The Presence of Evil in the World Does Not Make the Case for Atheism
Atheists often point to the wicked things in this world (starvation of children, rape of women, etc) as evidence that God is not real. After all, if an all powerful God existed, why wouldn't he stop those things?
Few atheists realize it but they are repeating a very old argument. It was originally crafted by philosophers in ancient Greece but was resurrected and articulated for the post-Enlightenment world by 18th century philosopher David Hume. He argued the following philosophical argument:
1-If an all powerful and good God existed, he could and would stop evil.
2- Evil exists.
3- Therefore, either God is not good, or he is not powerful but a good and all powerful God is disproved by the presence of evil in the universe.
And once Hume had crafted this argument, it held held a lot of weight in academic circles for almost 200 years. Various academics referenced the argument, built on the argument, and viewed the argument as a bullet proof argument against any sort of serious belief in God.
But.... interesting thing... no one argues this anymore in academic papers.
In fact there has not been a major scholarly work published in the past 30 years that made the argument against God based on the existence of evil.
What happened? Why is this argument that has been around for centuries been abandoned by academics?
The answer is that philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga pointed to a very simple flaw in the argument. If on the final statement, you add the phrase, "Unless a good and all powerful God had a good reason to allow evil," the whole thing falls apart.
Boom. Done. Logic collapses.
If a good and all powerful God has a good reason for allowing evil then Hume's argument ceases to hold any sway.
Now, you may be asking the question, 'What possible reason could God have for allowing babies to starve or women to be raped?' And that is a good question that I will attempt to answer shortly but just to explain why academic philosophers do not use the argument anymore, the answer does not matter to the logic of Hume's argument. It would be enough to say, "No idea." It may be that we don't understand why a good God would allow evil. It may be that we doubt there could be a good reason. Hume's argument (oft repeated by modern atheists) has been exposed as lacking.
But let us look at this question. Why would God allow evil?
While this question has been wrestled with by Christian and non-Christian alike for the whole of human history, it is unlikely that I can provide an answer that will make anyone completely satisfied but let me touch on a few things that have been helpful for me.
Evil as an enabler of virtues
In a world where everything is safe and no real danger or trouble can come, you get no real heroes. No real adventures. No real tests. No real sacrificial love. No real overcoming of obstacles. No real victories. In short, the world would lack many beautiful and wonderful things.
An interesting book that illustrates this point well is A Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. In that book, the world has - thanks to a combination of social engineering and drugs - successfully removed all pain and struggle. Everyone is at peace and everyone is happy. But this perfectly happy world is shown not to be a paradise but a nightmare. "John," (aka 'the Savage') is a man raised outside this supposed utopia. He is brought into the society and sees how terrible it is that no one has any real challenges, pains, or struggles.
Unhappy with all the happiness he protests being in this society. Here is a passage:
"But I don't want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin."
"In fact," said Mustapha Mond, "you're claiming the right to be unhappy."
"All right then," said the Savage defiantly, "I'm claiming the right to be unhappy."
"Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen to-morrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind."
There was a long silence."I claim them all," said the Savage at last.
The Savage saw that this artificial paradise was a nightmare. That there is something lacking when trouble is lacking.
If we consider God to be good and all powerful, perhaps he saw that creating a world where we all lived in padded, protected, and untroubled bubbles would not really be the best of all worlds. Perhaps he saw that the best world would be one where choices matter. Where heroism matters. Where doing right or doing wrong matters.
Evil as a tool for improvement
"No pain, no gain." With that phrase, most of us recognize that difficulties such as hard work, persistence, and overcoming obstacles are important for our own improvement. If a parent built a world for their child where they never had to work through anything and never had to overcome any obstacle, most people would say that parent - far from doing good - was hurting his child. Most of us can remember back on our own lives and see the trials and difficulties we went through that in the end helped us. When that friend slighted us, we learned not to do that to other people. When we failed that test, we learned to prepare better in the future. When we were cut from the football team, we realized that there is more to life than sports. When we got dumped by that girl, we learned that hearts do recover. I could go on all day. Even people that have suffered true evil sometimes point to that as a good thing in retrospect. I know people that have gone through the terrors and pains of cancer and have said that they became better people as a result.
I personally almost died from a sickness once (it was terrible and painful and awful and doctors literally were not sure if I would make it) - I would not wish my experience on anyone. But if you offered me a time machine where I could go back and remove that experience from my life, I would not do it. In those moments where I feared for my life, I learned things. I learned about the importance of God. Of family. And of the meaninglessness of so many other things. It almost killed me but it also helped me. It is part of who I am and I am now grateful it happened.
But....you might respond, what about if I had died? It is all well and fine to say that I learned from something now that I am better but what about those that do not get better? What about the millions that died in the holocaust? What about those that starve to death every day? They do not have the benefit of growing and learning from their horrible experiences.
