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  • Responding to the Argument from Evil: Three Approaches for the Theist 

    By David Wood 

    A few weeks ago, my five-year-old son, Lucian, came up with his first argument against the existence of God. He reasoned that, since God can’t be seen, God must not exist. Put more formally: 

    1. If I can’t see X, X doesn’t exist.

    2. I can’t see God.

    3. Therefore, God doesn’t exist. 

    The first premise, of course, is false, and it wasn’t difficult to show young Luke that seeing isn’t the only way to know that something exists. We can, for instance, know that something exists because of its effects. Hence, this argument was easily refuted (and I remain undefeated in debates with five-year-olds). Nevertheless, I doubt my son is going to stop formulating arguments. It’s only a matter of time before he presents me with a much stronger case, based on a crucial piece of data that is always before him. 

    In November of 2007, my son Reid was born. He wasn’t moving or breathing. The only sign of life was his heartbeat. He was placed on a respirator, and he was eventually given a tracheostomy. We had to wait several months for a diagnosis, but we finally learned that Reid has Myotubular Myopathy, a rare genetic disorder that makes his muscles extremely weak—so weak that he can’t hold his head up, breathe consistently, swallow when he needs to, or make a sound when he cries. 

    We teach our sons that God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and completely good. I’m quite certain that, within the next few years, Luke is going to reason as follows: 

    1. God, by definition, is all-knowing, all-powerful, and completely good.

    2. If God is all-knowing, He would know how to prevent children from getting Myotubular Myopathy.

    3. If God is all-powerful, He would have the power to prevent children from getting Myotubular Myopathy.

    4. If God is completely good, He would want to prevent children from getting Myotubular Myopathy.

    5. My brother has Myotubular Myopathy.

    6. Therefore, God doesn’t exist. 

    This argument isn’t nearly as easily refuted as the previous argument. How are theists (i.e. people who believe that God exists and acts in our world) to respond?  

    There are three main approaches we can take when we respond to the argument from evil (AE). We can point out problems with the argument, we can try to explain suffering, and we can offer additional arguments for theism that outweigh any evidence against theism. Let’s take a closer look at these responses. 

    I. Problems with the Argument from Evil 

    Since AE is an argument, the burden of proof is on the proponent to show that the argument is a good one. Thus, the first approach we can take is to point out problems with the argument itself, e.g. inconsistencies, unproven assumptions, or ambiguous terms. 

    A. Inconsistencies 

    When atheists present AE, they’re usually guilty of a number of inconsistencies. Let’s consider one that’s quite common. The most popular version of AE goes something like this: 

    1.  If God exists, there wouldn’t be any pointless suffering.

    2. Since we can’t think of reasons for allowing certain instances of suffering, some suffering is probably pointless (e.g. an injured deer experiencing pointless pain as it slowly dies in the woods).

    3. Therefore, God probably doesn’t exist.  

    But notice what the atheist is claiming. Since there’s probably no point to at least some suffering (because we can’t think of one), God probably doesn’t exist. The atheist is claiming, then, that we shouldn’t believe in something that seems improbable. But what happens when atheists are confronted by, say, the design argument? The theist argues, “Look, it’s extremely improbable that life formed on its own, or that the universe just happened to be finely-tuned for life. So life and the world probably have a designer.” Here the atheist responds, “Yes, these things may be improbable, but I’m going to believe them anyway.” This is a clear inconsistency. When one argument is on the table, we mustn’t go against the probabilities; when a different argument is on the table, it’s suddenly perfectly acceptable to go against the probabilities. 

    Based on this inconsistency alone, I would say that even if a theist has no explanation for suffering, he’s no worse off than the atheist who has no explanation for the origin of the universe or for the complexity of life. If, however, it can be shown that there are other problems with the argument from evil, and if theists can offer reasons for God to allow suffering, theists are on much better ground than atheists. 

    B. Ambiguous Terms 

    Certain words can mean very different things to different people. For instance, if I say to an atheist, “I have faith in God,” the atheist assumes I mean that my belief in God has nothing to do with evidence. But this isn’t what I mean by “faith” at all. When I say that I have faith in God, I mean that I place my trust in God based on what I know about Him. 

