Every single human who is alive and fully aware of the world today knows that there is seemingly a problem of evil all over. Everything from sickness, natural disasters, and even moral evils plague or earth everyday and people are powerless at times to stop it. The question though, is how do we provide an answer for why this is happening? In what follows is a second section from my senior research paper in which I engage the problem of evil. Just as a to reminder readers, I engage the problem of evil a philosophical and theological basis and attempt to provide an answer to skeptics who are against the Christian faith.
Another quick reminder is that in writing this section, my intention was to show two of the most popular answers to the problem of evil from the Christian faith. Though, these two answers do work, my convictions are more towards the greater good defense rather than the free will defense, especially when it comes to libertarian free will. I am not a proponent of the libertarian view. With those thoughts in mind, here we go!
A second common assault on the idea of God’s morality comes from both a philosophical and personal slant. This objection is universally known as the problem of evil. The question is always asked, if there is an all-good and all-powerful God who really exists, then how could He allow so much evil to exist in the world? This question is such an important issue, that the very outcome of this argument may persuade a person to belief or non-belief in God. Timothy Keller, a pastor and theologian, quotes a woman on this issue,
“I just don’t believe the God of Christianity exists. God allows terrible suffering in the world. So he might be either all-powerful but not good enough to end evil and suffering, or else he might be all-good but not powerful enough to end evil and suffering. Either way the all-good, all-powerful God of the Bible couldn’t exist” (22).
It becomes clear from a testimony such as this why the problem of evil even matters. Every human being on the face of the planet has to deal with evil of some kind in their life. Evil can result from an event in nature, such as the 2004 tsunami, or evil can be caused as a result of an action or lack of action by another human. This kind of evil is known as moral evil.
The problem of evil, though very emotional, has also been at the forefront of heavy academic debate by many scholars across the academic spectrum. In one specific essay by the late contemporary philosopher J.L. Mackie titled, Evil and Omnipotence, Mackie lays out a massive case for why the problem of evil is logically inconsistent with the belief in Christian theism. Mackie’s argument for his thinking is stated in this way, “In its simplest form the problem is this: God is omnipotent; God is wholly good; and yet evil exists. There seems to be some contradiction between these three propositions, so that if any two of them were true the third would be false” (305).
Just by reviewing what Mackie is trying to say, it may not be clear as to why his point even matters at all. How could Mackie’s conclusion show that belief in the Christian God is incoherent? In his book, Letter to a Christian nation, Sam Harris, an avid writer on issues concerning the validity of religious worldviews states, “If God exists, either He can do nothing to stop the most egregious calamities, or He does not care to. God, therefore, is either impotent or evil” (55). Along with Mackie’s philosophical definition and Harris’ practical application, a picture of why the problem of evil presents a problem for rational belief in God becomes clear.
Though the problem of evil is simple is description, the path that seeks to find an answer is a tough one to travel. Even the late great Christian philosopher Dr. Ronald Nash agrees, “Every philosopher I know believes that the most serious challenge to theism was, is, and will continue to be the problem of evil” (177). This is an extraordinary claim coming from an academician who was himself an ardent believer in the Christian God. How then does the Christian answer the objection of the problem of evil?
Throughout the course of theological and philosophical history, there have been many theories presented that try and deal with the problem of evil. Of the several arguments offered, there are two that seem to fit the bill when providing an answer for this dilemma. They are known as the “Free Will Defense” and the “Greater Good Defense” arguments. Both will prove to be satisfactory answers to the question at hand.
The first objective is to take another in depth look at the argument that Mackie and others make. Mackie suggests that if God is all-powerful, if He is supremely good, and evil does exist in the world, then belief in God is logically inconsistent. However, just as big time philosopher of religion Dr. Alvin Plantinga suggests, “One wonders, therefore, why the many atheologians who confidently assert that this formulation is contradictory make not attempt whatever to show that it is. For the most part they are content just to assert that there is a contradiction here” (323).
Plantinga’s assessment is right. Why must the argument that Mackie defends lead to a contradiction for the Christian? Could it be that the human mind cannot possibly contemplate the way God works due to God’s position in eternity? Christianity affirms that God is, “Declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying ‘My counsel shall stand and I will accomplish all my purpose”, (Isaiah 46.10). If Christianity is true in its claims then, how can humans argue that the way in which God is dealing with the problem of evil is not the best way possible? If God exists, it would be purely self-centered of humanity to claim that they know better than God on an issue like this.