And this would be a good critique if there is no postmortem experience. If death is the end of humanity and we cease to exist the moment we close our eyes in death, then some evils would not be learning experiences but would instead be bad things plain and simple. But the scriptures have always said that this is not the case. The prophet Daniel says, in chapter 12, that both the wicked and the righteous will be raised from the dead. Death, in other words, is temporary. And while the pain endures for a moment, in the end, every tear shall be dried. If this is true, there is no reason to believe that death - like all other evils - cannot teach us something or make us better in any way.The holocaust, for all its horror, did wake the world up to the evils of eugenics, genocides, and scientific racism. Even this prototypical example of evil, in other words, clearly helped humanity get better.
'So are you saying evil is good?'
One response to everything that I have written here is, 'are you claiming evil is not really evil but good?' No. Death is a real enemy. Evil is truly bad. God allows evil but he is not the author of confusion (1 Cor 14:33). The best illustration of this is that of an author to his work. I love Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, so let's use that. Tolkien, like all good authors, wrote in darkness and evil to his story. He did it for a number of reasons (to make the story more interesting, to develop his characters, etc). But Tolkien did not like the evil in his story. He wrote about murder and betrayal not because he was murderous or traitorous but with those other goals in mind. And in the end, he made sure that those dark things were overcome by good in the end. The same is true with God. He allows evil for a purpose while simultaneously hating it, planning for it to lose, and in the end effecting its loss (with Jesus and the cross as the source and center of that plan). Far from being good, evil is so bad that God sacrificially stepped into his story to defeat it.
How Can Any Good Justify the Evil Done?
So, according to the promise of the scriptures, evil will lose in the end. The Bible culminates and concludes with a glorious vision of the end. The dead are raised. Evil is banished. And those who are oppressed are restored, renewed, and healed. Revelation 21:4 says that in that day, "He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’[a] or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
But you might ask, how can any restoration at the end justify or make up for the terrible things that happen now. You could go through a list of the horrors of rape, abuse, starvation, torture and murder and say, "however wonderful the last day might be, how can these things ever be justified or made right?"
Fyodor Dostoevsky in his novel, Brothers Karamozov put the problem this way:
"Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature—that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance—and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth."
In other words, isn't the horror of a tortured baby something that no amount of joy at the end could make worth doing? The rhetorical answer appears to be no.
And I would agree that the challenge is a hard one for us to understand. But I am convinced that perhaps this is just our limited vision that gives us this conclusion. I love the CS Lewis quote that answers this challenge:
“They say of some temporal suffering, "No future bliss can make up for it," not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory. And of some sinful pleasure they say "Let me have but this and I'll take the consequences": little dreaming how damnation will spread back and back into their past and contaminate the pleasure of the sin.”
Isn't this what we said of cancer and injury and sickness? Isn't this what I personally experienced as I lay thinking that I would die? Don't we have experiences all the time that we would not wish upon an enemy but later decide that we are glad they happened? It is. We cannot see it as we are going through it. But we see it in reverse. We don't understand why some of the terrible terrible things happen, but we can trust that somehow God will take them and build them into the future bliss.
Dostoevsky beautifully answers his own objection with this response:
“I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage, like the despicable fabrication of the impotent and infinitely small Euclidean mind of man, that in the world's finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, for all the blood that they've shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened.”
Somehow God will make it right.
Evil as the case against atheism
A final thing to consider is that the problem of evil is a bigger problem for atheism than it is for Christianity. The concept of true evil is only possible if you believe in something outside of humanity. For evil to truly exist, it means that killing, murder, torture and rape must be fundamentally bad things. They cannot be things that simply exist as social constructs. But with atheism, evil is not really evil. It is a social construct that depends on how we feel about it. Again quoting CS Lewis,
"My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of “just” and unjust”?…What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?…Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too—for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my private fancies…. Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple."
But there is another aspect to atheism that I think should struggle with the existence of evil. It is the lack of hopelessness in atheism. When we see evil, what can we say of it? With atheism, we can say nothing. We can try to fight it but in the end we lose. Everyone dies. Starvation continues. War continues. We all end up suffering. No one gets out of here alive. Death wins.
But the Christian has no such hopeless condition. We can say in the face of evil that in the end life triumphs. In the end, good beats evil. We say to the mother with the child dying of cancer, "Your child is in God's hands. You will see him again. Death is not the end. We don't know the purpose but we do know there is one. Be at peace and draw near to God who guides all things"
Evil is terrible. Death is horrible. But far from making the case for atheism, these things make the case against atheism and ultimately point our hearts and hopes to the one that can finally a fully deal with evil.