The Existence of Evil and A Good God: A Series by Dan Marino
Updated: May 1
This is a five-part series by guest author Dan Marino, currently a graduate student in Classical Theology at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.
Introduction: Why Evil?
How can an all-good, all-powerful God permit the existence of evil? This question, while always relevant given the numerous evils in the world, is perhaps forced to the front of our minds in uncertain times such as these, as we are faced with the global pandemic of COVID-19. In this series, I will address issues pertaining to God’s relationship to evil from the Christian perspective, with the ultimate aim of offering hope in the midst of despair. In this first article I discuss the two kinds of evil which plague the world, followed by a brief introduction to the Problem of Evil and why such evils present a problem for the existence of the Christian God. Fair warning, the subject matter will at times be very difficult to digest, and may weigh heavily on the spirit, as is the nature of evil. If my reader can endure in the darkness, my hope is that she will, by the conclusion of this series, be rewarded with the dawning light of Christ. With that in mind, this discussion begins with the two kinds of evil which plague humanity.
On Moral and Natural Evils Before discussing the Problem of Evil, evil must first be defined. However, a simple definition will not suffice. Evil is too profound, too grotesque, to be summarized in pithy terms. It is better to illustrate evil through concrete examples than to attempt to describe it in the abstract. For this reason, the two kinds of evil - Moral and Natural - will be defined using three case-studies each, with the intent that this will bring the reader to an understanding of evil’s depth and darkness. Moral Evil Any discussion of moral evil must first begin with a determination of whether or not moral evil actually exists. Many argue that morality is relative, and it is therefore up to the individual to determine right and wrong, good and evil, for him or herself. The following paraphrase of a recorded conversation between serial murderer and rapist Ted Bundy and one of his victims demonstrates the danger of moral relativism, and the natural conclusion of doing away with objective moral standards. According to Bundy, "I learned that all moral judgments are ‘value judgments,’ that all value judgments are subjective, and that none can be proved to be either ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ I even read somewhere that the Chief Justice of the United States had written that the American Constitution expressed nothing more than collective value judgments. Believe it or not, I figured out for myself – what apparently the Chief Justice couldn’t figure out for himself – that if the rationality of one value judgment was zero, multiplying it by millions would not make it one whit more rational. Nor is there any ‘reason’ to obey the law for anyone, like myself, who has the boldness and daring – the strength of character – to throw off its shackles… I discovered that to become truly free, truly unfettered, I had to become truly uninhibited. And I quickly discovered the greatest obstacle to my freedom, the greatest block and limitation to it, consists in the insupportable ‘value judgment’ that I was bound to respect the rights of others. I asked myself, who were these ‘others?’ Other human beings, with human rights? Why is it more wrong to kill a human animal than any other animal, a pig or a sheep or a steer? Is your life more to you than a hog’s life to a hog? Why should I be willing to sacrifice my pleasure more for one than for the other? Surely, you would not, in this age of scientific enlightenment, declare that God or nature has marked some pleasures as ‘moral’ or ‘good’ and others as ‘immoral’ or ‘bad?’ In any case, let me assure you, my dear young lady, that there is absolutely no comparison between the pleasure I might take in eating ham and the pleasure I anticipate in raping and murdering you. That is the honest conclusion to which my education has led me – after the most conscientious examination of my spontaneous and uninhibited self." (quoted in Louis Pojman and James Fieser. Ethics, 30.) There is good reason the above might be, and should be, difficult to accept. Moral relativism, when fully embraced, ultimately allows the kind of thinking depicted here. If morality is indeed subjective, there is nothing objectively wrong with Bundy’s conclusions. In fact, he is absolutely consistent. Without moral objectivity, the individual is free to do as he or she chooses, and the only law of right and wrong to which they are obligated is found in their own determinations. At this point, all judicial systems would collapse as there is no universal standard by which to hold all people accountable.
