God and the Problem of Evil

“Don’t tell me about God; the reality of the Holocaust during WWII is enough to show me that he does not exist.”  This objection articulates one of the common challenges for faith: the Problem of Evil. Atrocities abound in the world around us, and too often they hit close to home. This kind of reaction arises not only in the philosophy classroom, but from the heart of those facing inexplicable pain. How could God allow this? What do these events mean for his existence, or at least for his goodness? More formally, it is contended that the reality of evil means that God cannot exist (that a good, omnipotent God who allows evil is logically incoherent), or at least that it renders his existence improbable. As David Hume has articulated it, “Is [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”[1]

However, the alternative must be considered. If God does not exist, it cannot be reasonably demonstrated that evil as a value-category exists. In an atheistic, time-and-chance universe, the Holocaust is not objectively evil. To paraphrase John Lennon, “Above Auschwitz, only sky.”[2]  The universe ultimately does not care about human suffering, and it offers no explanation, no purpose, no reason, and no hope for the pain that we experience. Atheism as a worldview is unable to provide the necessary foundation for objective moral norms; it is unable, apart from committing the naturalistic fallacy, to move from the is of human suffering to the ought that this should not be. Indeed, many atheist philosophers and meta-ethicists recognize this to be the case, holding to a form of moral anti-realism or ethical relativism. If objective moral norms do not exist, then evil is not an intelligible category. The reality of evil, then, does not disprove God’s existence but necessarily presupposes it.

Since atheism is unable to provide the foundation for objective moral norms, the skeptic cannot critique Christianity on external grounds. However, sometimes an internal critique is advanced—attempting to show that, whether or not evil exists, the Christian worldview contends that it does, and this is logically incompatible with God’s existence. These arguments, nevertheless, are typically not genuine internal critiques; the objector smuggles in assumptions extrinsic to Christianity or fails to take all of the data of Christian theology into consideration. Accordingly, external and internal issues are straddled, without the objector stepping into the Christian worldview with both feet.

However, when one enters the Christian view of reality fully, it is clear that Christian theology has a doctrine of evil—both of its origins in the Fall and of its continuing presence due to sin. Christianity takes evil seriously, and reveals the character and goodness of God in contrast to the evil that grieves him. The Bible also teaches that God has morally sufficient reasons for evil’s present existence,[3] and that he will judge all evil and remove it in the end. Christians are not in a position of being able to claim that they know the purpose behind any and every particular instance of evil, or that the relationship between evil and God’s loving designs is entirely without mystery. Lest we become like Job’s “friends,” we must avoid simplistic explanations or quick justifications for someone’s suffering; rather, we direct them toward to the character of God, who can be trusted, and the truth that he has revealed.

Furthermore, Christianity has a solution where the Problem of Evil matters most—the category of personal evil. Evil is not simply something “out there”; it is inside of all of us. As psychological research such as Milgram’s Authority Study and the Stanford Prison Experiment have shown (and our own anecdotal evidence has confirmed), normal human beings are capable of acting with horrific inhumanity. If we were honest with our own hearts, we know that evil resides in us as well. It is said that G.K. Chesterton responded to the London Times’ question “What is wrong with the world?” by replying, “Dear sir, I am.” We are the problem of evil. The ultimate solution to the problem of evil inside of us is the Gospel. In the Person of Jesus Christ, God has entered our world of suffering and taken our evil upon himself. Jesus, the innocent one who did no wrong, received our wrongs. Ellie Wiesel is correct, although in a way that he did not intend. God is there, hanging on the gallows.[4] He knows our suffering, and he has suffered for our sin. Trust him, believe him, and receive the solution to our deepest problem.

 

[1] David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, ed. Nelson Pike (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Publications, 1981), 88.

[2] Douglas Wilson, in debate with Christopher Hitchens, Collision film (LEVEL4: 2009).

[3] Differing Christian traditions offer various explanations, according to their theology—whether the free will defense or greater good defense, etc. The key contention, however, is that the Christian worldview presents God’s reasons as morally sufficient, even if they are not always clear.

[4] Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993). Unfortunately, Moltmann’s doctrine of God is not sufficiently biblical.

