Before offering my viewpoint below, I want to express my appreciation to theologyweb for allowing me this response. Although it is a longer-than-usual response, I have kept it focused on one or two primary points, as per the rules of theologyweb. However, it is not always possible to respond with a few short paragraphs on a complicated issue, especially when readers will need some education in dissecting carefully the language of debate. Finally, I want to assure my readers that, despite my disagreement with brother Koukl over the definition of evil, it does nothing to diminish my confidence that he is a committed Christian.
Re: “A Good Reason for Evil;” by Gregory Koukl
[INDENT]A Response; by Daniel Gracely
Recently a former pastor of mine emailed me a link to Gregory Koukl’s article, “A Good Reason for Evil,” calling it a “must read.” Indeed, many Christians are interested in having a better understanding of evil, and so it’s natural that Christian thinkers such as Koukl should offer their readers an explanation. After I began his article, however, I realized Koukle’s position was essentially the same as Reformed, philosophy professor, James Spiegel’s, in the latter’s book, The Benefits of Providence. Both men draw their conclusions from Augustine in the 4th century. Briefly stated, this view claims that evil is not a thing (has no being), but is merely the deprivation of good. I am responding because I do not believe this is a biblical position.
In particular, I believe Koukl follows Augustine in using non-sensical language to justify the definition of evil. That is, he does not use language (consistently) according to the first rule of logic, namely, A cannot equal non-A. He does this by stating in some parts of his essay that evil is a thing, while stating in other parts of his essay that it is not a thing. The end result of this approach is that proposed definitions are not really definitions at all. I will cite examples of this in Koukl’s article shortly. Unfortunately, Koukl's nonsensical (or irrational) method makes a true, Evangelical understanding of evil impossible. Koukl’s is a common approach, however. In fact, it is much in vogue and often used by Evangelicals in other areas of apologetics. I hope therefore to show the technique of this misguided approach in the course of this response. I urge patience upon my readers here, because addressing the subject of evil means examining the nuances of language used by Evangelicals when they discuss evil, and this is a difficult task. Indeed, if the arguments of Augustine were not sophisticatedly drawn, they would not have found a following among Christian thinkers for 16 centuries; so dissecting them will require some patience. I hasten to add that I do not believe Koukl is himself aware of the deceptive nature of this method in his own attempt to define evil. At any rate, readers must be informed about this technique if they are to spot it when it occurs.
To begin with, some examples of this technique of using contradictory language are obvious, such as, “I ate the apple I didn’t eat.”(Endnote 1) Other examples are not so obvious. Suppose, for example, I told you I packed nothing but one apple and one orange for lunch, yet at dinnertime made the following statement to you:
Today I ate the apple before I ate the orange so I wouldn’t get sick, yet not in such a way so that the orange was eaten last, which would have made me sick.
This sounds like nonsense to you, but I insist that this is exactly what happened during lunch. Here is how our conversation might proceed:Me: I feel sick.
You: Apparently you got sick by eating the orange first. Why didn’t you eat the apple first?
Me: I did eat the apple first. Don’t you remember what I said? “I ate the apple before I ate the orange so I wouldn’t get sick.”
You: Then why are you sick?
Me: I believe I told you why. I said I didn’t eat the orange last, which is why I feel sick.
You: I’m a little confused—which fruit did you eat first?
Me: I’ll repeat myself entirely: “Today I ate the apple before I ate the orange so I wouldn’t get sick, yet not in such a way so that the orange was eaten last, which would have made me sick.”
You: But you’re sick—is that right?
Me: Not at all. I said a bit earlier that “I ate the apple before I ate the orange so I wouldn’t get sick.”
As long as I respond with this ‘logic’ you cannot come to any conclusions about what I am saying. You cannot know whether I am sick or well, which fruit I ate first, or even if I ate at all. You cannot know what events happened because I affirmed everything, and yet denied everything. Consequently, all the statements you heard are inconclusive. In effect, I used language to say nothing. You could not even determine properly if I were actually describing myself in the above events, since nothing was being said about ‘me.’ I created this confusion by upholding two ideas that were in contradiction to each other, but which I claimed were simultaneously true.
