Dr. Antony Flew and Good and Evil

In 2004, the prominent atheist Dr. Antony Flew converted to Deism. After his conversion, he was interviewed by Dr. Gary Habermas. The two had met before, notably in a debate over the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In this interview, regarding the problem of evil, Flew stated:

HABERMAS: In God and Philosophy, and in many other places in our discussions, too, it seems that your primary motivation for rejecting theistic arguments used to be the problem of evil. In terms of your new belief in God, how do you now conceptualise God’s relationship to the reality of evil in the world?
FLEW: Well, absent revelation, why should we perceive anything as objectively evil? The problem of evil is a problem only for Christians. For Muslims everything which human beings perceive as evil, just as much as everything we perceive as good, has to be obediently accepted as produced by the will of Allah. I suppose that the moment when, as a schoolboy of fifteen years, it first appeared to me that the thesis that the universe was created and is sustained by a Being of infinite power and goodness is flatly incompatible with the occurrence of massive undeniable and undenied evils in that universe, was the first step towards my future career as a philosopher! It was, of course, very much later that I learned of the philosophical identification of goodness with existence!

His first statement is somewhat true: absent revelation, there is no objective evil. This will be the follow on article to this post.

But then he says that, "
the problem of evil is only a problem for Christians." Here, he is quite wrong. It is a problem for everyone. The atheist has just as much of a problem with evil as the theist. Perhaps the atheist can say that evil, that is, our notion that things are not what they ought to be, is an aid to our survival. But this surely runs neck first into Hume's guillotine: that nature is geared for some species to survive doesn't mean that any species ought to survive. Nor does it deal with the issue of whether or not we are slaves to our biological "programming" and whether or not we ought to be. Too, in Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis wrote:

My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?… Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too–for the argument depended on saying the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my fancies…Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple.

Whether or not Lewis's argument holds up under scrutiny isn't an issue, here -- and I haven't analyzed it enough to have an opinion (although I'm leaning toward it being flawed). The point is that there are problems to be dealt with.

Flew then said, "
For Muslims everything which human beings perceive as evil, just as much as everything we perceive as good, has to be obediently accepted as produced by the will of Allah." Here, Flew confuses how we ought to react in the face of the problem of evil with the explanation for the problem.

Flew's conclusion, that a good God would not do things that we think are evil, presupposes that it is evil for God to create evil. "Create evil", of course means "creating circumstances, things, happenings, ... that another individual thinks is evil." Put more simply, it means "doing things that I don't like." Of course God does this as is well evidenced by Scripture. See Amos 3:6, Isa 45:7, Job 20:10 and compare the use of the Hebrew word ra with its use in Gen. 3:23.

"A good God wouldn't do things I don't like" isn't a rational basis for saying that a good God doesn't exist, but it is one of the core beliefs of humanist thinking. It is yet another example of "man as God", which is a trap into which self-aware beings easily stumble.
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