    Ambiguous terms can cause significant problems when they’re used in arguments. Consider a simple word: “good.” Theists say that God is wholly good. But what do we mean by this? As I examine various versions of AE, I find that atheists are using this term quite differently from the way I use it. If we examine atheistic arguments carefully, we find that a “good” being is one who maximizes pleasure and minimizes pain. Given this definition, we can see why AE seems so persuasive to some: 

    1. If God existed, He would maximize our pleasure and minimize our pain.

    2. Our pleasure is not maximized, and our pain is not minimized.

    3. Thus, God doesn’t exist. 

    If the premises of this argument are true, the conclusion follows. But what if we challenge the first premise by rejecting the claim that God’s goodness implies giving lots of pleasure? Theists believe that some things are far more important than pleasure or lack of pain. Becoming good people, developing virtues, learning that we’re not the center of the universe, seeking God with all our hearts—these are all vastly more important than pleasure or lack of pain. Thus, when theists say that God is wholly good, we’re applying the term “good” within a framework of Christian values, where pleasure simply isn’t at the top of our priorities. 

    C. Unproven Assumptions 

    When we make an argument, we’re assuming various things. For instance, we’re assuming that our minds are functioning properly, that valid logic preserves truth, and so on. Such things are rarely questioned. Nevertheless, when an assumption is crucial to an argument, and there’s no good reason to believe the assumption, the argument is on very shaky ground. Consider the following assumption, which is absolutely critical for most versions of AE: 

    Awareness Assumption: If God has reasons for allowing evil, we will be aware of these reasons. 

    I cannot imagine how a defender of AE could even hope to show that this assumption is true. God’s knowledge and wisdom are infinite, while even the smartest of human beings knows practically nothing by comparison. Yet without this assumption, most versions of AE cannot get off the ground. 

    II. Explaining Suffering 

    Given numerous problems with AE (and we’ve only looked at a few), I don’t think that theists are under any obligation to explain suffering. Yet if we can come up with plausible reasons for God to allow suffering, this would increase the overall plausibility of theism.  

    Theists can account for suffering in two important ways: we can account for suffering theologically by appealing to Christian doctrines, and we can account for suffering philosophically by appealing to what philosophers call “theodicies.” 

    A. Christian Doctrine 

    The most important religious claim to consider when faced with AE is that man is in a state of rebellion against God. While an atheist will probably reject such a claim, it’s important to keep in mind that AE relies, to a large extent, on how awful man is and can become. When atheists offer evidence of suffering, they typically point to the Holocaust, or to the “Rape of Nanking,” or to children being horribly victimized. But such events fit quite well with the idea that man has turned away from God. To put it differently, the more examples of moral evil an atheist presents in support of his argument, the more evidence he’s given that human beings are extremely sinful. And it makes little sense to say, “Human beings are incredibly sinful and are at war with God, but God should give us a world of total pleasure and should rush to our aid whenever something goes wrong.” 

    B. Theodicies 

    A theodicy is an attempt to answer the question, “What morally sufficient reason could there be for God to allow evil?” Let’s look at two of the most important types of theodicy. 

    First, there are free will theodicies. Free will theodicies are attempts to explain why God might permit moral evil. They’re based on two central ideas: 

    (1) A world containing free beings is better than a world without free beings, since only free beings can choose the good, or genuinely love, or be moral in any meaningful sense.

    (2) True freedom entails that we also be free to choose the bad, or not to love, or to disobey the moral law. 

    On this view, moral evil is a misuse of moral freedom. Freedom itself, however, is a wonderful gift.  

    Second, there are soul-building theodicies. As we noted earlier, it’s quite common for people to think that, if God exists, His primary goal should be to maximize our pleasure. Such a view doesn’t fit well within a Christian framework, for it turns God into a “Cosmic Thermostat,” whose job is to keep the universe just the way we like it. Proponents of soul-building theodicies maintain that God has more important things in mind than pleasure or lack of pain. While it’s wonderful to go through times when life is comfortable, it’s a simple fact of human experience that we don’t grow much during those times. So if becoming mature human beings (or mature Christians) is important, then a world with pain is better than a world without pain. 

