Jeremy Evans’ The Problem of Evil: The Challenge to Essential Christian Beleifs – A Review

Who is Jeremy Evans?

“Jeremy Evans is an Assistant Professor of Christian Philosophy at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary…He earned his Ph.D. from Texas A&M University”[1] He is author of two books, both of which are about Christian thought and philosophy.   He is a member of the Evangelical Theological Society, the Society of Christian Philosophers, and the American Philosophical Association.

Evans’ Assumptions and the Book’s Purpose

Evans opens The Problem of Evil: The Challenge to Essential Christian Belief (the book) by stating, “Christians have generally agreed that evil is not a substance or a thing but instead is a privation of a good thing that God made.”[2]  This simple Augustinian definition of evil, that evil is not something but rather the lack of something, has been enough, in the minds of many Christians throughout the centuries, to dispatch what has become known as “The problem of Evil”.[3]  However, this definitional defense of God in the face of the supposed existence of evil has not been sufficient for more than a few thinkers; long and intense philosophical conversations have thus emerged from engaging with the problem of evil.  A number of theodicies have been developed over time to explain or invalidate the Problem of Evil.  In the book, Evans explores and explains (without endorsing) a number of these theodicies.  In his opinion, “no one theodicy suffices to answer the problem of evil…each theodicy has its application in particular domains of the conversation.”[4]  These various theodicies address various, specific, problems from evil.[5] Those well-educated in the subject of theodicies understand that certain venerable theodicies are not congruent with the biblical text.  Evans’ writing on such theodicies, though, shows faithfulness to the biblical text.  As a member of the Evangelical Philosophical Society, Evans affirms that, “the Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and therefore inerrant in the original manuscripts. God is a Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each an uncreated person, one in essence, equal in power and glory.”[6]  His purpose in writing the book seems clear and simple: explore the problem of evil from a biblically-based philosophical perspective.

A Summary

The book is written in a progressive format.  Evans first dedicates a chapter to introducing the basic issues of the broad, general Problem of Evil (such as the difference between natural evil and moral evil).  He then dedicates middle-chapters to addressing various, more specific problems from evil and their defeat.  After doing so, he dedicates a section of his book to comparing theism with naturalism in the face of evil.  Finally, Evans addresses morality and evil in light of God’s nature, thus providing a comprehensive overview of the Problem of Evil.

In addition to using it to distinguish between moral evil and natural evil, Evans uses Chapter One to differentiate between theodicies for God, which are offensive in nature, and defenses of God.  There are four theodicies which Evans summarizes in this chapter: the Punishment Theodicy, the Free-Will Theodicy, the Natural-Law Theodicy, and the Soul-Making Theodicy.   Evans provides scriptural support for the Punishment Theodicy and the Free-Will Theodicy.   He does not do so for the latter two theodicies, which are more strictly philosophical in nature.

The first specific Problem of Evil that Evans addresses is the Logical Problem of Evil, most notably formulated by atheist philosopher J.L. Mackie.  As Evans notes, Mackie “decidedly rejected his own thesis in his later work, effectually conceding that the problem of evil does not show that the central doctrines of theism are logically inconsistent with one another given the reality of evil”[7].  This rejection was done in light of the, now famous[8], Free-Will Defense presented by Alvin Plantinga.  The existence of human freedom (as granted by God) Plantinga argues, shows that it is logically possible for evil to exist in a world where God exists.  Mackie is not the only one who has rejected his thesis.  “It is almost universally agreed that evil is logically compatible with the existence of God.”[9]  There is another problem from evil, however, that imparts a powerful and more visceral reaction on the one who considers it.  This problem, the Evidential Problem of Evil, argues that “the pervasiveness of evil makes it less likely that God exists,” is the next problem from evil that Evans’ addresses.[10]  This argument is popularly known as the “Bambi” argument.  Its basic premise is that there are some events that are so gratuitously evil, such as the slow death of a fawn burned alive in a forest fire, that there is no conceivable greater good that can be imagined which can result from their happenings.  If God existed, goes the argument, He (being omniscient and omnipotent) would prevent such gratuitous evil.  Critics of this argument point out major failures with this premise.  The premise involves a non-omniscient being stating what an omniscient being would do in a given situation.  God’s thoughts and ways, according to the prophet Isaiah, are higher than those of man.[11]  Furthermore, a non-omniscient being’s limitations are such that he cannot definitely proclaim any evil to be gratuitous.  He simply can’t know that evil is gratuitous.  The flaws in the Evidential Problem of Evil…are evident.  Both the logically and evidential arguments are defeated.  The discussion of this “defeat of evil” as Evans’ calls it, is manifested in the existence of human free will, which is “a sufficient reason for God’s permission of evil”[12] and the explanation of why evil exists.  Given an explanation of why evil exists, humankind is left with the question of what to do about it.  Evans’ response is that humans “should partner with God”[13] in order to gain the ability to overcome evil.

