Originally Posted by czgibson
I take your point, but this still leaves difficulties. Many evils are never overcome, and many are excessive. I find the idea that a perfectly good god would permit such events as the rape of a child, or the Holocaust, to occur contradictory in the extreme.
The answer to all instances of violence and evil in the world reduces to the same explanation, no matter how great the evil. Even if the evils were half as great as they are, wouldn't we still find them just as excessive? Dr. Jeffrey Lang comments:
Acts of mass genocide or collective human violence, like the Holocaust or the slaughter of the native Americans or the brutal enslavement of Africans in America, provide, of course, the most glaring stumbling blocks to faith, but when I thought about the issue of human suffering more deeply, I realized that for me the accumulation of even individual instances of human brutality and misery throughout time and place was equally provocative. By this I mean, why would God allow for the millions of cases of human calamity that occur each year scattered around the globe? Why would he make us so utterly vulnerable and allow for such massive cumulative violence and suffering. Even if God had made it possible for only one half or one fourth of the violence that has occurred throughout time, would I have been any less offended?
Would I not have found, from my relative vantage point, the maximum level of violence and tragedy existing in the world to be too much, whatever that upper limit is? Would I not have been perplexed by whatever level of violence God tolerated and would I not have found whatever extremes of human cruelty he allowed too extreme? What I am trying to convey here, and I truly don’t mean to downplay any of the cruelest cases of man’s inhumanity that have occurred, is that for me the problem reduced to the general existence of human violence and suffering in this world. Why is it necessary? Why is it an essential—and I assumed if there were a singular, all-powerful, all wise, creator, then it would have to be so—ingredient of our lives on earth?
If you think about it, all these instances of violence result when a human being, or a group of human beings, are entrusted with free-will and the responsibility that goes along with it, yet they fail to fulfill that responsibility and misuse the powers entrusted to them. We are not talking about instances where God sends an army of demons to fight humanity; these are all cases where simple human beings like you and I had the opportunity and the responsibility to act justly, yet they failed. Their failure is visible in the destruction that they wreaked on others.
Now suppose for a moment, that God gave human beings the choice to act freely, but He controlled their actions so that no evil could be done to others. In such an instance, we would no longer be able to appreciate the significance of good or evil.
Because of the holocaust, nations realized the extent of the dammage that evil people could do if they were left unchecked. Consequently, nations bonded together and formed international alliances for peace, not just because God wanted them to, but because they truly understood
why it was necessary to do so.
If we understand that the potential of humanity is to achieve a level of virtue that is beyond even that of angels, then we can better understand the existence of evil. If we consider all those human beings in past history who sacrificed everything they owned and gave up their lives to bring peace and justice into the lives of others, we would all agree that such acts were truly noble and virtuous. Yet, in order for people to make noble sacrifice, their must be an evil force to strive against.
That evil force must be truly evil. In other words, it must have characteristics or display actions that are so abhorrent to humanity such as to galvanize righteous people into action. If this 'evil force' did nothing more than petty crimes, then why would people strive against them? The force would have to be truly evil.
The rape of a child is another example of a horrific crime, but it is no different from the other terrible calamities that befall people except that in this case there is an individual who is to be blamed. The crime results from the evil of someone else and the idea of such a crime taking place should be a sufficient threat for society to reform itself and promote morality. As an aside, I find it interesting that you support the legalization of drugs and alcohol as an individual's choice, yet these are often the major factors which lead to crime. For example, see the statistics on alcohol and rape.
If we think of all the horrific crimes that have and can take place, we can imagine all of these as a threat to society. i.e. "If you don't act righteously and promote morality and order, this is what can happen; destruction will befall innocent people". This is a threat against people. But if this was just an empty threat and couldn't happen, then it would have no meaning. It would be useless. People would see no reason to act righteously if there was no negative consequence for not doing so.
What about people who always act in a good way? I can assure you I wasn't thinking of angels in my initial comment.
What is more virtuous - to be good only to someone who is extremely kind and loving towards you or to be good to even someone who abuses you? The latter is far more difficult and more virtuous, and I'm sure you would agree.
If people only acted good, then there would be no struggle, and consequently no striving closer to God. How could we experience God's attribute of forgiving if there was no one to forgive?
I take your point for the word 'better' - you're quite right - but I'm not sure I agree when it comes to the others. We've decided on examples of what we mean by 'evil', and 'good' can be understood as a corollary to that, but words like 'justice' and 'nobility' seem to me to be much more uncertain in their meaning.
