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Saturday, June 03, 2006

Is God Responsible for Creating Evil?

In two independent discussions with atheists Eric and Ryan, they each present what they feel are detrimental arguments against God with the presence of evil in the world. (It should be noted that they address moral evil, which is distinct from natural evil, e.g. earthquakes). I attempt to offer a response which shows that the light of criticism is really not shining quite as brightly as they might have thought.

Eric summarizes his position like this: "If nothing, ever, was without God, then God created evil as well as good. It is only logical. And God is ultimately responsible. This God is the creator and must be accountable. The greatest authority holds the greatest responsibility." Ryan follows the same line of thinking, adding further, "People, for some reason, choose not to believe that God is the creator of evil, finding every excuse in the book to let God off the hook. God is credited with creating everything in creation—except evil."

On the surface this might seem a decent enough argument but it is plagued with a crippling difficulty, and it is found at the point where they each essentially argue that, if God is the sovereign Creator of all things, "then God created evil as well as good." There is, of course, no disagreement between us over the premise that God is the sovereign Creator of all things—as a Christian, I'm going to enthusiastically endorse this premise. However, their argument does ultimately fail, and this failure is due to the fact that, although God is the Creator of all things, good and evil are not themselves 'things' capable of being created. Let's explore why.

'Good' and 'evil' are strictly moral terms. When we say that this thing is good or that thing is evil, we are making a moral pronouncement. And if God is our ultimate ground of moral order—and he is—then these terms become relational descriptions. What this means is, a thing is determined to be 'good' by the degree of its relationship to God's righteous nature, notably expressed prescriptively through his law, and 'evil' becomes a privative term expressing any want of conformity with such (inasmuch as cold is a privative description of heat).

Evil (or sin) is not some 'thing' that can be created; it describes a relationship between things but is not itself a thing, it's not any sort of entity itself. It is strictly a term which describes a privative relationship (i.e. consisting in the absence of something), whether it's a privation from an original state of righteousness in communion with God (a condition of being which we call "original sin") or a privation from God's holy law (acts of commission or omission which we call "actual sin"). Both original sin and actual sin discuss what is ultimately a relational privation of some form; in the scope of Christian theology, sin/evil is described in only these two forms. Therefore, to insist in the face of all this that sin/evil is itself a thing capable of being created is to construct a strawman argument—which is a form of faulty reasoning that regretfully fails the test of relevancy.

That these terms are relational descriptions is never escaped, for even if one's ground of moral order is something other than God, goodness or evilness is still determined by the degree of its relationship to that foundation. That is, no matter what one's worldview is, good and evil are not in themselves things capable of being created. Again, they describe a relationship between things but are not themselves things.

As far as God being held accountable, he isn't. If accountable means "liable to account for one's actions"—and it does—then God is not held accountable, for since he alone is the embodiment of Holiness, the supreme Law-giver and the sovereign Judge, there is no one to whom he must give an account. There is, by definition, no one above God to whom he is subject. We are God's creation—indeed, the whole of the universe is—so it is we who are subject to him. I suppose an atheist might object and insist that it is actually man who created God, but that would be a pretty silly objection: you see, a fictional character is even less liable to account for his actions, so the atheist would hardly make his case this way. That is the rich irony: whether by Christian or atheist philosophy, in either worldview there is none to whom God is liable to account for his actions.

I will submit, with ease, that God is the First Cause of evil's existence, in virtue of creating beings capable of relational privation through their natural free agency. This does not make God the author of evil, however. The distinct difference is that he is the author of beings who are capable of evil, but it is they who are the authors of evil in virtue of creating a breach between themselves and God Most Holy.

This put Ryan into quite a state: "First you submit with ease that God is the First Cause of evil's existance," he said, "then you point out that God cannot create evil. Then you say God is not accountable for anything that God does. Then you try to change and confuse the definition of evil into a non-existent relational term. You are talking in circles."

There is a lot to respond to, right there, so let's tackle it one at a time.

First of all, I submit easily enough that "God is the First Cause of evil's existence" only insofar as (1) all things are ultimately traced back to him as the sovereign First Cause, and (2) he created beings capable of relational privation (sin/evil), through endowing them with free agency. Given God's nature as eternal, sovereign, omniscient and so forth, he knew exactly what he was doing when he created those beings; ergo, he had a purpose in it. Sin/evil is a relational privation brought about by creatures whose actions create a breach between them and God and his law. Put as simply as possible, (1) God created man; (2) man fell; (3) this condition of being, and all actual transgressions which proceed from it, are both identified as sin (original and actual). In this way man is the author of sin, not God. God is the author of man. But since God already knew what would happen with this creation he was about to produce, he is the ultimate First Cause.

Secondly, I never pointed out "that God cannot create evil." I pointed out something completely different, which was that evil "is not some thing that can be created." This is a rather important distinction we must carefully note. You see, if we say that God cannot create a thing then we have said something about God, but if we say that evil cannot be created then we have said something about evil.

Third, it is unfortunate for Ryan's argument but Christianity has described sin/evil as a relational privation for millennia. That is, I've neither changed nor confused anything. Although it's possible that Ryan might be experiencing some confusion, the fact is I've presented a definition that is consistent with historical Christian theology. It is possible for me to cite thousands of years' worth of historical evidence to demonstrate this, but I'm not sure people would want to slog through that. Sin/evil has been described for thousands of years as "a privation from an original state of righteousness in communion with God (a condition of being which we call 'original sin') or a privation from God's holy law (acts of commission or omission which we call 'actual sin')."

Fourth, as the readers can see, I'm actually not talking in circles at all.