Sorry for the long post, but the shorter ones seem to be passed over.
The problem of evil has been asked for as long as people have been around. In modern times it is often asked in some form of ‘If there is a God who is good, why is there evil?’ The problem is portrayed by skeptics and atheists as something akin concluding that God is either a monster for allowing evil or impotent to stop it. Skeptics then conclude that whatever the case, the existence of evil makes God unworthy of worship, or worse, in need of elimination from society.
All of the questions have been adequately answered by theists, which you can find here and here. (In a related issue, atheists almost always do not think through the logical implications of their positions, as Richard Dawkins recently demonstrated, discussed here.) Somewhat ironically to the atheists who have not thought the problem through, the existence of evil demonstrates the existence of a transcendant good and evil, which undermines their core worldview, naturalism. To wit:
Logic forces us to know that if evil exists, it is either the result of pure natural forces, or not. If it is, then the result is natural and inevitable like all other natural forces and cannot properly be called good or evil. Chemical reactions do not have a moral outcome, they merely exist. If evil is not the result of pure natural forces, then something other than natural forces exists and naturalism is incorrect. Therefore recognizing the existence of evil and good is the basis for a logical demonstration of God’s existence and disproof of naturalism. Most atheists, of course, deny this, trying to say evil exists but not a transcendant good and evil, which is incoherent.
All of that is setup for today’s post, which deals with one nuance of the problem of evil that inevitably comes up. Today’s questions are: If God is all powerful and all wise, could He not create a world where evil does not exist? If God is able to prevent evil and does not, how can He be considered good or worthy of worship?
The answers are actually quite straightforward, but rarely accepted by those who are determined to not bow the knee to God, no matter how reasonable it is to do so.
The first answer is that all of us humans have a flawed sense of good and evil, as expressed by our actions. If we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that we have all done evil acts and said evil things at some point in our lives. Yet we do not wish God to stop us from doing so or punish us for our past deeds. We all seem to want God to stop and punish the other guy that we find to be a pain, but do not wish God to stop and punish ourselves. God is pure good and we are sinful, having lost our moral compass. So we must depend on Him to tell us what is good and what is evil.
But no doubt this will not suffice for the committed skeptic, who merely continues to ask the same question, ‘how can God allow evil?’ The following explanation will lean heavily on the writings of Norman Geisler from his Systematic Theology, volume 2, chapter 6. Please attribute the explanations that succeed to him, and the ones that fail to me.
Foundational Principle: Greatest Possible Good
As foundation to the answer, the following point applies: If God is all wise, all powerful, and all good, as Christians claim, then it is either:
a) necessary for him to achieve the greatest possible good, or
b) not necessary for him to achieve the greatest possible good.
Within the current context, these options exhaust the possibilities.
If it is not necessary for Him to achieve the greatest possible good, the current world is sufficient, and we have no complaints. For if we allow that God is not obligated to create the best possible world, then the current world has some good, and we are reduced to arguing about whether God allowed the amount of good or evil that I find preferable. One person might think that no broken bones should be allowed, whil I might think it OK for God to allow a broken toe, but not a broken foot, while you think a broken foot is not so bad, and someone else would have a different opinion entirely, and God’s opinion would be just as valid as ours. Option b) says God would not have to eliminate all evil, and since the world has some good and not all evil, it is sufficient.
But the complaint from our original question is that God is not preventing evil, so this option is rejected by our skeptic friends. (It also should be rejected by theists, but that is for another day)
We therefore are forced to accept option a), which says that it is necessary for God to achieve the greatest possible good. This underlies all of our answers, and if a) is rejected, the criticism of God allowing evil becomes baseless and the question irrelevant.
All Possible Options
The following list includes every possible combination of what could be allowed by God. This list exhausts all possibilities of what God could have done…there is no other alternatives outside of what is on this list (at least, none I could think of…..).
1. Not created a world.
2. Created a non-free world where people could not commit evil.
3. Created a free world where no one ever chooses evil.
4. Created a free world where no one is allowed to commit evil.
5. Created a free world where people commit evil but all are ultimately forgiven and go to heaven.
6. Created the current world where people are free to commit evil and good, and in the end evil is judged and good rewarded.
The following is an evaluation of each of these. Options 3 and 4 are the main objections most commonly given to 6.
1. Not created a world. This is a logical option for God, for He willingly created. However, with the need for a), the greatest possible good, no world at all does not qualify as the greatest possible good.
2. Created a non-free world where people could not commit evil. This also fails our test of a), for non-free people are less good than free people. A non-free world is a world of pre-programmed robots which only perform what the creator designed. I can create a computer which will say to me when I open my front door, “Welcome home, dear. Glad to see you. I love you.” I could even hire a servant to stand at the door and say that to me when I arrive. But the computer is not free, and the servant would only be doing it for the pay. Neither would truly be glad to see me, nor would they truly love me. This would be a world with no love at all, which is less good than having a free world where people love out of choice.
