The following article is taken from Mr. Jim Pierce’s presentation at the Wyoming District’s Tell the Good News About Jesus Convocation held on January 31, 2014 through February 1, 2014. This is part five of his speech, “What the Atheist Can Know About God.” (Each article of this series may be found at this link.)
The Problem of Evil
If you were to talk with an atheist of any stripe about the existence of God, the foremost objection he would raise against God’s existence is the problem of evil.
What is the problem of evil? One of the most heralded atheists of the 20th century was the late Australian philosopher J.L. Mackie, who succinctly describes the importance of the problem of evil to the atheist in his book, The Miracle of Theism:
“Those who are skeptical about traditional religious doctrines can resist all the assaults of the believers; but they need not limit themselves to resistance: they can go over to counter-attack. Such a counter-attack will naturally start with the posing of the problem of evil. This problem seems to show not merely that traditional theism lacks rational support, but rather that it is positively irrational, in that some of its central doctrines are, as a set, inconsistent with one another” (1).
The reason why the problem of evil is so important for the atheist is it purportedly shows there is an absurdity involved in the very concept of God. This is important because if there is such an absurdity we wouldn’t expect to find an example of the concept in the universe.
We have some ready-made examples of how this principle works with things such as “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” and “Peter Pan.” There is something wrong with the idea that any particular reindeer or boy could fly through the air solely powered by magic. Our experiences of reindeer and boys are that the only flying they can possibly do is if they are transported in a vehicle through the air, or catapulted through the air. I don’t recommend catapulting reindeer or boys through the air without proper safety mechanisms in place! Needless to say, what it means to be a reindeer and a boy doesn’t include the feature of magical flight and so, if somebody were to tell us to believe in good old Rudolph we would likely not do so on the grounds that there can be no such thing as a magical flying reindeer! Moving on, let me talk about the concept of God and how He is basically described in the Scriptures.
The Scriptures tell us that God is love (1 Jn. 4:8); He is Spirit (John 4:24); He is eternal (Ps. 90:2); He is immutable (Mal. 3:6); He is omnipotent (Gen 17:1); He is omniscient (1 Jn. 3:20); He is omnipresent (Jer. 23:24); He is just and faithful (Deut. 32:4, 2 Tim. 2:13) and He is holy (Lev. 19:2). The Scriptures I cited describe for us the nature of God. What the atheist purports to do through the problem of evil is to show that the very concept of God is flawed and because of that, there can’t exist any being who simultaneously has each of the properties I listed. J.L. Mackie describes the problem thusly,
“It is true that there is no explicit contradiction between the statements that there is an omnipotent and wholly good god and that there is evil. But if we add the at least initially plausible premises that good is opposed to evil in such a way that a being who is wholly good eliminates evil as far as he can, then we do have a contradiction” (2).
Typically, we find the problem of evil argued on the street by atheists in some form like that provided by Mackie. If an omnipotent, omniscient, all good and just being exists, then that being is compelled by His very nature to eliminate all evil in the world. However, evil exists. Therefore, something in the concept of God is wrong. Maybe He isn’t both omnipotent and all good? Perhaps He isn’t both omniscient and just? The atheist wants you to understand that he knows the concept of God is incoherent because there really is evil in the world and, if it is the case that God exists as described, then evil would be gone. Evil exists, so what about God?
One would have to be in utter denial to suggest that evil in the world is not real. We have far too many examples of evil to point at, including the Holocaust, two major world wars in a single century, and countless genocidal dictators. We see a very large number of babies ripped from their mother’s womb and murdered at abortion mills in this country today. So, there is no doubt that real evil is amongst us.
The rhetorical question asked by the atheist is, “How can an omnipotent being who loves His creation allow such evil and still be considered just by you?” Once the strong atheist delivers his skepticism, in its tidy logical package, he concludes for you that the traditional concept of God, like that we find in the Scriptures, simply can’t be correct. No such being can exist.
Now, what I have been doing for the past few minutes has been to give us all an idea of the arguments strong atheists typically raise when confronting theism. In fairness to the atheist, I haven’t delved into these arguments other than providing generalizations. Allot more work would need to be done to fill out their arguments to the extent they might be fully satisfied with them. However, I believe they would agree I haven’t misrepresented them, and to be sure, when I was a strong atheist the arguments I have waved at here were at the top of my list when engaging Christians.
