The Intuitive Problem of Evil
While the logical problem of evil can be evaluated on the basis of a deductive argument, the intuitive problem is a little trickier. On the one hand, it can be expressed much more simply: “How could God allow so much pain?” It could also be expressed by lining up every individual instance of suffering, pain, and difficulty that one can think of, making it a very long, drawn out argument indeed.
The intuitive problem of evil is truly the form of the problem that every Christian must come to grips with. This is no invention of the atheists. This is a question that goes to the heart of faith in God. Is God really good? Is He in control? Couldn’t he have prevented that car accident? That rape? That birth defect? What about cancer? Starving children? Who’s responsible for natural disasters?
As we begin to evaluate the problem, keep in mind that there really are two directions from which people approach it. On the one hand, you have the Christian, or anyone who believes in an all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good God. The Christian has to reconcile that belief with the existence of suffering and pain. He must approach the problem of evil as his own problem. The solution must be faithful to what he believes about God and His purpose in the world.
On the other hand, you have the atheist or skeptic, who sees the problem of evil as confirmation of his unbelief. Often, he’s been made an unbeliever in God by his own inability to solve this problem. To him, this is often his most powerful weapon. In some cases, he sees evil as a real thing that is out there and screams that there is no God. In others, he thinks that there’s really no such thing as good or evil, and that this is just an enormous inconsistency in the life of the silly theist. What the atheist believes about the existence of evil will have a profound effect on how he sees the problem of evil.
As I pointed out in part 1, many critics of belief in God will use the problem of evil without much consideration about which form they’re using or whether their arguments are consistent. This will become very important when evaluating the intuitive problem of evil. The atheist, I believe, will be put in a very uncomfortable position if he intends to keep using the problem of evil against Christians.
The Christian’s Problem
Before addressing the atheist’s contentions, I want to spend some time talking about the problem as it is put by the Christian. Christians, of course, don’t present the problem of evil as if it really does destroy belief. They do pose the question, though. And it can be expressed as simply as, “Why, God?”
For particular sufferings in our lives, it looks as though Scripture does not give an answer. There’s no verse on why a particular person is diagnosed with diabetes, or why another person has car trouble on a given day, so there can be no answer that gives a reason for every single pain and grief that each person goes through. That would obviously take a book of ridiculous length, due to the sheer number of difficult things people go through, and the probably very complex reasons that could be given for each one.
So, does the fact that the Bible does not meet this unquestionably high standard mean that it is inadequate to teach us how to approach the question? I don’t believe so. In part 1, we looked at a couple of instances that showed how God’s purposes were behind even sinful actions to achieve His goals. Joseph was sold into slavery by sinful motives as it concerned his brothers, but by righteous motives as it concerned God. Also, in Acts 2:23, Jesus was delivered up both by “the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” and by “the hands of lawless men.”
There are many other cases that could be examined. Enough, along with explicit statements of Scripture (Isaiah 46:9-11, Ephesians 1:11), to make a universal case for the position that no evil whatsoever falls outside of the purposes of God, and that all events fit perfectly into His plan. There is one I’d like to examine more closely, however, as it actually poses the question of suffering as Christians often articulate it. The passage is John 9:1-7.
As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:1-2)
The question is asked by the disciples, not any detractor or opponent of Jesus. An answer is genuinely requested. One can tell from the question that the common belief, at least among the disciples, was that when someone is born deformed, it must be a judgment for some sin. Whose sin, though? They don’t even ask about anyone other than the parents and the man, I would guess because they have a sense that it would be completely unjust for the judgment to be a result of some other party. The question then narrows to these two possibilities: the parents or the man. How would we answer the question? I imagine that it would be difficult for anyone to blame the parents, since that seems unjust, too. Why should the man suffer for his parents’ sin? But the alternative has its own problems. What could the man have done in the womb to be given this harsh judgment that he should be born blind? The traditional answers for seemingly pointless suffering were lacking, and the disciples hoped that Jesus could shed some light on the question.
“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life. As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
Having said this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes. “Go,” he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam” (this word means Sent). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing. (John 9:3-7)
The first thing you should notice here is the manner in which Jesus answers the question. On many occasions, Jesus chides the disciples for their lack of wisdom or faith. When they ask about who will be greatest in His kingdom, he is rather harsh in His response. I don’t see that same harshness here. The “either/or” question of the disciples is certainly one asked from an ignorant belief, but Jesus does not answer their question by asking another one, or pointing out how far from the mark they are. Rather, he answers plainly. “This happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” This is nothing less than the view I and many Christians throughout history have put forth as the answer for why God would allow, or even ordain suffering. Jesus points out that the suffering of the man was to provide Jesus with the opportunity of showing God’s glory in His healing of the man.
