God’s Omnibenevolence and the Problem of Evil

The doctrine of God’s omnibenevolence (God’s complete goodness) raises the problem of evil.

The classic formulation of this problem is the apparent incompatibility of the three propositions: 1) God is wholly God, 2) God is all-powerful, and 3) evil exists. If God is wholly good, he would want to prevent gratuitous evil; and if he were all-powerful, he would be able to prevent gratuitous evil (evil with no justifying cause). Yet evil still exists. Therefore, the Christian idea of an all-powerful, omnibenevolent God appears to be incoherent in a world in which evil exists.

On a philosophical level, this problem is fairly simple to explain. The objector has failed to make explicit a proposition that is unprovable, yet essential to the success of the argument: that is, that there is at least one instance of evil that is gratuitous. In other words, for any instance of evil that appears to be gratuitous, God might have a reason leading to a greater good of which we are currently unaware. Yet to have this knowledge, the objector must have omniscience.

The person who wishes to demonstrate the incoherence of the idea of God based on the existence of evil also faces the problem how where he or she got the idea of evil in the first place. Objectors to Christian theism would like to say that the existence of evil makes the concept of God incoherent. Upon further analysis, however, it becomes apparent that if God did not exist, the concept of evil itself would become incoherent. Therefore, by making his or her argument from evil, the atheist or skeptic has secretly imported some idea of absolute good.

Without God, you can’t have absolute good. And without absolute good, you have no right to speak of evil.

That Annoying Piece of Evidence Called the Universe

NGC_4414_(NASA-med)Recently I’ve been listening to The Universe (audio book) by John Brockman of Edge.org, a collection of essays from some incredibly smart scientists. The book is fascinating in its own right, but I was especially interested by how close cosmology gets to theology. In trying to peer into the origins of the universe, these brilliant scientists can’t help from getting a little philosophical, even theological.

One thing that stood out to me was that atheistic scientists have a very stubborn piece of thestic evidence to deal with. That piece of evidence is called the universe.

The toughest and most perplexing question they have to answer is: why is there something rather than nothing? Their most sophisticated scientific answers to this conundrum (string theory and multiverse, for example) suggest an even more complex order that preexisted or coexists with this one, thus only pushing back the question even further.

Atheistic cosmologists might accuse Christians of taking the easy way out by simply attributing to God the existence of the universe. But these scientists’ theories for how the universe began end up involving something that looks quite like God anyway—an order of reality that preexisted this one, possesses different dimensions, and is therefore unobservable, and that is significantly more complex.

The whole point of a scientific theory is to account for all the facts. When more facts are discovered, the theory must change to account for them. We cannot accept a scientific theory that tries to account for all the facts but denies the fact of facts.

A Clash of Worldviews

Does it really matter what we believe about the origin and destiny of humans?

Yes! Whether or not we consciously think about it, our beliefs about who we are, where we came from, and where we are going impact every decision we make. Compare the atheist’s view of the world with the Christian’s view of the world (this comparison can be found in Keith Yandell’s essay, “Theology, Philosophy, and Evil,” For Faith and Clarity, 219).

Human Origins

Atheist

That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual behond the grave, that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be built.

–Bertrand Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship,” in Selected Papers of Bertrand Russell (New York: Modern Library, 1927), 3.

Christian

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” . . . And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.

–Genesis 1:26-28, 31

Human Destiny

Atheist

Brief and powerless is Man’s life; on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls its relentless way; for Man, condemned today to lose his dearest, tomorrow himself to pass through the gate of darkness, it remains only to cherish, ere yet the blow falls, the lofty thoughts that ennoble his little day; disdaining the coward terrors of the slave of Fate, to worship the shrine that his own hands have built; undismayed by the empire of chance, to preserve a mind free from the wanton tyranny that rules his outward life; proudly defiant of the irresistible forces that tolerate, for a moment, his knowledge and his condemnation, to sustain alone, a weary but unyielding Atlas, the world that his own ideals have fashioned despite the trampling march of unconscious power.”

–Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship,” 14-15

Christian

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I lam making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

 

The Centrality of Authorial Intent in Expository Preaching

P52Because of my preparation for some classwork and upcoming preaching responsibilities, I’ve been thinking a lot about expository preaching, particularly the importance of authorial intent. The priority of authorial intent is something every preacher must come to grips with, particularly because of the strong temptation to skew a passage to make it fit the message.

Ignoring authorial intent in interpreting Scripture is not only a temptation for busy pastors; it is also a deliberate philosophical decision made by many modern scholars. Impatient with the irrelevant findings of exegesis, and swayed by a postmodern epistemology,[3] these scholars have decided that it makes little difference what the author actually meant, so long as the reader can derive from it personal significance. When it comes to the task of preaching, the impact of these divergent hermeneutical approaches is enormous.[4] From the perspective of an existential hermeneutic, expository preaching (which seeks to make plain the meaning of a text) is an exercise in irrelevance, if not pure presumption. If, however, Scripture is seen ultimately as the product of a single Author who spoke through a variety of human authors, preaching that honors authorial intent is seen, not as irrelevant or presumptuous, but as the only kind of preaching that matters at all. Thus a commitment to a hermeneutic that keeps authorial intent central is necessary for expository preaching.

