The problem that the atheist has in the problem of evil is that in atheism there shouldn’t be a problem.
The problem of evil is a problem for everyone. It is a problem from the stage at a philosophical debate to the table at a corner coffeehouse. People struggle with the problem of evil because people struggle with evil.
Christians struggle with thinking and feeling our way through the problem of evil as much as anyone, and often more so. We are forced by reality to ask ourselves how we can believe in an all-good, all-powerful God that allows all this pain and suffering. Nevertheless, we understand a few things.
- Logically, there is no reason to believe that the existence of evil and the existence of God are contradictory.
- Emotionally, as terrible as pain and suffering are, Christianity offers the resources to find a peace that passes all understanding.
- Existentially, there is hope in the fact that Jesus Christ took on himself the consequences of evil and demonstrated his power to ultimately deliver us from it.
In Christianity, we have both definition for and deliverance from evil.
But, what about the nonbeliever? The problem of evil is typically offered as evidence that God does not exist. It is usually the atheist who leaves the problem at the feet of the Christian and demands an answer. However, “Criticism without alternative is empty.”
So, what answer does atheism offer for the problem of evil?
Here’s the thing…
It doesn’t, because it can’t.
Logically, if God does not exist then there can be no definition of evil.
Everything in atheistic worldviews begins and ends with impersonal randomness. Everything we see around us and in us is simply what happens when chemistry and physics have an infinite number of accidents over an infinite amount of time. Human experience is simply what happens to protoplasm at this temperature. The line between life and death, creation and destruction, is drawn by blind natural selection.
So, where does evil fit? It really doesn’t as it turns out.
Richard Dawkins summarizes this well in what is perhaps his most famous quote from his least famous book:
“In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”
In atheism, it is merely an accident of evolution that we perceive anything as good or evil. Therefore, natural evil can no longer be viewed as such. It is not a matter of good and evil; it is a matter of survival.
In atheism, it is merely a convention of society that we perceive anything as right or wrong. Therefore, moral evil can no longer be viewed as such. It is not a matter of right or wrong; it is a matter of consensus.
But, does anyone really live this way? Do we really think that evil is something that we have accidentally developed or arbitrarily accepted? Or, when we see news coverage of natural disasters or mass murders, do we believe that they are actually evil?
Unfortunately, in atheism, there is no such thing.
If the Christian must answer, “If God, why evil?”, then the atheist must answer, “If no God, what evil?”
Emotionally, if God does not exist then there should be no devastation in evil.
It is a typical scene. An atheist brings up a horrifying moment in the past in which they believe God should have intervened but did not. After a strong emotional plea by which no sane person would be unaffected, the atheist leaves the burden of proof on the Christian and the indictment of nonexistence on God.
It is a scene for which the late Christopher Hitchens was well known. As an atheist, after hearing the Christian response to the problem of evil, he would reply with a story. He would describe the excruciating plight of a young lady, held hostage and raped by her own father. Stomachs turned in the audience as he described the horror. By the end, every person within earshot was filled with righteous indignation for the deranged father. Hitchens gathered the raging disgust and turned it to heaven.
“I have to ask you if you can be morally or ethically serious…No, that had to happen [says the Christian] and heaven did watch it with indifference because it knows that that score, later on, will be settled…I don’t see how you can look anyone in the face or live with yourself and say anything so hideously, wickedly immoral as that, or even imply it.”
But then, there is a crucial blind spot in Hitchens’ thinking. If he was so dissatisfied with the Christian response to the problem of evil, a response that so many through the years have tried and found satisfactory, we must wonder—what comfort does atheism offer? “No, that had to happen,” says the atheist, “and the universe did watch with indifference because it knows that that score, later on, will be irrelevant.” I don’t see how that is a better answer.
The atheist worldview offers explanation without justification. Immensely exaggerating the explanatory power of science, we know how bad things happen. We just have no reason why they are so bad. In fact, we are left wondering why we ask why. It is no longer simply pain and suffering. It is meaningless pain and suffering.
If the Christian must answer, “If God exists why do bad things happen?”, then the atheist must answer, “If God doesn’t exist why do bad things hurt?”
Existentially, if God does not exist then there will be no deliverance from evil.
In his own repackaging of the problem of evil, atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell famously said, “No one can sit at the bedside of a dying child and still believe in God.” Frankly, Russell’s assertion undermines countless Christians whose belief in God was the only thing that enabled them to sit at the bedside of a dying child.
Furthermore, we must wonder, what would Russell say at the bedside of a dying child? What could he say? “Don’t worry, it will all be over soon”? Christian apologist Brett Kunkle recounts asking an atheist friend what he would say. The atheist responded, “[Stuff] happens.”
Since we humans are the only animals that seem particularly concerned with evil (which is a quandary in itself), we have to wonder what hope we have to rid ourselves of evil. After all, there is no one “out there” to help us. But then, we have not been here all that long, and we certainly cannot expect to be here much longer. For now, stuff happens.
