Arts & Humanities Philosophy & Theology

How the criticisms of Utilitarianism underline a fundamental error in our approach to ethical discourse

This article was written by Stuart Brown and was the winning article of the David Garlick essay competition. The judges commented ‘This is a very well written piece with a strong argument, which shows detailed and nuanced understanding of the issues.’

Estimated read time of essay: 6 minutes

Utilitarianism as a normative ethical theory is attacked in a number of different ways, however I hope to show how these criticisms demonstrate a fundamental mistake in the way in which we go about breaking down an ethical theory.

The first criticism which is often asserted is the impracticality of Utilitarianism when it comes to decision making in our daily lives. Even if we accept the idea that we must act in the way that best tends to produce happiness it is impossible to know which actions will cause this. We cannot predict the vast and unforeseeable consequences of our actions and hence Utilitarianism seemingly fails as we cannot effectively and accurately fulfil the task of promoting happiness in the real world. Mill strives to object to this in his book ‘Utilitarianism’ writing ‘that there has been ample time, namely, the whole past duration of the human species.’ His point here is that humans know basically which actions tend to produce more happiness as a result of the cultivated experience of humanity and the general attitudes that we have formed over time to specific actions due to such experience. Therefore, we know which actions to undertake to produce overall greater happiness. However, one must question whether Mill is even obligated to respond to the challenge of impracticality. The truth of the principle of utility and the very ethical theory itself is unaffected and detached from the question of whether it can be usefully applied in the real world. If it is true to seek the happiness of the greatest number, then this remains the case whether or not we able to do so. Hence, we see that when discussing the validity of normative ethical theories, the issue of practicality is unimportant as it has no bearing on the actual truth of the theory. The question of practicality is however not useless but rather misplaced. It should come later once a base ethical theory has been established and we look to how it can be applied.

Another popular yet erroneous approach is to argue from the starting point of a known ethical truth to try and establish or dismiss an ethical theory. To say for example, that murder is always wrong, and then to identify a specific case where Utilitarianism justifies murder is not necessarily a valid argument that Utilitarianism fails as an ethical theory because it appears to justify a wrong action. Whilst this argument may seem logical at first it presupposes that murder, or another action is simply inherently wrong. This is to fall into the fallacy of question begging as it assumes that Utilitarianism is incorrect and that some actions must have inherent value to prove that Utilitarianism is in fact incorrect. This structure of reasoning is common and often used especially in the case of Utilitarianism, but it fails crucially in all cases because it cannot without using circular reasoning establish that any given action is wrong. This problem illustrates a common mistake in how we approach ethics in that we try and find a theory to cohere with our current values. This is problematic as our self-held beliefs cannot act as a firm groundwork for an ethical theory. Instead, we must build up an ethical theory from its very foundation and derive attitudes towards specific actions later.

The trolley problem and how it is discussed often shows our disposition to starting from judgements of specific actions and then working towards an ethical theory to match such assumptions. This is a common introductory thought experiment to the topic of ethics and is one where most start with an opinion on whether it can be right to pull the lever to kill one and save five and work backwards to an ethical position. However, this is foolish as the point of an ethical theory is not to justify our previously held beliefs and judgements but rather to provide a starting framework to build our ethical perspectives anew.

Whilst many of the criticisms of Utilitarianism fail, there is one which is very difficult to overcome and demonstrates the correct way to go about analysing an ethical theory. This criticism is that Utilitarianism fails to successfully establish happiness as having inherent value. Bentham falls victim to the naturalistic fallacy when trying to establish the value of pleasure. This is the fallacy outlined by David Hume that we cannot derive an ought from an is (in this case it is Bentham’s argument that we naturally pursue pain and avoid pleasure and hence we ought to do so). In ‘Introduction to the principle of morals, legislation’ Bentham writes on pleasure and pain ‘it is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do’ showing how his assertion of the principle of utility is fallacious. Most however, accept the inherent value of happiness as a brute fact and do not seek to break down Bentham’s starting assertion although this is exactly what must be done. We must adapt our philosophical approach to examine the foundational assertions of ethical theories and hence decide their merit rather than focusing on the practical application of the theory. This is the key point in the failure of our approach to ethics as it is the starting value assumptions (such as the value of happiness in Utilitarianism) of ethical theories that must be examined as these are the foundations of ethical theories and hence their success is entirely dependent on their truth.

