Any serious theologian or philosopher must at some point address what has become known as “the problem of evil” or “the problem of pain.” This issue is fundamental, in so much as it may determine an entire worldview for an individual once addressed. For an atheist, he looks around at the “evil” in the world and says, “If there were a God, there would be no evil in the world. There is evil in the world. Therefore, there is no God.” On the other hand, a theist sees the same thing and claims, “[T]he evil in our world is all somehow ultimately justified, however horrible, and that it is thus all compatible with the existence of a morally good and perfect Creator.” These competing claims beg the question, who owns the burden of proof, the atheist or the theist? For the Christian theist, the Biblical directive is clear, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…” (1 Peter 3:15) It is in this spirit, an attempt to answer the four most common objections by atheist concerning “the problem of evil” will be presented.
Free Will and the Prevention of Evil
The first argument presented by atheist is that God could prevent evil and still maintain freedom of will. The main problem with this argument is in the term “freedom of will?” Free will is defined as “term of art for a particular sort of capacity of rational agents to choose a course of action from among various alternatives.” Given this definition, the question must be asked, Can God prevent evil in the physical world in such a way that would remove any alternative which would result in evil and still maintain freewill? Could God have created the universe in such a manner as to allow free will and prohibit evil? The atheist responds to these questions in the affirmative, while the theist denies such possibilities.
In order to properly deal with issue of free will, the theist must address two specific issues. First, what can an omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, God logically do and not do without being contradictory to His intrinsic being. Does the impossibility of nonsense (think Can God create a rock He can’t lift?) logically imply that God is not omnipotent? The theist must demonstrate that an “all powerful” creator cannot do the eternally impossible and still be consistent within his intrinsic self.
Once the omnipotence of God is addressed, the theist must then demonstrate that free will agents cannot exist with the removal of evil. If it can be demonstrated that at the very least the possibility of evil must be present to allow free will, then the idea of maintaining free will in its absence must be relegated to the realm of the nonsensical. If this is indeed the case, then evil must be a necessary component of the universe, and God must allow it in order to create free willed agents, if he so desired.
Perhaps C.S. Lewis (a former atheist, himself) makes the strongest case for the nonsensical element of the atheist argument. Lewis argues that in human understanding that the word impossible is a conditional state. In other words, it is only impossible because of the specific, time, place, and state of being is not sufficient for the possible. As Lewis points out, “In ordinary usage the word impossible generally implies a suppressed clause beginning with the word unless.” Since God is present in all states of being, all periods of time, and places an impossibility for God does not include Lewis’ suppressed “unless.” Therefore, there are no circumstances in which what has been judged as impossible to be possible for God or any other agent. It is eternally impossible or as Lewis calls it, “intrinsically impossible because it carries its impossibility within itself, instead of borrowing it from other impossibilities which in their turn depend upon others.”
God cannot create a rock He can’t lift because nothing could. There is never a time, circumstance, or state of being in which that could ever occur. It is nonsensical. It is an eternal impossibility. God is certainly omnipotent. When Jesus told his disciples, “but with God all things are possible,” He was not claiming that God could do anything. (Matthew 19:26) What He was really saying was that all things which are eternally possible are possible with God. He was excluding those things which fall into the nonsensical and eternal impossibilities.
Having established that there is no contradiction between God’s omnipotence and impossibilities, the burden now falls upon the theist to demonstrate the nonsensicalness of a world which allows free will without the possibility of evil. Free will and evil are intrinsically linked. You cannot have one without the other. If God prevented evil, what choice would a person have? Suppose George offers Fred pizza. Fred does not want pizza, but a peanut butter sandwich. Now suppose all George has is pizza. Does Fred have the choice of a peanut butter sandwich? No, indeed, he does not. He must take the peanut butter sandwich. It could be argued, he could choose not take the pizza. Fred, then, based on natural laws, would go hungry. Hunger is evil, by definition. Hunger is a bad state of affairs. Free will has been removed from the equation.
It could be argued, that God could have created Fred not to be hungry. Then you run into the removal of George’s freewill. You have removed from George the ability to choose to offer Fred pizza. The idea is circular nonsense. Free will demands the possibility of evil. Therefore, if as theists claim, the intention of the Creator was to produce free willed beings who love him by choice; then, there must have been the allowance of the possibility of evil to come into direct moral contact with the created beings. To claim it could be otherwise, falls into the category of eternal impossibilities. This, as it has been argued earlier, is something God simply cannot do.
Free will and the Intervention of God
The next major objection atheist offer to the existence of God through the argument of evil is that God could cease its existence through continual intervention. Once again Lewis, offers a strong rebuttal. Lewis argues that any society of agents “implies a common field or “world” in which its members meet.” The neutrality of such world must be kept intact in order to facilitate the free will of the entire society. If the natural laws which governed the common field were able to be manipulated on a whim of a solo agent would prevent free will of any other agent who inhabited the world. Suppose George chooses to give Fred a cake, but Fred, who is able to manipulate the environment on a whim, changes it into a concrete block. What then was the point of George choosing the cake as the gift? There would be none. In fact, George’s free will would have been rendered inoperative because he choose to give a cake, but Fred turned it into a block. In such a world, free will could not exist, yet this is exactly what atheist attempt to say is possible. Lewis points out the ludicrousness of such a proposition, arguing:
We can, perhaps, conceive of a world in which God corrected the results of this abuse of free-will by His creatures at every moment: so that a wooden beam became soft as grass when it was used as a weapon, and the air refused to obey me if I attempted to set up in it the sound waves that carry lies or insults. But such a world would be one in which wrong actions were impossible, and in which, therefore, freedom of the will would be void; nay, if the principle were carried out to its logical conclusion, evil thoughts would be impossible, for the cerebral matter which we use in thinking would refuse its task when we attempted to frame them.
