David Hume stated, “Epicurus’s old questions are yet unanswered. Is he 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?” But before suffering is a philosophical issue, it is a practical crisis. Before we ask “why is this happening”, we ask “how can I survive this?” We all have to have some kind of working theory about suffering, what it means and how we should respond. No one can function without some set of beliefs.
It wasn’t until after the Enlightenment that the argument from evil gained broad appeal and attraction when Western thinkers came to see God as more remote and the world completely understandable through reason. Because of this, modern discussions begin with an abstract idea of God. He is all-loving and all-powerful, but there is no thought regarding His glory, majesty, wisdom, necessity and being the creator and sustainer of all things. The assumption begins that if they cannot see any good reason for suffering, then neither can God have justification for it. We must also realize that the culture stacks the deck as well. While many atheists are quick to argue that religious belief is merely a product of family and culture, they must also be aware that their own beliefs are formed not only by argument and reason, but by social conditioning as well. Therefore, in order to be thoughtful, balanced and unprejudiced is to be aware of your own cultural biases. If our highest value is individual freedom and autonomy, then God becomes a barrier to that.
So the argument states that if God is all-powerful and all-good, then he wants to stop evil and has the complete capacity to do so. Therefore, this either logically proves there is no such God or evidentially demonstrates that there probably is no such God. Alvin Plantinga, in God, Freedom, and Evil and The Nature of Necessity, both published in 1974, rigorously and effectively argued that the existence of evil and an all-powerful, all-good God are not incompatible. The idea that the existence of evil disproves God “is now acknowledged on (almost) all sides to be completely bankrupt” wrote William Alston. The evidential argument makes the weaker claim that evil is not proof against but evidence that God’s existence is less probable. However, the atheist must understand that he bears the burden of proof for this demonstration and that that burden is just too heavy to bear. Therefore, this argument is also no longer seen as compelling.
Gogttfried Leibniz, coined the term theodicy, a justification of God’s ways to human beings, to answer the big “Why?” questions by demonstrating reasons and purposes for God’s actions. The first of these was “soul-making”. The highest good is not our comfort or happiness, but that we become morally and spiritually great. However, there is no appearance of suffering that seems to be distributed to any need for soul-making. Also, it does not account for the suffering of infants and children or even what we perceive as suffering among animals.
The second and most prominent theodicy is free will. We are not preprogrammed robots or animals of instinct, but rational creatures free to choose and therefore love. But to choose good also entails the freedom to choose evil. So the greater good of choosing to love is worth the risk of the possibility of evil that follows. Along with this is the idea that evil is not a creation of God. Evil is not something in itself, but the privation of that which is good. God is not the author of evil, but allowed its possibility in order to achieve the greater good of human freedom and love.
There are however two problems with this. First, it only explains moral evil, performed by human beings, it does not explain natural evil. The second is if God is sovereign and free, yet cannot do evil, could He not create free agents of the same capability? Also, the Bible teaches that we will eventually live in a world where suffering and death will be banished forever, we will be incapable of choosing evil, yet freely love.
Finally, the nature of freedom as taught in the Bible differs greatly with modern views. Sin is described as slavery, never freedom. We are free only to the extent that we do what God intended for us. Therefore, the more evil we commit, the less free we are. So how can the ability to commit sin be a form of freedom? Another biblical concept also undermines the free will theodicy. In many places the text states that God sovereignly directs our choices, yet our freedom is not violated and we are still responsible for our actions.
Ultimately, are the horrendous evils of history worth the freedom of choice that we have? Can free will be the only reason God allows evil? “If God has good reasons for allowing the pain and misery we see, the reasons must extend beyond the mere provision of freedom of choice.” Other theodicies that attempt to solve the problem include natural order, plenitude and punishment theories. Taken together, they provide plausible explanations for a great deal of the evil and suffering we observe but always fall short of explaining all suffering. Alvin Plantinga wrote, “I must say that most attempts to explain why God permits evil – theodicies, as we may call them – strike me as tepid, shallow and ultimately frivolous.”
While a theodicy attempts to explain the full story of God’s purposes for allowing evil and suffering, a defense seeks to prove that the argument against God fails and it does not mean that God cannot or is unlikely to exist. This shifts the burden of proof from the theist to the atheist to explain why. The skeptic must therefore argue why an all-good, all-powerful God and the existence of evil and suffering are actually contradictory.
Let us then examine the logical argument. A short form of the argument goes like this:
1. An all-good God would not want evil to exist
2. An all-powerful God would not allow evil to exist.
3. Evil exists.
4. Therefore, an all-good, all-powerful God does not exist.
Behind this argument is another premise – God does not have any good reasons to allow evil to exist. The skeptic therefore has to demonstrate that God cannot possibly have any such good reasons. But that is quite difficult to prove. We all allow suffering in other’s lives in order to bring about some greater good. Having walked with my wife through surgery, radiation and chemotherapy for cancer I understand that many medical tests and procedures are quite painful and produce a great amount of suffering in order to provide some health benefit to the patient. As a parent and teacher (and having been a child and student myself) I understand how discipline produces suffering in order to promote self-control and wisdom. So we understand that it is not automatically contradictory to allow pain and suffering, or even to cause it ourselves.
