An Interview with Bruce Little (PhD) on the ‘Problem of Evil’

August 27, 2008 at 2:49 pm 4 comments

There seems to be a renewed interest in the ‘blog world’ on issues dealing with evil and suffering. So I decided to contact one of my former professors, Dr. Bruce Little, and ask him if he would be willing to answer a few questions regarding his “Creation Order Theodicy.”

Bruce Little presently teaches at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (Wake Forest, NC) where he serves as Professor of Philosophy and Director of the L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture. Dr. Little received his Bachelors degree from Baptist Bible College of PA, a M.A. in Apologetics and a M.R.E. from Liberty University, a D.Min from Columbia Biblical Seminary, and a PhD from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

In Dr. Little’s book “A Creation-Order Theodicy” (University Press of America, 2005) he presents a theodicy from a moderate libertarian position. This basically means that he does not believe in radical freedom. “I think man’s choices are limited and/or influenced by God’s providential ruling, physical limitations, and antecedent events and choices.” I thought it would be interesting to hear his thoughts, and responses to a few questions.

What is a theodicy, and why is it important that pastors think through the issues of evil and suffering?

A theodicy is a way of explaining the ways of God regarding the matter of evil. I served as pastor for over 30 years and that is where I first started thinking deeply about all this. In fact, I did not know that it was called a theodicy in those days. I realized that people need answers regarding the reality of evil and suffering in this world. Furthermore, those answers had to square with what I had just preached on the Sunday before. The problem is that at once when we suffer we wonder why God did not protect me from it. In fact, maybe I had even prayed that He would, or I have been good, why did this come to me. But, the tension comes because we believe God is all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful and that He is the sovereign of Creation, yet His creation is riddled with evil and suffering. So, as a pastor we need to have answers that not only answer the cry of the heart, but the objections of the non-Christian. The argument from evil is probably the most often heard objection to believing there is a God. Maybe at first the individual simply needs for you to pray with them, weep with them, listen to them, but in the end, they will want answers to there legitimate questions about God and evil. If Christianity is a superior belief system to all others, then we must have an answer at this most important point.

For me, the hardest part of constructing a Theodicy is dealing with the question, “if God is all good and all powerful why is there so much intense, unequally distributed suffering of innocents”? In a situation of pastoral counseling, how would you approach such a question?

You are right; this is the great question, especially suffering of children. In pastoral counseling, I think the approach is that we confront people with the reality that we live in a fallen world, one that is out of joint. It is not as it was intended to be. There is a lot of evil and suffering in this world because nature is out of joint and moral agents choose to do evil things that bring suffering. These are not things God planned or caused, they are, in light of Genesis 3, the result of man’s disobedience in the Garden. So, I have, over the years, pointed people to God, His comfort, His mercy (II Cor. 1:2-5) and His sufficient grace (II Cor12:9) in their time of trouble knowing that He is sufficient. In fact, I would go so far as to say that in many cases He weeps for humanity for all its suffering as this is not the way it was intended. When I read the Gospels, I find Jesus, who revealed the Father to us, having compassion on those who suffered. The widow of Nain is such a clear example of this as no one asked Jesus to do anything—He was simply moved with compassion to raise the widow’s dead son. I have always tried to have them focus on the God who will never leave of forsake us, to know that He walks with us through the difficulty if we know Him, and to know that His grace can strengthen us to be a testimony in the midst of our difficulties. Many times, people think that the suffering has been allowed by God to bring some good to their live so they try to find the good. However, on many occasions that has led to bitterness because they never found the good. I am not saying that we may not learn valuable lessons in our suffering, but that does not mean that is why the suffering came to us. God may bless, but if He does, it is in spite of the suffering, not because of the suffering. In that case, we simply praise God for His grace. I have know a good number of people who spent time trying to find the good so they could still believe God and when they did not find it they became bitter towards God.

You make a distinction from speaking about the ‘Problem of Evil’ and the ‘Argument from Evil’, why is this important or even necessary?

I would say that it is important in formal debate or discussion within the academy. The reason is, that for the Christian, evil is not a problem in the sense that does not cause us to wonder whether God is there or not—so in that sense it is not a problem. What it is, is an argument by the atheist to claim that God cannot exist as the all-good, all-knowing, all-powerful God in light of all the evil. Some argue that it is a logical impossibility for God to exist, others argue that it is more probable that God does not exist than that He does exist. So, in that case I would make the point that we are dealing with an argument and then see if the argument wins the day. That is, is evil a defeater of the claim that God exists. Of course I think it is not.

The classical explanation given to answer questions of suffering and evil is that “God allows only that evil in this world from which He can bring about a greater-good or prevent a worse evil” (this is the Greater Good Theodicy). You devote a good portion of your book to refuting this argument. Why is it that this argument fails?

Well, this argument fails because it simply lacks biblical support in my mind. I know that many use Ro 8:28 as the grounding for this position, but when we look at the text the most it would say is that God works for good those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. This means that it would only be an answer for suffering of the Christian and further, I believe the context of the text limits it to only when one suffers for righteousness. This is what Jesus teaches in Matt 5: 10-12; Peter in I Pet 1:6-7 and so forth. So, I think that Ro 8:28 is insufficient for claiming what the greater-good theodicy claims. There are other verses, but I believe they fail to support the Greater Good theodicy. Other reasons it fails, I think, tend to be obvious once we think about it. For example: consider abortion (which I would call an evil). According to the Greater-Good theodicy abortion is allowed by God in order to bring about a greater good. If that is the case, then we should not stop abortion for in doing so the good God intended is denied, but we are called to stand for social justice and against evil practices. The same argument goes for prayer. Why we would pray for someone when they are terminally ill (it is allowed by God for a greater good). Furthermore, we must ask the question: “if God allows evil to bring about a good, is that good a necessary good? If it is a necessary good, then the evil that brings it is necessary and the only way it could be necessary is if God planned it. This makes God responsible for evil, something I think is clearly contrary to scripture because God is light and in Him is no darkness at all. If on the other hand the good is not necessary then we are back to asking the question why the evil? In addition, if the good cannot come about except by evil, then God needs evil to accomplish something good which means there are certain things God cannot do, namely bring about the good without evil. I am doubtful that one really would want to accept that conclusion. Of course much more could be said on this matter, but I will let this serve as my answer at this time.

