Anyone who has been doing Christian apologetics, for any significant period of time, knows that the most frequent objection to the Christian faith is the problem of evil and suffering. Indeed, this paradoxical conundrum has resulted in probably more people abandoning their faith than any other challenge to the Christian worldview. The logical structure of this argument typically takes the following form:
Premise 1: If God exists, he is by definition omnipotent (all powerful), omniscient (all knowing) and benevolent (all good).
Premise 2: If an omnipotent being exists, he would be able to prevent all of the evil and suffering in the world.
Premise 3: If an omniscient being exists, he would know about all the evil and suffering in the world.
Premise 4: If a perfectly good being exists, he would want to prevent all of the evil and suffering in the world.
Premise 5: If a being existed with knowledge of all of the evil and suffering in the world, and both the ability and will to prevent it, such a being would do so.
Premise 6: Evil and suffering exist.
From 2, 3, 4 & 5:
7: Therefore, if an omnipotent, omniscient and perfectly good being exists, that being would prevent all of the evil and suffering in the world.
From 6 & 7:
8: Therefore, no omnipotent and omniscient and perfectly good being exists.
From 1 & 8:
Conclusion: Therefore, God doesn’t exist.
How Sound is This Argument?
In terms of its logical structure, provided the first six premises are true, the argument seems at first brush fairly robust. The key premise, I think — indeed, the main premise which I contest — is Premise 5: If a being existed with knowledge of all of the evil and suffering in the world, and both the ability and will to prevent it, such a being would do so. This Premise is only valid if one assumes that God cannot have morally good reasons for tolerating the presence of evil and suffering in the world. Further problems abound when we consider Premise 6, where we are compelled to ask, “What is the reference point for pronouncing a proposition as ‘evil’ or ‘unjust’?” As we shall see in the course of this blog post, Premise 6 is difficult to justify within the conceptual framework of the materialist worldview.
The First Problem: Providing an Epistemological Foundation for Right and Wrong
The first of the problems with this argument becomes obvious when one seeks an epistemological foundation for discriminating between right and wrong, and just and unjust circumstances. In his classic work, Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis put it like this:
“My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?”
It is not at all clear that the materialist worldview can provide an objective foundation for ethics or moral norms. Indeed, as the notorious Oxford atheist evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins has conceded, within the materialist worldview, “there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.”
When one pronounces a moral proposition as “right” or “wrong”, one is implicitly presupposing a binding and transcendent standard above and beyond themselves to which they may appeal, and to which individuals are held accountable. For the Christian theist, moral norms are grounded in the divine nature and character of God. For the materialist, however, there is no such standard in which to ground moral norms. Indeed, if morals are an arbitrary or artificial construct, there is no reason why moral values should not be regarded as a matter of subjective preference.
Some materialists attempt to counter this argument by asserting that moral norms should be grounded in consensus, and that this develops and evolves over time. But this argument is on a highly precarious footing. If Nazi Germany had won World War II and had brainwashed or executed all with whom they disagreed, would that render the Jewish Holocaust morally justified? Surely not.
Indeed, if we are — as the materialist worldview entails — merely reducible to re-arranged pondscum, an assemblage of chemicals dancing to the music of our DNA, then the very existence of human autonomy and existential freedom of the will is seriously brought into question. But surely “ought” implies “can”. To make assertions about the way one ought to behave presupposes that one has genuine freewill and that one can choose between possibilities. But if there is no genuine autonomy, then whence the basis for supposing human responsibility or accountability for violating moral norms? Thus, the first problem facing this argument is that it attempts to refute the existence of God by utilisation of a Premise which presupposes His existence! Atheism does not solve the problem: It just makes it far, far more difficult.
The Second Problem: God’s Will is Multi-Dimensional
The second problem with this argument is that Premise 5 assumes a monolithic structure of divine will: And, moreover, that God cannot have morally justifiable reasons for permitting the existence of evil and suffering in the world. But this assumption is invalid for a number of reasons.
First, if God was to exercise His perfect justice in eliminating all sources of evil and suffering in the world, where would He start? And, moreover, where would he stop? The bottom line is that we are all guilty, to a greater or lesser extent, of violating moral norms. We have all fallen short of God’s standard: the very standard to which we appeal when we make moral pronouncements. Next time you think you want God to ride in on a white horse and deal with the existence of evil once and for all, ask yourself “Would I be exempt from God’s judgement on evil?” If we are honest, I think one has to answer with a definitive ‘no.’
