The Problem of Evil (Part 1) By Dr. Greg Bahnsen

We want to turn now to examine some of the recurring and most basic kinds of objections which are raised against the Christian faith by those who disagree with the Biblical worldview — whether its intellectual antagonists, cultured despisers, or competing religions. Our aim will be to suggest how a presuppositional method of apologetics would answer these types of argument against Christianity (or alternatives to it) as a philosophy of life, knowledge and reality.

Perhaps the most intense, pained and persistent challenge which believers hear about the truth of the Christian message comes in the form of what is called “the problem of evil.” The suffering and evil which we see all about us seems to cry out against the existence of God — at least a God who is both benevolent and almighty. This is thought by many to be the most difficult of all the problems which apologists face, not only because of the apparent logical difficulty within the Christian outlook, but because of the personal perplexity which any sensitive human being will feel when confronted with the terrible misery and wickedness that can be found in the world. Man’s inhumanity to man is notorious in every age of history and in every nation of the world. There is a long story of oppression, indignity, unkindness, torture and tyranny. We find war and murder, greed and lust, dishonesty and lies. We encounter fear and hatred, infidelity and cruelty, poverty and racial hostility. Moreover, even in the natural world we come across so much apparently needless suffering and pain — birth defects, parasites, attacks of violent animals, radioactive mutations, debilitating diseases, deadly cancer, starvation, crippling injuries, typhoons, earthquakes, and other natural disasters.

When the unbeliever looks at this unhappy “vale of tears,” he or she feels there is a strong reason to doubt the goodness of God. Why should there be so much misery? Why should it be distributed in such a seemingly unjust fashion? Is this what you would permit, if you were God and could prevent it?

Taking Evil Seriously

It is important for the Christian to recognize — indeed, to insist upon — the reality and serious nature of evil. The subject of evil is not simply an intellectual parlor game, a cavalier matter, a whimsical or relativistic choice of looking a things a certain way. Evil is real. Evil is ugly.

Only when we become emotionally charged and intellectually intense about the existence of evil can we appreciate the depth of the problem unbelievers have with the Christian worldview — but, likewise, realize why the problem of evil ends up confirming the Christian outlook, rather than infirming it. When we talk about evil with unbelievers, it is crucial that both sides “play for keeps.” Evil must be taken seriously “as evil.”

A well known passage from the pen of the Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, readily stirs our emotions and makes us insistent about the wickedness of men, for instance men who are cruel to little children. It is found in his novel, Brothers Karamazov.[1] Ivan makes his complaint to Alyosha:

“People talk sometimes of bestial cruelty, but that’s a great injustice and insult to the beasts; a beast can never be so cruel as a man, so artistically cruel….

I’ve collected a great, great deal about Russian children, Alyosha. There was a little girl of five who was hated by her father and mother…. You see, I must repeat again, it is a peculiar characteristic of many people, this love of torturing children, and children only…. It’s just their defenselessness that tempts the tormentor, just the angelic confidence of the child who has no refuge and no appeal that sets his vile blood on fire….

This poor child of five was subjected to every possible torture by those cultivated parents. They beat her, thrashed her, kicked her for no reason till her body was one bruise. Then, they went to greater refinements of cruelty — shut her up al night in the cold and frost in a privy, and because she didn’t ask to be taken up at night… they smeared her face and filled her mouth with excrement, and it was her mother, her mother did this. And that mother could sleep, hearing the poor child’s groans! Can you understand why a little creature, who can’t even understand what’s done to her, should beat her little aching heart with her tiny fist in the dark and cold, and weep her meek unresentful tears to dear, kind God to protect her?… Do you understand why this infamy must be and is permitted?… Why, the whole world of knowledge is not worth that child’s prayer to ‘dear, kind God’!…

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.”

“No, I wouldn’t consent,” said Alyosha softly.

Incidents and soliloquies such as this could be multiplied over and over again. They elicit moral indignation within us. They also elicit moral indignation within the unbeliever — and that fact must not be disregarded by the apologist.

