Christian apologists give cogent answers to probing questions on ethics, morals, philosophy, and comparative religion.
The Problem of Evil (cont'd)
... atheists must prove either that ethics are nothing more than cultural coercion, private opinion, genetic illusion, or some mixture of all three; in which case they objectively justify every human atrocity in history, from the Crusades to Columbine. In addition, to prove such a thing would simultaneously destroy their argument against God’s existence on the basis of evil because they have succeeded in disproving objective morality upon which their argument is founded. Thus, although atheism often masquerades as the most intellectually robust worldview, it has some serious and even fatal philosophical problems at its very core.
For centuries The Problem of Evil (PE from this point on) has been a weapon-of-choice in the atheist’s arsenal to attack Christian theism. In its concise form, PE is posed as follows:
If God is all-good (omnibenevolent), He would not allow evil and suffering to exist.
If God is all-powerful (omnipotent), He could prevent evil and suffering from existing.
Evil and suffering exist in the universe.
Therefore, no such omnibenevolent, omnipotent God exists, and Christian theism is false.
PE as an argument against Christian theism is alive and well today. As a case-in-point, a popular atheistic web site, which lauds itself as “the most heavily visited non-theistic web site on the Internet” recently featured an article entitled “A Thought Experiment: On the Problem of Unjustifiable Suffering,” which bolsters PE as “the insurmountable difficulty” for Christians.1 This particular site posts hundreds of articles that appeal to PE as an argument against God’s existence.2 It is hardly a challenge to find PE presented similarly in university classrooms, a host of contemporary publications, and on the street. In fact, a recent national survey conducted by George Barna uncovered that the number one question about God posed by a scientifically-selected cross section of adults is “Why is there so much pain and suffering in the world?”.3 Renowned atheist philosopher, Michael Martin, posits PE as “the most important [argument]” to “justify disbelief in God.”4
Due to its pervasiveness today, any Christian who obeys Scripture’s command to contend intellectually for the faith (Jude 3; 1 Pet. 3:15) will doubtlessly encounter PE firsthand. In such encounters it is vital for Christians to be well acquainted with the fatal philosophical problems of PE and how to point out the “insurmountable difficulties” it raises for the atheist, while tactfully and lovingly sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The “Launch Pad Approach”
Throughout history and up to the present, Christian thinkers have attempted to resolve PE, and some have been relatively successful. Yet the vast majority of these attempts try to either defend the Christian concept of God (e.g., the free will defense, which finds its philosophical roots with Saint Augustine, currently championed by Notre Dame’s Alvin Plantinga), or to present a positive case for why the God of Christian theism allows evil and suffering to exist, which is commonly called a theodicy (e.g., John Hick’s greater good theodicy,5 which finds its genesis in the works of Iranaeus). The approach encouraged in this article, however, is somewhat different. Rather than engaging in an apologetic dogfight with PE, this approach takes aim at the faulty philosophical presuppositions underlying PE to demonstrate that it can’t even get off of the atheistic launch pad (hence the name “launch pad approach”). In other words, the atheist’s argument falls apart logically before it can be legitimately posed against Christian theism. Thus, although this approach does offer an apologetic for theism, it is primarily a polemic against atheism. The “launch pad approach” is designed to accomplish two specific tasks: First, to tactfully demonstrate to atheists that the existence of evil and suffering does not preclude God’s existence while, in actuality, evil poses a far greater threat to atheism, and second, to lighten the load of Christian thinkers undertaking the tasks of defense and theodicy in response to PE, since the primary philosophical burden of evil is rightly placed on the atheist.
