Many argue the reality of pain and suffering proves God does not exist. But this is only true if the premises leading to this conclusion are correct. Last week I discussed why Muslims reject the first premise and why they are wrong. But others think the problem is elsewhere: either God is not all-powerful, or Evil is not real. Do either of these responses solve the problem?
Is Premise Two False? (Maybe God Isn’t All-Powerful)
Recall the argument many make (implicitly or explicitly) that in light of the pain and suffering we see in the world, God must not exist:
If God is all-good, he would will all good and no evil. (He would desire to produce only good and prevent all evil.)
If God is all-powerful, he would accomplish everything he wills. (He would be able to do anything in His will.)
Therefore, if God exists he would want to and could create a world with no evil (and therefore would create such a world).
Yet there is Evil.
Therefore God (an all-powerful, all-good Being) does not exist.
Last week we saw that for the conclusion to be true, the structure of the argument must be “valid” (the conclusion must follow logically from the premises). It does. But for the conclusion to be true the premises must also all be true (making it a “sound” argument). Many suggest one or more of the premises are false.
Some challenge the second premise. Perhaps God is not all-powerful. In this case, he just may not be able to accomplish everything he wills. He wills all good and no evil (the first premise). But his hands are tied. He just doesn’t “have it in him” to fix the problem. He isn’t strong enough.
Therefore, the second premise is false, and so the conclusion is also false. God does exist. He just isn’t who we thought he was. This is the solution offered in the popular book When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Rabbi Harold Kushner.
This is also the solution of “Process Theology.” For this group (who influenced Kushner), God is “in process”—he is always growing, learning, developing. He is not the all-powerful and all-sovereign being we have thought him to be. He is learning how to deal with pain and suffering better, but he still has a long way to go.
This response is not available to Christians who take the Bible as authoritative (see here for reasons to do so). Scripture is clear that God has infinite power and is sovereign over all things. He always has been and always will be. Therefore, unless a good reason can be given to discount the description of God offered in Scripture, we cannot accept Kushner et al.’s suggestion to jettison the second premise. God is able to accomplish anything he wills. We must look elsewhere to discover a flaw in the argument.
Is Premise Four False? (Maybe Evil is just an illusion)
A third solution is to deny the fourth premise—pain and suffering are not real. Logically speaking, this is the “solution” atheists should take, if they are consistent. If no God exists, there is no standard to say anything is really Evil. There is just your opinion and my opinion about what is right and wrong, good and evil.
But then there is no fourth premise—objective Evil does not exist. Without the fourth premise being true (Evil being real) the conclusion would be shown to be false. So, as I argued in my second post in this series, the reality of evil is more of a problem for the atheist than the theist (as well as the “Problem of Good”—making sense of objective goodness, such as “tolerance”— in a universe without God). Yet few atheists are willing to admit they have their own Problem of Evil and Problem of Good. (I cite a few atheists who are honest about this in my second post here. For more see here and here.)
Many of those embracing Eastern religions (such as Buddhists) are willing to argue Evil is not real. For them, reality is ultimately one. Reality is like a big pot of soup on the stove. Bubbles may appear on the surface from time to time, and we may take these bubbles to be unique, distinct, individual things. But eventually the bubbles pop and they merge again with the rest of the soup. We realize they weren’t really a different type of thing, but just part of the one thing—the soup.
So it is with all of reality. We see “different” things, and assume these distinctions are real (me and you, now and then, here and there, good and evil, and so on). But really everything is part of one basic “substance”—everything is part of the one “soup” of Being. Therefore these things we take to be different will eventually merge back into “The One.” In light of this, we should learn not to make distinctions, since they are ultimately illusory. Good and Evil is one such distinction. No such differentiation really exists.
This view of reality is represented by the “Yin-Yang” symbol, in which black and white are not really opposites, as there are no firm boundaries between the two. The boundary we draw between “black” and “white” (like the boundary we draw between “Good” and “Evil”) is really subjective and arbitrary. There is really no such thing. Pain and suffering are ultimately illusory. Therefore, the fourth premise is false, and the conclusion is false as well. The conflict dissolves.
Again, for the Christian this solution is not available. We acknowledge the reality of pain, suffering, and true Evil. We see the effects of evil everywhere we look. We are called to be part of the “Missio Dei” (God’s mission) to redeem all that has been corrupted by Evil, which leads to (real) pain and suffering. So the fourth premise must remain.
Does That Mean The Conclusion Follows—God Does Not Exist?
The only other premise (the third premise) is a logical entailment of the first and second premises. Thus, it appears all premises are true.
Therefore, does this argument show God does not exist? Given Evil, should we not believe in an all-good and all-powerful God?
No. There are indeed problems with a few of these premises. But they are not the problems discussed these past few weeks. Next week I’ll begin discussing the real problems with a few of these premises.
Until then, grace and peace.
Wait. This is an argument explicitly for non-Christians. If the authority of Scripture is a valid argument, then the question of God’s existence and the presence of evil is easy to dismiss from the start. I was expecting non-Biblical reasons why evil is real and God is all-powerful.
Jerry, appreciate your pushback. A few replies. First, my comment above referencing the Scriptures is why, for the Christian, this "solution" is not available. I’m not suggesting invoking the authority of Scripture in the discussion with the non-believer here.
Second, the one raising this argument is affirming that God (if such a being exists) is all-powerful (in premise two, which is essential to the argument). Furthermore, she or he is affirming the reality of evil (premise four). Therefore, no philosophical defense of God’s omnipotence (if such a being exists) or the reality of evil needs to be made here, for this is already granted by the objector (which leads him or her to the conclusion that God must not exist). There is common ground here. So the issue is since we both agree God (if existing) is omnipotent, and evil exists, how does the conclusion not follow?