“Huh?” I hear you say. “Why would anyone think that?”
The reason, according to a recent blog article by Dutch biologist Gert Korthof, is that a God who designed malaria, and who allowed Hitler’s atrocities to take place, could not possibly be the same Deity as a God who upholds the sanctity of human life, and who condemns abortion, euthanasia and the atrocities committed by Hitler:
But there are two Gods. The God of the Sanctity of Human Life and the God of the Free Will Defense. They disagree strongly. The God of the Sanctity of Human Life is against abortion and euthanasia, and also against the atrocities of Hitler. The other God, The God of the Free Will Defense, allows the atrocities of Hitler.
However, Intelligent Design proponents fail to recognize that these attributes are mutually incompatible, so they end up believing in a schizophrenic Deity who somehow combines them all. Dr. Korthof argues that believers who engage in this intellectual juggling act end up paying a terrible personal price: they become desensitized to human pain and suffering, because they have learned to rationalize its occurrence in God’s cosmos.
Dr. Korthof is aware that this conclusion will evoke skepticism and even incredulity from many readers, so he skilfully sets forth his case, which rests upon two pillars: first, a quotation from the writings of a scientist and notable Intelligent Design proponent, Professor Michael Behe (who is also a Roman Catholic Christian) on the malaria parasite; and second, quotes from two Christian philosophers (John Hick and Richard Swinburne), who use the Free Will Defense to justify God’s allowing atrocities such as the Holocaust.
Is God the author of natural evil?
Let’s look at the first pillar. Korthof draws readers’ attention to the following passage in Behe’s book, The Edge of Evolution:
Malaria was intentionally designed. The molecular machinery with which the parasite invades red blood cells is an exquisitely purposeful arrangement of parts. (…) What sort of designer is that? What sort of “fine-tuning” leads to untold human misery? To countless mothers mourning countless children? Did a hateful, malign being make intelligent life in order to torture it? One who relishes cries of pain? Maybe. Maybe not.” (The Edge of Evolution, or: EE, p.237)
Dr. Korthof is appalled by Professor Behe’s reasoning here. As he remarks in his online review of Behe’s The Edge of Evolution:
Personally, I find this the most shocking passage of the entire book. If malaria is intelligently designed, then it is a form of biological warfare or bioterrorism, just as the intelligently designed spread of anthrax spores by mail in 2001 (18). The difference is that malaria killed millions and that the killing continues on a daily basis… What is really bad from a moral point of view, is that first having blessed malaria with a divine origin, subsequently his “Maybe. Maybe not” avoids any answer to his own question “What sort of designer is that?” A question of the highest moral, humanitarian, medical and educational importance.
Unfortunately, Dr. Korthof has badly mis-read Professor Behe’s book. He is simply mistaken in claiming that Behe “blessed malaria with a divine origin.” You want proof? Here is what Behe says on page 238 of his book:
…Are viruses and parasites part of some brilliant, as-yet-unappreciated economy of nature, or do they reflect the bungling of an incompetent, fallible designer?
Whether on balance one thinks life was a worthwhile project or not – whether the designer of life was a dope, a demon, or a deity – that’s a topic on which opinions over the millennia have differed considerably. Each argument has some merit. Of the many possible opinions, only one is really indefensible, the one held by Darwin…. He decided – based on squeamishness – that no designer existed. (Emphases mine – VJT.)
Korthof defends Darwin’s squeamishness, remarking in a footnote:
As I see it, Darwin had the emotional basis for empathy, sympathy and rejecting cruelty. Sensitivity for pain and suffering of others is the basis of morality (Frans de Waal). Darwin has a non-contradictory foundation for morality. Behe himself and Behe’s God apparently misses empathy and sympathy.
However, the reader will notice that in the above passage by Behe, he carefully avoids committing himself on the question of who designed the malaria virus (correction: parasite – VJT), or for that matter, the larger question of who the Designer of life was. He is even willing to entertain the notion that the Designer may have been “a demon.” He then goes on to say:
Maybe the designer isn’t all that beneficent or omnipotent. Science can’t answer questions like that. But denying design simply because it can cause terrible pain is a failure of nerve, a failure to look the universe fully in the face.