Two Fatal Philosophical Problems With PE
Problem #1: Writing a Book to Prove that Words Don’t Exist. As the name implies, PE appeals to the existence of evil to prove the non-existence of God. More critically, PE hinges on the existence of objective evil. In other words, atheists (at least the ones who correctly understand PE) are not merely saying that an all-good, all-powerful God is inconsistent with their self-conjured concepts or personal opinions about what is evil. Rather they are arguing that it would be objectively evil for an all-good God to allow the objective evils that we encounter in the world to exist.6 Otherwise, the atheist would have to somehow demonstrate how subjective evils that we make up as humans would bear any objective relevance to a transcendent being who made us. But if the atheists’ made-up-morality says that it would be evil for an all good God to allow evil and suffering to exist and someone else’s made-up-morality, the Christian’s for example, says that it would not be evil for an all-good God to allow evil and suffering to exist (namely because God has morally sufficient reasons for doing so), then in reality whose made up morality is right? It’s one subjective morality pinned up against another, and the atheist gets nowhere in objectively demonstrating that God does not exist. Atheist-turned-Christian apologist, C.S. Lewis, recounts his personal coming-to-grips with this dilemma:
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…. Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too - for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my private fancies. Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist…I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality - namely my idea of justice - was full of sense.7
Indeed for the atheist’s argument to hold up an all-good God’s allowance of evil suffering in the world must not merely be “evil” in the sense that it violates standards invented by humans, because God, by definition, morally transcends our private fancies. Rather atheists appealing to PE must somehow prove that God’s allowance of suffering is objectively evil.
At this juncture, however, atheists are caught in an inescapable catch-22. Their dilemma is this: either they must admit that there is no objective evil, in which case they also have no objective basis for arguing against God’s existence, or they must appeal to the objective reality of evil (which PE presupposes), thus proving the existence of objective moral law; which points to the existence of an objective moral-lawgiver (i.e., God). Logically, those are atheists’ only two options. Either way their argument against God’s existence fails.
To simply conclude the first point, any honest presentation of PE aimed against God’s existence must concede the existence of objective morality, which simultaneously affirms the existence of God, the objective moral lawgiver. And thus in appealing to PE to prove that God does not exist, atheists find themselves in the same hopeless plight as a confused man who writes a book to prove that words do not exist.
Problem #2: A Four-Year-Old Girl Proving the Malevolence of Her Mother. The second fatal philosophical problem with PE is the impossibility of proving that God does not have morally sufficient reasons for allowing evil and suffering to temporarily exist in the universe. This is illustrated in the following analogy:8
A four-year-old child (we’ll call her “Emmie,” which just so happens to be the name of my beautiful five-year-old niece) sets out to prove that her mother is evil. Young Emmie begins keeping a record of her mother’s alleged “evils.” On more than one occasion, Emmie receives spankings from her mother. These definitely qualify as “evils” in Emmie’s four-year-old mind. On another occasion, Emmie’s mother puts her disease-stricken pet cat to sleep. Emmie chalks up another “evil” to her mother. A couple days later, Emmie comes down with a case of measles and is forced by her mother to get an excruciatingly painful shot. By this point Emmie is convinced beyond doubt that her mother is on par with that diabolical figure of childhood imagination, the bogey man. Although in four-year-old logic Emmie’s mom may seem “evil,” in reality her actions are those of a deeply loving mother. So what accounts for Emmie’s misunderstanding of her mother’s love? Answer: she’s thinking with a four-year-old mind to call into question the actions of a far-wiser adult.
Let’s apply this line of thinking to PE. The God of Christian theism is both all-knowing (omniscient) and all-wise (omnisapient). Honest atheists will willfully admit that they fit neither of those criterion (if they don’t then it might be wise to respectfully end the conversation). There are many ways to illustrate the vast distinction between God’s cognition and ours. For example, explain that if the state of California represented all possible knowledge and wisdom, then your personal cognition would be best represented by a golf ball, or perhaps something smaller. For illustration’s sake, represent the atheist’s cognition by a basketball; or better yet, allow them to pick their own object. If they are intellectually honest, they will acknowledge that you are both merely tiny specks in the vast expanse of the Golden State. In other words, the atheist and you are both a long shot from the omniscience and omnisapience of God.
If Emmie, who is far closer cognitively to her mother than we are to an omniscient, omnisapient God, had no grounds for labeling her mother as evil, then what legitimate grounds does the atheist have for asserting that an all-good, all-knowing, all-wise God would be evil for allowing evil and suffering to temporarily exist? The answer is simple - none. For Emmie to prove that her mother is in fact evil, she would have to prove that her mother did not have morally sufficient reasons for allowing her to endure temporary suffering (which would make four-year-old Emmie nothing short of a prodigy). For an atheist’s argument to stand they must do the same, but to an infinitely higher degree; namely, they must prove that an omniscient, omnisapient God cannot have morally sufficient reasons for allowing suffering (which would make the atheist nothing short of a deity). Says apologist William Lane Craig,
If the objector is trying to show that it is logically impossible9 for God and the evil that we find in the world to both exist, then he has to prove that it is impossible for God to have morally sufficient reasons for permitting the amount of evils and the kinds of evils that exist; and no atheist has ever been able to prove this proposition.9
For atheists to prove such a thing would require them to be an omniscient, omnisapient being, thus making them “God.” Once again, atheists find themselves caught in a lose-lose situation.
