If God exists, why does evil also exists? This is an intellectual puzzle that is very old. It's an argument against God's existence that is almost as old as the teleological argument for God's existence. I will admit that out of all the arguments against God's existence, this one is one of the most powerful. Now, I don't think it's successful (or else I would have shut down Cerebral Faith a long time ago), but I can certainly see why it would cause thinking people to doubt God's existence, reject theism, or at least give them pause. What I'm saying is that I can certainly sympathize with the person who is struggling to reconcile an all loving, all powerful God with the presence of immense suffering in the world. It has prima facie persuasive power, however, as I said, I don't think it's a successful defeater of The Christian Worldview. As much as it might appear to be on the surface, the problem of evil withers under intense scrutiny.
There are three versions of the problem of evil/suffering. Two of them are intellectual in nature and one of them is emotional in nature. Of the two versions of the intellectual problem: there's the logical version and the probabilistic version. The former argues that the existence of God and evil are logically impossible, the latter version merely argues that the existence of suffering makes God's existence improbable.
Addressing The Logical Version Of The Problem Of Evil
What we want to do is begin to examine the logical version of the intellectual problem of evil. The key to this argument is the atheist claim that it is impossible that God and the suffering in the world coexist. The claim is that the following statements cannot both be true:
1. God is all-powerful and all-good.
2. Suffering exists.
This, however, feels like it needs some additional explaining. After all, there's nothing explicitly contradictory about the statements "God exists" and "Suffering exists". It's not as explicitly contradictory as something like a square circle or a married bachelor. Atheists must think that there's an implicit contradiction between the statements "God Exists" and "Evil Exists" and are therefore assuming some hidden premises which would serve to bring out this implicit contradiction and render it explicit. What might those premises be?
They seem to be two in number:
3. If God is all-powerful, then He can create any world that He wants.
4. If God is all-loving, then He would prefer a world without suffering.
A Response To The Logical Version Of The Problem Of Evil
But is this argument for atheism really as sound as it appears to be? First of all, what makes for a good argument? For an argument to be successful in establishing its conclusion, all of the premises must be true. If even one of the premises is false, then the argument is fallacious. If even one of the premises in an argument is false, then you won't be able to reach the argument's conclusion via that argument, just as you cannot cross from one side of a chasm to the other if the bridge is missing a large piece.
Moreover, in the case of the logical version of the problem of evil, all of the premises have to be necessarily true. If it's even possible that they're not true, then the logical version collapses.
What about Premise 3? Is it true? I'm skeptical that it is. How do we know that God is able to create any kind of world that He desires? First, let me give what I think is the correct definition of omnipotence. When I say that God is omnipotent, I mean that God is able to do anything that is logically possible. God cannot do the logically impossible. God can do anything that doesn't violate the laws of logic. He can create the universe out of nothing, raise people from the dead, make ax heads float in water, make a man survive in the belly of a whale for three days, make a donkey speak in a human language, etc. However, God cannot actualize logically incoherent states of affairs. God cannot create a square circle, a married bachelor, a one-ended stick, or a shapeless physical object.
This definition of omnipotence isn't unique to me. Most contemporary theologians and Christian philosophers accept this definition. As C.S Lewis wrote: "His Omnipotence means power to do all that is intrinsically possible, not to do the intrinsically impossible. You may attribute miracles to Him, but not nonsense. There is no limit to His power. If you choose to say, 'God can give a creature free will and at the same time withhold free will from it,' you have not succeeded in saying anything about God: meaningless combinations of words do not suddenly acquire meaning simply because we prefix to them the two other words, 'God can.' It remains true that all things are possible with God: the intrinsic impossibilities are not things but nonentities. It is no more possible for God than for the weakest of His creatures to carry out both of two mutually exclusive alternatives; not because His power meets an obstacle, but because nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk it about God.”1
What Lewis is saying is that God cannot create a "Square Circle" because the two words "Square Circle" don't actually refer to anything. They're just meaningless combinations of words. God just as equally cannot create a sqeelobop pollycop. A "sqeelobop pollycop" is just a meaningless combination of letters. "Square Circle" is a meaningless combination of words. These have no reference point.
Now, with Lewis' reference to Free Will, that brings me to my next point. It is possible that God both wanted to and actually did give man free will. Moreover, it is possible that in any world of free creatures God could actualize, there would be at least some people who go wrong. It is logically possible that any world God actualizes, some people would do evil and cause suffering to other people. In this case, premise 3 is not necessarily true. It may be the case that God cannot create any world He wants because in any feasible world, there are people who abuse their God-Given free will and cause suffering to other creatures. God cannot force someone to freely do something. If they do something freely, they're not forced. If they're forced, they do not do it freely. Being omnipotent, God can either give men free will and let them choose how they please, or He can force them to always do right, but He cannot do both. It is not necessarily true that God can create a world without evil and suffering if human beings have free will.
