From DBSJ 22 (2017): 75-90. Republished with permission.
by Jonathan Moreno1
Elie Wiesel trusted in God. As a boy, he believed that Yahweh cared deeply for him and his people. All that changed in the grueling death camps of Nazi Germany. Elie was a Jew. Subjected to the horrific atrocities of Auschwitz, his faith was shattered as his God seemed to sit idly by while countless victims suffered through the darkest evils imaginable at the hands of wicked men. In the preface to his memoir Wiesel writes:
In the beginning there was faith—which is childish; trust—which is vain; and illusion—which is dangerous. We believed in God, trusted in man, and lived with the illusion that every one of us has been entrusted with a sacred spark from the Shekhinah’s flame; that every one of us carries in his eyes and in his soul a reflection of God’s image. That was the source if not the cause of all our ordeals.2
How could a good God exist in a world filled with such mindless cruelty? In the face of crippling evil, many have concluded with Wiesel that God is dead. If there truly was a good and powerful God, he would never permit such suffering and pain. Therefore, since evil exists, God does not.
The problem of evil is not a new one. In fact, it has been the cause of countless articles, lectures, and debates for centuries. Due to the prevalence and influence of evil, this is a problem that cannot be ignored. Therefore, the objective of this paper is to address the problem of evil from a Christian worldview. The first section will endeavor to delineate the problem, and the second section will seek to present a viable solution, viz., that God is good in decreeing evil because it results in his greatest glory and subsequently, his children’s greatest good.
The intention of this section is to bring the ambiguous problem of evil into full view by establishing the problem’s nature, complexity, and validity. A complete picture of the problem will lay the foundation for the discussion and set the course for an adequate response.
The Nature of the Problem
Before any plausible solution to the problem of evil is identified, it is imperative that the nature of the problem be clearly defined and delineated. Historically, critics have presented the problem of evil using both deductive and inductive reasoning.
The Deductive Problem
In his book, The Miracle of Theism, J. L. Mackie contends that the existence of the God described in the Scriptures is not merely implausible, but is logically impossible.3 Through deductive reasoning, he seeks to provide conclusive evidence that traditional theism is logically contradictory. His deductive problem can be summarized with the four following propositions:
- God exists.
- God is omnipotent.
- God is omnibenevolent.
- Evil exists.
Conceding that none of the statements above explicitly contradict each other, Mackie inserts two corollary premises into the equation in order to bolster his position:
If we add the at least initially plausible premisses [sic] that good is opposed to evil in such a way that a being who is wholly good eliminates evil as far as he can, and that there are no limits to what an omnipotent being can do, then we do have a contradiction. A wholly good omnipotent being would eliminate evil completely; if there really are evils, then there cannot be any such being.4
With his new insertions, the modified propositions looks like this:
- God exists.
- God is omnipotent (i.e., there is no limit to what God can do).
- God is omnibenevolent (i.e., God eliminates evil as far as he can).
- Evil exists.
It is at this point that a clear contradiction comes to the fore. If God has the desire and ability to eliminate evil entirely, then it follows that God and evil cannot coexist. Therefore, through the undeniable presence of evil, Mackie believes that he has successfully exposed the internal contradiction within the worldview of the traditional theist. In a universe like ours, God cannot exist.
Although the deductive problem of evil seems compelling, it contains a fatal flaw, viz., the validity of Mackie’s “plausible premisses [sic].”5 It is undeniable that if all theists affirmed his premises, then the theist’s worldview would be irreconcilably contradictory. However, the assertions that God’s omnipotence affords him the contra-causal freedom to do anything at all and that his omnibenevolence compels him to eliminate every trace of evil are not positions held by responsible biblical scholars. As this paper will demonstrate, a biblical understanding of the attributes ascribed to God creates no internal contradiction within the theist’s worldview. Therefore, the deductive case against God falls flat.6
The Inductive Problem
Recognizing the deficiencies of the deductive problem, many critics have utilized an inductive method for their case against the existence of God in an evil world. This strategy adjusts the reality of God’s existence from impossible to improbable. Although this position cannot generate a definitive contradiction within theism, it utilizes the evidence to assert that in a world like ours the God of the Bible is highly unlikely. This position is considerably easier for the critic to sustain due to its softened agenda.
Where the deductive method focuses on the presence of evil generally, the inductive method considers the kinds of evil specifically. The strength of the argument rests on the presence of gratuitous evil. It is argued that if a good God permits evil, then evil must be for a good purpose. Thus, in the face of numerous examples of meaningless evils (e.g., molestation, rape, infanticide, genocide, etc.), a Christian God is unlikely. William L. Rowe, a prominent atheist and philosopher, presents the inductive argument with the following syllogism:
- There exist horrendous evils that an all-powerful, all-knowing, perfectly good being would have no justifying reason to permit.
- An all-powerful, all knowing, perfectly good being would not permit an evil unless he had a justifying reason to permit it.
- God does not exist.7
In light of this argument, Rowe concludes that “the facts about evil in our world provide good reason to think that God does not exist.”8
Responding to arguments like this, Tim Keller notes that the weakness of the inductive argument is the assertion that the evil that appears to be pointless is pointless.9 Due to the finiteness of mankind, and the incomprehensibility of God and his ways (Rom 11:33), this is a premise that cannot be substantiated.10 Ironically, the accusation of actual gratuitous evil goes beyond verifiable fact and is thus founded on “a blind faith of the highest order.”11 As meaningless as particular evils may seem, it cannot be proven that the appearance represents the reality. Although the inductive problem raises legitimate concerns, this method cannot be regarded as compelling proof against the existence of God.
(Image not included in the original article: photo by Karsten Winegeart)
1 It is our privilege this year to feature a student article by an M.Div. student at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary. Mr. Moreno submitted this article and won runner-up standing in the student paper contest at the Midwest Regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society that met in Wheaton, IL, on March 10–11, 2017.
2 Night (New York: Hill and Wang, 2006), x–xi.
3 According to Mackie, “This problem seems to show not merely that traditional theism lacks rational support, but rather that it is positively irrational, in that some of its central doctrines are, as a set, inconsistent with one another” (The Miracle of Theism: Arguments for and against the Existence of God [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982], 150).
6 Alvin C. Plantinga is widely credited for exposing the deficiencies of the deductive problem of evil. See God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977).
7 God and the Problem of Evil (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001), 126.
8 Ibid., 136.
9 The Reason for God (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008), 23.
10 Nash correctly notes, “Given the limitations of human knowledge, it is hard to see how any human being could actually know that some particular evil is totally senseless and purposeless. It seems, then, that the most any human can know is that some evils appear gratuitous” (Faith & Reason: Searching for a Rational Faith [Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1988], 218).
11 Tim Keller, Reason for God, 24.