The problem of evil is a sticky wicket for all theistic believers and thinking atheists know it. Thanks to David Hume’s classic recapitulation (taken from Epicurus), the theist has her work cut out to show that she “thinks well with others.”

How might a theist respond to the typical atheist argument that runs something like this?

  1. Theists claim God is perfectly good and omnipotent.
  2. But a perfectly good being always eliminates evil as far as it can.
  3. There are no limits to what an omnipotent being can do.
  4. Evil exists.
  5. Therefore, God does not exist.

Is there a reasonable response? Can these apparent inconsistencies be minimized, reduced, or eliminated altogether? I think so for several reasons. First, the charge of inconsistency does not necessarily entail irrationality. Theists don’t pretend to have all the answers and readily admit the difficulties of coherence regarding the problem of evil. Second, the burden of proof rests with atheists who must show why theists have to accept some assumptions that seemly lurk beneath the atheist’s surface. For example, must a perfectly good being always eliminate evil as far as it can? And, are there no limits to what an omnipotent being can do in order to remain omnipotent? Is it logically possible God has morally sufficient reasons for permitting all the evils there are? What about the other classic arguments for God’s existence (ontological, cosmological, teleological, moral)? Are they not compelling (the problem of evil aside)? These responses may not satisfy everyone, but it will stimulate further reflection and discussion.

If fact, the theist could turn the game around by

reshaping the argument with something like this.

  1. An omnipotent, omnibenevolent, omniscient God created the world and everything in it.
  2. God creates a world containing evil and has good reasons for doing so.
  3. Therefore, the world contains evil.

Moreover, given a certain understanding of human freedom, many Christian philosophers have argued…

  1. God cannot do what is logically impossible (draw square circles, self-denial, lie, sin, etc.). Yet these inabilities are actually strengths rather than weaknesses.
  2. Creating a world where genuinely free creatures always do the right thing is not logically possible.
  3. To create creatures capable of moral good, those same creatures had to be capable of moral evil.
  4. Therefore, creating a world where evil potentially exists was logically necessary in order to bring about a world where some moral good obtains.

Alvin Plantinga writes:

“Now God can create free creatures, but He can’t cause or determine them to do only what is right. For if He does so, then they aren’t significantly free after all; they do not do what is right freely…He can’t give these creatures the freedom to perform evil and at the same time prevent them from doing so…The fact that free creatures sometimes go wrong, however, counts neither against God’s omnipotence nor against His goodness for He could have forestalled the occurrence of moral evil only by removing the possibility of moral good…a world containing creatures who are significantly free (and freely perform more good than evil actions) is more valuable…than a world containing no free creatures at all.”
(God, Freedom, and Evil, p. 30)

The inimitable C. S. Lewis suggests evil plays a positive role in the universe.

“God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world…No doubt pain as God’s megaphone is a terrible instrument; it may lead to final and unrepented rebellion. But it gives the only opportunity the bad man can have for amendment. It removes the veil; it plants the flag of truth within the fortress of a rebel soul…. Now God, who has made us, knows what we are and that our happiness lies in Him. Yet we will not seek it in Him as long as He leaves us any other resort where it can even plausibly be looked for. While what we call ‘our own life’ remains agreeable we will not surrender it to Him. What then can God do in our interests but make our own life less agreeable to us, and take away the plausible sources of false happiness?”
(The Problem of Pain, pp. 95-96)

Finally, are we really in a position to claim that God does not have his reasons for allowing every evil (see Deut. 29:29)? Craig and Moreland give us a worthy illustration.

Chaos theory (an emerging theory in science) suggests that “certain macroscopic systems—for example, weather systems or insect populations—are extraordinarily sensitive to the tiniest perturbations. A butterfly fluttering on a branch in West Africa may set in motion forces that would eventually issue in a hurricane over the Atlantic Ocean. Yet it is possible in principle for anyone observing that butterfly palpitating on a branch to predict such an outcome. [Likewise] the brutal murder of an innocent man or a child’s dying of leukemia could send a ripple effect through history so that God’s morally sufficient reason for permitting it might not emerge until centuries later.”
(William L. Craig, J. P. Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, p. 543)

At the end of the day, every theist must “think well with others” and be ready and able to offer a reasonable defense of belief in God.

