An Old Debate
One of the most common reasons for denying the existence of God is the problem of evil in the world. Just ask any group of atheists to give their top ten reasons for unbelief and surely one will claim as number one, “If there is a God, then why is there so much evil in the world?” For many, this is the pièce de résistance of rebuttals. How could a good God be real and allow all the suffering in the world to continue unabated – assuming He is even good? The eighteenth century philosopher, David Hume described the problem this way in Dialogues concerning Natural Religion, 1779:
“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?” (Stackhouse 1998, 11)
So, the “problem of evil,” and its source, has been an issue of philosophical debate for centuries. The existence of evil in the world, along with unanswered questions, has even become evidence enough for some to embrace atheism. Therefore, because so many philosophers and theologians have tried for ages to reconcile the existence of God with the existence of evil, I dare say that nothing I write will be new. But, if anyone were to challenge my belief in God, along with my faith in Jesus Christ, with the argument that the problem of evil constitutes proof God does not exist, then I would possibly respond with arguments based on the following thought:
Without the existence of God, there should be no evil to be a problem, and that’s the real problem with “the Problem of Evil.”
Evil? What Is It?
What exactly is “evil?” Now, that may sound like an absurd kind of question to ask, but if the existence of evil is the evidence that is supposed to expose my faith as a fraud, at best, or even a lie, then what is it? Is it something tangible? Is it metaphysical? Is it theoretical? What is it, exactly? Does it have any particular form? How can it be distinguished from what is called good? On what do the atheists and agnostics base their definition of this thing called “evil?”
Amazingly, the answers are not all the same, nor in some cases even grounded in reality. However, it is imperative to understand that we must define this God-killer, because its definition will determine our conclusions and help to clarify our assumptions.
When C. S. Lewis was an atheist, for example, his “argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust.” (Lewis 1989) There he had it, or so he thought. God could not exist because so much evil exists. But how did he arrive at “this idea of just and unjust?” Lewis said, “A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line.” (Lewis 1989) “Tell me,” I would say, “what is evil, and how do you recognize it when you see it?”
To start, evil must be understood to be an adjective. Evil is a description of something that is not good. Evil is not a thing. The word “evil” only describes the thing, the thought, and the action. Technically, “evil” does not exist, only what it describes.
Some people say that they cannot believe in God because why or how could a good God, if He was perfect, create evil? They think of evil as something that must have not existed until God made it. But evil “isn’t a kind of molecule or a virus…infecting or affecting everything it encounters. There was no time when God said, ‘Let there be evil,’ and there was evil.” (Stackhouse 1998) As John G. Stackhouse put it, “evil becomes a noun only in the abstract.” Additionally, in his book Can God Be Trusted, Stackhouse says of evil:
“An action can be evil, or an event can be evil, or a quality can be evil, or a being can be evil. And we can lump all these particular evils together in our minds and come up with a category ‘evil.’ We can even go on to discuss it as if it were a particular thing, so long as we do not forget that we are always dealing with a category or group of particular evil things, not a thing itself.” (Stackhouse 1998, 31)
So then, if evil is a description, how is it that we come to use the adjective, or as Lewis put it, the “crooked line,” without first having some idea of what is a “straight” one? Defining what is good is as important as defining evil. To know what is evil, we must first have some assumption as to what is not evil.
The crazy thing is that if God does not exist, and man is nothing more than a collection of random matter, both good and evil are purely relative – their existence is based purely on one’s perspective. So, in other words, the one who says that there is no God, based on the existence of evil, is literally basing his belief on pure opinion, not on anything objective. Therefore, in order to bring an accusation against the goodness of God, one must have a base line. What is the standard by which we determine what is good and what is evil?
Some use Man as the baseline. They compare God to the standard set by what is thought to be good behavior in this world. They rationalize that if God is real, at least according to monotheistic dogma, He must be all-powerful, perfectly good, and the supreme example of love, kindness, and providential care. Because it is preached that God is a better Father than earthly fathers, Mark Twain took it upon himself to write:
The best minds will tell you that when a man has begotten a child he is morally bound to tenderly care for it…[yet], God’s treatment of his earthly children, every day and every night, is the exact opposite of that, yet those minds warmly justify those crimes…when he commits them.” (Tonie Doe Media 2007)
So then, according to Twain, God could not exist because if He did, He would act consistent with our understanding of what a good and loving earthly father would do. In other words, if God cannot, in all His perfection, behave better toward His children than the most common man, His credentials are therefore revoked, and He must cease to exist. However, this is so illogical.
