The single most prevalent objection to Christianity I hear from atheists as well as those from the pagan ‘roll your own religion’ community is the objection based on the presence of evil. It is usually stated like this:
“ If there is an all-powerful, all-knowing and good God, then he would not only be able but willing to prevent evil. But there is evil, therefore God doesn’t exist.”
The dictionary definitions of evil can be summarized by this: “Evil is anything that is morally wrong, or is a cause or source of suffering or destruction.”
In other words, evil is the absence of good, and the degree to which something is evil is directly related to the degree to which it reduces that which is good. For example, calling someone ugly is usually considered mildly bad (or evil), but torturing a child to death just for ‘the fun of it’ is the epitome of evil – or at least close to it.
The first response I have to the idea that because there is evil God cannot exist is that the argument is self-defeating. I discuss this at length in a previous post, and you can read that here. In short, since evil is the absence of good then it logically follows that in order for moral evil to exist, there MUST be an absolute moral good – and that REQUIRES a ‘moral good-giver’ (God).
While this response is logically irrefutable, many find it unsatisfactory on an emotional level. After all, if the Christian God is all good, then how can He possibly allow such horrible things as the ISIS shenanigans, the devastation in Vanuatu, or Uncle George’s lingering and painful death from a rare disease happen?
The premise is that if God exists and is good, then He cannot allow gratuitous evil (that is, evil with no overriding good purpose) to occur, but since such gratuitous evil does exist, God cannot.
The most famous argument along this line was presented by William L. Row in the October 1979 issue of the American Philosophical Quarterly in his article, “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism”:
“i) There exists instances of intense suffering which an omnipotent, omniscient being could have prevented without thereby losing some great good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse
ii) An omniscient, wholly good being would prevent the occurrence of any intense suffering it could, unless it could not do so without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.
iii) Therefore, there does not exist an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good being.
In support of this argument, Rowe presents the case of a forest fire that causes the painful, lingering death of a fawn – all happening without the observation or knowledge of any human being. This, he says, is a prime example of senseless evil.
At first glance, this seems to be a rather good argument either against the existence of the God of the Bible, but upon examination it falls apart for the following reasons:
1) It assumes that we, as finite and inherently evil beings (see Romans 3:10-23), can know with certainty that there is, in fact, no possible greater good that can come from such an occurrence, or that God is somehow obligated to inform us of that greater good if there is one.
2) The illustration itself is purely speculative. If the entire sequence of events happened without the knowledge of any human being, it is exactly as reasonable to state that if no one knows of it then it did not happen at all as it is to say that the possibility of it happening proves that God does not exist.
3) This argument does nothing to explain the reason why evil exists at all. In fact, by denying the existence of the Christian God, it removes the possibility of any rational explanation for the presence of evil at all.
The Christian worldview is the only worldview that both offers an explanation for the existence of evil, but allows a rational as well as an emotional framework for understanding it. Again, any worldview that does not include a rational, consistently good and transcendent deity cannot even acknowledge that evil even exists without directly violating the laws of logic, common sense, and the empirically observed world around us.
So, what is your response?
Additional Resources (click on the links to go to the full articles)
Paul Pardi gives a balanced overview of the current philosophical approaches to the problem of evil in this article entitled God, Evil and Probabalistic Arguments.
For a good overview and many links to detailed articles about this topic from an athiest’s perspective, take a look at this page at infidel.org. Look for the logical inconsistencies as well as the repeated attempts to try and paste elements of a Christian worldview into their naturalistic framework to try and make it emotionally and intellectually viable.
For those few of you that like a really detailed and rather hard read, check out the Evidential Problem of Evil page at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
This page at Conserapedia.com gives clear and concise perspectives about the issue from a number of authors.
This page has excerpts and a summary of Norman Geisler’s 9 Points for Preaching on the Problem of Evil.