Where do you find ambiguity in these words? By justice I mean the opposite of injustice and oppression, and by nobility I mean the elevated status of the one who strives against evil and sacrifices much in order to bring about good.
It looks very much like you're saying that in the long run, evil will triumph, sine it will never be fully eradicated. I don't understand why a perfectly good god would design the universe like this.
I don't believe that evil will triumph but I'm saying that the conflict between good and evil will continue till the day of judgement. And that is, of course, the best possible design.
If evil is, in a sense, permitted by god, then why be good? If all things that come from god are good (as I think Muslims believe - correct me if I'm wrong), then that includes evil - so evil is good. These are two aspects of the moral confusion that I think follows from what you say.
Just because evil is permitted by God, it does not mean that it is good. Evil is permitted by God, not because He sees nothing wrong with it, but in order that His servants may be tested in order to display greater good and draw closer to Him.
By analogy, we often here people who love eachother ask, "Would you risk your life to save me?" And although someone could easily respond "yes", if they actually had the opportunity to demonstrate that, it would seperate those who are truthful from those who aren't.
I understand this analogy - the idea of the test once again. It's an idea I still have difficulty getting to grips with, so I'd like to explore it a little further. Why, in your belief, does god want to test his creation?
When we are faced with such tests and trials, it requires striving and struggle in order to prevail. It is this struggling which brings us closer to God.
But, from a religious point of view, surely it is impossible
for god to be malevolent? How does this tie in with what you say here?
I'm simply referring to all the theoretical possibilites. Theoretically, a malevolent god could be the source of evil (which was actually the reason why some religious communities arose with two gods, like the Zoroastrians). But while this is a theoretical possibility, it is not necessarily the case, and once we establish that, the entire 'problem' of evil collapses, because the existence of evil does not necessitate either an evil God or no God as atheists claim.
Lastly, I found the following info from Dr. Lang's book relevant, so I'll just add it here at the end:
In the Qur’an, the story of Adam begins with the announcement that God is about to place a vicegerent (khaleefah) on earth, one who will represent Him and act on His behalf (2:30). It is presented as a momentous delegation, as a commission announced to the angels. It is an honorable election for which each of us is created. When I first read this passage I was as dumbfounded as the angels were, for how could man, this most rebellious and destructive creature, represent God on earth? I, like the angels, saw only one side of humanity, the inclination to do evil, to “spread corruption and shed much blood.” Of course many men and women do not represent God very well. But our ability to do and grow in evil comes with the reciprocal ability to do and grow in goodness, and on the whole it seems that there must be more good than evil in the world, otherwise our race would have destroyed itself long ago. There have also always been persons who are great exemplars of goodness, who humbly dedicate themselves to helping others for love of God. This is the vicegerency to which the Qur’an calls us. More than just communicating a message or implementing a command, it means becoming an agent of God on earth through which others experience His attributes. Such individuals become filters, as it were, of the divine light, as God’s goodness reaches others through them. The more they grow in goodness, through their dedication, self-sacrifice, and learning, the greater becomes their ability to receive, experience, and represent God’s most beautiful names, and their experience of God’s presence in this life is only a small foreshadowing of what awaits them in the next.
When I had reached the age of twenty-eight, I thought I had constructed an impregnable fortress of arguments against the existence of God, but as I made my way through the Qur’an, I saw them fall one by one, brick by brick. By the time I had finished the Scripture, I was left with one main objection, and this was that I could not perceive a nexus between doing good and growing closer to God. When I finally discovered this essential link through contemplation of the divine names, its simplicity was such that I was amazed that I could not have formulated it on my own. Yet, reading the Qur’an helped me to illuminate, organize, prioritize, and analyze my thoughts. The Qur’an had done what it promised it would do; it guided me through my questions --provided I was willing to face the answers-- but I was no longer certain what the experience meant, for the Scripture and I had very different outlooks on what we sought to achieve. I was trying to win an argument, but it was trying to win a soul as it continually warned of the terrible consequences of rejecting God’s signs.
I had felt throughout most of my encounter with the Qur’an that I had been the aggressor, boldly making my case against the Scripture. I always felt that I had at least one ace in the hole. Now I felt like I was on the defensive. Perhaps I had been all along, and, like George Custer, I had been lured into facing overwhelming odds. The reality of my predicament came to me in that single moment of epiphany when I recalled the divine names. It was then that I sensed that the tide was against me. Yet even though I was now in retreat, I was not about to surrender. I needed to gather my thoughts, review my position, and reconsider some questions.