Now the skeptic may agree that there can be good reasons for some suffering, but the magnitude and types of suffering we witness in the world are not warranted by such reasons. This reveals a second hidden premise to the argument – you can’t see any good reasons God may have to allow evil to exist, therefore he cannot have any. But we are talking about an infinitely knowledgeable and powerful God. Why couldn’t he have any such reasons that you cannot think of? To insist that such a God cannot have any such knowledge is itself a logical fallacy. Alvin Plantinga states, “Given that God does have a reason for permitting these evils, why think we would be the first to know?....Given the he is omniscient and given our very substantial epistemic limitations, it isn’t at all surprising that his reasons…escape us.” Ultimately, to believe that because you cannot think of some reason, therefore God cannot either is a mark of arrogance, pride and faith in your own intelligence.
Ok, so we can’t prove that it is logically impossible for all-good, all-powerful God to allow evil and suffering, but surely it is highly improbable that such a God exists. But the evidential argument fails for the same reasons as the logical argument. If we are in no position to prove that the existence of God and evil are contradictory, neither are we in any position to assess the probability that such a God cannot have any good reasons. We, being finite beings, simply cannot assess the probabilities that an infinite God would not have any morally sufficient reasons. We can consider the butterfly effect when assessing the complexities of directing a world of free creatures toward a certain goal. It is often considered that if Hitler had been removed from history by some means, the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust would have been prevented. Yet who knows who may have taken his place? Perhaps someone equally malevolent yet with a slightly smaller ego would have ascended to power. Maybe such an individual would have utilized Germany’s military capabilities with greater wisdom and would have successfully conquered the world and established a global reich. We simply are in no position to judge even the seemingly pointless and unnecessary evils around us.
But do most people really object to evil and suffering for philosophical reasons? Is that the argument we hear? Or do we hear something more like this, “You can keep all your long chains of syllogistic reasoning. I know the arguments. I know the existence of this kind of cruelty does not technically disprove the existence of a personal God. But it makes no sense that things like this are justified in any way. This is just wrong – wrong. I don’t want to believe in a God who would let this happen – whether he exists or not.” This is the visceral argument. It is not merely emotional or a passing feeling, it has a moral logic to it. But this argument too has its own hidden assumptions. Blaise Pascal wrote, “At first a thing pleases or shocks me without my knowing the reason and yet it shocks me for that reason which I only discover afterwards…The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.”
There is a moral assumption in the argument, that God, if he exists, has failed and violated a moral standard, that he is complicit with the evil. Yet to make such a statement assumes that a moral standard exists and can be used to measure what is right and what is wrong. But what is the source of this measure? Many will argue that our moral sense is the result of evolution. But this can only account for our feelings and moral instincts, it does not and cannot explain moral obligation. Feelings and instincts cannot be judged as true or false if another has differing feelings or instincts. This becomes a conundrum for the basis of disbelief in God because evolution can provide no foundation for the certainty of evil or moral obligation. If God does not exist, then there is no basis for objective moral values and duties. In a sense, the argument against God assumes something that cannot exist without God, so it relies on God to argue against God.
C. S. Lewis came to understand this, that as an atheist, he could not use evil as an argument against God. He understood that it was “precisely the ground which we cannot use” to object to God because “Unless we judge this waste and cruelty to be real evils we cannot…condemn the universe for exhibiting them…Unless we take our own standard to be something more than ours, to be in fact an objective principle to which we are responding, we cannot regard that standard as valid.” If the world is just random and evil, then God does not exist, but then my definition of evil is only my own feeling. Therefore, “unless we allow ultimate reality to be moral, we cannot morally condemn it.”
So what if evil and suffering actually make the existence of God more likely? What if our awareness of evil is a clue that somehow, at some level, we truly know that God exists. Atheist Andrea Palpant Dilley stated, “I think morals are totally subjective: therefore God is unnecessary.” But she found herself considering, “if morals are totally subjective, then you can’t say Hitler was wrong. You can’t say there’s anything unjust about letting babies starve. And you can’t condemn evil. How tenable is that? ...You have to consent to an objective moral standard, up here.” Later, she concluded, “I couldn’t even talk about justice without standing inside of a theistic framework. In a naturalistic worldview, a parentless orphan in the slums of Nairobi can only be explained in terms of survival of the fittest. We’re all just animals slumming it in a godless world, fighting for space and resources. The idea of justice doesn’t really mean anything. To talk about justice, you have to talk about objective morality, and to talk about objective morality, you have to talk about God.”
If God does not exist, then why is there outrage and horror at unjust suffering? Violence, suffering and death are all completely natural phenomenon. There is no basis to say that cruelty is wrong. Abandoning belief in God not only fails to solve the problem, it also removes many of the resources we need to face it.
Next week we will begin Part Two: Facing the Furnace, with Chapter Five: The Challenge of Faith.
Until then, don’t take my word for it, read the book – don’t wait for the movie,
and have a little hope on me,