The Problem of Evil: An Introduction

We are all familiar with this problem, either on a philosophical level or an experiential level. The question of God’s existence may plague some, but it does not plague all. However, pain, suffering, and injustice will visit us all at some point in our lives. Inevitably, we will ask “Why?” or we will ask the harder question, “God, why?” The problem of evil is a challenge to the non-theist, but it is most challenging to the Christian because he must not merely state the problem, but be “ready to give an answer for the hope that he has.” Despite his religious-like-zeal for atheism, the atheist is not obligated by any doctrine to propagate his position. Thus, we Christians are expected to give two answers to the two questions, “Does God exist?” and “If God exists, is He a good God?”  

Does God Exist: Selecting the Appropriate Argument

When addressing the Problem of Evil, Christians need to be discerning in their selection of arguments. If they are not careful in their selection, they may end up defending the existence of God in a way that compounds the challenges presented by the Problem of Evil by showing that there is indeed a God that exists, but the question of his goodness is left unanswered. This objection came from Stephen Law during a debate with William L. Craig. Craig clearly expects this objection, and supplements his typical argument for the existence of God with evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. Craig’s two-pronged argument, the cosmological argument and evidence for the Resurrection, reveals that demonstrating God’s existence alone is not enough for the Christian. Many Christians have been impacted by the arguments presented by popular apologists. However, if we don’t examine these arguments carefully, we may be making an unjustified leap from theism considered generally, to truths of Christianity specifically. For example, Dr. Craig has made famous the kalam cosmological argument, an argument that was originally developed by Muslim philosophers,

“The kalam cosmological argument derives its name from the Arabic word designating medieval Islamic scholasticism, the intellectual movement largely responsible for development of the argument.” (Philosophical Foundations, Craig & Moreland. 465).

This is not to say that the argument is not meant to be used by Christians simply because it came from Muslims. Rather, the argument can be used by anyone trying to defend the existence of the uncaused god of theism. But the fact that it was used by Muslims and Christians demonstrates that it is not capable of adjudicating between the two faiths and their exclusive deities. Thus, when it comes to the problem of evil, we need to ask ourselves if there is an argument that not only demonstrates God’s existence, but also his power, knowledge, and goodness. I don’t disagree with Dr. Craig’s approach, but it seems that we may be able to use an argument that serves as a better foundation for the truths of scripture.  We will not be able to demonstrate by argument alone that the God of Christianity is the God of the Philosophers. But, if we can present an argument that demonstrates the divine attributes most relevant to the Problem of Evil, then the question of an evil god becomes innocuous.

God is Good: The Argument from Change

Ultimately, we’re attempting to demonstrate not only that God exists, but the specific way in which he exists — a state of existence that lacks all or any potential. For example, a being that has no potential to gain more power is a being that possesses all power. To demonstrate this, we begin with the observation of change in finite things. Finite things change. They are composed of both actual existence and potential existence; potential good and actual good. Thus, change can be described as something moving from a state of potential to actual. For example, a human being has the potential to run, but he must move his actual legs in order for him to actually run. This is an example of change: movement from potentially running to actually running. Potentials that previously had no existence in reality receive existence every day. Houses are built, children are born, acts of kindness are completed, and bodies are healed. This means that for a potential to have existence it must receive its existence from something that is actual i.e. exists. The diagram for the causal relationship between that which is actual and potential would look like this:

Actual Fire —> Potential Log Fire —> Actual Log Fire.

But notice that the way we reason about causality is in the opposite direction. We see the fire, and reason to the cause of something that can make the log ignite:

Actual Fire <— Potential Log Fire <— Actual Log Fire

In other words, we don’t believe that logs exist in a state of perpetual fire. We reason that the log must have been ignited by an actual thing, mainly a blow torch, a match, or a lightning bolt. Similarly, we can think this way about existence and its origin. In order for things to obtain existence (potential à actual), they must be made existent by something that already possesses existence (clearly non-existent things are nothing, and have no causal effect). The argument we are discussing is known as Thomas Aquinas’ First Way (ST. I, Q. 2, Art. 3.)  It is an argument for God’s existence based on the changing world around us. It essentially runs like this:

1. We know from experience that things change.

2. Change is the movement from potential existence (potency) to actual existence (act).

3. Potential existence cannot make itself actually exist, any more than a log can actualize its own potential to be on fire.

