The Problem of Evil
Over the past couple of years, I’ve heard from hundreds of high school and college students who say that the number one challenge to the existence of God is the evil and suffering we see in the world. But how well does the problem of evil really argue for the atheist conclusion? Does evil really mean there’s no God? And can atheism really help us make better sense of evil?
In this post, I’ll share three things I think everyone should know about the Problem of Evil.
1. The Problem of Evil Isn’t An Argument for Atheism
Here’s a little a little-known secret about The Problem of Evil. It really isn’t an argument for atheism. It’s not even a challenge to the existence of God. Here’s how Sam Harris initially shared a version of this argument with the Huffington Post:
If God exists, either He can do nothing to stop the most egregious calamities, or He does not care to. God, therefore, is either impotent or evil.
But look, if God exists at all, atheism is false.
So, if God exists, but he’s too weak to stop evil, atheism is false.
And if God exists, but doesn’t care to stop evil, atheism is still false!
No, the Problem of Evil isn’t an argument against the existence of God. It’s actually a specific a challenge to the Judeo-Christian conception of a good and all-powerful God. Now, that’s the kind of God I believe in—and so I’ve got to be ready to do some work to show that God and evil can in fact co-exist. But the rest of the story is that God can have good reasons for allowing evil.
Doug Blount made this very point on an episode of The Table Podcast focusing on the New Atheism:
The mere fact that I can’t figure out why God allows some of the things to happen that he does, or maybe most of the things that happen that he does, is not warrant for the conclusion that he’s got no such reasons, or even worse that there is no such God.
Here, Blount is saying that human ignorance isn’t a proper basis for concluding anything about God’s reasons. And human ignorance isn’t a good reason to believe that the God of the Bible isn’t real either. The idea that God can have good reasons for allowing evil shows us that God and evil can logically co-exist.
But some still insist that all the evil and suffering in the world, especially the stuff that seems totally pointless to us, must mean there’s no God. I get it. My heart breaks when I see this kind of stuff, too. But this leads into the second thing I think everyone should know about the Problem of Evil.
2. The Problem of Evil Doesn’t Mean There’s No God
Here’s why the Problem of Evil doesn’t automatically lead us to the doorstep of atheism: Remember how Harris started out saying that if God exists, then either God’s too weak to stop evil or he doesn’t care to stop it? Well, even though the problem of evil is often presented as an “either-or” kind of thing, it’s really not.
Harris actually shows this is a false dichotomy by presenting the atheist conclusion as kind of a “third option.” But is the only other option to say that there’s no God?
Not at all.
And here’s why:
The Christian worldview gives us another option that atheists often leave out of the equation. This answer expands on the point I just mentioned: God can have good reasons for allowing evil—even if we don’t know what those reasons are.
Let me illustrate this: I remember there was this one day after I became a dad. My wife and I had to take our baby to the doctor to get a shot. Actually, they gave him 4 shots–2 in each leg! He cried. I cried, too. And it was like, “Wow, ‘welcome to fatherhood!'”
But of course, our baby boy had no clue why we were allowing this pain in to his life. But we knew there was a greater good there–That allowing him to feel pain for a few seconds would reduce his risk of getting some really serious illnesses.
Here’s what I learned from this situation at the pediatrician’s office: Just because something might seem pointless to us, doesn’t mean God can’t have a morally justified reason for it. We’re just not in a good place to make that call.
Come to think of it, God’s reasons for allowing evil might not necessarily be thing kind of thing that we should expect fully understand. It actually takes some humility to admit the role of human finiteness in understanding why God allows evil.
Still, the one thing that we do know if that God will one day defeat evil. On the same episode of the Table Podcast on the New Atheism, Dr. Glenn Kreider said:
If God is good and evil exists, then God will one day do something about evil and that we have an eschatological hope that evil and all of its effects will one day be removed. So there is a redemptive work of God and he is acting redemptively in a fallen world.
So what are we left with if we reject the Christian perspective on evil and buy in to the atheist alternative? Not much that can help make better sense of the evil and suffering we see in the world today.
3. The Problem of Evil Isn’t Just a Christian Problem
The Problem of Evil isn’t just a Christian problem. Evil is everybody’s problem! Everyone experiences evil, regardless of what you believe. So, what’s the naturalistic take on evil?
If atheism is true, there’s no basis for objective moral values and duties. And if everything’s ultimately reducible to physical processes and matter just behaving according to law, it seems pretty tough to build a moral foundation that doesn’t leave you as a total subjectivist.
Here’s what I mean: If there’s no good and no evil, like Richard Dawkins says in his book, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life, then there is “no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference” in our universe. How’s that for a description of reality?
What this means is that if atheism’s true, then what’s “good” or what’s “evil” is basically just you saying what you happen to like or what you happen to not like. So as an atheist, you could say “I don’t happen to like the idea of human trafficking” or “I don’t prefer to be the victim of spousal abuse.” But you couldn’t have any kind of real, moral grounding to call it objectively evil—if atheism is true.
So, becoming an atheist doesn’t seem to help us make better sense of evil. But even more than this, the atheist position’s got another problem to deal with: The Problem of Good. In other words, naturalism has the challenge of providing a sufficient moral grounding for goodness itself—in addition to making sense of evil in the world. And that’s a pretty tall order for a philosophy with absolutely no room for God.
Despite all the ruckus coming from many followers of the New Atheism, The Problem of Evil really isn’t an argument for atheism. It doesn’t automatically lead us to atheist conclusion and it doesn’t seem to help us make better sense of evil. The fact that God can have good reasons for allowing evil—even if we don’t know what those reasons are defeats the whole notion that it’s impossible for God and evil to co-exist.
Q&A Session on The Problem of Evil
In this video clip, Pastor Mark Henkel at Bridgeway Christian Church asks a question from the audience: “Mikel…without using free will as a main support, how can you argue for the omnipotence of God when dealing with the problem of evil and suffering?”
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This was taken from a conference called Reasonable Faith in an Uncertain World in Rocklin, CA featuring J.P. Moreland, Craig Hazen, John Mark Reynolds, Sean McDowell and Mikel Del Rosario.