Presuppositionalism and The Problem of Evil
An Apologetic Dialogue
by Joshua Anderson
A: You’ve heard me speak often of my faith in God. Have you ever given any serious thought about the place of God in your own life?
B: I know that you’re a Christian and as far as I’m concerned it’s your prerogative to believe. I just can’t accept the things that you do. Besides, in my opinion the most serious problems that we face in the world today come precisely from people taking their religion too seriously. If you want to know the truth, I don’t see how any reasonable person can really believe in your God any more. Can you really give me any solid, persuasive reason to accept that the Christian God even exists?
A: That’s a fair question. The fact is, I think that there is every reason to believe that He does exist.
B: Can you be more specific?
A: Absolutely. But when I said that there was every reason to believe that God exists I wasn’t exaggerating. According to the Bible, God has made himself plainly known through the creation. There is a sense in which anything and everything that you can name testifies to the reality of God. For example, the fact that you are raising the question and that we can have a meaningful conversation testifies to the reality of God. Even our minds and everything we see around us testifies. None of these things could exist if the God described in the Bible did not exist. Perhaps that’s why the Bible also teaches that all people know at some level that God exists whether they acknowledge it or not.
B: I’m not so sure about that. But what do you mean when you say that all things testify to God?
A: Well, first of all, it’s important to realize that when you ask whether or not the God of the Bible exists you are asking a very unique question. It’s not as if you were asking whether this thing or that exists. It’s not like asking, ‘Does this fountain exist?’ or ‘Does that clock exist?’ With God it’s different. No offense, but its possible that your concept of God is too limited. The God that is described in the Bible is the source of all things. He is the most absolute and fundamental reality there is. All other things depend on him for their existence and are what they are because of Him. He is the source of all meaning, all life, all value, and all truth; as such he exists necessarily.
B: I understand that you choose to define God in this way. But I fail to see why it necessarily follows that such a God must exist. Certainly there are other possible answers for why we, and all of this exist. How about chance? Isn’t that the answer that science has given us? After all, given enough time isn’t anything possible?
A: I agree with you that chance is the alternative that many people turn to. But is it really an alternative? What do you mean when you say chance?
B: I don’t know, just random events taking place over time.
A: But when we say that something happens by chance don’t we mean that it has no discernable cause? How is saying that something is the result of utterly random and chaotic happenings any different from no explanation at all?
B: I’m not sure, but wouldn’t you agree that human knowledge has progressed to the point that we have all but shown that everything is really just reducible to the physical universe? There is no longer any reason to defer to some mythical, supernatural God to explain what we don’t understand.
A: I would maintain that there are many things that the material world alone cannot account for, but we aren’t just invoking God to explain the otherwise unexplainable. In any case, I think that you have inadvertently hit on something very important. There really are only two true alternatives. Either you and I and the world are the result of blind impersonal forces or the result of a personal creator. The question is which of these is really able to account for the world as we know it. Of course, when I describe these as alternatives I don’t mean to imply that they are equally valid possibilities. As I said, chance or whatever other term you might use to describe an impersonal creator is no real alternative. You see, even in the very asking of the question “Does God exist?” you are, perhaps unconsciously, presupposing that He does in fact exist.
B: I don’t get it. How does my asking the question imply or presuppose that God exists?
A: Well, let me ask you this: when you raise the question ‘Does God exist?’ what makes you so certain I will understand the question? What leads you to believe that I won’t simply experience what you say as a stream of unrelated sounds or unintelligible nonsense?
B: Isn’t it obvious that you will understand the meaning of my words if we speak a common language?
A: Yes it is obvious, but only if you assume certain things to begin with. In asking the question, you are assuming that we live in a world in which things and words and people exist in meaningful relationship to one another. You are assuming that this is an ordered, rational world, one that makes sense, one in which questions have answers. You are presupposing that you live in a world in which there is coherent truth to be known.