Professor Behe wrote the above passages as a scientist. Looking at the complex machinery of the cell, he found overwhelming evidence for design; however, intellectual honesty compelled him to admit that there is also evidence for design in the workings of the malaria virus (correction: parasite – VJT). How does one reconcile these facts on a moral level? That’s a very good question – but it’s not a scientific question. What should be clear, however, is that nowhere does Behe assert that the malaria parasite is God’s handiwork. Indeed, Behe is so scrupulously fair that he even refrains from calling life itself God’s handiwork, as this would be a conclusion which goes beyond the scientific evidence available.
Now, the Intelligent Design movement is a very big tent, theologically speaking: it includes people of many faiths and none. I realize that Dr. Korthof’s article is targeted specifically at Christians, but I am surprised that it never occurred to him to examine the writings of other Intelligent Design proponents who belong to the Christian faith, to see if they believe that God designed the malaria parasite. In particular, Dr. Korthof would have been well-advised to read Professor William Dembski’s recent book, The End of Christianity: Finding a Good God in an Evil World (B & H Academic, Nashville, Tennessee, 2009). This is a highly original contribution to the literature on the problem of evil, by a leading Intelligent Design proponent.
What does Dembski have to say about the cruelty found in Nature? He openly admits that Nature is cruel, and decries the efforts of theistic evolutionists to rationalize it and/or deny this fact. For Dembski, however, the cruelty which is rife in the natural world is not the work of God but of Adam, whose sin retroactively caused the entire natural world (which existed for millions of years before Adam) to be plunged into suffering. In Dembski’s theodicy, Adam, as the first human being, exercised a special lordship over creation, making him responsible for the fate of the entire animal kingdom. Hence the consequences of Adam’s fall were truly momentous: countless animals that lived long before him and after him were condemned by his willful act of disobedience to suffer from predation, parasitism, disease, death, and extinction. Now, this may strike readers as a very anthropocentric explanation of the evil we see in the natural world, but at least it doesn’t make God the author of the suffering caused by malaria. To quote Dembski:
The preferred way that theistic evolutionists deal with nature’s cruelty, however, is denial and rationalization. Sure, natural selection involves pain; but as Darwin stressed, the pain is worth it: “As natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection.” Thus Darwin sanctified evolution and deified natural selection…
Besides rationalization, there’s denial. Thus we are told that cruelty is not really cruel unless conscious moral agents (like us) are suffering it: “While cruel rats and malevolent weasels might exercise such wicked designs in the pages of children’s books,” writes Denis Alexander, “to the best of our knowledge the real animal world is amoral and has no ethics.” But Alexander here fails to distinguish between cruelty as a conscious motivation (which is culpable in us but lacking in other animals) and cruelty as it is experienced by us (such cruelty comes against us as much from nature as from the designs of fellow humans). The fossil record – as a history of predation, parasitism, disease, death, and extinction – is seen by us as cruel even if the animals in it cannot properly be said to have cruel motivations. In any case, ask yourself which requires rationalization: affirming nature’s cruelty, or denying it. Clearly, denying it.
Does evolution therefore undermine the theodicy I am proposing? Not at all. Although I personally think that the scientific evidence supports only limited forms of evolutionary change, evolution in the grand sense (“monad to man”) would simply underscore natural evil in the world and thus constitute a further way that God makes the world reflect the corruption in the human heart as a consequence of the Fall. On this account evolution is not so much a method of creation (though it can be that also) as a method of judgment by which God impresses on the world the radical consequences of human sin. (Pages 165-166.)