If Christians believed in a finite god with an IQ roughly equivalent to humans then the atheist’s argument might stand; but it falls apart when applied to the all-loving, all just, all-wise, all-knowing God of Christian theism. In reality, if we as humans could completely grasp why all evil and suffering exists in the universe it might cast some doubt on the existence of the omniscient, omnisapient God of Christian theism, Who declares, “as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa. 55:9)
Posing the Real Problem of Evil and Suffering (RPE)
Since the existence of evil lies at the very heart of PE; atheists positing PE must obviously make an appeal to morality? This begs the question: where does morality come from? Atheists generally find themselves in four camps on this issue: cultural relativism, moral subjectivism, ethical naturalism, and objective relativism.10
The first view contends that whatever a given culture says is right is right and whatever a given culture says is wrong is wrong; hence the name, cultural relativism. However, if this is the case then Hitler, whose cultural moral code led him to exterminate millions of human lives, was doing what was “right.” Moreover, if justice is merely a cultural invention then there’s no way that a given culture could make moral progress. The very idea of progress presupposes that one is moving closer to an objective standard of what is right. If there is no moral progress then the Nazis of Germany in the 1940’s, who prided themselves in mass genocide and viewed it as a means to cultural advancement, are not objectively worse than the Germany of today, which does not practice this atrocity. The undeniable fact that cultures make moral progress precludes cultural relativism.
The second option, moral subjectivism, says that right and wrong are defined on a person-to-person basis. If this is the case then no one’s sense of what’s right is objectively better than anyone else’s (including those who think that their sense of what is right is the only true sense). Yet this line of thinking commits rational suicide. If morality is merely a matter of private conviction then Charles Manson, Geoffrey Dahmer, and every other sociopathic serial killer in history is completely justified in his or her actions. Every KKK member who has slaughtered an African American in the name of what they believe to be “right” has committed no objective wrong. Or consider the murderers of Matthew Shepard, or the perpetrators of every other homosexual hate-crime in history. If moral subjectivism is true then the atheist’s personal sense of what’s right is no better than that of a sadistic murderer. If there is no God-given objective moral code, and these individuals did what they believed to be “right” then on what real grounds can atheists call such actions “evil”? Again, the simple answer is “none.”
Ethical naturalism, the atheist’s third option, says that right and wrong are nothing more than the biological by-products of blind natural process. Renowned atheists Michael Ruse and E.O. Wilson offer the most concise summation of this view in stating, “ethics as we understand it is an illusion fobbed on us by our genes.”11 The consistent ethical naturalist is forced to admit that the Hitlers of history committed no real wrongs because right and wrong are mere genetic illusions. What valid grounds are there then in this view for prosecuting criminals, who did not choose their genes? If Mao Tse-Tsung’s molecular make-up made murdering millions of Chinese people morally permissible then how can atheists object? Or consider Cambodia’s Pol Pot or Russia’s Joseph Stalin who likewise liquidated millions of their countrymen. Such men are the moral champions of ethical naturalism because they did exactly what their genes dictated and didn’t buy into the “illusionary” ethical norms (i.e., it is wrong to murder millions of people) of other people and cultures. Honest reflection on the horrific events that took place in such killing camps as Auchwitsz or Dakauh, which consistent ethical naturalists, (as well as cultural relativists and moral subjectivists) have no grounds for calling really “evil,” should be more than enough to cause even the most dogmatic ethical naturalists to seriously reconsider their stance on morality.
In seeing the necessity for objective morality, Paul Kurtz, the main mind behind the Humanist Manifesto II, has proposed a fourth option, which he dubs “objective relativism.” This view, set forth in detail in his book Forbidden Fruit: The Ethics of Humanism (Prometheus Books, 1988), rightfully acknowledges the reality of objective morality.12 Much to his credit, Kurtz also implicitly discounts ethical naturalism by stressing the dignity and value of human beings.13 He does so, however, at the cost of consistency since he simultaneously affirms that “the human species is an emergence from natural evolutionary forces” and that “the total personality is a function of the biological organism.”14 However, this purely naturalistic picture of human beings leaves us no more objectively dignified than a bug or killer virus, which are also mere “biological organisms” competing for survival in a universe governed exclusively by “natural evolutionary forces.”
