The following transcript is from an Apologetics 315 interview with Bruce Little. Original audio here. Transcript index here. If you enjoy transcripts, please consider supporting, which makes this possible.
BA: Hello this is Brian Auten of Apologetics 315. Today’s interview is with Dr. Bruce Little. He is the Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina. He’s also the author of A Creation-Order Theodicy: God and Gratuitous Evil. The purpose of our interview today is to learn a bit more about Dr. Little and his work, discuss the topic of evil and theodicy and seek his advice for Christian apologists. So Dr. Little, thanks for doing this interview.
BL: My pleasure, Brian.
BA: Would you mind telling our listeners a bit more about yourself and your background?
BL: Ah surely. You mentioned in the intro that I am the Professor of Philosophy here at Wake Forest, in Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. I’m also the director of The L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture, and I was [inaudible] I suppose in New England. I did not become a Christian until I was twenty years of age, and after coming to Christ, I soon went into the pastorate. In those days, no one cared if you had any education or not and I didn’t, but when I was thirty-four I really felt that I needed to go to the university, So, I did not start my training until I was thirty-four years old, and that was my baccalaureate degree, and then over the years after the baccalaureate, two masters, two doctorates, and I had this interest in apologetics I suppose primarily, Brian, because I was a pastor for thirty-some years. I realized that maybe the questions that were being asked by people in the pew were not being answered, and I wasn’t sure that I knew how to answer them. You noted that I have written on the subject and lectured extensively on the subject of theodicy or the problem of evil, primarily because I found that that was the…one of the largest questions, and the most difficult to answer. When you’re sitting in a counseling session and somebody is sitting across from you and they need answers, that are Biblical and helpful, I just realized that I simply wasn’t prepared to do that. I developed a real interest almost from a selfish point of view, because I sensed this was a question that not only was being asked by the unbeliever, but was being asked by the believer as well. The unbeliever often used the problem of evil as an excuse for not believing that God exists. The believer (rather) asks these questions because they did believe that God existed but just could not come to terms with, “Why, if this God is an all-powerful all-loving God, did He let something like this happen to me, and I’m just trying to serve the Lord. Yeah, that’s what got me interested in the whole matter of the problem of evil.
BA: Now did you find that your experience as a pastor has guided your study, and would you say that you take a more of a person-centered approach rather than just a – if you will – a technical approach?
BL: Well, that’s an interesting question. I would say it’s not an ‘either/or” for me, it’s a “both/and”. I often liken it to a person who goes to an oncologist. They know they have cancer. What they really want from the oncologist is basically…they just want a treatment plan. They don’t really care about the pathology of cancer necessarily, but I’ll tell you one thing, they sure hope the oncologist has a good knowledge of the pathology of cancer, because without that they would not be able to give a good answer, a good treatment plan. So I figured that if I were going to give a helpful answer to the person in front of me, then I needed to understand theoretically, technically, philosophically, theologically, however you want to speak of it – I need to understand, as it were, the ins-and-outs of that, and how all of this related to God and my theology. So,I tried really to do both.
BA: Alright, so the main thing we’ll be talking about is this issue of theodicy and what that is, but before we get too deep into it, maybe some of our listeners are not familiar so much with that term, so would you mind defining it and explaining what that is for those who are not familiar?
BL: Yes. The term theodicy – I’m not sure precisely when it first entered our vocabulary, but it was probably Leibniz who writes a book, which was simply titled, Theodicy, and others have used that word. It simply means “explain the ways of God to man”, and in particular it has to do with explaining the whole matter of evil and suffering in the world as it relates to God. So, we shorthand that and say “oh, that’s a theodicy.” This is how I explain how it is that I can reconcile an all-loving, all-powerful, all-knowing God with the presence of evil in a world – where He is sovereign over that world – without at the end of the day, that the evil being in some way being traced back to God, and that God then becomes responsible for that evil. That would be one kind of a theodicy. Others have theodicies that would actually maybe lead to the end of the day, it leads to the fact that “Oh yes, God is responsible for evil but that doesn’t bother me.” So there are many… shouldn’t say many, but there are different varieties of theodicy, but it is simply trying to explain how do you reconcile the presence of evil, in a creation created by an all-good all-powerful God, and believing that God is sovereign over that creation and He is not disinterested in what happens.
BA: Could you explain the difference between merely a defense against the issues and problems or evil, versus a theodicy?
BL: Yes, a defense simply gives an argument to the atheist who says, “Well, your argument against me does not, doesn’t hold water. I can give you possible explanations that defeat your argument.” But a theodicy actually tries to explain how it is, the way it works, that God could not…that God could be sovereign over His universe, over His creation, and at the same time allow evil and suffering to exist in that creation. So one is somewhat of an easy, I should say easier – it tries to answer the objection more from the atheist. Whereas, the theodicy really tries to not just explain why it’s rational that I would believe in the God that I do – even though there’s suffering and evil in this world – a theodicy goes as far as to say, this is how it can be that this God allows evil and suffering in this world.
