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The Existence of Evil and A Good God: Part III - The Problem

This is the third in a series of posts on the Problem of Evil by guest author and friend of New Hope Academy, Dan Marino. Dan is grad student in Theology at Talbot School of Theology/Biola University. The Problem

Often accredited to Epicurus, one of the earliest formulations of the Problem of Evil is found in the writings of the third-century theologian Lactantius. Lactantius writes of Epicurus, "God, he says, either wishes to take away evils, and is unable; or He is able, and is unwilling; or He is neither willing nor able, or he is both willing and able. If he is willing and is unable, he is feeble, which is not in accordance with the Character of God; if he is able and unwilling, He is envious, which is equally at variance with God; if he is neither willing nor able, He is both envious and feeble, and therefore not God; if he is both willing and able, which alone is suitable to God, from what source then are evils? Or why does he not remove them?" (Lactantius, On the Anger of God 2017, 43) According to Lactantius, Epicurus lays out four possibilities concerning God and his relationship to evil. God either 1) desires to remove evil but lacks the power to do so, 2) has the power to remove evil but does not want to, 3) does not want to remove evil, but even if he did he would be unable to do so, or 4) both wants to remove evil and is able to do so. In the first case, God may be rightly considered good, but is also weak. In the second, God may be considered mighty, but cannot be considered good. In the third, God can be considered neither good nor powerful. Only the fourth possibility presents a God who is both good in his desire to remove evil, and powerful in his ability to do so. As this is a Christian treatment of the Problem of Evil, the question arises: which of these four characterizations of God is the Christian able to accept? Looking to Christ, whom the Christian worships as God, only the fourth option is available. First, concerning moral evil, Jesus demonstrates his ability to prevent such evils during his interaction with the demon possessed men living in the region of the Gerasenes. In Matthew’s account, the men are described as so violent that no one could pass by them (Matthew 8:28). In Mark’s telling, however, one of the men runs up to Jesus and falls at his feet, crying out in recognition that Jesus is the Son of God Most High (Mark 5:6-7). In both accounts, Jesus casts the demons out and the men are returned to their right minds. This narrative reveals Jesus’ ability not only to subdue the violent and prevent them from committing moral evils, it also shows his power to exchange wicked spirits for a spirit of peace. If the Christian is to worship Jesus as God, she must therefore believe in a God who has the ability both to prevent moral evils and to change the depraved minds which devise them. But what of natural evils? Throughout his ministry, Jesus is seen healing the sick, the deformed, and the disabled. He is able by his word to calm raging seas, and speaks comfort to the mourning and to the disheartened. He shows his power over death, the greatest natural evil, by raising Lazarus and through his own resurrection. It is clear, then, that in worshiping Jesus the Christian worships a God who is both willing and able to bring an end to Natural evils. Taking Jesus’s goodness (as seen in his willingness to bring an end to moral and natural evils) and might (as seen in his ability to bring an end to moral and natural evils) into account, the Christian is compelled to believe in a God who is revealed as both willing and able to do away with all evil. Therefore, returning to Epicurus, only the fourth and final description of God is available to the biblical Christian, and it is here that the Problem of Evil becomes a problem with which the Christian must contend. If God is willing and able to bring an end to evil, why does he allow men like Ted Bundy to rape and murder? If God is willing and able to bring an end to evil, why did he allow the brutal treatment of the Haitian slaves, or the slaughter of infants at the hands of the Turkish army? Why does God allow earthquakes and hurricanes and plagues to ravage the earth at such a great cost of human life? Why does God allow men like C.S. Lewis to endure such profound emotional suffering with no consolation, to the point where in the midst of their sorrows they cry out “Meanwhile, where is God?” (Lewis, A Grief Observed, 5).

If God is willing and able to do away with these evils, then such evils should simply not exist; why, then, are such evils so prevalent? This question has driven many to conclude that an all-powerful and wholly good God must not exist. Possibly the first argument on the logical impossibility of God and evil is found in an anonymously written obscure French text titled Jordanus Brunus Redivivus, in which the author asserts, “There is evil in the world, and yet there is a God: is this credible? No: it is necessary to consent to the annihilation of one of these two things, in order to preserve the existence of the other… the reality of evil once proved, I believe that our adversaries will be reduced to abandoning their phantom of Divinity, or at least to admit that it is not all-powerful” (Anonymous, in Jordanus Brunus Redivivus, 1771, 96)

While the author of Jordanus may have likely been the first modern to point to evil to discredit God, he certainly was not the last. Turning to a contemporary example, astronomer and celebrity scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson has put it this way, “The more I look at the universe, the less convinced I am that there is something benevolent going on. If your concept of a creator is someone who is all powerful and all good, that’s not an uncommon pairing of powers that you might ascribe to a creator, all powerful and all good. And I look at disasters that afflict earth, and life on earth; volcanoes, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, disease, pestilence, congenital birth defects; you look at this list of ways that life is made miserable on earth by natural causes and I just ask ‘How do you deal with that? Philosophers rose up and said, ‘If there is a God, God is either not all-powerful, or not all good’… Given what everyone describes to be the properties that would be expressed by an all-powerful Being, in the gods that they worship, I look for that in the universe and I don’t find it. So I remain unconvinced” (see here). In order to address the argument that evil disproves the existence of God, the discussion must return to the topic of moral relativism. Earlier it was argued that morality cannot be decided at the individual or societal levels, as this necessarily results in meaningless moral assertions. Therefore, in order to describe something as evil, the standard for defining good and evil must come from something over and above - transcendent to - mere human determinations. In other words, in order for there to be a standard of morality to which all people are subject, a standard by which moral evil can be objectively determined, that standard must come from a source which has authority over humanity. Otherwise, humans have no obligation to adhere to such a standard. This cannot be Kant’s impersonal categorical imperative, which states that reason alone can tell us we have a duty to do good to one another, as this is the same system from which Ted Bundy was able to unshackle himself. Rather, the moral code must have been written by something which transcends humanity.

Additionally, in order to say that natural disasters and sickness are evils, or are not how things are supposed to be, there must be a way things are supposed to be which they currently are not; there must be some design plan against which we can discern variation or defect. However, a transcendent moral code and a way things are supposed to be can only have been authored by a Deity; without a God, there is no one to determine how men ought to behave or how nature ought to go. To invoke the Problem of Evil through an appeal to moral and natural evils, then, is to presuppose both an objective moral standard and a way nature is supposed to be; this is to demand the existence of a God. To put it another way, without God, there is nothing that can be objectively described as evil, and therefore the Problem of Evil is meaningless. Evil is only a problem if God exists, and therefore the Problem of Evil cannot be used to disprove God. However, the questions raised by Epicurus still stand. If God is willing and able to do away with evils, “from what source then are evils? Or why does he not remove them?” These are the questions this series on the Problem of Evil aims to answer. The next article will be devoted to answering the first question by determining the source of evil, and the article to follow will seek to answer why God allows evil to persist.

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