Once when I was doing a radio call-in show, a caller became very snide about my saying that we should worship and adore God. The caller wanted to know how anybody could adore a God who permitted sexual abuse and mutilation of a baby, such as the caller had witnessed in certain courtroom photographs at the trial of some horrible specimen of humanity. The description was sickening and surely evoked revulsion in everyone who heard it. I knew the caller meant to press his hostility to Christianity upon me hard, but I was actually glad that the caller was so irate. He was taking evil seriously. His condemnation of child abuse was not simply a matter of personal preference to him. For that reason, I realized it would not be difficult to show why the problem of evil is not really a problem for the believer — but rather for the unbeliever. More on this later.

Evil as a Logical Problem

The “problem” of evil has not always been properly understood by Christian apologists. They have sometimes reduced the difficulty of the unbeliever’s challenge to Christianity by conceiving of the problem of evil as simply the angry presentation of evidence contrary to the alleged goodness of God. It is as though believers profess God’s goodness, but then unbelievers have their counterexamples. Who makes the best case from the facts around us? The problem is presented (inaccurately) as a matter of who has weightier evidence on his side of the disagreement.

For instance, we read a popular apologist say this about the problem of evil: ” But in the final analysis, the evidence for the existence of the good (God) is not vitiated by the anomaly of evil.” And why not? “Evil remains a perplexing mystery, but the force of the mystery is not enough to demand that we throw out the positive evidence for God, for the reality of good…. While we cannot explain the existence of evil, that is no reason for us to disregard the positive evidence for God.”[2] This seriously underestimates the nature of the problem of evil. It is not simply a matter of weighing the positive evidence over against the negative evidence for goodness in God’s world or in God’s plan (say, for redemption, etc.). The problem of evil is a much more serious challenge to the Christian faith than that.

The problem of evil amounts to the charge that there is logical incoherence within the Christian outlook — regardless of how much evil there is in the universe, compared to how much goodness can be found. If Christianity is logically incoherent, no amount of positive, factual evidence can save its truth. The internal inconsistency would itself render Christian faith intellectually unacceptable, even granting there might be a great deal of indicators or evidence in our experience for the existence of goodness or for God, otherwise considered.

The 18th century Scottish philosopher, David Hume, expressed the problem of evil in a strong and challenging fashion: “Is [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?”[3] What Hume was arguing is that the Christian cannot logically accept these three premises: God is all-powerful, God is all-good, and nevertheless evil exists in the world. If God is all-powerful, then He must be able to prevent or remove evil, if He wishes. If God is all-good, then certainly He wishes to prevent or remove evil. Yet it is undeniable that evil exists.

George Smith states the problem this way in his book, Atheism: The Case Against God[4]: “Briefly, the problem of evil is this: …If God knows there is evil but cannot prevent it, he is not omnipotent. If God knows there is evil and can prevent it but desires not to, he is not omnibenevolent.” Smith thinks that Christians logically cannot have it both ways: God is completely good, as well as completely powerful.

Therefore, the charge which unbelievers make is that the Christian worldview is incoherent; it adopts premises which are inconsistent with each other, given the evil in this world. The unbeliever argues that, even if he were to accept the premises of Christian theology (regardless of evidence for or against them individually), those premises do not comport with each other. The problem with Christianity is an internal one — a logical defect which even the believer must acknowledge, as long as he realistically admits the presence of evil in the world. This evil, it is thought, is incompatible with either God’s goodness or God’s power.

For Whom is Evil Logically a Problem?

It should be obvious upon reflection that there can be no “problem of evil” to press upon Christian believers unless one can legitimately assert the existence of evil in this world. There is not even apparently a logical problem as long as we have only these two premises to deal with:

1. GOD IS COMPLETELY GOOD.

2. GOD IS COMPLETELY POWERFUL.

These two premises do not in themselves create any contradiction. The problem arises only when we add the premise:

3. EVIL EXISTS (HAPPENS).

Accordingly, it is crucial to the unbeliever’s case against Christianity to be in a position to assert that there is evil in the world — to point to something and have the right to evaluate it as an instance of evil. If it should be the case that nothing evil exists or ever happens — that is, what people initially believe to be evil cannot reasonably be deemed “evil” — then there is nothing inconsistent with Christian theology which requires an answer.

