In this fortieth essay in my series on “Is Christianity True?” we continue to consider the challenge to Christian belief that arises from our experience of evil. In the three previous essays devoted to this challenge, I claimed that the argument from evil to atheism fails rather dramatically and that what we call evil is disorder and conflict rather than an actual concrete thing or force. Today I want to build on this foundation.
The two main contemporary forms of the argument from evil are the “logical argument” and the “evidential argument.” The logical argument contends that the classical divine attributes of omnipotence, perfect goodness and omniscience are logically at odds with the proposition that evil exists. If God were omnipotent, God could prevent all evil. If God were perfectly good, God would want to prevent all evil. And if God were omniscient, God would know every instance of evil and how to prevent it. But evil exists. Therefore God is either omnipotent but not perfectly good or perfectly good but not omnipotent.
Such Christian philosophers as Alvin Plantinga have argued that the logical argument is not as logically impassable as it seems to be. Even if God could prevent all evil, he could have a morally sufficient reason for allowing some evil. Suppose that a world containing free beings, even if those beings can do evil as well as good, is a greater good than a world without instances of evil but also without freedom. And suppose further that God cannot create this better world without allowing the possibility for evil to occur, since a creature’s act cannot be both free and determined at the same time. Hence asserting the three classical attributes is not logically inconsistent with the admission that evil occurs.
The evidential argument from evil gives up the idea of a logical contradiction between the three classical attributes and the admission that evil occurs. Admitting that God might have a good reason for allowing some evil, the advocates of the evidential argument contend that there is too much horrendous evil in the world for any greater good to justify God for allowing it. In my view this argument is much harder to make and refute. The reason is simple: it attempts to quantify how much evil could justify any possible good outcome. We have no perspective from which to make this judgment and no scale on which to weigh present evil against future good. The debate goes nowhere and turns quickly into an appeal to emotion and an attack on the character of the believer.
It is important to note that neither of these arguments (logical or evidential), even if you accept them, concludes to atheism. They merely point to an alleged contradiction or difficulty in the classical doctrine of God. And it should be obvious that our inability to articulate a perfectly coherent doctrine of God should not count as strong evidence for the nonexistence of God. Such a demand would be considered ridiculous in almost any other area of science or philosophy. If you have other compelling reasons for believing in God or affirming the classical doctrine of God, the challenge of the problem of evil need not defeat this belief even if you cannot resolve the difficulties completely.
For Christianity, the present tension created by sin, suffering and death cannot be resolved by rational arguments that attempt to balance accounts between good and evil. The resolution will occur in the future resurrection and redemption of creation and is grasped in the present only by faith in God through Jesus Christ. The Bible gives no rigorous rational account of the origin of evil or why God allows it. True, sin, suffering and death are roughly associated with freedom (Gen 3 and Rom 5:12-21), and sometimes suffering is said to produce good things in the long run (Rom 5:1-5; Heb 12:7-11; and James 1:2-4). But for the most part, New Testament authors take our existential situation for granted and focus on the salvation achieved by Jesus Christ in the cross and resurrection, they encourage living in the present in the faith, hope and love given by the Holy Spirit and they look to the future resurrection and judgment to correct all wrongs and make all things new.
For Christian theology, the most pressing problem of evil is not the disturbing question of why God allows suffering. It is existential fact that we are sinners, unable to clear our consciences or change our behavior, and that we are dying along with the whole creation. The cross is the ground and hope for forgiveness and deliverance from sin, and the resurrection is the ground and hope for death’s defeat and life’s eternal triumph. When the real problem of evil is finally dealt with the question of why God allowed suffering will be forgotten.