Dealing with the ‘Greater Good Theodicy’ we often hear arguments like “God allows the evil, because in the end his judgment of the wicked will bring glory to himself”, how would you defend your argument in light of this explanation?

Well, I say that God does not need evil to bring glory to himself—He will do that anyway. While it is true that in the end, every knee shall bow and confess Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of the Father, that is another issue altogether. So I think the response fails to see that there is a difference in God receiving glory in the judgment and God needing judgment to bring Him glory. In addition, it is far better that God should be glorified by His people doing right as Jesus glorified the Father in doing the Father’s will. In my thinking, this response fails to understand the heart of God. Much of the evil that comes touches the innocent, so in this case, innocents suffer profoundly so that God can be glorified in judging the person who committed the crime—you know like raping a little girl and then burying her alive. Think of the multiplied suffering that caused for the little girl, her family, her friends, and her community—all so that God can get glory in judging the one committing the evil.

In ‘Creation Order Theodicy’ you put up an argument for ‘the best of all possible worlds’, some would say this is irrelevant in formulating a theodicy. Why is the ‘best of all possible worlds’ argument important to the theodicy?

In my mind, the best of all possible worlds is necessary to answer the question: “Why did not God actualize a world with less evil—a better world we might say?” Surely if that could have been done and all other things remained the same, God would be acting in a way less than what He was capable of if he did not do it. It is not just that He did less that what He could have done, like making another kind of animal, this acting in a fashion below His creative capabilities concerns the morality of God. That is, a serious indictment—God acting in a fashion that reveals an act not sponsor by His perfect goodness. Furthermore, but connected to this, is I think that the logic of a God who holds all His attributes in maximal perfection requires that in all things He does the best that is possible under the circumstances. Genesis 1:31 says that God saw that everything He made was very good. Very good by God’s standard is the best possible. If God does not do what is best in the actualizing of the world and yet He claims it is very good, then one wonders about the summary statement. In addition, if He does not do His best, then one could reply that He is morally delinquent for not doing His moral best.

In ‘Creation Order Theodicy’ you talk about a ‘two minds’ theory, could you explain that and what place it has in your theodicy?

By two minds, I mean two kinds of minds—real minds. We have the divine mind and the human mind. If the human mind is to function as a true mind, then it must have the capacity to think and to choose which means man must have what is called libertarian freedom. Otherwise man would just be a machine doing what he had been programmed to do, or man’s action being only the consequence of a series of causal events either mental or physical. But man is not a machine, he is a being made in the image of God. He is given commands and is expected to obey them, but with the possibility he will disobey them. If man chooses to disobey, there are consequences and he is held responsible for his choices. We must understand that we have a real person to person relationship with God, not just a personal relationship in the sense of a private relationship. We need to think about this deeply. It is amazing that man, because he has a mind patterned after God’s mind making it possible for a real personal relationship to exist between the divine mind and the human mind. But more than this, man is called to love God (Matt 22:37-39) which is the highest calling of humanity. You cannot love God without having the freedom to choose to love and this requires a mind, otherwise, it would be something else, but it would not be love. This is important to my theodicy as it places the problem of evil in a larger context, the context of creation, and the wonder of man having a real mind to which God can communicate and with which man can understand and respond either affirming or denying the truth God communicates. I would say that God respects man’s choices because He gave man his mind and because the consequences of man’s choices (good and bad) flow into history. We surely see this in Gen 3.

How does the idea of middle knowledge influence how we understand God’s providence and man’s responsibility?

Middle knowledge is a large subject, but in its basic form it affirms that God not only knows what man does or will do, God knows the choices man would have made under difference circumstances or in a different world. So, God saw all the possible worlds and then actualized the best of those worlds. So, in any world man freely chooses what he chooses. When God actualizes a world (the one in which we live), the choices we make in this world are free choices. Because God’s middle knowledge is active in which world to actualize, we know that this is the best of all possible worlds. However, because this is the world God has sovereignly chosen, our free choices are fixed and the end is assured as God knows the end from the beginning of this creation. God’s providence acts in this world, working with the choices of man assuring that the end will be as He has promised it shall be.

Do you have any forthcoming projects or work in this area?

Yes, I am working on a book which places the problem of evil in a much larger context. That means, as a part of our larger Christian worldview and how Christians understand better how to reach their culture.

Other Resources on Little’s Creation Order Theodicy

1. Because I feel that we, as Christians, need to think long and hard about these issues I am going to postResponses to the Interview”.

Andy Naselli

Ross Parker

2. Also of interest, Kirk R. MacGregor responded to Dr. Little’s book with a paper delivered at the Evangelical Theological Society, which can be found here. The paper is titled;

“Can Little’s Creation Order Theodicy be Reconciled with Sovereign Individual Predestination?”

Entry filed under: Life, Philosophy, Religion, Thoughts.

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