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Can God defeat evil in all lives?

June 4, 2007

Following Chisholm, Adams distinguishes between engulfing and defeating evil: the former involves balancing off through opposing values of mutually exclusive parts of a whole, while the latter involves organic unities and therefore cannot be achieved by mere addition of mutually exclusive parts.

Adams writes that “God cannot be said to be good or loving to any created persons the positive meaning of whose lives He allows to be engulfed in and/or defeated by evils – that is, individuals within whose lives horrendous evils remain undefeated. Thus she claims that solely global explanations of evil cannot suffice since particular cases of horrendous evil may nonetheless remain undefeated.

If this is true, certain theodicies would be ruled out. For instance, it would not suffice to claim that the death/suffering of animals (through no fault of their own) are justified because that makes possible the acquisition of knowledge by other animals or humans. We would need some account of how evil is engulfed or defeated in each individual’s life.

A good example of the defeat of evil seems to be the crucifixion of Christ. In itself, it constitutes a case of horrendous evil, as God (in the flesh) was subject to intense suffering and wrongs which are independent of his suffering (e.g. being derided). While Christ’s crucifixion remains horrendously evil, such evil is defeated in his life because it is woven into a bigger scheme of things. We could say that the crucifixion is given new meaning (while remaining horrendously evil) as it is incorporated into a meaningful narrative: Christ’s willingness to submit himself to crucifixion is his expression of love for us and it is through that very act that some people are reunited with God. Through his resurrection, that evil in his life is now understood as a great sacrifice given freely and effecting the eternal union of himself and those he saved.

It seems like some such meaning-bestowing, evil-defeating narrative would be true of each creature’s life. As Adams writes: “Divine respect for and commitment to created personhood would drive God to make those sufferings which threaten to destroy the positive meaning of a person’s life meaningful through positive defeat.” (I’m not sure about the importance of personhood to this statement. If animals are not persons, does it follow that evil in their life need not be defeated?)

She goes on to write: “How could God do it? So far as I can see, only by integrating participation in horrendous evils into a person’s relationship with God.” Three such ways are briefly explained: (1) Sympathetic or mystical identification; (2) Divine gratitude; (3) Vision into the inner life of God.

If she is right, and unless other relevant defeaters of horrendous evils are identified, there seems to be some implications. It seems that a good God would not create individuals whose lives would involve undefeated horrendous evil. Thus, if the only way to defeat horrendous evil is through integrating it into that person’s relationship with God, it seems to follow that God would not allow horrendous evil into the lives of those whom he knows would reject such a relationship with him. If so, it seem that those who suffer horrendous evil would be saved into such a relationship with him. After all, it seems that (1) – (3) are plausible evil defeaters only when we understand them as a part of that individual’s loving relationship with God. The significance and value of (1) – (3) seem relational in nature. Would a god-hater who suffers horrendous evil and who has (and wants) no relationship with God be plausibly understood as having the evil in her life defeated by (1) – (3)?

More than that, does not eternal suffering in hell and/or eternal estrangement from God (albeit freely chosen) constituted horrendous evils? If so, wouldn’t such evils be undefeatable? Must we therefore believe that no one goes to hell?

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5 comments

  1. Pink pony, thank you for the post and goodness thank you for the advice and prayers- am feeling much better now. 🙂
    You have raised three substantial points –
    1. that evil in the individual life needs to be accounted for;
    2. that evil in the life of Godhaters seems unnecessary;
    3. Hell being a horrendous evil is not defeated.
    Very good questions but i may have a not very popular answer, which you probably may agree: it seems that God does not have to defeat all evil. the reason being evil is the result of the sins of man. But the all-gracious God chooses to save those that He choose to save (deterministic view) or will preserve the saints who chose to follow Him (Freewill position).
    Therefore we cant hold God accountable for not addressing the evil in an individual life; the evil in the life of Godhaters is the cause of their hatred; and the hatred led them to eternal damnation.
    We did Romans 9 for Bible Study last week and there was a sharing on “Just as it is written: ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.'” (Romans 9:13) We have no problem understanding the first clause, but most face problem swallowing the second. C S Lewis sees “hate”as “reject,” this seems to have lightened the gravity of the verse but there is no denial that God loved some and rejected some. I guess the correct perspective is to see it this way:
    God should reject all but He is gracious to save some, though I may consider the claim that He is saving the most or the best given his full knowledge.
    What do you think? 🙂


  2. Oh and maybe a small note on my own “sufferings.”
    It really helps if I am to look at the larger scheme of things and see how i can help in improving other people’s life instead of focusing on my tinyweeny “sufferings.”
    Comprehensives and the august paper aside, i still need to prepare for the games for church camp! this could easily take up one whole day! 🙂


  3. red herring,

    thanks for your comments.

    you wrote:

    “it seems that God does not have to defeat all evil. the reason being evil is the result of the sins of man. But the all-gracious God chooses to save those that He choose to save (deterministic view) or will preserve the saints who chose to follow Him (Freewill position).”

    The deterministic view seems problematic because one has to wonder why a perfectly loving God wouldn’t save everyone given that he could have made everyone choose to follow him freely. Morever, on this view, i’m not sure if this is true:

    “Therefore we cant hold God accountable for not addressing the evil in an individual life; the evil in the life of Godhaters is the cause of their hatred; and the hatred led them to eternal damnation.”

