From Theodicy to Theophany: Inscrutability and the Problem of Evil

From Theodicy to Theophany: Inscrutability and the Problem of Evil

Editors' Note: This month, Dr. Oliphint begins answering the questions sent to us by reformation21 readers. We want to thank everyone for their questions and we pray the answers from Dr. Oliphint will be a blessing.

The late Antony Flew told a now-famous parable of an "Invisible Gardener." Two explorers find a garden in the middle of the jungle. In this garden there are many flowers and many weeds. One explorer claims that there must be a gardener who tends the plot, while the other explorer denies it. They set a watch, but nothing happens. The believing explorer still affirms his belief in a gardener, but suggests that the gardener is invisible. The two explorers set up an electrified barbed-wire fence and patrol it with bloodhounds. Still nothing happens. The wires never sway, and the bloodhounds never bark. The believer maintains his belief in the gardener. The gardener, so he argues, is invisible, intangible, and insensitive to electric shock. He has no scent and makes no sound, but he loves and tends the garden. Finally, the skeptic despairs and asks the believer how his gardener differs from no gardener at all.

There are at least two aspects to Flew's story.  The first is the philosophical aspect.  Flew was attempting to illustrate that any statement that cannot be, at least possibly, falsified, is nonsense.  His claim is that any statement that purports to take in everything means nothing in the end.  For a statement to be meaningful, it must be set against contrary states of affairs.

The second aspect to Flew's parable is more revealing. In writing of his rationale for the parable, Flew says:
Someone tells us that God loves us as a father loves his children.  We are reassured.  But then we see a child dying.  His Heavenly Father reveals no obvious sign of concern.  Some qualification is made.  Just what would have to happen to entitle us to say 'God does not love us' or even 'God does not exist'?  What would have to occur to constitute for you a disproof of the love of, or of the existence of, God?(1)
Flew's conclusion was that the God of Christianity is dead; He has died the death of a thousand qualifications. And it was the problem of suffering and evil that motivated this conclusion.

The motivation behind Flew's parable is "the problem of evil." This problem is replete throughout the history of thought. Generally speaking, the problem states that it is unwise, if not downright irrational, to continue to believe something when there is evidence that either undercuts or rebuts its truth.  So, we're told, it is unwise at best, if not downright irrational, to believe in the kind of God Christians believe in when all around us, and around the world, is evidence to the contrary - evidence that undercuts and invalidates the belief itself.

Now whatever we think of Flew's parable of the Invisible Gardner, we can all relate to the motivation behind the parable. The motivation behind the parable is the sometimes horrendous affliction that comes often to people, and that is obvious to anyone whose eyes are open. And the difficulty with such atrocities is that they continue to happen, and happen with nauseating regularity, in the face of our insistence that God, who is goodness itself, exists.

The first thing that needs to be said is that the problem of evil is, perhaps first of all, an intensely pastoral problem.  To have it reside simply on the intellectual level is an evil in and of itself. However, there is also an intensely philosophical problem that concerns those of who work in the area of Christian apologetics - a defense of the Christian faith.  As a matter of fact, it seems to me that the problem of evil is one of those problems where the pastoral and philosophical concerns are most closely related.  If it is dealt with properly in a philosophical way, one cannot help but deal, at the same time, with at least some of the pastoral concerns.

The problem of evil is still considered to be the strongest argument against Christianity specifically, or theism generally.  It is thought to be the Achilles Heel of Christianity, the one thing that brings the whole position crumbling down. One of the reasons that the problem of evil is considered to be such a strong argument against Christianity is that it has such broad appeal. Unlike strictly metaphysical or epistemological arguments against God's existence, the problem of evil is one that is more intuitive, understood by virtually anyone, whether or not he is a philosopher.  All we need do is live in this world and we have first-hand experience and understanding that things are terribly wrong.  When we think about the typical notion of God in relation to all that is terribly wrong, the problem becomes acute.

This problem goes back at least as far as Epicurus (342-270 BC), and was set forth by David Hume in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. It is articulated in two, many would say, contradictory propositions:

1.    God is omniscient, omnipotent and wholly good.
2.    There is evil.

There are two basic ways to argue the inconsistency of these two propositions.  The first, and historically most predominant way, is to argue that these two propositions are logically contradictory. This argument is still used by some, but it has given way to the so-called "evidential" argument from evil, and it is an attempt to show that, given the sheer amount of evidence of evil in the world, God, most likely, cannot exist. 

In other words, the evidential argument begins by asking us to look around and to see if bad things happen. Sane people answer yes to that question. Then the evidential argument goes one step further. It concedes the point that it might be the case that some bad things happen for good purposes. That is, it concedes some merit to a kind of "Greater Good" Defense - a child receiving a shot, or a chemotherapy patient.  But then it asks a further question.  It asks us to look around and to see if there are any evils in the world that occur without justification.

One recent book out on this subject is entitled, God and Inscrutable Evil.  The evidential argument depends, not just on the existence of evil, but on the existence of what it calls inscrutable evil. This is evil, one author tells us, for which there is no God-justifying reason.  By that he means that this is evil that is inexplicable - it cannot be explained, even by referring to God.