In conclusion, as seen in the mishandled approach to the criticisms of Utilitarianism, we must adapt our approach to the analysis of ethics and shift our focus from the practicalities and repercussions of accepting normative ethical theories. Instead, we must judge their validity on the surety of their foundational claims as only then can we properly assess the truth of an ethical theory.

Arts & Humanities Features Philosophy & Theology

The Historicity of the Resurrection

This long-read article was written by sixth-former Alexander Norris.

Estimated read time: 8 minutes

As we celebrate Easter, some may, in the abundance of tacky eggs and bunnies, forget the Christian roots of this festival – either by accident or design! This widely celebrated feast is in fact based on a very controversial question: the issue of the Resurrection.

The reason this is such a controversy is because of its practical implications, both for the 2.2 billion adherents of Christianity, the world’s largest religion, and for those who reject the message of the Gospel. This has been admitted from very early on, with St Paul writing to the Corinthians in the first century AD that ‘if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile, and… we [Christians] are of all men most to be pitied.’

This demonstrates the crucial importance of the Resurrection as the touchstone of the Christian faith, since the choice is a clearly binary one – if it happened, Christians are right; if it didn’t, they’re wrong. In other words, the claimed Resurrection was either the greatest miracle the world has ever seen, or the greatest hoax in the history of mankind. There is no middle way.

Indeed, what makes this an even more contentious matter is the fact that it is theoretically possible, using historical research, either to prove it beyond reasonable doubt or to utterly debunk it, hence the paramount importance of such an investigation.

The Facts

Completely apart from the Gospels sympathetic to Christ and his followers, we have a large number of Jewish and Roman sources who mention this man’s claims from a sceptical point of view, giving their testimony particular value for historians. There are Roman sources (such as Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, Suetonius, Lucian of Samosata, Celsus, Thallus, and Phlegon) and Jewish sources too, which include Josephus, Toledot Yeshu, the Talmud, and Mara Bar-Serapion. The number of sources makes it impractical to fully analyse them in a brief essay such as this, but what we can ascertain from their agreement are the following historical facts:

  • Jesus of Nazareth claimed to be the Messiah foretold by the Jewish scriptures
  • He was arrested by the Jewish authorities and handed over to the Romans to be tried
  • He was tried by the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, and crucified as a political criminal
  • Three days after his death, several women disciples of his alleged that his body had disappeared from the tomb
  • His disciples claimed that God had raised him from the dead, and that he appeared several times to them before ascending into heaven

Security Precautions

We know more than this, though, from the context of his death, especially given the fact that he had apparently predicted his death and Resurrection beforehand – in any case, the Jewish authorities were taking no chances of making him a martyr.

According to the Gospels, he underwent six trials to ensure his condemnation: one before Annas (the previous High Priest), one before Caiaphas (the present one), and one before the Sanhedrin of Jewish elders, before being handed over to the Romans, who tried him before Pilate (who could not find any grounds for condemning him) then passed to the nominal authority of King Herod Antipas, before finally being sentenced by Pilate again under pressure from the Jews. The final sentence was as follows: he was found guilty of claiming the title of ‘King of the Jews’ and so setting himself up in political opposition to the authority of Tiberius Caesar, the Roman emperor at the time – this was the crime of treason, and as such merited death by crucifixion.

Crucifixion itself was so gruesome and degrading a torture that Roman citizens could not legally be crucified, hence why most crucifixions were reserved for slaves in uprisings. Here is a brief description of the typical process:

  • Before crucifixion the victim would be whipped with a flagella – a whip with multiple ends, into which were sewn pieces of rock, bone and metal – which would uncover the muscles and some bones of his back. The flagellation usually ceased when the victim was deemed to be near to death.[15]
  • After this, the victim would have had to carry a crossbar of c.50 kg to the place of his execution (which in this case was just under a kilometre away) – this crossbar was so heavy and he was so weak that he had to be helped by a passer-by, as the Romans did not want him to die before they could torture him. He would then be stripped of his clothes and nailed to the cross.
  • Even then, death would only come after a lengthy period of torture: the prisoner would suffer incredibly painful cramps, which would make him unable to push himself up with his legs, his muscles would become paralysed, so that he could inhale but not exhale air, carbon dioxide would build up in the lungs and the body would make spasmodic movements up, so he could exhale; this process was repeated for many hours, sometimes taking days.
  • Death would be from suffocation; and the legs were usually broken to terminate torture when the guards had had enough.

