In early 2005, we presented some feature lessons on the existence of God (cf. "The Argument from Design" [01/08/2005] and a three part series on "Why I Believe the Bible is the Word of God" [starting 01/29/2005, 02/05/2005, and 02/12/2005]). We proved, by appealing to philosophy and science, that there must be a divine being of some sort. Furthermore, we demonstrated that the God of the Bible is that divine being by examining compelling internal and external proofs of the Scriptures. Today, I want us to begin considering the other side of the coin, so to speak. I want us to analyze what is affirmed by many to be the strongest argument that atheists have to offer against God's existence--the problem of evil.
Admittedly, some of the points made in this week's and next week's feature lessons are difficult. I will do my best to simplify this subject as much as possible yet still provide some depth worthy of your consideration. As always, your questions, comments, or challenges are welcome. My intent, of course, is not to confuse or overthrow anyone's faith by examining atheistic thought but rather to show the weakness of the unbeliever's best argument. I maintain that part of giving a ready defense for what we believe (I Pet. 3:15) includes being adequately equipped to deal with the best arguments of the opposition. Additionally, I believe that Christians will benefit from this study as they contemplate things such as: the attributes of God, man as a free moral agent, good and evil in intrinsic and instrumental terms, as well as the purposes of human suffering, natural calamities, and one's earthly lifetime as his only probationary period.
With those introductory matters aside, let us begin by defining what the problem of evil is.
Epicurus was once quoted as follows:
"God either wishes to take away evils and is unable; or he is able and unwilling; or he is neither willing nor able; or he is both willing and able. If he is willing and unable, he is feeble, which is not in accordance with the character of god; if he is able and unwilling, he is envious, which is equally at variance with god; if he is neither willing nor able, he is both envious and feeble, and therefore, not god; if he is both willing and able, which is alone suitable to god, from what source then are evils? or why does he not remove them?"1
In plain English, Epicurus has given us four options. God is either: (1) willing but unable to remove evil, (2) unwilling but able to remove evil, (3) unwilling and unable to remove evil, or (4) willing and able to remove evil.
According to Epicurus, if any of the first three options are true, then God is either feeble (i.e., willing but unable to remove evil), or envious (i.e., unwilling but able to remove evil), or both (i.e., unwilling and unable to remove evil). Those who believe the Bible must reject the charge that God is either feeble or envious since such is not in accordance with the characteristics of deity revealed in the Scriptures. Therefore, Epicurus' fourth option appears to be the only viable one for the Christian. But, when we accept that option, we have some explaining to do. If God is willing and able to remove evil, why doesn't He do such now? Why does He allow evil to reign in this world? The Bible teaches that God is certainly able to remove evil and will do such on His timetable. We know that the Lord does not take "pleasure in wickedness" and that evil does not dwell with Him (Psa. 5:4). However, for the time being He has a purpose in allowing evil to dominate this world.
Let us begin to explain by first considering some of...
THE ATTRIBUTES OF GOD.
Some in the past have attempted to avoid the so-called problem of evil by denying some of God's attributes. They might speculate that perhaps God is not really omnipotent or is somehow lacking in moral perfection. This way of thinking does get around the atheistic argument, but this sort of compromise is simply unacceptable for a Bible believer. The Scriptures teach that God is infinite in His attributes. He is eternal (Deut. 33:27); that is, He has always existed and will always exist. He is omniscient (I John 3:20); that is, He knows everything that is possible to know. He is omnipotent (Jer. 32:17); that is, He can do everything that is possible to do. He is omni-benevolent (I John 4:8); that is, He is perfect in love.
However, while it is the case that God is both omniscient and omnipotent, it is not the case that God can know or do everything. There are certain things that are unknowable and not subject to power. For instance, God cannot draw a four-sided triangle because such is a logical contradiction. By definition, a four-sided figure can never be a triangle and a triangle can never be a four-sided figure. Let it be emphasized that it is not the case that God is deficient in power or knowledge to accomplish this task (or any other logical contradiction). Regardless of the amount of power or knowledge, a logical contradiction is something that cannot be accomplished. Therefore, there are limits to what an omnipotent, omniscient being can do. This point is crucial to keep in mind as we consider...
MAN AS A FREE MORAL AGENT.
God, as an omnipotent being, has the power to create other beings. He has two general choices for His creation. He could either choose to endow the created beings with free moral agency (i.e., free will), or He could choose to withhold free choice from them. A free moral agent is simply a being who has free choice in all matters (and obligations and consequences because of the decisions he makes). Man is the only being on Earth who is truly a free moral agent. God could have created man as a puppet (i.e., without free will), but what purpose would that have served? God desires all to serve Him, but if man had no choice in the matter, then his service and obedience would be empty. There is no merit or love in acts of obedience if there is no free will. God created us with free will so we could choose whether or not to love and obey Him. Freedom of choice itself involves a choice between good and evil. Without both of these choices, man is not a free moral agent. This truth can be seen back in the Garden of Eden. God issued only one prohibition to Adam and Eve: do not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil! This prohibition gave the first human beings a clear choice between obedience or rebellion. God expressed what He desired for them, but He made an alternative possible, if they wanted to serve themselves and disobey Him. Tragically, they made the wrong choice.
