The problem of evil is one of the most famous (if not the most famous) atheistic arguments in philosophical debate. The well-known theistic philosopher Alvin Plantinga has been credited with describing the problem of evil as “the only argument against God that deserves to be taken seriously.” I’ve had no luck conjuring up the source of the quote, but regardless of who actually said it, there is some truth to the statement. While I do think that there are many other avenues of atheistic argumentation that can serve to support an atheistic worldview (and also disprove a theistic one), it is true that theists are more threatened by the problem of evil than any other atheistic argument. If God were a being who committed evil acts, or allowed them to occur when he could have easily stopped them, then theism is indeed in danger. The position of theism is dependent upon a personal God who is perfectly good.
Here is a basic sketch of the standard argument from evil:
- There exists a God who is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent.
- A being who is omnipotent has the power to do any and all things that are logically possible.
- A being who is omniscient has knowledge of all and only true propositions.
- A being who is omnibenevolent is perfectly morally good, and therefore does not want any evil to occur.
- Evil exists.
- Therefore premise 1 is false and there is no God who is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent.
This argument takes the form of a reductio ad absurdum, which initially posits a premise, and then through a process of deductions based on the meanings and entailments of that premise (and in this case we add an observation about the real world), finds a contradiction and concludes that the original premise must be false.
What is probably the most popular response to the argument from evil is the ‘free will defense.’ The free will defense claims that evil exists only as a result of the actions of the free will of humanity. God gave us this free will because it is a “greater good,” and so the balance of good vs. evil is kept in the positive side (the side of good). The goodness of our free will outweighs the evil that results from our decisions. So God allowed the Holocaust to happen because taking away the free will of Hitler and the Nazis would have been a greater evil than allowing Hitler and his troops to slaughter millions of Jews. Or something like that. In any case, theists tend to claim that this is the greatest of all possible worlds, because God created it, and God, being omnibenevolent, omniscient, and omnipotent, wants to create the best possible world, knows how to do so, and has the power to do so. So there is nothing preventing God from doing that, thus God must have done that. (NOTE: This is an obviously circular argument, and it is not the way the actual formal argument for this conclusion typically goes, so please don’t interpret this as me setting up a strawman. I am simply explaining the conclusion that theists have arrived at, not how they got there.)
There is a problem with this response, however. Most theists (usually being Christian) also believe in the existence of a perfect paradise where God will take his beloved creations and allow them to live for the rest of eternity after this earthly, material existence is finished. This paradise is traditionally referred to as Heaven. But the question then arises: isn’t Heaven the best of all possible worlds? Don’t we also have free will in Heaven? No acts of evil are committed in Heaven. Heaven is supposed to be a paradise that is much greater than our existence on this planet. So surely, this great good of free will that we experience here on earth is also available in Heaven. But then where is the evil there?
Consider this problem from another perspective. Imagine a continuum of possible Earths, all of which contain humans with free will. On one end of the continuum, there is the possible Earth in which every human is endowed with free will and has made the most evil decision that he/she possibly could at every opportunity. No good deeds have been done on this Earth, only evil ones. Now consider the other end of the continuum. On this possible Earth, every human is endowed with free will and has made the most good decision that he/she possibly could at every opportunity. No evil deeds have been done on this Earth, only good ones. Surely, this last possible earth is the best of all possible worlds. Presumably, this must be what Heaven is like. But the question now arises: why didn’t God just make this world? Why didn’t he make the world with free beings who happened to have made all and only good decisions with their free will? It seems to me that there is no good reason that God, if he had the properties discussed earlier and were able to create a place like Heaven, wouldn’t have just created Heaven and Heaven only. Why create a further world in which so much evil is to be perpetrated?
The theist, then, when confronted with this issue, appears to have two main avenues open to him:
- Deny that God has in fact, or could in principle, create a place like Heaven. Or
- Deny that God has all of the properties ascribed to him earlier (e.g., God might not want to prevent all evil, he might not know how, or he might not have the power to do so).
Embracing either of these strategies seems to eliminate the theist from maintaining a Christian standpoint, as Christianity posits both a Heaven and a God with the aforementioned omni-properties.
So, theists…. what’ll it be? Will you have your God? Or your Heaven? At least one of them has got to give.