We all suffer, and we often wonder why we suffer. We yearn to find meaning in—or despite—the evils that assail us. Everyone does this, whether they believe in one God, no god, many gods, or claim ignorance on the matter. Christians are compelled to give a meaningful and rational explanation for God, good, and evil (1 Pet. 3:15). Those enlisted in this noble cause include intellectual giants such as Augustine, Aquinas, Pascal, Jonathan Edwards, C. S. Lewis, and Alvin Plantinga. Now Dinesh D'Souza bids to join their august ranks—and even to outshine them.
D'Souza, president of the King's College in New York City, made his name as a conservative public policy analyst. In recent years, however, he has also written books on Christian apologetics and has debated well-known atheists such as Christopher Hitchens and Peter Singer. His latest offering is Godforsaken: Bad Things Happen. Is there a God who cares? Yes. Here's proof (Tyndale). In it, D'Souza tackles the perennially vexing problem of evil.
From Epicurus to David Hume to Hitchens, unbelievers have denied that one can rationally believe in a God who is both all-good and all-powerful, given the amount and variety of evil in the world. If God were good, he would want to eliminate evil; if he were all-powerful, he could eliminate evil. Yet evil exists. Therefore, the atheist concludes that the God of traditional theism does not exist. The burden of the Christian apologist is to reconcile the fact of evil with the reality of God, without committing intellectual suicide.
Tackling this topic is a tall order for a short book written by a non-philosopher. I respect much of D'Souza's political analysis. However, concerning apologetics—despite his native intelligence, clear writing, and wealth of footnoted sources—D'Souza is too often out of his depth. This is particularly evident in this ambitious, but ultimately disappointing, work. To make matters worse, D'Souza claims to offer a new solution to this ancient problem—one that incorporates discoveries from contemporary science and avoids the errors of traditional approaches. Few professional philosophers or theologians hazard this kind of claim, and for good reason.
Balanced on a Razor's Edge
Since the problem of evil is both a cerebral puzzle and a visceral wound in the soul, the author wisely begins by emphasizing both aspects. D'Souza draws the reader into the problem through several stories from his own childhood in India and through other gut-wrenching examples. He clearly explains the unbeliever's charge against God, citing the pertinent sources, from ancient to modern. Some of D'Souza's best work is in the fourth chapter, where he exposes the vacuity of atheistic approaches to understanding the meaning of evil. D'Souza summarizes and criticizes the traditional responses to the problem. He then claims to offer an answer superior to that of his intellectual forebears.
In the process, D'Souza undermines his case by caricaturing some of the positions he finds inadequate, particularly the Augustinian doctrine of evil as the absence of good (rather than an entity unto itself). Augustine did not argue that evil doesn't exist (contra D'Souza), but that it has no roots in the nature of existence—unlike the good, which is grounded in the character of God and in God's original creation. The Augustinian view, which has been defended by, among others, Lewis in Mere Christianity, is far more richly nuanced and philosophically supportable than D'Souza's account would suggest.
The same holds true for his account of the German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz's view that God's creation is "the best of all possible worlds." Ironically, D'Souza seems unwittingly to emulate Leibniz's approach. Both claim that God can only actualize states of affairs that are logically coherent given the results God desires on the basis of his character. Thus, some imaginable worlds are not, in fact, really possible. However, God will bring about the best world that he can possibly produce, however painful that world must be.
Here is where things get messy. D'Souza correctly claims that modern physics has recently discovered a finely tuned universe that reveals a Designer. The various laws, constants, and proportions that govern the world are balanced on a razor's edge to make human life possible. D'Souza, though, states that it had to be that way. If God were going to create a world of free beings, he had to situate them in a world governed by regular and predictable laws. But the by-product of creating this world is a set of physical conditions that produce suffering through disease, earthquakes, and other ills. Even God's apparent absence from human experience (the supposed "hiddenness of God") is necessary given the constraints God faced in creating the world of his choice.
Yet none of this is genuinely new, despite D'Souza's claim otherwise. He is simply updating the older natural law argument used by Lewis (in The Problem of Pain) and others. A world of natural regularities will produce both good and evil; it is inescapable. The same fire that warms the body will burn the flesh. Original to D'Souza is the addition of scientific research confirming a fine-tuned universe, but this only elaborates on the previous strategy.
Moreover, D'Souza fails to make a crucial distinction in his overall argument. He says he is offering a "theodicy," a way to justify God's ways to man. However, several times he asserts that his proposed solutions to the problem of evil need only be possibly true, not even probable or likely true. Here he fails to make a key philosophical distinction (originated by Plantinga and now canonized in the philosophical literature on this topic) between a defense and a theodicy.
The former merely attempts to show that the existence of evil and the existence of God are not logically incompatible. A theodicy, on the other hand, is a constructive explanation of how and why God uses or allows evil in the world. Therefore, a theodicy needs to offer compelling reasons, not merely possible options, for why God acts as he does in a world contaminated by evils. This distinction is lost on D'Souza, to the detriment of his argument.
Confusing Creation and Fall
One also wonders how the author distinguishes Creation, Fall, and Redemption. Given his embrace of Darwinian macro-evolution, he denies a literal, space-time fall of our first parents, while trying to retain some sense of human rebellion against God as having systemically deleterious effects on creation. However, he also claims that God's creation of a physically fine-tuned world mandates many ills that would plague us even without a fall from grace (such as earthquakes). There seems to be a conflation or confusion of Creation and Fall.
Especially troubling are D'Souza's many statements that embodied human existence demands certain defects leading to suffering, because God could not have created otherwise. Yet he also affirms a blessed and embodied afterlife in which these features will be absent (see Revelation 21-22).
D'Souza cannot have it both ways. If fine-tuning and embodiment necessitate suffering, they would do so in any set of physical conditions, including the final state of the redeemed. But that would not be a paradise without curse and without tears, but rather a continuation of the kinds of suffering we now experience. Perhaps D'Souza hints at a way to resolve this apparent inconsistency, but I could not unearth it.
While D'Souza capably navigates some of the territory of the problem of evil, he lacks the philosophical acumen needed to present a fully compelling case. Nevertheless, the reader will benefit from a wide-ranging and stimulating discussion of one of Christianity's thorniest problems.
Douglas Groothuis is the author of Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (IVP Academic) and professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary.
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Godforsaken is available from Christianbook.com and other retailers.
Previous Christianity Today articles about suffering in the world include:
Joni Eareckson Tada on Something Greater than Healing | Now facing breast cancer and chronic pain, the author, speaker, and advocate talks about the blessings of suffering. (October 8, 2010)
Does God Want Us to Suffer? | Physical pain can transform or destroy us. It's best not to determine which category another's pain falls into. (Her.meneutics, September 24, 2010)
Nancy Guthrie: Hearing Jesus Speak Into Your Sorrow | Well acquainted with suffering, Guthrie offers Jesus' words of comfort in her most recent work. (Her.meneutics, July 14, 2009)
On the Question of Suffering | Two authors with new books arrive at different points on the belief spectrum. (Liveblog, November 12, 2007)
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