Moreover, Professor Kurtz appeals to “ethical imperatives,” and even admits that “ethical cognition (i.e., the problem of how we know what is ethically right and wrong) points to the need for a universality of conduct, and it speaks to all men and women no matter what their social or cultural background.”15 What is the source of Kurtz’s cross-cultural moral code and “objective” ethical imperatives? In his intractable commitment to atheism, Kurtz is driven to affirm that objective “moral values derive their source from human experience.”16 Yet “human experience” takes place on two levels: corporate and individual. If Kurtz opts for the former as his source for ethical imperatives he is left some brand of cultural relativism; if he contends for the latter, then he is left with ethical subjectivism, both of which are philosophically and practically bogus. Kurtz’ lose-lose situation is this: human experience, both corporate and individual, does not constitute objective morality; there must be a source beyond human experience if ethics are to be considered objective in any real sense. And so Kurtz is left utterly without objective foundation for the ethics he so dogmatically propounds.
We have thus witnessed the fatal shortcomings of cultural relativism, moral subjectivism, ethical naturalism, and Paul Kurtz’s objective relativism. Yet there is a fifth and far more rationally tenable option. The above atrocities, from Hitler to homosexual hate crimes, are really wrong because real morality exists (i.e., it is wrong to murder [Ex. 20:13], hate another human [1 John 4:7-11, 19-21], etc.), which comes from a real moral lawgiver - God.
Thus atheists are faced with the Real Problem of Evil (RPE):
Objective evil exists in the universe (as they implicitly admit by using PE).17
The existence of objective evil points to the existence of an objective moral law.
An objective moral law must come from an objective moral lawgiver (i.e., God).
Therefore atheism, which denies the existence of an objective moral lawgiver, is false.18
Of course atheists can contend that morality is a cultural fabrication, private fancy, genetic fantasy, or some idiosyncratic mixture of the three; all of which end up completely obliterating objective morality. In doing so, atheists would have to simultaneously prove that the mass-murdering Mao Tse-Tsungs of the world are no objectively worse than the mass-ministering Mother Theresas of the world. Successfully defending any of these views would also hammer a final nail in the casket of PE, since PE relies on the existence of objective morality; namely evil. Again atheists are caught in a lose-lose situation. That is, of course, unless they are willing to acknowledge the existence of God.
The very fact so many atheists appeal to PE shows that they have a very cogent sense that real good and evil exist; which is itself a profound internal testimony to God’s existence (Rom. 2:14-15). It is also a perfect springboard for sharing the liberating gospel of Jesus Christ, Who is the ultimate solution to the real personal problem of evil that we all encounter in our lives, the problem known as sin (Rom. 6:23).19
1 Dale Proctor, “A Thought Experiment: On the Problem of Unjustifiable Suffering,” www.infidels.org, retrieved 17 August 2000.
2 A search for “Problem of Evil” in the infidels article archive (www.infidels.org/cgi-bin/htsearch, retrieved 27 October 2000) found 306 articles, many of which adamantly argue against God’s existence on the basis of PE, some of which do not.
3 Lee Strobel, The Case for Faith, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000) 29.
4 Michael Martin, Atheism: A Philosophical Justification, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990) 334ff.
5 For an excellent philosophical presentation of the free will defense see Plantinga’s God, Freedom, & Evil, (Grand Rapids: Eardmans, reprinted 1999). For a presentation of Hick’s theodicy see Evil and the God of Love (out of print); for a thoughtful response to Hick’s theodicy see Doug Geivett’s Evil and the Evidence for God, (Simon & Schuster, 1999).
6 For some interesting works from an atheistic perspective that rightly appeal to objective evil in PE see Dean Stretton’s “The Moral Argument from Evil” (archived at infidels.org/library/modern/dean_stretton/mae.html, retrieved 27 October 2000), which makes frequent reference to “actual evil,” and Michael Martin’s Atheism: A Philosophical Justification, 334-452. Some atheist’s don’t assume the existence of actual evil (at least on paper) when they pose PE. Rather they argue deductively that the Christian concepts of evil and an omnibenevolent, omnipotent God are logically incompatible. Alvin Plantiga’s free will defense has sufficiently solved this form of PE.