As we have seen, Professor Dembski ascribes the malaria parasite retroactively to Adam, and not to God. There is of course a third option: that Satan created (or modified) the malaria parasite. This was the option favored by the Christian apologist C. S. Lewis, who traced natural evil back to the fall of Satan, which preceded that of humanity and may have preceded the appearance of life on Earth. For his part, Dembski is willing to allow that Satan may have wreaked havoc on Earth before Adam’s Fall, but he insists that he was permitted to do so only because God knew that Adam was going to fall after being tempted by Satan. Why? Because Satan was not the lord of creation of Earth; Adam was. However, Adam fell freely; thus the ultimate responsibility for the nastiness we see in Nature is Adam’s, not God’s or Satan’s. As Dembski puts it:
…[N]ature consequent to the Fall exhibits a nastiness and perversity that seems hard to attribute to the active will of a loving God. Vipers, viruses, and vermin seem more appropriately attributed to God’s permissive will, the permission going to Satan. On this view Satan ravages the earth prior to the Fall but is permitted to do so because of his success in tempting the first humans, a temptation that itself required God’s permission. (Page 146.)
The first pillar of Dr. Korthof’s case has been toppled: Christians are not committed to making God the author of natural evils (such as the malaria parasite), and Intelligent Design in no way entails a theodicy that makes God the designer of the malaria parasite.
Dr. Korthof on the Free Will Defense for evil
Now let’s look at the second and more significant pillar of Dr. Korthof’s case: the Free Will Defense. For Dr. Korthof, God’s allowing free agents (e.g. Satan, Adam or Hitler) to wreak evil in the world is just as morally reprehensible as God’s perpetrating that evil Himself, as there is no “higher end” or “greater good” which could possibly justify His permitting this evil. Dr. Korthof is particularly scathing in his criticism of the theodicies of Professors Richard Swinburne and John Hick, who view the world as a vale of soul-making, in which natural evil is intended by God, as part of our schooling in the moral virtues. Korthof quotes from a summary of Swinburne’s thinking, written by the late philosopher D. Z. Phillips:
“Swinburne tells us that ‘a creator who gave them only coughs and colds, and not cancer and cholera would be a creator who treated men as children instead of giving them real encouragement to subdue the world’.”  (Quoted by D. Z. Phillips, 2005, The Problem of Evil & The Problem of God, p. 59.)
Or in the words of Swinburne himself:
But the more freedom and responsibility we have, of logical necessity the more and more significant are the bad consequences which will result (unprevented by God) from our bad choices.  (Providence and the problem of evil, OUP. (Accessible at http://books.google.com), p.159).
Additionally, Korthof cites a long passage from the philosopher John Hick, who argued along similar lines that God’s giving human beings free will entailed the possibility of the Holocaust:
It seems to me that once you ask God to intervene to prevent some specific evil you are in principle asking him, or her, to rescind our human freedom and responsibility. Was God supposed to change Hitler’s nature, or to have engineered his sudden death, at a certain point in history? But the forces leading to the Holocaust ramify out far beyond that one man. God would have had to override the freedom not only of Hitler and the Nazis, but all participants in the widespread secular anti-Semitism of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe, which itself was rooted in nearly two thousand years of Christian anti-Semitism. Further, having prevented this particular evil, God would be equally obliged to prevent all other very great human evils… Where should a miraculously intervening God have stopped? Only, it would seem, when human freedom will have been abolished.”  (my emphasis) (Quoted in D. Z. Phillips (2005) The Problem of Evil & The Problem of God, p. 107.)
It is quite shocking to hear that God has his reasons for not preventing the Holocaust. The most shocking is that people are prepared to continue to believe in the moral goodness of such a God.
Dr. Korthof rejects the theodicies of Hick and Swinburne, according to which “God has his reasons for allowing all the violations of the sanctity of human life,” because the alleged reasons utterly fail to exculpate God:
According to the Free Will Defense the reasons are the unrestricted freedom of humans to do the greatest evil. God allowed Hitler to do the greatest evil. Whatever the detailed reasons of God, it is a fact that atrocities did occur and God did not prevent them. As a consequence, the ‘Judeo-Christian conception of the sanctity of human life’ is annihilated.
Why is Dr. Korthof so fiercely critical of Hick’s and Swinburne’s soul-making theodicy?
