An Answer to the Intellectual Problem of Evil

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]

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About ScottBuchanan

Long-time evangelical Christian, interested in everything, including science, miracles, gardening, and macro-economics. Background: B.A. in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, a year at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and a year working as a plumber and a lab technician. Then a B.S.E. from the University of South Florida and a Ph.D. from Princeton University, both in chemical engineering. Since then, have conducted research in an industrial laboratory. Published a number of papers on heterogeneous catalysis, and am an inventor on over 70 U.S. patents in diverse technical areas.
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8 Responses to An Answer to the Intellectual Problem of Evil

  1. JimV says:

    My atheist definition of evil would be unnecessary suffering, as for example, Jews being sent to death camps. One can quibble about semantics and where to draw the line, but surely we don’t need a god to tell us that was evil? Another method of defining evil might be, that which evolution has caused my mirror neurons to recognize as something which would be unfair and hurtful if practiced on myself. No doubt advances in neuroscience will improve the latter definition.

    As for adding the fourth premise, this seems similar to the you-can’t-prove-my-god-doesn’t-exist argument. The whole point of the god hypothesis (or any hypothesis) is to explain the universe, i.e. observed reality, better than without the hypothesis. A hypothesis to which one keeps adding un-evidenced codicils to compensate for its lack of explanatory power seems useless to me.

    If, as I gather, you believe you have evidence in the form of miraculous healing, then a better way to present your case would be to set up controlled, double-blind experiments to demonstrate such events. This could be done in conjunction with the “Amazing Randi” challenge and win you a million dollars at the same time!

    • Jim, you raise a number of interesting points.

      In my post (for the purposes of addressing the theological problem of evil), I tried to distinguish between evil in some absolute sense, as opposed to something I or most people happen to strongly dislike or something that seems counterproductive. Perhaps I didn’t make that sufficiently clear.

      To look at your example of Jews being sent to death camps, you (and I) find that reprehensible, but tens or hundreds of thousands (this is a debated number) of Germans in the 1940’s were OK with it. They felt they had a national problem, for which the Holocaust was a rational solution. You might label them all as sociopaths, but they would have labeled you as something similar. Had the Axis won WWII and enforced fascist views on the world, we would not be having this discussion. My point here being that without some external, absolute reference point, anyone can claim anything to be “right”.

      I agree, adding the 4th proposition doesn’t add much new content. But that is part of its virtue, i.e. that it is inherent in propositions 1-3. Thus, explicitly stating prop #4 serves to defuse the charge of incoherency among propositions 1-3, which was the main point of my post. Whether in the larger sense theism provides useful explanatory power for reality is a huge subject, which is kind of slippery because it involves metaphysical concepts which our brains (as Kant pointed out) may not be good at apprehending.

  2. Brad says:

    This is really interesting. Thanks for taking the time to write it up.

  3. Cousin TJ says:

    Hey, Cuz. Has anyone ever put forth the idea that there is no evil per se — that suffering is not evil. In other words, to call suffering evil seems to me to add something to suffering that might not be useful. What do you think? Wouldn’t that solve the problem of evil?

    • Hi T,
      I think you are right, in a non-theistic framework. There, I’d agree that labeling something as “evil” adds nothing. It simply denotes that I really, really don’t like that something. I tried to give play to this notion above by noting that for a materialist, ” 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. ” So, I agree, the problem of evil goes away b/c evil goes away.

      We theists don’t get off the hook so easily, since we claim that there is some sort of beneficent design in play. I can embrace some types of pain as being a necessary signal that the body needs some specific care, but when a child is suffering from being abused by an adult, or a man shrieks with pain for months as he dies of bone cancer, I cannot rationalize that away.

      Paul (I Cor 15) stated that if we are only considering this life, then Christians should be considered a pitiful, foolish bunch — this was a time when to be a Christian often meant being beaten, robbed, imprisoned, or killed. Paul wrote (15:32) that the rational response to no eternity would be just to get as comfortable as possible in this life: “If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’ “.

      I find that for my thinking, I have to appeal to an eternal hereafter as the venue for things to get put right. The most horrible drawn out agony and unanswered injustice will seem like the blink of an eye, in the light of eternity. This perspective of eternity outweighing the temporal is everywhere in the NT, and I think it does have an internal logic. Paul, who was always getting beaten and imprisoned, wrote ,”I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Rom 8:18) and “Our…momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. ” (II Cor 4:17).

      See you in a bit…

  4. Cousin TJ says:

    Ha! We materialists don’t get off so easy either. We have no “venue for things to get put right”.

  5. Roger Ramjet says:

    Here’s a thought:
    Our definitions of good and evil are the result of social evolution. What constitutes good and evil behavior is fairly consistent across various societies, and where it is different, there is usually a reason for it. Societies that had a viable definition of good and evil flourished,and those concepts lived with them, societies that didn’t (such as the Aztecs) were doomed to fail.

    There are concepts that were good at one time (e.g. be fruitful and multiply, and have dominion over the earth) that may no longer be viable. Other concepts, such as honoring parents, or not bearing false witness, will likely continue to remain ‘good’.

    To me, the most elegant concept of good in the bible is the golden rule. Everything else flows from that (assuming the person applying it is well-adjusted).

    I don’t like the idea that God is necessary for good to exist. This implies that human beings cannot be good without the threat of divine punishment being held over their heads. It seems to me that doing good should be done for the sake of doing good. I believe there are passages in the bible that may support that concept, though I can’t recall them off-hand.

    Good and evil cannot exist without free will. Free will cannot exist in a deterministic universe. To me, that is the true dilemma, and why God is necessary for good to exist (i.e. creatures with free will could not evolve in a mechanistic universe, but it is possible they were created).

  6. Pingback: A Survey of Biblical Natural Theology | Letters to Creationists

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