A preacher’s commitment to authorial intent drives three main aspects of expository preaching, two of which I discuss here, and the third which I plan to discuss in a follow-up post. These two aspects are the content of expository preaching and the application of expository preaching.

First, this commitment to authorial intent drives the content of expository preaching. Operating from this conviction, Haddon Robinson insists that “first and above all, the thought of the biblical writer determines the substance of an expository sermon.”[5] Bryan Chapell clarifies the negative implications of the expositor’s task: “When preachers approach the Bible as God’s very Word, questions about what we have a right to say vanish. . . . We have no biblical authority to say anything else.”[6] This commitment to authorial intent is the reason that texts on expository preaching stress the importance of painstakingly observing exactly what the text says.[7] Clearly, the meaning of the text as the author meant it forms the essence of expository sermon’s content.

Second, a hermeneutic that keeps authorial intent central requires the application of expository preaching. While the content of the expository sermon is the text’s meaning, the purpose of the expository sermon is the text’s application—bringing the text to bear on the contemporary audience.[8] Application is not merely one component of the whole expository sermon. Rather, it is the end which every component serves to leverage.[9] Neither does the importance given to application conflict with a hermeneutic that honors authorial intent, as if the preacher is only allowed to report the facts of the text and say no more. On the contrary, since such a hermeneutic includes both the divine and human elements of authorship, contemporary application is absolutely necessary for expository preaching.[10] Hershael W. York and Bert Decker reflect this conviction when they explain that “the preacher will experience the greatest anointing of the Holy Spirit and the greatest effectiveness possible when he places himself squarely within the confines of the biblical author’s content.”[11] When the expositor appropriately applies to his hearers the truth of a text, he demonstrates sensitivity not only to the intent of that text’s human author, but also to the intent of the Holy Spirit as the author of every biblical text.[12]

The third aspect of expository preaching driven by a commitment to authorial intent is the benefit to the congregation, which I plan to discuss in the next post.


[1] Walter A Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.; Carlisle, Cumbria, U.K.: Baker Academic; Paternoster Press, 2001), 614.

[2] Walter C Kaiser, Toward an Exegetical Theology: Biblical Exegesis for Preaching and Teaching (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1998), 149-50.

[3] Millard J Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1998), 54.

[4] Scott A. Blue Reynolds, “The Hermeneutic of E. D. Hirsch, Jr. and Its Impact on Expository Preaching: Friend or Foe?” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (June 2001): 269.

[5] Haddon W Robinson, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2001), 21-22, emphasis mine.

[6] Bryan Chapell, Christ-centered Preaching Redeeming the Expository Sermon (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2005), 32.

[7] John MacArthur, Rediscovering Expository Preaching (Dallas: Word Pub., 1992), 211-15.

[8] Robinson, 51.

[9] Chapell, 211.

[10] Hershael W. York and Scott A. Blue, “Is Application Necessary in Expository Preaching?” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology (Summer 1999): 80.

[11] Hershael W. York and Decker, Preaching with Bold Assurance: A Solid and Enduring Approach to Engaging Exposition (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2003), 29.

[12] Robinson, 21. Robinson’s definition of expository preaching rightly emphasizes the role of the Holy Spirit, stating that “the Holy Spirit first applies [the biblical concept] to the personality and experience of the preacher, then through the preacher, applies [it] to the hearers.”

The Kalam Cosmological Argument

Unlike some philosophical literature I have been slogging through lately, William Lane Craig’s writing style is particularly interesting and compelling. I just finished reading his essay on the kalam theological argument. The argument proceeds as follows:

(1) Whatever begins to exist has a cause of its existence.

(2) The universe began to exist.

(3) Therefore, the universe has a cause of its existence.

To put it differently, something must have caused the universe, since the universe had a beginning, and everything that has a beginning was caused by something. Craig spends most of his essay arguing for the truth of statement (2), invoking arguments from logic and science. Logically, the universe must have a beginning because, if there were an infinite number of moments prior to the present moment, we would never have arrived at this present moment. Scientifically, the fact that our universe is constantly expanding points to a time at which the entire universe was a point of “infinite density,” which essentially means nothingness. The point at which this expansion started (the Big Bang, or whatever) marks the beginning of the universe, which had to be in the finite past. A further scientific confirmation of the universe’s past finitude is the second law of thermodynamics. Scientists know that the steady movement toward thermodynamic equilibrium in the universe will eventually result in “heat death.” If the universe existed in the infinite past, why have we not already reached heat death? Clearly, the universe is a ticking timer. We can’t predict exactly when it will ring it out, but this we know: there was a point at which it was wound up.