3. Created a free world where no one ever chooses evil. This is the one perhaps most commonly given by atheists. The criticism is sometimes phrased as ‘why could not God only create the people who would only commit good?’ This is impossible for the following reasons. First, love, compassion, and bravery are part of the greatest good, for having a world with these is better than a world without them. If people could only choose good in every situation, they would always be loving, compassionate and brave. But these things are meaningful only if people have the possibility of not doing them — of not loving, not having compassion, or not being brave. We do not call peope brave if they do things that every other human does naturally, and we do not call parrots phenomenal because they squalk or even talk, for it is natural for all parrots to willingly squalk and talk. If people by nature walked in front of machine gun nests without thinking of it, and this was a normal activity for all humans, we would never call any soldier brave for doing so, for they would be doing what is natural for all humans. Such a world would eliminate the possibility of the greatest good.
Second, it does not seem possible for this option to exist. By definition, freedom includes the possibility of doing otherwise, and if people were truly free to choose, some would inevitably choose evil. A world where everyone could choose evil but no one ever does seems impossible. In theory, the atheists would claim that all humans have this possibility now, yet we know that all of us inevitably choose evil at some point. If it were possible to have a world where people are free to choose evil but no one ever does, it would have happened by now, for many billions of people have had this opportunity, and no one has ever only chosen good over their entire lives. We cannot point to one single human who never chose any evil whatsoever, let alone an entire world that did so. If we qualify this by saying that ‘well, couldn’t God only make people who would not choose the worst of evils, but only choose mild evils?’ then we have again said b), that God does not have to create a world with the greatest possble good, which we rejected above. So while this option might be logically possible, it is not actually achieveable (here “logically possible”means not logically contradictory).
4. Created a free world where no one is allowed to commit evil. This is the option that is proposed when people suggest that God could have stopped a person from doing evil — as the criticism goes, if God were all powerful He could stop evil, if He were all good He would stop evil. Upon consideration, this is an impossible option, for if people are free, they are allowed to choose and act. If God were to stop the atheists every time they cursed God, God would be accused of being an evil tyrant who would not allow free speech. So a freedom where people are not free to commit evil is a contradiction. Further, as many others have pointed out, atheists ask for God to go away, then blame Him for going away and not stopping people from choosing evil. In the end, a free world where people are not free to choose is a contradiction.
5. Created a free world where people commit evil but all are ultimately forgiven and go to heaven. In the context of our current question, this creates more evil by God committing still another evil by not judging evil acts. This would not be the greatest possible good.
6. Created the current world where people are free to commit evil and good, and in the end evil is judged and good rewarded. This is the only option that achieves the greatest possible good. Allowing people freedom to choose good or evil results in brave people overcoming adversity, people voluntarily loving one another, and people being able to exercise freedom. While a world where evil is allowed is not the best logically conceivable world, it is the only way to get to the best possible world, a one where bravery, compassion, and love exists, good is rewarded, and evil judged. The unavoidable consequences are that evil is allowed for a season, but a good and righteous judge, God, will reward goood and punish evil in the end.
Further Problems for Atheism
It has been my experience that in the context of evil and an all good, all powerful God, the most common responses from atheists are something like, ‘what greater good could possibly come from X evil?’ or ‘couldn’t God have found another way that is less evil?’ or ‘I think it is possible to have good without evil’ or ‘why would a god that allows evil things be worthy of my worship?’ or similar.
The answer to most all of these is that our skeptic friends are, ironically, jumping to emotional decisions not based in logic or reason. They are quick to point to religionists in general, and Christians in particular, accusing us of basing our decisions in emotion or psychological need rather than reason and logic. Well, if reason and logic are our criteria, then none of these questions pose any sort of logical proposition whatsoever. The only logic that is commonly attempted is that attributed to Epicurus, which is logically flawed and easily refuted, as has been done in this current post and here. The rest of our skeptical and atheist friends merely resort to emotion-based question asking, as the list of questions above demonstrate, without proving a thing. Merely asking why or ‘couldn’t God have done better?’ does not prove that better is even possible, let alone build a logical case that defines what better would look like or how it would be compatable with freedom and good. Love without the ability to choose not to love is empty and probably not possible, and merely throwing out an opinion does not prove it reasonable. As the discussion above demonstrates, merely because we can conceive of a world without evil, it does not mean it is logically possible or actually acheiveable.
In the end, it is the theists who have thought through things logically and reasonably, and the atheists who commonly sit on the sidelines and throw out critical, non-logical, emotion-based questions that do not make a case for proof of anything.
They certainly do not demonstrate how, if God does not exist, the universe could then be exclusively made of matter and energy, but evil still exist. The illogical nature of this atheist position was recently expressed by the current atheist hero, Richard Dawkins, when he stated “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference” then a few minutes later in the same speech, said “There is a logical path from religious faith to evil deeds.” If it is the case that there is no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pittiless indifference, then there are no evil deeds, religious or otherwise. If we admit there are evil deeds, then there is indeed a standard of evil and good by which we can measure the evil against, and this standard is separate and apart from the natural forces of the universe. This we call God.