Read Part 1.
The Problem Stated
Those who see an irreconcilable conflict between an all-powerful, all-loving God and evil and suffering in the world do so with several arguments. Some ask the thought-provoking question, “Couldn’t God have made a world in which evil and suffering don’t exist?” This is a troubling question, because the answer is certainly, “Yes.” As we will see later, this doesn’t mean that God is unjust, but this question does have a strong emotional impact.
Others argue, “I would never hurt my children needlessly, so why does God? If God is not even better than me, why should I worship Him?” This is an argument by analogy. By comparing human parenting to the Creator God’s relation to the world, these people use a well-known experience to evaluate a deeply spiritual and philosophical problem. Certainly, a parent-child relationship ought to be marked by gentleness, kindness, and protection from harm. If God cannot even live up to basic human expectations, how can He be worshiped?
A more complete objection to God in the face of evil and suffering is the one proposed by 18th century Scottish philosopher, David Hume, whose argument has served as the standard atheistic objection to the existence of God. Hume argued:
- Premise 1: If God were all-powerful, He would be able to prevent evil.
- Premise 2: If God were all-good, He would desire to prevent evil.
- Conclusion: So if God were all-powerful and all-good, there would be no evil.
- Premise 3: But there is evil.
- Conclusion: Therefore there is no all-powerful, all-good God.
Hume’s argument can be very convincing at first glance. Many people have been swayed by it because it seems like air-tight logic. It also reflects the heart struggle of many people who have grappled with the very painful experience of suffering, either at the hands of wicked people, or in the brokenness of life in this world.
So, how do we contend with this argument? There are several ways to answer this challenge.
Challenging the Assumptions Behind Hume’s Argument
One thing that must be done when evaluating any argument is something we have covered several times in this study—challenge the presuppositions. In other words, we must examine the assumptions behind an argument to see if they are, in fact, true and sound. Several elements of this argument should be scrutinized.
It is assumed that suffering is necessarily bad. Without stating why suffering is necessarily bad or a sign of disorder in the world, this argument assumes it. However, as we have seen in previous lessons, if the naturalistic worldview is true, suffering is a natural part of an evolutionary world, and shouldn’t be considered “bad.”
It is assumed that people are basically good and innocent so that suffering is somehow unfair. The assumption here is that suffering violates an obligation by God to make life in this world only good. This is based on the assumption that man is basically good, worthy, and deserving, and therefore God is obligated to give us a life devoid of suffering.
It is assumed that evil and suffering cannot result in good that will make it worthwhile. In combination with point #1, suffering is necessarily bad, and no amount of suffering can be good, regardless of what good might come out of suffering. At the same time, the unbeliever who uses this argument probably acknowledges the principle of suffering that results in good in other areas of life—an athlete who suffers pain and hardship in training to become good at her sport, someone who says no to spending and lives frugally so he can save money to buy a house, and so on.
But, it is also assumed that there is a distinction between good and evil. In addition to the first three assumptions, there are ethical and spiritual assumptions in this argument. By calling something evil, Hume is assuming that there is good that stands in contrast to evil.
There is a standard by which to judge between good and evil. To distinguish a good act from an evil one, there must exist some kind of moral law that tells us the difference between good and evil, otherwise each person could decide for himself, and there would be no moral difference between kissing someone and killing them. Yet, most rational people intuitively know that there is a moral difference between the two acts. Whatever the standard is that differentiates good acts from evil ones, it must be objective and timeless to avoid relativism, which itself is a justification for the worst kinds of evil.
The standard can be known and ought to compel people. If the standard that discerns good from evil has any usefulness, it must be knowable by people and ought to carry an ethical obligation for them to obey it. If the standard is not known, it is useless. If it is merely a suggestion and does not have the power to demand compliance, with punishment for non-compliance, it has no purpose. Acknowledging evil, therefore, assumes that there is a moral good that beings ought to follow.
Finally, it is assumed that there is meaning to the events in the world and to the suffering of people. In other words, Hume’s objection to God assumes that there should not be contradictions in the world and that things should make sense. However, apart from God, there is no reason to assume that the world should make sense. If naturalism is true, the universe is guided by chance—random, blind, unthinking forces—and we should not expect there to be meaning, which only comes about in an intelligent universe.
It is clear, then, that this seemingly convincing argument against the existence of God is full of assumptions about the world that it cannot prove. It demands an explanation from God when it cannot even explain itself.
Hume’s argument is a philosophical one that is clearly flawed, yet it has the virtue of taking evil seriously. There are other approaches to evil and suffering that come from religion and philosophy that try to do away with either evil and suffering or the nature of God as all-powerful and all-loving. We will explore these in the next post.
Mark Farnham is Associate Professor and Coordinator of Pastoral and Pre-Seminary Majors at Lancaster Bible College in Lancaster, PA. Previously he taught systematic theology and apologetics at the seminary level for eleven years. Prior to that he served as senior pastor in New London, CT for seven years. Mark earned a PhD in Apologetics from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He also holds a Master of Theology degree in New Testament from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and a Master of Divinity degree from Calvary Baptist Seminary.