and the meaning of suffering and pain—have profound implications for individual well-being.13

Emmons goes on to cite psychological studies that support the conclusion that a “religious or spiritual worldview provides an overall orientation to life that lends a framework for interpreting life's challenges and provides a rationale for accepting the challenges posed by suffering, death, tragedy and injustice.”14

Keeping these points in mind, let us begin by thinking through some of the implications and practical consequences of the belief that there is no God. First, there is no rational ground to be angry at natural disasters, nor is there any rational target for our outrage. These are merely the product of a natural order that is not only blind but indifferent to the pain and suffering that it causes. Evil in this sense is hardly unexpected in a naturalistic universe, so it does not pose a problem in any sense analogous to the problem it poses for theists. The surprising thing in such a universe is not that there should be extreme pain and destruction, but that creatures should exist who have consciousness and make the sort of moral evaluations we do in response to it. In a naturalist universe there is nothing like God to hear our protests or to care about them. Quarks, gluons, and laws of nature cannot hear our cries of anguish or our expressions of outrage.

Moreover, the amoral nature of ultimate reality is underscored by the naturalistic account of how our universe will likely end. According to most atheistic cosmologists, our universe is destined to expand forever, losing energy and disintegrating as it does until all life is destroyed. Consciousness, love, and aesthetic and moral sensibility will be extinguished by the same natural order that accidentally produced them in the first place. The sober truth according to this view is that all the things that give our lives meaning are temporal, interim products of an order that did not intend them and has no awareness of them and will eventually obliterate them. In the long run, and in the big picture, our efforts on behalf of goodness and justice will vanish without a trace.

Moreover, our sense of moral outrage at horrendous actions by our fellow human beings is blunted by the claim that morality as it has traditionally been understood is an illusion. When Ruse speaks on these matters, he is often asked how morality can continue to have force if his account of it is true. Isn't it likely that people will see through (p.224) the illusion, come to recognize their moral feelings as deceptive in some sense, and consequently feel less disposed to respect them and act on them? Ruse dismisses this suggestion as a groundless worry. He replies that our genes are working overtime to keep us in line, so we need not worry that there will be a widespread revolt against morality.

We are less sanguine than Ruse is about the ability of our genes to keep us in line if it comes to be widely accepted that the deeply ingrained human belief that morality is transcendent is merely an illusion genetically programmed into us by years of biological and cultural evolution. If the only obligation we have to avoid certain behavior is the demand of human law, and if we are not accountable for our choices to a moral source that has transcendent authority, then our whole sense of outrage at those who choose to flout our standards loses much of its edge.

It is an uncomfortable truth that the demands of morality are sometimes at odds with personal gain and even survival. If the dictates of morality are transient sentiments ultimately explained in terms of their survival value for the species, what good reason is there to choose morality over personal advantage for those not inclined to do so? This question is especially urgent in the case of those who gain the power and resources to disdain moral constraints that would protect innocent persons.

Naturalists may try to reason with those who burn children. They may, in their outrage, oppose them with force and may even prevail over them in the battle for survival. But what do they say in the presence of burning and drowning children? Or what do they say later, in the aftermath of such tragedies, to try to make sense of them and to maintain any sort of rational meaning? It is a well-known phenomenon that sometimes people give up their faith in God in response to such unspeakable tragedies, but eventually the implications of this choice need squarely to be faced. Not only have they given up the hope that such evils could ever be rectified to their own satisfaction, they have also consigned those very sufferers to oblivion. To conclude in the presence of a burning or drowning child that there is no God is to conclude that the child has gone up in smoke, or been swept away, never to be heard from again. It is to conclude that the child's death is a monument to the absurdity of life, an emblem of the eventual fate of all who breathe and love and grieve and rage. This conclusion is devastating for the goal of maintaining a positive view of meaning, not to mention the psychological health and well-being to which such meaning is integral.

In short, the practical upshot if there is no God is that moral outrage is in many ways a futile emotion, not only because ultimate reality is indifferent to it, but also because ultimate reality will eventually destroy everything we value most. It makes no sense to be mad at the blind workings of the natural order, and even our revulsion at treacherous human choices is a somewhat illusory product of a system that rewards survival above all.

Now let us consider the practical implications if there is a God of enormous power, who is perverse, if not outright evil. We have in mind here not the dualistic view that there is a good God as well as an evil one battling it out, but rather, the view that the only God is an evil one.15 In this case, it would be altogether understandable to rebel against God, but a moment's reflection makes it clear that such rebellion would be utterly pointless. While we might experience catharsis or personal moral satisfaction from our (p.225) expressions of rebellion and outrage, such a God would likely view them as amusing rants, the more eloquent and passionate, the better. Maybe he even manipulates our expressions of outrage and our efforts to achieve justice as dramatic fodder in what is for him a dark comedy. Burning and drowning children may be fortunate if a more horrific fate does not await them in future worlds. For, perhaps the suffering and injustice of this world is merely a warm up for the torment he has planned for us in future episodes. It is hard to imagine a view of life that could be more demoralizing and meaningless than this. If there is an evil deity who genuinely deserves our rebellion, our lives could not be more tragic and absurd. And our attempts to relieve suffering and promote justice could not be more futile.

