Questioner: “I don’t know how you can believe in God with all the evil and suffering that happens in the world. Where was God during 911? Where was God during the Tsunami of 2004? Where was God during the holocaust of WWII? According to your Bible, God is loving and kind and all-powerful…so why didn’t he do something to stop it? Why does he let anything evil happen for that matter?”
If you’ve ever found yourself in a conversation like this and at a complete loss as to how to respond, you’re not alone. If nothing else such experiences reinforce our need of humility when discussing such matters. However, even in humility we can respond.
No matter how the question of evil is asked, the root is the same and is a question that man has been asking for millennia. Most recently by the likes of Sam Harris; most famously by David Hume, but originally recorded by 3rd Century B.C. Greek philosopher Epicurus. He stated the problem this way:
“Either God wants to abolish evil, and cannot; or he can, but does not want to. If he wants to, but cannot, he is impotent. If he can, but does not want to, he is wicked. If God can abolish evil, and God really wants to do it, why is there evil in the world?”1
In what follows, I want to help you see the underlying logic behind the question of evil. Don’t worry, you don’t need to memorize this or reproduce it in order to answer a questioner. Grasping it will however help you in cutting through the haze to see what lies at the root of the question. Once you see that, you can help your friend by simply asking the right questions back to him/her in order to find out what assumptions they are making.
Formed as a logical argument, the problem of evil and God’s existence goes something like this:
- If God is perfectly good, then he would stop as much evil as he could.
- If God is all-powerful, then he can stop all evil.
- There is evil.
Conclusion: Either God does not exist, or he is not perfectly good, or he is not all-powerful.
This is a valid logical argument, but is it sound; that is to say, are all three premises true? Premise 3 seems difficult to argue with given our belief in God and experience with the world. Premise 1 and 2, however may be called into question.
Questioning Premise 1:
When a person gives the ‘problem of evil’ objection, they typically are reacting to their assumptions about premise 1, namely that if God is really good and loving he would have prevented evil ‘X’ from happening. What is important at this point is to affirm the persons’ moral revulsion to evil ‘X’. Don’t forget that if ‘X’ is truly evil, then God himself grieves its occurrence, a point we should be quick to make.
The problem is that the objection fails on this point: Yes, if God is good and really loving he would prevent evil ‘X’ from happening, UNLESS he has a very good reason for not doing so.
Even on a human level we can understand this to some degree. My son is learning to ride his bike without training wheels. I am using the age old parenting technique of holding the seat and running behind him. (The pain in my back is certainly evil, but that’s beside the point.) Eventually I need to let go of the seat and let him ride. He will and has consequently fallen with tears and scraped knees ensuing. Did I know this would happen? I was as certain as I could be. Do I love my son? Absolutely. Could I have prevented his fall? Yes, but at the expense of him learning to ride, which was the ‘good’ reason I had for allowing the ‘evil’ of a scraped knee or elbow.
We will need to forgo addressing the inevitable “yah but…” responses for now, and focus just on first steps for the moment by clarifying what this affirms. The premise: “if God is perfectly good he would stop as much evil as he could” does not hold because he may have good reasons for not doing so (i.e. to produce a greater good OR to avoid a greater evil).
Questioning Premise 2:
Premise 2 often proceeds from too simple an understanding of God’s omnipotence (all-powerfulness). If one simply affirms that “God can do anything” then one can easily make this mistake. The fact is that there are things God cannot do, but these do not diminish his omnipotence at all. The “can God make a square circle?” example comes to mind, and the answer to that is ‘no’. Not because God’s power is somehow deficient, but because “a square circle” is an absurd non-entity. No amount of power could produce it because it could never obtain in reality. It can’t even exist as a concept. It will never be more than a grammatical confusion of nouns.
When talking of God’s omnipotence then, it would be more accurate to affirm that for whatever reality ‘X’ that could obtain, God’s power is sufficient to produce it.
Returning to Premise 2 then, we can proceed from a proper understanding of God’s power which prevents us from assuming he can do “anything” in the simple “that means God can make absurdities into reality” sense. In this case, Premise 2 fails on this point: If God is all-powerful, then he can stop all evil UNLESS some ‘goods’ that a perfectly good God desires could not be produced without necessarily allowing for the existence of certain evils.
To quickly touch on one example that we will address more fully in future, human freedom may be one such good. If God wanted to create truly free beings, then for their freedom to be meaningfully true would entail the real possibility of choosing evil. It does not seem possible therefore that God could create truly free beings without allowing for evil to exist.
No doubt many questions are raised by reading this, and that’s good. These are hardly final words on a subject for which literal tomes have been written. At this point in our discussion however, our objective has merely been to help you surface your questioners’ assumptions. No matter how they may have phrased the question, the simple objection from evil can be reduced to the argument we’ve dealt with.
But how do we take this and form a useful answer? We don’t want to just win a logical argument, but truly help a questioner understand, and often the best way to do so is by asking good questions ourselves. So, rather than simply arguing head on, help them question their own assumptions. Consider their objection again (as stated at the beginning), and then the underlying argument from logic that we’ve outlined. Now, considering where we’ve noted how premises 1 and 2 fail, we can formulate some questions that will help our friend answer his/her own question.
Responding in Gentleness and Respect: (Things you might say)
- I can certainly understand how its hard to see where a truly good God would be given all of the evil taking place in the world. But let me ask you a question: “Is it possible for a truly good person to allow evil to take place if they have a truly good reason for doing so?” If they answer ‘yes’, you now help them see that their assumptions unfairly restricts God from the same possibility. If they say ‘no’, just take any example from life to show them that they don’t really believe that. (e.g. – inflicting pain to set a broken bone; imposing stress and anxiety to examine students; even allowing one person to die in order to save 1000, etc)
- We often think that since God is all-powerful that he could make a world without any evil, and that would certainly be great. But let me ask you: “Isn’t it possible that some ‘goods’ just couldn’t exist without the possibility of some ‘evils’ taking place as well?” Human freedom comes to mind. Isn’t it possible then that God allows evil to take place because there are goods that in his goodness he desired to create that could never become reality without the real possibility of evil?
- If God’s existence and evil’s are not logically incompatible, would it be fair to say that your objection is not so much a matter of rejecting God’s existence as it is a reaction to God’s seeming incomprehensibility? If God is truly the Creator of the universe however, isn’t it only reasonable to expect that there are things about him that will be difficult to understand?
In our next segment we will discuss further the subject of human free will as a credible response to the problem from evil.
Epicurus, according to Lactantius (ca. A.D. 240-320) in De Ira Dei (On the Wrath of God), trans. Philip Schaff www.documentacatholicaomnia.eu/03d/0240-0320,_Lactantius, _De_Ira_Dei_%5BSchaff%5D,_EN.pdf. As sited by Chad Meister in “God, Evil and Morality”, in God is Great, God is Good, eds, William Lane Craig and Chad Meister, (Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 2009), 107.