Who are we to say that God, if He is perfect, and we are imperfect, ever treats His children poorly? Do the protesting cries of a toddler who has had poison taken from his grasp carry more weight than the decision of the earthly father to take it away? How, then, are we to automatically assume that the infantile tendencies of finite man are wiser than the infinitely Mature?
Using Man as a baseline for what is good and evil is pure arrogance.
Whose Line Is It?
In reality, the problem of evil is really a problem for the atheist. He, who denies the existence of a Creator and accepts only the realities of evil in the world, essentially has nothing about which to complain. Everything should be just fine and dandy, but it’s not. The atheist knows that evil things happen to both good and bad people.
He sees the hurt, feels the pain, and begs for justice. The reality of evil in the world causes men to cry out for justice; for things to be made right. This is a problem, though, because knowing that a crooked line is not straight hints at the fact that a Line-drawer exists.
The Followers’ Fault
Others take a different approach. They claim that God does not exist except in the evil intentions of his followers to control others through guilt. They claim that God is just a fabrication of priests to keep mankind from behaving “naturally.”
They say that nature is good, and if anything, God is evil for trying to get man to behave contrary to the very way he was created to behave. One guru said, “It seems that for those who worship God, the opposite to God is not that which is ‘evil,’ but that which is natural.” He said of animals, comparing them to men, “They don’t worship God, they don’t go to church, they don’t have any theology. They don’t have any feeling of guilt, they are simply natural.” (Osho 2009) In other words, if there is evil in the world, it is because our belief in God has inflicted it.
The Majority Response
But for the majority of the hurting world, pain is real, loss is real, and evil is manifested daily. Many see the things that happen to innocent people, especially children, and wonder, “If there is a loving God, why doesn’t he do anything about this?”
These people, many of which hold on to hope as long as they can, finally succumb to their doubts and conclude that the only way to explain away the pain is to admit that it is just part of life, part of the natural world, part of what makes us human; alone, in our quest to make life easier, free of pain, free from evil; alone, without God.
These are the ones, I believe, that lure more away from the faith than any Darwinist. They are the ones who have seen evil face-to-face and cannot fathom a God who would allow it to continue. And because their experiences are so painful and tragic, the devout are left speechless and without explanation. Ellie Wiesel is a good example.
Wiesel was a teenager when he saw his family murdered in the Nazi death camps. But it was only after witnessing one particular act of horror – the slow, hanging death of a young boy – that he turned away from his faith in God.
In the book Night, his Nobel prize-winning autobiography, Wiesel said he heard a man behind him ask, “Where is God now?” As he stood there, being forced to stare into a pitiful, wide-eyed, swollen face of a dying child, a voice within replied, “Where is He? Here He is – He is hanging here on the gallows…” (Wiesel 1982) Because there was no justification, even in the big scheme of things, Ellie Wiesel’s God died with the executed boy.
But as sad as it is, without God, who can say what happened to that boy was any worse than the slaughter of an animal? Are we not all just animals – some more evolved than others?
The Real Problem
To me, the problem of evil is not a problem for the believer to explain, but one for the non-believer. Aside from the theological arguments about the character of God, without God, to turn Hume’s question around, “whence then is evil?”
Without God, evil is relative to one’s desires and personal pleasure. Does it really even matter whether or not God could do anything about evil in the world when the whole question is moot if He didn’t exist?
With God, evil is defined as that which is against His law, that which stands opposed to His standards, and that which describes all who take pleasure in such rebellion. Without God, evil is just a matter of opinion.
That is the real “problem of evil.”
Lewis, C. S. “Atheism.” In The Quotable Lewis, by C. S. Lewis, 59. Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1989.
Osho. The God Conspiracy: the path from superstition to superconsciousness. New York: Osho Media International, 2009.
