The Problem of Evil


The defining claim of atheism is that God doesn't exist, but if you listen to them long enough, you come to realize that atheists never argue against God's existence.

In fact, there are really only two basic arguments atheists make. The first rests on the observation that the universe seems to work just fine without divine intervention.

Not only is this a straw man, since Christians do not in fact deny secondary causes, it reinforces the cosmological arguments for God. Rules imply a rule-giver. Once the atheist grants the existence of universal principles, he can't deny that they have an origin without violating the law of cause and effect he's arguing from in the first place.

The other argument in the atheist's bag of tricks, and by far the weaker of the two, relies on appeals to the problem of evil.

Philosophers and theologians have been engaging with the question of why a good God allows evil--theodicy, to use the fancy term--since before biblical times. But as they do with the question of God's existence, atheists pretend Christians didn't come up with numerous solutions to the problem centuries ago and forge ahead as if they've discovered a silver bullet "gotcha" question everybody missed for years.

I've heard a lot of smart people say that the problem of evil posed a serious challenge to their faith. That's because arguments for atheism based on theodicy are rhetorical devices masquerading as dialectic. They derive all of their punch from evoking an emotional response in the target.

The question, "How could a good, all-powerful God allow children to starve?" doesn't even address the issue of God's existence. It assumes God exists and instead casts doubt on His goodness and/or omnipotence. Again, it's not really an argument for atheism. The point is to give believers a case of cognitive dissonance.

Now, one might argue that a creator who lacks perfect goodness and power leaves us with an imperfect demiurge. The obvious objection to that line of reasoning is that it just kicks the can one step further down the road, because a contingent demiurge still requires an Absolute First Cause.

Even more damning to the atheist wielding theodicy as a bludgeon, arguing from the problem of evil also assumes Christian morality. Blind evolutionary forces don't care if children starve. Such cases are neither good nor bad. They just mean those kids didn't have what it took to survive.

But our atheist takes it for granted that children starving is wrong, even as he accuses God of hypocrisy in order to undermine the believer's rationale for judging child starvation to be evil.

If we grant the premise that evil's existence refutes God's goodness and/or omnipotence, then God is not God. Therefore, His precepts do not bind in conscience. Therefore Christian morality is wrong. Therefore the believer was wrong to be scandalized by starving kids in the first place.

It's self-negating.

How do Christians resolve the problem of evil? As I mentioned above, scholars have had a long time to work on theodicy, and myriad solutions exist.

The simplest is this: God exists, and evil exists.

That answer might sound facile, but remember, it's up to atheists to prove those statements contradictory. They never actually do. They just glibly assume it.

They also pretend like there's some Scripture passage where God says evil isn't real, and His people will never suffer. In fact He says the exact opposite time and again. The Bible is the story of God's tireless efforts to deliver His people from evil, culminating in the Passion of Jesus Christ, which solves the problem once and for all by giving men a way to make suffering redemptive.

"But God created everything, right?" I can hear some of you say. "Doesn't that mean He created evil?"

The first part of that objection is correct. God alone has the power to create something from nothing. But whereas I've affirmed throughout this post that evil exists, that statement is only true in a metaphorical way.

It's the inverse of how God is said to exist as a matter of convenience. More properly speaking, God is Being. Since God is good, and God is being, good is being.

The flip side of that syllogism is that evil has no independent existence. Instead, evil is an absence of the good; a lacking of something that should be.

Where does evil come from? Remember that only God can create things. Men can't create anything. Or, phrased another, equally correct way, men can create nothing.

Human beings--and unfallen and fallen angels--are agents of causality. While we can't create ex nihilo, we can mar and destroy already existing goods.

It's men and fallen angels who bring evil into the world, not God. It's all on us.

Happily, bringing something out of nothing; good out of evil, is God's specialty. He's already taken the worst evil ever committed--His own sorrowful Passion and death--and turned it into the salvation of mankind.


  1. Amen! Very well put. I always end up hearing those arguments from atheists, which usually come across as more vindictive and emotional than (what they pathetically try to deem as) "rational".

    1. Atheists come in two flavors: Mad at Dad and autistic.

    2. Isn't there the "immediate wants of my crotch" flavor?

    3. Agreed with Scott. I was neither autistic nor mad at dad, just wanted to fornicate without guilt.

    4. I classify that as Mad at Dad in the sense of rejecting tradition.

    5. Yeah, thinking about I can see it as a subset. The problem was my dad never cautioned me about fornication, just told me to wear a condom. Hence why I never saw it as rebellion against my dad, but it’s still a rebellion against our Father in Heaven.

  2. It's the whole free will thing. Yeah, evil is on us with the help of the fallen.

    1. The objection you usually hear to that is a Scripture reference citing God as the cause of evil. The reply is that God can indeed directly cause physical evil, which theodicy isn't concerned with anyway, and He can only be said to cause moral evil insofar as He creates and sustains the universe in which moral evil takes place as First Cause.

