Atheism and the Problem of Evil

One of the most common objections to the existence of God is the evil and suffering in the world. The argument goes, “God is all-loving and all-powerful. An all-loving and all-powerful God would not allow evil and suffering. Since there is evil and suffering in the world, God does not exist.”

The argument, that a good, all-loving, all-powerful God would not allow evil is basically a straw-man argument. This idea of God does not match the God of any religion. Its proponents have made up a God , who would not allow evil, and then argue that the existence of evil means their God does not exist. It is the equivalent of saying, “God is a pink elephant. Pink elephants do not exist. Therefore, God does not exist.”

How do they know God would not allow evil? Have I overlooked a passage in the Bible where God promises never to allow evil and suffering? It is somewhat arrogant for any human to presume to know what an all-powerful, all-loving, all-wise, universe-creating God would do, especially if you don’t believe in Him.

On the other hand, some atheists say because there is no God, there is no such thing as evil. Postmodernists, who tend to congregate in universities cut off from the real world, argue that because there is no God, there is no absolute truth, everything is relative, “What is true for you is not necessarily true for me”, so there is no right and wrong and no evil. Unbelievers argue that the existence of evil means that God does not exist, but if there is no God, there is no such thing as evil. Postmodernism cannot stand up to any critical thinking. The statement “There is no absolute truth” is self-contradictory. Some things, like the law of gravity, are true, whether or not you want to believe they are true.

Nevertheless, postmodernists are right to conclude that if there is no God, there is no source of absolute truth and one person’s opinion about what is right and wrong is no better than anyone else’s. Does the fact, that most of us instinctively reject the moral implications of atheism and still believe there are absolutes, suggest that God really exists?

The issue of God and suffering is largely a Western problem, based on a Judeo-Christian worldview. Those from other religious backgrounds do not struggle with evil. Muslims believe all suffering is Allah’s will. Hindus and Buddhists believe it is because of what you did in a past life and it does not really matter because it’s all an illusion anyway. The ancient Gnostics believed we suffered because God was evil, which might seem a reasonable conclusion. Perhaps we should ask why the Jews of all people did not also conclude that God was flawed, like the ancient pagans believed about their gods, but instead believed He was loving, merciful and forgiving? According to the Bible, this belief is not based on observing the world and all its suffering, but on God revealing Himself to Israel.

If someone is going to argue that an all-powerful, all-loving God would not allow evil, the burden of proof is on them to explain how God would not allow evil – a rather important point which tends to get overlooked. Anyone, who thinks about the issue for five minutes, will come to the conclusion that there is human-caused suffering, wars, genocide, crime and injustice, because there is free will. We have free will, so sometimes (most of the time?)  we choose to do things which cause suffering for others. How is God supposed to stop evil and suffering committed by beings with free will? Should God have stopped the Holocaust by sending down the angels to throw out the Nazis and replace them with liberal democrats?

Even if we are not sure how, many think God should do something about the really big evils in the world or the evil which other people do, but what standard should God use to stop evil, His or ours? God is holy and has a much higher standard of what is right and wrong than we do, e.g. “You have heard that it was said to those of old, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:27-28)

No one, who thinks that God should intervene with the big evils committed by other people, wants God to intervene when they look too long at a hot woman and stop them. They want God to intervene on their terms, but it is doing things on our terms that causes evil and suffering. Their idea of God is a God who is their slave who does what they want, stops others doing something bad, but lets them do whatever they want. Atheists are right. A God like that, with codependency issues, does not exist.

If God were to be consistent and intervene and stop evil according to His standards, we would be living in a nightmare, an Orwellian theocratic dictatorship in which every time there was a sinful thought, God intervened and stopped it. It would be worse than the atheist Communist dictatorships which stuck their lives into everyone’s business. Atheists tried to end suffering through totalitarian control. It didn’t work.

Would we be grateful to God because of all the evil and suffering He had prevented? Of course not. We would think He was an unbearable despot. Actually, we wouldn’t because we wouldn’t be allowed to think that.

if God did not allow evil, we would not know what evil and suffering were and that it was for our own good. God would arguably need to allow suffering for a while, so we could see how bad it was, so we would appreciate God stopping it. Perhaps we are in such a time now, but most of us have not got the message that our way leads to evil and suffering and God’s way is better.

In Joshua in the Old Testament God did something about the problem of evil. He commanded the Israelites to wipe out the Canaanites for their sins. (In his book Is God a Moral Monster (Baker Books, MIchigan, 2011) Paul Copan argues that we get the impression that more Canaanites were killed than actually were.) Atheists do not congratulate God for solving the problem of evil among the Canaanites. They seem to get upset about something which they do not believe happened and say how bad God was for commanding the ethnic cleansing of the Canaanites.

How is God supposed to stop evil without appearing evil to those who think He should stop evil? Whether God allows evil or stops evil, atheists say He is wrong or doesn’t exist. God just can’t win.

Getting back to God and the Holocaust, one way in which God could have prevented the Holocaust would have been if Hitler’s mother had had a miscarriage. No Hitler, no World War II, no Holocaust. There would have been a lot less suffering for the world, except for Mrs Hitler and her miscarriage. If Christopher Hitchens were around then, he would have had said how bad God was for causing Mrs Hitler to lose her precious baby.