Next, let us consider the practical implications of believing in a God who is morally good but limited in power to persuasion and suggestion. In this case, God empathizes with us in our expressions of outrage and supports us morally in our efforts to relieve suffering and promote justice. However, there is no reason to be confident that evil will finally be defeated, nor that the universe can ultimately avoid the fate predicted by naturalistic cosmologists. Victims of tragic evil may be remembered by God, but it is doubtful that there is personal conscious survival beyond the grave. While this view is not as demoralizing as the view that God is evil, it is severely limited in its resources to underwrite hope. This is not to deny that this view has its attractions, not the least of which is that it avoids implicating God in horrendous evil. Still, though, at the end of the day, it is not clear that this God offers us much more than an optimistic version of naturalism, with its confidence in human creativity and goodwill, can provide.

Finally, let us consider the practical implications of believing the traditional view of classical theism that there is a God who is perfect in power as well as goodness, the sort of God to whom we have argued in this book the moral argument points. In the first place, this view assures us that our outrage at evil resonates with the deepest reality, a God who loves us and desires our well-being. Moreover, we can oppose evil and work to relieve suffering and promote justice with the confidence, not only that God supports us in our present efforts, but also that he himself will complete the task of defeating evil conclusively and decisively in his coming kingdom. Such effort on our part is in no way vain or futile because evil and death are the temporal, transient realities and love and joy and goodness are the eternal realities that shall forever prevail when death and evil have been destroyed.

In addition to encouraging our moral efforts, this also has profound implications for how we should think about the victims of terrible tragedy. When children are burning at the hands of lawless dictators is the worst of all times to silence the claim that there is a God of perfect goodness and power, to whom we are all accountable, or to lose confidence in his love for us. Likewise, when children are swept away by the waves of a tsunami, it pays them no honor to conclude that the forces of nature are the ultimate reality, subject to no higher power. To trust that a God of supreme power and love hears the prayers of those who suffer unspeakable horror does, however, honor them. To trust in this fashion is neither to disrespect nor trivialize their suffering, nor is it in any way to justify the actions of their tormentors, but it is to insist on the continuing significance and dignity of their lives and the power of God to renew and heal them.

(p.226) This is not to suggest that we know the details of why God allows such horrors to occur, and any theodicy that offers clean-cut answers is likely to seem incredible in the presence of burning or drowning children. In a very real sense, trust in God does not eliminate the problem of evil, but rather intensifies it. It is precisely because of faith in God's supreme power and goodness that evil seems so out of place in our world. The naturalist, as noted above, has no corresponding reason to find evil surprising or out of place in our universe, nor does anyone who could take seriously the idea of an evil deity. Ironically, however, not to have a problem of evil for these reasons is actually to have a far bigger problem, for evil on these scenarios is normal, if not ultimate in some sense. To a lesser, but still significant degree, the same is true for those who believe God is good, but rather limited in power. For those who believe in a God of perfect love and power, in poignant contrast, there is indeed something not only profoundly outrageous, but deeply abnormal, about evil and suffering.

The price of “normalizing” evil is a steep one that should be carefully considered. It is to give up the hope of deep healing for ourselves and our universe. Susan Neiman has pointed out this cost for those who come to view events previously understood as evils as merely natural events. “We no longer expect natural objects to be objects of moral judgment, or even to reflect or harmonize with them. For those who refuse to give up moral judgments, the demand that they stop seeking the unity of nature and morality means accepting a conflict in the heart of being that nothing will ever resolve.”16 To accept as irresolvable such a jagged conflict in the heart of being is a heavy cost indeed.

So, trust in a God who can never allow us to normalize evil is a two-edged sword. While it intensifies the problem in one sense, it also gives us the most powerful resources to maintain realistic hope in the face of it and to believe that the conflict Neiman identifies will be resolved. Such trust gives us reason to take moral outrage utterly seriously as an accurate gauge of the nature of ultimate reality and to believe that the difference between good and evil is profoundly real. We can fight against evil with the confidence that we are not fighting a losing battle against ultimate reality. We can be angry at evil while loving God and trusting in his goodness and love for us.

This fully honest and realistic appraisal of evil is actually a consideration in favor of taking seriously the Christian account of things. For an instance of this, consider William Abraham's autobiographical reflections on how this played a role in his conversion from atheism to Christianity.