    I don’t believe that such theodicies account for all of the evil in our world. Nevertheless, as a theist, I don’t believe that our minds are capable of comprehending all of God’s reasons for allowing suffering. The fact that we can come up with some plausible explanations for suffering (despite our limited knowledge) is itself a serious blow to AE. 

    III. Outweighing the Argument from Evil 

    Third, since the argument from evil only claims to provide a certain amount of evidence against theism, we must note that, even if we think AE is a good argument, the evidence drawn from it can potentially be outweighed by other evidence. Theists can therefore muster a number of arguments in favor of their position. If these arguments, taken as a whole, provide a stronger case than AE, we must conclude, once again, that AE is not a serious threat to theism. While there are dozens of arguments for the existence of God, we will briefly consider three. 

    A. Design Arguments 

    There are two main versions of the design argument: (1) the argument from fine-tuning, and (2) the argument from biological complexity. Physicists are aware of the fact that the fundamental constants of our universe seem to be finely-tuned for life. If the Gravitational Force, the Weak Nuclear Force, the Strong Nuclear Force, and the Electromagnetic Force were altered, even slightly, human beings could not exist. Since there’s no naturalistic explanation for why these values should be just right for life, the fine-tuning of the cosmos provides strong evidence of a designing intelligence. 

    A cosmos finely-tuned for life, however, doesn’t give us life. Additional steps are required to reach living cells, multicellular organisms, complete ecosystems, and especially conscious, self-reflective beings. The complexity of even the most basic living organism (let alone the complexity of more advanced life) is further evidence of a designing intelligence. 

    B. Cosmological Arguments 

    Many arguments for theism attempt to show that the universe must have a cause, or a certain type of cause. One such argument begins as follows: 

    1. Whatever beings to exist must have a cause.

    2. The universe began to exist.

    3. Therefore, the universe must have a cause.

    The first premise is self-evident; the second can be known scientifically. Thus, the conclusion follows. But we can go even further by examining the nature of the cause of the universe. Since the scientific evidence shows that matter and time began to exist when the universe began to exist, the first cause must be immaterial and timeless (both of which are attributes of God). The first cause must also be extraordinarily powerful and free to create. These attributes fit in perfectly with theism; they make no sense on atheism. 

    C. The Argument from Morality 

    Third, consider the following argument. 

    1. If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.

    2. Objective moral values exist.

    3. Therefore, God exists. 

    The first premise is certainly true. When we say that there are objective moral values, we’re saying that there are moral claims that are true whether or not human beings agree with them. Thus, the claim “rape is immoral” would still be true even if every human being on the planet decided otherwise. But if human beings cannot serve as the ground for objective morality, what can? Only a being that completely transcends humans.  

    What about the second premise? Interestingly enough, proponents of AE grant this premise in the course of their argument. By declaring that suffering is evil, atheists have admitted that there is an objective moral standard by which we distinguish good and evil. Amazingly, then, even as atheists make their case against the existence of God, they actually help us prove that God exists! 

    IV. Assessment 

    We’ve looked at three approaches theists can take when we respond to the argument from evil. We must be careful to use such responses at the appropriate time, however. Remember that Job had the best friends in the world, so long as they kept their mouths shut. Job’s time of intense suffering was not the appropriate occasion for a deep philosophical and theological analysis of human pain.  

    Similarly, when my son Luke comes up to me and says (as I know he eventually will), “Why did God allow Reid to get sick?” the appropriate response is not to charge in and say, “Well, let me explain the soul-building theodicy to you.” To give specific and confident answers is to pretend that we have certainty of God’s reasons for things when we often don’t. Human anguish is powerful, sometimes far more powerful than words. 

    Nevertheless, at appropriate times, we must respond to AE. Atheists claim that their argument refutes theism. Yet they’re inconsistent in the application of their principles, and they’re smuggling in unproven assumptions and a distorted hierarchy of values. When we combine these problems with the fact that theists can explain a fair amount of suffering (which is all that can be reasonably expected of limited beings) and that we have strong evidence that supports belief in God, it’s clear that the only significant argument for atheism fails on multiple levels.