One of the major issues that all Christians face is the problem of evil. In this series, I hope to shed some light on what is probably the most common reason why people don’t believe in God. Whether it’s called the problem of pain, suffering, evil, or whatever, the charge is always the same: How could a perfectly good, all-knowing and all-powerful God exist in the face of such evil in the world?
The answer is not simple. Simple answers to complex and difficult questions will not do. So, hopefully, this article will help you to understand the nature of the problem and how the Scriptures address it.
The problem of evil comes in two major forms, what have been called, the “logical” and the “intuitive” problems of evil. The logical problem of evil is a simple reductio ad absurdum. It is a deductive argument that derives a logical contradiction from assuming to be true what will be proven in the end to be false. For example, let’s construct an argument to show that Bill Clinton had parents.
1. Bill Clinton had no parents. (False statement to be proven false)
2. Every person had parents.
3. Bill Clinton is a person.
4. But, if Bill Clinton had no parents, then not every person had parents.
5. Therefore, Bill Clinton had parents.
Or, we could do it mathematically. In math, both sides of the equal sign must actually be equal. If they’re not, then the mathematical statement is false. For this example, let’s assume that 2+2 equals 5.
2. 4=5 (just put together the two’s on the left side)
3. But, 4 does not equal 5, so
The logical problem of evil, in the same way, is a simple deductive argument that seeks to derive some contradiction simply by assuming that there is a God. If a sound argument can be made does that, it shows that it is logically impossible for God to exist.
The intuitive problem of evil also seeks to show the impossibility of the existence of God in the face of evil, but doesn’t do so by the means of a deductive logical argument. Instead, the evil is said to be “so great” or “pointless”. It is said that a good God just wouldn’t allow there to be evil like we generally see. The focus here is on the believability of God when we consider how much evil we see. So let’s look at each of these approaches separately, and evaluate them in turn.
The Logical Problem of Evil
Most atheists or skeptics who employ the problem of evil do not realize that there really are two separate problems of evil. Each problem has its own argumentative strengths and weaknesses. Most will express the problem as they see it, and claim for their argument all of the strengths and none of the weaknesses inherent in each of the two arguments. As we will begin to see, there really is a separate set of strengths and weaknesses for each argument and they must be dealt with or the argument will fail.
As noted before, the logical problem of evil is a deductive argument much like the one we looked at before. It purports to show that the assertion that God exists is a logically self-defeating statement, like the statement that there are square circles:
1. An all-knowing (omniscient), all-powerful (omnipotent), and perfectly good (omnibenevolent) God (triple-O God) exists.
2. If God is onmibenevolent, then He would prevent all evil he knows about and can prevent.
3. If God is omniscient, then He knows about all evil.
4. If God is omnipotent, then he can prevent all evil.
5. Therefore, if a triple-O God exists, then evil does not exist.
6. Evil exists.
7. Therefore, a triple-O God does not exist.
As you can see, this argument derives a contradiction from the assumption that God and evil both exist. It is necessary for the Christian to believe that both God and evil exist. This brings us to one of the strengths of this argument. It only seeks to show an inconsistency in the Christian or theistic worldview. Doing so doesn’t require the atheist to believe any of the premises to be true. In other words, this argument can be consistently utilized by the moral relativist who doesn’t even believe in evil. Since no consistent Christian would deny the existence of either God or evil, and since it’s only drawing out an apparent inconsistency in Christianity, there is no need for the atheist to defend a belief in evil himself.
The major weakness, however, is that, as a logical deductive argument, one need only show that one premise is very likely false in order to make the argument unsound. In this argument, two premises have frequently been denied by Christians: premise 2, that a perfectly good God would prevent all evil He could; and premise 6, that evil exists.
Let’s look a little closer. In what way could a Christian deny 2? There have been several answers historically. The first is the so-called free will defense. It says that God more highly values the freedom of man’s will than the absence of evil. Therefore, if the removal of all evil would require the absence of free will, then God wouldn’t do it. If the free will defender’s argument is true, then we have a good reason to reject premise 2.
In response to this defense, the most common–and I believe appropriate–argument is that premise two says that God would prevent all evil, which is equivalent to saying that God would allow no evil at all. This means that one cannot point only to those actions that are the direct result of a purposefully evil action of man and say that evil human purpose accounts for all evil. Remember, the problem is greater than that. A solution must account for all suffering. Even, arguably, non-human suffering. Since there are many instances of suffering that is not a result of deliberate human action, the free will defense is inadequate to answer the logical problem of evil.
