Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Ravi Zacharias on the Problem of Evil

As part of Holy Week (or Jesus Week, or Passion Week), Ravi Zacharias came to speak at Columbia. I attended his first talk where he addressed the problem of evil - this was meant to be an extension of the discussion that was started at the Veritas Forum. I've heard of Ravi Zacharias but I've never really heard him speak (I believe he has a weekly radio programme) or read any of his books. He spoke at the Roone Arledge Auditorium. The place was packed, and with good reason. He's a very charismatic and very brilliant speaker. I think we all walked out of that auditorium knowing God just that much better.

His first response to the question of 'Why does evil exist?' and 'How can there be a good God if evil exists?', was to point out that the questioner needed a philosophical and existential basis on which to justify the very question. He spoke about how the problem of evil is not merely a problem, but a mystery. Quoting Gabriel Marcel, "A mystery is something in which I am myself involved, and it can therefore only be thought of as a sphere where the distinction between what is in me and what is before me loses its meaning and its initial validity". In other words, when one is faced with questions where there is no objective standpoint which one can adopt to answer such questions, we have a "genuine" mystery. The subject is involved in, and a part of, that about which he is asking. A mystery is thus "a problem which encroaches upon its own data, invading them, as it were, and thereby transcending itself as a simple problem".

He told a very funny story about attending a lecture at Cambridge where Stephen Hawking discussed the question "Am I determined or am I free?" After lengthy and brilliant analysis that weighed arguments on both sides of the question, Hawking concluded with, "So are we determined? Yes. But since we do not know what is determined, we might as well not be."

There is no neutral standpoint in answering this question; no worldview proposes an answer without also smuggling in life's essential purpose. Additionally, how does one really raise the problem of evil in an amoral world? The question would make no sense. A purely materialistic understanding of reality would have to admit that at the bottom, the idea that we are equal is a blatant lie. The logical conclusion of naturalism would be what Nietzsche rightly concluded. It is only the under-dog, he says, that believes in equality. It is only the groveling and inefficient mob that seeks to reduce all humanity to one dead level, for it is only the mob that would gain by such leveling. "'There are no higher men,' says the crowd in the market place. 'We are all equal; man is man; in the presence of God we are all equal!' In the presence of God, indeed! But I tell you that God is dead!" so thunders Zarathustra. For Nietzsche, the superman seeks to elevate himself to the heights of power by trampling upon the masses. "Disregard your neighbors! Man is something to be surpassed! Surpass yourself at the expense of your neighbor," says Zarathustra.

Dr Zacharias pointed out that materialism does not give us the resources to say that racism is wrong. If this world is all there is and it all ends with the burning up of the sun, right and wrong are just purely constructed categories that have no independent truth. Objective moral values must exist if we are of essential worth. And we are of essential worth only if we are created by a being of essential worth, and not the random result of natural accident.

How many times does Jesus question his questioners? Dr Zacharias asked. Some of the Herodians and the Pharisees, trying to trick Jesus, asked him, "Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?" But as Luke records for us, He saw through their duplicity and said to them, "Show me a denarius. Whose portrait and inscription are on it?"
"Caesar's," they replied.
He said to them, "Then give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's."

Dr Zacharias pointed out that Jesus could have asked them another question. “Whose image do you bear?”

He argued that objective moral values only exist if God exists. Because objective moral values do exist, God exists. The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins once said, “if the universe were just electrons and selfish genes, meaningless tragedies are exactly what we should expect, along with equally meaningless good fortune. Such a universe would be neither evil nor good in intention. It would manifest no intentions of any kind.

In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, or any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. As that unhappy poet A E Housman put it:

For Nature, heartless, witless
Will neither know nor care.

DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.”

Dr Zacharias went on to share a very funny story that he’s also written about here:

Some time ago I was speaking at a university in England, when a rather exasperated person in the audience made his attack upon God.

“There cannot possibly be a God,” he said, “with all the evil and suffering that exists in the world!”

I asked, “When you say there is such a thing as evil, are you not assuming that there is such a thing as good?”

“Of course,” he retorted.

“But when you assume there is such a thing as good, are you not also assuming that there is such a thing as a moral law on the basis of which to distinguish between good and evil?”

“I suppose so,” came the hesitant and much softer reply.

“If, then, there is a moral law,” I said, “you must also posit a moral law giver. But that is who you are trying to disprove and not prove. If there is no transcendent moral law giver, there is no absolute moral law. If there is no moral law, there really is no good. If there is no good there is no evil. I am not sure what your question is!”

There was silence and then he said, “What, then, am I asking you?”

He was visibly jolted that at the heart of his question lay an assumption that contradicted his own conclusion.

You see friends, the skeptic not only has to give an answer to his or her own question, but also has to justify the question itself. And even as the laughter subsided I reminded him that his question was indeed reasonable, but that his question justified my assumption that this was a moral universe. For if God is not the author of life, neither good nor bad are meaningful terms.

This seems to constantly elude the critic who thinks that by raising the question of evil, a trap has been sprung to destroy theism. When in fact, the very raising of the question ensnares the skeptic who raised the question. A hidden assumption comes into the open. Moreover, as C. S. Lewis reminds us, the moment we acknowledge something as being “better”, we are committing ourselves to an objective point of reference.

The disorienting reality to those who raise the problem of evil is that the Christian can be consistent when he or she talks about the problem of evil, while the skeptic is hard-pressed to respond to the question of good in an amoral universe. In short, the problem of evil is not solved by doing away with the existence of God; the problem of evil and suffering must be resolved while keeping God in the picture.

Dr Zacharias said that ultimately, we must ask ourselves this question: If the evil around me bothers me that much, does the evil within me bother me, then? And it must, he said. For that evil within, only Christ has the answer.

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