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Debate on the Problem of Evil


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The following is a post from a theist's blog:
I recently discussed the problem of evil, which is a popular topic of debate between theists and atheists. For those unfamiliar, the general notion is that if God exists, why is there evil or suffering the world? Surely God could have created a world without evil, because He is all-powerful and all-loving. The fact that evil exists suggests either that God is not all-powerful or He is not all-loving, and would therefore cease to be God. The atheist then concludes that because there is evil, God almost certainly does not exist.

I've posted on this elsewhere, but to me it seems theists often jump to free will and the permission of evil to accomplish a greater good. While this is definitely a component of the theist's defense, it appears to me that we often miss the initial step: who is responsible for evil?

As a theist, to me it seems like we need to clarify this responsibility before we can discuss further. If an atheist poses to you the problem of evil, the first question ought to be this: "Can evil exist without man?" That is to say, if man did not exist, would there still be evil?

In reply, the atheist can really only go two ways. The initial implied assumption here is that the atheist is a naturalist, and as such believes that nature is amoral and indifferent. Nature doesn't care about the plight of man, and so it applies no value to man. Since evil is a moral value judgment, and nature has no values, nature is amoral and incapable of evil on its own.

So the atheist can say either of the following:

1) Yes, evil can exist without man, or
2) No, evil cannot exist without man.

If the answer is the first option, then the atheist is stipulating to the existence of the supernatural realm, and the entire framework of the atheist's worldview is shattered. Why is this true? Because the only realms that could exist are the natural and the supernatural, by definition. If nature is amoral and man doesn't exist, then the only way a moral value judgment like evil could exist in such a situation is within the supernatural realm. So the atheist has just admitted their own worldview is irrational!

Realistically, this means the only option for the atheist is #2, where the existence of evil is predicated on the existence of man. However, this also poses a problem for the atheist, as we are then able to construct a logical argument based on the premises laid out from the atheist's worldview:

1) If evil exists, then someone or something is responsible for evil. (P1)
2) If man does not exist, then evil does not exist. (P2)
3) Nature on its own is amoral. (P3)
4) Evil exists. (P4, denying the consequent)
5) Therefore, someone or something is responsible for evil. (C1,> P1, P4)
6) Also therefore, man exists. (C2,> P2, P4)
7) Nature existed before man existed. (P5) [This is the naturalist's assumption based on the theory of evolution.]
8) Therefore, there was a time before man where evil did not exist. (C3,> P2, P3, C2, P5)
9) But evil exists now. (P6)
10) Therefore, the someone or something responsible for evil didn't exist before man, but exists now. (C1, C3, P6)

Based on these ten steps, the only reasonable conclusion is that man is responsible for the evil we see in this world. So the atheist is really assuming that the problem of evil begins with man, unless he relinquishes his entire worldview and commits to supernaturalism.

So the issue then becomes the following: couldn't God have created a world where man didn't exist? I suppose it's logically possible, but we as humans are in no position to make any assumptions about such a world where we didn't exist-namely, that it would be a world that is better than the one we are currently experiencing. Surely it wouldn't be better for us, because we wouldn't exist. So we have no basis on which to judge God based on the existence of evil.

Without even discussing free will, any theist can make a reasonable assertion that the problem of evil is a poor and invalid objection to the probability of God's existence. If you are faced with such a task, don't worry! You have the answers!

My response:

Man is responsible for evils such as war, genocide, murder, rape, etc. I don't think that such things as malaria, earthquakes, famine, etc. can be classified as evil in a Godless universe. Those things are unfortunate, but they cannot be classed as evil because there is no intent behind them, no malice, they are simply things beyond our control.

However, if God does exist as the all powerful creator of the universe, then we arrive at a problem because these things no longer have no intent behind them. God (from the creationist/intelligent design perspective at least) created malaria, AIDS, E. coli, etc. One has to ask with what intentions these were created? Bacteria and viruses make sense in evolution because they exist simply for the purposes of propagating themselves, unfortunately causing suffering along the way. However if someone created these things with intent, one can only conclude that this intent was similar to the intentions a human has when they design instruments of torture.

Even if God did not create these things, then there is still a problem because God is supposedly a moral being, who cares about the suffering of people, and is also supposedly all powerful. Now, I'm a moral being, and I care about the suffering of others, however I am unfortunately not omnipotent. If I was then I would put an end to viruses and infectious diseases, I would make sure that earthquakes didn't ravage cities and kill children etc. So one also has to wonder what the intentions are of a being who just allows suffering to happen. Even if there is a purpose to it, it's still not right to allow it to continue without assuring us as to what the purpose is. A loving parent will tell a child why they need an injection, they won't just give it to them and watch coldly as they cry their eyes out.

