Facing the Problem of Evil (Part 1)
The problem of evil and suffering gives many believers pause. They are stumped when a popular atheist objects: Anyone who walks into a children’s hospital knows there is no god.
Of course, that’s a false claim. But let’s fill in the missing premises of the argument. Anyone who walks into a children’s hospital may see terminally sick children suffering. A good God would not want children to suffer, and an all-powerful God could cure them. Moreover, a good, all-powerful God would indeed cure them. Yet, many die uncured. Therefore, a good, all-powerful God does not exist.
Essentially, that formulation offers nothing new. It goes back to Epicurus, who famously said:
Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?
Catholic Christians can answer Epicurus, and others who raise this objection. But, how we go about answering is critical.
Beginning to Answer
When facing the problem of evil and suffering, one should situate the problem appropriately. First, recognize that Christians, Muslims, Jews, and others have spilled a lot of ink on this question over the years. You don’t need to know everything that’s ever been said. Yet, you will need to know some big points.
You need to find out what precisely the objector thinks. Never make the mistake of launching into verbose explanations without situating the problem first.
They might scream at you, “Where was God when my sister died of cancer at the age of 15!” Spewing eloquent explanations in return can only make that scene worse. Pause and take a breath. No matter how strong they come on, follow this two-prong approach:
- Immediately pray for the person. Something like this is good, “Jesus, have mercy on this person and bring them into a loving relationship with you.”
- Ask follow up questions to frame the problem.
Framing the Problem
Evil and suffering present problems to people in different ways. Find out first: Is it an intellectual problem or an emotional problem? This key distinction should drive the discussion.
Skepticism or bewilderment about how someone can believe in God’s goodness in the face of grim evils in the world often reveals an intellectual problem. The unbeliever finds the Catholic Christian’s belief in a Good God rationally deficient. However, this person does not display obvious discomfort or tell of any personal pains that led to this conclusion.
Grief over particular cases of evil mark the emotional problem of evil. The person may reveal horrible encounters with suffering that left him feeling deeply sad or betrayed. Philosophical reasons for believing in a Good God cannot ease the pain of thinking that God, if He exists, has turned His back on this person. They may not rule out God, though they may indeed do so, but they rule out trusting in a God who has allowed such evil and suffering.
If it is an emotional problem, apologetics and philosophical arguments are probably not the answer. Instead, express your sorrow for the individual’s woes, prayer for him, and ask God to demonstrate His Goodness in that person’s life. One day in the future, you may speak again about issues related to God, Evil, and Suffering. If you feel it’s appropriate, share some of your own struggles.
To recap, always distinguish the intellectual problem from the emotional problem.
The Intellectual Problem
After detecting the intellectual problem, make another distinction. Find out if your friend deems evil and suffering to be a logical problem or an evidential problem for God’s existence. They may not know these terms. Explain them clearly, and ask the person what they believe.
The Logical Problem of Evil: God and evil are logically incompatible. Since evil and suffering exist, it is not possible that God exists. Is that what you believe?
The Evidential Problem of Evil: Evil provides evidence that God does not exist, but it does not show that it is impossible that God exists. It is unlikely that God exists given the evil and suffering we see. Is that what you believe?
Notice, by situating the problem and asking questions, you take yourself off the hot seat. Moreover, you require the objector to clearly explain what they think. Only after this is done should offer counter-considerations. If possible, continue to use the #1 thing and ask questions rather than make statements.
A Few More Points
In the next post, I will say more on how to answer the logical problem and the evidential problem. Here, I offer a few brief remarks with a promissory note to expound in the near future.
- Many atheist and agnostic philosophers have widely abandoned the project of the logical problem of evil. They do not think they can defend it.
- If the logical problem of evil fails, then it’s possible that God exists along with evil and suffering in the world.
- The proponent of the evidential problem will struggle to demonstrate the unlikelihood of God’s existence due to evil and suffering. They will mount a probabilistic case.
- In the background of the probabilistic case lurks the logical possibility of God’s existence and the evidence for God’s existence. This places a heavy burden on the proponent of the evidential problem of evil.
How to Situate the Problem (Flow Chart)
This chart summarizes my main point. Commit it to memory!
1) For organized, helpful information on the Problem of Evil, check out On Guard by William Lang Craig.
2) For an advanced, Thomistic treatment of the subject, check out The Reality of God and the Problem of Evil by Brian Davies.