The Dark Side of God: How God and Batman are Alike, A new way of approaching the Problem of Evil

This is an adaption of a paper I wrote titled, God + Evil = Good God? I’d be happy to email it to anyone who wants the more robust version.

I loved the Dark Knight, I watched it three times in the theatre. The movie swelled of juicy dilemmas. The moral conundrums were just as good as the stunts. I’m sure Bentham and Macchiavelli were dancing in their tombs. Does Batman have a choice to be Batman? Who should Batman save, Rachel or Harvey Dent? Is it OK that Batman wire-tapped all Gotham cell phones (fundamental invasion of privacy) in order to nail the Joker? Should he have preserved Dent’s integrity (and in so-doing, lie)? We cannot forget about that nail-biter of a social experiment at the end where both ferries were rigged to explosives. The “Triple-sick”, nihilistic Joker (and perfect nemesis – neither Batman nor the Joker are motivated by fame) wanted fireworks, the people wanted their lives… and that was the twist. Maybe some deserved life more than others? As we watched this more consequential version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, we all thought to ourselves, “what would I do, and is it what I should do?” In the end we feel exuberant that it’s the joker who is left hanging, and this of course feels more than justified. After all, he is the bad guy.

Hypothetically if you knew nothing previous of Batman and you saw him, draped in all his majesty, would you assume he is good? I doubt it, and that’s one of the cool things about him. Batman is a good guy who doesn’t always do “good” things, who looks like the bad guy. It’s so unapologetically twisted!  So how then do we know he is ultimately good? We know because of his pre-act motives and feelings. What makes Batman angry? Crime, disharmony, and men who wear lots of makeup. What brings him joy? Justice, Liberty and Freedom. We like Batman because he does all he can to allow for the least amount of suffering. But it isn’t easy. Batman is constantly battling his altruistic side. Personally, it’s not so good for batman to be batman, and so the temptation to lower himself to the level of others is hauntingly real. There are also a lot of evils Batman can’t get to (not including the evils he allows, including from the first, “I won’t kill you, but I don’t have to save you!”). Batman is merely the super-version of anybody and so he must choose which evil to pursue. For some he is too late. He must dedicate himself to the evilest evil, for the sake of the greatest good. One of Batman’s weaknesses is that he can’t do everything. Is God so different?

Well, certainly God has God’s own ontological peculiarities, but I still see a lot of similarities. God’s got his own dark side as well. You see, he isn’t always willing or able to appear/act as the Guardian of Light. If this is new to you, then I would argue that you are misunderstanding the character of the Big One Upstairs. Just as Batman would be offended if asked to garb an all-white tunic, so God is offended when asked to act in such an anthropocentric and superficial way. The description doesn’t match the personality. If you picture God as that cute and precious all-loving, all-accepting, all-powerful lamb able to guard against every evil and solely desirous to constantly rain upon your life only immediately expedient blessings, then you are seriously confused.

After all, our experiences tell us another story. Everywhere we look we see evil in the form of pain; suffering; disasters and crime. This is just as true in the past as it is to the present. How can this be? As Christians, we understand God to be all good; all knowing and all powerful. But should we? Why would God allow such atrocities? Cancer; HIV; malnutrition; starvation; AIDS; poverty; racism; sexism; murder; rape; torture; slander; gossip; adultery, divorce. The global realities are almost too harsh to bear.  Most, if not all of us, have experienced at least some of these difficulties personally. No one can deny that much we see in the world is surprising and indeed shocking when we consider that the world is said to be governed and controlled by a perfect; omniscient and omnipotent God. Why then isn’t God to blame?

If God is all powerful why doesn’t he obliterate such horrors? As concerns goodness, perhaps God’s actions speak louder than His words. He restrains happiness from millions of people and He does it on a daily basis. Why don’t we give up on God all together? “I thought God was here for me, I thought He could take care of all my problems…” Think again! You haven’t considered His (what would seem to be “Dark” to us) other side.