Notice here that the free will defense would work if the logical problem were stated in such a way as to limit itself to evil and suffering that comes about as a direct result of free actions of men. Because it doesn’t, the free will defense is, on the surface, inadequate.
Briefly, one retort the proponent of the free will defense could offer is that all evil and suffering in the world is, in some way, the result of the fall of Adam, and is, therefore a result of the free actions of man. While I think the statement is true, I also think there’s more to the answer than this. It’s truth would tell us “how” evil came into the world, but not “why”, and that is the question that needs to be answered.
Another line of reasoning for why premise 2 is false is this: If God exists and evil exists, then there must be some reason why He allows that evil to exist, and if God is all-knowing, then He knows what that reason is. Unlike the free will defense, this answer doesn’t attempt to give us a specific reason for why there is evil, only that there must be some reason why God’s goodness does not compel Him to stop it. Indeed, this is consistent with the statement that God does indeed stop much evil from happening and we just aren’t aware of it.
If God is indeed all-powerful and all-knowing, then He is in control of every aspect of our existence. Subsequently, evil must be not only an allowable thing from God’s perspective, but a purposeful thing. I would submit that God doesn’t just allow evil because of some more pressing principle, such as free will, but that each individual example of evil or suffering has a purpose in the mind and plan of God, and that that plan is aimed at a higher good that, in the end, will be a result of that evil.
Scripture, as it turns out, supports this view on several occasions. The first that comes to mind is found in Genesis 50 in the words of Joseph. “What you intended for evil, God intended for good…” Many years prior to this statement, Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery to a caravan going to Egypt. Because of Joseph’s faithfulness and God’s direction, Joseph was put into a position where he was able to counsel the Pharaoh to set aside much food for a coming famine. As a result, many people lived who would not have, had Joseph’s brothers refrained from their evil act. This culminates in Joseph’s statement. Notice that Joseph draws a direct parallel between his brother’s intentions and God’s, saying that what they did was as much done by God as by them, but that God’s intentions were good. Joseph’s suffering had a place in God’s plan.
This is just one glimpse into the mind of God, and there are others. The chief example, of course, is the death of Christ. In Acts 2:23, Peter says “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” Jesus was put to death according to the definite plan of God and by the hands of lawless men. And every Christian is intimately aware of the good that has come about by that death. It is the divine transaction that has purchased every Christian’s own victory over death.
So, it turns out that the kind of perfect goodness that is described by the second premise does not describe God. As such this argument does not disprove the existence of the Christian God. We will revisit this idea in part 2, as well.
Some would say that one way to answer the problem is to deny that evil exists in the first place. Basically, the position is that evil is not an actual thing, but a privation, or absence, of good. Examples such as holes, shadows, and darkness in general are given to show that privations exist, but that they are not things in themselves. Evil, then, is just the absence of the good. Disease is the absence of health. Suffering is the absence of peace and happiness. In the Genesis account of creation, everything God creates is said to be good. So, one could say, evil isn’t so much a thing that exists, but an absence, or privation.
To be honest, I don’t know if this is really thought to be much of an answer to the problem of evil itself. It seems more of an answer to the charge that God is responsible for, or created, evil. Remember, the problem of evil is an argument against the existence of God. One way of putting the problem could go like this: If God exists, then he created everything. Evil is a thing. Therefore, if God exists, then he created evil. But, most theists deny that God created evil. Therefore, if most theists are right about God not creating evil, then God didn’t create everything, therefore, God doesn’t exist.
It looks like the “evil as privation” theory, if it answers any form of the problem of evil, it answers this one. This is not the form that we are addressing, however. When you really look at it, you can see that this theory of evil does not address the problem of evil as we’ve put it. Even if the privation theory is true, evil still exists. The privation theory does not say that evil doesn’t exist. Privations such as shadows and holes exist. They just have different conditions in which they exist than actual physical things. Evil, even if it’s a privation, still exists. Examples of suffering and wickedness and the like are still evil on this view. If an atheist is using our original formulation of the problem of evil, his answer to this defense would simply be to confirm that the privation theorist still thinks certain things are evil.
If the privation theorist wishes to say that evil doesn’t exist, then he’s got to show that all of what one would normally point to as evil just isn’t properly called evil. No theory of evil as a privation that I know of would ever say that.
Next time: Part 2: The Intuitive Problem of Evil