Monday, July 12, 2010

The Problem of Evil part 1

I was asked by a friend if I could post a Christian response to the problem of evil specifically targeted to those who do not have a background in theology or philosophy. I am not sure it will be possible to tackle that question adequately in blog format but I promised to try. This is the first of a number of separate posts that will attempt to give a basic introduction to the Christian responses to the problem of evil.

What is the Problem of Evil?

The problem of evil is that Christians hold a number of beliefs, essential to their overall system of belief, that seem to be contradicted by the evil that we encounter in the world. Essentially, it is the argument that if such a being as Christians describe as God exists then the world that we live in could not. A fairly typical formulation of the problem looks like this:

Christians believe that God is perfectly good, all powerful, and that He knows everything. If God is perfectly good then He would have the desire to eliminate evil. If God is all powerful then He has the ability to eliminate evil. If God is all knowing then He knows how to eliminate evil. However, evil exists, therefore either God is not good, not all powerful, not all knowing, a combination of those, or is non-existent all together.

This is a powerful argument because it is undeniable for the Christian that there is evil in this world and if God lacks any of the attributes mentioned above then the Christian God does not exist and Christianity is false. The critics who use this argument against us are correct that we believe in each of the points (premises) mentioned. We believe that God is all powerful, all knowing, and all good. We also agree that evil exists in this world.

Different Aspects to the Problem of Evil

There are a few distinct aspects of the problem that need to be distinguished from each other because they each focus the problem in a slightly different way. They are:

1) The moral problem of evil: Evil resulting from the choices (actions & inactions) of human beings.

2) The natural problem of evil: Evil resulting from natural processes such as tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis etc.

3) The deductive form of the problem: The argument that the Christian God is logically inconsistent with the world that actually exists. This is the form I gave above.

4) The inductive form of the problem: The argument that the existence of evil makes the existence of God highly improbable (they admit it is possible for both the Christian God and evil to exist together but argue that it is highly unlikely).

A Few Thoughts Before We Begin

Before I move on to giving an introduction to the Christian responses to this problem I would like to take a moment to point out something that does not often get mentioned with regard to this particular criticism of Christianity. Namely that critic often relies upon ideas imported from Christianity in order to make the argument. If the problem of evil proved what critics claim that it does then the only two alternatives would be either some other understanding of God that avoids making the claims that Christians make regarding Him or a non-theistic view such as atheistic materialism.

In my experience this argument is most often used against Christians by atheists in an attempt to argue for the non-existence of God. The problem is that atheists are relying upon a code of morality that is quite often borrowed from the Judeo-Christian tradition in order to show that evil exists. We (Christians) admit that evil exists and it is easy for us to do so because in the Christian system things are defined as good or evil based upon their relationship to the law of God and His nature as revealed in the bible. It is entirely consistent with our beliefs to make value judgments because we have a qualitative standard against which we can compare all thoughts and actions. Atheists, however, cannot appeal to any universal moral code in order to support their assertion that evil exists in this world.

Who decides what is good and evil if there is no God? It is a bit disingenuous for an atheist to point to an action such as murder and claim that such an action is evil without first demonstrating how such a judgment can be made based upon their principals. After all, if there is nothing beyond the physical world the only way we have to learn what is true or false is by observing the physical world. While that kind of observation can help us to understand what is the case it cannot help us to understand what should be the case. No observation of the physical world can provide a universal moral standard of any kind. Some atheists try to argue that there is a type of moral code inherent in humanity but even if that were true, by their view, it would have to be the product of evolution and therefore could not be universal. It is very difficult for atheists to prove based upon their own views how any particular action could be considered good or evil in a universal way.

I point this out because there are many people who claim to have rejected the Christian God as a result of all the evil present in the world. Having rejected God, however, they often retain a sense of morality that is actually rooted in the very God that they have rejected. If they think carefully about this they will find that many of the moral distinctions that they make are meaningless if, in fact, God does not exist. They have not only the problem of evil to deal with but also the problem of good.

Of course there are other critics who, while not atheists, still reject the Christian understanding of God based upon this argument. They must either hold to a view that God is limited in either power, goodness, or knowledge or that evil does not actually exist. There are those who hold to all of those views each of which has its own problems.

Of course, none of this gets the Christians off the hook because the argument points to a potential inconsistency within the Christian system so it isn’t necessary that the critic has a satisfactory answer to the problem in their own system. The burden is on the Christian to show how such a state of affairs does not lead to a logically inconsistent (and therefore impossible) faith. We will begin looking at how Christians respond to this problem in the next posting on this topic.


  1. I appreciate the article and look forward to part 2 or 3? I wonder though, is the burden of proof exclusively on the Christian to give a satisfactory answer to the problem of evil and the existence of God? I don't want this to detract from the rest of the article but I'm beginning to think differently about Apologetics.

  2. It all depends. The burden of proof rests upon the party making a claim. The more certain the claim the stronger the burden. So, for examle, materialists claim that there is no God. It is therefore their burden to prove that case. In debate it is not proper for them to require that a Christian prove that God exists simply because they assert that He does not.

    In this case, Christians assert that a God exists with particular attributes. We are the ones making that claim so non-Christians are within the rules of philosophical discourse to require us to demonstrate the reasonableness of that claim. Of course, different presuppositions will result in a different interpretation of the evidence but it is our claim and we therefore have the burden of proof.

  3. Thanks for the reply.

    When I said I was thinking differently on apologetics, I meant that Bible only argues from one perspective. That is, it assumes the existence of God. It doesn't begin from the cosmological or any other paradigm.

    Also, after listening to Dr. Nash's lectures on the History of Philosophy I thought, why bother with a system of apologetics? If you want to know someone's world view just study philosophy.

  4. simply studying philosophy might be valuable except for the fact that most people are rather inconsistent. In the same way that many people claim to be Christians and know very little about Christianity you will find that many people have an a la carte worldview. They pick up individual ideas that they like from all sorts of different places without ever really considering how they do or do not fit together. Sometimes it is just easier to ask them what they think.

    Also, I often find that the real barriers to faith in people are emotional rather than intellectual. The intellectual arguments are rationalizations for emotional issues. Often people are hurt or bitter about some experience in their lives or the life of someone close to them. They then develop reasons to justify their view of those experiences.

    You are right though... the bible simply asserts the existence of God. It is assumed.