Saturday, April 19, 2008

Defeating evil

In recent years, some theists have proposed that it is not enough to say that God allows evil that greater good may come of it (with whatever qualifiers and precise formulation that needs). Rather, God defeats evil. I have suggested once that when x forgives an evil that was done to her, this is a good sufficiently to justify God's permitting the evil. In fact, I think a stronger claim holds: when we forgive an evil done to us, we thereby defeat that evil. Interestingly, even though the claim that an evil has been defeated strikes me as logically stronger than the claim that a greater good has come from the evil, it can sometimes be the case that we can directly see that the defeat claim is true and then infer from that that a greater good has come. Here is such a case. I think of Jews in one block of a concentration camp who get up an hour before everybody else at, so that they can all take turns praying using the one set of tefillin and one prayer shawl that they have hidden, risking their lives and sacrificing their meager sleep to praise the Lord. This, it seems clear to me, defeated at least some of the Nazi evils done to them: the Nazis strove to dehumanize them, but instead as a result they rose—by God's grace surely—to the greatest heights of humanity. (This kind of reminds me of what I say about poetic justice here.)

Let me end on a different, somewhat lighter note. Here is a proposed sufficient condition for defeat of an evil, that probably does not apply to the above cases. An evil E is defeated in respect of a victim x if x is able to properly and whole-heartedly laugh at E. (Here it's worth remembering Isaac's name. Literally: "He laughs (or will laugh)". Who is "He"? Probably God: "God laughs at his enemies" seems to be the image.)


Hsin-You said...

Hi, Prof. Pruss
So why exactly do God permit evil in the first place?
Isn't it strange for God to permit evil and then defeat it?
and isn't it cruel to have the victims defeat evil in such a way?

Heath White said...

My understanding of the idea of defeat is a little stronger. It's something like, an event E changes (or is correctly [re-]interpreted) from being _bad for S_ to being _good for S_. I have in mind here the Bible verses, "You intended it for evil, but God intended it for good" (story of Joseph) and "We know that all things work together for good, for those who love the Lord and are called according to his purpose" (Romans). It doesn't have to become good in itself (intrinsically) but good in the larger scheme. I think of this as the idea that God wastes nothing in a life that he redeems.

who in the world would have said...

God was free not to forgive us our sins, but to punish us justly for them. (from your "suggested once") Was God really so free? Maybe; or would an intrinsically loving God not feel such love for His creatures (made only so free as He chose) that He would be bound to forgive us our sins? Love binds us in more than one way. (And the retributive view of punishment seems innate to us, but it may well be within us innately like intrinsic greed and pride, because of its beneficial effects only in this world in the short term.)

Precisely because forgiving is such a good, God would be bound to forgive us (or rather, forgiving is good for us because God would forgive us). Just a thought; but furthermore, in what sense does our forgiving an evil act defeat the evil? Suppose X acts evilly towards me, and I forgive X. Is the evil in X that caused X to so act thereby defeated? Although X might be impressed, X may not be, may continue to be evil. The act itself, is that defeated? But suppose it was theft of Y. X still has Y, unjustly. And Y might be quite important. (I am reminded of the common atheistic objection that ours is a slave religion.)

Still, God and all of those with Him can laugh at the Hellbound. And since they can, they can forgive and still win. But the former is just the greater good of the eventual punishment of evil. Is it really a good theodicy, to say that God could have (not really, but much as you say that He could have chosen not to forgive) created lots of evil monsters and then punished them eternally? That God could have created 1,000 beings, each 99% likely to sin, and punished them eternally for sinning, all but, say, 12 of them, who get to spend eternity enjoying the good joke of watching them burn (I'm reminded of the world that Christianity dragged us away from, kicking and screaming)?

Alexander R Pruss said...


I think Heath's point is a good answer to your question. The defeat doesn't merely undo the evil. See below.


I find what you say plausible. I wouldn't say that the event ceases to be intrinsically bad for S, but this bad somehow becomes a constitutive part of a good that transforms its meaning. (Here, I think either of the case of forgiveness, where a constitutive part of the good of forgiveness is the correct recognition of the evil done, or of Augustine's discussion of how evil fits into a good whole in the way that black paint can be used for the mustache in a beautiful painting.)


I think forgiveness is a matter of grace, and grace goes over and beyond what God has to do for us. I think there are two incommensurable goods here: mercy and strict justice. God chose to be merciful, and commanded us to be merciful likewise. He could instead have chosen strict justice, and commanded us to show it. That would have been good, too, in a different way.

A couple things happen in forgiveness that signal defeat. There is a kind of reversal of roles. As the victim of my evildoing, you were in my power. But now I am in yours--I can be forgiven by you or not. You choose to forgive me. You do not hate me, though hatred would be unsurprising. My harm to you has not, in fact, damaged your innate dignity if you choose to forgive--in fact, your dignity has been increased. You have the ability to freely bestow a great gift on me, your forgiveness, and you have chosen to do so. Put this way, it does sound like slave morality. But it doesn't sound like it when one adds that this is done in your sincere love of me, your tormenter, and that you do not love me to make yourself feel better, but because despite my evildoing which you clearly recognize (unlike the overman who doesn't notice the evils done to him), you still see me as a flawed image of God, a fellow creature, whom you love as yourself.

Maybe I can also say: This is particularly clear if my sin against you was that I inflicted on you a physical evil (if I led you into sin, then it's harder), since then I merely imposed on you a physical evil, but you repaid me with a spiritual good--if I accept your forgiveness, I will no longer be in retributive debt to you. (I may still be in retributive debt to God, since in sinning against you, I have also sinned against God.)

While I mentioned God laughing at his enemies, what I mainly had in mind was a milder kind of laughter at our real enemies: the flesh, the world and the devil. If I can laugh, appropriately, sincerely and in genuinely good humor (here I am thinking of the spirit of C. S. Lewis and G. K. Chesterton), at some physical infirmity of my own or at a temptation of flesh, at the pomp of the world and at the devil's deceitful ways the evil is either defeated or at least well on its way to being defeated.

who ponderfully said...

...or is it that, when evil has already been defeated, then we can laugh nicely at such things? And does forgiveness defeat evil, or is it only really possible once the evil within us has been defeated by a greater power, which power enables us to forgive? Lots of questions, but I wonder about the effectiveness of forgiveness upon the forgiven, which seems magical to me. I almost see that forgiveness frees the forgiver, and that brotherly love may be effective and forgiveness a sign of such love, but forgiveness and retribution seem superficial rather than substantial; e.g. would the attempt to forgive when one is not feeling brotherly love already not just slide into forgetting, moving on and leaving the retribution to God (which may be good enough, at the time)?