BA: A moment ago you talked about there being different approaches that philosophers of religion take or…in constructing a theodicy, so would you mind talking about a few of those approaches and why people take those different angles?
BL: Sure. I would say there is probably one standard theodicy, that is to say it’s the theodicy that we most often hear from the Christian community. There may be varieties, they may be nuanced a little bit differently, and your theology will determine how it is nuanced. If you take a strong reformed position, then the theodicy I’m about to speak of would – if consistently held – would lead that God is responsible for the evil itself. But there are versions of what we call the “greater-good theodicy” that do not lead to that conclusion. The one that is most often used is some variety of what is called the “greater-good theodicy”. That was crafted by Augustine, and Augustine tried to wrestle with the problem of evil. He is one of the first ones that actually tries to do something of a theodicy, in the Christian era. Augustine came to believe that God allowed only that evil in the world from which He could bring about a greater good, or prevent a worse evil. Now, we at once probably realize that the latter part of that is really kinda nonsensical, because it is counter-factual. We don’t know whether that was true or not because the evil never happens, so we don’t know whether this evil that I had, prevented a worse evil, because the worse evil never happens. So how do we know that it would have? So I just sort of draw on the latter part of that and say, “Ok, let’s deal with the first part of the argument, that is that God allows only that evil in the world from which He can bring about the greater good.” So, when you argue that way, then you have to ask the question, “Where is the good? What is the good?” You can establish this theodicy – the “greater-good theodicy” – by one or two means. One – you could find a propositional statement in the Bible that says, “This is the relationship between God and evil. He only allows that evil in the world from which He brings about the greater good.” That would be one way to establish that. The other way to establish it would be if you could establish it empirically. That is, “Ah, we see the holocaust,” and I can say to you, “Ah, see Brian, there’s the good that came from the Holocaust. That good counterbalances the evil. So there you have it,” Now if I could do that, then of course that would support the “greater-good theodicy”. But the problem is, is that it is precisely events like the Holocaust, the Trade Towers, the tsunamis, and what Stalin did in Russia – is precisely those types of evil to which we cannot point to a greater good. And so the atheist comes back and says, ” Hey, your system simply doesn’t work because you cannot demonstrate to me that the evil in fact led to this greater good.” If you look at a… for a propositional statement in the Bible that says that God only allows evil in the world which He brings about a greater good, you’ll simply will search in vain because there is no verse in the Bible that says that. So the real problem it’s created for the theist, is that if you claim the “greater-good theodicy”, you have to claim that all evil has a purpose in this world, and that purpose is: some greater good. Immediately that raises questions for us: “How do we know how much good is required to offset that particular evil?” Another question that comes to mind: “Well, who gives the good?” Recently, in our country we had a young man who – at a birthday party, when an adult left the birthday party – he took the birthday cake knife and cut the head off his five-year-old sister, and then stabbed to death his twelve-year-old sister, and tried to kill the seventeen-year-old sister. So the question is, “Where is the good? Who suffers?” Well, the little girl five-years-old suffered; the one who was stabbed but not killed suffered, and of course the one who was stabbed and did die suffered. Who gets the good from this? Then you have to think about the mom, the dad, the aunts, the uncles, the grandparents etc. You say, “Who gets the good from this? Not only what was good, but who gets the good?” So, it seems to me it raises some real serious questions. And maybe the most difficult question that has to be answered from that particular…or any variety of the “greater-good theodicy”… is “If the good that comes from the evil is a necessary good – that it’s a good that must be in God’s creation by His design – then it also means that the evil must be in the world, by necessity.” Then you have no way of avoiding – if you’re consistent – concluding that God is the one who has willed the evil. But that really seems to be counter, as far as I can tell, from the scriptures. That is not the kind of a God that I serve. If on the other hand you say, “The good is in God’s creation, but it’s not essential”, then you’re left with the question: “Then why did God allow it in the first place? If the good wasn’t essential to His plan, why then did he allow the evil so the good could come?” So it seems to me that in a brief way, that seems to be to raise serious questions against the “greater-good theodicy”, which says there is no evil on this planet that does not have some purpose. That’s to me is a great weakness of the position, and has put upon the theist an obligation that’s much greater than can be met. I simply think you cannot sustain the argument.
BA: What strikes me about it is that, what reasons do we have of thinking that God operates with a scale, as long as there is more on one side than the other – you know, 51% good versus 49% evil. Where’s this scale end? How does that work? That would be my sort of impression.
BL: Well, it’s a good impression, I know nothing of some kind of cosmic scale, by which God operates. I don’t find anything in the BIble that indicates that He operates that way. And as I said earlier how many units of good are required to overcome so many units of evil? I don’t know any way of making some sort of an assessment or an evaluation of that.