What I found carrying enormous weight was the extent to which Christianity absolutely refused to blunt the reality of evil by denying it, taming it, pushing it to the margins of existence, covering it up cleverly and the like. On the contrary, it took the reality of evil so seriously that evil showed up all over the place when one came to expound and explain its teachings and practices.17

Abraham's reference to the “teachings and practices” of Christianity that take seriously the reality of evil points us to the distinctive resources of Christian theism for dealing with this issue. At the heart of these teachings is the claim that Jesus of Nazareth was the incarnation of the Son of God whose death atoned for our sins. The climax of (p.227) this story is a stark account of Jesus facing the forces of evil head on and defeating them at every turn, maintaining love in the face of hatred, and forgiveness in the face of treachery and injustice.18 The brutal nature of Christ's death is an anchor of realism that forever demonstrates that God has encountered evil at its worst and can offer healing for the deepest scars it has inflicted.

Consider the story of Richard Hoard, whose father was a lawyer who was prosecuting a ring of bootleggers. When Hoard was a freshman in high school, he woke one morning to a loud blast that radically altered his life. The blast was from a bomb that had been planted in his father's car and instantly killed him when he turned the ignition. Hoard describes how the anger and bitterness from this tragedy contaminated his adolescence and infected all facets of his life. His fragile faith, moreover, was easily destroyed largely because he had a syrupy sweet picture of Jesus that seemed far removed from the horrors he had experienced. This picture was shattered one evening when he attended a meeting where someone had erected a rough wooden cross with the bark still intact, a vivid contrast to the sanitized brass crosses that often adorn churches. “‘A hell of a way to die,’ I thought, staring at the tree. ‘Nailed up like that.’ And suddenly a thought I had never before considered struck me clearly, like a sword piercing my heart: It was real. As real as my own father's murder.”19

This insight was a crucial turning point for him. He came to see faith in Christ not as an evasion of the harsh reality of evil, but as an honest way to come to terms with the pain and sickness in his soul that had festered for years. After accepting forgiveness for his own sins he experienced further emotional and spiritual healing when he was able to forgive his father's murderer and release the anger and bitterness that had crushed his spirit and numbed his soul.20

All of this reminds us of the biblical doctrine that we live in a fallen world, a world in which we have significant freedom and where we often fall far short of God's intentions for us. The natural order is implicated in our disobedience and also falls short of what God ultimately intends for his children, when his will shall be done on earth as it is in heaven. In the meantime, as the apostle Paul wrote, the created order groans in anticipation as it awaits the final redemption of its human inhabitants.21

Paul's emphasis in this text on the redemption of our bodies points up the fact that the Christian hope goes beyond emotional and spiritual healing to embrace the entire cosmos. The ultimate ground of this grand vision of healing is, of course, the resurrection of Jesus.22 For the Christian, that the man on the cross was the Son of God incarnate is a decisive demonstration not only of the depth of God's love for us, but also that he is intimately with us in our suffering. That he was raised from the dead gives us rational grounds to trust that the worst horrors of this life can be overcome by his creative power and that our hope that life has positive meaning will be fully satisfied. If Christ is raised, if the resurrected one is also the crucified one who knows firsthand the power of temptation, the agony of real nails, and the pain of betrayal, then indeed, we can understand evil in a way that is both honest and hopeful, and life is a comedy, not a tragedy. Nicholas Wolterstorff has made this point with passionate eloquence in a comment on the difference it makes in our outlook to believe that Christ was raised from the dead. His words carry a depth of personal conviction as they were written in the context (p.228) of his own struggles with the problem of evil after the tragic death of his son in a mountain climbing accident.

To believe in Christ's rising from the grave is to accept it as a sign of our own rising from our graves. If for each of us it was our destiny to be obliterated, and for all of us together it was our destiny to fade away without a trace, then not Christ's rising but my dear son's early dying would be the logo of our fate.23

To take Christ's rising as the logo of our fate is to believe that God has taken decisive action to show us the strength of love. It is to believe that it is there, not in the horrors of natural or human history, that we can best take measure of the reality that is larger and more permanent than ourselves. Wolterstorff continues:

God is love. That is why he suffers. To love our suffering, sinful world is to suffer. God so suffered for the world that he gave his only Son to suffering. The one who does not see God's suffering does not see his love. God is suffering love. … So suffering is down at the center of things, deep down where the meaning is. Suffering is the meaning of our world. For Love is the meaning. And Love suffers. The tears of God are the meaning of history.24

Viewing things from this vantage point prevents faith in God's perfect power and love from degenerating into a desperate expedient in the face not only of history's worst horrors, but the worst tragedies in our own personal experience. We need not resort to hoping against hope that there is a God greater than evil, or holding onto faith in God because it is the only way to keep our sanity. More than sanity, indeed, psychological and emotional health is to be found in a view of reality definitively shaped by the view of morality we have defended, including its distinctively Christian resources, a view that allows us to face evil not only honestly but in hope that our healing will be complete when the work of redemption has run its full course.


