Saturday, January 26, 2013

Review: Evil: A Guide for the Perplexed by Chad Meister

Given that most of us are perplexed to a certain extent about evil, this new book on the subject by Chad Meister, professor of philosophy at Bethel College, Mishawaka, Indiana, is aimed at just about everybody.

Meister begins his work with an attempt to answer the question of what evil is. He notes that “the meanings of the word are multifarious and often fall short of capturing the depth and complexities of the term” (1). He offers several examples, then goes on to classify evil in two categories—moral and natural.

The author asserts that, if we are to talk about evil and its relationship to God, we must also elucidate what we mean by “God”. He then lists a number of properties in the traditional theistic understanding of God, including omnipotence, omniscience and omnibenevolence.

Meister follows this up with a look at four approaches to the subject of God and evil:
  • God does not exist
  • God exists, but is not all-knowing
  • God exists, but is not all-powerful
  • God exists, but is not all good
In chapter 2, Meister outlines J. L. Mackie’s logical problem of evil and the atheist philosopher’s argument that it is contradictory to believe that a good God exists while evil exists at the same time. Meister responds with Alvin Plantinga’s discussion of free will, concluding that it is impossible to establish that “the existence of particular evil and the existence of God are incompatible” (20).
Next up is Meister’s look at William Rowe’s evidential argument that a good God would prevent gratuitous or meaningless evil. Rowe uses the example of a fawn dying in a forest fire. Such an event hardly seems to offer any kind of “greater good” that some believe justifies the allowance of tragedies. However, as Meister notes, God’s ways are inscrutable to us. Just because we do not see the good involved, that doesn’t mean there is none.

In chapter 3, the author tackles the issue of theodicy, the aim of which, he says, is to justify God and his actions in a world filled with evil. He begins with a clear and thorough explanation of Augustine’s free will theodicy in which the theologian argues that evil is not a God-created thing, but a privation of good, and that evil results from humanity’s bad choices beginning with Adam and Eve in Eden. Meister, while acknowledging the importance of the aspect of free will, ultimately finds Augustine’s argument lacking because it is, as he puts it, “incongruent with modern science” (34).

Meister then explores John Hick’s thesis that God purposely created a world that includes evil and suffering. His “soul-making” theodicy dismisses the idea of Eden and perfect human beings who misused their free will, thereby bringing evil into the world. Rather, he believes that God created a good place (meaning it had value, purpose and meaning), not a paradise, where, through Darwinian processes, taking billions of years, humanity evolved from inert, impersonal matter to morally conscious beings (35). Meister agrees that, while a “soul-making environment” cannot be a paradise because it needs to provide trials which cause people to grow, he complains that “the degree and extent of pain and suffering which exist in the world are surely unjustified” (35).

Meister concludes that both theodicies contain valuable elements, “but neither address well a fundamental type of natural evil: the pain, suffering and death intrinsic to biological evolution” (45). He, therefore, offers a “theodicy of fulfilment” that includes free will and soul-making, but adds a “redemptive component” (the transformation of a person into a new life with God) which he states is necessary for a “morally satisfactory account of the workings of God in a natural world” (40).

Chapter 4 takes a look at “divine hiddenness” as Meister attempts to answer the question of why God’s presence, if God exists, would not be obvious to any and every person seeking to know or know about God. He offers a number of reasons why God might remain undisclosed and then takes a look at “God-experiences” and the challenges to them. He also notes that “reasonable non-belief” does occur (51).

Chapter 5 is entitled Evil, atheism and the problem of good. Meister introduces the discussion with comments from serial killer Ted Bundy who, believing that all moral judgments are value judgments which cannot be proven right or wrong, had no qualms about committing rape and murder. The author notes that atheists have the same problems with Bundy’s moral relativism that theists do. He offers a number of atheistic responses to evil including:
  • Nietzschean might makes right
  • Dawkins’ evolutionary morality
  • Morality as evolutionary illusion
  • Utilitarianism
  • Atheistic moral objectivism
In the next chapter, Meister looks at evil from the Hindu and Buddhist perspective. He explains karma, noting that, on the surface, it may seem fair and reasonable that what we did in a previous life dictates how comfortably we live in the next. However, he points out numerous flaws in that theory, not least of which is the simple fact that the problem of evil never seems to be resolved. He notes that, unless a person is perfect in some future life, there will always be more bad karma transported into the future (90). And where did it all begin? Who was responsible for the first evil?

In the final chapter, Meister writes about eternal goods, noting that it isn’t enough to suggest that something good might come out of evil in this life. What makes it more palatable is the promise that all evils will be eradicated in the future as “God will ultimately engulf and defeat all personal horrors” (96).  He also explores the work of French philosopher/activist Simone Weil who noted that, in affliction, a person can actually become closer to God.

Meister then discusses evil and the afterlife, exploring dualism and the real possibility of “self with continual conscious life” (101). He asserts that, while justice does not always triumph here on earth, “an afterlife does allow for possibility of vindication for the evils experienced in this life” (104). He concludes the chapter with the statement that explaining evil does not explain it away and offers suggestions about how to battle it in practical ways.

This book is destined to be controversial, with those who support theistic evolution locking horns with those who don’t. There is, of course, a danger in looking at the Bible through the lens of science given that science is only as good as the people who practise it and they are all too fallible. And while Meister makes a point of saying that his book is a philosophical work, not a historical, psychological or sociological one (preface, vi), one might ask—is it a theological work? Evil: A Guide for the Perplexed is definitely long on philosophy, but short on Scripture. It begs a number of questions that Christians will rightly ask.

For example, what about Adam? Was he a real historical person? Where does he fit in theistic evolution? If he didn’t introduce evil into the world through his disobedience, what becomes of the doctrine of original sin?

And what about Jesus? Why is there no mention of his victory over the evils of sin and death? He really doesn’t seem to be necessary in Meister’s theodicy of fulfillment. The redemption he writes of seems to come through evolutionary growth, not Christ.

Then there’s the issue of hell. Some people view it as an unfair eternal evil that must be explained in a plausible and convincing theodicy. And, of course, there’s the devil. Meister notes that some people insist that he has to take some responsibility for evil, but the author does not develop the idea at all.
Additionally, as a Christian, why didn’t Meister include some discussion of the Book of Job which philosopher/apologist Peter Kreeft has called the world’s greatest exploration of the problem of evil?
Lastly, how could non-belief ever be reasonable in light of Romans 1 in which Paul makes it clear that there is no justification for it since God is evident in both nature and the conscience of men?

All of that aside, Meister has given us a novel perspective on the subject and he has done it in a clear, entertaining and accessible manner. The reader need not have a background in philosophy to understand what he presents and anyone interested in the topic of evil should definitely read his book.

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.


Godfrey Babu said...

I don't really have any background on topics of philosophy, l however find much of this volume narration quite useful and informative. Will have to get this the soonest. Thank you and blessed.

Marianne Foscarini said...

Mary Lou summarizes with thought provoking questions! Evil is a complicated topic...more than I can ever understand or rationalize. But to me, it has to be "multifarious" and insidious for God to take such extreme measures to save the human race. Before I became a Believer in Jesus I sometimes struggled with those same four approaches Meister writes about. I had to come to a place where I prayed, "I'm going to forget everything I ever learned about You! I'm going to read the Bible as though I'm learning about You for the very first time." Then I started seeing things as He sees them, not as what I thought they should be.

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