Herein lies the “problem of evil.” This goes back to age-old questions by Epicurus when he asked, “Is he [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?” In recent discussions these same questions are presented in the form of a “problematic triad of propositions”[1] and owes its prominence to the discussion by J.L. Mackie who wrote:

“In its simplest form the problem is this: God is omnipotent; God is wholly good; and yet evil exists. There seems to be some contradiction between these three propositions, so that if any two of them were true the third would be false. But at the same time all three are essential parts of most theological positions: the theologian, it seems, at once must adhere, and cannot consistently adhere to all three.”[2]

It seems reasonable to believe God doesn’t want to eliminate evil (casting doubts on his goodness), doesn’t know how to eliminate evil (questioning his knowledge) or lacks the power. The American Philosopher and Calvin Theologian John Frame tells us that “The problem of evil is probably the most difficult problem in all theology…”[4] Even within this problem there are distinctions between the practical, logical and existential problem of evil. Marilyn and Robert Adams define the practical problem of evil as “how to survive in such a seemingly hostile environment”, and the existential problem as “how a life laced with suffering and punctuated by death can have any positive meaning.”[5]

In discussing the “problem of evil” I want to address three basic concepts fundamental to the argument. I want to explore our understandings of 1) goodness, 2) power, and 3) evil. Here I am not focusing only on the logical (or deductive) problem of evil. Even William Rowe, a critic of Christian theism admits that “No one has succeeded in establishing the ‘extravagant claim’ that the existence of evil is logically inconsistent with the existence of the theistic God.” Instead he says “There is a fairly compelling argument for the view that the existence of evil is logically consistent with the theistic God.”[6] It would then seem that I am focusing on the inductive version of the argument which entails a shift from the “strong claim that theism is logically and necessarily false to the modest assertion that it is probably false”[7] based especially on the notion of evil as gratuitous.

Actually I am doing both. I believe that although these categories are valuable in some contexts, for the purpose of this post it is clear that the distinctions between the logical vs. existential; deductive vs. inductive are spurious since “the ‘logical’ is rooted in ‘the existential.’[8] I agree with D.Z. Phillips (one of the world’s leading philosophers of religion) when he says,

“Anything said about evil, in the name of logic, must be answerable to the searching and   challenging reality of the evils people suffer. It is only by paying insufficient attention to existential problems of evil that an independent logical problem of evil can be thought to exist.”[9]

My Answer in 3’s:

  1. We know God is Ultimately Good. Scripture tells us that inherent to God there is absolute end and worth. In Exodus 3:14 God says “I AM WHO I AM.” He is, always was, and always will be the means and end of everyone’s happiness since in only Him it is always found.  Since we were made in His image we can experience this personally and indeed it is the reason for our existence. God is the only One qualified to make such a statement, and in doing so He is gracious and good to Himself and to us.

God’s goodness can also be seen through the ups and downs of our daily lives. All people do not choose happiness and, ironically, this is the only scenario which is good. The philosopher C.J. Ducasse disagrees. He says,

“An omnipotent and omniscient God could have conferred on all men and women ‘at the start’ the healthy constitution, wisdom, and virtue needed for sound choices, so that they would not have to attain moral stature through temptation, struggle, and courageous choice of right over wrong.”[10]

This could not be farther than the truth. As former professor emeritus of systematic theology at Boston University S. Paul Schilling points out, these actions would be equal to that of a “Great Hypnotist” since,

“It strains human imagination and intelligence to conceive of God as devoting his energies to such detailed programming of every individual life…the basic difficulty is that it would destroy true goodness and the free cooperation of persons in the pursuit of shared values. Even though all participants might think they were free, they would not actually be free.”[11]

Schilling also reminds us that true goodness cannot be implanted in persons by their Creator the way a kidney or a retina may be implanted by a skilled surgeon in a human body. He says qualities like “honesty, courage, strength in temptation, generosity, devotion to truth, and love for others must be forged through free choices, strenuous effort, and struggle.” For these reasons and others Schilling concludes that the notion of humans created so as to always choose the good is self-contradictory. Without the free option of evil we would not be able to choose the good. Therefore the existence of unhappiness shows our undetermined freedom and God’s ultimate goodness.

2. This then leads us to the idea of gratuitous evil. Can God be justified in allowing it? William Lane Craig asks, “Why should we know that diabolical good and evil when it costs so much?”[12] Take suffering for example. “The history of mankind is a history of bloodshed and war.”[13] We need simply to refer to the crusades, holocaust, or Mao Zedong to illustrate some of the horrible atrocities done in our history. Or what about the natural disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes and tornadoes which take the lives of millions on an annual basis? Why doesn’t God put a stop to such madness and pain? The answer is simple: He can’t! But this does not make him less powerful.