About Evan May

Evan May is a student at Reformed Theological Seminary and a pastor at Lakeview Christian Center in New Orleans.
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15 Responses to God and the Problem of Evil

  1. derp says:

    “Since atheism is unable to provide the foundation for objective moral norms, the skeptic cannot critique Christianity on external grounds.”

    i think we been through this already Evan its not supposed to, just like a bike is not supposed to account for why one plus one is two

    “formerly known as broken turtle shell- now known as “derp”

    • Evan May says:

      I’m not sure we’ve been through this, since it seems that you’re advancing a new claim here: that atheism doesn’t need to provide any metaphysical foundation for objective moral norms. Now, that’s convenient! :-) In future encounters with the problem of evil, I’ll simply reply that it’s a question I don’t need to answer.

      If you’re contention is that moral norms are necessary truths, then I agree with you. But you still need a worldview in which necessary truths are able to have ontological status.

      • Derp says:

        “Now, that’s convenient!”
        it is

        ” In future encounters with the problem of evil, I’ll simply reply that it’s a question I don’t need to answer. ”
        athiesm in its self is not a belief system with elaborate and complex dogmas so you are comparing watermelons to dogs here.

        “But you still need a worldview in which necessary truths are able to have ontological status”
        i think i said this before but it had seemed to just make you scratch your head (but just because it seemed strange to you doesnt make it untrue) moral laws are there own foundation,tacking on anything to give it a “foundation” is pointless (and a massive violation of occkham’s razor anyways), this works in almost any worldview that doesnt have Divine Command in it.

        • Evan May says:

          “athiesm in its self is not a belief system with elaborate and complex dogmas so you are comparing watermelons to dogs here.”

          I’m using atheism as shorthand for Metaphysical Naturalism. If you hold to a different view, feel free to share it.

          “moral laws are there own foundation,tacking on anything to give it a “foundation” is pointless (and a massive violation of occkham’s razor anyways), this works in almost any worldview that doesnt have Divine Command in it.”

          Disregarding your misapplication of Ockham’s Razor for the moment, I think you missed my point about needing a worldview that supplies the ontological category for moral norms. On Physicalism, moral laws do not *exist*; there is only the physical realm. There is my biochemical machine and your biochemical machine, and nothing more.

          On top of this, Physicalism undermines the kinds of relational properties that are necessary for ethics. On Naturalism, there are no intentional states, no “aboutness”. A rock is not “about” anything. But if all such relations are eliminated, ethical relations are as well.

          These are just a few of the problems that prohibit Naturalism from articulating an objective meta-ethic. For the supporting arguments, read the atheist philosopher Alex Rosenberg. Oh, but don’t believe anything he says, because he himself admits that on atheism, there is no such thing as truth.

        • derp says:

          “On Physicalism, moral laws do not *exist*; there is only the physical realm”
          yes and moral laws are based on how to reduce suffering, and guess what i am quite sure suffering exists in the physical realm

          “For the supporting arguments, read the atheist philosopher Alex Rosenberg. Oh, but don’t believe anything he says, because he himself admits that on atheism, there is no such thing as truth.”
          are you talking about the Rosenberg from Duke U?

          “Oh, but don’t believe anything he says, because he himself admits that on atheism, there is no such thing as truth.”
          no let me fix that for you-on Christianity there is no such thing as truth, unlike with the people who claimed that your morality is subjective because its not independent of god (you tried to claim that because morality presupposes a law-giver their criticisms fall short), you cannot worm your way out of the fact that all truth in the christian-worldview is subjective, according to folks like you what is truth is what corresponds with the mind of your god – which would make truth ultimately meaningless- perhaps you haven’t thought of that or realized it yet but if Christianity is true truth would be utterly pointless (unless you want to claim all truth must have a truth giver? and therefore i am somehow equivocating terms?:)

        • Evan May says:

          “yes and moral laws are based on how to reduce suffering, and guess what i am quite sure suffering exists in the physical realm”

          This is self-contradictory. On the one hand, you admit that on Physicalism moral laws do not exist. But then you go on to describe what these non-existent moral laws apply to. But non-existent entities do not have properties.

          Even assuming for the sake of argument the ethical prohibition, “We ought not inflict pain,” I would still need to *believe* that you are in a state of pain if I perform certain actions, and believe that it is wrong from me to do so. But, according to Eliminative Materialism, beliefs do not exist.

          “are you talking about the Rosenberg from Duke U?”

          Yes. See, for example, his book An Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions. But be forewarned: the implications of your worldview are not pretty. You might be rid of the illusions of ethics and truth, but there won’t be a *you* left to enjoy that. With Hume, Rosenberg denies personal identity.

