What Christians (and Atheists) Should Keep in Mind about the Problem of Evil

Most people are quick to admit that there is such a thing as evil. Such admissions aren’t exactly the result of strenuous mental gymnastics—belief in the reality of evil is fairly easy to come by for most thinking people (to be sure, the nightly news helps us out tremendously).

But the reality of evil, some have said, presents a fundamental challenge to belief in God. One of the more common objections toward theists (especially toward Christian theists) is the question of how God can be “God”—i.e., supremely good, powerful, and knowledgeable—all the while allowing evil to have seemingly full reign. As many have objected (beginning with Epicurus so many years ago), if God is omnipotent (all-powerful), then why doesn’t he use his power to destroy evil and suffering? Either he is capable of doing so or he is not. If he’s not, then the Christian view of God is found to be wrong (we believe, after all, that God is omnipotent). But let’s say he truly is omnipotent. Then, again, why evil? It could be that he simply doesn’t want to eradicate evil; perhaps he is an all-powerful God, but maybe he’s not a good God and that is why he allows evil. But this, once more, would show the Christian conception of God to be wrong, for we believe that God is omnibenevolent (“all-good”). Moreover, perhaps he is both omnipotent and omnibenevolent but can’t destroy evil because he simply doesn’t know how to do so. Maybe, one might say, he just isn’t omniscient (“all-knowing”).

No matter how one slices it, the traditional and Christian view of God as omnibenevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient is, one might say, challenged by the presence and reality of evil. It appears that, given the fact of evil, a person has to say either God is lacking in one (or more) of these qualities or he simply doesn’t exist at all. Either way, Christian theism appears to falter.

When cornered by skeptics, Christians often find it particularly difficult to offer a response (at least one that is pleasing). In light of what I take to be very sincere questions from skeptics and non-believers, offering a reply to such existentially-centered questions about pain, evil, and suffering are without a doubt challenging. Many times Christians (and theists in general) resort to answers like, “I don’t know why God allows evil, but I’m sure there’s a reason for it.” For atheists, this response isn’t very appealing. As a result, many find atheism (or on a lesser scale, agnosticism) much more satisfying and comfortable given the presence of evil. For them, it’s simply better to posit the non-existence of God than fill in the “unknowns” and “knowledge gaps” with a supreme deity.

But could it be the case that the atheist response is even less satisfying? Alvin Plantinga, professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, seems to think so. He doesn’t appear to agree that it’s a good intellectual move to jump from the mysteries of the so-called “problem of evil” and into the realm of agnosticism and atheism. Even for a believer in God, a theist (who might find himself troubled by the reality of evil) shouldn’t fret too much, not least in the face of atheistic challenges. Just because the theist can’t give an outright reason for why God allows evil (that is, give a robust “theodicy”) it doesn’t follow that the believer should resort to atheism or agnosticism. Plantinga hints at this when he writes in his book God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974) that,

 …a theist might like to have a theodicy, an answer to the question why God permits evil. He might want very badly to know why God permits evil in general or some particular evil—the death or suffering of someone close to him, or perhaps his own suffering. But suppose none of the suggested theodicies is very satisfactory. Or suppose that the theist admits he just doesn’t know why God permits evil. What follows from that? Very little of interest. Why suppose that if God does have have a good reason for permitting evil, the theist would be the first to know? Perhaps God has a good reason, but that reason is too complicated for us to understand. Or perhaps He has not revealed it for some other reason. The fact that the theist doesn’t know why God permits evil is, perhaps, an interesting fact about the theist, but by itself it shows little or nothing relevant to the rationality of belief in God” (p.10).

Thus, the fact that a person doesn’t know why God allows evil is nothing more than a cognitive circumstance, as interesting as it may be. At the end of the day, this fact has no bearing whatsoever on “the rationality of belief in God.” Thus, to claim what many atheists do—namely, that “since one cannot think of reasons why God allows evil one must therefore lose faith in God’s existence”—is an argument based on a non-sequitor. The latter simply doesn’t follow from the former. After all, as Plantinga shows above, there are other possibilities one should consider.