BA: Well you’ve written the book, A Creation-Order Theodicy, and the subtitle is “God and Gratuitous Evil.” So in that book you present your approach, would you mind spelling that out a bit for us?
BL: Yes, let me work from the back end and work backward on this. One of my basic theses is, Brian, that gratuitous evil exists in this creation, but that gratuitous evil does not come against the moral perfections of God, and that includes His sovereignty. So, that’s the thesis that I’m working with. So that when somebody says, “Where’s the good from that evil?” I simply reply, “I never affirmed that good must come from all evil.” Which means I think there is a possibility of gratuitous evil. Now how would that work? Well my understanding of creation is that when God created the universe, He creates it with certain rules, by which He will interact with man, and man will interact with Him. And part of the rules, so to speak, is that man has what is called “libertarian freedom,” he is an agent of change. He can choose between two contraries, and because of that God respects the rules, the law that He has set up for the operation of the universe and His daily interaction with man. So that if I choose to do a bad thing, then because God has given me this “libertarian freedom”, because God has arranged the world in that fashion, that God allows the consequences of my poor choices to actually have real consequences. Now that doesn’t mean that God couldn’t intervene if He should so choose, He’s not obligated to. It doesn’t mean that in His providential care that He might not protect somebody, because of my evil choices. But the fact remains, that a lot of the evil that takes place in this world is not because God has ordained it, or allowed it in order to bring about some good, but it comes about because men and women make really bad choices. Now some would say to me at that point, “Wait a minute, Bruce, you must live in a chaotic world! You don’t really believe that God is sovereign, because now you’re saying that something happened that has no purpose, why – that means that God isn’t sovereign.” And then I want to talk to that person about what do they mean by “sovereign.” We often speak of sovereign by saying God is in control. I do not deny that, I’m in total support of it, the Bible teaches it. But there are two ways that we can understand “God being in control.” One is, as we might say, that a man is in control of his automobile. If he turns the wheel to the left, then the automobile (all things being functioning) normally turns to the left. Now, that’s a very mechanistic kind of control. That’s one type of control. The other kind…the other way to use the word – the man is in control of his family. It doesn’t mean that he decides everything that everybody in the family does; it doesn’t mean that he forces everybody to do what he wants. It simply means that there are rules in the family that everybody lives by, and that he oversees to make sure that people live by the rules. Well, I would take it that when I speak of God’s sovereignty in creation, I think of it in the latter sense, not the former sense. I don’t know of any other way that you could think of it. If you look at it the former way, you live in a purely deterministic world, which I think the “greater-good theodicy” leads to. If you live in a deterministic world, then I am ultimately not responsible for the evil I do. Whereas if you live in a world as I think we do, where sovereignty is understood as God is in control of His universe, as a man is in control of his home, then you see real choices have real consequences.
BA: Can you talk about how pain would tie into that?
BL: Well, surely. There is a sense in which pain, I would think now…here again is my theology – my view would be that pain only entered human experience after the fall. So that if I scratch my arm and I feel the pain, well, it tells me to stop scratching my arm. Or if I grab something that is hot and I’m in terrible pain, I release it. Well of course, there is a sense in which the pain helps me to not injure myself, but then it can’t be that that’s only what happens in a fallen world. It only helps to protect me. It’s not some greater cosmic good because the best world would be where I never burn myself and I never scratch myself to the point of creating pain. So I would say that, that idea of pain simply is a way that, in a fallen state, doesn’t bring about some greater good, but it is a way in which pain can be instructive for us. But as I say, it would be much better if I had no pain at all. If we look at pain in the sense that it informs me that something is wrong with my body. Let’s say I have been having stomach pain here, and I go my doctor and my doctor says, “Oh Bruce, you got stomach cancer” – now some people argue, “Well see there, the greater good is the pain to let you know that you have stomach cancer.” Well then I say, “Under that scenario, as soon as I understand I got stomach cancer, the pain ought to go away! It has served its purpose; but it doesn’t go away.” And so I don’t find that argument very…very convincing. Or people say, “You have to have the ugly in order to enjoy the beauty.” Then I say, “You don’t understand what it must have been like to live before the fall. I can’t imagine a better understanding of beauty and goodness than what Adam had before the fall. He didn’t need the ugly to appreciate the beautiful, or the good.” So I think all these argument – or at least all those arguments that we just mentioned – are so weightless in the discussion.
BA: Now, speaking to Christian apologists who may be studying this issue or interacting with people about it – how do you think that they should approach their understanding to it and how should they interact with others in real life situations?
