A longstanding challenge to the validity of Christianity, and of theism in general, is the problem of evil. This problem manifests itself in two forms. First, most of us have experienced some wrenching grief or loss, such as the disability or death of a friend or family member, that makes us cry out, ”Why?” And outside our own personal circle we learn of outrageous injustices and sickening child abuse and grotesque birth defects. These appalling observations present an emotional problem with evil and suffering.
Second, there is an intellectual or philosophical problem of evil. The claim is that an all-powerful, all-good being would devise and implement a scheme to prevent any evil from occurring. The 18th century skeptic David Hume posed it this way:
“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?”
Greg Bahnsen addressed this logical problem in a series of two lectures, which have been transcribed here.
In this post I will summarize Bahnsen’s arguments. He formulates the problem as consisting of the following three premises:
1. GOD IS COMPLETELY GOOD.
2. GOD IS COMPLETELY POWERFUL.
3. EVIL EXISTS (HAPPENS).
The skeptic’s charge is that these three statements are logically incoherent. The first two premises present no logical difficulty. It is only when the third premise is included that the problem appears. Bahnsen notes:
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?
Bahnsen points out that in an atheistic worldview, there is no logical basis for labeling anything as objectively evil. He walks through some bases for morality which are proposed by unbelievers, and shows they are all merely personal opinions. Only by stepping into a theistic worldview can someone judge something to be evil.
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.
(In my earlier days as a materialist skeptic, it was plain to me that you cannot derive an “ought” from an “is.” Some event or action may be physically unpleasant to experience or emotionally disturbing to contemplate, but that is no basis for calling something good or evil. Things just are what they are. This does not mean that atheists cannot propose and live by attractive moral codes, but if you dig down deep enough you find these codes have no ultimate foundation.)
The astute skeptic will retort, “OK, so I cannot account for evil, but you as a theist admit that real evil exists. Thus, for you, premise # 3 is true, and so your belief system is logically incoherent.”
Bahnsen responds that, from propositions #1(God’s goodness), #2 (God’s power), and #3 (existence of evil), it is reasonable to infer that God has a morally good reason for the evil that exists, whether or not we know what that reason is. Thus, the apparent paradox created by the above three propositions is resolved by adding a 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.
… 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.
Technically, this is a “defense”, not a “theodicy.” A theodicy attempts to spell out, to human satisfaction, these inferred “morally sufficient reasons” for the existence of evil. Various Christian thinkers have appealed to the value of free will, soul-making, and the afterlife to justify the observed evils in this life. Bahnsen does not attempt to do that. Rather, he proposes that we should not normally expect (at least in this life) to be informed of these reasons:
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.
Bahnsen concludes that the “problem of evil” is not a valid intellectual basis for a lack of faith in God. Rather, it is the expression or consequence 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.
The discussion above does defuse the intellectual problem of evil. This notion of good underlying purposes may also provide help in dealing with the emotional pain of loss, depending on where you are in the grieving process. When tragedy first hits, you probably just need someone to cry with you and help you do whatever needs doing. As the initial shock wears off, there may be a place for reflection and consolidation. My mother, who passed away a week ago, was always a sympathetic listener if I shared with her some gnawing disappointment in my life. But when I was all done fretting, she would sometimes gently share this word of faith: “Nothing is wasted.”
[See README for an overview of what is in this blog]