The problem of evil is a sticky wicket for all believers in God 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 is “thinking well” about this most difficult topic.
How might a theist respond to a typical atheist argument that runs something like this?
- Theists claim God is perfectly good and omnipotent.
- But a perfectly good being always eliminates evil as far as it can.
- There are no limits to what an omnipotent being can do.
- Evil exists.
- 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 change the trajectory a bit by reshaping the argument with something like this.
- An omnipotent, omnibenevolent, omniscient God created the world and everything in it.
- God creates a world containing evil and has good reasons for doing so.
- Therefore, the world contains evil.
Moreover, given a certain understanding of human freedom, many Christian philosophers have argued…
- God cannot do what is logically impossible (draw square circles, self-denial, lie, sin, etc.). Yet these inabilities are actually strengths rather than weaknesses.
- Creating a world where genuinely free creatures always do the right thing is not logically possible.
- To create creatures capable of moral good, those same creatures had to be capable of moral evil.
- 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 morally sufficient reasons, unknown to us, 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 impossible 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” and “think hard” with others about this most difficult topic and believers must be ready and able to offer a reasonable defense of belief in God.