There is much evil that is solely the responsibility of man, and a lot of suffering and death which is beyond our control, however with God that suffering and death which is beyond our control suddenly becomes within the control of a being who supposedly cares about us. Diseases suddenly become created with intent etc. This is the difference between theism and atheism, an atheist will say 'sure disease, famine and disaster are bad, but there's no force behind it, the best we can do is try to combat it' whereas a theist will have to explain why the supposedly omnipotent, omnibenevolent and omnibeneficient creator of the universe allows these things to happen.

If you're out walking by the cliff and a rock falls on your head and injures you, sure its a bad thing to happen, but its not evil, however if someone throws the rock with the express intention of harming you it does become an act of evil. The atheist universe is one in which some rocks do fall on people by accident, however in the theist universe no rock falls by accident, there is always someone there who either threw it or could have stopped it from falling. This is the heart of the problem of evil.

I also responded to the following quote from the author in the comments section:
"But if we believe there are innocents, then the greater good defense makes sense, because we are only able to see the effects of our limited scope (aka our lifespan), so how are we to know that such an evil act on an innocent doesn't actually bring about greater good than if the evil event didn't happen. Sort of a "Back to the Future" type idea, but our knowledge in such a case is limited, therefore we don't have any good justification to believe that this, in fact, doesn't make sense in the scope of eternity, which is where God's scope lies."

My response:

This 'greater good' argument is a complete moral failure. William Lane Craig has said:

"The premise that pointless suffering exists, or gratuitous evil exists is extremely controversial. We are simply no in the position to make these kinds of inductive probability judgements"

He clearly has no idea of what the implications are in such a line of reasoning. It can be used to justify any kind of immoral act imaginable. If gratuitous evil and pointless suffering do not exist then all 'evil' and 'suffering' are being used to fulfil God's plan, and God's plan is ultimately good in the end.

This can be used for me to justify all kinds of evil. If none of us are in the position to judge whether or not some evil act will lead to the greater good in future. This means that if gratuitous evil and pointless suffering do not exist, all evil is in fact ultimately good. So if I were to torture all the children in an entire village to death you are not in a position to say that this was not for the greater good. So nobody has any means of implicating anyone else for evil. This is exactly the problem that theists accuse atheists of having, but really with these kinds of apologetics, it's the other way around.

The following is the exchange that took place (authors words in quotes, my responses underneath):
I think you're missing the point here. The problem of evil only becomes a problem if you pre-suppose God's existence. As an atheist, you're unwilling to do that, so by admitting evil exists in the world, you are admitting man's full responsibility for such an evil. That absolves God of all responsibility even if He exists, because you've already given the admission that man is responsible for evil. You can't put a condition on it: "Man is responsible for evil unless God exists, then God is responsible for evil." That's absurdity.

What you are asking is for God to be responsible for intervening to not permit evil. And that's where the forced freedom illogical idea takes shape. You're asking God to be illogical in regards to you, which is something He can't do.

Finally your example of torturing children is rather shortsighted. You're saying that I can't say it's not for the greater good. That's true. But the difference is that YOU are committing the evil act. God doesn't commit evil acts, for as we've shown, God is not responsible for evil. Therefore, you can be judged according to your actions. Because God supersedes our limited scope, we have no real justification for judging God on anything. So it's a false dilemma, because in one instance, the one responsible for evil can be judged; in contrast, your view of such apologetics lacks a being responsible for the evil.

So unless you're willing to pre-suppose God, which would make you a supernaturalist and shatter your atheism, the problem is yours, not God's, friend.

Well if you read my post I attributed evil to man. I said that there are some acts that on atheism are just unfortunate accidents of nature, and cannot be implicated as evil because there is no intent behind them. However once you posit the existence of an all powerful being who created malaria with intentions, who allows famine to continue without intervention etc. This means that such things which in an atheist universe have no moral implications because they're just blind unfortunate natural occurrences, come to rest upon the decisions of a moral being.

If there is a person alone in a room and the wardrobe just happens to collapse on them injuring them this is an unfortunate accident, but has no moral implications that can be attributed to any being, just as disease, famine and disaster have none in the atheistic universe. However on theism, you're positing a moral being who was in the room and either caused the wardrobe to fall (as in God creating malaria), or failed to prevent it from happening when it was perfectly possible to do so (as in famine etc.). The existence of that person in the room who either caused the accident or allowed it to happen unnecessarily changes the situation to one in which the event does have moral implications and those lie firmly with the one who was responsible or did nothing to stop it.

I conceded that in the atheistic and the theistic universe man is responsible for evil such as war, rape, murder etc. However on theism suffering such as disease, famine, and disaster etc. have moral implications when the existence of God is posited.

