I’m delighted to report that the third volume in the Christian Focus series, The Big Ten: Critical Questions Answered, is now available: Why Is There Evil In The World (And So Much Of It)? by series co-editor Greg Welty.
Having been closely involved in the editing process, I’m thrilled to see this book finally in print. The title reflects what may be the most common reason people give for rejecting the Christian faith and doubting the existence of God. It is indeed a critical question that demands an answer.
But isn’t it one Christians have been answering for centuries? Yes, of course. There are many fine works already available on this issue, both ancient and modern, and Welty acknowledges his debt to them. But I think this book fills a particular niche at this time. So many contemporary books on the problem of evil fall down in one or more of the following areas:
- They don’t pay close attention to what the Bible actually says about the nature and origin of evil and suffering in the world, and how they fit into God’s purposes for his creation.
- They end up taking positions that aren’t theologically orthodox (e.g., denying God’s omnipotence or omniscience).
- They engage in philosophical speculations that aren’t tethered to (and sometimes go against) the teachings of the Bible and the creeds of the Christian church.
- They lack clarity and precision at the very points where clarity and precision are needed. They serve up a big fat waffle-burger instead of a lean filet.
- They’re written by authors who lack theological and philosophical training, and who aren’t conversant with the vast scholarly literature on the problem of evil.
- They’re preaching to the choir: helpful for those who already believe, but failing to grapple with real concerns of skeptics.
- They’re either too long-winded to keep the reader’s attention or too cursory to satisfy the reader’s concerns.
- They’re too dry and technical for the layperson.
Why Is There Evil In The World? avoids all these pitfalls. Moreover, Greg is ideally qualified to have written this book. He wasn’t raised in a Christian home, so he knows what it’s like to be a skeptical unbeliever. He earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of California, an MDiv degree from Westminster Seminary California, and MPhil and DPhil degrees in philosophical theology from the University of Oxford, and he has taught seminary courses in Christian apologetics and philosophy of religion for 15 years. He also serves as one of the pastors at Grace Baptist Church in Wake Forest, so he doesn’t live up in the ivory tower!
Here’s the table of contents for the book, which should give you a good idea of how Welty tackles the issue:
- 1. What is the Problem of Evil?
- 2. The Greater-Good Theodicy: A Threefold Argument for Three Biblical Themes
- 3. Licensing the Greater-Good Theodicy: God’s Sovereignty over Evil
- 4. Limiting the Greater-Good Theodicy: The Inscrutability of God’s Purposes
- 5. Can Free Will or the Laws of Nature Solve the Problem of Evil?
- 6. Objections
- Appendix: Going Beyond Job, Joseph and Jesus for the Greater-Good Theodicy
The book has received endorsements from John Frame, Paul Helm, Scott Oliphint, David Robertson, and Mike Kruger, among others. So you don’t have to take it from me — it comes highly recommended! I really hope it will become the go-to book for ‘ordinary’ folk, both believers and skeptics, who are looking for a well-informed and well-argued response to this age-old question.
I see that my short article for Tabletalk magazine with the above title is now available online. The theme of the August 2017 issue was apologetics (“Giving an Answer”). The other articles from that issue are also available. Some good material here that could be used with a youth group or adult Sunday school, or shared with skeptical friends.
Is homosexuality normal?
Is polyamory normal?
Is transgenderism normal?
Is left-handedness normal?
Is belief in God normal?
Is death normal?
How one answers such questions will hang on how one understands the term normal. The word ‘normal’ is etymologically related to ‘norm’ and ‘normative’. A norm is a standard or rule by which something is evaluated, by which it is judged to be good or bad, right or wrong. Thus the primary meaning of normal has to do with conformance to some norm. The claim that X is normal presupposes that there are norms for X (or for whatever kind of thing X is) and X conforms to those norms. The antonym of normal is abnormal, which implies some fault or failure to meet a standard: a deviation from the norm.
Accordingly the term normal, used in this primary sense, has a normative aspect to it; it involves some kind of evaluation or value judgment. A simple example of this usage would be if someone were to say, “It’s not normal to have three ears.” Evidently the speaker is taking for granted that there’s a proper form for human anatomy and having three ears is a deviation from that norm. Put simply, human beings shouldn’t have three ears.
There is a secondary sense of the term, however, which needs to be distinguished from the first. Normal can also be used to mean usual or typical. Understood that way, it merely reflects a statistical generalization and therefore doesn’t imply any value judgment. For example, if I were to say, “A high of 70 degrees is normal for Charlotte in April,” I’m only making a claim about the average temperature (or something along those lines). There’s no right or wrong about that temperature. It’s just a statistical fact for that geographical location. My statement was merely descriptive rather than normative or evaluative.