I would like to take us now to my response to this third and final objection of the strong atheist. I truly can’t do this objection justice in the amount of time I have here to talk about it, but I would have been remiss if I hadn’t at least waved at it and so here it goes (3).
The apostle Paul tells us in Romans chapter one, “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God” (Romans 1:21-23). I think Paul is giving us a good clue as to what we are up against and that is the strong atheist is making a fairly large assumption about the nature of God from his a-theological point of view. Namely, he wants to convince us if God is just and omnipotent, then He necessarily must thwart all evils in the here and now. In other words, the world should be a utopia. Did you catch that? The strong atheist has concocted a problem of incoherence due to his own preconception of what the word ought to look like now, if God exists. Of course, the Christian already knows God has dealt with evil in the world. Indeed, final justice will ultimately be observed by all of us at the last day when all of humanity is resurrected from the dead.
If what I am saying is true, why then should we accept the atheist’s view about what it means for God to be omnipotent and divinely just in relation to evil in the world? The truth of the matter is that the problem of evil, as raised by the atheist, is a stacking of the deck against God. There is no good reason to go along with the atheist’s assertion that there is something absurd inherent in the concept of God because evil exists in the universe at this time. Anyone reading Genesis chapters one through three can find a reasonable explanation as to why evil enters the world. Adam and Eve freely transgressed the one law God gave them; don’t eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Anyone reading John chapter one can find a pretty good explanation as to how God ultimately solves the problem of evil in the world, through His Son Jesus Christ.
We can take this illustration a step further by pointing out God’s justice requires that He punishes sin. By all accounts, humanity deserves to be incinerated here and now, but God is Love, and so He doesn’t speak the word and destroy the heavens and earth until the proper time. Furthermore, God has provided true justice in how He deals with evil in the world. This type of solution to the problem of evil turns upon God’s property of omni-benevolence as exemplified in His Son Christ Jesus (John 3:16).
The solution I am pointing at here is to simply reject the atheist’s premises due to their misunderstanding of what it means for God to be just, omnibenevolent and omnipotent in relation to the world He created. Essentially, the strong atheist is begging the question.
Now, if the atheist balks at Genesis and John as mythological stories, so much the better! All that is needed to answer the problem of evil is to describe the nature of evil and good, and to give a plausible answer showing why an omnibenevolent God, who is also omnipotent, allows evil in the world and how He solves the problem. Such is surely a coherent response to the atheist’s objection even if the atheist does not like the answer.
Of course, we could ask the strong atheist what would happen if God were to justly destroy all evil right now. What does that mean for the strong atheist, and the rest of us who are not perfectly good? A just God has to deal with our sins. God has to punish transgressors and the strong atheist should be thankful God doesn’t think as he does. Otherwise he wouldn’t be around to argue the problem of evil!
In summation, the problem of evil is the strong atheist’s objection to the existence of God where he purportedly shows there is an absurdity involved in the very concept of God. The idea is that if the concept is incoherent, then it is unlikely an example of it is found in the world, which is to say God does not exist. However, what we have seen is that there is a coherent explanation for the existence of evil in the world and God’s solution for it. Indeed, we can know how evil enters the world and see how God has effectively dealt with it from the Holy Scriptures. The upshot is that the concept of God doesn’t involve an absurdity as the strong atheist claims.
In the next installment of this series I discuss how to engage the atheist and two sources of Christian knowledge.
1) Mackie, J.L. (1982). The Miracle of Theism, P. 150, Clarendon Press—Oxford.
2) ibid. p. 150
3) Anyone interested in detailed arguments could look at Alvin Plantinga’s response to this problem in his book, God and Other Minds. You could also check out Richard Swinburne’s book, The Coherence of Theism. Believe it or not, you can also find plenty of debates between atheists and theists on YouTube. A good debate to watch is that between Christian apologist William Lane Craig and atheist Antony Flew. I think Craig does a good job responding to the problem of evil. I am sure there are many other resources, but these are a few that I have enjoyed.