Several years ago, after teaching a world history lesson on World War II, a student approached me about Adolf Hitler. I could tell by his demeanor that he had something more than the typical History Channel trivia on his mind. He was visibly unsettled by the fact that Hitler committed suicide.
“I hate it that he didn’t stand trial, or get charged, or have to face the consequences for what he did. He killed himself and got away with it all.”
Taken aback by his sincerity, I tried my best to comfort him. “What would you suggest should have happened to him? A lifetime of torture in prison? Could he have lived long enough to face everything deserved?” I let that sink in for a moment and continued.
“The type of punishment Hitler deserved would take…I don’t know…an eternity,” I said, dropping the hint as obviously as I could. His countenance lifted as he got the point.
I told him with a confidence that no atheist can have, “Don’t worry. He’s getting his.”
If the Christian must answer, “If God exists why doesn’t he do something?”, then the atheist must answer, “If God doesn’t exist, what are we going to do?”
The problem that the atheist has in the problem of evil is that in atheism there shouldn’t be a problem.
On the other hand, the Christian worldview offers both the presuppositions to make sense of evil as well as the resources and hope for us to deal with pain and suffering.
 Richard Dawkins, River out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (New York: Basic Books, 1995), 133.
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11 responses to “The Other Side of the Problem of Evil”
Fantastic post. Relevant, organized, and reasoned thoroughly.
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Thanks for the kind words. I’m glad you enjoyed.
Really interesting post. I am an atheist, and I most certainly believe in evil. I do think it’s important to answer the question of why evil exists, but being an atheist doesn’t make it any less problematic than if I were Christian. As an atheist with Humanist leanings, I believe evil comes from humans and must be solved by humans. We are our own salvation. God does not have to save us. We do. Thanks for sharing your viewpoint. You made some really good points.
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Thanks for the kind words. I am glad you enjoyed it.
I am not surprised that you believe evil exists. Most atheists do. It is hard not to. However, the point of the post is that in an atheistic worldview such belief is inconsistent at best and impossible at worst. Evil is either a chance event—and therefore more unlucky than actually evil—or a relative opinion—and therefore more unpopular than actually evil.
For example, what if a man in another part of the world beheads another in the name of what his religion says is good? We of course would call it evil and would want someone to stop him. But, what right do we have to say that our definitions of good and evil are any better than his? You see, without a transcendent standard of good, we have no definitive basis to call anything evil. Atheism by definition has no such standard.
Out of curiosity, how do you define evil? What do you think humans should do to solve the problem?
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I can see your point to an extent. But we don’t need any transcendent power to tell us what is good and evil. The only definition of good and evil we need is our own because, as you suggested in your reply, the man beheaded the other man because his religion told him it was good. Most every religion’s moral code descends from a scriptural source that is claimed to be the word of God. If he can point to his scripture and say, “this is the word of God, to behead this man is good,” then indeed who are we to correct him? It’s hubris to say “my religion’s definition of evil is the right one, and yours is wrong.” By whose authority? The transcendent authority is more confused on the definition of good and evil than most people. Therefore, this is why I say a deity cannot possibly govern what is good and evil.
That being said, I think you made a good point about evil being a chance event or a relative opinion and sometimes, undefinable. And in the atheist worldview, you are correct. However, that does not make evil any less stinging to us when we experience it. We just don’t look to a god to help us get through it. We look to our community, to our families, and ultimately to ourselves.
I believe the only way to fix evil is for each individual to fix himself. And that is simply an impossibility. There is no solution to evil as a whole unless every single human can look inside his heart and say, “this or that is wrong because it causes suffering to others” and stops doing it. It will never happen. There is no fix.
It seems to me that you are allowing your presupposed exclusion of God to excuse the problems that that presupposition causes. I will not pretend to think that I can persuade you to second guess your assumptions with one blog post, especially if you are already willing to admit that atheism has no objective definition or ultimate solution for evil. And I appreciate that candor, by the way.
But, I will also not pretend to not hope that you are swayed eventually.
You are so right: pain stings everyone. But, God became a man, Jesus Christ, and took human suffering on himself.
It was the atheist Nitsche who said, “The gods justified human life by living it themselves–the only theodicy [justification for evil] ever invented.”
Grant it, Nietzsche was talking about the ancient Greeks gods, but as a Christian, I wholeheartedly agree with him. Only, I then point to the cross where Jesus died. Then, I point to the empty tomb at the base of a mountain of evidence demonstrating that Jesus was who he said he was.
That is something that no other religion has. That is certainly something atheism does not have.
Thank you so much for your courtesy in your comments! Please come back anytime and share your perspective.
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Hi, Travis. Well written article, but you started out with a major error of thinking and carried that throughout. You mentioned that in atheism, there can be no definition of evil. You, sir, are completely correct. Further, atheism can tell us nothing of good. Nothing of morality, and nothing of human interaction.
People that do not believe in god get their morals, concepts of good, and concepts of evil from sources other than a religion. Those are the things you should be evaluating and comparing your religion to.