He writes again,

Perhaps we can see this as follows. The theist believes that God has a reason for permitting evil; he doesn’t know what that reason is. But why should that mean that his belief is improper or irrational? Take an analogy. I believe that there is a connection of some sort between Paul’s deciding to mow the lawn and the complex group of bodily movements involved in so doing. But what connection, exactly? Does his decision cause these bodily movements? If so, how? The decision may take place long before he so much as sets foot on the lawn. Is there an intermediary causal chain extending between the decision and the first of these movements? If so, what events make up this chain and how is the decision related, let’s say, to the first event in it? Does it have a first event? And there are whole series of bodily motions involved in mowing the lawn. Is his decision related in the same way to each of these motions? Exactly what is the relation between his deciding to mow the lawn—which decision does not seem to be a bodily event at all—and his actually doing so? No one, I suspect, knows the answer to these questions. But does it follow that it is irrational or unreasonable to believe that this decision has something to do with that series of motions? Surely not. In the same way the theist’s not knowing why God permits evil does not by itself show that he is irrational in thinking that God does indeed have a reason. To make out his case, therefore, the atheologian [the skeptic/atheist] cannot rest content with asking embarrassing questions to which the theist does not know the answer. He must do more—he might try, for example, to show that it is impossible or anyhow unlikely that God should have a reason for permitting evil (p.11)

Plantinga goes on to note that several atheistic thinkers have tried to do that very thing—namely, attempt to show that there is a logical contradiction when one joins the proposition “God exists” with the proposition “evil exists.” In other words, some atheists have tried to show that it’s unreasonable and incoherent to affirm both at the same time. Remarkably, Plantinga (as most people admit, including prominent atheists) successfully argues that there is, in all reality, no contradiction whatsoever in holding these two beliefs. Using modal terminology (possible words scenarios, etc), Plantinga essentially solves the logical problem of evil. All that to say, even if one were not sure as to why God allows evil, it doesn’t follow that belief in God is irrational.

In light of this, I think both the atheist and the Christian ought to remember a few things. For starters, as Plantinga implies, both sides must realize that the burden of proof does not rest solely upon the believer. There’s actually a rather hefty burden that the atheist must bear, for it is they who must show (positively) how the propositions “God exists” and “evil exists” are logically contradictory when taken together. The atheist can’t simply make claims; they need to make an argument (quite the feat, I might add once more, given they must show that it’s not possible for the two above propositions to be affirmed together).

Second, the Christian ought not be pressured to think their faith in God is irrational merely because they can’t posit a reason why God allows evil. It simply isn’t so, as we’ve seen above. If the atheist insists that the Christian must give positive answers for why they can believe the propositions “God exists” and “evil exists,” then perhaps the atheist ought to give positive answers for why they can believe the propositions “God doesn’t exist” and “goodness exists.” I suggest the atheist ought to consider answering the “problem of the good.” This remains particularly difficult especially when the atheist happens to be a committed naturalist. After all, if reality is nothing more than the random compilation of matter upon matter upon matter over time (not to mention because of accidental chance), then what can we say about “goodness” as a moral concept? It’s hard to tell how moral good can arise from amoral matter. If there’s nothing “moral” or “immoral” about a material object (an asteroid, say) crashing into a planet that is orbiting a distant star, then how can one claim the impulses which spurn a man to commit a heinous crime is at any rate “immoral”? Are not these impulses and actions nothing more than the collision of matter–namely, the complex interaction of neurons inside the criminal’s brain? It’s hard to see how they could be “moral” or “immoral”—it seems they would be amoral. Moreover, what becomes of altruistic acts such as giving to the poor or even feelings of love for one’s spouse, for one’s children? Are these, too, the mere firing of neurons—the result of matter interacting with matter? How comfortable are we to reduce the human experience to mere material happenings in our cognitive organ, the brain? Nevermind evil, what about “the problem of the good”?

Food for thought, I reckon. These are some things that the atheist and the Christian should keep in mind (or if you prefer, keep in their “neurons”) when discussing the problem of evil (and the problem of goodness).

One final note. I mentioned above the idea of “accidental chance” producing “reality.” Naturalists would have to take this seriously. In fact, they would have to take this so seriously that they, in all consistency, would have to consider their own cognitive abilities (and mine) as, once more, the result of a cosmic accident—unguided, undesigned, a product itself of chance. I’m not sure one can grant these things and still take one’s own thoughts as reliable. Most of the time when things are undesigned and unguided, they tend to be that very thing: unreliable. Even if the atheist/naturalist were to write a response to this blog post (or at the very least, entertain a response in their mind as they were reading it), I would expect their response to be a good one—that is, one that is both designed and guided by their intelligence. Therefore, in their attempt to prove my post “wrong,” the naturalist would have to assume my point to make their own—namely, the point that a transcendent intelligence is the only reliable way to convey truth and information (whether the naturalist’s over his response or God’s over the cosmos). Nevermind the problem of the moral good (mentioned above), what about the problem of intellectual goodness? In order to present a good argument against my point, they would need to assume my own point from the start.

To which I would say: Don’t mind if you do.

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