Now that I have your attention what does this all mean? I had a discussion with an atheist last week and we had a great talk, here are some thoughts to one of the objections that he brought up.
If God is all-powerful then He could prevent suffering and evil from happening. If God is all-loving, then He would want to prevent suffering and evil from happening. Evil and suffering exits. Therefore, God is either not all-powerful or not all-loving. Also, if God is all-knowing and He gave human beings free will and he allows the suffering and evil and He knows we are going to cause suffering and evil, then God is responsible. In either case, He is not worth worshiping.
This is a predominant theme from atheists – it is exceptionally common and virtually every self-proclaimed atheist uses it in one form or another. However, the central motive of this argument does not come from logic but from emotion.
The answer to this argument depends not only on refuting the premises but also refuting the logical structure which forms the conclusion from the premises – both are flawed.
Let’s look at the first form of the argument, If God is all-powerful then He could prevent suffering and evil from happening. Well, God is all-powerful. God could eliminate evil from the world. This is true and accurate.
The second form, If God is all-loving, then He would want to prevent suffering and evil from happening. God is “all-loving” or infinitely compassionate. This is true, but there is an implicit third premise in this argument – that infinitely compassionate means that He would wish to prevent “evil” acts and is prepared to take the necessary steps to do so.
The problem with the argument is that the term “evil” is never defined in this argument – what is evil? Asking the atheist will not get a clear answer. The Christian can give the only clear definition, “that which is against God,” but the atheist denies the existence of God so then by what standard does an atheist judge what is evil? The atheist will probably give examples of “evil” – the Holocaust, child rape, murder, war, starvation earthquakes, etc. All of these things are certainly unpleasant, and many of them, the Christian would agree, are actively evil (some of these things are simply the natural results of evil, selfish actions, and others – like hurricanes and floods – are just natural disasters). But if one denies the existence of God, then by what standard does one have to judge if an act is evil? If there is no God, then those things that which human beings deam to be evil is purely a social construct.
The unspoken premise in this argument is that an all-loving God, if He were true, would intervene to prevent what the atheist defines as unpleasant. However, let’s explore the ramifications of such a premise. If, God were to prevent ALL genuine evil and suffering in the world (i.e. what God saw as evil), then no-one would be able to deny His existence, we would be compelled to believe because there would be undeniable evidence that God is real, that would mean not just that no one would murder, or rob, or rape children, or that there would be no war, but also no-one would ever have premarital sex, no-one would be able to advocate or have an abortion and so forth. We would be in effect, robots, automatons.
In fact, the result would be the complete subjugation of free-will. This is a necessarily logical step – God cannot prevent evil without removing free-will from people (and removing it not just to a degree of coercion – i.e. “Do as I say or you will suffer” – but rather totally removing it so that humanity has no free-will whatsoever and cannot choose to do anything.) If you cannot choose to do evil, you also cannot chose to do good. You can’t have one, without the other. We would simply just be.
If there is no free-will and humanity cannot choose evil, then humanity cannot choose good either. A rock has no free-will; it is not a moral thing, but neither is it amoral. It simply exists.
Additionally, if we were all “programmed” to only do good, because that is in essence what we would be, if our ability to do evil were removed, then what would “good” be worth if there were no contrasting alternative to chose anything but good? We wouldn’t even know what good or evil was because we could never do either.
So, what does it mean for God to be all-loving? God desires that there be peace and good in the world, and It means that He wants us, His creation, to choose Him and choose the good. He wants us to reject evil. He want’s us to participate in bringing good to the world and rejecting evil. God’s highest good is to allow us to do the correct exercise of our free-will to choose Him. He sees death and suffering as, while very unpleasant for humanity, not evil in and of themselves. Death and suffering are often the results of evil actions, but they are not evil in and of themselves.
God is both infinitely loving and infinitely just; in His love He gives everyone the chance to know Him and respond to Him, the chance to choose good. A person who has chosen God and who is killed by an evil man is in a better position than the evil man; he is going to Heaven. God is interested in allowing humanity to choose Him, not in trampling over their wills and turning them into inert objects who have no ability to choose good or evil.
I would also say, if there is no God who is all-good and all-knowing, then how does that explain that a person like himself, who doesn’t believe in a good God still desires a good and perfect world of peace and love? What universal truth placed that desire in his heart and mind?