    I shan’t delve into this since it takes us into the waters of freedom and moral responsibility. But perhaps you might want to work out a view of moral responsibility within the deterministic view with regard to this issue.

    back to the initial issue… in your words,

    “it seems that God does not have to defeat all evil. the reason being evil is the result of the sins of man.”

    i take it that you disagree with Adams when she writes:

    “God cannot be said to be good or loving to any created persons the positive meaning of whose lives He allows to be engulfed in and/or defeated by evils – that is, individuals within whose lives horrendous evils remain undefeated.”

    I’m inclined to accept Adams’ view because (assuming he has middle knowledge, or on the deterministic view) it is not clear to me why God would create individuals whom he knows would live a life of eternal torment. I suppose this would be more defensible if he does not have middle knowledge.

    Therefore, it seems to me that the theist needs to give some account of why, for each individual’s life, it is not worse for her to exist than not (or to be created than not). A life of eternal torment, or a life involving undefeated horrendous evil, seems worse than to not exist. It seems not unreasonable to wish a severely deformed child afflicted with incurable diseases like Aids and cancer had never been born (disregarding considerations like an afterlife for him, miraculous cure, etc). If you agree, do you think everlasting life in hell is any better? If you disagree, could you say why?

    ok… over to you!


  4. Hi pink pony, sorry for the late reply as you know of late i have been busy with church camp prep and you know.. well did a good read of the article again and find it very edifying.
    I tot perhaps i can do a brief summary and paraphrasing of the article- do let me know if i have interpreted the article wrongly. Thanks!
    I think the argument of this article relies heavily on human personal subjective experience- the thing you have been talking about last lunch!
    The article works on how the existence of horrendous evils is justifiable- by first differentiating two kind of relations between good and evil – “balancing off” (which is similar to the later “engulfing”) and “defeating.”
    It then goes on to explain why global defeat is insufficient given the existence of global evils and offers three possible ways out (the inaccessible reasons): (1) not fully-informed; (2) not biologically competent; (3) spiritual immaturity and emphasized the third.
    However, the author admit that these are just easy ways out and seeks to address the problem by doing a paradigm shift. That horrendous evils allow (1) a person to identify with the sufferings of Christ; (2) the crown of gold – heavenly welcome; (3) a vision into the inner life of God.
    There is an interesting transition from “engulfing” to “defeat” from pg28 onwards. I understood the “engulfing” as the three easy ways out and “defeat” as the three paradigm shifts. Did i interpret correctly?
    From then on the article concludes that although horrendous evil can befall man, it will ultimately be conquered by God- or rather man’s understanding of God’s will.
    On the whole, i think this is a very edifying article which relies a lot experience as well as on the hope and faith of the believer.
    Okie guess i am in a better position (or this is so when i seriously reflect upon it seriously haha) to answer your question- If God’s will is to defeat all evils- then the existence of undefeated evil and ultimately, the eternal torment in hell is in stark contrast to his will. And you offer one way out – that God does not have middle knowledge (although i am not quite sure if you hold it? and heh isnt it true that even if God has middle knowledge, He can still chose not to interfere with people who chose to sin? )
    Whether with or without middle knowledge, we seem to fall into the same conclusion- that God cannot defeat evil in all life and we are back to the unpopular doctrine of limited atonement (rid of the predetermined element if you get what i mean.)
    Hmmm….. interesting….
    It does seem that if God allows hell to exist, he did not achieve triumph by defeating evil, the most is He “balanced it off” with His goodness…
    Lets say i buy the view that God cannot defeat all evils. Is that also your position? 🙂


  5. herring, some responses:

    “And you offer one way out – that God does not have middle knowledge (although i am not quite sure if you hold it? and heh isnt it true that even if God has middle knowledge, He can still chose not to interfere with people who chose to sin? )”

    >>>i’m still undecided about whether to think God has middle knowledge – really not sure if middle knowledge makes senses. as for the second point, yes, even if God has middle knowledge, he can still choose not to interfere but if he is a perfectly loving God, it seems he would not leave evil in an individual’s life undefeated. Unless you disagree with my claim that “Therefore, it seems to me that the theist needs to give some account of why, for each individual’s life, it is not worse for her to exist than not (or to be created than not). A life of eternal torment, or a life involving undefeated horrendous evil, seems worse than to not exist. It seems not unreasonable to wish a severely deformed child afflicted with incurable diseases like Aids and cancer had never been born (disregarding considerations like an afterlife for him, miraculous cure, etc).”

    “Whether with or without middle knowledge, we seem to fall into the same conclusion- that God cannot defeat evil in all life and we are back to the unpopular doctrine of limited atonement (rid of the predetermined element if you get what i mean.)”

    >>> i must say i’m not familiar with the doctrine of limited atonement… could you explain it a bit more? thanks!

    It does seem that if God allows hell to exist, he did not achieve triumph by defeating evil, the most is He “balanced it off” with His goodness…

    >>> hmmm… i’m not sure how evil is balanced off in the life of someone in eternal torment. any suggestions?

    Lets say i buy the view that God cannot defeat all evils. Is that also your position?

    >>> I’m considering annihilationism, i.e. those who choose to reject God would cease to exist rather than be in eternal torment. But i’m also trying to work out if it could be argued that a loving God need not defeat all evils. what do you think given the arguments to the contrary explained in the article?



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