In general, the shorter the statement of contradiction the more absurd it immediately appears. Longer contradictions, such as the apple and orange analogy, will not always appear immediately irrational. This delay happens because our minds have more time to latch onto each idea separately. For example, Koukl’s concept of evil as a non-thing is grasped by the mind long enough so that even when synthesized with its exact opposite thought, i.e., that evil is “something that took place,” there is enough memory activated in our minds to imagine the premise of each idea, even though each premise logically cancels the other one out. Thus, it seems as though the two concepts exist as proofs against each other while remaining coexistent in the mind. The reason, then, that many Christians thinkers do not feel the pressure of their contradictory language is because each premise forming the contradiction is presented slowly enough to facilitate memory. In effect, they are imagined to be true by being held in the mind by a multi-task mental operation, as though that act itself proves the contradiction is legitimate.
When Christian thinkers embrace contradictory language that abandons logic it becomes impossible for them to arrive at the truth on a particular issue. This mistake arises more easily when a contradiction’s explanation is drawn out and contains any number of otherwise common sense statements. In our apple analogy, for example, I might add a convincing prequel describing how I had a piece of apple pie at the local diner, and this prequel would make perfect sense. But by finishing my story with a non-sensical story about an apple and orange for lunch (see above) I undo the definition of an apple in the real world. Thus when the totality of my statements are taken together we cannot conclude what I meant by “apple.” And this means that my entire story in all of its parts remains indeterminative, since every action in the story involved an “apple,” so-called.
And that is the real danger. I have set up my reader as an unwitting patsy with common sense statements (such as having a piece of apple pie at the local diner) that put him off guard. This conditions the reader to think I know what I’m talking about, especially if I write convincingly about an intellectual subject. Of course if I speak about an apple in this contradictory way and insist that truth is found in everyone of my statements, it is unlikely you will persuade me that my contradiction is a real contradiction. Consequently, you will be exasperated in trying to show me my contradiction, because I embrace the contradiction. You are only pointing out what I already admit to. In fact, I will not even believe my contradiction is a real contradiction, but only a ‘seeming’ one.
Now that we understand how contradictory language can be used to express nothing, let us examine Koukl’s article to see whether or not he uses language in this way. Here are Koukl’s opening two paragraphs:
The first step in answering the problem of evil is this: We've got to get clear on what this thing "evil" actually is. It does seem to follow that if God created all things, and evil is a thing, then God created evil. This is a valid syllogism. If the premises are true, then the conclusion would be true as well.
The problem with that line of reasoning is that the second premise is not true. Evil is not a thing. The person who probably explained it best was St. Augustine, and then Thomas Aquinas picked up on his solution. Others since them have argued that evil has no ontological status in itself.
Observe that Koukl begins his argument with a prefaced remark about the syllogism he is about to discuss. He says: “We’ve got to get clear on what this thing “evil” actually is.” (emphasis mine) In passing, we ought to wonder why Koukl begins the first sentence of his article by calling evil a thing, since he will claim in the 2nd paragraph that evil is not a thing. Koukl then continues his opening paragraph: “It does seem to follow that if God created all things, and evil is a thing, then God created evil. This is a valid syllogism.” By saying that this is a valid syllogism Koukl is stating that this is a logical syllogism. That is, it is logical in the way most people would understand the word logical to mean. In fact, he says, “If the premises are true, then the conclusion would be true as well.” But linguistically speaking, what Koukl really regards as logical is already up for grabs, for note that he qualified this statement earlier, saying, “It does seem to follow…” (emphasis mine) He also follows the valid syllogism by immediately casting doubt with the word “If” (i.e., in his statement “If the premises are true.” Thus in the very first paragraph Koukl already has a two-fold definition of a “valid syllogism.” First, he states that that evil is a thing. Second, he states that the syllogism does seem to be a valid syllogism if evil is a thing. So when Koukl uses the word “seem,” it is because of a see-sawing definition that by the 2nd paragraph will show that he does not view the syllogism as valid, even bolstering his claim by saying, “Evil is not a thing.” Thus, like James Spiegel in The Benefits of Providence, Koukl is arguing for “another” kind of logic that is illogical according to normal understanding–but understood to be logical and resolved in the mind of God. Spiegel, for example, comments on J.I. Packer’s view of this “other” form of logic regarding the problem of evil:
J.I. Packer notes, “we ought not…to be surprised when we find mysteries…in God’s Word. For the Creator is incomprehensible to His creatures.” But to appeal to mystery is not to admit a real logical inconsistency. Rather, Packer says, such tensions are better termed “antinomies,” merely apparent contradictions that “all find their reconciliation in the mind and counsel of God, and we may hope that in heaven we shall understand them ourselves.”(Endnote 2)
While I wouldn’t argue with those who would state that God’s thoughts are higher than ours (even as the heavens are higher in relation to the earth), Packer is going quite beyond that idea by suggesting that God is incomprehensible to his creatures. In the context of Packer’s remarks, this means that in the problem of evil God and evil are fundamentally incomprehensible. Thus, for Packer, Spiegel, and Koukl, the only explanations involving a discussion of evil would be contradictory ones—that is, contradictory as it would appear to the average person.
