Wednesday, 22 March 2017

The Most Powerful Argument Against God?

     One of the greatest obstacles for many in accepting the reality of God is the problem of evil, pain, and suffering. The argument can be traced as far back as the Greek philosopher Epicurus ca. 300 BC. If God is all-good and all-powerful, why does evil exist? If he desires to take away evil from the world but cannot, he is not all-powerful. If he can take away evil but does not, he is not all-good. If he is neither willing nor capable, he is neither all-good nor all-powerful. If he is both willing and capable, why does evil exist?   
     On the surface this may sound like a compelling argument, but is it valid? If the logic is so incontrovertible, why have there been staunch theists long before, during, and ever since the time of Epicurus?

The Question is Reasonable, But is the Conclusion Reasonable?

     Do “bad things” necessarily disprove the existence of a supreme causal entity beyond our universe? Do “bad things” then prove that something does come from nothing, that lifeless matter does generate intelligent life, and that specified complexity (intelligent design) does happen randomly without a purposeful designer?1 Do our unanswered questions eliminate the answers we already have? Is human ignorance so powerful that it justifies the rejection of any supernatural creative force outside our universe and beyond our comprehension? If there is a problem we have difficulty understanding, might we be the problem? Is it possible that there is a purpose to the “bad” that we are not grasping, or perhaps the “bad” has a solution we are not looking for or not willing to accept?2

The Question No one Seems to be Asking …

     Why is there so much “good” in the world? Why isn’t anyone asking that question? If there is a black dot on an otherwise blank page, and passers-by are asked what they see, almost everyone will hone in on the black dot. Why? What about the rest of the page – the vast majority of the page – that surrounds the dot? We tend to be so focused on tiny abnormalities that we fail to see and appreciate everything else. The reality of evil, pain, and suffering grabs most of our attention because it’s not normal. With all the negativity in our newscasts and conversations, we seem oblivious to the plethoric beauty and decency in this less-than-perfect world. How do we explain love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control? If we are merely an evolutionary accident of amoral, unintentional, mindless forces directed by nothing and heading nowhere, there ought to be a whole lot more “bad” and a whole lot less “good” than there actually is.
     Maybe we’re asking the wrong question. To say – “Why is ‘evil’ in the world?” – presupposes: (a) knowledge of what constitutes “evil,” (b) knowledge (and appreciation) of what constitutes the contrasting “good,” and (c) an objective standard beyond oneself that determines what is “evil” and what is “good.” Is abortion evil or good? Is genocide evil or good? Who decides? You? Me? Adolf Hitler? Mother Teresa? Nazi Germany? ISIS? The society in which I live? Someone else’s society? Or is there an objective standard beyond any individual or social group? The question presupposes a higher authority (God?).3
     The irony is that evil and suffering exist, not because there is no God but because people reject God and then live accordingly. “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, They have done abominable works …” (Psalm 14:1). While the basis of the world’s evil lies in a practical denial of God, this is frequently twisted around to serve as what appears to be one of the most powerful objections to God’s existence.

Starting with a False Premise  

     Those who reject the God of the Bible because of evil, pain, and suffering are actually rejecting a misconceived version of God. It is true that the God of the Bible is all-good and all-powerful,4 but it is not true that he is only all-good and all-powerful. There are other aspects of his nature that provide a fuller, more balanced image. To assert that the God of the Bible can do anything and always gets what he wants is a fallacy not based in scripture. There are some things he cannot do. He cannot lie (Titus 1:2). He cannot be tempted by evil (James 1:13). He cannot do what is logically contradictory or impossible, like make a “square circle” or create a “married bachelor.” While the God of the Bible is sovereign,5 this doesn’t mean he always gets what he wants. Even though he desires all to be saved (1 Tim. 2:4), not all are willing to accept his conditions of salvation (Matt. 7:21; 23:37; etc.). God cannot be understood apart from all his attributes: justice, holiness, love, mercy, forbearance, et al., which, by the way, are often left out of the conversation.

A Revised Premise

     In order to have the greatest state of goodness in the world, it is necessary for some specific goods to exist that entail the possibility of certain evils. Humans are designed with the ability to think and the freedom to choose. A God of love doesn’t force us to act against our wills but grants freedom. The blessing of freedom involves choice, and choice includes not only the possibility of making good decisions but also bad ones. It is impossible for God to have made us free moral agents and yet take away our capability of making wrong choices. Freedom without choice is a logical contradiction.     
     Now God has provided an instruction manual to guide us in the right direction (2 Tim. 3:16-17), but when people disregard divine directives and make bad decisions, pain and suffering often result. It is man, not God, who has created slavery, whips, bombs, death camps, liquor, pornography, pollution, environmental destruction, false religion, and so on. The gift of freedom, when misused, accounts for the majority of human misery.6

Is All Suffering Evil?

     Most consider something good if it brings pleasure and bad if it causes pain, but this is shallow and shortsighted. What about things such as courage, patience, resilience, and determination? The imperfections of this world serve a purpose in allowing us to grow and develop into mature, responsible beings in a way that would otherwise not be possible. The suffering we see in the lives of others provides opportunities for compassion and service. God’s desire for his creatures seems to be, not the suffering itself, but the positive and beneficial effects. “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Rom. 5:3-4 ESV).
     Hardships also help to create an acknowledgment of human weakness and the need for God in one’s life. Pride and arrogance are self-destructive traits (Prov. 16:18), but suffering has a way of helping put things in perspective. It is said that when a man is flat on his back, the only direction he can look is up. “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Psa. 73:26).7


     The problem of evil, pain, and suffering may offer an excuse for rejecting God, but it provides no solid proof that God isn’t real. It’s okay to have questions, but it’s not okay to ignore answers that challenge unfounded preconceptions. Whether or not I’m contributing to making this world a better place, how is shaking my fist at the concept of God going to make any positive difference?

     2 See Richard Parr, “Big Questions of Life: Is there a God?,” HubPages (23 Oct. 2015), <Link>.
     3 Listen to the thought-provoking exchange between atheist David Silverman and theist Frank Turek on this question, <Link>. Also Dennis Prager's commentary on Subjective vs. Objective Morality, <Link>.
     4 Psa. 18:30; 19:7; 136:1; 147:5; Jer. 32:17; etc.
     5 Isa. 46:9-10; Dan. 4:35; Psa. 115:3; 1 Tim. 6:15; etc.
     6 Even natural calamities are ultimately linked to human sin. From a biblical perspective, the earth’s environment today is significantly different than it was prior to the catastrophic global flood (Gen. 6–9). See Wayne Jackson’s “Why Do Natural Disasters Happen?” <Link>, where he observes: “No wickedness, no Flood. No Flood, no change of earth’s environment. No change of earth’s environment, no geological disasters. Thus, no wickedness, no geological disasters.”
    7 The last portion of this article is a revised version of the 8th June 2016 post, <If God is So Good ...>.

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1 comment:

  1. Thanks Kevin - I had never thought of the 'why is there so much good in the world if there is no God' argument. I like it. Alan.