However, we would know that Mrs Hitler’s suffering was for the greater good and had prevented so much more suffering.

I’m not suggesting that if you had a miscarriage, that is because your baby would have turned out to be the next Hitler if he had lived. I am suggesting that sometimes cases of suffering could have prevented much greater suffering and we will never know why this side of Heaven because we do not have God’s omniscient perspective.

Free will not only hurts others. Sometimes we make choices which hurt ourselves. If we choose to smoke and get cancer, it is hardly fair to blame God for our suffering. To do so would only reveal our immaturity and an inability to accept responsibility for our actions.

In his book Godforsaken Dinesh D’Souza mentions the case of an atheist friend who committed suicide. At his funeral a family friend said, “God had no right to take that young man.” (Tyndale House, Illinois, 2012, p 6-7) I know this was the statement of a grieving relative who was probably not thinking straight, but was the atheist’s suicide the fault of God he did not believe in because God did not intervene and stop him from doing what he had chosen to do? Is God supposed to stop us every time we do something stupid?

God could have made us so we do not feel any pain, but what would be like if we were all as invincible and indestructible as Superman? Most of us would be completely reckless and irresponsible. There is a website Why won’t God heal amputees? which says that God does not exist because He will not answer the prayers of amputees and regrow their limbs. However, if God did always answer their prayers and regrow limbs, we would chop off our limbs and watch them grow back just for the fun of it. Or is it just me who thinks like that?

We were created with free will. We were also created to experience the consequences of our free will – pain and suffering.

If God were to miraculously end all the suffering in the world, it would last before our selfish natures led us to make decisions which caused suffering in others all over again. Clearly, people like us, who have caused suffering to others, cannot exist in a world with no evil or suffering? What do unbelievers think God should do about us when solving the problem of evil?

People like us also could not exist in a world without suffering because we are all products of suffering. Friedrich Nietzsche (and Kelly Clarkson) said, “What does not kill me makes me stronger.” The Bible says much the same thing, “And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance, and perseverance, character, and character, hope.” (Romans 5:3-4)

It is through suffering that we mature and grow in character. The alternative is spoilt, sheltered people who have never learnt to be patient, diplomatic or control their anger because they have never had to deal with difficult people or situations.

Some unbelievers might say that if God were nicer to us, they would be more likely to believe He exists. This did not work in the Old Testament where God blessed the Israelites but it only made them complacent and they turned away from God.

I recently heard the expression, “The more blessed we are, the less thankful we are.” Australia is arguably the best place in the world to live, we have so much stuff, yet it seems full of people who whinge about everything. In contrast, when Australians come back from Third World countries, they often comment how people living in slums with nothing are happy and content. They must be an advertiser’s nightmare – they do not have all the things they must have to make them happy and fulfilled. The absence of suffering does not make us better people.

This presents a Catch 22 problem for those who think God should not allow suffering because people who have never suffered or suffered little, are not very nice. They are selfish people who are likely to make choices which cause suffering in others.

I have noticed that often success and the absence of suffering seem more likely to cause people to stop believing in God, rather than suffering. This makes sense. If you are overwhelmed by problems and your

On the other hand, I have seen many Christians, who get good jobs, get married, buy a house and decide they have what they really want, so they do not need God anymore and stop coming to church. We can see this on a global scale where Christianity is in decline in prosperous Western nations, but is growing in Africa, Asia and South America where they are experiencing suffering and poverty.

Many in the West look to the suffering in the Third World as proof that God does not exist, yet the suffering in the Third World do not necessarily feel like that. Dinesh D’Souza writes in Godforsaken,

“There is something a little off key about Western academics saying, “I have lost my faith because of the suffering of the Rwandans,” while Rwandans are saying, “Our faith draws us closer to the only one who can console and protect us, which is God.” I recently spoke at a prayer breakfast at the United Nations and had the opportunity to discuss this point with a number of African diplomats.”I am always amazed,” one of them told me, “that people in the West always think they know better, even about what we are going through.”He then wryly added, “I do believe we are the world’s experts in understanding our own experience.”” (Godforsaken, p 12)

If someone has experienced terrible suffering which has caused them to doubt God exists, that is understandable and I know such people will not be comforted with arguments about free will. However, it seems somewhat absurd for philosophy lecturers and other academics with tenure in universities to go on about how they cannot believe in God because of all the suffering in the world when they have had so little experience of suffering themselves. Perhaps, only those, who have experienced great suffering, are truly qualified to comment on whether suffering disproves the existence of God, especially since suffering often has the opposite effect and increases faith in God.

There are some forms of suffering, such as world hunger and earthquakes, which may not appear to be the result of human free will. However, free will does contribute to world hunger and I don’t just mean the way multinationals exploit the poor in the Third World. The increased use of biofuels to replace petrol has meant that some agricultural land, which was once used to grow food, is now being used to grow biofuel for people’s cars. This has resulted in food shortages and higher prices in the Third World. There are probably some atheists driving around on biofuel blaming the God they do not believe in for hunger in the Third World.

