Does the Unbeliever Take Evil Seriously, Then?
Unbelievers complain that certain plain facts about human experience are inconsistent with the Christian’s theological beliefs about the goodness and power of God. Such a complaint requires the non-Christian to assert to existence of evil in this world. What, however, has been presupposed here?
Both the believer and the unbeliever will want to insist that certain things are evil, for instance cases of child abuse (like those already mentioned). And they will talk as though they take such moral judgments seriously, not simply as expressions of personal taste, preference or subjective opinion. They will insist that such things are truly — objectively, intrinsically — evil. Even unbelievers can be shaken from their easy and glib espousals of relativism in the face of moral atrocities like war, rape, and torture.
But the question, logically speaking, is how the unbeliever can make sense of taking evil seriously — not simply as something inconvenient, or unpleasant, or contrary to his or her desires. What philosophy of value or morality can the unbeliever offer which will render it meaningful to condemn some atrocity as objectively evil? The moral indignation which is expressed by unbelievers when they encounter the wicked things which transpire in this world does not comport with the theories of ethics which unbelievers espouse, theories which prove to be arbitrary or subjective or merely utilitarian or relativistic in character. On the unbeliever’s worldview, there is no good reason for saying that anything is evil in nature, but only by personal choice or feeling.
That is why I am encouraged when I see unbelievers getting very indignant with some evil action as a matter of principle. Such indignation requires recourse to the absolute, unchanging, and good character of God in order to make philosophical sense. The expression of moral indignation is but personal evidence that unbelievers know this God in their heart of hearts. They refuse to let judgments about evil be reduced to subjectivism.
When the believer challenges the unbeliever on this point, the unbeliever will likely turn around and try to argue that evil is, in the final analysis, based on human reasoning or choices – thus being relative to the individual or culture. And at that point the believer must press home the logical incoherence within the unbeliever’s set of beliefs. On the one hand, he believes and speaks as though some activity (e.g., child abuse) is wrong in itself, but on the other hand he believes and speaks as though that activity is wrong only if the individual (or culture) chooses some value which is inconsistent with it (e.g., pleasure, the greatest happiness of the greatest number, freedom). When the unbeliever professes that people determine ethical values for themselves, the unbeliever implicitly holds that those who commit evil are not really doing anything evil, given the values which they have chosen for themselves. In this way, the unbeliever who is indignant over wickedness supplies the very premises which philosophically condone andpermit such behavior, even though at the same time the unbeliever wishes to insist that such behavior is not permitted — is “evil.”
What we find, then, is that the unbeliever must secretly rely upon the Christian worldview in order to make sense of his argument from the existence of evil which is urged against the Christian worldview! Antitheism presupposes theism to make its case.
The problem of evil is thus a logical problem for the unbeliever, rather than the believer. As a Christian, I can make perfectly good sense out of my moral revulsion and condemnation of child abuse. The non-Christian cannot. This does not mean that I can explain why God does whatever He does in planning misery and wickedness in this world. It simply means that moral outrage is consistent with the Christian’s worldview, his basic presuppositions about reality, knowledge, and ethics. The non-Christian’s worldview (of whatever variety) eventually cannot account for such moral outrage. It cannot explain the objective and unchanging nature of moral notions like good or evil. Thus the problem of evil is precisely a philosophical problem for unbelief. Unbelievers would be required to appeal to the very thing against which they argue (a divine, transcendent sense of ethics) in order for their argument to be warranted.
Resolving the Alleged Paradox
The unbeliever might at this point protest that, even if he as a non-Christian cannot meaningfully explain or make sense of the view that evil objectively exists, nevertheless there still remains a paradox within the set of beliefs which constitute the Christian’s own worldview. Given his basic philosophy and commitments, the Christian certainly can and does claim that evil is real, and yet the Christian also believes things about the character of God which together seem incompatible with the existence of evil. The unbeliever might argue that, regardless of the ethical inadequacy of his own worldview, the Christian is still — on the Christian’s own terms — locked into a logically incoherent position by maintaining the three following propositions:
1. GOD IS ALL-GOOD.
2. GOD IS ALL-POWERFUL.
3. EVIL EXISTS.
However the critic here overlooks a perfectly reasonable way to assent to all three of these propositions.
If the Christian presupposes that God is perfectly and completely good — as Scripture requires us to do — then he is committed to evaluating everything within his experience in the light of that presupposition. Accordingly, when the Christian observes evil events or things in the world, he can and should retain consistency with his presupposition about God’s goodness by now inferring that God has a morally good reason for the evil that exists. God certainly must be all-powerful in order to be God; He is not to be thought of as overwhelmed or stymied by evil in the universe. And God is surely good, the Christian will profess — so any evil we find must be compatible with God’s goodness. This is just to say that God has planned evil events for reasons which are morally commendable and good.