Thanks for the kind words. Although I’m not sure where my error of thinking is. You admit that atheism has no concept of evil, good, or morality. You mention that atheists get those concepts from sources other than religion. My entire point is that they furthermore must get those concepts from sources other than atheism.
If God does not exist, evil is either a chance event—and therefore more unlucky than actually evil—or a relative opinion—and therefore more unpopular than actually evil.
You seem to believe that evil exists, as most atheists do. Judging by the civility of your comment (thank you for that by the way), you seem to want to steer clear of it as much as possible. In an atheistic worldview, such a mindset is inconsistent at best and impossible at worst.
I’m genuinely curious. Where do you get your concept of good and evil?
Good question, Travis. I can’t say that evil “exists,” because evil is just a moral judgement. It’s like saying “happy” or “mad” exists. They are emotions, not things. So my concept of good and evil is not that they exist, but that things can be more or less good or evil.
I get my concepts of good and evil like anyone else does, by continuous learning about the application of morality. For example, we feel empathy, just like chickens and rats and apes do. You could say our empathy is more developed than chickens. So even as a newborn child, you or I had a sense of empathy toward other people.
Some people exercise this empathy more than others and in different ways. Because we also have the ability for advanced communication, we are able to discuss morality with each other and draw conclusions. Often times these conclusions end up being not so good. But hopefully we learn.
When you say “God is good”, you have made a judgement call about the nature of God. If you rely on the bible to inform you of the nature of God, you have engaged in circular reasoning. Therefore, your judgement of god MUST come from an external source. And that source is the same as mine, which is an application of our morality metrics in our cultures.
Forgive me, but I want to make sure I understand your thinking. I understand that saying something is “evil” is like saying “happy” or “mad.” I understand that “happy” and “mad” are not things in and of themselves. However, for someone to be happy or mad (not things) they must to some degree be filled with happiness or anger (things, albeit emotions, but still well-defined things). To say things can be more or less good or evil, we must compare them to a standard of goodness or evil. I guess my question is, how can you make that moral judgment if you don’t believe a standard by which to judge exists? I.e. how can you say something is evil if you don’t believe evil exists? By your explanation, isn’t that like saying you are happy but believing happiness does not exist?
The importance of human capacities to feel with and for others is hard to deny. However, is that a basis for morality?
True, animals display signs of empathy, but we still would not assign moral judgment to their behavior. Chickens show empathy, but they are also extremely violent. Do we accuse them of assault? Rats show empathy, but they also steal shiny things. Do we accuse them of theft? Apes show empathy, but the males often force themselves on to females to copulate. Do we accuse them of rape? Certainly, when humans behave like this we hold them morally culpable for their actions. Is that just because we as a species have developed a resistance to those things? Or, are assault, theft, and rape actually evil?
Besides, if morality is based on empathy, doesn’t that mean that the basis for good and evil is our subjective experience? If so, what happens when my experience differs from yours? Whose experience do we go with? How do we know we are empathizing properly? To what do we appeal to know if our conclusions are good or not so good? If go with how the majority of people empathize, what happens to the minority?
True, empathy allows us to meaningfully connect with people, communicate feelings, and consider ways to improve our plight. It is a great way to discover right and wrong, but it does not determine what is right and wrong any more than our eyes determine what color things are.
As for my circular reasoning, here’s the thing. The statement, “God is good” is not a judgment of morality; it is a statement of reality. When I see God’s goodness asserted in the Bible, I am not making a judgment call about God’s nature; I am receiving revelation about God’s nature.
One more question: to what do you appeal to know that your empathy is the way to determine morality?
Good questions, Travis. Unfortunately, I’m not going to have a silver bullet for you. If you are wondering if there is a single authoritative reference, I don’t believe there is one. A few thousand years ago, when human tribes were more segregated, each tribe or group or country had their own moral code. Eskimos used to push old people off on icebergs into the ocean, and believed this to be a respectful send-off. Bible god was perfectly okay with slavery and genocidal war. Native Americans would hold a ceremony to thank the spirit of animals that they used for food and clothing. So across the world, each culture used their more developed sense of compassion, empathy, fairness, etc to form a morality.
As our communities grew and intertwined, we were forced to adjust what was considered good or bad, and even evil. If any leader in the world today did what bible god did, that leader would be considered evil. If a community put grandma on an iceberg and set her afloat to die, that would be considered monstrous. We had to have conversations about what morality is, and why things were good or bad, to any degree.
Based on these conversations and years of living in these types of communities, our personal moral codes adjusted to our community understanding.
To demonstrate this, ask yourself how we feel if we see children in a moving vehicle NOT in a car seat. “Bad parenting!” comes to mind for many. Yet when I was a child, neither I nor my siblings ever rode in one. It wasn’t even a thing then, but now its a moral issue of caring for your child. No magic dude informed us that our morality should include car seats, we developed that over the years through a shift in public perception.