Thus for Koukl et al, calling evil a non-thing and also a thing is not a problem. It is like reading the statement, “There once was a pie whose filling was made entirely of apples that never existed.” Notice in this sentence that it is impossible for a reader not to picture apples in his mind when he reads the word symbol “apples” in this non-sensical context. That is because he has encountered the word “apple” in other contexts having real meaning, e.g., such as a time when he may have been asked in a restaurant, “Would you like a piece of apple pie?” Such strong associations exist in every reader’s mind between the reading of a word symbol and the object itself that even when readers read a sentence like, “There once was an apple that never existed,” we cannot help but picture an apple in our mind’s eye. It is the strength of these kind of associations of word symbols with real objects that makes such Evangelical “explanations” based on contradiction seem plausible. No matter how often we are told that apples are not things, we cannot help but think of real apples.
We see another example of this contradictory “explanation” about evil in Koukl’s opening statement in the 2nd paragraph. He states: “The problem with this line of reasoning [i.e. the valid/logical syllogism he cites in the first paragraph] is that the second premise is not true” (emphasis mine). Our first question is thus: “What exactly does “valid” mean, or “reasoning” mean when Koukl uses these lingual terms in defining evil or even when defining the nature of a true syllogism? For on the one hand he describes a logical syllogism as a valid syllogism, but then states in the 2nd paragraph that this line of reasoning is not true. On the one hand, then, the term “valid,” is understood by Koukl to mean it is logical in the normal, understood sense of the word. That is, it makes sense to us–it is sensical. But on the other hand Koukl also claims that this approach is not true. This confused way of thinking is best illustrated when Koukl contradicts himself by stating in the 2nd paragraph that evil is not a thing, only to conclude some paragraphs later that “something did happen in which evil–the loss of good–took place…”(emphasis mine). He then describes this something which took place as the free-will acts of Satan and man. Thus, our second question is the fundamental inquiry in this response, namely, “If Koukl claims evil is not a thing, by what rules of language do we understand his subsequent statement that “something (i.e., some thing) did happen in which evil–the loss of good–took place…”? In other words, How is a non-thing also a something that takes place? For a non-thing cannot also be a thing; (A cannot equal non-A (which may also be stated, non-A cannot equal A). For Koukl to state the matter in contradictory language means a see-sawing, indeterminative “definition” for evil. Since we cannot know whether evil is a thing or not, there is no description really being made about it, though it seems there is. In effect, Koukl is using language against itself. By invoking evil as a “something” he is contradicting his earlier claim about the premise being wrong which said that evil was a thing. Thus he is urging upon his readers definitions about evil with words that have real meanings in other contexts, without invoking any real meaning in his present context (e.g., the discussion about evil), and that is the problem with this kind of Evangelical “explanation” of evil. Koukl is using the kind of “logic” that Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias once noted in a similar context, when he said that “one might as well speak of a one-ended stick.”
The proper biblical position is much easier to understand. Evil is something. In fact, it is sin that men do against God. It exists in the real world. It has being, and when a man sins it comes from his own heart. It is not the creation of God. As Jesus said:
But those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart; and they defile the man. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies: These are the things which defile a man… (Matthew 5:18-20a).
This means that man’s sin is his own doing. God did not create it; man was the uncaused first cause of his sin. As Ecclesiastes 7:29 tells us:
Lo, this only have I found, that God hath made man upright; but they have sought out many inventions.”