What readers need to understand here is that Korthof is arguing as an anti-consequentialist: he doesn’t believe that the end justifies the means. Like the philosopher D. Z. Phillips, Korthof holds that no “higher end” – not even freedom – could possibly justify God’s permitting the natural evils we observe in our world. Korthof contends that Christians like Professor Richard Weikart, who argues that belief in Darwinism is dehumanizing, fail to realize that belief in a God who allows the Holocaust is even more dehumanizing, because it desensitizes us to the suffering we see around us, and which it is our duty to fight. He wraps up his blog article as follows:
The conclusions of these observations are (1) that belief in God causes insensitivity for human pain and suffering and further; (2) if God allows violations of the sanctity of human life, those violations can’t be immoral (otherwise, God would be immoral), (3) therefore it is pointless to fight against those violations or blame Darwinism.
Is Hick’s and Swinburne’s soul-making theodicy authentically Christian, anyway?
The irony, however, is that Hick’s and Swinburne’s soul-making theodicy is something of a theological novelty. It is not the traditional Christian solution to the problem of evil. That is the argument put forward in an article by David Bentley Hart, entitled Tsunami and Theodicy (First Things, March 2005). The author, an Eastern Orthodox theologian, writes against the backdrop of the Boxing Day tsunami on December 26, 2004, which killed approximately 300,000 people. Hart forcefully rejects the rose-tinted view that tragedies like these fit into some “Big Picture” and possess some ultimate meaning which God can fathom, even if we cannot. This, Hart maintains, is not the Christian view, and it is in any case profoundly immoral, as it turns God into a utilitarian monster who achieves His Grand Plan for Cosmic Harmony only by treating people like pawns on a chessboard. Unbelievers who declare that these terrible tragedies are utterly meaningless and abominable are right, Hart declares. Hart reminds us that the traditional Christian answer to the problem of suffering in the world has always started from the Fall of our first parents, which Hart describes as “an ancient alienation from God that has wounded creation in its uttermost depths, and reduced cosmic time to a shadowy remnant of the world God intends, and enslaved creation to spiritual and terrestrial powers hostile to God.”
Additionally, Dr. Korthof appears to be unaware that a large number of Intelligent Design proponents (including many Christians) would be in complete agreement with his criticisms of Hick’s and Swinburne’s theodicy, according to which the Earth is a vale of soul-making. As Professor William Dembski argues in his book, The End of Christianity: Finding a Good God in an Evil World (B & H Academic, Nashville, Tennessee, 2009):
The earth as a place for soul-making also leaves much to be desired. The metaphor here is that of a school that attempts to train us to become great souls. But rigors of a curriculum are one thing; Lisbon earthquakes and Asian tsunamis, not to mention Auschwitz and the Killing Fields, are another. Do we really need a curriculum that grinds so many of its pupils to powder? If the earth is indeed a place for soul-making, how many great souls does it produce? Is it not a tiny, tiny minority? How many flunk out of Hick’s school of soul-making? How many do not merely flunk out but end up in the gutter, addicted to sensuality, money, fame and power? How many cannot be said to have enrolled at any school whatsoever, whose days are consumed in a simple struggle to survice (think of barefoot children scouring garbage dumps to eke out an existence)? (Page 31.)
Dembski goes further:
Where Hick offers a school, I offer an insane asylum. Students at a school need to be trained and cultivated, Inmates at an insane asylum need to be cured and delivered.(Indeed, why did Jesus devote so much of his ministry to healing the sick and casting out demons?) (Page 45.)
The contrast between the two theodicies could hardly be starker. Dembski continues:
Natural evil constitutes a disordering of nature. A benevolent God will allow natural evil only as a last resort to remedy a still worse evil, not as an end in itself over which to glory. (Page 81.)
Now, Dr. Korthof will probably acknowledge that Dembski’s theodicy is radically different from that of Hick and Swinburne, but he could still argue that on Dembski’s theodicy, God allows evil for the sake of a higher end: freedom (Adam’s and Satan’s) is the reason why God permits the natural evils we observe in our world. Moreover, it is by no means apparent why the entire animal kingdom should have to suffer for the sin of Adam.