An earlier version of this essay appeared as “Outrageous Evil and the Hope for Healing: Our Practical Options,” in Immersed in the Life of God: The Healing Resources of the Christian Faith, edited by Paul L. Gavrilyuk, Douglas M. Koskela, and Jason E. Vickers, © 2008 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, all rights reserved.

(1.) Of course, we have in mind Dostoevsky's character Ivan Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov, who focused his argument on the suffering of children. Nothing could justify such suffering, on his view, and he would sooner respectfully return God his ticket than be reconciled to so brutal a reality.

(2.) Elie Wiesel, Night (New York: Avon, 1969), p. 44.

(3.) Marilyn Adams, Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999), pp. 27–28.

(4.) Susan Neiman contends, however, that what marks modern consciousness is that the problem of “natural” evil such as the Lisbon earthquake is “utterly different” from moral evil such as the Holocaust. See her Evil in Modern Thought (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002), pp. 3, 39.

(5.) Cited in “The Tsunami: Asking the God Question,” The Week 5 (January 14, 2005): 15

(6.) C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1955), p. 115.

(7.) Peter Singer, “Ethics and Sociobiology,” in Religion and the Natural Sciences: The Range of Engagement, ed. James E. Huchingson (Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1993), p. 321.

(8.) Michael Ruse and Edward O. Wilson, “The Evolution of Ethics,” in Religion and the Natural Sciences: The Range of Engagement, ed. James E. Huchingson (Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1993), p. 310.

(9.) Of course, as we have seen, not all naturalists would agree that morality is an illusion. Platonists, for instance, and intuitionists would insist that morality is not only objective but self-evident. Utilitarianism is another instance of a naturalist account of objective morality. As Alasdair MacIntyre notes, however, intuitionism and utilitarianism declined into emotivism in the twentieth century. See After Virtue, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), pp. 64ff.

(10.) It would take us too far afield to argue this in detail here, but one of us has done so; see Jerry L. Walls, “Hume on Divine Amorality,” Religious Studies 26 (1990): 257–266. The notion of an evil deity has not often been put forth as a serious option, but one thinker who did so was Marquis de Sade. See Neiman, Evil in Modern Thought, pp. 170–196.

(11.) Kenneth Surin, “Taking Suffering Seriously,” in The Problem of Evil, ed. Michael L. Peterson (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992), p. 342.

(12.) “Taking Suffering Seriously,” p. 344.

(13.) Robert A. Emmons, The Psychology of Ultimate Concerns (New York: The Guilford Press, 1999), p. 145.

(14.) Emmons, The Psychology of Ultimate Concerns, p. 147.

(15.) C. S. Lewis discusses dualism in a few places, pointing out that if we mean that one of the two powers is actually wrong and the other actually right puts into the universe a third thing in addition to the two Powers: some law or standard or rule of good which one of the powers conforms to and the other fails to conform to. But since the two powers are judged by this standard, then this standard, or the Being who made this standard, is farther back and higher up than either of them, and will be the real God.

(16.) Neiman, Evil in Modern Thought, p. 268.

(17.) William J. Abraham, “Faraway Fields are Green,” in God and the Philosophers: The Reconciliation of Faith and Reason (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 166.

(18.) Cf N. T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2006), pp. 75–100.

(19.) G. Richard Hoard, Alone among the Living (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994), p. 207.

(20.) For Hoard's account of this, see Alone among the Living, pp. 196–215. We are reminded that the Stoics taught that death was of no account, not all that bad after all. Christian theology disagrees. Death is irremediably awful; it's ugly, it's tragic, it's unnatural. There's no sugarcoating or whitewashing it. Death grates against every ounce (p.267) of our being that yearns for eternity and for life. Death flies in the face of every such impulse, threatening to make a mockery of our every desire for immortality. Death tears at the fabric of our being, making us say early goodbyes, sometimes not giving us a chance to say goodbye at all, snatching our loved ones away at inopportune times and cutting short a plethora of potentials and possibilities, breaking our hearts. Only a supremely good and loving and all-powerful God can instill hope in the face of death.

(21.) Romans 8:18–25.

(22.) In our view, to make this claim requires taking seriously the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus as well as making the relevant philosophical arguments for the supernatural and the possibility of the miraculous. For examples of such argument, see William J. Abraham, Divine Revelation and the Limits of Historical Criticism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982); N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003); Paul Copan and Ronald K. Tacelli, eds., Jesus' Resurrection: Fact or Figment? A Debate between William Lane Craig and Gerd Ludemann (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2000); Gary R. Habermas and Antony G. N. Flew, Resurrected?: An Atheist and Theist Dialogue, ed. John F. Ankerberg (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005); Richard Swinburne, The Resurrection of God Incarnate (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2003); Michael R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2010).

(23.) Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), p. 92.