A similar argument to the problem of evil is the idea that an infinitely loving God would never send people to Hell – this is basically the universalist heresy, but with the additional element that God Himself is denied, rather than just the existence of Hell.
Curiously on the flip side of this I see the bookend belief, that of Calvinism, which says, God does not give man free will and so chooses who is going to Heaven and who is going to Hell. The problem with this, other than it being unbiblical and refuted throughout history, that this belief really does then make God completely responsible for ALL evil. If God does not allow free will, the we are not responsible in any way for our actions, logically we can’t be if you follow that premise to its conclusion. This is wrong, God is not the author of evil, evil is the result of humanity doing that which is contrary to the goodness of God. However, this is an argument that I will save for a further post to treat with greater emphasis.
The real problem I would say, is a false understanding of what IS evil? The atheist presumes that evil is some “thing” that is out in the world. That is the the wrong idea of evil. Evil is not some thing in and of itself something out in the world. Many people tend to think of evil as a separate and competitive force to good. Saint Augustine argues that evil is parasitic on good and not separate from good at all. Instead, evil is a corruption or rejection of the good. Just as a shadow grows larger as we move away from the light source, so the evil grows as we move away from what is good.
All of nature, therefore, is good, since the Creator of all nature is supremely good. But nature is not supremely and immutably good as is the Creator of it. Thus the good in created things can be diminished and augmented. For good to be diminished is evil; still, however much it is diminished, something must remain of its original nature as long as it exists at all. For no matter what kind or however insignificant a thing may be, the good which is its “nature” cannot be destroyed without the thing itself being destroyed. There is good reason, therefore, to praise an uncorrupted thing, and if it were indeed an incorruptible thing which could not be destroyed, it would doubtless be all the more worthy of praise. When, however, a thing is corrupted, its corruption is an evil because it is, by just so much, a privation of the good. Where there is no privation of the good, there is no evil. Where there is evil, there is a corresponding diminution of the good. As long, then, as a thing is being corrupted, there is good in it of which it is being deprived; and in this process, if something of its being remains that cannot be further corrupted, this will then be an incorruptible entity [natural incorruptibility], and to this great good it will have come through the process of corruption. But even if the corruption is not arrested, it still does not cease having some good of which it cannot be further deprived. If, however, the corruption comes to be total and entire, there is no good left either, because it is no longer an entity at all. Wherefore corruption cannot consume the good without also consuming the thing itself. Every actual entity is therefore good; a greater good if it cannot be corrupted, a lesser good if it can be. Yet only the foolish and unknowing can deny that it is still good even when corrupted. Whenever a thing is consumed by corruption, not even the corruption remains, for it is nothing in itself, having no subsistent being in which to exist.
From this it follows that there is nothing to be called evil if there is nothing good. A good that wholly lacks an evil aspect is entirely good. Where there is some evil in a thing, its good is defective or defectible. Thus there can be no evil where there is no good. This leads us to a surprising conclusion: that, since every being, in so far as it is a being, is good, if we then say that a defective thing is bad, it would seem to mean that we are saying that what is evil is good, that only what is good is ever evil and that there is no evil apart from something good. This is because every actual entity is good. Nothing evil exists in itself, but only as an evil aspect of some actual entity. Therefore, there can be nothing evil except something good. Absurd as this sounds, nevertheless the logical connections of the argument compel us to it as inevitable. At the same time, we must take warning lest we incur the prophetic judgment which reads: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil: who call darkness light and light darkness; who call the bitter sweet and the sweet bitter.” Moreover the Lord himself saith: “An evil man brings forth evil out of the evil treasure of his heart.” What, then, is an evil man but an evil entity [natura mala], since man is an entity? Now, if a man is something good because he is an entity, what, then, is a bad man except an evil good? When, however, we distinguish between these two concepts, we find that the bad man is not bad because he is a man, nor is he good because he is wicked. Rather, he is a good entity in so far as he is a man, evil in so far as he is wicked. Therefore, if anyone says that simply to be a man is evil, or that to be a wicked man is good, he rightly falls under the prophetic judgment: “Woe to him who calls evil good and good evil.” For this amounts to finding fault with God’s work, because man is an entity of God’s creation. It also means that we are praising the defects in this particular man because he is a wicked person. Thus, every entity, even if it is a defective one, in so far as it is an entity, is good. In so far as it is defective, it is evil.