The Gospel accounts are in this respect completely accurate as to the process of crucifixion, and even included the detail that Christ’s legs were not broken because he was already dead. They also mention that blood and water flowed from his heart when the centurion pierced it – not only would this spear thrust have killed him had he not already have been dead, but in deaths by torture, clear pericardial fluid (what would have looked like water) builds up around the heart only after death. Furthermore, the Roman governor could only hand over the body to be buried once death had been certified by four professional executioners. This all serves to demonstrate the certainty of his death.

Christ would then have been taken down from the cross and buried in a tomb, whose entrance  would be c.4-5 feet high; this again is verified by the Bible which says that St John had to stoop to enter. He was buried with 100 lb of spices in myrrh (not an unusual quantity for the time) smeared under the burial cloths as a kind of glue so that they could not be taken off very easily. Moreover, investigations of the weight of the stone shows it would have weighed between 1½ and 2 tons – it would have been rolled in place by gravity on a slope, and thus could not be removed without intense physical exertion.

As it happens, the Jews requested a Roman guard for the tomb to stop the body being stolen – this would typically have consisted of sixteen men, four on each side, which theoretically could hold 36 square feet against an entire battalion by utilising the space to their advantage. When they slept in turns, they slept in such positions so that nobody could get past without stepping on them and waking them up. Desertion and falling asleep on duty both required the death penalty by Roman law, so the possibility of this is minimal. Finally, the tomb would also have been sealed with the Roman governor’s seal, which represented the authority of Rome, and thus breaking it would be considered treasonous too.

What Happened?

Therefore, there are certain things that must have happened for the Resurrection even to be a possibility:

  • Someone/something broke the governor’s seal, invoking the penalty of death if they were caught (to avoid this punishment all Jesus’ disciples had fled, and even their chief, St Peter, had denied any association with him three times).
  • Someone/something rolled away the stone (requiring a great deal of manpower).
  • Someone/something removed the body (if they hadn’t, then the Jewish authorities could have produced it as evidence of the disciples’ mendacity, especially given the fact that they began to preach in Jerusalem itself where the grave was).
  • Someone/something caused the Roman guard to flee (desertion was punishable by death, hence they must have had a pretty good motive for doing so!)
  • Someone/something left the graveclothes neatly folded (an unusual twist).
  • Someone/something convinced a huge number of people that they had seen the risen Christ (this included Mary Magdalen, two disciples on the road to Emmaus, the apostles in the locked room, and even 500 people at once, all of which were recorded by St Paul 30 years later who added that they were still alive – in effect, saying ‘Ask them yourselves if you don’t believe me!’) with a large variety of backgrounds (mourning, scepticism, open hostility) and various emotional responses (passion, fright, incredulity).
  • Women claimed to have seen him first (also seemingly unreliable since they were unable to testify in a court of law, which is why the other disciples refused to believed them at first).

Theories about the Resurrection

There are many theories about what happened, so here I’ll outline them as succinctly as possible, and show why so many of them contain major inconsistencies:

  • Nobody knew where Jesus was buried – although crucified men were usually buried in a common grave, there is archaeological evidence that this did not always happen, especially when the man had a large group of family and friends; in this case Jesus was laid in the private tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, which was clearly well known to both his disciples (who had laid him there) and the Romans (who stationed a guard there).
  • The women went to the wrong tomb – similarly, although most tombs would be fairly indistinguishable, this was a private burial ground; indeed, this relies on everyone (including St Peter, St John, the Roman guard and the Jewish authorities) all independently going to the wrong tomb. Also, if his body was present anywhere the whole story could have been nipped in the bud immediately by showing it.
  • The resurrection was a legend invented long after Jesus’ death – this is untenable given the accounts we have from the mid-first century AD by which point the story had already become well-established, especially St Paul’s mention in 56 of over 500 witnesses still alive who could verify it.
  • Jesus’ disciples hallucinated – firstly, hallucinations tend to occur to either paranoids or schizophrenics, and the disciples were neither of these (they had a wide range of personalities and came from a large variety of backgrounds); secondly, hallucinations are very private and not only did Christ appear to a large number of people, but ate with them, and invited them to examine his wounds; thirdly, most of the appearances were in broad daylight (there were fifteen of these, at one point to over 500 people); fourthly, hallucinations require an anticipating spirit which was not present, since the disciples thought that Christ was permanently dead and at first refused to believe that it was he (St Mary Magdalen went to anoint his dead body); fifthly, not only did the hallucinations happen irregularly and ceased at a fixed point (Christ’s Ascension), they also do not square with the reaction of the Roman Guard and chief priests, or with the empty tomb and broken seal.
  • The disciples stole the body – this was the most common accusation at the time, despite the issues already described which stopped them getting to the tomb in the first place (especially the Roman guard, every trained soldier of which could have easily finished off the whole band of simple fishermen); also, it fails to explain why ten of the original twelve apostles died horrible deaths as martyrs, without there being records of a single one of them admitting that it was all a lie.
  • The Roman or Jewish authorities stole the body – they could have done this to stop it being used as a relic, but given the damage it did them they could easily have presented the body at any point together with witnesses to its removal to disprove the disciples’ story; there is no evidence that anything of the sort was ever even suggested.
  • Jesus fainted on the cross and recovered in the tomb – this theory assumes that: (1) Jesus managed to survive the immense torture of scourging, lifting his cross-bar (which he could not even do on his own), nailing to the cross, and crucifixion; (2) when a spear was thrust into his side on the cross, eyewitnesses were wrong that blood and water came out, a sign of death; (3) his death was confirmed by four experienced Roman executioners, who must all have been mistaken; (4) over 100 lb of spices and linen encased his body, he must have breathed through it all; (5) in this state he managed to burst out of his garments, (6) roll the stone away from the inside (impossible for a strong man to do on his own, let alone one so weak) and (7) fight off the guards, then (8) appear in this almost-dead state to his disciples and convince them that he was the triumphant Lord of Life. This would in fact be more miraculous than a resurrection, and requires more faith to believe, especially since such an appearance of Jesus as a man badly in need of food, water and medical aid would hardly have cheered them up, and certainly would not have filled them with enthusiasm to dedicate their lives to preaching about his Resurrection.

As has been shown, all of these theories contain major problems, to the extent that to believe them requires a greater leap of faith than has often been ascribed to Christians.


So what was it that transformed the lives of the disciples, turned them from despair to hope, from fear to courage, and gave them the ability to die fearlessly for their beliefs when beforehand they had been cowering behind locked doors, afraid of their lives?

What was it that changed this small group of penniless fishermen, tax collectors and peasants into the oldest institution in human history, and the one with the most numerous followers?

What changed the most ardent persecutor of this tiny sect into the greatest missionary of the global Universal Church of Christ?

In the words of Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle, ‘when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth’. Only one adequate theory therefore remains: that as the Gospels narrate, Christ rose from the dead.

Arts & Humanities Features Philosophy & Theology

A New Translation of John 1

This long-read article was written by Sixth Former Sam Cherry. It provides a new translation of the first chapter of the Gospel of John, from the New Testament of the Christian Bible. It concludes with a translator’s commentary.

Estimated read time: 8 minutes

The Gospel According to St. John, Chapter 1:

1 In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God. 2The same was with God in the beginning. 3All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing which has been made was made. 4In Him was a way of life, and that way of life was the light of humankind. 5And the light shines in the darkness, though the darkness did not understand it.

6There came a man sent from God, named John. 7This man went as a witness in order to testify about the light, such that all might believe through him. 8He was not that light, but came to bear witness about the light. 9There was a true light, who illuminates all people coming into the world. 10He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, though the world knew Him not. 11He came into His own, and His own did not receive Him. 12But as many as did receive Him, He gave to those who believe in His name the power to be made children of God; 13they were not born from blood, nor from the will of the flesh, nor from the will of man, but of God. 14And the Word became flesh and tabernacled amongst us, and we admired His glory: His glory as the only child begotten from the Father, filled with grace and truth. 15John testifies about Him, and cried out, saying: ‘He was the same one of whom I spoke; the one who is coming after me came before me in precedence, because He was before me’. 16And from His fullness we all received that grace in place of grace; 17because the Law was given through Moses, yet grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18No one has ever seen God, but the only-begotten son, being in the bosom of the Father, has made Him known.