  3. That's a really great point about this argument being rhetoric masquerading as dialectic. Put this way, it's just the more sophisticated-sounding cousin of the "can God make something so heavy He can't lift it? dur hur" statement.

  4. The logical breakdown always has an unspoken premise. Point this out, and it can get interesting really fast.

    Spoken premises:
    1) God knows about evil
    2) God has the power to stop evil
    3) God loves the victims of evil

    Therefore, if God existed, he would stop all evil.

    Well, the first problem is conflating evil and suffering. Moral evil is a result of choice. "Natural" evil is death and suffering. The unspoken premise is that a loving God would, if able, end all disease, natural disaster, animal predation, etc. Why would you assume this?

    The answer always boils down to "If I were omnipotent, I would, if course, end all of these things," meaning that the argument is actually "God cannot exist, because if He did, He would run things the same way I would."

  5. Feser argues that God is not a moral agent and does not have moral duties; arguments that God has done wrong, either by commission or omission, are nonsensical.
    Forgive me if I mangled the argument.

    1. You never need to apologize for invoking Ed Feser :)

      But yeah, the notion that a creature could have a moral claim on the Creator is inherently absurd.

    2. ^ Is that not the point of the book of Job?

  6. God doesn't exist because evil does = evil doesn't exist because God doesn't

    You can't be mad at injustice if there is no such thing as justice. A bunch of chemicals and impulses floating around in a void has no concept of anything immaterial such as that.

    Yet we do! How interesting.

    1. The fedora tippers' inability not to presuppose Christian morality is their Achilles' heel.

  7. A philosophy professor of mine frames it as “a baby deer burns alive in a forest fire therefore there is no good God”

    Points for originality I guess

    1. Ask them about their opinion of Islam, as it's a common fundamentalist belief that basic causality like fire burning doesn't happen unless Allah wills it (a bit different than the "omnipotence" claim that most Christians have regarding God, as they would say that he could stop the flame but doesn't affirmatively cause the flame or even will the flame to happen).

      But then, that will probably get you kicked out of class.

    2. Sorry, not sure why this and the below came in as unknown. Mea culpa.

    3. He was making fun of the argument from theodicy with that girlish appeal to emotion, right?

    4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. Brian

    Eve Keneian at Twitter also does the Lord's work. Everyday she loves the fool but won't abide his foolishness. Between her and Ed Feser, their philosophical rigor leaves no doubt of God's existence and the reasonability of Christian morality.
    God's existence is the only thing that makes sense and satisfies our longings.


  9. I admit to not fully understanding the theodicy argument of "Omniscient, Omnipotent, Omnibenevolent, can't all be true, therefore no God".
    Omniscient seems unnecessary, Omnibenevolent is a contradiction AND undefined, and an Omnipotent being might choose to do or not do anything for any reason, whatcha gonna do about it, monkey?

    1. The argument flows from it being a common religious statement in some circles that God is Omniscient, Omnipotent, and Omnibenevolent. That was explicitly taught in the church I grew up in. The theodicy arguers think they have a killer argument because they're using the other side's claims.

      The definitional issues just render the whole argument incoherent, though. "Let me define their terms and I'll use them to disprove your claims."

    2. God's omniscience and omnipotence aren't premises. They're necessary conclusions drawn from His status as Absolute Being.

      Any limitation on God's knowledge or power would be a contingency, thus God would be contingent, and therefore not God.

      That's not to say that God can do "Whatever He wants." God cannot produce a contradiction--not because of any lacking on His part, but rather because self-contradictory being, e.g. a square triangle, is definitionally impossible.

      That God is all-good immediately follows from God as Absolute Being, since evil is a deficiency of being. It is God's all-goodness that refutes the problem of evil, since arguments from theodicy actually appeal to God's perfect goodness and thereby contradict themselves.

    3. They are premises to the argument under discussion, even if they are also necessary conclusions in your theological frame. I also always felt that the Omnibenevolent leg was the weak part of any theodicy argument - it's always defined absurdly simplistically. Like, "there's a worm that eats kids' eyeballs, therefore it's impossible that there's an omnibenevolent creator because losing vision is bad."

      Thanks for the repost, it was a good read.

    4. Great article, and thankyou. I was thinking more of the "On the Existence of Gods" argument; that strict atheism can't arise from the failure of theodicy, because while perhaps not the philosopher's God, a being with only partial characteristics would still be, to all intents and purposes, A God, thus defeating atheism in any case. Perhaps not relevant to the current argument.

  10. It's also worth pointing out that the argument against evil implicitly assumes that material life is the sum of existence.

    If the scope is larger, if there is life after death, then the question of justice or fairness can't be limited to just the context of material life, and the atheist argument fails. It's comparing a fundamentally limited experience of suffering and pain to an eternity of bliss.