Saturday, February 26, 2011

Existence and Evil

Someone recently posted the following questions to an email list to which I subscribe. I doubt my answer is all that wonderful, yet, I thought perhaps having it published here might allow it to reach someone who needs it. With permission, I repeat the initial questions first (ok, I edited them a bit) and then two of my responses follow.

Initial Questions

Consider someone who regards existence as a curse and an evil. They say we cannot be said to be responsible for our existence. Further, as the cosmological argument for the existence of God concludes there must be a source of all existence which is God, the source of all evil is assigned to God also.

Someone with this perspective might ask why God created anything at all. Having been asked this question, I always ask what kind of answer they would find satisfactory. They admit that there is probably no acceptable answer. After all, what rationale could be offered for the creation of evil? One cannot reply that there is a new creation, a new heaven and earth, for the person can conclude that this is merely the continuation of existence, albeit of a different kind.

One could query such a person as to why they believe that existence is intrinsically evil. But it appears difficult to make much headway here. It seems we make a basic presumption that existence is good, and in particular, that it is better to exist than to not exist. If one does not share that presumption, it is not clear to me what more to say.

It is interesting, too, that this attitude regarding existence offers an unusual response to the promise of eternal life. For the person having such an attitude, what is preferred is not eternal life, but annihiliation. Nonetheless, they will say that heaven is to be preferred to hell.

Their response to the Gospel is not gratitude or relief, but instead a feeling that it was the least that God would do. After all, it is all God's fault that we exist. Since He cannot or chooses to not take back our existence, then it is the least we can expect of Him that He find a way to save us from hell.

In the end, the entire story of God's relationship with man is seen as a cruel game. He forces us into existence and then threatens us with an eternal existence, hell or heaven, the difference being determined by some strange rule imposed by Him.

My initial reply was this:

I'll take the hook on this one (seeing the bigger fish avoiding it). No, I never encountered it. I would imagine it could be held by those who are distraught enough to ponder or act upon suicidal urges while at the same time holding a view that death is the end of the existence of a person.

It is deeply wound up in philosophical thinking, but it is wound around itself. This is the case because one cannot speak of a person outside of their existence. It is a false analysis to compare existence of a person to the non-existence of a person. All we might say is: Is the world a better place with this person existing or not? You cannot speak of what might be better for the person.

As far as the origin of evil question, we Christians simply have to say we do not know. What we do know is what God has told us in His Word. The creation was perfect but it fell into sin. However, God desires for it to be perfect once again. God desires to save all people and bring them to a blessed heavenly home.

I would push the point that for the Christian, the real measure of existence is where you are going to spend eternity. The perhaps 100 years of this earthly life can be very unpleasant, but it cannot be compared to the goodness of heaven. You can reference the original argument and ask would it be better for a person to exist in heaven or not exist. Heaven will be the greatest, most-blessed possible existence. Of course that is better. However, the question is whether one will be in heaven or hell. Hell is the worst possible existence. Any trouble in this life that we might face is incomparable to the existence in hell. God created us for heaven. With that in mind, our creation, our being brought into existence was to have us experience the best possible existence.

Why must we experience this earthly life with its pains? Why not just create us in heaven? Those are questions regarding God's hidden will. We are not meant to know the answers. The only conclusion we can reach right now is that things will be the way they are. There is no sense in pondering some hypothetical case where they are different because that is not going to change things.

Most people today are heavily focused on this life. I don't think that is where our attention is directed as Christians. We are to focus on what is beyond the resurrection. We are to lose this life. Live as citizens of heaven. Pursue eternal life.

It sounds like the person sharing the view you cited is depressed and curved in on himself. Woe is me for my life is so terrible. Why me? Depression has that way of locking one's attention inward. One of the best ways of breaking out is to direct the focus to other people. Help other people so that their earthly lives may be a bit better. Serve those who are in worse condition.

Finally, I will say that this line of thinking suggests rationalism has reigned in this person's thinking and led to one of the conclusions you can reach. It only goes to show the faulty nature of human reason. It can be held in such regard that it is considered the authority. If I can think of something, then it must be so. I would press the fact that our sinful natures and satan have a hold of our rationality. We are led to think things that are destructive and contrary to God's will. Instead, we need to focus on how things are, rather than imagine what else they could possibly be. Just because this person can imagine two states: existence and non-existence, does not mean he can choose between them. The reality must be addressed: heaven or hell? God gives us heaven through Christ. Would you rather choose hell? If you think this life is pitiful, why choose something worse that will last forever?

My additional reply

It is hard for me to think about how to respond to the non-Christian on these topics without just wanting to say: believe on Jesus who will save you from all trial and pain.

I wonder if, for this individual, one might chip away at the attitude of having a cruel existence. Perhaps both by considering how it could be worse but also considering what are some of the blessings of this life. Demonstrate a simple gratitude around this individual.

In addition, the notion that we humans can interpret the big picture is presumptive. Are we really able to look at things and make the judgment that our existence is cruel? With only our limited perspective, is it really accurate? Is a life always and only miserable? It is at best an over-generalization. It is a humanistic assumption that should be brought down to humility and recognition of our limited perspective.

Lastly, there is the "just consider it" approach. Certainly one can hold the attitude that God is cruel to me in all things or God doesn't exist. However, what if you just spend time considering the Christian answer. Can this individual come to a point where he really understands the Christian answer and can see that it is self-consistent? Can he come to understand that if one is a Christian, then there is a completely different answer which holds a pleasant future. In other words, can he say: "I can see the Christian view and if a person holds that view to be true, then I see that he would not have the same view about this life and existence, including eternal life." Now, I wonder if it will work to engage a variant on Pascal's wager: hold the view that existence is cruel and live a life in misery or hold a Christian view and live in hope. Might as well hold the latter.

Can it be suggested, also, that there is an inkling of the existence of something beyond us in most people? Some sense of the transcendent. Some thought that this life may not define all there is. I recall my past period of being an anti-Christian where I had to actively suppress such thinking. I'm not exactly sure where to take this, but perhaps it is the start of a line of discussion.

Of course, I don't think that you will be able to "talk" this person into becoming a Christian. That is the work of the Holy Spirit. However, some of these approaches may be of help in breaking down the rejecting spirit.