The question of how evil and suffering can exist when there is an all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing God is one that has plagued theists for centuries (if not millenia). Even the Greek philosopher Epicurus questioned how a deity that is concerned for the welfare of humans could possibly stand by and watch the suffering that goes on.
I remember one time when I was in a group where a couple of my friends were playing skeptic and raising the problem of evil while everyone else tried to respond. One of the first people to speak raised an argument that is, unfortunately, over-used in Christian apologetics. To summarize the conversation, the “skeptics” asked how God could allow for a little girl to undergo terrible suffering (their argument was much better developed than I can take the time to describe here). The well-intentioned Christian used the all-to-common tactic of not answering the skeptics’ question, but instead the would-be-defender of the faith went straight into attacking atheism itself by claiming that since atheism has no moral foundation (a fair claim) that the skeptic has no right to accuse God of acting wrongly by not preventing suffering. It was clear that my friend had some training in apologetics. The problem is that they were trained in a flawed but common tactic that is used far too often.
The purpose of this article is not to decisively answer the question of evil because it is an incredibly complex issue which is why I am giving it its own category (if you are looking for a solution, I am currently reading God, Freedom, and Evil by Dr. Alvin Plantinga and he deals with the issue masterfully). Instead, the purpose of this article is to respond to a trend that is circulating in Christian apologetics in how Christians answer skeptics who raise the problem of evil.
Suppose that a skeptic asks how you can possibly believe in a good, all-powerful, all-knowing God while there is all of this suffering going on. The clear implication is that since there is evil, such a God cannot exist because such a God would know of the evil, have the power to fix it, and have the desire to do so since He is good. The proper way to reply to such an accusation is to thoroughly break the skeptic’s accusation down into individual propositions and proceed to analyze the soundness of the skeptic’s argument (there are several common errors that are typically made in the logic of the skeptic, but I will save those for future articles). Such a method is far from easy, and requires familiarity with logic and ethics.
As an alternative to the rigorous personal study and training that would be required for the previously mentioned approach to the problem of evil, several well intentioned authors and organizations have given Christians a simpler alternative. Rather than examining the problem of evil itself, many Christians have been told to go straight on the attack against atheism. The argument goes something like this:
– Making moral judgments (calling someone “good” or “bad”) requires a moral foundation
– Atheism has no foundation for morality
Therefore Atheists have no logical foundation from which they can say God is wrong for allowing evil and suffering
This argument is perfectly acceptable if a skeptic ever says that it is wrong for God to do or allow something. That is because in an atheist’s worldview, ethics become opinion. If atheism is true, then asking whether something is right or wrong is no different from debating which flavor of ice cream is the best flavor. So if an atheist says God is acting wrongly, it is perfectly fair to ask them why they say that and watch them get flustered when they realize that by their own standards they cannot condemn God for wrong-doing.
Unfortunately this argument is very limited in its application. It only works when the skeptic condemns God by the skeptic’s own moral opinions. The problem for this argument arises when the atheist raises the problem of evil (asking how a loving, omnipotent, omniscient, good God could permit suffering). If the skeptic does this, they are not just using their opinion to condemn God, but they are raising an apparent contradiction that the Christian needs to answer. There is a difference between saying 1. “I condemn God for doing/not-doing a given thing” and 2. “It is logically impossible for a good and loving God to permit evil and suffering when He knows about it and has the ability to stop it.”
If the skeptic uses argument 1, then the Christian has every right to ask why the skeptic condemns God. However, if the skeptic raises argument 2 then the game completely changes. In argument 2, the skeptic has argued that there is a contradiction in Christianity. The skeptic would be claiming that the Christian God who is supposed to be a good God does not meet His own standards of goodness. If the Christian does not answer this contradiction and instead only accuses the atheist of not having a moral basis from which to judge God, then the Christian has completely missed the skeptic’s point and there will be nothing but confusion and frustration in the conversation. The skeptic will be making an argument that deserves an answer, and the Christian will just ignore it and commit logical fallacy after logical fallacy in the process of attempting to use the only argument that they have really been trained in.
The solution to this is for Christians to understand that there is a difference between saying “I think it would be wrong if God does/allows such and such a thing” and raising the problem of evil (which is a completely different argument). Whenever a skeptic raises the problem of evil, several things must usually happen. First, there usually needs to be a consensus about what kind of God is being discussed and what it means to be good, loving, omnipotent, and omniscient. From there, the skeptic must be asked why exactly such a God is not compatible with the existence of evil. At that point there are various theories which may be raised about why God would allow evil (the most common are arguments from free will). A valid response would also be, “I don’t know why God allows suffering, but why does it logically, necessarily follow that a good, omniscient, omnipotent, loving God cannot allow evil.” At that point the skeptic will usually realize that his answer is not strictly logical, but requires his own intuitions which may then be dealt with.
The problem of evil is, in the author’s opinion, the greatest challenge to Christianity. It is not a simple question to answer, and it is a grave mistake to try to create canned responses that are easily accessible for Christians to use when the response completely dodges the argument without properly answering the skeptic. There are times when it is fitting to attack the metaethical foundations of naturalistic worldviews, but aspiring apologists must recognize that such a tactic should be used sparingly since it can quickly lead to the skeptic becoming defensive and frustrated. Attacking atheism is not a magic bullet for every objection that can be raised against Christianity (contrary to what some would tell you). There are arguments against Christianity that ought to be given enough respect to be thoroughly and authentically refuted. This requires time, effort, and training, but the alternative is setting oneself up for failure when encountered with the problem of evil because of over-reliance on the very limited tactic of attacking the philosophical foundations of opposing worldviews.
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