What does the unbeliever mean by “good,” or by what standard does the unbeliever determine what counts as “good” (so that “evil” is accordingly defined or identified)? What are the presuppositions in terms of which the unbeliever makes any moral judgments whatsoever?

Perhaps the unbeliever takes “good” to be whatever evokes public approval. However, on that basis the statement “The vast majority of the community heartily approved of and willingly joined in the evil deed” could never make sense. The fact that a large number of people of feel a certain way does not (or should not rationally) convince anybody that this feeling (about the goodness or evil of something) is correct. Ethics does not reduce to statistics, after all. Ordinarily, people think of the goodness of something as evoking their approval — rather than their approval constituting its goodness! Even unbelievers talk and act as though there are personal traits, actions or things which possess the property of goodness (or evil) irrespective of the attitudes or beliefs or feelings people have about those traits, actions or things.[5]

There are even further problems with taking “good” to be whatever evokes the approval of the individual (rather than public at large). Not only does this too reduce to subjectivism, it absurdly implies that no two individuals can make identical ethical judgments. When Bill says “Helping orphans is good,” he would not be saying the same thing as when Ted says “Helping orphans is good.” Bill’s utterance means “Helping orphans evokes Bill’s approval,” whereas Ted’s would mean “Helping orphans evokes Ted’s approval” — which are altogether different matters. Not only would this view make it impossible for two people to make identical ethical judgments, it would likewise (absurdly) imply that a person’s own ethical judgments could never be mistaken, unless he happened to misunderstand his own feelings![6]

The unbeliever might turn, then, to an instrumental or consequential understanding of what constitutes objective goodness (or evil). For instance, an action or trait is good if it tends to achieve a certain end, like the greatest happiness of the greatest number. The irrelevance of such a notion for making ethical determinations is that one would need to be able to rate and compare happiness, as well as to be able to calculate all of the consequences of any given action or trait. This is simply impossible for finite minds (even with the help of computers). But more devastating is the observation that good may be taken to be whatever promotes general happiness only if it is antecedently the case that generalized happiness is itself “good.” Any theory of ethics which focuses on the goodness of achieving a certain end (or consequence) will make sense only if it can establish that the chosen end (or consequence) is a good one to pursue and promote. Instrumental theories of goodness eventually must address the issue of intrinsic goodness, so that they can correctly determine what their goals ought to be.

Philosophically speaking, the problem of evil turns out to be, therefore, a problem for the unbeliever himself. In order to use the argument from evil against the Christian worldview, he must first be able to show that his judgments about the existence of evil are meaningful — which is precisely what his unbelieving worldview is unable to do.


[1] trans. C. Garnett (New York: Modern Library, Random House, 1950), from book V, chapter 4. The quotation here is taken from the selection found in God and Evil: Readings on the Theological Problem of Evil, ed. Nelson Pike (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1964).

[2] R. C. Sproul, Objections Answered (Glendale, CA: Regal Books, G/L Publications, 1978), pp. 128, 129.

[3] Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, ed. Nelson Pike (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Publications, 1981), p. 88.

[4] Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books, 1979.

[5] Intuitionism would suggest that goodness is an indefinable (basic or simple) property which we do not come to know empirically or through nature, but “intuitively.” What, however, is a “non-natural property” unless we are speaking of a “supernatural” property (the very thing in dispute for the unbeliever)? Further, intuitionism cannot provide a basis for knowing that our intuitions are correct: not only must we intuit the goodness of charity, we are also left to intuit that this intuition is true. It is a well known and embarrassing fact that not all people (or all cultures) have identical intuitions about good and evil. These conflicting intuitions cannot be rationally resolved within the unbeliever’s worldview.

[6] Similar difficulties attend the notion that ethical terms do not function and are not used to describe anything at all, but simply to give expression to one’s emotions. The related (performative) theory of ethical language known as “prescriptivism” holds that moral utterances do not function to describe things as good or evil, but simply to get one’s hearer(s) to behave or feel in a certain way. On this theory, no attitude or action is good or evil in itself, and one is left without any explanation why people go around “directing” others with gratuitous and veiled imperatives like “Helping orphans is good.”

 


PA105

The Biblical Worldview (Part II-VII:12; Dec., 1991) (Available in the book: Always Ready PA600)

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