God is omnipotent but that doesn’t mean He can make any possible world. This would be a confusion of the term. William Lane Craig explains this well,

“God’s being all powerful does not mean that he can do logical impossibilities, such as make a round square or make someone freely choose something. If you cause a person to make a specific choice, then the choice is no longer free. Thus if God grants people   genuine freedom to choose as they like, then it is impossible for Him to determine what           their choices will then be.”[14]

As is obvious, the objection that God should be able to create a world without bad things is not necessarily true and this argument is invalid because this is a misunderstanding and mishandling of the concept of omnipotence itself. It is also important to realize that God may not necessarily prefer a world without evil since without it there is no reality of good. God may allow certain seemingly evil events in order to cause greater goods or for other sufficient reasons. Similar to that of a parent or dentist allowing pain to produce a greater principle of happiness. Humans are unable to show that any evil is purposeless and in our finiteness we are unable to classify any action as gratuitous. After all,

“To suffer for the sake of suffering is sick; to avoid suffering for the sake of comfort leads us to lose touch with reality. To suffer for the sake of integrity brings us to health and gives evidence of health.”[15]As Hume reminds us, “It is not impossible but all these Circumstances [of suffering] may be necessary and unavoidable.”[16]

3. Ultimately God Himself was subject to the worst treatment through His Son. Jesus was dealt some of the worst human atrocities known unto man for the good of humanity. Hebrews 2:10 reminds us that even our Savior was “perfected through sufferings.” How can a perfect man become perfected? Because just as Aristotle said, completed character is the essence of perfect goodness. Goodness is connected with completion. As Aristotle once remarked, “For as one swallow or one day does not make a spring, so one day or a short time does not make a man blessed or happy”[17]

This is the beauty of God and His Word. The Bible is an instruction manual on building a life towards intimacy with God. Even more than that, it is the story of God’s good, perfect, and powerful Son humbling himself to become perfected on earth so that all creation would be given the chance to live with Him forever. Jesus came to earth, lived as a soul; with reason; for the good of eternity. His life was the exact representation of “good” as described earlier. God’s completed work through Jesus was an end in itself since it allows God the most glory and us the most opportunity to be with Him forever.

“Some say that… to the gods we are like the flies that the boys kill on a summer day, and some say, on the contrary, that the very sparrows do not lose a feather that has not been brushed away by the finger of God.”[18] What is your view of God? Have you come to terms with the love God has for you?  W. Sibley Towner reminds us

“God’s purpose in the world is to save it, all of it, from utter defacement and ultimate destruction and to preserve it, all of it, to be his joy and companion   forever… all the historical joys and tragedies, all the retributions, great and small, are framed by his ultimate power to complete that purpose to redeem the world for Himself.”[19]

These truths are quite complex, so in ending let me bring it back down to earth…When you deal with your dark side, you fight, and if you don’t, you fail. How come God allows us to go through gut-wrenching, soul-searching moments? We have all had at least one “Dark Time,” the time we were confronted with the option to give in, to compromise, to submit to the evil we most want to avoid. These fights are deep, residing at the core of our being, and as so they are our defining moments. Here’s my question. What’s the point? Why should we have to go through such trials and turmoil? Why must we be tested to the limit? I despise that dark incessant gnawing of the One who knows my weakest weakness.  Must life be so hard? Why would God give me the option to fail?

Here’s one possible answer: Because it’s in these moments we are most able to be transformed!  History reminds us of this. Think of Daniel in the Lion’s den; Joseph in the pit, Job; Martin Luther King, Billy Graham, Mother Teresa. The shining moments were shown in difficulty. It was the painful moments that made their ministry. It’s in these moments we show God who we are and in the process experience ourselves in all our actuality. Maybe this is the process necessary for transformation. As Christians, we are to be transformed. What I’ve realized is that I prefer the easy life. The conformed life. Maybe God has known this all along. Maybe this is why God is willing to put on the black cape. To both allow the dark one to work, and to sometimes appear as that darkness. His hope is that through it I would be changed, and changed into His likeness.  This is the dark side of God, and it’s the way He shows me His love.