Does this mean that we should expect that every suffering should be healed and made right in order to show God’s glory? I don’t believe so. Just how God glorifies Himself in each situation is somewhat unique and up to God. The main thing is to understand that Jesus’ answer to the disciples is that, in this world, suffering has a purpose and that there are opportunities to do the work of God presented by every suffering we come across as Christians.
The Atheist’s Weapon
So now I turn to the atheistic form of the argument. This is where we will see the dilemma that any atheist who wants to use this problem against the Christian must face. The atheist, in order to be consistent, must first decide if he believes that there really is evil. This will affect everything down the line in the argument. We’ll follow the two choices the atheist has and how each one turns out.
First, we’ll look at the atheist who believes in objective morality. On this view, the existence of God is irreconcilable with the evil that the atheist sees in the world. This argument could take the form of rejecting God because there’s just some evil at all, or because there’s just such a great deal of it. This argument often takes the form of listing atrocities, natural disasters, and diseases to show just how bad things are.
The basic problem with this view is that there is no consistent way, on an atheistic worldview, to account for objective morality itself. Many have attempted to do so, such as appealing to maintaining physical well-being or happiness, but no non-theistic view can go any further than to say what sorts of actions typically result in physical well-being or happiness. No reason is given for the “oughtness” of moral activity. Why ought one, morally, to maintain physical well-being or happiness, for oneself or others? It’s been said by Hume and many philosophers since that you can’t derive an “ought” from an “is”. That is to say, you can’t create an argument whose premises contain no moral imperatives that concludes that one ought to behave any certain way. You simply have to start with some premise that contains an imperative, a command statement.
Do any of the classic ethical systems succeed for the atheist? The easiest answer is to ask the question, “Why ought I…?” For Plato and perhaps Aristotle, the beginning of ethics was found in objective moral truths that were not derived from the material world around them, but stood on their own. Plato still believed that he had to appeal to something higher than his four virtues, Justice, Temperance, Wisdom, and Courage. He appealed to the “Good”, something higher than virtue itself, about which he could say little. It is generally accepted that Plato rejected the Greek gods of his day, and many believe that he held to some form of monotheism, couching his “God” with the term, “Good”. Whether this is true or not, we can at least see that he did not believe that the virtues themselves stood simply on their own nature.
Kant gives us his “categorical imperative”, which states that the only things that can count as morally good actions are those that one can will to be a universal law. This would put things like theft, murder, and suicide outside of the morally good. For Kant, there are three categories: good, amoral, and evil. If one can will that everyone should do a thing, then it is good. If one can will that everyone should refrain from a thing, then it is evil. If a particular action cannot be willed to be universally done or refrained from, then it is amoral. As you can imagine, there are a lot of things that Kant classifies as amoral. Because the categorical imperative leads to classifications that go against the conscience of man so often, most people do not hold to it. Now the question arises, “If it’s a true moral code, isn’t it immoral to reject it?” The answer, of course, is yes. Unfortunately, Kant gives no reason to accept his moral code as opposed to others. His ethic is grounded in nothing, and so is easily rejected.
The two most common ethics I’ve encountered from atheists, at least those who claim there really are objective moral standards, are hedonism, in some form, or utilitarianism. Hedonism is the belief that purpose of man is to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. While this meant for some that we should chase momentary pleasures and try to ignore the consequences, Epicurus, hedonism’s most prominent supporter, believed that overall pleasure enhancement meant avoiding many momentary pleasures that may lead to greater pain in the long-term. Utilitarianism is basically the extension of this principle to others in addition to oneself. One’s actions should lead to the greatest happiness and well-being of the greatest number of people. Conversely, they should also minimize the pain and injury of the greatest number of people.
There are two problems with this pair of views as it relates to a truly objective morality. The first is that on this view, no action is ever good or evil in itself, but only with respect to its consequences. An action’s rightness or wrongness cannot be found, therefore, in the action or even in the person doing it, since motives are not taken into account. I would only say at this point that this is where the consciences of most people would not line up with this view. Personal motivating factors like selfishness, greed, envy, laziness, or love, honor, wisdom, or charity are all irrelevant and play no part in the moral character of the action. Indeed, these traits are not seen as good or evil themselves, but as only insofar as they tend to lead to the consequences that utilitarianism/epicureanism says are good. When love hurts, therefore, it is evil, and when selfishness leads to benefit, it is a virtue. These traits can never be judged in themselves.
The second problem, and I believe the more serious one, is that these views give no real support for why one ought to behave a certain way. Why should we limit moral evaluations to a calculation of what’s going to make more people happy? To separate the views in question for a moment to make this point clear, why should I be a utilitarian as opposed to an epicurean? Why should I not make myself happiest first? Why should I hold to this view as opposed to Plato’s, or Kant’s, or the Bible’s? Epicureanism and utilitarianism cannot answer these questions. They do not contain the answers within their systems, and are therefore inadequate systems of ethics. While on some levels they speak things that almost anyone would accept is true, especially Christians, they cannot do the whole job that an ethical system should do. They cannot give us the “ought” if they don’t contain it to start out.
