The Problem with “The Problem of Evil” – Part 1

“Which atheist arguments do you actually find relatively convincing?”

This was a question I was asked a little while ago by a friend. My first initial reaction was to respond with the problem of evil. After all, that is what many Christian apologists respond with. When put into a formal argument, it is considered one of the most powerful evidences against the existence of God, but it also has considerable emotional force. And if my studies have revealed anything, it’s that you can strengthen even the weakest arguments by appealing to the emotions of your audience.

When it comes to the problem of evil, the reality is that emotions often prevail over reason and evidence, unfortunately. Instead of trying to show a contradiction between the existence of God and what they consider evil, the skeptic will say something like, “I can’t believe in a God who would have allowed my mother to die of cancer.” And if we’re being honest with ourselves, we cannot point to a definitive reason why God would have allowed that to happen. Suffering exists. We need to recognize this fact and approach each individual with the appropriate care. We ought to have an academic response to this, as well as a pastoral response. Sometimes the person is really suffering and an emotionless academic response may not be appropriate.

However, in order to analyze the problem of evil itself, we have to divorce the emotional appeals from the philosophical arguments, and that’s where I see a glaring problem with the problem of evil.
At the end of the day, what we have is a battle of metaphysical presuppositions.
Allow me to elaborate.

A fairly typical conversation between a skeptic and a theist might go something like this:

Skeptic: “The existence of evil in the world is a good reason to believe that a good God does not exist”.
Theist: “Well, God may have good reasons to allow certain evil”
Skeptic: “Granted. However, there are examples of gratuitous evil and these examples show that a good God cannot exist.”

To put the skeptic’s position into a formal argument, it might go something like this:
1. If a good God exists, gratuitous evil would not exist.
2. Gratuitous evil does exist.
3. Therefore God does not exist.

But the theist’s position can be stated like this:
1. If a good God exists, gratuitous evil would not exist.
2. A good God exists.
3. Therefore gratuitous evil does not exist.

So now we have two valid deductive arguments. The first premise is the same for both, so we have to compare the evidence for the existence of gratuitous evil versus the evidence for God’s existence.

The skeptic has a massive epistemological problem with showing the existence of real, gratuitous evil. In order to show that a particular instance of evil is gratuitous, it seems as though the skeptic must have access to a God’s eye view of reality. There is simply no way that a finite human being’s knowledge can know all of the possible reasons why God might allow a particular evil. Even if this premise is true, there is absolutely no way we could know that it is true. The only person who could know whether or not gratuitous evil exists would be God himself, and he certainly wouldn’t be arguing against his own existence. That would be silly!

On the other hand, the theist merely has to appeal to other arguments for God’s existence. Various cosmological, teleological, moral, ontological arguments, just to name a few. I go into a few of those in my other posts, specifically in How to Dismantle Christianity and Confessions of a Christian Freethinker.

On balance, there are far more reasons to believe that God exists versus reasons to believe that gratuitous evil exists.

Thanks for reading! If you have a question or something to add, please leave a comment!

Note: As you can tell by the title, this is the first of an unknown number of posts on the problem of evil. I will be going into a wide variety of different approaches and responses to the problem of evil. I believe it is vitally important to analyze these issues while not in an emotionally compromised state of mind. Figure out the answers to these tough questions before you go through something terrible.

I hope these answers provide a good response to skeptics, but I also pray that they offer a real hope to look towards while you experience pain in your life.

Elijah Thompson