Actually, then, in these two contraries we call evil and good, the rule of the logicians fails to apply. No weather is both dark and bright at the same time; no food or drink is both sweet and sour at the same time; no body is, at the same time and place, both white and black, nor deformed and well-formed at the same time.
This principle is found to apply in almost all disjunctions: two contraries cannot coexist in a single thing. Nevertheless, while no one maintains that good and evil are not contraries, they can not only coexist, but the evil cannot exist at all without the good, or in a thing that is not a good. On the other hand, the good can exist without evil. For a man or an angel could exist and yet not be wicked, whereas there cannot be wickedness except in a man or an angel. It is good to be a man, good to be an angel; but evil to be wicked. These two contraries are thus coexistent, so that if there were no good in what is evil, then the evil simply could not be, since it can have no mode in which to exist, nor any source from which corruption springs, unless it be something corruptible. Unless this something is good, it cannot be corrupted, because corruption is nothing more than the deprivation of the good. Evils, therefore, have their source in the good, and unless they are parasitic on something good, they are not anything at all. There is no other source whence an evil thing can come to be. If this is the case, then, in so far as a thing is an entity, it is unquestionably good. If it is an incorruptible entity, it is a great good. But even if it is a corruptible entity, it still has no mode of existence except as an aspect of something that is good. Only by corrupting something good can corruption inflict injury.
But when we say that evil has its source in the good, do not suppose that this denies our Lord’s judgment: “A good tree cannot bear evil fruit.” This cannot be, even as the Truth himself declareth: “Men do not gather grapes from thorns,” since thorns cannot bear grapes. Nevertheless, from good soil we can see both vines and thorns spring up. Likewise, just as a bad tree does not grow good fruit, so also an evil will does not produce good deeds. From a human nature, which is good in itself, there can spring forth either a good or an evil will. There was no other place from whence evil could have arisen in the first place except from the nature–good in itself–of an angel or a man. This is what our Lord himself most clearly shows in the passage about the trees and the fruits, for he said: “Make the tree good and the fruits will be good, or make the tree bad and its fruits will be bad.” This is warning enough that bad fruit cannot grow on a good tree nor good fruit on a bad one. Yet from that same earth to which he was referring, both sorts of trees can grow.
In other words, evil is simply the absence of good. God is perfectly good, but He is the only perfect good. Everything else in the world, while all good, is not perfectly good. Some parts of the world are more good than others. All the ‘evil’ we see is simply an absence of good. Light and darkness is an illustration of this idea. You could be in a pitch black room, but this doesn’t make darkness anything other than a simple lack of light.
Consider too, how lying is dependent upon the truth, but not the other way around. Lying twists and corrupts truth and trust; but truth is not a modified lie and it is possible (however rare) that some relationship exists where trust is genuine and unbroken. Additionally, we can only best understand ignorance as the absence of knowledge. Even in cases where we actively avoid knowledge, we do not seek to obtain ignorance (as if it were a special body on non-knowledge). Ignorance comes from avoiding, rejecting, and lacking knowledge. Like the shadow, ignorance is dependent upon the relationship of an object (a mind) with the truth. But the mind can exist without ignorance and the truth can exist whether or not it is blocked. In this example I recall the dictum of Socrates from my philosophy class days in college: “No one does wrong intentionally.” Which leads us to Plato’s idea that virtue is a kind of knowledge evil is a kind of ignorance. The influence of Plato on Saint Augustine is evident.
Really, it comes down to this. If we were not created by a good God, then we must be the products of chance, and if we are the products of chance, then how can we even rely and trust in our own ability to reason in the first place. In other words, if our brains are just a random combination of chemicals that formed by chance over billions of years then how on earth can we even trust our own thoughts we think or the feeling we feel? The only answer is, that we are intelligent beings created by an intelligent God who created us in His image and likeness, to think, reason and feel, and to choose good over evil and to work with Him to reduce the effect of evil in the world.
The final point here is we were created to be the instrument to bring goodness, God’s love to the world. Which for most people begins with their own families. We marry and have children and we do our best to will the greater good for them and to a further extent, to everyone we meet. If we are not doing this, if we are not willing the good of our families and those around us, then we are a part of the problem of evil and suffering in the world, and we have no one to blame, but ourselves. This is also God’s point of view. Fortunately He provides a solution for the whole issue. Thanks be to Jesus!