I'm not talking about evil that is acted out as the consequence of man's free will. If you read my response I made that clear from the start. War, rape, murder etc, are actions of man's own will and I did not say that God is necessarily needed to intervene in those things. However, did God have a choice when he created Malaria? Is God unable to intervene to stop famine (perhaps he could send down Manna like he did in the Bible?)? I'm not saying that God could limit the free will of individuals, I'm saying that surely he could do something to prevent the suffering that is not caused by man's free actions?

Yes, but if no gratuitous evil exists (that is no 'Uncalled for; lacking good reason; unwarranted' evil) then my evil act by definition is called for, with good reason and warranted in God's plan. So I have divine justification for doing anything I want"¦

But before we continue of that can you answer these statements with true or false:

1. God might have morally sufficient reasons for allowing evil, as part of 'the greater good'
2. Gratuitous suffering and evil do not exist
3. God has a plan for all of us which is ultimately good
You can't have it both ways though. You can't say nature is amoral unless God exists, in which case He is responsible for nature and gives it moral value. If nature is amoral, then it is amoral regardless of whether or not God exists. Otherwise, you can make the same case for man, and say that man is amoral because God does not exist. But we know that not to be the case. Man is moral whether or not God exists, because we all believe in moral values. Nature is the same way. You can't have your cake and eat it too. It's a false dilemma.

You also say that God should prevent suffering that is not caused by man's free actions. But if man is responsible for evil, then suffering is a result of man, and so there is no suffering that is not caused by man's free actions. If you believe malaria and famine are evil, then according to your view man is responsible for malaria and famine and their "evilness." Therefore you are in no position to judge God as to this evil, and we're back to forced freedom.

Finally, there is no divine justification for your evil, because God specifically calls us not to do evil. While He might be able to use your evil for good, and even permit your evil so that a greater good can be done, it doesn't give you justification to do evil, because the theistic God is by definition the perfect good, and so can't do evil and even hates it. So any evil is done against God, not justified by Him. Again, to think that there is divine justification to do evil because God ultimately wants to see the greater good done is another false dilemma. The conclusion just doesn't follow from the premise in such an argument.

You seem to misunderstand my argument.

Firstly forget about all the evil that man is responsible for via their own free will. This is not what I'm talking about.

This argument focuses around things for which man is not responsible, but still cause great amounts of suffering. Natural disasters, plagues, pestilence, famine etc.

Now if we imagine a universe in which there are no god(s), those things listed in the previous paragraph are not evil. Why? Because evil is dependant upon the actions and decisions of morally conscious entities.

Now if we imagine a universe in which there are one or more omnipotent and omnibenevolent god(s), those things then become evil. Why? Because they become dependant upon the actions and decisions of a morally conscious entity.

If god is omnibenevolent then it follows logically that god cares about the suffering of human beings. It also follows logically that god would desire to prevent suffering in human beings.

If god is omnipotent then it follows logically that god is perfectly capable of preventing, and protecting human beings from natural disasters, plagues, pestilence, famine etc.

However, not only does god not prevent suffering and protect human beings from it, he is also the architect of various engines of suffering. God is supposed to have designed bacteria and viruses that can kill millions. God has supposedly created our solar system with enormous meteors and asteroids that could kill most life on the planet (and have done in the past). God created the world in such a way that tectonic forces could destroy cities, crushing innocent children in rubble. God is able to control the environment in certain places in order to avoid famine and drought, but he doesn't. This is not consistent with an omnibenevolent god. As the famous argument goes, either God is evil, or he is impotent.

If God was using the actions of Ghengis Khan, or any other violent leader throughout history for the greater good, then logically you have to say that this violence was ultimately good. Either that or it wasn't for the greater good.

This raises a couple of questions that I'd appreciate if you could answer.

1. If God is omnibenevolent and omnipotent then why can't he achieve the greater good without using any humans to commit evil?

2. If God is using the evil actions of humans to achieve the greater good then how can he possibly do so without impeding their supposed free will?
You're still missing the point. Let me attempt to clarify:

You said initially that evil wouldn't exist without man; therefore, man is responsible for evil.
But as an atheist who believes in evolution, you believe that nature pre-dates man (i.e. there was a time where the earth existed without man on it).
You also said if God exists, then He's responsible for the "evils" in nature.
But if God exists, then evil existed before man existed.
But you said that's not possible.

That means that only one of 2 conclusions is possible:
1) God is not responsible for any evil, including natural "evils."
2) Evil pre-dates man, contradicting your initial statement. But since nature on its own is amoral, this means that the supernatural realm exists in order for evil to exist. Therefore, God exists.

