Questioning the Question
Some years ago I was speaking at the University of Nottingham, England, when a rather exasperated person in the audience made his attack upon God with this very question.
This questioner was felled by his own question. There cannot possibly be a God, he said, with all the evil and suffering that exists in the world!
I asked him if we could interact on this issue for just a few moments. He agreed.
When you say there is such a thing as evil, are you not assuming that there is such a thing as good? I asked.
Of course, he retorted.
But when you assume there is such a thing as good, are you not also assuming that there is such a thing as a moral law on the basis of which to distinguish between good and evil?
I suppose so, came the hesitant and much softer reply. This was an extremely important point to note as I made the argument. Most skeptics have never given this point a thought.
I therefore reminded this questioner, in his initial hesitancy, of the debate between the agnostic Bertrand Russell and the Christian philosopher Frederick Copleston. During the debate, Copleston asked Russell if he believed in good and bad. Russell admitted that he did, and Copleston responded by asking him how he differentiated between the two. Russell said that he differentiated between good and bad in the same way that he distinguished between colors. But you distinguish between colors by seeing, dont you? Copleston reminded Russell. How then, do you judge between good and bad? On the basis of feeling, what else? came Russells sharp reply. Somebody should have interrupted and told Russell that in some cultures they loved their neighbors while in other cultures they ate themboth on the basis of feeling. Did Mr. Russell have a personal preference? How in the name of reason can we possibly justify differentiating between good and bad on the basis of feeling? Whose feeling? Hitlers or Mother Teresas? In other words, there must be a moral law, a standard by which to determine good and bad. How else can one make the determination?
My questioner finally granted that assumption without hesitation.
So let me retrace for a moment how far he had come. I had asked him if he believed in good; he answered yes. But if he believed in good, he had to grant a moral law by which to distinguish between the two. He agreed. If, then, there is no moral law, I said, you must posit a moral lawgiver. But that is who you are trying to disprove and not prove. If there is no moral lawgiver, there is no moral law. If there is no moral law, there is no good. If there is no good, there is no evil.
I am not sure what your question is!
There was silence, and then he said, What, then, am I asking you?
The momentary humor was inescapable. He was visibly shaken that at the heart of his question lay an assumption that contradicted his conclusion. This is exactly what I meant when I said that the skeptic not only had to give an answer to his or her own question, but also had to justify the question. And even as the laughter subsided I reminded him that I accepted the question, but that his question justified my assumptions that his was a moral universe, not his. For if God is not the author of life, neither good nor bad is a meaningful term. This constantly eludes the skeptic who seems to think that by raising the question of evil a trap has been sprung to destroy theism when, in fact, the very raising of the question ensnares the skeptic who raised the question. A hidden assumption comes into the open. In other words, can we really raise a problem with moral implications if this is not a moral universe? The moment we use the word better, said C.S. Lewis, we assume a point of reference.
In the same vein, are we positing a legitimate category when we ask why this universe seems immoral if the universe itself has no moral basis or reason for being? The disorienting reality to those who raise the problem of evil is that the Christian can be consistent when he or she talks about the problem of evil and gives a coherent response to it, while the skeptic is hard-pressed to respond to the question of good in an amoral universe. In short, the problem of evil is not solved by doing away with the existence of God in the face of evil; the problem of evil and suffering must be resolved while keeping God in the picture. This was precisely Jobs conclusion. He never once lost sight of the fact that God was very much in control. But he could not reconcile this with his theological framework. He had always assumed that if you are good you will be blessed and if you are bad you will be cursed. Why, when he had been good, was he being cursed? His theology was tottering, not his belief in God.
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