7 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996) 45-46.
8 Bear in mind when using this illustration that no analogy is airtight. Atheists are likely to point out incongruities in the analogy. Thus, its important not to get sidetracked in the details, but to hone in on the analogy’s main point: to demonstrate the absurdity of drawing definitive conclusions about the motives of an infinitely wise and knowledgeable God based solely on our degree of knowledge. The only legitimate way to make such dogmatic claims about God’s nature and actions is for Him to reveal truths concerning Himself in such a way that our finite minds can grasp it. And that’s exactly what He did in Scripture and most poignantly, through the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Thus the Christian theist has a positive case for the sovereign goodness of God in all things, namely Christian revelation. The atheist has no such higher ground for building a positive case that God’s allowance of evil and suffering would be evil.
9 Most atheistic philosophers have abandoned the brand of PE that commonly called the logical problem of evil, which says that it can be deductively proven that God and evil are logically incompatible (thanks largely to the work of Plantinga). The vast majority of atheistic philosophers retreat to a more mild form of PE, called the probabilistic problem of evil, which says that the existence of God is improbable, though not logically impossible, given the existence of evil and suffering in the world. In light of God’s omniscience and omnisapience, neither the logical or probabilistic problems of evil succeed in proving that God does not exist. The atheist is in no epistemological place to prove that God logically does not have morally sufficient reasons for allowing evil and suffering or that he probably does not have morally sufficient reasons for allowing evil and suffering. The Christian theist, however, can prove that God probably does have morally sufficient reasons by demonstrating the factuality of Christian revelation (e.g., arguments for the resurrection of Christ).
9 William Lane Craig, “The Problem of Evil,” (audiocassette No. 1147 side 2, STR).
10 For a thoughtful rebuttal of these atheistic moral philosophies see the following CR Journal articles: Greg Koukl “Monkey Morality: Can Evolution Explain Ethics” (April- June 98), Bob and Gretchen Passantino’s “Religion, Truth, and Value Without God: Contemporary Atheism Speaks Out in Humanist Manifesto 2000 (Part 2 - Vol. 22 Num. 4), and Norman Geisler’s “A Summary Critique: Forbidden Fruit: The Ethics of Humanism” (DH095) and “Any Absolutes? Absolutely!” (Summer 1996).
11 Michael Ruse and E.O. Wilson, “The Evolution of Ethics,” Religion and the Natural Sciences,ed. J.E. Huchingson, (Orlando: Harcourt Brace, 1993) 310.
12 Paul Kurtz, Forbidden Fruit: The Ethics of Humanism, (Prometheus, 1988) 150.
13 Ibid., 32-33, 185, 190-192.
14 The Humanist Manifesto II.
15 Forbidden Fruit, 69.
16 HM II.
17 This in not to say that all moral issues are objective. Objectivist ethics simply contends that some morals are objective (e.g., the recreational torture of innocent babies is wrong). Atheist’s frequently respond to moral arguments by pointing out certain morals that are relative (e.g., precise speed limits set by cultures). Christianity and objectivist ethics leaves room for some relative morals; atheistic ethical schemes, however, leave no room for any objective morals.
18 Atheists are also faced with the Problem of Good:
Objective good exists in the universe (which honest atheists will have a difficult time denying when they assess their love for their family, friends, etc.).
The existence of objective good points to the existence of an objective moral law.
An objective moral law must come from an objective moral lawgiver (i.e., God).
Therefore atheism, which denies the existence of an objective moral lawgiver, is false.
19 Another key point in “the launch pad approach” to PE (though one that lies beyond the immediate scope of this article) is familiarizing atheists with the landscape surrounding the launch pad. In other words, its important to show them that their argument is surrounded by overwhelming counter evidences that compellingly point to God’s existence. For example, even if PE stands (which as this article proves, it does not), then the atheist must still somehow tackle such powerful theistic proofs as the kalam cosmological argument (i.e., the argument from causation to the uncaused cause), and the teleological argument (i.e., the argument from intelligent design in the universe to an intelligent designer), etc. For a clear presentation of these arguments and a rebuttal of common atheistic counter-arguments see William Lane Craig’s Reasonable Faith, (Crossway Books, 1988).
© 2001 Thaddeus Williams