B: I suppose. But what does that have to do with God?
A: It has everything to do with God. An intelligible and meaningful world has to be the handiwork of an intelligent, personal creator. An impersonal origin can never account for an intelligible world. A world where everything is the product of random events there can be no coherent, meaningful relationships.
Ironically if you were to try and argue that God does not exist, the very argument would itself demonstrate that He does exist. It’s as if I were to say to you, “I don’t speak a word of English.” The statement refutes itself. In the same way, if you were to say “I don’t believe in God and this is why….” your argument itself presupposes a meaningful world, the kind of world that is only consistent with a personal creator.
Again, it’s as if you were to try and construct and argument that demonstrated that you didn’t exist. The very conditions for putting together the argument include your existence. In the same way, trying to demonstrate that God doesn’t exist requires that He does in fact exist.
B: I think I see your point, but, if you ask me, what you’re saying is only persuasive if things remain abstract. Wouldn’t you agree that this cruel, evil and tragic world is incompatible with the benevolent creator that you claim created it? If anything is certain, the evidence is against your good God.
A: Well, even though I don’t agree with your conclusion, I do think that your instincts are right on target. The world is certainly full of evil and there is an undeniable element of mystery when it comes to trying to square that reality with the reality of a good God. But I do think that there are some good responses to the issue you raise.
B: Like what?
A: At the risk of sounding redundant, I think that it’s important to realize that even raising the question of why there is evil in the world and how that can be consistent with belief in a good God is a compelling demonstration that that He exists. When you speak of evil you reveal that you take seriously the fact that there are some things in the world that are inherently bad and, by contrast, some things that are good. From where do you think those notions of good and evil come?
B: I know where you are going with this. You think that a belief in good and evil are only consistent with belief in God.
A: That’s right.
B: Well, I don’t see any reason to invoke God. Why can’t we just look at morality as a purely human convention? Don’t we ultimately get our sense of morality from those around us? Morality is something that we have been taught by others in our communities. It’s what makes human society possible. God doesn’t need to be brought into this. I don’t even believe in God and I have a sense of right and wrong.
A: I don’t doubt that you have a sense of right and wrong. But if you think that good and evil are simply human creations, just a quirk of human psychology, some useful standards that humanity simply agrees upon, then evil isn’t really a problem. That is to say, if good and evil have no independent reality outside of our own minds, if they are just the opinions of individuals or cultures, then the existence of evil cannot stand as an argument against the existence of God. But, having said that, I must add that I’m sure you will find that this is not the case. Although we have been created with the ability to discern good from evil, morality must be rooted in a reality that is greater than our own opinions or social conventions. For the sake of clarity let’s consider a concrete case. Suppose tomorrow you and happen upon several people torturing a small child. Wouldn’t you agree that this is an unambiguously evil act?
B: Of course.
A: How do you know?
B: I guess it’s difficult to pin down exactly how or why, but I just perceive that what is about to happen is something that ought not to take place. I know intuitively that what I am seeing is wrong.
A: And suppose you were to speak with one of the people committing this act, what would you say?
B: I would say, this child is innocent and what you are doing is not right.
A: And what if they responded that they did not share your moral values? Maybe they were raised in a culture different from our own.
B: I don’t see how another culture could ever advocate something like that. No child deserves to be treated in such a way.
A: Suppose that everyone else in the world condoned the act. If the consensus were against you wouldn’t you be forced to concede that your personal preference in this matter was misguided?
B: No. It’s not just a personal preference. I mean, any sane person can see that something like this is decidedly wrong. Even if the whole world approved of it I would maintain my position that it’s evil.
A: Just think for a moment about the kind of language you have been using. You said that this is something that ‘ought’ not to happen, something that the innocent victim did not ‘deserve.’ It seems like you have in mind a kind of standard that supersedes any one person’s opinion. You even said that if the whole world were to take the opposite view you would persist in your evaluation of the act. I guess what I am saying is that it seems that you think that certain things, like the example I gave, are really wrong and not simply wrong because a person or society as a whole says so. Would that be a fair statement?