My review of Nabeel Qureshi’s book No God but One: Allah or Jesus? appeared in the September 2017 issue Reformed Faith & Practice. The review was written some time before Nabeel’s death, and, by unfortunate coincidence, it was published online on the day of his funeral. For that reason, I didn’t draw attention to it at the time. Still, I think it makes some important observations about current trends in evangelical apologetics, so I’m now highlighting the review here.
In a previous post I drew a distinction between Objective Moral Values and Subjective Moral Values before giving a couple of illustrations of the importance of the distinction in Christian apologetics. In this follow-up I want to take matters few steps further by deploying the distinction in a version of the moral argument for God.
Consider these two propositions:
- There are some objective moral values.
- All values are subjective.
Each of these claims has arguments in its favor. (If you worry about the second, bear with me.) The reasons for affirming the first proposition are pretty straightforward. When we reflect on certain moral values that we all recognize, we can see that they hold independently of subjective human factors: personal feelings, opinions, desires, goals, and so forth. Take, for example, the moral value (currently the subject of much public discussion) that sexual harassment is wrong. Suppose that every human on the planet became infected with a disease that brought about a kind of moral insanity, with the consequence that everyone began to think that sexual harassment is good and everyone experienced moral sentiments along those lines. Would sexual harassment cease to be morally wrong? Would that moral value change overnight? (If that example doesn’t persuade you, I’m confident it wouldn’t take me long to identify a moral value that you do take to be objective in the sense I defined.)
A (very) abridged version of chapter 4 of Why Should I Believe Christianity? was recently published in the Christian Research Journal 40:5 (2017). It’s reproduced here with permission.
The topic of moral values comes up often in Christian apologetics. For example, Christians will argue that atheists cannot account for moral values or that the moral relativism associated with postmodernism is somehow self-defeating. I’ve noticed that in such discussions there’s often confusion (usually on the part of the non-Christian, but not always) about what we mean when we speak of ‘moral values’. Indeed, the term is often used equivocally, without recognizing that there are at least two meaningful ways in which we can talk about ‘moral values’. My purpose in this post is to explicitly distinguish these two senses and illustrate why it’s so important to keep the distinction clear in apologetic discussions.
There are different ways of drawing the distinction, but here I propose simply to distinguish between Subjective Moral Values (SMVs) and Objective Moral Values (OMVs). Subjective Moral Values are moral values subjectively held by an individual person. For example, we might say that Ben has different moral values than Lisa, if Ben holds to Christian sexual ethics while Lisa does not. Thus Ben values (in a moral sense) certain sexual behaviors differently than Lisa. He makes different moral value judgments about premarital sex, polyamory, etc. Clearly there’s a relativity to this kind of moral value: SMVs are relative to subjects (i.e., the subjects who engage in moral valuation) and thus can vary from person to person.
Now contrast SMVs with OMVs. Objective Moral Values are non-subjective moral norms, i.e., moral norms that are independent of subjective factors (beliefs, convictions, preferences, feelings, etc.). OMVs are moral norms that hold regardless of whether anyone knows, believes, or recognizes them as such. People may disagree about what the OMVs actually are, but the vast majority of people take for granted (at least in practice) that there are OMVs. I think most people would recognize parental care for infants as an objective moral norm. Parents ought to care for their infant children. Even if every human being became infected with a virus which caused a kind of moral insanity, such that everyone became convinced that parents ought to neglect and abuse their children, it would still be objectively the case that parents ought to care for their children. Such a virus would disrupt our SMVs, but OMVs would be unchanged. Indeed, OMVs couldn’t be affected by a mind-altering virus, precisely because OMVs are by nature non-subjective; they’re independent of subjective mental states.
So why is the distinction between SMVs and OMVs important in Christian apologetics? Let me give two illustrations.