The Qur’an seemed to me to have a comprehensive vision of life. One of the most striking points it makes is that life on earth is not a punishment for anyone’s sin or sinfulness, but a developmental stage in our creation. Human beings did not fall from grace; they may have at one time in the past been more primitive and had not yet attained the intellectual maturity to differentiate and choose between right and wrong, but the Qur’an does not present this as a preferred state. What distinguishes human beings from other creatures is their intellect, making them preeminent learners, and it is this characteristic that makes them potentially superior to other created beings. The Qur’an informs us from the outset in the story of Adam that humans will be capable of representing God on earth. First they needed to develop the ability to discern good and evil—they needed to become moral agents—and it was not until men and women acquired the ability to choose between the two, that they were ready to take on the responsibility of vicegerency.
To serve as God’s representative on earth is a demanding task. It requires humility, self-sacrifice, and perseverance. It means striving to become an instrument of God through which He communicates His goodness to others. It requires growing in the virtues that have their origin and perfection in Him, and sharing of all the good that we possess with all those we can. The Qur’an assures that this will not be easy—it describes it as an uphill climb—but it promises that the rewards will be great. Not only will the righteous attain inner peace and well-being, they will also grow in their capacity to experience God’s infinite love. For the more we come to experience and hence to know of the beauty of God, the greater becomes our ability to relate to Him, both in this life and the next.
This conception of the purpose of life has definite rational appeal, but does it explain our earthly existence? Could not we have been created good, programmed to be merciful, compassionate, kind, just, and truthful without having to live through the pains and hardships of worldly struggle?
Time is not the issue here. I am not questioning the duration of this stage of our creation, because, as the Qur’an informs us, time is illusory and God transcends the space –time environment we live in. For God, all time is one—a single eternal instant outside of time—so whether our creation occurs over several centuries or in a split second is irrelevant, since for God it is but a single command: “Be! And then it is.”74 Although I had no argument against time, I questioned the necessity of certain other aspects of creation, especially human suffering.
One of the most interesting ideas the Qur’an presents is that God creates continuously and in stages. Objects do not just appear in final form out of nothing; they go through a continuous course of development.
It is He who begins the process of creation, and repeats it (10:4; 27:64).
Then certainly We created man of an extract of clay, then We placed him as a small quantity in a safe place firmly established, then We made the small quantity into a tiny thing that clings, then We made the tiny thing that clings into a chewed lump of flesh, then We fashioned the chewed flesh into bones and clothed the bones with intact flesh, then We caused it to grow into another creation. So blessed be God, the best of creators! Then after that you certainly die. Then on the Day of Resurrection you will surely be raised up (23:12-16).
Do they not see how God originates creation then repeats it; truly that is easy for God. Say: “Travel through the earth and see how God did originate creation; so will God produce another creation, for God has power over all things” (29:19-20).
He created you from one soul and then made from it its mate, and He provides for you of cattle eight kinds. He created you in the wombs of your mothers, creation after creation, in threefold darkness. Such is God, your Lord. His is the sovereignty. There is no God but He. How then are you turned away? (39:6).
Does man think that he will be left aimless? Was he not a small quantity (of sperm) emitted? Then he was a tiny thing that clings (in the womb), and then He created (him), and then made him perfect (75:36-38).
He is God, the Creator, the Evolver, the Fashioner. To Him belong the most beautiful names. Whatever is in the heavens and on earth glorifies Him and He is exalted in Might, The Wise (59:23-24).
Surely he thought that he would never return. But surely his Lord is ever Seer of him. But no, I call to witness the sunset redness, and the night and that which it drives on, and the moon when it grows full, you will certainly travel stage after stage. But what is the matter with them that they believe not? (84:14-20).
Over and above bringing entities into existence, God’s creating includes His guiding and nurturing their evolution. Thus a creature becomes continuously; it is an ever-changing entity. The entire phenomenal world is subject to flux and change. Only God is absolute.
In its many references to the workings of nature, the Qur’an demonstrates how God provides every living thing with an environment and constitution well suited to its existence and growth. A tree is provided with the soil, the sun, the rain, the air, the genetic code, and all else that it needs to live and grow. The same can be said of every other creature, including man. However, the Qur’an reminds us that our primary growth in this life is not physical but spiritual; we are here to grow in the virtues that reflect God’s attributes of perfection. The question must then become: Are we provided with an environment and constitution well suited to our spiritual growth, and if so, would it be as well suited if suffering were removed from it?