19And this is the testimony of John: when the Jewish Temple authorities sent priests and Levites in order to ask him ‘who are you?’ 20he confessed and agreed that ‘I myself am not the Christ,’ and did not deny it. 21So they asked him: ‘who are you then? Are you Elijah?’. And he says: ‘I am not’. ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered: ‘no’. 22They therefore said to him: ‘who are you? In order to give an answer to those who sent us, what do you say about yourself?’. 23He said: ‘I am a voice in desolation, crying out: make straight the way of the Lord, just as the prophet Elijah said’. 24But the men who had been sent were from the Pharisees, 25and they asked him and said to him: ‘if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah nor a prophet, why then do you baptise?’. 26John responded, saying: ‘I baptise in water, but in your midst stood one whom you did not know. 27He is the one who is coming after me, who came before me in precedence; I myself am not worthy to loose the strap of His sandal’.28These things came to pass in Bethany, on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptising.

29The next day John sees Jesus coming to him and He says: ‘Behold the Lamb of God who is taking away the sin of the world. 30This is the same Man of whom I said: “before me is coming a Man who came before me in precedence, because He was before me”. 31And I myself did not know Him, but, in order that He might be revealed to Israel, for this reason I went into the water baptising’. 32And John testified saying that: ‘I have seen the Spirit descending as a Dove from heaven above, and it remained upon Him. 33And I did not see Him, but, having sent me to baptise in water, He told me that: “whomever you might see the Spirit descending and remaining upon is the same person who is baptising in the Holy Spirit”. 34And I recognised and testified that He is the Son of God’.

35The next day again, John was standing with two of his disciples, 36and, having seen Jesus walking, says: ‘behold the Lamb of God’. 37The two disciples heard him speaking and followed Jesus. 38But Jesus, having turned around and seeing them following Him, says to them: 49‘what do you seek?’. And they said to Him: ‘Rabbi,’ (which is to say, being translated, ‘Teacher’), ‘where are you staying?’. 40He says to them: ‘come, and you will see’. Thus they came and saw where He stays, and stayed with Him that evening; it was about the tenth hour. 41Andrew, one of the two men having heard from John, and having followed him, was the brother of Simon Peter. 42That same man finds his brother and says to him: ‘we have seen the Messiah,’ (which is to be translated ‘the Christ’). 43And he led him to Jesus. Jesus, standing, said to him: ‘you are Simon, the son of Jonah. You will be called Kephas,’ (which is to be translated ‘Peter’).

44The next day Jesus wanted to go out into Galilee. And He found Philip and says to him: ‘follow Me’. 45And Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 46Philip found Nathanael and says to him: ‘we have found Him, whom Moses and the Prophets wrote about in the law – Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of Joseph’. 47And Nathanael said to him: ‘what from Nazareth can be good?’. Philip says to him: ‘come and you will see’. 48Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards Him and says about him: ‘behold a true Israelite, in whom there is no deceit’. 49Nathanael says to Him: ‘whence do you know me?’. Jesus answered and said to him: ‘before Philip had called you, I saw you under a fig tree’. 50Nathanael responded and says to Him: ‘Rabbi, You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel’. 51Jesus replied and says to him: ‘do you have faith because I said to you that I saw you under a fig tree? You will see greater things than these’. 52And He says to him: ‘truly, truly I say to you, henceforth you will see heaven above opening, and the messengers of God ascending and descending on the Son of humankind’.

Translator’s Commentary:

My source was the Koine New Testament as published in 1904 and 1942 by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, with later corrections by the Church of Greece. It departs ever so slightly from other versions by dividing the text into 52 verses instead of 51; what is v.48 in other editions is split into v.48 and v.49 in this text. For reference I used Strong’s Greek Concordance and Liddell & Scott’s English-Greek lexicon, both accessed online.