Man cannot be free without having the possibility of choosing evil. Some have wondered why God cannot guarantee obedience. God could guarantee obedience, but the only way for Him to do so would be to remove (or interfere with) man's free will. If God does this, the whole nature of mankind changes in that free moral agency is lost. Thus, for God to guarantee man's obedience is for God to destroy the free will in man. It is a logical contradiction to affirm that man can be created as a free moral agent without the possibility of choice! Remember, to have free will implies choice, which includes the possibility of choosing evil. This concept is the primary application of the idea that an omnipotent, omniscient being does have limits. Creating a free moral agent (like man) without the possibility of evil is a logical contradiction, and thus impossible (like trying to construct a four-sided triangle).
Let us now work to develop a more precise understanding of what exactly is...
GOOD AND EVIL.
Another feeble attempt to avert the problem of evil is to deny the existence of evil. This just will not do. Evil does exist, but the term must be clearly defined before it can be discussed beneficially. To accomplish this end, distinctions should be made between types of good and evil. Intrinsic good is that which is always good in and of itself. For example, believing God, loving Him, and becoming a child of His are all intrinsically good. Intrinsic evil is that which is always evil in and of itself. For instance, rejecting God, rebelling against Him, and failing to love Him are all intrinsically evil. Instrumental good is that which is good as a means to an end. Instrumental evil is that which is evil as a means to an end. In other words, when something can be used for either good or evil, it is intrinsically neutral, morally speaking. The way in which it is currently being used dictates whether it is properly labeled as good or evil instrumentally. To illustrate, consider a sharp knife. Such is intrinsically neutral since knives can be used for good or evil. To use a knife to cut up food is an instrumental good. To use a knife to murder a person is an instrumental evil.
In the ultimate sense, I believe that sin is the only intrinsic evil. Sin is evil in and of itself. It is always evil. All other things labeled as evil are only instrumentally such. Sin (intrinsic evil) is that which violates God's will. To do evil is to act improperly within our relationships with man or God. To do evil is to transgress God's law. Nothing subhuman (e.g., natural disasters, weapons, etc.) can be intrinsically evil because nothing subhuman can sin. Good and evil come into consideration only in relation to the will of a person and in relation to God's will.
Some philosophers divide evil into categories such as human evil and natural evil. These divisions are vague in several ways. What exactly is human evil? Is something evil if the majority believes it to be so? Is something evil if one individual believes it to be such? It seems as if we have entered into the realm of relativism. Is there really such a thing as natural evil? By definition, evil involves the concept of will (which implies choice). Surely, no one would claim that natural events such as earthquakes or tornadoes have a will. Therefore, how can they be evil? We can only remain objective if we label evil as something more specific. Sin is the only intrinsic evil. It is objective because we can know what sin is, as it is defined in God's word, the Bible (I John 3:4).
Things such as beauty, good health, pain, and pleasure are all intrinsically neutral because none of them are good or evil in and of themselves. Why is this the case? Most pleasure, for example, is good, but pleasure that is achieved through sinful actions is evil. Thus, since pleasure is neither always good nor always evil, it can only be labeled instrumentally good or instrumentally evil depending upon the context. Beauty could cause one to become arrogant and self-centered, and thus it cannot be intrinsically good either. Good health could cause an individual to place his trust in himself and not in God. He could come to feel secure that he has many years of life left and he may live in disobedience to God. Because of cases such as these, good health cannot be intrinsically good. Good health would be instrumentally good, if it is properly used to serve God. Finally, if we labeled pain as an intrinsic evil, then we are left with some rather difficult conclusions to deal with. For example, everyday surgeons cut into people to perform various operations. A great deal of pain is typically felt later by these incisions. Surely no one would call the pain in such a case evil. The surgeon knew that pain would result from his actions, but his intention was to do the individual good via the operation. It is evident that evil and good must be considered in relationship to one's will.
As humans, we must only value that which is either intrinsically or instrumentally good. God has not created evil (sin). God has created the possibility of sin. Although this may seem like a semantics game to some, there is a significant difference between the two. As we noted earlier, there is no way to remove the possibility of sin without removing free choice. Thus, when God created beings with free will (men and angels), He created the possibility of evil. Let us hasten to state that God does not encourage sin in any way, and He is not blameworthy because He created this possibility. Man is responsible for his own actions. To contend that God is blameworthy is to contend that God should not have created man as a free moral agent (but rather as a robot with no choices whatsoever)! Man has the power or potential to do evil because God has given him the power of choice, which is necessary, of course, if man is ever to do something that is truly good.
The logical conclusion to all that has been considered in this lesson is this: a good, all-powerful being (like Jehovah) cannot eliminate the possibility of evil without eliminating free will in His creation. And, if the possibility of evil is granted, then that good, all-powerful being cannot eliminate the existence of evil without interfering with the free will of the beings who choose to do evil instead of good. In other words, there is no logical contradiction in believing that both God and evil exist! There will come a time (i.e., Judgment Day) when God will interfere with the free will of the wicked, but that time has not yet come. God still has a present purpose in allowing evil to exist.
It has been shown that this argument for atheism is not sound. However, there are other issues related to the problem of evil that should be considered. Questions such as: "What is the purpose of suffering?", "Why do the innocent suffer?", and "Why does God allow natural calamities to happen?" are just some of the issues that I would like for us to consider. We hope to address these questions next week.
Thank you for listening, and may the Lord bless you as you strive to do His will.
1Lactantius, "A Treatise on the Anger of God" in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, VII, ed. By Alexander Roberts and James Donalson (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1951), p. 271.