Do you see how your view of the problem of evil is irrational? If you stick to the arguments, you see that your viewpoint is logically contradictory. So before I can answer any of your follow-up questions, I need to know which conclusion above you're committing to, because everything you've said means one of the two must be true.

Let me clarify, evil would not exist without morally conscious entities.

Is God a morally conscious entity or not?

But you're clearly missing out the distinction between an atheist and a theist universe, which is a distinction I made from the start. Your rebuttal is assuming that the same principles apply to both whereas I clearly stated that this is not the case.

In the atheist universe (a universe without God) the suffering caused by nature is not evil because it is not controlled by the actions and decisions of a morally conscious being.

In the theist universe (a universe in which an all-powerful God exists) the suffering cause by nature is evil because it is controlled by the actions and decisions of a morally conscious being.

Your rebuttal is ignoring the distinction that I made between the two. You're taking the description of the atheist universe (that natural suffering is not evil, and that evil doesn't exist without morally conscious entities) and trying to use it to rebut my description of the theist universe. The two are distinct which is why I've been making it clear.

As I said you're ignoring the clear distinctions I made. Evil pre-dates man in the theist universe, but it doesn't in the atheist universe. Why? Because evil is defined by the existence of morally conscious entities. In the atheist universe morally conscious entities only arrived with the evolution of man (as far as we know), however in the theist universe a morally conscious entity has always existed, and therefore evil (or at least the awareness of what it is) has always existed.

This morally conscious entity sits back and does nothing while 3000 innocent African children die each day of malaria. Now in the atheist universe there is no moral agent who is responsible for causing malaria, therefore it is not evil. However in the theist universe there is a morally conscious agent who created it. Ergo something which on atheism has no moral implications because it has nothing to do with a morally conscious decision, does have moral implications in the theist universe necessarily because of the existence of God.

Let me explain why your rebuttal doesn't work with an analogy. Imagine two scenarios. 1. A group of older kids are severely beating a younger child who is screaming out for help, but there is no one around to help. 2. A group of older kids are severely beating a younger child who is screaming out for help, and there is an adult standing there, watching and doing nothing. Now you're rebuttal is like saying 'because no one was there to help in scenario 1 (which is analogous to, say malaria in the atheist universe), the person watching in scenario 2 (which is analogous to malaria in the theist universe) is not morally responsible for just standing there and doing nothing', I'm sure you can see the flaw in that reasoning. The flaw you've made is essentially the same; you fail to recognise the distinction I made between 2 different scenarios.

Now answer my questions please.
Um, no. You can't have your cake and eat it too. You can't say nature is evil if God exists, yet not evil if He doesn't. Either malaria is evil or it is not. It's not an if/then proposition.

We started from your atheistic framework and arrived at the conclusion that man is responsible for evil and nature is amoral. You can't simply thrust the responsibility on God then when assuming His existence. That's like saying I am responsible for making sure I study and pass an upcoming exam, but if I have a tutor suddenly it's the tutor's responsibility to make sure I study and pass. That's absurd. I am still responsible for my own actions and whether or not I study enough to pass. The tutor bears no responsibility, because he/she is not taking the exam. They can guide and provide help and instruction, but they are not responsible for those actions.

Your dilemma is false. I can't answer your questions predicated on a false dilemma. Sorry.

I can quite easily say that. In a universe without God malaria has nothing to do with the actions and decisions of a morally conscious entity. In the theistic universe God designed malaria, malaria causes suffering and death on a grand scale. What do we call someone that intentionally designs something that causes suffering and death?

Your rebuttal is rather pathetic I'm afraid to say. If a rock falls accidentally on someone's head it is not evil because it was not caused by the actions of a morally conscious entity, however if a rock is thrown at someone's head it is an act of evil because it is caused by the actions of a morally conscious entity. You cannot rebut this by saying either rocks hitting people on the head is evil or it's not. The two scenarios are different to a significant degree.

If you cannot understand that there would be significant differences between an universe with an all-powerful deity and one without then we're done. You're insistence that that which applies in one case must necessarily apply in another is flawed for reasons I've made clear several times. Now get on with addressing the bulk of my argument or concede that you have nothing in defence of it. Stop trying to dance around the issue with your transparently fallacious rebuttal.

And while you're at it answer me this:

"1. If God is omnibenevolent and omnipotent then why can't he achieve the greater good without using any humans to commit evil?

2. If God is using the evil actions of humans to achieve the greater good then how can he possibly do so without impeding their supposed free will?"

Your ignoring these questions and hiding behind a weak rebuttal, one can only assume that there is something that is making you not want to answer me. Well I'm not going to let you off the hook, these questions have to be addressed considering some of the points that you raised in this discussion.

Now stop playing dodge and lets get to the heart of this discussion.

[to be continued...]