I have taken a largely literalist approach to the translation. This includes the preservation of the historic present, and the keeping of participles as participles, even when in English it might be more natural to use normal verbs, insofar as was possible. In order to preserve clarity, I have omitted or introduced conjunctives or pronouns in some places into the translation (e.g. v.45 & 46)[1]. All speech punctuation is editorial, as it does not exist in the original.

Perhaps the most obvious difference in my translation of the first chapter of the Gospel according to St. John, versus most other versions, lies in the very first sentence, in my decision to leave Logos (Λογος) untranslated [v.1]. What inspired me in the first place to undertake translating this passage was my dissatisfaction with the popular rendering of Λογος as ‘Word’. The Greek term has a multitude of meanings: reason, story, purpose, decree, maxim, doctrine, account etc. – the list goes on and on. Picking any single word then as a direct translation, I think, necessarily removes the nuance that comes from the multiplicity of meanings captured in ‘Λογος’. Whether that was St. John’s original intent or not, I think this obscurity, these possibilities, should be reflected in the translation as they exist in the original. The only way to do that, then, is to leave the term as it is, untranslated.

I found it difficult to find a suitable way of capturing the word ‘ζωη’ in English [v.4]. While most translators render in literally as ‘life’ (take for example the NIV, KJV or ESV) I think this translation is an oversimplification. ‘ζωη’ means more than ‘life’ in the simple biological sense (the corresponding Greek for that would be ‘βιος’), but rather the totality of the spiritual, physical and active aspects which constitute human life. My best attempt therefore was ‘a way of life’, though this still feels insufficient in my opinion.

Also in v.4, I have decided to interpret ‘των ἀνθρωπων’ in a gender-neutral sense. No doubt the word itself is masculine, and is thus often rendered as ‘mankind’ or ‘man’, but as ‘ἀνθροπος’ in is understood to refer to all humans and not just males I think ‘humankind’ is a more fitting translation. Later, in v.52 I have opted to translate ‘του ἀνθρωπου’ as ‘of humankind’ again given the context, even though it is in this case singular, as ‘the Son of human’ sounds very unnatural in English.

The word translated as ‘flesh’ (‘ἡ σαρξ’) [v.13 & 14], often has associations with human nature, and especially the human inclination to sin, alongside the terms more biological meaning. The nuance of St. John’s use of this term then in v.13 (‘the will of the flesh’) is more or less obvious, but less so in v.14. Strong suggests that ‘ὁ Λογος σαρξ ἐγενετο’ (‘the Word became flesh’) refers not only to Christ taking human form in the incarnation, but also to indicate that Christ took on human nature, with its moral weakness. While the term ‘flesh’ in English does, to an extent, have an association with carnality, I cannot find a way of communicating in English a suggestion of both physicality and weak human nature, so ‘flesh’ remains the best translation of ‘σάρξ’, if an imperfect one.

I think my choice to translate ‘ἐσκηνωσεν’ [v.14], usually translated as ‘dwelled’, instead as ‘tabernacled’ reflects the meaning of the word more accurately. Though it literally means to pitch a tent, Greek Jews reading this passage at the time would have noticed the nuance in this particular verb, as ‘σκηνη’ (meaning dwelling, tent or hut) was the term used to translate the Hebrew word for the Tabernacle (‘מִּשְׁכָּן’, ‘mishkan’) in the Septuagint. I wanted the English to reflect this, as otherwise the theological significance which resides in this unusual word (it occurs only once in the Gospels) would be lost.

St. John linguistically distinguishes between the Jewish people who supported Jesus, and those who opposed Him. Typically, he refers to those who opposed Jesus as ‘οἱ Ἰουδαιοι’ [v.19], though elsewhere in his Gospel this term is used more neutrally, including when Jesus is described as ‘βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων’ (‘King of the Jews’). Elsewhere, he uses ‘οἱ Ἰσραηλίται’ to describe Jews who are favourable to Jesus (e.g. in v.43). While it may seem obvious to translate ‘οἱ Ἰουδαιοι’ as ‘the Jews’ this is not by far an adequate translation, as it would suggest that the persecution was propagated by all Jews, as opposed to a select number of the Temple authorities. Moreover, elsewhere in the Gospel St. John uses the term interchangeably with the Pharisees or chief priests, showing the St. John was accustomed to using the term for subgroups of the Jewish people, and did not intend it to mean all Jews. In the context of the passage, with this in mind, I have thus translated ‘οἱ Ἰουδαιοι’ as ‘Jewish Temple authorities’ and not as ‘the Jews’.