5 Comments

  1. In no way does the burden of proof fall on us Atheists. Religion is the one making extraordinary claims, extraordinary claims which requires extraordinary proof.

  2. @freethinkep
    You would be right if the discussion begins with the theist making the claim “God exists.” However, my vantage point assumes the discussion begins with the atheist. If true, then the burden of proof falls on the one making the assertion “There is no God.” Moreover, if atheism is true, then not a few “extraordinary” claims must be made as well, such as: Either a) the universe has no beginning or b) no one knows if the universe has a beginning; the existence of evil is a psycho-evolutionary construct to promote survival; life has no ultimate purpose or meaning other than what one can give; death is the end of existence, etc.

  3. Well you initial vantage point is incorrect, the discussion doesn’t begin with the Atheist denying God, it begins by the religious person not only claiming the existence of a God, but of also knowing his wants, his commandments, etc…
    Atheism, being based on the scientific method, always leaves room for being wrong. Atheism requires no extraordinary proof, since one is never required to prove a negative.

  4. Posted on behalf of Bill Luck (sent via email):

    The easiest way I’ve found to deal with the problem is to bring up the missing premise: Since God is all wise, He would eliminate evil at the right time and in the right way. Thus premise two below is faulty, insofar as it simply assumes that the right time and right way is the way the critic thinks it is, namely immediately when evil happens…or even preclude it from happening. And thus the real issue is whether God or the critic is wisest. I usually then point out that if God did what they said, He would eliminate them or have kept them from coming into existence. And, since all people do evil at some time (as the arguments you offer show), He would have simply not created free creatures at all. Thus, the only way an all powerful, loving, good, and wise God could have created the world which the critic exists (i.e., with free will), is the world he has.

    Of course showing that the problem of evil does not logically preclude God’s existence isn’t the same thing as showing that He does exist. And while it can be argued that it all that is happened by chance, that’s existentially repugnant, as even Hume admits in a footnote in his Treatise on Human Nature…and as Tony Flew finally admitted shortly before his death. Of course I prefer special revelation to general to establish such things. And if evidence for a God who is there and not silent can be offered, the critic had better be glad that God does things His way rather than theirs.

  5. @freethinkep…
    Thanks. Perhaps you’re right and I stand corrected. Whenever an affirmative statement is made rules of forensics insist the burden of proof rests primarily with the affirmative.

    Re: the scientific method as the only method for ascertaining truth about the universe is not without its problems.

    Science contends that only the hard, physical facts are being looked at to determine the truth about the universe. But this presupposes that nature is intelligible; that it is consistent in the past and future (uniformitarianism); is explainable (nothing is lost in the process from interpretation to explication); the laws of logic are true (e.g., law of non-contradiction); and one’s memory and senses are trustworthy to give an accurate correspondence between what is observed and what is really “out there.” These assumptions are by nature philosophical and not scientific and the scientific method cannot prove nor disprove them, yet depend upon them for accurate reporting of the data. Thomas Kuhn’s, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, speaks to this last point:

    An investigator. . .asked a distinguished physicist and an eminent chemist whether a single atom of helium was or was not a molecule. Both answered without hesitation, but their answers were not the same. For the chemist the atom of helium was a molecule because it behaved like one with respect to the kinetic theory of gases. For the physicist. . .the helium atom was not a molecule because it displayed no molecular spectrum. Presumably both. . .were talking of the same particle. . .but they did not, in this case, tell. . .the same thing.

    The significant point of this illustration is that what corresponds between reality and one’s understanding of it is primarily based upon the structure of the existing paradigm. If the scientific model is accepted as true, then one only needs to look for evidence to support that model. No other assumptions are considered (e.g., the existence of a Creator God), so no evidence will be discovered to test the viability of that assumption, since it has been dismissed a priori.

    Seems to me that to dismiss the possibility of God’s existence by using only the scientific method for discovering all of truth about the universe is, well, less than objective. Have you considered arguments for God’s existence?

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