Monday, February 20, 2017

Atheists and the Problem of Evil

If God exists then why is there evil in the world? If God exists why do people suffer? If God exists why do bad things happen? Many atheists use this kind of argument as a basis for rejecting belief in God, the point being that if there is an all-powerful (omnipotent) and all-good (benevolent) Deity, then why do bad things happen?

In Christian theology this is known as The Problem of Evil. The classic statement of this "problem" was set out by Epicurus circa. 300BCE, and later rehashed by David Hume in "Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion" (1779):
Is [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? then [God] is impotent. Is [God] able, but not willing? then [God] is malevolent. Is [God] both able and willing? then where does evil come from?
Murder in the House by Jakub Schikaneder (1890)
The argument assumes that if God exists then God could, would and should do something about the presence of evil in the world. That there is evil and suffering in the world must mean God does not exist. The argument seems decisive, and believers have largely bought into the paradox, leading to all manner of theological gymnastics being performed across the years in the attempt to resolve this so-called "problem".

Yet for any atheist who uses this as a basis for arguing against God's existence I think the question begs: What exactly do you expect God to do about evil and suffering? Let me phrase this another way. If the claim is being made that were God to exist then God should, could and would do something about the presence of evil in the world, then what does God acting in the world essentially boil down to? In the end we are essentially talking about miracles.

Christ Appearing to His Disciples After the Resurrection by William Blake (1795)
In suggesting that God should, could and would address the problem of evil and suffering, what an atheist is basically asking God to do is nothing short of a miracle! Yet atheists do not believe God does miracles... or do they? If atheists want to ground belief in God's non-existence on the assumption that if God exists then God would do something about evil, then they are essentially making the case that God does miracles. Yet if we are suggesting that God can do a miracle to end evil and suffering, why not go all the way and say that God could also raise Jesus from the dead, this being the miracle par excellence for Christians as it not only proves God's existence but justifies the profession of Jesus Christ as our Saviour:
For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins (1 Corinthians 15:16-17)
I doubt any atheist would go this far. In fact somewhat paradoxically in "An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding" (1748) David Hume actually rejects the logical probability of miracles and the resurrection occurring, which seems to undermine his suggestion thirty years later in the "Dialogues" that were God to exist, then God should be doing something about evil and suffering. In the end, Hume cannot have his theological cake (why doesn't God do a miracle to stop evil and suffering) and eat it (miracles don't happen).

All this appears to leave the atheist having to restate the "problem" of evil in the following manner: Either God exists and can do a miracle to stop evil and suffering, which leaves the question begging as to why someone would then logically reject Jesus' resurrection, or God does not do miracles, which means the existence of evil and suffering in the world is not God's problem to solve, but ours!

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