Saturday, February 18, 2012

Book Review: If God, Why Evil? by Norman Geisler

In the introduction of his book, Norman Geisler states that, in 50 years of studying difficult questions, the one most asked is, “If God exists, then why is there so much evil in the world?” (9). He adds that, “from a purely apologetic perspective, more skepticism, agnosticism and atheism have sprung from an inability to answer various aspects of evil than any other single issue” (10).

These facts are the motivation behind his writing of If God, Why Evil?  The prolific author of more than 50 books begins his discussion by providing the three most basic views that people take on the subject:  “Pantheism which affirms God and denies evil, atheism which affirms evil and denies God, and theism which affirms both God and evil” (12).

Geisler then quickly moves into discussions of the nature of evil and its origins, noting that many people believe that God himself created it. However, as he points out, evil is not a created entity like a tree or a rock or a horse and while some define it as an absence of good in the way that darkness is the absence of light, Geisler rejects that definition. He states that evil is a lack in or corruption of something good, likening it to rot in a tree or rust in a car or a wound in a person’s arm.

Geisler then tackles the issues of God’s sovereignty and humankind’s free will, noting that it is the latter that makes evil possible. As he puts it, everything that God created was perfect, but it is possible for a perfect creature to choose that which is evil over that which is good. If human beings did not have that choice, they would be mere robots.

Yet, this does not mean that God is powerless when it comes to the existence of evil. Geisler suggests that “God’s role in the world is similar to that of the author of a novel” (24).  A story has a hero that the writer commends and a villain that he condemns, but he controls the course of it so that, in the end, his ultimate purpose is accomplished.

This is the case with God, Geisler says, explaining that it is precisely because God has a purpose for humanity that he does not simply eradicate evil from the world. He notes that we do not always know the good purpose for every evil, but that does not mean that it has none. As he puts it, “the unexplained is not necessarily unexplainable”(48).  In fact, he says, “an infinitely good mind knows a good purpose for everything” (47).  He quotes Joseph, who said to the brothers who had sold him into slavery, “that which you meant for evil, God meant for good” (Gen. 50:20) as well as Rom. 8:28 (All things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose). And he points to God’s promise that he will, in the end, dispose of evil forever.

In his last two chapters, Geisler tackles the topic of hell as an eternal evil and answers the oft-asked question about the fate of those who have never heard of Jesus. Ultimately, he concludes that the existence of evil in the world and the reality of hell are not logically incompatible with the existence of a good God.

Of additional note are the appendices in which he discusses animal death before Adam, evidence for the existence of God (specifically cosmological, teleological, biological and moral arguments), and provides a critique of the best-selling book, The Shack, by William Paul Young. The latter is particularly interesting as he presents 14 problems he has with the novel’s view of God and evil, remarking upon its rejection of traditional Christianity.

Geisler uses a great deal of Scripture in making all of his points because, as he notes, he is writing a book about the truth of evil and God’s Word is the source of that truth. He writes in a straightforward, clear and concise manner, putting the problems and his responses to them in succinct and logical forms. This book is aimed at the average Joe. A background in theology or philosophy is not required to appreciate it.

Will Geisler’s book have a major impact on how people view God and evil? The potential is certainly there as his arguments are sound and compelling. However, there is a major stumbling block, one that Geisler himself notes. The issue of evil is not simply an intellectual matter. It evokes strong, passionate and overwhelming emotional responses from both theist and atheist alike. Can a discussion of the topic based on logic and rationality comfort the couple whose teenage daughter was just raped and murdered or the man whose entire family was swept away and lost in a flood?

Evil hurts and we all want the hurt to stop. We can know that God has a purpose and a plan in it and that he is using it for a good reason, but we can still resent him for allowing it to happen. That’s just human nature. Let’s face it. We have this tendency to think God is good if He’s doing things the way we want. If He isn’t, then we question His goodness. Yet goodness is an incontrovertible part of His nature. It never changes no matter what’s going on in our lives.

Seventeenth-century French Mathematician-philosopher Blaise Pascal put it well when he said that the heart has reasons that reason knows nothing of. Therefore, while the head knowledge Geisler offers about God and evil may be correct, there are those who will continue to struggle reconciling the truth of God’s goodness and love with the reality of the pain in their lives.

Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer Mary Lou is a Canadian journalist currently working on a Master’s degree in Theological Studies from Tyndale University College and Seminary, Toronto, Ontario. She holds three other degrees, including one in history, and writes poetry and fiction as well as non-fiction.


Elliot said...

Good review! This sounds like a good book, even though I would imagine that I disagree with some of its points, that will definitely benefit many people; Norman Geisler seems like a very adept apologist indeed. I am disappointed, however, that The Shack is criticised; even though some of its concepts may be inaccurate, it at least seems to me that it is doing far, far more good in bringing people to God (which is our aim), especially than its negative aspects are doing harm. Regardless, high commendations to Norman Geisler for the book and Mary Lou for the book review. :)

Jamie said...

