The Problem of Evil

One question that atheists love to problem-of-evilthrow out when debating Christians (or Jews, or Muslims) is the question of why, if God is good, omniscient, and omnipotent, is there evil and suffering? For example, you can watch as Stephen Fry Annihilates God on Youtube. The web site Bible.org has an article that gives the common arguments used by Christian apologists when confronted with this question. I’m going to quote from it and analyze their answers, then give my answer to the question.

The Logical Flaw

The problem of evil is seen as a way to show that Christianity is logically inconsistent. If Christianity can be shown to be logically contradictory, then it has to be false.

The statement of the problem of evil:

  1. God is good; and
  2. God is all-powerful and all-knowing; and
  3. God created the world;
  4. Therefore, the world shouldn’t contain evil.
  5. But the world contains evil.
  6. Therefore, one of the statements about God must be wrong

There is a hidden assumption in this chain of reasoning, which is that God must want to eliminate all evil in the world. Christianity doesn’t teach that there shouldn’t be evil. All one can conclude from the argument is that for Christianity to be true, God must have a good reason for allowing evil and suffering.

The Bible.org article states that one would have to be omniscient (i.e. God) to know whether there is actually evil that has no ultimate good purpose. That is complete rubbish. While one cannot know in all cases that an evil does not lead to good, there are some patently obvious cases. Stephen Fry gives river blindness, a parasitic disease that we have no way to prevent that has damaged the eyesight of almost a million people in the poorest parts of the world as an example of an evil that was not created by man.

Pantheism

Pantheists believe that everything is God, and God is everything. The Bible.com article states that this implies that opposites like good and evil cannot exist, and therefore pantheists believe that evil is an illusion. I don’t believe that to be correct, in that Pantheists don’t necessarily believe that God is (only) good.

Bible.com concludes that when pantheists try to use the problem of evil as an argument against Christians, they are being inconsistent with their world view. While that is true, it is rather the point. I.e. they are making the argument that if the Christian world view is correct, there is an implied contradiction. Thus they are supporting the correctness of their own world view.

Naturalism

Since naturalists doesn’t believe that there is anything that transcends the natural world, they don’t believe in an objective ‘good’. Therefore, in a naturalist’s world view there really is no ‘evil’. Evil is relative and just a matter of subjective preference.

Bible.com therefore concludes that a naturalist/atheist is also being inconsistent when he uses the problem of evil as an argument against the existence of God and states that this disqualifies him from asking the question. Rubbish. When making an argument from contradiction, you are showing that violating the truth leads to a contradiction.

The Bible.com article claims that the opposition is bailing out of its own belief system and appealing to the Christian system to make its arguments. It then makes the ridiculous assertion that if a pantheist calls the police when his car is stolen, he is borrowing from the Christian world view.

Arguments as to Why Evil is Necessary

1. Evil is Necessary for Free Will to Work

If it was impossible to do evil, then we’d never have to choose to do good. We would be like robots and that wouldn’t bring glory to God.

This doesn’t explain river blindness, so I’d call it a failure.

2. Evil is Necessary for Human Growth and Virtue

If there are no dangers, difficulties or disappointments in life, how can we gain character traits such as patience? If everyone is nice to you, then you never have to display selfless love. If life is easy, you don’t have to learn patience, or endurance. Being honest wouldn’t be a virtue if it was impossible to steal.

Again, river blindness takes down this argument, in my opinion. The ends don’t justify the means. Why are innocent children blinded? Do they really need that much difficulty to become virtuous? Why do others not need it?

3. Evil is Necessary to Promote the Greater Good

God allows a tidal wave or earthquake to kill thousands of people because the disaster will give Christians an opportunity to minister to the victims and as a result many come to faith in Christ. If spending eternity in hell is the “ultimate evil,” then allowing a lesser evil to occur to reduce the ultimate evil is in fact a good thing.

Blinding innocent children so that in some tiny fraction of cases, Christians can minister to them, but not cure their blindness, does not seem to promote greater good to me.

4. The Reason For Evil is too Complicated for Humans to Understand

Even if we can see some possible purpose in some evils, there are events which we can’t understand and we just have to recognize we are finite creatures who can’t know God’s purpose in allowing those things. As we said before, one would have to be omniscient to know for certain that an “evil” event was so evil that no good could come from it.

This argument says, in effect, that we are too stupid to understand why innocent children must be blinded by parasites, but must take it on faith that there is a good reason. That’s a very weak argument.