Stackhouse, John G. Can God Be Trusted. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Tonie Doe Media. In The Atheist’s Bible, 129. New York: Harper Collins, 2007.
Wiesel, Ellie. Night. New York: Bantam Books, 1982.
9 responses to “The Real Problem with the Problem of Evil”
And yet the atheist will cry for ‘morality’ as an evolutionary tool, while denying the fact, and not able to explain WHY he is any different from the ravaging jackal.
Without God in the equation all men are beasts and bastards.
As to Jack Lewis, he was spot on regarding the crooked line. The atheist uses his crooked line of godlessness and preaches that yours is bent!
Ha! We have a Standard…. and a sure word.
Very well done and a great resource. Love this: “Without God, evil is relative to one’s desires and personal pleasure.”
Blessings, grace and peace.
I think you rather misunderstand the point of the Problem of Evil.
It is not that atheists are necessarily claiming that objective standards of “good” and “evil” exist and that God violates these standards. Rather, the Problem of Evil attempts to show that the junction of two properties which are claimed for God in Classical Theology– omnibenevolence and omnipotence– are incompatible with a world in which suffering is present. If one asserts that omnibenevolence entails a desire and willingness to prevent suffering and omnipotence entails the power to prevent any suffering which one desires to prevent, then the presence of an omnibenevolent, omnipotent being necessarily implies that there should not exist any suffering. However, suffering does exist, so we must conclude that one of our premises is false.
Atheists who present this argument are likely to say that this means God cannot be both omnibenevolent and omnipotent. Theists who present this argument, however, are more likely to conclude that either omnibenevolence does not entail the willingness and desire to prevent all suffering or else that omnipotence does not imply the ability to prevent all suffering. See, for example, Alvin Plantinga’s work on the subject.
I’ve personally never liked the Problem of Evil as an argument for atheism for this reason– not to mention the fact that, even if the atheist’s conclusion was sound, the argument does not conclude that no deity exists, but simply that no omnibenevolent, omnipotent deity exists. It simply relies too much on contended definitions.
Thank you for your comment. I appreciate the time you took to write.
I don’t doubt that the “Problem of Evil” you describe is different from the one I addressed. However, I did address a very real and common argument presented by everyday folk on the street. I’ve met them and I’ve heard it. With angry indignation they cry out, “A good God would never let that happen!” In bitter disappointment they say with a sneer, “I could never believe in a God like that!” They don’t give up faith based on a reasoned debate over omnibenevolence and omnipotence, but because God did not act according to a pre-conceived standard. I believe that’s exactly what Ellie Wiesel did.
But here’s a thought…
One thing that I never hear during the debate over whether or not God was all-loving or all-powerful enough to prevent the existence of suffering is the fact that God did not create another Himself. I believe this is a key point to be made, for anything created could not be eternally pre-existent and therefore not another Himself. Therefore, should an omnibenevolent and omnipotent God decide to create anything, especially any self-willed thing, the thing created would have inherent potential to “sin.”
If God exists (and I believe He does, of course), to imply that God could have created an existence without painful potential would mean that 1) He would have had to create another Himself, or 2) He would have had to create the equivalent of mindless robots (determinism). Since He did not create another Himself, and since we are not robots and do have free will (yes, that’s another debate), I conclude that what we see in the world is a natural result of the created being rejecting the Creator. Hence, the reason for the following:
But God knew what would happen, and his prearranged plan was carried out when Jesus was betrayed. With the help of lawless Gentiles, you nailed him to a cross and killed him. But God released him from the horrors of death and raised him back to life, for death could not keep him in its grip. – Acts 2:23-24 NLT
Of course, you don’t believe in the resurrection, so…
But again, thanks for the comment. I need to go to bed, now. The wife is calling.
When people ask me why a loving God would let bad things happen my reply is always, “I don’t know..but that’s the point; any deity that can be fully explained wouldn’t be worthy of worship anyway!!”
Amen to that!
What REALLY confounds me is how a certain political group can claim to be the “Party of morals/values” and still remain so cold to the plight of the poor/homeless/refugees etc. It makes me wonder if they ever read any of the RED words in their Bible!
Ahh, well, when I either have more charge on my phone or am at a computer and not working, maybe we could chat about that.