I predict that any objection to Craig’s cosmological argument must be made on epistemic grounds. In other words, a person would have to object to his premises by saying something like, “Well, statement (1) isn’t metaphysically intuitive to me. I can conceive of something that exists, yet has no cause of its existence.” For such an objection to have any force, however, it seems that it would have to be instantiated. The burden would be on such a person to produce a genuine example of something that began, but had no cause.

Craig’s arguments for the fact of the universe’s beginning are very compelling. But Craig had more to prove than just statement (2). He was attempting to prove the rationality of belief in God’s existence. I think Craig’s essay could be even more powerful were he to spend more time demonstrating the truth of statement (1), as well as the move from eternal cause to personal agent. Perhaps he gives these ideas more attention in his other writings. Nevertheless, I’m thankful for William Lane Craig and men like him who compellingly articulate scientific and logical arguments for God’s existence. Thanks to their giftedness and scrupulous scholarship, what is undeniable to my inner consciousness–God’s existence–is further confirmed both logically and even empirically.

God Everlasting or God Eternal

Any rock climber knows the frightening sensation of reaching for a rock that appears to be a suitable hand-hold, only to discover that it is a loose stone. At the same time, the rock climber is grateful that he discovered that it is a loose stone before he put his full weight on it.

I find the same frightening sensation when reading philosophy. A writer demonstrates to me that one of my assumptions or beliefs is actually unfounded–as dangerous as a loose rock for a rock climber, and I must find a surer truth, and perhaps even a different path up the mountain.

This is what Nicholas Wolterstorff did to me yesterday when I was reading his essay “God Everlasting.” In this essay, Wolterstorff lays bare the profoundly Hellenistic assumptions of Christian theology that do not mesh with Biblical data. Plato reasoned that the highest form of reality is that which is not bound by the strictures of temporality. Christian theologians naturally take this highest form of reality to be God, and conclude that God exists outside time. As Boethius states in his Consolation of Philosophy, “God sees all things in His eternal present.”

Wolterstorff asks the penetrating question, “How can we square God’s non-temporality with the way that the authors of Scripture portray God–as a being who very much acts and responds within time?” He strongly concludes that “God as presented by the biblical writers is fundamentally noneternal. He is fundamentally in time.” I believe that Wolterstorff has an important point, one which we would do well to take seriously. The reasons why I am attracted to Wolterstorff’s ideas are because 1) he draws his evidence from biblical data, 2) he adequately demonstrates that Christian theology has been profoundly affected by non-biblical Greek thought, 3) his conclusion does not seem to injure God’s transcendence or glory.

Having stated why I find this idea attractive, I have not yet committed to putting my full weight on that rock, to circle back to my opening metaphor. Perhaps there is a way to retain God’s essential non-temporality, while seeing his temporality as the way in which he is portrayed so as to make sense to our time-bound minds. I have not fully explored this concept, but it seems that I cannot not think without reference to the progression of events.

Either way, considering these things leaves me in awe of God’s majesty. He truly is the Object of greatest delight.

The Classic Ontological Argument

The classic ontological argument, as formulated by Saint Anselm in the early 11th century, comes in the form of a worshipful prayer. Anselm makes it clear from the outset that his belief in God’s existence is already established. The argument serves to expand and clarify that belief. Within this framework, it is best not to understand the ontological argument as an effective apologetic tool.

The wording of this argument can be rather difficult. I will try to explain this argument in a way that is readily understandable. Let’s begin with the assumption that God, if he exists, must be a being so great that no one could possibly imagine any being greater. Let’s say you are sitting in a chair one day, thinking about this being who is so great, you can’t think of anything greater. As you think about such a being, suddenly the thought pops into your mind, and you exclaim, “Hey, I can think of a being greater than the one I’m thinking of now! The one I’m thinking of now only exists in my mind. It would be even greater for such a being to actually exist!”

Now you have thought about two beings in your mind: one that exists and one that does not exist. Obviously the one that exists is greater than the one that does not exist. Which one, then, is God? Well, the one that does exist. Therefore, God exists.

People objected to this argument nearly as soon as it was known (famously, Gaunilo, a contemporary of Anselm). Hopefully, I’ll discuss some of these objections later. But for now I would like to probe a sentence with which Anselm closed in his discussion of how some people claim still that there is no God. Anselm wrote, “What I once believed through your [God’s] grace, I now understand through your illumination, so that even if I did not want to believe that you exist, I could not fail to understand that you exist.”

Here Anselm makes an important statement about what he believes to be a priori knowledge, specifically, that God exists. The human mind, according to Anselm, has innate understanding of God’s existence. Belief in that existence is not a matter of understanding, but of will.