EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article is adapted from the new Apologetics Study Bible released by the B&H Publishing Group of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention. The study Bible’s 100-plus articles and other features focus on defending the Christian faith. Gregory E. Ganssle is on the faculty of the Rivendell Institute for Christian Thought and Learning in New Haven, Ct., a special project of the Campus Crusade for Christ ministry at Yale University.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–What philosophers call “the problem of evil” is a family of arguments from the existence or nature of evil to the conclusion that God does not or probably does not exist. The oldest form of the argument is that the mere existence of evil is logically incompatible with God’s existence. If God exists, evil could not, and if evil exists, God could not.
I call this argument the “charge of contradiction.” The claim is that there is a logical contradiction in asserting that God is all-powerful, God is all-loving, and that evil exists. Wouldn’t this kind of God eliminate all evil? The existence of God, in this view, is on a par with a square circle. Given the existence of evil, it is impossible for God to exist. The challenge is to show that theism is logically consistent.
Few today, including atheists, think this argument succeeds. If God might have a good reason to allow evil, then it is possible that both God and evil exist. We need not know what God’s actual reasons are, but if it is possible He has one, then the argument is defeated. Most think it is possible that God has good reasons to allow evil and that, therefore, there is no contradiction between God’s existence and the existence of evil.
Today, the most important form of the argument against the existence of God from evil is called the “evidential argument from evil.” The one who presses this argument admits that the existence of God and the reality of evil are not logically incompatible. The argument is that the amount and the kinds of evil we find in the world is strong evidence against the existence of God.
Even though it is possible that God has a reason to allow the evils we find in the world, it does not seem likely that there are good reasons for some of the evils we see. We cannot prove that there is no good reason, but if we have lots of cases in which it seems as though there is none, we will conclude that there probably is no good reason to allow these evils. If it is true that probably there is no good reason to allow these cases of evil, then it is probable that God does not exist. This argument is called the “evidential argument” because we cannot prove that there is no good reason to allow the particular evils we are thinking about. These evils do, then, look like good evidence that God does not exist.
In order to begin to answer this argument, we must think about the claim that it is probable that no good reason exists to allow the evil in question. Why should we believe this is true? The one who puts this argument forward will appeal to cases of evil in which it is difficult to find a reason that might fit. Does this mean we ought to conclude that it is probable that there is no reason? No.
The reasoning here goes as follows: It seems like there is no reason to allow this evil; therefore, probably there is no reason to allow it. Sometimes this kind of reasoning is strong and other times it is weak. Let me illustrate. The argument is of the form: It seems like there is no x, therefore, probably there is no x. The Bible has numerous cases where one could mount this argument. Let’s take the case of Lazarus’s death in John 11. Lazarus was likely in the prime of his life. He’s a good man and a close friend of Jesus. Lazarus becomes ill and dies. The citizens of his village, Bethany, could see such an evil and after three days of mourning come to the conclusion that there is no reason for this. Therefore, God doesn’t exist. Then Jesus comes to Bethany. Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha, chastise Jesus for not getting there sooner. As we read John’s account, we see that unbeknownst to Mary and Martha, Jesus had reasons for delaying. Moreover, there were reasons Lazarus was permitted to die in the prime of his life. When Jesus arrived at Lazarus’s tomb, He prayed and then called Lazarus to come out of the tomb four days after his death. The reason for Lazarus’s sickness, death, Jesus’ delay and Lazarus’s resuscitation was that God’s glory might be seen.
Some of the citizens might have thought they had a strong case against the existence of God the three days after Lazarus died. But subsequent events place the evil of Lazarus’s death in a much different context. In light of this context, Lazarus’s death is seen to be part of a much greater good than anyone in Bethany could imagine.
The pattern that we see in this and numerous other biblical cases shows that there are times when we can’t say, “If God had a reason to allow this particular case of evil, we would probably know what it is.”
There are two reasons we can’t always make this claim. First, we can figure out reasons that God might have for many (perhaps most) of the evils in the world. For example, both human freedom and a stable, cause-effect universe are necessary for any meaningful action. Meaningful action, then, may be a reason that God allows various kinds of evil. Second, it is reasonable to think that God will have reasons that we cannot grasp for allowing evils in our lives. In fact, to think that we should be able to figure out God’s reasons for allowing every case of evil implies that we think God is not much smarter than we are. If God is the almighty Creator of the universe, there will be evil the reason for which we cannot discern. This is exactly what we should expect if there is a God. It cannot be counted as evidence against God.
So even though it might seem, at first glance, that there are no good reasons to allow certain evils we see, this does not provide strong evidence that these evils are really unjustified. The argument that the kinds of evil we see make it unlikely that God exists has been seen to be pretty weak.
The philosophical problem of evil has to do with what is reasonable to believe. To what degree is it reasonable to believe in God in light of what we seem to know about evil? We have seen that evil does not contradict God’s existence. Nor is it strong evidence against the existence of God. The evil in the world, then, does not make it unreasonable to believe in an all-powerful and all-loving God.