4. Thus, there must be a being that is actual and lacks all potential.

5. This being exists in a state of Pure Actuality, having no potential, and would be the cause of all things.

When we say that God is the source of the existence found in things, we are also saying that he is goodness itself. This is based on God lacking any potential, meaning there is nothing outside of him that actualizes any potentials within him. To be Pure Act is to be existence itself; the highest degree of reality and therefore the highest good. George Klubertanz expands on the relation between goodness and existence,

“God is [Pure Act]…So it follows that He is absolutely perfect as being…Since the nature of God is identically the act of existing…the transcendental goodness of God is identically His proper goodness.” (Klubertanz, Introduction to Philosophy of Being, 201n21).

Thus, despite the evils in the world, we have shown that God exists and that he is good. Furthermore, he does not possess any potential. This means that he is all-knowing and all-powerful; he cannot increase in power or in knowledge. The other attributes of God are also derived from God being Pure Act. You can read about them in in Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, or Norman Geisler’s Systematic Theology. But, we now have the attributes necessary to engage the Problem of Evil.

Revisiting the Problem of Evil

It is not uncommon for people going through a challenging time to say, “This is so awful, I wish I never existed!” But, non-existence is nothing, and nothing is not a state of existence but the absence of existence—the absence of the good. Thus, we can say that it is better to exist than to not exist; even if our existence has the potential for evil. As Norman Geisler says in his book, If God, Why Evil?,

“In response, note that nonexistence cannot be said to be a better condition than any kind of existence, since nonexistence is nothing. Once again, to affirm that nothing can be better than something is a category mistake.” (Geisler, Norman L. If God, Why Evil?,  112-113)

If existence is good, then evil must be its opposite, a lack of existence/good. Most people have a narrow view of evil, but we are going to expand your definition. For example, pick your favorite color. Is it blue, red, green, or white? Now imagine a fence post with your favorite color. Next, imagine the color by itself. Does it exist? Abstractly speaking, it cannot exist because it lacks a host or thing (solid, liquid, vapor etc.) through which we experience it. Similarly, evil does not exist outside of actual things. It requires a thing in order to really exist. In that sense, evil is a leach on the goods we ought to have.  Thus, Klubertanz writes,

“The opposite of the proper good is the evil. Taken concretely, ‘evil’ or ‘bad’ designates some thing[sic] which is without some particular good which it should have according to its kind. Taken abstractly, ‘evil’ or ‘badness’ is a privation.” (Klubertanz, Philosophy of Being. 199).

A privation is merely a fancy term to state that a being is lacking something it ought to possess. For example, blindness is not the way that humans ought to exist. Sight is something all humans ought to have, but some have been deprived of their sight due to biological factors, criminals, or natural disasters.  Blindness can only come to exist in those particular beings that naturally have the capacity to see (i.e. rocks cannot be blind). Similarly, pure evil does not exist in the abstract, it a metaphysical “parasite” that only thrives on finite existence. We have now defined good as existence itself, that evil is the lack of good, and that the reality of evil does not disprove the existence of God (in this article, things changing shows that God exists whether there is evil or not).

The Christian’s Answer to the Problem

When I first began studying in seminary, I attended the National Conference on Christian Apologetics. At lunch, I met an atheist who flew in from California to get answers from Christians to his questions about the faith.  He sat himself down at our lunch table, and introduced himself as a Christian turned atheist. His objection was, “How could a good God send people to Hell?” While the Bible has clear answers to this question, the dilemma exists precisely because of the descriptions of God contained in the Bible. His question implies that “If I were God, I would have figured out a better solution.” After many different responses from the group, the young man was still frustrated that he was getting answers that he had already found himself. He looked at me and said, “You look like you’ve been thinking for a while. What do you think?” To which I replied, “You seem to think that if you were all-powerful, you could do something different. But you’re neglecting another divine attribute, omniscience. The fact is, you don’t know what you would do if you were both all-powerful and all-knowing.” He was intrigued, but our conversation was interrupted by another’s perspective. I do not know what occurred with this young man’s relationship with God, but this story should remind us that the Problem of Evil is unique compared to other challenges in natural theology because it begins with what ought to be rather than what is. Furthermore, while the argument here is convincing for some, we would be fools to believe that there exists a “knock-down” argument for every position opposed to Christianity. Indeed, men’s beliefs are the sum of their knowledge, experience, and reasons, rather than any particular fact, experience, or reason itself. Thus, for the Christian, the best solution to the Problem of Evil is to study the things of God, live the Christian life, engage the lost and their questions, and make the most of every opportunity (Col. 4:5). Given that God is all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing, and evil is still present, then it follows that “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’” (C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce. 75).

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