I would like to conclude by putting forward a few tentative suggestions. We, with our limited intelligence, do not know how the cosmos is run – in other words, we don’t know the “rules of the game,” on a cosmic level. Perhaps in the scheme of things, it is simply impossible for God to make an intelligent race of beings without offering them a sphere or domain in which they can legitimately exercise their freedom. For instance, perhaps God cannot make a unique race of intelligent beings on a certain planet, without also giving them dominion over all the non-rational creatures on that planet. And perhaps the animals that develop on a given planet are “ontologically bound” to the intelligent beings who later appear on the same planet and who are designated by God as their stewards, in such a way that the animals cannot appear on that planet unless the intelligent beings who are destined to rule over them also emerge at some (chronologically subsequent) point in time.
Finally, I should like to point out that one thing which a morally good God cannot do is break a promise. Consequently, if we find evil in the natural or human world which makes no sense in the scheme of things, and which serves no “higher purpose,” we should ask ourselves: what kind of promise would prevent a Deity from eliminating that evil, and to whom would it have to be made? The Judeo-Christian speaks of a Fall of the angels and of a subsequent Fall of Adam. I suspect that Lucifer and Adam may, after being created, have demanded from God a domain in which they could legitimately exercise their freedom, and that being granted this domain by God, they may have rebelled against God, and then told God in no uncertain terms to “butt out” and let them exercise their freedom as they wished. Faced with this double rebellion, God may have had no choice but to honor His promise and let them do their worst.
The honoring of a promise is not a “higher good” which rationalizes natural evil; rather, it is an action which springs from the very nature of an essentially good God. For God, honoring a promise is an unconditional duty, which has nothing to do with the good consequences that may or may not result.
Readers who may be curious as to how I believe God ultimately ties up the problem of suffering for animals, and exactly which features of the biological world can and cannot be ascribed to God, might like to have a look here, here and here. Theodicy is necessarily speculative; I can only offer opinions, not certainties.
An atheist’s theodicy
But enough of my ideas. I’d like to close with an interesting theodicy put forward by an atheist, Dr. Bradley Monton, who has also written a book about Intelligent Design, entitled Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design:
I think that the problem of evil provides a pretty good argument against the hypothesis that an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent God exists. But I’ve been thinking off and on for a while now about various replies to the argument from evil, and more and more I’ve been thinking that the best reply is the many-universes reply. Since that reply isn’t discussed much in the literature on the problem of evil, I thought I’d present it here.
This isn’t the most formal way to present it, but I’ll present it with a parable. Suppose that God exists, and God is omnipotent and omniscient, and has the desire to be omnibenevolent. So God creates a very nice universe, a universe with no evil. We might at first think that God has fulfilled the criterion of omnibenevolence, but then we recognize that God could do more — God could create another universe that’s also very nice. Agents could exist in that universe that didn’t exist in the first universe, and so there’s an intuitive sense (which is admittedly tricky to make precise mathematically) in which there would be more goodness to reality than there would be were God just to create one universe.
But of course there’s no reason to stop at two — God should create an infinite number of universes. Now, he could just create an infinite number of universes, where in each universe no evil things happen. But in doing so, there would be certain creatures that wouldn’t exist — creatures like us, who exist in a universe with evil, and are essential products of that universe. So God has to decide whether to create our universe as well. What criterion should he use in making this decision? My thought is that he should create all the universes that have more good than evil, and not create the universes that have more evil than good.
So that’s why an omnipotent omniscient omnibenevolent God would create our universe, even though it has evil — our universe adds (in an intuitive sense, setting aside mathematical technicalities) to the sum total of goodness in the universe, and hence it’s worth creating.
Well, what do readers think of Dr. Monton’s theodicy? And what do readers think of Dr. Dembski’s? Are Christians desensitized to the evil and suffering in the world, as Dr. Korthof claims? And if so, why is it that the vast majority of people who defend the rights (and full personhood) of unborn children, people with disabilities, people in a vegetative state, and people in the final stages of Alzheimer’s disease, identify with the Judeo-Christian tradition, whose God Dr. Korthof finds so abominable? Something to think about.
And now, over to you.