BL: Well, those are probably two questions. Let me answer the first. How should we as apologists…because as apologists, we’re doing something different than when we may be engaging the person down the street, or the occasional person or pastor who is going through a difficult time – so, I’ll address that in a moment. How should apologists address it? Well, what I would say is, however you would address it, number one – you wanna be consistent with your theology, because everything is theological. And the second thing, it seems to me, is that you have got to avoid having at the end of the day, God being responsible for evil. Now if you look at the early church, you will see the first three hundred years of church history – and then I would say even all the way up to at least the reformation – you will find that people argued as apologists with respect to the problem of evil, always intentionally and in a robust fashion, never coming up with an explanation of evil that ever put evil at the foot of God. So if you’re gonna be an apologist, I think those are guidelines that you have to observe. God cannot be the one responsible for evil, and secondly you got to be consistent with your answer…with your theology. Now it can get worked out different ways, but I also would think that I would appeal to any apologist – if you’re gonna do this subject, you can’t play sleight of hand. You can’t just play word games. It turns things on their head. Calling them something that they’re not. You really have to be honest in all of this and say “Yes, this is the logical extension of my theology when it relates to the problem of evil.” Does it lead to a place where evil is necessitated, or does that lead to the point where God is responsible for the evil? I think you have to avoid those things. When it comes to dealing with people – as I have as a pastor for thirty years – what I think we need to do, and where I see the “greater-good theodicy” having its difficulties in just personal counseling, is that when you say, “Oh, listen to ya. God has allowed that to bring some greater good in your life,” – the moment you accept that as the moral justification for God planning this thing to happen, you have now turned that person’s attention to start looking for the good. And I think that is highly problematic, and in some cases even cruel, because when the good does not become obvious, there is the tendency to become bitter toward God, and just say, “God may do that for some people, but He won’t do that for me.” I would prefer to say, “Listen, you live in a fallen world – bad things happen even to good people; bad people make bad choices; good people make bad choices. History is real – it’s messy. God lets decisions play themselves out in history, because that’s the way He’s constructed out the world – He respects His creation. But here’s what I can promise you – I can promise you one: in Hebrews we are told He never leaves us nor forsakes us; 2nd Corinthians chapter 1 verses 2-4 – He’s the God of all comfort, the Father of all mercies; 2nd Corinthians chapter 12: His grace is always sufficient.” So what I would do in counseling somebody, is to turn their faces to God. Not to look for the good, but to look to God. He’ll never disappoint you. When I say look to God, I mean the Spirit of God can minister and encourage your life. God can work through the community of faith, but you need to not be looking for the good as a moral justification for why God permitted that into your life. Because the good is often…even if it’s there, it’s difficult to see sometimes. And I would say, “So what? If the good comes, thank God!” But you can’t even be assured if the good would not have been obtained if the evil had not happened. How can we possibly make that kind of a judgment? You say, “Oh well, my mother died of cancer, but because of that my dad came to Jesus,” I say, “Excuse me, what right do you have to make those kinds of claims? How do you know your daddy would not have come to Jesus without the death of your mother?” As human beings, we don’t have that kind of infinite knowledge to make those kind of claims.
BA: So what sort of resources would you wanna point people to, to get a broad understanding of that subject? Of course your own book I wanna link people to, but are there other authors or thinkers that have kind of influenced you along this line?
BL: Yes I would say that Michael L. Peterson has a small book, it’s simply called Evil and God, An Introduction To The Problem Of Evil. He doesn’t draw any conclusions, He doesn’t give you the answers, but he does lay out for you what are the issues in this big discussion, and where the dangers are, but he does not reach any conclusions. In fact, it was his book that led me to do my doctoral dissertations on the problem of evil. And I think that Michael Peterson has done a really good job. Udo W. Middelmann has written called, The Innocence of God. I think that’s an excellent treatment of that subject as well.
BA: Ok. Now just apart from the problem of evil and theodicy, what sort of other advice would you have for this next generation of Christian apologists?
BL: Oh my, that’s a wonderful question! I just came from a seminar, a PhD seminar where we were discussing this issue today. I would say, one: if you want to be a Christian apologist you need to understand one of the broad categories of concern of your culture. The broad categories are epistemology and ontology. You need to be informed in those areas and how that works out in our everyday existence and practice. The second thing that I would argue is you seriously need to listen to what your culture is saying. I find that many apologists are answering questions (or at least apologetics books) are answering questions that nobody is asking. And I would say at this point, and I know that Francis Schaeffer lived some time ago, but I’m still convinced that Francis Schaeffer gives us one of the best models of doing apologetics than anybody I have known. And so I would encourage people to consider reading some of the works of Francis Schaeffer to understand how to engage your culture apologetically.
BA: Well excellent. Dr. Little, thanks for speaking with me today, it’s been a real pleasure.
BL: Well, I’ve enjoyed it. I’m not sure I’ve added much to the discussion, but I’ve enjoyed the conversation.