Moral Relativism at the Level of the Individual As Louis Pojman states, if subjective moral relativism is correct in its assertions, “we might be revulsed by Ted Bundy’s views, but that is just a matter of taste.”At this point, good and evil are both impossible to define in any meaningful sense. The moral determinations of Bundy - who considers it right to force himself upon a woman and ultimately murder her - and the woman - who, in all likelihood, considers it wrong for herself to be forced upon and murdered - are both wholly dependent upon the preferences of the parties involved, and are therefore both equally valid. Individual moral relativism makes it simultaneously right and wrong for Bundy to rape and murder the woman, and no objective stance can be taken either way. We are therefore incapable of determining whether or not his actions are evil, as evil itself will have lost all objective meaning. Given that the Problem of Evil presupposes the existence of evil, this series will require an assumption of objective morality. If good and evil are relative, and therefore ultimately nonexistent, evil poses no problem for the existence of God. At this point, the conversation surrounding the Problem of Evil comes to an abrupt end. If morality is objective, however, then Bundy’s conclusions are indicative of a depraved mind, and the rape and murder of his victim are both examples of moral evils. It is here that questions of why God would allow such evils come into play. Moving forward, it will be assumed that morality is objective at the individual level, and that Ted Bundy’s actions are profoundly evil. Moral Relativism at the Level of Culture But what about moral relativity at the cultural level? Are governmental bodies, collectives, or groups able to determine morality, even if those determinations differ from one culture to the next? Consider the following description of the treatment of Haitian slaves written in 1814 by former slave and advisor to King Henri Christophe, Baron Pompée Valentin Vastey. Vastey writes, “Haven’t they committed unheard-of cruelties, crimes until then unknown to humankind? Haven’t they burnt, roasted, grilled and impaled alive the unfortunate slaves? Haven’t they sawn off the limbs, torn out the tongues and teeth, torn off the ears, and cut off the lips of their blacks? Haven’t they hung men upside down, drowned them in sacks, crucified them on planks, buried them alive, crushed them in mortars? Haven’t they forced them to eat human shit? And, after having flayed them with the whip, haven’t they thrown them to the ground to be devoured by worms, or onto anthills, or lashed them to stakes in the swamp to be eaten alive by mosquitoes? Haven’t they thrown them into boiling cauldrons of cane syrup? Haven’t they put men and women into barrels spiked with nails, closed at both ends, and rolled them from the tops of mountains, hurtling the unfortunate victims inside into the abyss below? Haven’t they had these miserable blacks savaged by trained dogs, until these mastiffs, full of human flesh, refuse any longer to act as instruments of the torturers who then finish off the half-eaten victims with the thrust of a knife or bayonet?” (Charles Arthur and J. Michael Dash. A Haiti Anthology, 29) If morality is determined at the cultural level, the treatment of the Haitian slaves described above cannot be judged as immoral, given that the French-controlled Haitian society, under the Code Noir issued by King Louis XIV, determined such actions to be culturally acceptable. In the same way that individual moral relativity makes morality into a matter of personal taste, cultural moral relativity determines morality on the basis of cultural acceptability. Vastey’s claim that these were ‘crimes’ against humanity is false if cultural moral relativism is true. If society and culture determines morality, nothing more can be said about the actions of the French slave owners other than the simple fact that such behavior was viewed as moral then, but would be considered immoral now. Haitian society under French rule had determined that slave owners could own men as property and do to them whatever they wished. The brutalization of the slaves was therefore, according to cultural moral relativism, a morally acceptable act in that culture, and no further judgments or appeals can be made. However, as with individual moral relativism, cultural moral relativism also results in meaningless moral determinations. Baron de Vastey’s account was written in 1814, a full 37 years after the state of Vermont outlawed slavery. This means that there was a time when one society considered the actions of the French slave owners to be moral, and another considered those same actions to be immoral. If morality is indeed relative from one culture to the next, at the time of the Baron’s writing the actions he describes were simultaneously moral and immoral, depending on the geographical location. This makes it impossible to determine whether or not the treatment of the Haitian slaves was objectively evil, and makes cultural moral relativism as flawed as individual moral relativism when it comes to such determinations. Returning to the assumption that morality is objective, however, the treatment of the Haitian slaves serves as a second example of gross moral evil, despite Franco-Haitian society’s allowance of such actions. The third example of moral evil is supremely grotesque. In The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky, through the character of Ivan Karamazov, describes an actual historical account of the Turkish army’s treatment of the Bulgarians, "A Bulgarian I met recently in Moscow… told me how the Turks and Circassians there, in Bulgaria, have been committing atrocities everywhere, fearing a general uprising of the Slavs – they burn, kill, rape women and children, they nail prisoners by the ears to fences and leave them like that until morning, and in the morning they hang them – and so on, it’s impossible to imagine it all… These Turks, among other things, have also taken a delight in torturing children, starting with cutting them out of their mother’s wombs with a dagger, and ending with tossing nursing infants up in the air and catching them on their bayonets before their mother’s eyes. The main delight comes from doing it before their mother’s eyes. But here is a picture that I found very interesting. Imagine a nursing infant in the arms of its trembling mother, surrounded by the Turks. They’ve thought up an amusing trick: they fondle the baby, they laugh to make it laugh, and they succeed – the baby laughs. At that moment a Turk aims a pistol at it, four inches from its face. The baby laughs gleefully, reaches out its little hands to grab the pistol, and suddenly the artist pulls the trigger right in its face and shatters its little head." (The Brothers Karamazov, 2002, 238.) One might describe such horrendous acts as animalistic, but Dostoevsky would say such a description is unfair to animals. Returning to Ivan’s account, he continues “People talk sometimes of bestial cruelty, but that’s a great injustice and insult to the beast; a beast can never be so cruel as a man, so artistically cruel. The tiger only tears and gnaws, that’s all he can do. He would never think of nailing people by the ears, even if he were able to do it.” Man is the only species who, with forethought and malice, invents ways of torturing both man and animal. Not only that, he is the only creature capable of finding delight in murdering infants with such savagery. Man’s cruelty and depravity are seen in the examples of Ted Bundy and his victims, in the treatment of the Haitian slaves, and in the Turkish soldiers and their playful slaughter of Bulgarian infants. These evils are only three examples of the moral evils mankind has committed, and each, in their own way, demonstrates the depth of human depravity.
Having now described moral evil, I will turn my attention in the next post to the problem of natural evil.