Of course, to partner with God, one must first find him.   Friedrich Nietzsche asked, “A god who is all-knowing and all-powerful and who does not even make sure his creatures understand his intention— could that be a god of goodness?[14]  Nietzsche’s words epitomize a problem from Evil known as Divine Hiddenness, which Evans’ addresses in Chapter Five of the book.  An argument from Divine Hiddenness asserts that if God existed, His existence would be so apparent that men would not reasonably doubt that existences; yet, men do.   Like the Evidential Problem, to refute such an argument one must either show that (1) God’s existence must not necessarily be readily apparent or (2) it is not reasonable to doubt God because of apparent hiddenness.  Like the Evidential Problem, the argument from Divine Hiddenness dies upon the sword of human imperfection.  Where God is holy, man is sinful.  God’s holiness drives the “hiddenness” that separates Him from men.  Furthermore, the noetic effects of sin cause man to fail to recognize what is apparent about God’s nature.  Ultimately, God has shown himself to man through His incarnation in Jesus Christ.  In Christ, God has dwelt with man in flesh.  However, even though God has come in the flesh, there remain those who will be separated from God for an eternity in Hell.  The Problem of Hell is the next problem which Evans addresses in the book.  Surely if God were good, according to the Problem of Hell, God wouldn’t send people there for eternity.  Yet, He does.  Some have argued, through universalism or annihilationism, that He does not.  Evans explores such arguments but ultimately concludes that hell is a just divine response to human sinfulness. “Hell is not what hardens a person; instead, hell is a place for hardened persons.”[15]

Evans’ moves on to what could rightly be described as “the problem of naturalism” in Chapter Seven.  The purpose of this particular chapter is “to offer a more coherent concept of the idea of natural evil,”[16] in accordance with Evans’ assertion that “many things often called natural evil do not rightly fit in that category.”[17]  He undergirds his exploration of that purpose with a criticism of theism’s antithesis, naturalism. Citing work done by the venerable Christian apologist, Paul Copan, Evan’s points out to the reader than the existence of anything at all, especially a universe that permits, produces, and sustains life, is astronomically[18] unlikely on naturalism.  Whatever objections one may have to natural evil inside of a Christian or even generically theistic worldview pale in comparison to the simple reality that naturalism abjectly fails to explain the existence of the natural world at all.

In Chapter Eight, Evan’s shifts focus from what he deems “the more traditional issues attending the problem of evil”[19] by considering what he considers to be a more contemporary philosophical problem from evil, The Deontological Problem of Evil.  He delineates for the reader the difference between axiological arguments from evil, which consider the merits and goodness and badness itself, and deontological arguments from evil, which focus on the rightness and wrongness of actions.  Deontological arguments from evil consider the duty of God, asserting that the existence of certain heinous states of affairs indicate that an omnipotent and omnibenevolent being who has the moral duty and power to prevent such states of affairs does not exist.  This argument comes across as a modified hybrid of the logical and evidential problems of evil.  It similarly fails in that human limitations do not permit a man to conclude that a certain state of affairs is so heinous that God had a duty to prevent it.  Not content to refute the Deontological Argument from Evil in this manner, Evans asserts that God has no duties at all.  God’s existence, Evans asserts, provides the very foundation to ground goodness and duty.  He fleshes out this assertion in Chapter Nine.  In order for evil to exist objectively, there must be an objective standard in which to ground goodness; God’s nature is the only sufficient objective standard in which to ground goodness.  Again citing a venerable apologist, this time William Lane Craig[20], and again demonstrating the impotence of the explanatory power of naturalism, Evan’s logically shows that the existence of evil[21] indicates the existence of God.  To even reasonably consider that moral values and duties exist, one must affirm that God exists to objectively grounds such objective moral value and duties.  As the very grounding of duties, God does not have moral duties to those in whom duties cannot be objectively grounded.  The moral duties of God’s creations to fulfill His commands are grounded in the fealty His creations owe God.  God, on the hand, has no moral obligations to anyone except Himself.

In Chapter Eleven, Evans fleshes the relationship between God’s commands and His will in order to help the reader better understand the nature of how moral obligations about come.  This chapter addresses the in-and-outs of duties themselves and therefore only tangentially deals with the Problem of Evil.  Chapter 12, which is addresses the Worship-Worthiness of God also does not directly address the Problem of Evil.  It does, however, consider the theological danger of abandoning a commitment to one of God’s attributes in order to subvert an objection to God’s existence from the Problem of Evil (for example, abandoning God’s omniscience to refute the Deontological Problem of Evil).  An imperfect God is not necessarily a god who should be worshiped.  Throughout the book’s previous Chapters, Evan’s argues from God’s perfect nature, never abandoning an attribute of God to escape a trap set by the purveyor of the Problem of Evil.  Evans asserts that a being with such a perfect nature is worthy of worship.  Evan’s ,citing Acts 17:28, states, “the very fact that God is Creator and Sustainer of every contingent being warrants praise in itself; ‘in him we live move and have our being’…The debt of existence is no small debt, and God’s acts of creation and offering of reconciliation are manifestations of his supererogation.”[22]