To put it another way, the apparent paradox created by the above three propositions is readily resolved by adding this fourth premise to them:
4. GOD HAS A MORALLY SUFFICIENT REASON FOR THE EVIL WHICH EXISTS.
When all four of these premises are maintained, there is no logical contradiction to be found, not even an apparent one. It is precisely part of the Christian’s walk of faith and growth in sanctification to draw proposition 4 as the conclusion of propositions 1-3.
Think of Abraham when God ordered him to sacrifice his only son. Think of Job when he lost everything which gave his life happiness and pleasure. In each case God had a perfectly good reason for the human misery involved. It was a mark or achievement of faith for them not to waver in their conviction of God’s goodness, despite not being able to see or understand why He was doing to them what He did. Indeed, even in the case of the greatest crime in all of history — the crucifixion of the Lord of glory — the Christian professes that God’s goodness was not inconsistent with what the hands of lawless men performed. Was the killing of Christ evil? Surely. Did God have a morally sufficient reason for it? Just as surely. With Abraham we declare, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25). And this goodness of God is beyond challenge: “Let God be true, though all men are liars” (Romans 3:4).
The Problem is Not Logical, But Psychological
It turns out that the problem of evil is not a logical difficulty after all. If God has a morally sufficient reason for the evil which exists, as the Bible teaches, then His goodness and power are not challenged by the reality of evil events and things in human experience. The only logical problem which arises in connection with discussions of evil is the unbeliever’s philosophical inability to account for the objectivity of his moral judgments.
The problem which men have with God when they come face to face with evil in the world is not a logical or philosophical one, but more a psychological one. We can find it emotionally very hard to have faith in God and trust His goodness and power when we are not given the reason why bad things happen to us and others. We instinctively think to ourselves, “why did such a terrible thing occur?” Unbelievers internally cry out for an answer to such a question also. But God does not always (indeed, rarely) provide an explanation to human beings for the evil which they experience or observe. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God” (Deuteronomy 29:29). We might not be able to understand God’s wise and mysterious ways, even if He told us (cf. Isaiah 55:9). Nevertheless, the fact remains that He has not told us why misery and suffering and injustice are part of His plan for history and for our individual lives.
So then, the Bible calls upon us to trust that God has a morally sufficient reason for the evil which can be found in this world, but it does not tell us what that sufficient reason is. The believer often struggles with this situation, walking by faith rather than by sight. The unbeliever, however, finds the situation intolerable for his pride, feelings, or rationality. He refuses to trust God. He will not believe that God has a morally sufficient reason for the evil which exists, unless the unbeliever is given that reason for his own examination and assessment. To put it briefly, the unbeliever will not trust God unless God subordinates Himself to the intellectual authority and moral evaluation of the unbeliever — unless God consents to trade places with the sinner.
The problem of evil comes down to the question of whether a person should have faith in God and His word or rather place faith in his own human thinking and values. It finally becomes a question of ultimate authority within a person’s life. And in that sense, the way in which unbelievers struggle with the problem of evil is but a continuing testimony to the way in which evil entered human history in the first place. The Bible indicates that sin and all of its accompanying miseries entered this world through the first transgression of Adam and Eve. And the question with which Adam and Eve were confronted way back then was precisely the question which unbelievers face today: should we have faith in God’s word simply on His say-so, or should we evaluate God and His word on the basis of our own ultimate intellectual and moral authority?
God commanded Adam and Eve not to eat of a certain tree, testing them to see if they would attempt to define good and evil for themselves. Satan came along and challenged the goodness and truthfulness of God, suggesting He had base motives for keeping Adam and Eve from the delight of the tree. And at that point the whole course of human history depended upon whether Adam and Eve would trust and presuppose the goodness of God. Since they did not, the human race has been visited with torments too many and too painful to inventory. When unbelievers refuse to accept the goodness of God on the basis of His own self-revelation, they simply perpetuate the source of all of our human woes. Rather than solving the problem of evil, they are part of the problem.
Therefore, it should not be thought that “the problem of evil” is anything like an intellectual basis for a lack of faith in God. It is rather simply the personal expression of such a lack of faith. What we find is that unbelievers who challenge the Christian faith end up reasoning in circles. Because they lack faith in God, they begin by arguing that evil is incompatible with the goodness and power of God. When they are presented with a logically adequate and Biblically supported solution to the problem of evil (viz., God has a morally sufficient but undisclosed reason for the evil that exists), they refuse to accept it, again because of their lack of faith in God. They would rather be left unable to give an account of any moral judgment whatsoever (about things being good or evil) than to submit to the ultimate and unchallengeable moral authority of God. That is too high a price to pay, both philosophically and personally.