The key to getting at a truth is to find the right questions, ones that isolate key issues. When we start our investigations our questions are usually general and contain many sub-questions within them, but if successful, we are then able to dissect our search into a number of more or less irreducible questions and then answer them one by one. This is what the Qur’an helped me to do. It did not always provide me with explicit answers, but it guided me through the questioning process.
When I reached the above question, I had no need to search hard for an answer. It is quite obvious that we are provided with an environment and constitution well suited to our growth in virtue. There are a multitude of examples about us and throughout history of people who attained to high levels of goodness. There are even many dramatic cases of criminals who eventually turned their lives around and became exemplars of virtue. In my own life I had countless opportunities to choose between right and wrong from which I learned of the ruinous effects of evil as well as the positive benefits of good. I had come to know through observation and experience that both wrong and right behavior can become habitual and pervade one’s personality.
It was also now clear to me that suffering is essential to our development of virtue. The same could be said of human intellect and volition. Suffering, intelligence, and choice, each of which the Qur’an repeatedly emphasizes, all have fundamental roles in our spiritual evolution. To learn and grow in compassion, for example, is inconceivable without the presence of suffering. It also requires choice --the ability to reach out to someone in need or to ignore him. Intellect is necessary so that one can estimate how much of oneself will be invested in showing compassion to the sufferer. Similarly, to be truthful involves the choice not to lie and is heightened when honesty may lead to personal loss and suffering, which can be predicted through the use of one’s reason. The famous wedding vow that asks a couple to remain committed to each other in sickness and in health, for richer and for poorer, until death when they part, acknowledges the roles of choice, suffering, and reason in love. For the vow requires the couple to choose to stay by each other, regardless of the suffering they may face, knowing full well what that may entail. To forgive is a choice to excuse another’s wrong doing even though we understand the evil of what they have done. The same could be said of all the virtues; intelligence, volition, and suffering are vital to our experience of them.
Although virtues are abstractions and difficult to analyze, it is nearly impossible to imagine them programmed, that they could exist in a creature at very high levels without its possessing choice, intelligence, and some knowledge of suffering. An act of virtue is more than an action; it has intent, understanding, and a benefactor conjoined to it. A computer could be programmed to be always correct, but we would not describe it as either truthful or wise. A stethoscope aids the sick, but we do not consider it merciful. The Qur’an depicts angels as not possessing free will, but men and women are capable of rising above them.
What makes an act virtuous is the will to do it and an appreciation of the need it addresses. If I toss a banana peel in the road, and several hours later a thief on his way to rob an elderly person trips on it and is prevented from committing a crime, my throwing the peel in the street is not an act of justice or compassion on my part. My prevention of the crime is totally inadvertent; it lacks both will and apprehension. If I mail five dollars anonymously to a known billionaire, it is hardly an act of charity, for it is directed toward one who is not in financial need. This is not to say that will, intellect, and perceived vulnerability are the only components of a virtuous deed—it is more complex and profound than this—but these three elements must be present to some degree before virtue can be realized.
My high school football coach hung a placard in the locker room that read, “No pain, no gain,” meaning that to improve athletically, we had to be willing to suffer. My teachers used to say that learning demands hard work and perseverance. A mathematics professor once told me that the difficult problems were the ones from which we learn the most. I never doubted any of these truisms, as they seemed both evident and natural. The Qur’an indicates that the same natural law applies to our spiritual development. Human beings are creatures of superior intellect that grow through learning, but learning also necessitates being tested, a point the Qur’an makes repeatedly. Moral and spiritual growth involves the discipline of one’s will, the use and development of one’s mind and the experience of adversity.
The exercise of moral choice also necessitates a cognizance of the rightness and wrongfulness of our options, which explains our exposure to angelic and satanic inspiration. These act on us simultaneously to pinpoint and heighten the morality of many of our decisions, and together provide a stimulus and catalysts for spiritual development. Revelation has a complementary role as it describes righteous and evil behavior and lights the way to spiritual growth.
I was starting to see how all of the elements introduced by the Qur’an in the story of Adam (2:30-39) were in accord with what it has to say about the purpose of life. I was also quickly running out of arguments against the existence of God. That in itself does not prove anything, but I used to think I had good reason not to believe.