Natural disasters, such as earthquakes,cannot be blamed on free will, unless you choose to live in an earthquake zone. However Dinesh D’Souza points out that earthquakes are a result of plate tectonics and without the movement of these plates, causing earthquakes and forcing land upwards, the world would be underwater and no life could exist (Godforsaken, p 123-125). Perhaps we should think of earthquakes as something good and essential for life, which has gone bad. Romans says that all of creation has been corrupted because of human sin (Romans 8:20-22).

All the suffering in the world is supposed to mean God does not exist, but if God does not exist, what’s wrong with suffering? Isn’t it usually just natural selection in action? Why do we think the Holocaust and ethnic cleansing are wrong and not just natural selection and survival of the fittest?

When the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami killed over 200,000 people, some blamed God and argued that it proved He did not exist, but no one suggested it was good because there were fewer people to consume resources and increased our own chances of survival. Why not? Most people, who believe in evolution, are hypocrites, which is a good thing, because unless they are Nazis or in prison, they do not live according to the principles of natural selection and survival of the fittest. We are supposed to be products of millions of years of violence and suffering, yet when we see violence and suffering around us, we do not attribute it to natural law, the ways things are, our instincts scream that this is wrong. Many peole believe in evolution in their heads, that we are products of natural selection, violence and suffering, but in their hearts, they do not want this to be true. They do not believe all this sufffering is normal and natural.They feel that things are not suposed to be like this. Deep down they long for a Christian worldview with justice, meaning and purpose, where suffering is wrong and will one day end.

In theology there is the idea of redemptive suffering – suffering which results in a greater good. An example of this is the story of Joseph in the Old Testament. Joseph suffered, was sold into slavery, then falsely accused and imprisoned, yet as a result of his suffering he became the second most powerful person in Egypt and saved Egypt and his family from famine.

Tim Keller writes in The Reason for God,

“Whenever I preach on this text [Joseph], I hear from many people who identify with that narrative. Many people have to admit that most of what they really needed for success in life came to them through the most difficult and painful experiences. Some look back on an illness and recognise that it was an irreplaceable season of personal and spiritual growth for them. I have survived a bout with cancer and my wife has suffered with Crohn’s disease for years, and we would both attest to this. I knew a man in my first parish who had lost most of his eyesight after he was shot in the face during a drug deal gone bad. He told me that he had been an extremely selfish and cruel person, but he had always blamed his constant legal and raltional problems on others. The loss of his sight had devasted him, but it had also profoundly hummbled him. ‘As my physical eyes were closed, my spiritual eyes were opened, as it were. I finally saw how I’d been ttreating people. I changed, and now for the first time in my life, I have friends, real friends. It was a terrible price to pay, and yet I must say it was worth it. I finally have waht makes life worthwhile.’ Though none of these people are gratefeul for the tragedies themselves, they would not trade the insight, character and strength they had gained for anything.” (Hodder, London, 2008, p 24-25)

Romans says “all things work together for good to those who love God” (Romans 8:28). It does not say all things work together for good for everybody, everything which happens to everybody has meaning and purpose and good will result from it, only for “those who love God”. If we trust God and want to be part of His kingdom where His will is done, then our suffering has meaning. He uses it to fulfil His purposes so that we will turn from sin and depend on God. Suffering is a sign of God’s love for us (2 Corinthians 12:8-10, Hebrews 3:19, Revelation 3:10).

I do not know of anybody, who blames God for allowing suffering, who has grown from their suffering. For those who do not love God, who do not Him in control, sometimes there is no purposes and meaning to their suffering. S___ happens. Nonbelievers say this means God does not exist, but what are they complaining about? They do not want to be part of God’s kingdom, so God gives them what they want, a world of meaningless suffering, separated from God’s love and power.

Evil and suffering exist because God chose to create beings with free will, capable of good and evil, and we often choose evil. In His omniscience God believed this way was better than creating a race of Terminators, Stepford Wives or zombies, incapable of free will or suffering, even though He knew all the suffering which would result. God believed that the ultimate end, eternal life and joy in a new heaven and earth without suffering for those who trust that they are forgiven through Jesus’ death and resurrection, was worth all the suffering.

God also chose to be part of our suffering. Jesus not only became our sins (2 Corinthians 5:21) and died for them (1 Corinthians 15:3,1 Peter 3:18). Jesus also”has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Isaiah 53:4). God in Jesus Christ became and experienced both our sins and all the suffering which resulted from them. All the suffering, which everyone has experienced, Jesus also experienced on the Cross. God took responsibility for all the suffering which resulted from His decision to create us with free will.

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Author: Malcolm Nicholson

I am a small business owner and I live in northern Tasmania. I am a graduate of the University of Tasmania and I have a Master of Arts in Early Christian and Jewish Studies from Macquarie University. I am a member of the Churches of Christ. I have been a teacher librarian, New Testament Greek teacher, branch president and state policy committee chairman of a political party, university Christian group president. My interests include ancient history, early Christian history, the Holocaust, Bible prophecy, revival, UFOs, peak oil and science fiction.

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