PMT 2017-095 by Dr. Jay Sklar (byFaith Magazine)

David Hume, the famous 18th-century philosopher, framed the issue as succinctly as anyone: “Is [God] 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?”

Much closer to our time, philosopher H.J. McCloskey, in his 1962 article “The Problem of Evil,” describes the situation as follows: “The problem of evil is a very simple one to state. There is evil in the world; yet the world is said to be the creation of a good and omnipotent God. How is this possible? Surely a good, omnipotent God would have made a world free of evil of any kind.”

You don’t have to be a philosopher to feel this tension. All of us experience various types of evil, whether great or small, on a regular basis. Why would a good and all-powerful God allow this? Satisfying answers do not spring readily to mind.

It is therefore no surprise that the presence of evil drives many people to conclude that such a God does not exist. The logic is straightforward: “A God who is good and all-powerful cannot allow evil to exist, but evil does exist, therefore there is no good and all-powerful God.”

Obviously, many others come to a different conclusion. Despite the presence of evil, millions today do believe that God is both good and all-powerful. For some, the reality of evil causes pain but no tension; it is a sad fact of life in a fallen world. For others, however, the tension persists. They don’t give up their faith, but feel at times like their faith is shaky, or even that they’re somehow being dishonest, like those refusing to acknowledge a bad diagnosis.


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So what can we say about the problem of evil? To answer this question we must ask five more.

Question 1: What do we mean by “evil”?

It’s important to begin here because we use the word “evil” in at least three different ways.

To begin, we sometimes use the term loosely to refer to things we don’t like, such as fruitcake or the DMV office (or the New York Yankees). That’s not the type of evil we’re discussing here.

Second, we sometimes use the word to refer to some sort of harm, misfortune, or negative circumstance we choose to bring upon ourselves. For example, I love to run. In fact, I love to run so much that I began training for a marathon. Now when training for a marathon, they say to build up your pace gradually, otherwise you will end up with an injury. But I went out for a long run at a pace that was way too fast for my poorly-trained body. The resulting injury meant I had to completely give up running for a time.

Interestingly, even though I knew this was entirely my fault, I still found myself saying, “Lord, why me?” And even though the answer was obvious, I wanted to blame someone else. Since God could have prevented this, he happened to be my first choice.

Here’s another example: What happens if a man is unfaithful to his wife and she leaves him? The suffering will be real, but it’s suffering he has brought upon himself. The responsibility is his, not God’s. These types of evil—the ones we choose to bring upon ourselves—are not what we’re talking about either.

Today we’re talking about evil in a third sense: the suffering we cannot control. Sometimes it is due to the moral choices of others: a parent abuses us; a drunk driver kills a beloved friend; our parents divorce. Other times the suffering comes from natural events: a hurricane destroys a city; a tsunami wipes out 250,000 people; a child is stricken with leukemia. It is this type of evil—the suffering we can’t control or prevent—that leads to the “problem of evil.” It is in the face of this type of suffering that we sometimes conclude, “Surely a good and all-powerful God does not exist.” And this leads to our second question.

Question 2: Does the problem of evil prove that there is no good and all-powerful God?

For many, the answer to this question is a slam-dunk: “Of course it does.”

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But how so? What does the argument look like? It’s not enough simply to declare this. We have to explain why the presence of evil leads us to this conclusion. For example, consider the following sentence: “All single men are bachelors; therefore, Abraham is not a bachelor.” As it stands, this is not an argument; the first statement does not necessarily lead to the second. In order for this to be an argument, we need to add another statement: “All single men are bachelors; Abraham is not a single man; therefore, Abraham is not a bachelor.” Now we have an argument.

Similarly, if we say, “Evil exists; therefore there is no good and all-powerful God,” we have not made an argument. The first statement does not necessarily lead to the second. We need other statements in between. Perhaps the most common approach goes as follows: “Evil exists; a good and all-powerful God would not permit evil unless there was a justifiable reason; if there were a justifiable reason, it would be apparent to us; there does not appear to be any justifiable reason for evil; therefore such a God does not exist.” Now we have an argument. The argument only works, of course, if we know that each of the additional statements is true. Are they?

Many have pointed out there is a huge assumption here, namely, that if a good and all-powerful God has reasons for allowing evil, then we as finite human beings would be able to figure them out . But why should we assume this to be true? As finite beings we’re limited in ways that an infinite being is not. He may have reasons we cannot begin to comprehend.

Philosopher William Alston gets at it this way: Suppose that some of the very best scientists in the world come up with a new theory about quantum physics. Suppose I, as a non-physicist, look at their theory and say, “Because I cannot figure it out, they must be wrong.” It’s possible they might be wrong, but I have no real basis for knowing.

Alston’s point is simply this: We are not in a position to assume that if an infinite God has reasons for allowing evil, then we as finite and fallible beings should be able to figure them out. And because we cannot assume this, any argument which does—such as the approach identified above—has not proved anything at all.

Naturally, some of us hear this and say, “I don’t care how the philosophical arguments go. I still feel in my heart of hearts that there are types of suffering that are so bad—so unjust—that it is impossible that a good and all-powerful God exists.” This leads to the next question.

Question 3: How is evil a problem for atheism?

As soon as we use the term “evil”, we are making a judgment; we’re saying that something is wrong, that injustice exists in the world. We feel that . . .

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