Now, if the atheist wants to respond that He thinks the correct definition of omnipotence is being able to do literally anything even the logically impossible, and therefore God could create a world of free creatures where no one causes suffering, then the logical problem of evil vanishes. Why? If God is able to bring about logically incoherent states of affairs, then He can bring about that both He and Evil co-exist, even though, according to the atheist, they logically cancel each other out. So, I think it would behoove the atheist to stick to the definition of omnipotence that C.S Lewis gave in the citation above. In any case, I certainly think that the following statement is true: "It Is Possible That Humans Have Free Will and Any World God Creates Will Have Some Humans Abusing Their Freedom".
The atheist might object at this point that all of my rebuttals have been sheer speculation. I have frequently used phrases like "It is possible that..." and "It could be the case that...". I haven't actually proven anything. Since I haven't actually proven anything, my argument still stands. The problem with this response is that I don't need to show that these proposals are true. I don't even to show that they're probable. These proposals only need to be possible. As long as the proposals are possible, it shows that it is not necessarily true that if God is all-powerful, He can create just any world that He wants. So assumption 3 is not necessarily true, and therefore the atheist argument is logically invalid. As the Christian Philosopher, Dr. William Lane Craig put it "What we are just saying is that it might be the case. Remember the atheist is making a very strong claim here – that it is impossible for God and the suffering in the world to coexist. So we do not need to show that it is, in fact, the case that in order to bring about a world in which people always freely do the right thing that God would have to make them always do the right thing. As long as it is possible that people have free will, it may be the case that God finds Himself confronted with a situation in which any world that involves, say, this much good would also have this much moral evil in it."2
It does seem like premise 4 is true. If God is all loving and morally perfect, then He would desire a world where no evil or suffering exists. God doesn't want a world where people kill, rape, and maim each other. This is why He forbids many evil actions in His inspired word: The Bible. He wouldn't command us to not kill (Exodus 20:13), not commit adultery (Exodus 20:14, not steal (Exodus 20:15), not tell lies about each other (Exodus 20:16), or to love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves (Mark 12:31), if He didn't desire us to follow these commands.
However, although God would like a world like that, it's possible that God has overriding reasons which might make Him prefer a world more like ours. It's possible that God has morally sufficient reasons for permitting all the evils in the world that we see. It's possible that He had good reasons for giving humans free will in the first place. It's possible that He has good reasons for not intervening when humans are about to do something bad. It's possible that God knows that if He permits a certain instance of suffering, a greater good will come out of it. We all know cases where we ourselves permit suffering in order to bring about a greater good. C.S. Lewis once remarked, “What do people mean when they say ‘I am not afraid of God because I know He is good?’ Have they never even been to a dentist?”3 That illustration shows that many times we permit suffering for some greater good. So although God may want a world with no suffering, it's possible that He would prefer a world with suffering, given the aforementioned. So, it's possible that not even 3* is necessarily true.
Again, the atheist might object that I haven't proven that God can and does actually have good reasons for permitting suffering, and that I have only posited mere possibilities. But again, with regards to this version of the problem of suffering, that's all I need to do. Again, the atheist is making the claim that the existence of God is logically impossible. What I've said above shows that the existence of God is logically possible. The atheist is making the claim that God and suffering are incompatible, so to refute the claim, all I need to do is provide solutions that would show that they are compatible.
1: It is possible that humans have free will, and therefore any feasible world God could actualize would have some not co-operating with His will.
2: It is possible that God has good reasons for permitting suffering.
I think it follows that premise 3 and Premise 4 are not necessarily true. If those aren't true, then the logical version of the problem of suffering falls flat.
In order to salvage the logical version of the problem of evil and suffering, the atheist bears an enormous burden of proof. He needs to show that it is necessarily false that God has morally sufficient reasons for permitting every instance of suffering that has ever occurred. Or, he would have to show that it is logically impossible for human beings to have libertarian free will, or he would have to show that my contention that a possible world of free creatures who never abuse their free will was infeasible for God to actualize is necessarily false. As long as these proposals of mine remain possible, then the logical version of the problem of suffering cannot stand.