Earlier this year I received the following thoughtful question from DG (as I will refer to him) about the argument for God from logic, which I quote in full:
In his essay [in Beyond the Control of God?] Professor Welty points out that in TCR [Theistic Conceptual Realism] “objectivity is secured by there being just one omniscient and necessarily existent person whose thoughts are uniquely identified as AOs.” But how do we get to this one from within the confines of a TCR approach alone? And in “The Lord of Non-Contradiction” you and Professor Welty state: “If the laws of logic are necessarily existent thoughts, they can only be the thoughts of a necessarily existent mind.” Here we go from plural thoughts to a singular mind as we do in the conclusion: “But if there are necessarily existent thoughts, there must be a necessarily existent mind; and if there is a necessarily existent mind, there must be a necessarily existent person.” But why not minds or persons? In note 31, you partially address my concern: “It might be objected that the necessary existence of certain thoughts entails only that, necessarily, some minds exist. Presumably the objector envisages a scenario in which every possible world contains one or more contingent minds, and those minds necessarily produce certain thoughts (among which are the laws of logic). Since those thoughts are produced in every possible world, they enjoy necessary existence.” You then show how this option fails and I agree. But what excludes many necessary beings each of which sustain some necessary truths? This is certainly ontologically extravagant and, as Adams notes in his book on Leibniz (p. 181), perhaps we can simply appeal to Ockham’s Razor to deduce one mind. But he adds, and I agree, that “a more rigorous argument would be desirable”.
At first I thought we could, as Quentin Smith suggests in his essay “The Conceptualist Argument for God’s Existence”, claim that the actual world is an infinite conjunction of all true propositions and that such a proposition, following conceptualism, could only be an accusative of one omniscient mind. But to claim there is such an infinite conjunctive proposition that needs a mind to account for it, given the view that propositions are mental effects, seems to assume there is an infinite mind who is thinking the infinite conjunction. Thus the addition of the actual world in the argument appears to beg the question.
I also considered Leibniz’s argument that without one divine mind we can’t account for how necessary truths “can be combined, any one to any one, because any two propositions can be connected to prove a new one”. But here we also seem to presuppose one mind sustaining the infinite conjunction of necessary truths that we discover in our finite combinations. Pruss, in his discussion of Leibniz’s approach, brings in a possible worlds option by pointing out that “the idea of a possible world will contain the ideas of all other possible worlds since at that world it will be true that they are possible” (Actuality, Possibility, and Worlds, 207). But wouldn’t we need one omniscient mind intending the world ensemble that is supposed to help us infer there is one omniscient mind thinking the ensemble?
I suppose we could appeal to a premise that states it is impossible for there to be a necessarily existing mind different from God. But this doesn’t seem persuasive to me at the moment.
As I understand it, the objection can be boiled down to this. Even granting that we’ve shown that necessary truths (such the laws of logic) presuppose a necessarily existent mind, it doesn’t follow that these truths are grounded in only one such mind. As DG puts it:
But what excludes many necessary beings each of which sustain some necessary truths?
An obvious first move would be to appeal to the principle of parsimony. We should not multiply entities beyond necessity. If necessary truths need to be grounded in a necessarily existent mind, then one such mind will suffice. There’s no explanatory need for further minds. But I also agree that “a more rigorous argument would be desirable,” so what follows is a preliminary sketch of one.
You might know that P&R have been publishing new editions of Cornelius Van Til’s major works. You might also know that those new editions have introductions and explanatory notes by WTS professors William Edgar and K. Scott Oliphint.
You might not know, however, that a couple of Edgar’s introductory essays are fully contained in the free samples of those books available on the Westminster Bookstore website:
Check them out!
I’ve been revisiting Richard Dawkins’ best-seller The God Delusion in preparation for an apologetics class I’ll be teaching next week. On opening it up, I fell upon the dedication “In Memoriam” to Douglas Adams, accompanied by the following quotation (presumably from Adams):
Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?
I suppose Dawkins considered this a pithy critique of theistic beliefs and in keeping with the thrust of his book. It does at least give us some insight into how Dawkins and his ilk think about theism, i.e., that it’s epistemically on a par with belief in fairies at the bottom of the garden. But it also reflects just how shallow that thinking is.
Of course it’s enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it, because the former doesn’t depend on the latter in any plausible way. Fairies have no explanatory role to play in one’s appreciation of a beautiful garden. But theists have long contended that God has a significant explanatory role to play in our understanding of the world and our place in it; indeed, a necessary explanatory role.
So a more fitting question would be:
Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there is a gardener who made it beautiful?
To which the answer isn’t obviously a self-congratulatory “Yes!” but rather (at a minimum) “Well, it depends on exactly what we see in the garden.” If the garden we see is an orderly, cultivated one then the answer is clearly, “No, it’s not enough; a rational person ought to believe both.”
In fact, an even more probing question would be:
Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without considering not only whether there is a gardener who made it beautiful, but also how it is that we came to possess reliable cognitive faculties which allow us to see gardens, to conceive of them as gardens, and to make meaningful objective aesthetic judgments about them?
But that doesn’t sound nearly so witty, which I guess goes to show that cleverness and profundity don’t always coincide.