I decided to translate ‘ἐν ἐρημῳ’ [v.23] as ‘in desolation’. Most literally, as a noun, it refers to a place of sparse vegetation, but adjectivally is used to describe an empty place of solace, so I think ‘desolation’ is the most accurate reflection of the meaning in context.

The word rendered as ‘heaven above’ (‘οὐρανος’) [v.32 & 52] is used to refer both to heaven in the spiritual sense, and to the sky or atmosphere. While the word ‘heaven’ in English also has this duality, it is more associated, especially in a theological context, with the spiritual meaning, and thus to translate ‘οὐρανος’ simply as ‘heaven’ neglects the nuance of the Greek. To capture both the spiritual and physical meanings, I think ‘heaven above’ is the best translation, as ‘heaven’ capture the spiritual side, but ‘above’ tempers this with a spatial and hence physical aspect.

Also in v.32 ‘upon Him’ may instead be translated as ‘in His presence’. Similarly, in v.33 ‘remaining upon’ could as be translated as ‘remaining in their presence’. This is due to the ambiguity in the precise meaning of the preposition ‘ἐπι’ in the context of the phrase ‘ἐπ’αὐτον’.

In v.43, Jesus names St. Peter, who is originally called Simon, ‘Kephas’, a transliterated Aramaic term (‘כֵּיפָא’, ‘kepha’); the corresponding Greek word is ‘Petros’ (Πετρος). Though normatively translated as ‘rock’ or ‘stone’, there is some dispute as to whether the Aramaic, and correspondingly the Greek term, should be thought to mean jewel instead. This possible translation could suggest that Peter was special or valuable, conferring a different meaning than if it were translated as ‘rock’, which is usually understood to refer to St. Peter’s reliable and strong character, and his position as the foundation of the Church (c.f. Matthew 16:18).

[1] Additionally, in v.49 the participle ‘ὀντα’ (being) was omitted for clarity.

Arts & Humanities Philosophy & Theology

The Problem of Evil: A Challenge to God’s Existence?

This article, questioning whether the problem of evil is a conclusive argument against the existence of God, was written by sixth-former Sam Cherry. It won him a place on the St. Andrew’s Logos Institute Summer School.

Estimated read time: 5 minutes

The problem of evil (PoE) posits that it is a logical contradiction for the omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent God of theism to exist in a world that contains evil. The argument is summarised by Mackie thus: ‘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 and cannot consistently adhere to all three’. In other words: no possible world exists in which both God and evil coexist. If this argument is sound, it is therefore a logical impossibility that the God of theism exists.

Implicitly, the argument assumes that a benevolent God could not permit the existence of moral evil. In my opinion most worthwhile counter-arguments to the PoE seek to attack this assumption. Mackie recognises this when he states that the free will defence is the only somewhat plausible reconciliation, despite him ultimately rejecting it.

It is important to note here, before further discussion, two fundamental limits to Mackie’s argument. First, it defends for only moral, but not natural evils. While Mackie admits that this line is not always clear cut, causes of suffering arguably exist that are not attributable to human actions, such as the deaths resulting from natural disasters or diseases. The free will argument does not inherently address natural evils. This question must be left to the theodicies, such as Irenaeus’, which argues that the suffering arising from natural evils might be instrumentally good in helping develop moral goodness in humans.

Second, the argument requires a libertarian or compatibilist view of free will, and if we reject this, the argument becomes nonsensical in either direction, as without free will the concepts of moral good and evil don’t make sense.

The theologian Plantinga argues that evil is the product of human free will, endowed to us by God. He argues that freedom is a ‘higher-order’ good, i.e. one that is necessary for the meaningful existence of other goods. It is more good, according to Plantinga, for there to be a world in which people freely choose to do good things (which necessitates them also being able to do evil) than one in which people cannot do evil, as if it was impossible for humans to do evil, then there would be no virtue in our not doing evil. At least superficially, I think this argument successfully reconciles benevolence with evil.  