B: There does seem to be a sense in which certain things are really right or wrong.
A: But only in a world that has been created for a purpose by a personal creator could there be things are really right and really wrong. A world that is the product of impersonal forces simply cannot account for genuine moral values in which things are really right or wrong, and there are principles that are truly binding on the individual.
B: Suppose I grant that good and evil do have some kind of reality beyond the human mind. You argue that belief in the reality of moral values requires the existence of a personal creator. But I fail to see how the existence of evil is compatible with a God like the one you believe in. If your God exists and is both good and omnipotent then certainly he would not have created a world that is full of evil like the one we find ourselves in.
A: I think the mistake that you are making is that you are assuming that there is no reason for which God would be justified in allowing evil to be a part of the world that he has made.
B: What reason could a perfect God have for making a creation in which people suffer needlessly?
A: As I said before, there is certainly mystery here. I don’t want to diminish that fact and pretend that there are easy answers. Nevertheless, I believe that the Bible gives us some important insights into this issue. To begin with, the Bible makes it clear that evil, while very real, is a temporary reality. Evil does not have the final word. God created the world and he will judge it in righteousness. In the end all wrongs will be made right. The world as we know it, according to the scriptures is not the end. God has promised that he will recreate the world and that in that new world there will be no suffering or evil or death.
B: If that is true then why didn’t he just originally create such a world? Why didn’t he just bypass this world and begin with a world without all of the evil?
A: That’s a great question. I think we would agree that the only reason for allowing evil to exist, even if only for a season, would be if doing so would bring about some greater overall good, that is, if in the end the existence of evil allowed some higher purpose to be realized. The Bible affirms by showing how certain evils people and events throughout history have been used by God to accomplish his good purposes. In fact, it teaches that God causes all things, both good and evil, to work together for his the good. There is even some sense in which we can see this in our own experience now on a limited scale. If I asked you to name some things or qualities that you take to be inherently good what would you say?
B: Justice, love, beauty, compassion, faithfulness, courage...
A: Think about some of those things you just named. It’s worth noting that some of the things that you mentioned would not be possible without the existence, at least for a time, of some kind of evil. In fact, many of the things that we routinely consider the highest and noblest goods, things like forgiveness, hope, perseverance, courage, mercy, self-sacrifice, grace and compassion are the result of a good overcoming some kind of evil.
B: I see what you mean.
A: And what we are discussing here is not some peripheral issue. In many ways it is at the heart of the Christian faith. According to the Bible, God became man in the person of Jesus Christ and suffered and died on our behalf, taking the penalty of our wickedness, our evil upon himself. Paradoxically, in an event that could well be described as the greatest single act of evil in history, the brutal murder of the only truly innocent man who ever lived, God provided eternal salvation for the human race.
As I said earlier, all things testify to God. The story of this world is the story of God glorifying Himself by exalting the good and vanquishing evil. In the end, the infinite goodness of God is fully demonstrated in that he is able to bring good not only out of that which was originally good but also out of events and people that are evil. That is the good news of Christianity. The issue of evil is not only the problem of evil in the world but also in us. But God in Christ has provided a way for we who were evil to be made right with God.
B: That’s an interesting perspective. There are still many things that I have to consider, but some of what you have said makes sense to me.
A: I’m glad to hear that. Ultimately, I am convinced that there is nothing that I can do to persuade you of these things. I think God alone is able to allow a person to come to an understanding of the truth. But I hope that God will use our conversation to reveal himself to you, and I hope that you will continue to wrestle with these issues.
-- Thanks to Monergism.com
and the Hall of Frame
where I found this essay. Joshua Anderson is a student at Reformed Theological Seminary; this paper is a recipient of the “Hall of Frame” award for 2003.