It was an objection raised by Epicurus roughly 2400 years ago and it is one that continues to be posed today. It is the perennial objection of the problem of evil. In this entry, we briefly look at the problem and the theistic response to it that seeks to reject any incompatibility of God existing with there being evil and suffering in the world.
Human beings are aware of evil and suffering that permeates the world. Most would likely give evil an objective ontological status in that evil acts, like rape or infanticide, are not merely evil because of our subjective human preferences but are evil because evil (and good) is an objective feature of the universe. It is also important to distinguish between two kinds of evil: moral evil and natural evil. The former is evil perpetrated by one person or a group of people against another person or group. The genocide of the Tutsi in 1990s Rwanda is a moral evil because human beings decided to pick up arms and slaughter other people over cultural and ideological differences. Rape is also a moral evil because it involves human decisions and actions. Another kind of evil is natural evil. This form of evil does not necessarily involve human action but is the work of nature that results in the suffering and death of human beings who get caught in the way; for example, one atheist writer brings up the many natural evils of volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, tornados, droughts, fires, famines, monsoons, blizzards, hurricanes, heatwaves, poisonous wildlife, dangerous plants, and chronic diseases that suggest there is no God behind the scenes (1). There is no God, argues the atheist, who brought human beings into existence and there is no God who cares to look out for them either. There is no way a God can exist when there is so much unbridled evil in the world. The problem of natural evil deserves its own separate entry in the theism-atheism debate, but in its logical form, the problem claims that it is logically impossible for God and evil to co-exist: If God exists, then evil cannot exist, and if evil exists, God cannot exist. Since evil exists, it follows that God does not exist. Usually, the God under the skeptic’s microscope here is the God of traditional theism who is said to be all-good, all-power, and all-loving. How could one believe that such a God exists when he sees all the evil and suffering in the world? One can represent this argument in its logical form as follows:
P1: It’s logically impossible for God and suffering to both exist
P2: Suffering exists
P3: Therefore, God does not exist.
This is a valid argument with a conclusion in P3 that must follow necessarily if P1 and P2 can be established. If these two premises can be affirmed then the atheist’s contention that God does not exist is true follows necessarily. It is helpful to present the argument this way so that its logic is clear and we can see how theists have attempted to respond to it.
Theists have spilled much ink trying to come to terms with their conception of God and the presence of evil and suffering in the world. Theists, normally wanting to remain theists, have also attempted to defend their God against objections from evil and suffering. Indeed few theists would deny that it is an objection demanding to be taken seriously. Not only is evil and suffering something human beings really experience in the world, but its presence also threatens the legitimacy of belief in God. The stakes are therefore high.
In light of the argument presented above, theists will not reject P2. They agree that evil and suffering exists. Theists will, however, object to P1, thus undercutting the argument at the base. The theist will point to P1 and demand that the atheist provides proof that God and evil-suffering cannot both exist. He maintains that without the atheist providing justification for P1, it must be seen as an assumption on the atheist’s behalf.
Further, the theist will contend that this assumption is an unjustified one on several grounds. First, it is not obvious at all that an all-good, all-power, and all-loving God would not allow for there to be evil and suffering. There might even be reasons for God’s allowing it; for example, philosopher and theologian William Lane Craig contends that “so long as it is even possible that God has morally sufficient reasons for permitting evil, it follows that God and evil are logically consistent” (2). As long as this, namely that God could have morally sufficient reasons for allowing evil to exist, is logically consistent then it cannot be assumed that God and evil are incompatible.
A second reason to bring P1 into question is that its demands on knowledge are just too great. Human beings, by way of their finite perspective, are not in a good position to assess the probability of whether God has morally sufficient reasons for the evils that occur. People are limited in various ways, such as in their intelligence, insight, and in space and time. On a theistic conception of an all-powerful God who brought the universe into existence, God must be transcendent and sovereign, and therefore able to see the end from the beginning. Such a God would no doubt have a broader perspective so that evils which appear pointless to human beings in their limited framework may be seen to have been justly permitted within God’s wider framework. Craig uses the analogy of Chaos Theory to elaborate on this point,
“[S]cientists have discovered that certain macroscopic systems, for example, weather systems or insect populations, are extraordinarily sensitive to the tiniest perturbations. A butterfly fluttering on a branch in West Africa may set in motion forces which would eventually issue in a hurricane over the Atlantic Ocean. Yet it is impossible in principle for anyone observing that butterfly palpitating on a branch to predict such an outcome. The brutal murder of an innocent man or a child’s dying of leukemia could produce a sort of ripple effect through history such that God’s morally sufficient reason for permitting it might not emerge until centuries later and perhaps in another land. When you think of God’s providence over the whole of history, I think you can see how hopeless it is for limited observers to speculate on the probability that God could have a morally sufficient reason for permitting a certain evil. We’re just not in a good position to assess such probabilities” (3).
On this view, God permitting a child’s death from leukemia or the murder of an innocent civilian could have a ripple effect through history underpinned by God having morally sufficient reason for allowing it that might not emerge until centuries later or maybe in another country. If this, the theist argues is remotely possible and not contradictory, then it does not follow that there is an incompatibility between God existing and there being evil and suffering in the world.
- Rauser, Randal., and Loftus, John. 2013. God or Godless? Baker. p. 151.
- Craig, William Lane. n.d. The Problem of Evil. Available.
- Craig, William Lane. n.d. Ibid.