Christianity holds to the belief that God is perfectly good, that He has made everything else that exists, including man, a moral creature, and has given commands to man that reflect His perfect moral nature. This is how Christianity accounts for objective morality. It is grounded in God’s moral nature, which even God cannot change. He is who He is necessarily, so He cannot do evil. He cannot make a mistake. He cannot fail. This is why the frequent charge that Christians who ground morality in a personal being do not have an objective morality is spurious. Morality is ultimately based, not on the commands of God, but the nature of God. Its details are made known through commands, but those commands are not the source. Any time an atheist makes the charge that Christians have a “subjectivist” worldview, or that we do not really believe in objective morality because our morality comes from a person, or repeat the common charge that “God could have commanded that child-murder is good” or some other silly statement, they aren’t taking the whole Christian belief into account. At best, they haven’t done their homework. At worst, they’re being dishonest about Christianity in order to support their argument.
To sum up, the atheist who believes in objective morality must account for that belief. If the universe is naturalistic, and if we are simply products of random, impersonal events, then morality cannot be anything but a conventional construct of our minds, binding on no one. The atheist, if he wants to bring any proposed moral evil, including the allowance of suffering by God, to bear on the Christian, must give an account for why that proposed evil is, in fact, evil.
It’s important to note that this cannot be a mere description of what most people do. Morality, by nature, is prescriptive, not merely descriptive. If the atheist thinks that morality is objective, he must give a reason why that morality governs man’s actions and judges them to be right or wrong. If all it does is give an account of why most people do things, such as appealing to happiness or well-being, but does not say what people ought to do in order to be considered good, then it is not a moral system. It is merely a system of behavior description, nothing more.
Now, suppose that our atheist rejects objective evil. What this means is that, while he may believe in suffering (who doesn’t?), he attaches no moral evaluation to it, meaning that, for himself, whether someone suffers or not and whether that suffering is justified or not are inconsequential. There is no such thing as objective morality. From this it follows that there is no problem, on his worldview, with reconciling suffering with the existence of God. Suffering has no moral value, so it cannot reflect whether or not there could be a God, at least of an amoral sort. Most atheists, though, who do reject morality do so because they’re atheists first. They see the world as nothing but naturalistic systems and processes, and nothing has moral value on this view.
How, then does this type of atheist bring the problem of evil to bear on the Christian? The only answer open to him is one that is functionally equivalent to the logical problem of evil we examined in part 1. The atheist who rejects morality must phrase the problem in such a way as to say that the Christian is committed to belief in good and evil, and that the existence of evil is inconsistent with belief in God.
Of course, the Christian knows the biblical answer to this question. We saw it in John 9:3. The man was born blind so as to display the power of God at the time of his healing. God had a purpose for the suffering that is sufficient, on the Christian worldview, to account for that suffering. In addition, God has the right, as Creator, to do what He wishes with His creation. When God uses evil for the ultimate benefit of His people (Rom. 8:28, 9:20-24), and for His own purpose and glory (John 9:1-7, Isaiah 10:5-19), He has the right to do so because He has created it all and is bringing about a greater good. This then applies to all evil, even those particular instances (and there are many) when we don’t know what God’s purpose is. It is sufficient to know He has one.
How is the atheist to respond to this? Now we have come to the uncomfortable dilemma faced by the atheist who chooses to use the problem of evil as a weapon against Christians. The atheist cannot affirm that his examples of evil are real without having to give an atheistic account of evil, which he cannot do. And the atheist cannot reject the existence of evil without having to allow the Christian account of evil to stand. No example or collection of examples, however large, of suffering or evil is sufficient in itself to show any inconsistency within Christianity. In order to bring any example to bear on Christianity, that example cannot be considered only within the Christian worldview. All examples thus considered are consistent with Christianity. The only logical way an example of evil could succeed against the Christian position is for that example to be a real fact, describing a morally evil suffering in the world that the Christian worldview cannot account for. If the atheist believes that his example is such a fact, then he must give an atheistic account of evil as outlined above, or his position will be defeated just as soundly by his example as he had hoped it would defeat the Christian. If the atheist wants to escape this by saying that it’s a problem within the Christian worldview, then he must allow the Christian worldview to define itself, and as it does so, it accounts for all evil, nullifying the atheist
The atheist is in an inescapable dilemma when it comes to the problem of evil. The dilemma itself is not one that destroys atheism. It merely destroys atheism’s weapon against Christianity. Or put more precisely, logically, the weapon could only hope to destroy Christianity by also actually destroying atheism.