Analysis and Evaluation

In the conclusion to his book, Evans makes two poignant observations.  The first is that evil is, ironically, evidence for the existence of God rather than against it.   The second is that providing such a logical response to the problem of evil may not fulfill the need of someone who is undergoing suffering and considering the existence of God in the face of evil.  “In times of suffering,” Evans states, “we usually need the comfort of friends and not the counsel of scholars.”[23]  This is prudent admission, especially from a scholar who has done such a comprehensive job of addressing the Problem of Evil.  Given the ample treatment that Evans provides of the Problem of Evil, the Book is exactly what it advertises itself to be and does an excellent job of addressing the most common and enduring problems from evil.  Its concluding chapters are indicative of the extensive treatment these problems have already received in the realm of Christian academia.  These chapters, excluding Chapter 12, appear to address the more “contemporary” philosophical issues of an ancient problem for the sake of providing enough “new” material to justify the publication of a book on a subject that has been written on many times in the past.  The inclusion of these chapters, however, is hardly inappropriate given the subject matter and does not take away from the overall quality and usefulness of the book.   One who has engaged with the problem of evil by reading an introductory volume on the subject such as “God and Evil: An Introduction to the Issues” by Michael L Peterson would be well-served to ingest Evan’s book if he is looking for a meatier treatment of the Problem of Evil.  It’s a good one.

 SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY

Evangelical Philosophical Society. Membership – Evangelical Philosophical Society. 2015. http://www.epsociety.org/about/membership.asp (accessed January 5, 2015).

Evans, Jeremy A. The Problem of Evil: The Challenge to Essential Christian Belief. B & H Academic, 2013.

Seminary, Southeastern Baptist Theological. Evans, Jeremy A. http://www.sebts.edu/academics/faculty/ (accessed January 31, 2015).

Society, Evangelical Philosophical. Jeremy Evans, PhD. 2015. http://www.epsociety.org/library/authors.asp?mode=profile&pid=39 (accessed February 2015, 2015).

[1] Society, Evangelical Philosophical. Jeremy Evans, PhD. 2015. http://www.epsociety.org/library/authors.asp?mode=profile&pid=39 (accessed February 2015, 2015).

[2] Evans, Jeremy A. The Problem of Evil: The Challenge to Essential Christian Belief. B & H Academic, 2013. p.1

[3] According to philosopher J.L. Mackie, “In its simplest form the problem of evil is this:  God is omnipotent, God is wholly good; and yet evil exists.”  The terms “Problem of Evil” and “Problem from Evil” are often used interchangeably.  See Mackie, J. “Evil and Omnipotence.” In Philosophy of Religion: a Guide and Anthology, by B. Davies, 581.

[4] Ibid p.14

[5] As noted in footnote three, the Problem of Evil is the general idea that the existence of evil and God are contradictory.  “Problems from evil” are specific formulations of the Problem of Evil which attempt to explain why the co-existence of God and evil are incompatible.

[6] Evangelical Philosophical Society. Membership – Evangelical Philosophical Society. 2015. http://www.epsociety.org/about/membership.asp (accessed January 5, 2015).

[7] Evans, Jeremy A. The Problem of Evil: The Challenge to Essential Christian Belief. B & H Academic, 2013. p.22

[8] Among philosophers, theologians, and Christian apologists.

[9] Evans, Jeremy A. The Problem of Evil: The Challenge to Essential Christian Belief. B & H Academic, 2013. p.23

[10] ibid

[11] Isa 55:9

[12] Evans, Jeremy A. The Problem of Evil: The Challenge to Essential Christian Belief. B & H Academic, 2013. p.58

[13] Ibid p. 58

[14] Ibid p. 61

[15] Ibid 102

[16] Ibid p. 68

[17] Ibid p. 68

[18] I use this term in that sense that it refers to something very large, not as it relates to astronomy iteself

[19] Evans, Jeremy A. The Problem of Evil: The Challenge to Essential Christian Belief. B & H Academic, 2013. p. 133

[20] Evans cites a version of Craig’s deductive moral argument which in its simplest form, a modus tollens, goes as follows: 1. If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist. 2. Objective moral values exist. 3. Therefore, God exists.

[21] or at least a state of affairs in which it is reasonable to deem that there exists a privation of good

[22] Evans, Jeremy A. The Problem of Evil: The Challenge to Essential Christian Belief. B & H Academic, 2013.  p. 215

[23] Ibid p. 219

*Please note that the preceding is my personal opinion. It is not necessarily the opinion of any entity by which I am employed, any church at which I am a member, any church which I attend, or the educational institution at which I am enrolled. Any copyrighted material displayed or referenced is done under the doctrine of fair use.

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