[1] Phillips, D.Z. The Problem of Evil & The Problem of God. 2005, 1

[2] Ibid, 1

[3] Smith, Challenges to Christian Faith and Practice: Responding to the Challenge from the Problem(s) of Evil, 3

[4] Eds. Morgan & Peterson. Suffering and the Goodness of God, 141

[5] Phillips, xiv

[6] Smith, Challenges to Christian Faith and Practice: Responding to the Challenge from the Problem(s) of Evil, 10

[7] Ibid, 11

[8] Phillips, xi

[9] Phillips, xii

[10] Schilling, S. Paul. God and Human Anguish. 1977,  206

[11] Schilling, 207

[12] Craig, William Lane. Hard Questions, Real Answers. 2003, 77

[13] ibid, 76

[14] Craig, 83

[15] Emerson, James G. Suffering: Its Meaning and Ministry. 1986, 13

[16] Bowie, G. Lee, Meredith W. Michaels and Robert C. Solomon. Twenty Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy. Ed 3. 1996, 63

[17] Arthur, 9

[18] Thornton Wilder in The Bridge of San Louis Rey

[19] Towner, W. Sibley. How God Deals With Evil. 1976, 12-13


Reflections: Ah, it feels good to ramble

326 days of marriage, done. 10 classes down. 9 months since moving to the East Coast. 6 months before baby. Who am I becoming?
This is definitely a transitional period of my life. A lot of things are changing. I’m a newly married, recent graduate, new student, part-time employee and future father. I don’t know how long I’ll be here or what I’ll do for the rest of my life. I haven’t nailed down what exactly I’m best at…What I’m created for. I won’t settle for the good, I want to pursue the best. I know I fit the description of an ideal church-planter to the “T.” Yet I’d rather hang out with non-Christians and am not yet sold on church. I find Christian language to be antiquated, out of touch and confusing yet learning about the Kingdom of God makes my heart beat what feels like a million times per second. I think Christ is cool but I haven’t figured out how He fits into a post-Christian society. I don’t know what my future will look like and the past is just the past. There are still a lot of question marks, “transitional” is probably an understatement.
I always scratch my head when I hear of people who have known what they have wanted to do since forever (Or for two days straight). Its just impossible for me to relate because I’ve never been this way. Even in sports, I was never able to pick just one. Basketball is my favorite, I’m best at running, and always wished I was big enough for football. Or, take academics as another example. I refused to go to a Christian college, insisted on an evangelical grad school, and know (possible) Ph.D work will most likely be in another field of study, separate from all previous. No one subject has ever satisfied me fully. Arabic inspired me, Spanish bored me, Greek stymied me and Hebrew is TBD. Novels never quite get it, law doesn’t quite fix it, and no “religion” has answered all the questions. I see truth in a lot of places. I guess that’s why I’m a believer in the inter-relatedness of truth. This conviction is almost like a curse. It forces me to never stop looking… even as I’ve found the Source of Truth I’ve only just begun to understand the implications. For me, Incarnation has always been in a lot of different areas.
I can sense change. I see it not only solely within myself or in my wife or in those around me. I see it in the connections. How I relate with Kaylyn is different from a year ago. I could have described my love for her then. Now I can’t, its so unlike anything I‘ve ever experienced! Our relationship has grown in ways I never anticipated. I was not prepared for the joy she brings me. And I hear the first year is only the beginning.
My mind is also getting a workout. It hurts most of the time now. Partially because my thought processes are filtered through a whole new set of questions… I lead differently as my interactions with others morph. I find myself looking to follow more, lead less. I spend way too much time in libraries and café’s. My internal processing is connecting even more to my extrovert personality. God is again wholly new. As my confidence shatters I daily feel God’s presence more powerfully. I hear God, not only when I’m silent. I see God, not only when my eyes are open. I experience God, even before I try.
God is becoming more glorious and disturbing. As I gaze higher, I’m getting past the point of seeing Scripture as merely “interesting.” As I spend my days searching Scripture I’m having to stop. I’m learning the ramifications and they are becoming real. I’ve realized Scripture is scary if its true. It is clearly true, and that is beginning to scare me. Especially when I realize that won’t change because meaning isn’t up to me. I’m also finding it harder to be silent and still in church. Its becoming almost awkward to NOT raise my hands or to NOT shout, “amen.” God’s glory is becoming disturbingly precious to me.
I’ve been humbled. Plain and simple. I’ve been reminded of my need for a Savior, Sustainer, Sanctifier and Friend. I’m scared to live apart from God’s plan. I realize I’ve got a long way to go. Basically, I’m beginning to come to grips with the fact that apart from being created by God; having received the offer of the perfect Sacrifice of Jesus, and given the presence of the Holy Spirit, I am merely a man. What a great time of life!