Could it also be stated that, if Christianity is correct, then humanity is to blame for why there is evil in the world? If these questions are right, then just as the Christian worldview suggests, God is still all-powerful because He has set in motion a plan of “redemption” to eradicate evil. God is also supremely good in the fact that He has established an arrangement to make “right” what is morally “wrong”, and evil does exist in the world now because of human free will. If all three can be proven to be true, then Mackie’s argument and the alike contain no positive arguments for their case.
The first of the two major Christian defenses is what philosophers call “The Freewill Defense”. Nash explains this position well, “According to this argument, God has good reasons for creating a world containing creatures that are significantly free, that is, free with regard to actions that have moral significance. To say that they are significantly free means that these creatures are free either to do A or not to do A, where A is a morally significant action” (189).
If one were to apply this argument to the Christian worldview, it is not hard to see how it would work. When God created humanity, He created them with the ability to make morally free decisions. From the book of Genesis, we see that God gave a command to humanity that in the event of disobedience, the result would be death. “And the Lord commanded the man, saying, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in that day that you eat of it, you shall surely die” (Gen. 2.16-17).
As the book of Genesis progresses, the outcome would end in the human’s disobedience to God, thus the reason for evil and corruption entering the world is given. Due to human’s free action of immorality against the command of God, the world now has the problem of evil as a result of humanity’s actions. One arguably could then make the counter that if God knew this would happen, why did He create humans in the first place?
This is the logical response to the free-will defense, but it too does not prove to be effective. God obviously saw that the value of human life is worth more than the corruption it caused. This would make sense given the Christian perspective since God Himself ends up dying on a cross to redeem a fallen humanity. The Free Will Defense then seems to work despite the problems that opponents bring to the table.
The second of the two Christian responses is known as the “Greater-Good Defense”. Dr. John Frame, a philosopher at Reformed Theological Seminary, states in his book, “Another approach to the problem of evil is to claim that the presence, or at least the possibility, of evil in the world is good, when seen from a broader perspective. Such observations have been called “The greater-good defense” against the problem of evil” (169). This argument against the problem of evil seems to carry extreme promise in answering this dilemma.
When Christians present this argument, there are normally two examples from biblical literature that are used. The first is the story of Joseph being sold into slavery from the book of Genesis. Dr. Keller in his book, simply and accurately summarizes Joseph’s story,
“Joseph was an arrogant young man who was hated by his brothers. In their anger at him, they imprisoned him in a pit and then sold him into a life of slavery and misery in Egypt. Doubtless Joseph prayed to God to help him escape, but no help was forthcoming, and into slavery he went. Though he experienced years of bondage and misery, Joseph’s character was refined and strengthened by his trials. Eventually he rose up to become a prime minister of Egypt who saved thousands of lives and even his own family from starvation. If God had not allowed Joseph’s years of suffering, he never would have been such a powerful agent for social justice and spiritual healing” (24).
In the Bible, this account is summed up very well by the very words of Joseph when he interacts with his brothers’ years after the act of violence they had done. “As for you, you meant this for evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Gen. 50.20). An example would be a surgeon who cuts a person ultimately not to harm, but to heal. God intended for Joseph to go through major suffering for the later saving of thousands from death. Evil was permitted to happen for sake of a greater-good being brought about.
Another example, and the most important within Christianity, has to be the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. Frame states, “But the chief example of God’s astonishing ways is found in the cross of Jesus” (172). It is through the death of Jesus that the greater-good model is truly displayed. The Bible claims that God sent Jesus to endure some of the cruelest and most abusive punishment that eventually leads to His death. All of this was for the purpose of redeeming humanity’s fallen nature. Inside Christianity, the death of Jesus results in the ultimate good for humanity.
In review of all that has been addressed in this section, it is clear to see that J.L Mackie’s formulation of the problem of evil does not stand in light of careful theological and philosophical evaluation. Not only does Mackie’s argument fail to prove the inconsistency of the existence of both God and evil, it cannot account for humanity’s free-will or God using evil for a greater-good. Just as Paul says in his letter to the Roman church, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8.28).