No doubt my readers at this point are asking themselves some disturbing questions: Why would Christian thinkers like Koukl, Spiegel, Packer, Augustine, etc., bother to make such contradictory statements at all? Wouldn’t that be a form of falsehood? Should we really be expected to agree with them, i.e., that the only explanation the Bible offers about the problem of evil is “incomprehensible”? And what of our responsibility to give a reason to the unsaved man who asks us about the hope that is in us? Would this mean offering Koukl’s type of explanation to a Holocaust survivor that the evil he faced in a concentration camp was not a thing at all but merely the moral equivalent of donut holes?(Endnote 3)
I believe the reason Christian thinkers like Koukl attempt such contradictory “explanations” is because they hold to the idea that God created all things. This is why Koukl denies that evil is a thing, calling the 2nd part of the syllogism untrue. In other words, he believes the 1st part of the syllogism which states that God created all things. And that is why he is forced to give such a bewildering “explanation,” calling evil a non-thing. Like nearly all Evangelical thinkers, Reformed or not, he believes in the absolute sovereignty of God, yet also the free will of man–and is therefore stuck with the age-old problem of trying to explain how God is the cause of sin without being the cause of sin. In my experience, though, Reformed thinkers especially wrestle with this problem. Thus in Calvinistic treatistes one goes back and forth on the subject of evil in a kind of rocking horse ride of theology. I know, because I too believed in the absolute sovereignty of God for many years. As a rider, I would throw my weight forward toward my belief in the absolute sovereignty of God until I could go no further, whereupon I would recoil backwards toward my belief in human freedom. Thus, I would go back and forth in seesaw motion, lest on the one hand I find myself accusing God of insufficient sovereignty, or on the other hand find myself accusing God of authoring sin. All the while, there remained an illusion of movement towards truth, when, in fact, there was no real movement at all. Calvinist riders still ride out this scenario. This is why, among the Reformed writings of even the best Reformed thinkers, there are no unqualified statements about the absolute sovereignty of God or the free will of man. If one reads long enough, all forthright statements about them are eventually withdrawn by qualifying each statement with its exact opposite thought. A correct definition of evil, they believe, is found in an “apparent” contradiction understood only in the mind of God. This explains why every book and article advocating the absolute sovereignty of God ends with its terms unconcluded. Even Reformed thinker, R.C. Sproul, in his book, Chosen by God, admits he finds this approach unsatisfying:
Surely the most difficult problem of all is how evil can coexist with a God who is both altogether holy and altogether sovereign. I am afraid that most Christians do not realize the profound severity of this problem. Skeptics have called this issue the “Achilles’ Heel of Christianity.” For years I sought the answer to this problem, scouring the works of theologians and philosophers. I found some clever attempts at resolving the problem, but, as yet, have never found a deeply satisfying answer. (Endnote 4)
Obviously TheologyWeb is not a format which affords the space for extensive responses to the many alleged Scriptural proof-texts for the absolute sovereignty of God, though I have written extensively on this subject elsewhere. I do thank them for allowing me this limited response, however, and hope it will spur Christians to look deeper in the subject for themselves.D.G.
(Endnote 1): Some might even take issue with this statement. One might argue, e.g., that if a man vomited an apple he ate, he really didn’t eat it even though he ate it. But this is a false way of using language. The word “eat” and “ate” in the above example (“I ate the apple I didn’t eat,”) is contradictory because “ate” has specific meaning(s) imbued by God in the real world, and man’s job is to follow after God’s thoughts. If we say that “ate” means that the apple entered the man’s stomach then we cannot also say that the apple did not enter the stomach (even if the man later vomits the apple). Similarly, if by “ate” we mean the full digestive process then we cannot say that the apple was ever eaten. Thus by using language properly we avoid what at first appears to be “legitimate contradictions.” The same principle applies to Koukl’s contradictory implication that a donut hole is, and is not, a part of a donut (and how that allegedly parallels to his description of evil as a thing, yet also a non-thing). The confusion is cleared up once we state in what sense a donut hole is a part of the donut, and in what sense it is not a part of the donut. First, the essential reason a donut hole is a part of the donut is because, despite the donut hole being mere space, it is always located geometrically within the outer perimeter of the donut and serves a potential function to the donut. Second and contrariwise, the essential reason the donut hole is not part of the donut is the same reason it is not part of a mouse or a spoon, namely, it contains no donut material (dough, yeast, sugar, etc.) Once the proper meaning of words is understood, there are no “legitimate contradictions” in language.
(Endnote 2): (Wheaton, Illinois; Crossway Books, 2005). p. 75
(Endnote 3): It is interesting to note that while Koukl offers the symbol of a donut hole to explain evil, the most common culinary symbol the New Testament uses for evil is yeast, a definite thing with an intensifying nature.
(Endnote 4): Wheaton, Illinois; Tyndale House Publishers, 1994). p.28