          “no let me fix that for you-on Christianity there is no such thing as truth”

          Even if that were the case, this is just a tu quoque response.

          “you cannot worm your way out of the fact that all truth in the christian-worldview is subjective, according to folks like you what is truth is what corresponds with the mind of your god”

          This is an incoherent objection since God is the paradigm of truth. True is what conforms to his rational nature.

          Since truth is propositional, it is impossible by definition to have mind-independent truth. The alternatives, then, are that truth is rooted in the individual human mind (which also does not exist on Physicalism), and is therefore subjective and person-variant, or it is rooted the Divine Mind, to which we all correspond in our thinking, being made in God’s image.

  2. Derp says:

    No Evan truth is what corresponds to reality not some magic woowoo as you made it out to be, it’s clear that you don’t even know what truth, you re defined it to suit your purpose.And the divine mind is subjective by the way but I guess you don’t care to much about that, truth is independent from the mind if that wasn’t the case then you reduce yourself to absurdity . My objection wasn’t incoherent it just exposes the incoherence in your worldview, it tells us nothing about truth or god then if you just said truth is truth or god is god

    • Evan May says:

      Truth corresponds to reality, yes, but *what* is it that is *corresponding*? It is propositions that are capable of having a truth value. A chair is neither true nor false. But the proposition “The chair is red” can have a truth value (it can be true or false). You seem to be failing to maintain this basic distinction.

      But, on Physicalism, propositions do not exist. There is simply the neurological pathways in our brain, which are neither true nor false, and cannot be *about* anything.

      • derp says:

        “You seem to be failing to maintain this basic distinction. ”
        dont worry i am not you seem to be making the same mistake as Ron “Reformed Apologist” you seem to be equivocating terms and not realize it If you define truth as being dependent on minds, then you renounce to any way of proving that it’s eternal. The usual “cop-out” is then to describe truths as the actualities they refer to, but then such truths would be independent of minds. It does not matter if you understand the problem or not, the equivocation stands, and your apologetics fall apart.The truth that belongs into the abstract is our conceptualization of such existence as a truth. But you conflate them, therefore forcing “truth” to mean its referent, which is evidently physical.

        • Evan May says:

          “dont worry i am not you seem to be making the same mistake as Ron ‘Reformed Apologist’”

          You internet atheists have this habit of bringing individuals into the conversation that have no connection to the person you are interacting with. I’m not sure if it’s comforting for you to associate me with what you perceive as one of your previous conquests, but it’s entirely irrelevant.

          “If you define truth as being dependent on minds, then you renounce to any way of proving that it’s eternal.”

          I grounded truth in the eternal mind of God, so this is a misfire.

          “The usual “cop-out” is then to describe truths as the actualities they refer to, but then such truths would be independent of minds.”

          This is a self-contradictory statement. If you admit that truths *refer* to states of affairs, then you have already distinguished them as abstract entities. Physical entities don’t have intentionality; they don’t *refer* to anything.

          Since you’re persisting in denying the propositional character of truth, please answer true or false to the following states of affairs:

          A) A cat on the mat
          B) Bananas in the bowl
          C) Purple

  3. derp says:

    ” See, for example, his book An Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions. But be forewarned: the implications of your worldview are not pretty. You might be rid of the illusions of ethics and truth, but there won’t be a *you* left to enjoy that. With Hume, Rosenberg denies personal identity.”

    thats pretty funny i was thinking about your worldview ( and not mine) its implications are anything but pretty and you admitted so in our conversation. Rosenberg is nothing more then a tool who doesnt understand what even the word reality means, i might as well use Jack Chick as an example of were christianity gets you.

    “Even if that were the case, this is just a tu quoque response.”
    its not because its only the case if i ALSO admit that to be the case for my beliefs

    • Evan May says:

      I did not cite Rosenberg as representative of all atheists. Rather, I cited his *arguments* for where atheism consistently leads. You’ve not responded to these, apart from calling a professional philosopher a “tool”.

      On the tu quoque fallacy, you committed it by not defending your position against the contention but simply claiming that mine commits the same error. Well, I’ve rebutted your counterclaim. But you still haven’t defended yourself against the charge. Do you disagree that Physicalism has no ontological space for truth-bearing propositions?

  4. Evan May says:

    Derp,

    Since your latest comment is evidently just a plagiarized copy-and-paste from Bahnsen Burner’s website, it’s not going through here. And if that’s what this has come to, I think its clear we’re not getting anywhere.

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