The Christian View

Bible.com summarizes one set of arguments use by many Christians to justify the existence of evil:

  1. God created the world and it was good.
  2. Satan fell because God gave him free will (because He wanted to be followed voluntarily) and Satan chose not to follow God. Satan is allowed to cause pain and suffering and to tempt man to sin, though why God would allow this is not explained.
  3. Man sinned.
  4. Man’s nature was corrupted. Again, why God would allow this is not explained.
  5. Creation was cursed. Again, no explanation is given.
  6. God is in control, using the evil in the world to his purposes. God causes all things to work together for good for those who love Him. People killed in earthquakes that never got around to believing in Jesus don’t qualify.
  7. How He can do this is beyond our understanding, but that doesn’t make it untrue.

I would rephrase this as “it’s OK to blind children who weren’t born in a Christian country, but we can’t tell you why”. Is it any wonder that atheists use the problem of evil argument? The Christian arguments against it are very weak.

Bible.com’s Summary

The conclusions draw in the Bible.com article are incredible, given the weakness of the arguments made:

No other philosophy can explain the problem of evil in the world. If you don’t have a good creator, and a fall, then what’s running the universe is random chance or an evil being. People in rebellion against a good God explains the evil acts of men. And a fallen creation explains disasters.

A naturalist/atheist philosophy explains the existence of evil as the outcome of a random universe. Because there is no omnipotent force of good in the atheist world view, there is no reason that evil cannot exist. River blindness is easily explained as the outcome of evolutionary pressure on the parasite that causes it.

A pantheist philosophy explains the existence of evil by removing the requirement that God is good. In the pantheist world view, God is beyond the good/evil duality. Therefore, God does not oppose evil.

Is There an Answer?

If you’re willing to adopt atheism, pantheism, or Buddhism. you’re done, but then you are forced to accept other problems:

  • If you are an atheist, you have to deal with nihilism. What is the point, if there is no point?
  • If you are a pantheist, you accept that there is suffering. It becomes very easy to get into the habit of avoiding it, becoming a hedonist.
  • If you are a Buddhist, you must accept that life is suffering. The purpose of the suffering is to find enlightenment and reach a higher state.

So, is there an answer that preserves the three properties of the God of Abraham, while believably explaining the existence of evil? I believe there are several:

  1. God is omniscient only in the moment, and does not know with certainty what will happen in the future, only what might be. Therefore, God does not interfere directly, but empowers us to do good through the Holy Spirit.
  2. The entire universe is sentient, and things we perceive as evil are actually things that need to be allowed to take their own paths. This explanation actually fits well with the traditional Christian view, but humanity loses its special status.
  3. God knows that any interference will affect the outcome of the universe, and therefore chooses not to intervene. This God is known as “the clock maker”.

I tend to believe the first explanation. After all, if God knew exactly what would happen, why would He bother to create the universe?

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About jimbelton

I'm a software developer, and a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and I blog about movies, books, and philosophy. My interest in religious philosophy and the search for the truth inspires much of my writing.
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7 Responses to The Problem of Evil

  1. KIA says:

    “God is omniscient only in the moment, and does not know with certainty what will happen in the future, only what might be. ”
    This blows the whole definition of Omniscient. You can’t have it both ways

    • jimbelton says:

      You are confusing omniscience with prescience. One does not imply the other. We know that an external observer can not be omniscient due to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncertainty_principle). Assuming God can violate that principle, and can have perfect knowledge of every property of every atom in the universe, does that mean God can perfectly predict what will happen? If God created the universe and already knows what everyone will do until the end of time, the universe in deterministic. What about free will? See my post on the subject. I believe in free will.

      • KIA says:

        I think you are redefining the biblical God by your own arguments. Prescience is included in omniscience. The concept of prophecy necessitates it.
        In the end, I am not the one who is confused. It’s you who defines an omniscient God who doesn’t know everything. Absurdly oxymoronic

      • jimbelton says:

        I personally find determinism to be absurd. The “definition of the biblical god” does not exist. Most of the ideas about God’s omniscience date from hundreds of years after the life of Jesus. Aquinas argued for free will and against determinism in the 1200’s. Your opinion is just that, your opinion. Do not claim to know that which can’t be known.

  2. Pingback: PBS Crash Course Philosophy on the Problem of Evil | Jim's Jumbler

  3. Pingback: Dissecting 12 Arguments Against Christianity | Jim's Jumbler

  4. Pingback: My Answers to 10 questions that every intelligent Christian must answer | Jim's Jumbler

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