So, those who hold to the evidential argument, first propose that there is evil, and lots of it, which is fundamentally inscrutable. That is, there is evil for which there is no 'God-justifying reason.'  Why think that there has to be a God-justifying reason?  Part of the answer to that question is in the language we have used to discuss this problem.  

In the eighteenth century, a philosopher by the name of Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz wrote a work entitled, Theodicy.  That word itself carries with it the notion that evil can only be sufficiently explained if we know God's reasons for it.

Even the most pious among us, in our honest moments, pleads for an explanation of certain kinds of evil.  And we plead for a reason, not because we want to know everything, but because we know that such things just don't fit with everything else that we know.  So the evidential argument can carry a significant amount of plausibility. And the objectors go further and tell us that unless we can show to them the God-justifying reason for inscrutable evil, that is, unless we Christians can make inscrutable evil 'scrutable,' then they have to conclude that God most likely does not exist after all.
The problem, however, is that inscrutability is located in the wrong place, initially. It is best, when thinking of this problem, to begin thinking, not of Theodicy, but of Theophany.

The initial problem with the problem of evil is that God Himself is inscrutable.  Think for a minute about someone being absolutely independent. Is it any wonder then that there are things that this inscrutable God does that our minds are unable to contain?  Paul even tells us that God's ways and judgments are beyond our ability to scrutinize them (Rom. 11:33f.).

That, of course, was the lesson that Job had to learn.  We are privy to more of what is going on with Job than even Job was so it is sometimes too easy to be hard on him.  But remember Job wants an answer to his own personal problem of evil. And how does God answer Job?
Job 40:1-10:
The LORD said to Job: "Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him? Let him who accuses God answer him!" Then Job answered the LORD: "I am unworthy-- how can I reply to you? I put my hand over my mouth. I spoke once, but I have no answer-- twice, but I will say no more." Then the LORD spoke to Job out of the storm: "Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. "Would you discredit my justice? Would you condemn me to justify yourself? Do you have an arm like God's, and can your voice thunder like his? Then adorn yourself with glory and splendor, and clothe yourself in honor and majesty.
In the midst of His suffering, Job decided it was time for inscrutability to stop.  And so he tells God that it's time to give answers.  There needs to be a God-justifying reason for what is happening to Job, and in the world generally.

And how does God respond to Job?  Job, you've forgotten one crucial thing - I am God, and besides Me, there is no other.  Inscrutability lies at the feet of Almighty God, and therefore there are things that we simply will not understand - things, as Job says, "too wonderful for me, which I did not know."

That's the first inscrutable.  But there is a second that we find throughout the pages of Scripture that gives us some clue to God's perspective on the problem of evil.

The amazing thing about this God, the One who Is Who He Is, is that he announces Himself as the Covenant God - the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob -- and of the church.

The most disconcerting statement of Antony Flew's was not that theology is meaningless unless falsifiable, not that God has been qualified by Christians into non-existence.  The most troubling statement of Flew's is contained in his reason for thinking the way he does: That God, our Heavenly Father, "reveals no obvious sign of concern."

Has God revealed any sign of concern?  Not only has He revealed a sign of concern, He has entered into and identified, in the most excruciating way imaginable, the very problem itself -  because He has come down.  And the One who was in the very form of God, did not consider equality with God something to be held on to, but emptied Himself, taking the very form of a servant, and becoming obedient, even to the point of death on a cross (cf. Phil. 2:5-11).

This God, who is the great I AM, sent His Son, His Only Son, to die for the likes of us.  This God, the I AM, made Him who knew no evil, to be evil on our behalf, just so we might become the righteousness of God in Him.

Do you want the ultimate inscrutable?  Isaiah tells us (53:10) that the Great I AM was pleased to crush His only Son - so that when His Only Son cried out on that cross - "My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?" the inscrutable answer was so that His sinful, finite, suffering people might live.

In Romans 8:32, Paul reminds us of that ultimate inscrutable - He reminds us that God did not spare His own Son. Do you remember how Stuart Hine put it in his hymn "How Great Thou Art"?
"And when I think that God, His Son not sparing, sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in

So our response to Flew's parable, and to others who demand that God bow to their inquisition, is simply this: Whatever God's ultimate reasons for evil in this world, far from being unconcerned, He came down, and, at the costliest expense imaginable, as the only innocent one who ever lived, was put to death on a cross. Therefore, those who put their trust in Him can say with the apostle Paul, that whatever God's reasons, in spite of the sheer inscrutability of His ways, "I consider that the suffering of this present age is not worthy to be compared to the glory that will be revealed in us." (Romans 8:18) Because He who knew no evil, came down, and became evil on our behalf. In that way, by way of Theophany, he, personally and painfully, resolved the problem of evil for eternity. Do we really need to know more than that?

1. A. Flew, "Theology and Falsification," New Essays in Philosophical Theology, eds.  A. Flew and A. MacIntyre, 98-99.