Plantinga’s argument leads to two questions. First, why is it the case that God, if He is omnipotent, cannot create a world in which people always freely choose to do good? Second, to what extent does the existence of human free will effect God’s omnipotence?

Mackie argues that God’s omnipotence permits Him to create a world in which people could always freely choose the good, and God’s benevolence inherently predisposes him to create the least evil of all possible worlds, i.e. the one without moral evil. Mackie’s argument is as follows: when we say that a person (P) had free will when undertaking an act (X), we mean that before the act was undertaken (at t1) there were no ‘external antecedent sufficient causes’ to effect P to do X or ¬X at a later time (t2) when P actually acts. If it is the case that in any given individual act at t1, P can do X (where X is the morally ‘good’ act), it follows that it is logically possible for every P at every t2 to have always performed X without this changing the fact that at t1 P always had the possibility of performing ¬X. In this way could God create humans such that they always freely chose the good?

No. Plantinga responds by saying that a world with freedom but without the possibility of moral evil is impossible – that the notion of God being able to create humans such that they ‘always freely chose the good’ is incoherent. This is because of what he calls ‘trans-world depravity’: the concept that in every possible world where moral good exists, the possibility of for P to choose to the evil act must also exists. In all possible worlds with free will the potential to do evil exists, therefore God cannot create a possible world in which He predestines P to do one or another, as such a predestination would eliminate the free will at t1.

God could have created a world in which there was only moral good, but this would be the product of the near infinitesimally small chance that free agents always choose the good, and hence this result would still not be the product of God’s volition. If God could foresee that P would always choose good acts over evil then P’s acts would be predestined, not free. If the possibility that P could commit evil exists, it follows that this possibility might be actualised. That a world with God and no moral evil is possible is irrelevant to the question of whether there is a possible world in which both God and evil coexist. From this it follows that though in this world evil exists, this is not in conflict with the Nature of God.

Even if we accept that God couldn’t create such a world as Mackie envisions, and we agree that free will necessitates some moral evil, it may still be argued that this is only possible by radically limiting our notion of God’s omnipotence to solve the ‘inconsistent triad’. First, if humans truly have free will then God would not be all powerful, as he couldn’t interfere with P’s actions without violating P’s freedom. But moreover, Plantinga’s argument requires an all-powerful God to create something which is then outside of His control, which is a contradiction. This is analogous to the problem of whether God could create a rock so heavy He could not lift it.

These problems arise from considering God to be omnipotent in the sense that He is ‘all-powerful’ i.e. able to bring about any state of affairs. This is an incoherent notion as it leads to all sorts of paradoxes, such as making it possible for God to do the impossible -a direct contradiction. Therefore an actualised God cannot have this impossible (un-actualisable) property. In my opinion, it makes more sense to talk of God as ‘maximally-powerful’, i.e. able to bring about any possible state of affairs. A maximally powerful being cannot be overpowered, as if it could be it would not be maximally powerful, but it is still the most powerful being that can possibly exist. Because, as I have argued, it is a logical impossibility for a world to exist in which free agents always necessarily choose the good, it follows that a maximally powerful being cannot create such a state of affairs.

Similarly, if we define omniscience as knowing all that it is possible to know, this is not inconsistent with God not knowing at t1 whether P will do good or evil at t2, as God having this knowledge is inconsistent with P having free will. God can still have knowledge of all that has happened and all that could happen (which is all that can possibly be known in a world with free will), so it is not improper to describe him as ‘maximally-knowledgeable’.

Therefore, I believe that the PoE is not a conclusive argument against the existence of God. God’s omnipotence allows him to create a state of affairs such that people have free will, but does not allow him to create the impossible state of affairs whereby everyone has free will yet is predestined to always choose the moral act. God’s benevolence requires him to maximise moral good, and as moral good cannot meaningfully exist without the higher order good of freedom, he creates a world in which there exists freedom. As a product of this freedom, people are able to commit evil. God is not able to interfere with this evil or know about it prior to it being committed, as doing so would remove their freedom. Therefore a world containing moral evil and a benevolent, maximally-knowing and maximally-powerful God is possible. The PoE is not a conclusive argument against the existence of God because it fails to conclusively disprove the possibility of this state of affairs.