Second, suffering may be required in order to accomplish God’s ultimate purposes. Indeed, as a result of the entry of evil into the world (which originally happened in the Garden of Eden), God has been able to demonstrate his love and compassion towards us in a way in which it could not have been in its absence: That is, through the sacrifice of His Son on the cross. It also opened a door for humanity to enter into a relationship with its Creator in a unique and intimate way. God loved us enough to send His only Son into this world to suffer and die in our stead, in order to justify repentant sinners. You see, God is just. And being just, he must punish sin with perfect righteousness and holiness. That is why God cannot simply turn a blind eye to sin: It must be punished. Sin is never forgiven; Sinners are forgiven. Sin is either punished by the sinner being held rightly accountable for it (an eternal separation from the favourable presence of God), or it is punished as a result of what Christ has done on the cross. If God had chosen to exercise His perfect justice in eliminating evil and suffering from the face of the earth, he would have had to wipe out all of humanity. Instead, he has chosen to exercise His perfect justice by paying our debt in full by means of the blood of the only spotless and blemish-free substitute: Jesus Christ.
Third, there is the free-will defence. Love is only genuine when it is not coerced. True love requires the ability to exercise free will. Thus, to facilitate the ability of free creatures to genuinely love God requires that one take the risk that these free creatures will choose to reject God or to violate His commandments.
Fourth, as suggested by proponents of Molinism, it is possible that only a world which was suffused with a certain amount of evil and suffering would result in the maximum number of people freely coming to know God. The doctrine of divine middle knowledge attests that God has knowledge of counterfactuals: That is, God has knowledge of what His free creatures would do under any circumstances. If this is the case, then it is possible that God has chosen to actualise a world — out of an array of possible worlds — in which the maximum number of people would choose to know God as their Creator and Saviour, without being in violation of their rights of autonomy and existential freedom of the will.
Fifth, God often uses evil and suffering to accomplish his ends. One classic example of this is in the story of Joseph being sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, an incident which set in motion a chain of events which ultimately led to Joseph being falsely accused of a crime and subsequently being thrown into prison. Later, Joseph is promoted to the position of Pharaoh’s right-hand man, and is in a unique position to be able to administer food during times of severe famine: Including the saving of his family. In Genesis 50:20, Joseph says, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”
Only in a Christian Worldview is the Problem of Evil Satisfactorily Dealt With
The Christian worldview is unique inasmuch as it asserts that God has physically entered into our world as a man, has suffered pain, hunger, torment, temptation, false accusations, torture and ultimately death. In no other worldview is this asserted to be the case. To illustrate the power and hard-hitting nature of this point, consider the following parable of The Long Silence.
At the end of time, billions of people were scattered on a great plain before God’s throne. Most shrank back from the brilliant light before them. But some groups near the front talked heatedly – not with cringing shame, but with belligerence.
“Can God judge us? How can he know about suffering?” snapped a pert brunette. She ripped open a sleeve to reveal a tattooed number from a Nazi concentration camp. “We endured terror…beatings…torture..death!”
In another group a Negro lowered his collar. “What about this?” he demanded, showing an ugly rope burn. “Lynched..for no crime but being black!! In another crowd, a pregnant schoolgirl with sullen eyes. “Why should I suffer?”, she murmured, “It wasn’t my fault.”
Far out across the plain there were hundreds of such groups. Each had a complaint against God for the evil and suffering he permitted in his world. How lucky God was to live in heaven where all was sweetness and light, where there was no weeping or fear, no hunger or hatred. What did God know of all that man had been forced to endure in this world? For God leads a pretty sheltered life, they said.
So each of these groups sent forth their leader, chosen because he had suffered most. A Jew, a Negro, a person form Hiroshima, a horribly deformed arthritic, a thalidomide child. In the center of the plain they consulted with each other. At last they were ready to present their case. It was rather clever.
Before God could be qualified to be their judge, he must endure what they had endured. Their decision was that God should be sentenced to live on earth – as a man! “Let him be born a Jew. Let the legitimacy of his birth be doubted. Give him a work so difficult that even his family will think him out of his mind when he tries to do it. Let him be betrayed by his closest friends. Let him face false charges, be tried by a prejudiced jury and convicted by a cowardly judge. Let him be tortured. At the last, let him see what it means to be terribly alone. Then let him die. Let him die so that there can be no doubt that he died. Let there be a great host of witnesses to verify it.” As each leader announced his portion of the sentence, loud murmurs of approval went up from the throng of people assembled. And when the last had finished pronouncing sentence, there was a long silence. No one uttered another word. No-one moved. For suddenly all knew that God had already served his sentence.
Christianity is the only theistic worldview in which God has suffered with His Creation. Christianity is also the only religion in which one cannot say that God has done nothing about the problem of evil. Rather, God has dealt with it in a just fashion. He has extended the offer of salvation to humanity, made possible through Christ’s work on the cross. As Romans 3 tells us,
But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.
Will you take advantage of this offer of forgiveness? Don’t let the problem of evil and suffering become a stumbling block which prevents you from putting your trust in Jesus as your Lord and Saviour. An argument with such dubious Premises, as I have shown this one to be, is not sufficient to displace such powerful and compelling multi-disciplinary evidence for the existence of the Christian God.