The Problem with the Problem of Evil - Part 1

Have you ever heard anyone asked the question, “Why did God allow [insert bad thing] to happen?” Or “Where was God in [insert tragic event]? Atheist, skeptics, and others often use the so-called Problem of Evil as evidence against the existence of God.

I wrote a formal paper on the Problem of Evil (PoE) for my Apologetics 500 class in seminary called “The Problem with the Problem of Evil” (catchy title, eh? and for my computer geek friends, PoE is not "power over ethernet).  It’s not too long a read (about 3,000 words), and I cover both the positive and negative aspects of the issue.  I’ve decided to write a series of blob posts that look at arguments from skeptics and atheist as well as the positive and negative defenses that Christians can use in responding to the challenges.  There have been volumes written on this subject, and my thoughts here are not at all an exhaustive treatment of the subject.  My goal is to give the apologist some thoughts and ideas on how to interact with his or her skeptical or atheist friends who raise the PoE; and to strengthen the faith of Christians who may be struggling with this issue in their own lives.

Atheist Think Evil Disproves God

In his book, The God Delusion, atheist Richard Dawkins writes:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”[1]

On the face of it, this sounds like a overwhelming criticism of God, Christianity, and theism. If one looks at some of the stories in the OT, it may seem hard to disagree with Dawkins. Instances of apparent slavery, genocide, murder, rape, and adultery can be found throughout the OT.

Fast-forward to today, and the problem isn’t much better. Ones simply has to scan the news headlines to see that our world is just as messed up (maybe even more so) than in ancient times:

  • Dozens killed after magnitude-7.3 earthquake strikes Nepal
  • Mom diagnosed with pregnancy-associated cancer dies day after daughter's first birthday
  • Strong quake shakes northeast Japan, no tsunami risk
  • Yemen: More violence ahead of humanitarian pause
  • In Connecticut serial killer case, four more bodies found behind strip mall
  • Neighbor Of 61-Year-Old Brutally Beaten Near Baltimore Says Attack Was Racially Motivated

Evil and suffering is rampant in the world. Both the Christian and the non-believer recognize this fact. For the atheist, the presence of evil and suffering and God’s apparent inability to prevent evil causes him to disbelieve in God all together. For the Christian, the PoE often causes significant doubts about the validity of his faith. This is especially true when he is personally affected by evil and suffering.

The atheists’ argument typically goes like this:

  1. If God were all-good, He would destroy evil.
  2. If God is all-powerful, He could destroy evil.
  3. But evil is not destroyed
  4. Therefore, there is no such God.[2]

Back to Dawkins: in his book he later opines, “the problem of evil [is] ‘the most powerful objection to traditional theism’.”[3] Is he right?

Since I'm on a roll with quoting Dawkins, another one of his famous quotes, "The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference."  This sounds harsh, but it is logically consistent with the atheistic, naturalistic worldview.  Ironic, isn't it that Dawkins complains about the God of the Bible as being "the most unpleasant character in all fiction"?  This would be like me writing a book complaining about how evil Darth Vader is.

Even the great Christian apologist C.S. Lewis eloquently sums up this argument when he wrote about how he felt when he was an atheist: “If God were good, He would wish to make His creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty He would be able to do what he wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore God lacks either goodness, or power, or both.”[4]

Another argument occasionally used doesn’t actually attempt to disprove God, but rather attempts to disprove God as all-good, thus not worthy of our loyalty and worship. The logical form looks like this:

  1. God is the author of everything.
  2. Evil is a thing.
  3. Therefore God is the author of evil.[5]

These logical arguments and their working out in the culture by phrases such as “How could God allow [insert evil event]?” seem, on their face, to be strong defeaters* to the belief in the existence of God.  What then is the Christian to say to these arguments?

Part 2 will attempt to answer this question.

* From the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, a “propositional defeaters are conditions external to the perspective of the cognizer that prevent an overall justified true belief from counting as knowledge.”
[1] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (London: Bantam Press, 2006), 31.
[2] Norman L. Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), 221.
[3] Ibid., 108.
[4] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), 16.
[5] Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia, 220.