While we desire to "bring people to God", if we present an inaccurate or heretical view of who God is, that is dangerous. Remember, rat poison is 99.5% good food, and only .05% poison. We don't compromise on God's truth in an effort to win someone.

I am a fan of Dr Geisler's work as well.

NFQ said...

Geisler then tackles the issues of God’s sovereignty and humankind’s free will, noting that it is the latter that makes evil possible. As he puts it, everything that God created was perfect, but it is possible for a perfect creature to choose that which is evil over that which is good. If human beings did not have that choice, they would be mere robots.

I do not think free will is a coherent reason to put forward to explain the suffering in the world along with the existence of an omnipotent, benevolent god. I've explained so in substantial detail on my own site, so I'll just link to it rather than hit you with a wall of text.

There's another thing that seems bizarre about Geisler's point here, though. While it maybe technically be "possible for a perfect creature to choose that which is evil over that which is good," why would it ever want to? Either the definition of "perfect" here is very unlike the common one, or the definition of "good" is.

MaryLou said...

Thanks for the positive response, Confidant Christian. I appreciate it.

Re: The Shack, I'm with Jamie on this one. Its theology is hinky. Therefore, it's misleading and doesn't explain evil Biblically. I think a bad answer to the problem of evil is worse than no answer at all.

I also thought the book was badly written and I found Young's presentation of the Trinity trite and even offensive. However, the book's popularity tells me that there are a ton of people looking for an answer regarding evil and they'll eagerly read even a bad book on the topic in their search.

MaryLou said...

Thanks for the link to your blog on the issue of evil and free will, NFQ. I am not going to try to repeat Geisler's full argument here as it, too, is much too long to share here. You will have to get the book to read what he said in full. I will, however, share my own views on the matter.

God created humanity to be in a loving relationship with him. Real love cannot be coerced. It has to be given freely. That is why God gave Adam and Eve the choice to love him or not love him. To respond in love to God is to trust him and follow his will.

Satan made the pair doubt God's love for them. That quenched the love they might possibly feel for him and, in their distrust, they disobeyed him. That is how and why they chose evil over good and that is how and why sin entered the world.

As for the word "perfect", it is used in the Bible to mean "complete", "not lacking anything".

MaryLou said...

Just a few comments on what you wrote in your blog, NFQ:

You suggested that an omnipotent and benevolent God could have created a world free of murder. You also wrote that God caused people to want to commit murder and then commanded them not to do so.

God DID create a world free of sin. In Genesis, we see that, with each act of creation, God noted that it was good. God did NOT give people a desire to commit sin of any kind as you have suggested. As I explained in my previous post, he gave them the ability to love or not love him and choosing to not love him led them to make choices of their own free will that did not accord with God's will.

Also in response to your comments on natural disasters that people don't cause, bear in mind that when Adam and Eve fell, they and ALL of God's creation came under his curse. Therefore, such disasters are related to humanity's choices.

Lastly, you made the comment that God could stand before everybody and explain himself and convert non-believers and that you have been told that he won't do that because it violates people's free will. I think what they are saying is that he will not force anybody to accept him. God has revealed himself and continues to reveal himself through general revelation in nature and through specific revelation, as well as through his Word. He also gives Christians the privilege of speaking on his behalf. But that doesn't mean that everybody is going to follow him.

Look at the Pharisees, for example. They saw Jesus give sight to the blind, make the crippled walk and even raise people from the dead. Did they follow him? No, they had him killed. So God's revelation of himself is not necessarily going to lead to everybody's acceptance of him as Lord. God is still giving people the choice to love him or not.

And Satan is using evil to do just exactly what he did with Adam and Eve -- he is using it to make people doubt God's love for them. The cross of Christ provides the true measurement of that love. He defeated evil there, a defeat which we experience only partially at present. The Holy Spirit is present in the world, currently restraining evil, so things could be far worse than they are. At Christ's Second Coming, he will defeat evil once and for all. But notice that, according to Revelation, even when people see Christ and his power again, there are those who will still refuse to accept him and only hate him more.

Anonymous said...

"He states that evil is a lack in or corruption of something good, likening it to rot in a tree or rust in a car or a wound in a person’s arm."

This statement seems problematic to me. If indeed we presume evil to be a mere "corruption of something good", one must then ask what the source of this corruption is. Now, if we are to presume the literal interpretation of the Bible in this thread (which it looks like we are), it would not be wise of me to bring up Adam and Eve in the Garden, as the theist could merely point to Satan (or the snake) as the source of this corruption. But I've never heard a cogent response to why Satan became corrupted, why he fell from grace. Presumably, Lucifer, along with the other fallen angels, were created perfectly - how could they not be perfect if they inhabited heaven? And yet, we see the downfall of Lucifer without any kind of mitigating circumstances (as was the case with the snake's temptation of Eve). So, it follows then, if we take the example of Lucifer, that God created perfect beings to - at minimum - have the capacity to naturally be corrupted by no provocation; which, in essence, basically means that God created evil.

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