Monday, December 20, 2010

Can a Good God exist? An Atheist and a Christian Debate the Problem of Evil

This piece serves to begin a dialog with a fellow blogger concerning the question: does the existence of evil disprove the existence of God traditionally defined in the West as all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good? As the atheist I will be arguing that it does, or at least that it makes the existence of such a God so implausible that it is irrational to believe such a thing. My fellow blogger as the Christian theist will offer his solutions to the problem of evil (theodicies) to demonstrate not only that this God could exist but that it is rational to believe that he does. Each of us will be posting on our own blogs so that after reading this piece one would need then go to his blog ( to read his response then back to mine and so on. As each response gets written I will add the links to my pages to make it easier to get back and forth. For my part I will likely only be responding to this dialog once or twice a month due to the amount of time that needs to be put into such an important topic and of course due to other obligations in my life and work.

As we begin I seek simply to lay out what the problem of evil is and then allow my dialog partner to offer his responses and we will see where it goes from there.

I believe the problem of evil truly is the strongest proof against the existence of the traditional concept of God and it was the number one reason that led me after years of struggle to reject my Christian faith. Dr. James F. Sennett a Christian philosophy professor has said, “By far the most important objection to the faith is the so-called problem of evil-the alleged incompatibility between the existence or extent of evil in the world and the existence of God. I tell my philosophy of religion students that, if they are Christians and the problem of evil does not keep them up at night, then they don’t understand it.” I agree and I can tell you I have lost a lot of sleep over this problem.

The problem is fairly easy to lie out. David Hume described it by saying: “Is he (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?” (Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, X) Basically if God is all-good, all-powerful and all-knowing then why the heck is there evil in the world and why is there so much of it? An all-good God would desire to eliminate evil; an all-powerful God would be capable of eliminating evil; and an all-knowing God would know how to make it happen. So the fact that evil exists suggests that there is something wrong (lacking) with God’s goodness, power, knowledge or that he simply does not exist. The last one is by far the simplest answer and thus I would say the most reasonable.

Now the problem of evil can be separated into two parts the logical (deductive) problem of evil and the evidential (inductive) problem of evil. I will look at each separately to show how both make belief in this God unreasonable though I will focus more on the evidential problem. One must also understand that there are different categories of evil. There is moral evil resulting from the choices of moral agents (people) such as rape, murder, bombings, molestation and so on. There is natural evil, which is suffering resulting from natural physical phenomena such as earthquakes, hurricanes, blizzards, diseases, birth defects and so on. And there is a non-moral category of evil resulting from unintentional accidents due to human inaction or neglect such as a car accident. All of these categories of evil must be addressed by theists in order to prove there is any rational reason to believe in their God.

The logical problem of evil seeks to demonstrate that there is a logical inconsistency between the existence of evil and the existence of God. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy lays it out as follows;

  1. If God exists, then God is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect.
  2. If God is omnipotent, then God has the power to eliminate all evil.
  3. If God is omniscient, then God knows when evil exists.
  4. If God is morally perfect, then God has the desire to eliminate all evil.
  5. Evil exists.
  6. If evil exists and God exists, then either God doesn't have the power to eliminate all evil, or doesn't know when evil exists, or doesn't have the desire to eliminate all evil.
  7. Therefore, God doesn't exist.
That this argument is valid is perhaps most easily seen by a reductio argument, in which one assumes that the conclusion — (7) — is false, and then shows that the denial of (7), along with premises (1) through (6), leads to a contradiction. Thus if, contrary to (7), God exists, it follows from (1) that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect. This, together with (2), (3), and (4) then entails that God has the power to eliminate all evil, that God knows when evil exists, and that God has the desire to eliminate all evil. But when (5) is conjoined with the reductio assumption that God exists, it then follows via modus ponens from (6) that either God doesn't have the power to eliminate all evil, or doesn't know when evil exists, or doesn't have the desire to eliminate all evil. Thus we have a contradiction, and so premises (1) through (6) do validly imply (7). (link)

The argument is that simple. It should also be noted that the amount of evil in the world is not relevant to the logical problem of evil because the argument is that the existence of God is logically incompatible with the existence of any evil at all. Now this basic outline can be combated by theists and there are different versions offered by atheists but this simple version gives a good starting point for discussing the logical problem of evil.

Now while the logical problem of evil did cause me a lot of headaches as a believer it was never a deal breaker because even though I never found a suitable theistic response to the logical problem of evil I was not willing to reject my personal relationship with God for what at times felt like a word game being played by philosophers. As an atheist I think the ultimate weakness of the logical problem of evil is that while it has a way of engaging people’s minds it doesn’t seem to shake their hearts because it keeps the problem of evil abstract and thus very impersonal. It allows those discussing evil to keep it at an arm's length and avoid the true horrors of moral and natural evil and as such I think it is easier for theists to simply dismiss it. Where the real weight of the problem of evil can be felt is in the evidential problem of evil. It is the evidential problem of evil that made me toss and turn in my bed and ultimately walk away from God. The evidential problem of evil is the problem that I just don’t see any theistic answer to, the best they can do is side-step the issue or simply throw up their hands and say “I don’t know but I still believe.”