According to Christian Philosopher William Lane Craig "Most philosophers today, by far the vast, vast majority, be they theist or atheist, recognize that the logical version of the problem of evil has failed."4 This version of the argument from evil and suffering, according to Craig, has been virtually abandoned in academia. Now, you might be wondering "If even most atheist philosophers no longer think that this is a good argument, then why did you write an entire blog post addressing it?" Because although atheist philosophers no longer consider this argument sound, many atheist lay people still do. I've seen plenty of memes and tweets from atheists presenting the logical version of the problem of suffering. They apparently didn't get the memo that God and Suffering are logically compatible like their academic counterparts did.
But We're Not Out Of The Woods Yet!
Remember that at the start of this blog post, I said that there were three different versions of the problem of evil and suffering. Two of them are intellectual in nature, and one of them, emotional. We've seen that the first intellectual version of the problem is no good. However, even though God and Evil/Suffering are logically compatible (i.e it is possible for both to co-exist), the atheist can make the argument in a different way so as to have a lighter burden of proof than he would in defending the version refuted above. The atheist could say "Well, granted, it's possible for God and suffering to co-exist. Nevertheless, it is highly improbable that they do." This version of the problem of suffering is known as "The Probabilistic Version Of The Problem Of Suffering". This version allows the atheist to carry a much lighter burden of proof, for he doesn't need to prove that it's impossible that God has morally sufficient reasons for permitting every instance of suffering, he just needs to make a good case that it's improbable that He does.
On this version of the problem, the previous responses won't apply. I can't simply say "It's possible God has good reasons for permitting every instance of suffering" or "It's possible that humans have free will and God can't actualize a world where they always obey Him", for if I do, the atheist will respond "But I'm not arguing that it's impossible, I'm merely saying it's incredibly unlikely."
In responding to the probabilistic version, I will make many of the same points I did above, except I'll go one step further: I'll provide actual evidence that these contentions are not just possible, but probable.
Using The Bible In My Defense
In this series, I will frequently make appeals to the biblical text to make my points. The atheist will likely object that I can't do that as that would make all of my arguments question begging. However, if the atheist is to make a case that evil and suffering disproves the existence of the Christian God, then he's got to take into account what the Christian scriptures say. After all, the argument from suffering is an argument that the Christian worldview is internally incoherent. Whenever a person makes claims that a worldview is incoherent, he assumes that the worldview is true for the sake of the argument. He is essentially saying "Provided Worldview X is true, we should not expect to see Y and Z. Since Y and Z exist, your worldview cannot be true." It is the God of The Bible that I believe in. It is the biblical worldview that I adhere to. If one wants to argue that the existence of evil and suffering probably would not exist if the biblical worldview were true, then if The Bible provides a refutation to their claims, they have to take it seriously. It is intellectually dishonest to rule out The Bible when it is the biblical worldview you are saying is incoherent. Furthermore, (I'm speaking to potential atheist readers) you yourself are appealing to The Bible to make your case. Where do you get the idea that God was omnibenevolent and omnipotent (the attributes you think make suffering so unlikely)? Unless you've studied The Ontological Argument, you most likely got that idea from The Bible! So, here's my question Mr. Atheist. If you can appeal to The Bible to argue against The Bible, why can't I appeal to The Bible to argue for The Bible? If you can wield scripture to bash God, why can't I wield scripture to defend Him? If you can appeal to scripture to say the worldview it presents is incoherent, then why can't I appeal to scripture to rebut those claims?
Clearly, if the biblical worldview is to be argued against, everything about the biblical worldview must be taken into account, including The Bible. The Bible is a crucial part of The Christian Worldview, so if you say The Christian Worldview is unlikely to be true in light of the existence of suffering, it's only logical that if The Bible provides some answers to the solutions that you take them into consideration.
We have seen that the logical version of the problem of suffering is fallacious. For the next several blog posts in this series, I will provide answers to the probabilistic version of the problem of suffering. We will see that evil and suffering do not at all render it improbable that God exists. The next installment of this series will post tomorrow.
1: C.S Lewis, The Problem Of Pain, HarperOne, page
2: William Lane Craig, Defenders 2, from the transcript of "The Existence Of God - Part 32", http://www.reasonablefaith.org/defenders-2-podcast/transcript/s4-32#_ftnref7
3: C.S Lewis, "A Grief Observed", HarperCollins Publishers, Chapter 3.
4: William Lane Craig, Defenders 2, from the transcript of "The Existence Of God - Part 33", http://www.reasonablefaith.org/defenders-2-podcast/transcript/s4-33#ixzz4p0TJsRf0