The Argument From Evil
It used to be that from time to time, report of an atrocity would appear in the media, and the world would mourn the passing of innocent people. The cry from the secularist inevitably came; ‘If there is a God, then why doesn't he stop all this pain? If he is God then he must be good, and all powerful. But he doesn’t stop this and so he is either not good or not powerful, therefore he is not God.' Sometimes the question is put more subjectively as such: ‘Why do bad things happen to good people?'
Moral outrage at atrocity is still the case, with one major difference–the atrocities are not so infrequent. In fact, with increased frequency, we hear report of the most iniquitous of crimes being inflicted against the innocent. As man's propensity towards violence increases, more people buy into the argument that the presence of such evil in the world disproves the existence of God. But is it true? Is it logically sound? And how should a christian respond to it? After all, it sounds perfectly logical and convincing, and also very difficult to refute.
But is it? My contention is this: the so-called 'Argument from Evil' is actually one of the easiest to refute, and if followed to its logical conclusion–which an atheist must to be consistent–actually presents one of the most compelling evidential bases for the existence of God. But where do we start?
When faced with someone who wants to argue, the first step is to examine their assumptions. Very often, conclusions that are logically correct are actually based on false premises and therefore also false. So this is where we must begin. Did you notice the assumptions included in the argument above? Let’s note two in particular:
- These atrocities are bad things, or there is such a things as evil that we can all agree on
- The people that suffer are good people
Bad things and good people by whose standard?
For something to be declared to be ‘bad’ or a person to be ‘good’ we need to have an objective standard of both bad and good. This is no problem if you believe in the existence of God, the Divine law-giver–we have a standard we can compare to. He has presented it in His Word the Bible, and demonstrated it in His Son Jesus Christ, but if you are an atheist, this is a serious problem. If there is no God, then you have nowhere to go for an objective standard. So something that an atheist describes as bad, according to their own dogma, cannot by definition be defined as objectively bad. It is merely their opinion. So when they are upset at a group of children gunned down in a school, they have no objective basis by which to say it is bad or wrong. All they can say is that in their opinion it is bad. Similarly, when they pronounce the victims, as good, or innocent, they are merely expressing their opinion. In an atheistic society there is no such thing as a good person. There are just people. They have no right to feel outrage at a massacre. What happens is just the end result of chemical reactions in a mind that has no purpose. So says the atheist.
There are those who will say, 'surely we can take our objective standard from government?'–but people disagree all the time about what a government should be and do, so we can hardly call this objective. Some say, 'we have the statute book.’ But again, legislation differs from country to country, so we can definitively state that this is not objective. Others, such as Sam Harris, say, society itself, or culture is objective. But cultures disagree. What we are looking for is a standard that is universal–something that is binding on all people, at all times, in all places. The christian apologist Ravi Zacaharias tells a story in his book ‘Can Man Live Without God’ about a debate between philosopher Frederick Copleston and the atheist Bertrand Russell, that illustrates this principle perfectly:
"At one point in the debate, Copleston said, “Mr. Russell, you do believe in good and bad, don’t you?” Russell answered, “Yes, I do.” “How do you differentiate between them?” challenged Copleston. Russell shrugged his shoulders as he was wont to do in philosophical dead ends for him and said, “The same way I differentiate between yellow and blue.” Copleston graciously responded and said, “But Mr. Russell, you differentiate between yellow and blue by seeing, don’t you? How do you differentiate between good and bad?” Russell, with all of his genius still within reach, gave the most vapid answer he could have given: “On the basis of feeling – what else?” I must confess, Mr. Copleston was a kindlier gentleman than many others. The appropriate ‘logical kill’ for the moment would have been, “Mr. Russell, in some cultures they love their neighbors; in other cultures they eat them, both on the basis of feeling. Do you have any preference?”
It might feel like a difficult argument to rebut–suffering is often personal and a christian should be careful as to how they handle people's experiences–but in reality it is one of the easiest. For anything to be defined as suffering, an objective standard must exist. If God doesn’t exist suffering is merely a collection of random events of history that we don’t like. So when an atheist declares something as objectively evil, they are either admitting that there is a God, or appealing to another standard that isn’t objective, and therefore what they have said–that what has happened is wrong–can't be true. Conversely, they are also claiming that there is a standard of behaviour that is objectively right, and that every human has a duty to uphold it.
The argument is sometimes formulated as follows;
- If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist
- Objective moral values and duties do exist
- Therefore, God exists
Does God Allow Suffering?
The only question left that we can logically ask is, why does God allow suffering? If we conclude that suffering only exists if God exists, then why does He allow it? What does He think about it? The short answer is that He doesn’t allow it in any active sense, because suffering is caused by sin, and sin is the imposition of human will against God’s will. God created humans as free moral agents, and therefore with the capacity to choose what is right, but also to choose what is wrong–sin. Due to the corruptness of our nature we consistently choose what is wrong over that which is right, and the inevitable outcome is suffering. God permits sin, but He does not purpose it.
But rather than ask why does God allow it, the better question is, what has God done about it? The Bible is unmistakably clear: 'God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them' (2 Co. 5:19 NKJV); and 'for Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God' (1Pe. 3:18 NKJV). From this we learn that Christ has suffered for all our sins, so that we might be brought back to God, but also, when Christ suffered, God suffered, for He was in Christ, for Christ is God. God entered the human race in the person of Jesus Christ and suffered like no other has ever suffered. God knows all about suffering.