The evidential problem of evil moves away from the logical problem of evil, which was questioning God’s existence due to the existence of any evil in the world to now questioning God’s existence given the existence of so much evil in the world? So even if we grant that it is logically possible for both God and evil to exist the sheer amount of evil in the world serves as evidence against the rationality of such a belief. The question theists must now answer is not how God could let any evil exist but how could God let such a great amount of evil exist? Richard Swinburne, an important Christian theologian notes the danger of the evidential problem of evil saying it is, “the crux of the problem of evil…It is not the fact of evil or the kinds of evil which are a threat to theism; it is the quantity of evil—both the number of people (and animals) who suffer and the amount which they suffer.” So when dealing with the evidential problem of evil it’s not enough for theists to offer good reasons for how some evil can exist in the world rather they must demonstrate that there are good reasons for all the evil that exists in the world both past and present. No evil can be left unaccounted for because if any suffering can be shown to be superfluous or unnecessary then the all-good God himself becomes superfluous and unnecessary. And I believe the vast amount of evil plaguing the world both currently and historically makes it fairly clear that meaningless and gratuitous evil exists and thus God does not.

William L. Rowe lays out the evidential problem clearly. Rowe says (1) There exist instances of intense suffering which an omnipotent, omniscient being could have prevented without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse. (2) An omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good being would prevent the occurrence of any intense suffering it could, unless it could not do so without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse. (3) Therefore there does not exist an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good being.

Now a theist can claim that no one can prove proposition number 1 with absolute certainty, which states pointless suffering exists and while that may be technically true one can easily demonstrate that there are rational grounds for believing that such meaningless evil exists. I would go further and say not only is it rational to believe meaningless evil exists, it is quite irrational to deny it. So if this first proposition is true taken with the second proposition you are led to the simple conclusion that God does not exist. All one has to due to assert that meaningless evil exists is to assert that there has been at least one earthquake that could have been prevented, one life that could have been spared, one rape that could have been stopped or even one cold that could have not been caught without preventing some greater good or avoiding a greater evil. Theists must deny all those possibilities to protect their beliefs.

Evil (suffering) is real. Histories pages are filled with suffering. Around 75 million people died in Europe during the pandemic called the Black Death which was between 30% – 60% of Europe's population at the time. 300,000 Jews were stripped of their positions and forced out of Spain in 1492 while those who remain were forced to convert to Catholicism. The Great Lisbon earthquake (1755) killed near 100,000 people. By 1860 there were almost 4 million slaves in the United States. 6 million Jews were murdered in the holocaust a quarter of them being children and including all the other people, who weren’t Jewish, at least 11 million people were killed during Hitler’s reign. Conservative estimates of today’s children’s slave trade counts 250 million children enslaved worldwide. Nearly 40,000 people, mostly children, die of starvation every day. Almost 33 million people have AIDS. Timothy McVeigh’s bombing killed 168 people and injured 450 (1995). And 15 people were killed in the Columbine shootings (1999).

And least the impersonal numbers dull one’s feelings a man named Jose Stable slashed the throat of his 12 year old autistic son Ulysses and left him naked in their bathtub. (link)  Sixteen men have been indicted for the use and maintenance of a protected Internet forum about child pornography, which includes thousands of images and videos as well as advice on how to beguile children into participating in sexual activity. (link) Robert Burdick is a 40 year old man who has been convicted of multiple rapes in multiple cases. He was accused of raping at least 12 different women in the last 14 years. (link) So please don’t forget that we are talking about real people not numbers when we are discussing evil and suffering.

Again a theist when presented with these evils must maintain that they all serve some greater purpose, whether producing greater good or preventing greater evils, for to admit to any evil that does not serve a higher purpose is to admit in the existence of meaningless suffering an idea that is completely at odds with Christian theism. One must believe that Jose Stable’s son Ulysses could not have been spared or that there could not have been even one less child molested and photographed for that Internet forum or that Robert Burdick could not have raped one less woman without somehow ruining some greater good in the world.

Perhaps the easiest example of pointless evil that no theodicy seems able to address is the existence of animal suffering. What greater good is served by animals suffering? Animals existed millions of years before humans and were hunting and killing one another long before we showed up due to the fact that some of them desired the flesh of other animals to eat. Why didn’t God just make all animals herbivores? What purpose does a carnivore have in expanding goodness or preventing greater evil in the world?

So that is the problem of evil and I lay it out there so as to begin a dialog with a fellow thinker who maintains the rationality of belief in the existence of God. I look forward to hearing his thoughts and hope others will take the time to see where this conversation might take us. And no matter what side one ends up on let’s keep in mind what we have in common, which is the problem itself. Both sides see evil and suffering as a real problem because we both understand and share the belief that all people genuinely matter in and of themselves and suffering should be limited as much as humanly possible.

Click here for the Charger's response


  1. Great post! I'll be working on my response, it may take me a several days.

  2. Trust me no rush. As I said I'll probably only get to this dialog once or twice a month due to other things in life. But I am looking forward to talking with you.

  3. I posted my response. You may have to update your link so that people will go to my post. Looking forward to reading your next post.

  4. Mr. Atheist,

    In the logical argument that you supplied in your post (under paragraph six), point number four (stated: "If God is morally perfect, then God has the desire to eliminate all evil") is slightly faulty, hence, the entire conclusion is also slightly faulty. You see, the argument assumes that God, being morally perfect, has the desire to eliminate all evil immediately! You must understand that if God is who He says He is, then He also has a will that He can exercise. And He is capable of exercising good moral qualities such as mercy, for instance. And if He should so choose to exercise His will by being merciful to others for a time and not eliminate evil completely (for in eliminating evil, He must eliminate all humankind, because all humankind is evil), then He will eliminate evil after giving evil humankind a chance to be forgiven.

    More to follow,
    De Mentor