According to Lewis, then, even our own thoughts would not be free to be ours. If the possibility of evil did not exist, it would be eternally impossible for free will to exist. The one depends on the other. An atheist is free to believe there is no God, because God has desired to create free willed agents. King David would write, “The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” He is only a fool if to say such thing produces evil. Not even atheist would argue that to do a good thing is foolish. In fact, it could be argued that without evil, good and foolish could not exist. It is only on the basis of the experience of evil that an agent can determine such concepts. Still, notwithstanding the conceptual argument, if evil did not exist, the atheist would not exist. God would not allow it.
The Existence of Evil and a Perfect Being
The third common contention made by atheist is that the existence of evil denies the possibility of the existence of a “Perfect Being.” This argument requires the theist to deal with a fundamental assumption on which it relies – namely that God is subject to His creation. By definition, God must stand outside of the created universe. An agent which creates, by rationale, cannot be a part of his creation. The artist is no more a part of the makeup of the painting, than God is part of the universe. The book of Isaiah records God’s declaration, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, as the heavens are higher than the earth so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9) The mystery of God who is beyond the universe of God allows for his perfect intrinsic nature.
However, relegating the argument to the realm of unknown mystery seems by many to be an “unfortunate, desperation ploy” by theists. Yet, what argument can be made to explain God’s perfection in the wake of the existence of evil? The theist must show that the allowance of evil produces a desired character trait. This argument is known the Soul Making Argument. Theists can point to certain character traits that can only be developed in the presence of Evil. For example, to develop courage, an agent must act in the face of danger. If evil did not exist, then there would be no fear or danger in which courage can be developed. God’s perfection would desire this trait to be developed within his creation, therefore, evil must be a necessary condition of existence. This can be clearly seen in the interaction of a parent and their child. The parent says, “Do not touch the stove, it is hot.” The child does not listen, and begins to reach out his hand to touch the stove. The parent aware of the pain that will be caused by the child’s action allows the child to touch the hot stove. Pain ensues. The child learns to trust his parent’s judgment in matters of danger. This allowance of evil developed the character trait of parental trust within the child. If pain had not resulted from the touching of the stove, what reason would the child have to trust his parent’s judgments concerning its welfare? There would be none. God is no different. He desires the development of certain traits which necessitates the allowance of evil.
The Meaning and Purpose of Life and the Existence of Evil
The final contention of atheist that will be discussed is the idea that the existence of evil proves we do not need God to find meaning and purpose in life. This argument basically asserts that God is not a prerequisite to have a life of meaning and purpose. Those that hold to this philosophical view contend that meaning and purpose can be found in existence itself; but is this view correct?
Craig doesn’t think so. He argues that the only meaning to life an atheist can achieve is relative to those around him. He asserts that if the whole universe is nothing but random chance, there is no “ultimate purpose.” He asks, “Suppose the universe never existed. What difference would it make?”
It in this question, the theistic response is strongest. Up until now, the burden of proof has been upon the theist, it now is the responsibility of the atheist to answer, if there is no God what is the meaning and purpose of existence? If there is no God, why can’t I do what I want? Why can’t I kill another human being because life is ending anyway? As Craig points out, they have no answer. They are left to follow their own logic to its inconsistent conclusion, namely that if there is no ultimate meaning or purpose, then there is no logically viable morality.
Yet atheist after atheist tries maintain the absurd notion. They argue that purpose is found in the life lived, and the meaning in what other human beings attach to it. Yet if they are bound to same fate as the rest of the universe, namely non-existence, what meaning can they give? Craig quotes the atheist Nielson, who said, “We have not been able to show that reason requires a moral point of view, or that all really rational persons, unhoodwinked by myth or ideology, need not be individual egoists or classical amoralists. The picture I have painted (existence without God) for you is not a pleasant one. Reflection on it depresses me… Pure practical reason, even with good knowledge of the facts, will not take you to morality. Their logic is self-defeating when taken to its conclusion.
Indeed, there is no one theistic response to answer the atheist challenge of evil to God’s existence. Yet, in Toto, the combination of the four arguments that have been laid out provide a strong case for the existence of God despite the presence of evil. It is only in an existence which includes God does humanity hope to grow, better itself, and ultimately find meaning and purpose. Atheist can try to deny him, but they are eventually defeated by their own logic. There is a God– it is the best possible answer to the problem of evil.
Calder, Todd, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2015.
Craig, William Lane. “The Absurdity of Life without God.” In Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, 71-90. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008.
Lewis, C. S. “The Problem of Pain.” In Signature Classics: Complete, 551-619. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007.
Morris, Tom. Philosophy for Dummies For Dummies. New York: Wiley Publishing Inc., 1999.
Nielson, Kai. “Why Should I Be Moral? Revisited.” American Philosophical Quarterly no. 21 (1984): 81-91.
O’Connor, Timothy, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2014.
 Tom Morris, Philosophy for Dummies, For Dummies (New York: Wiley Publishing Inc., 1999).
 The entirety of this paper will assume a Christian worldview.
 All scripture is NIV translation, unless otherwise noted by the author.
 Philosophically evil is defined as “any bad state of affairs, wrongful action, or character flaw.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Fall 2015 ed. (2015), s.v. “The Concept of Evil.”
 The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Fall 2014 ed. (2014), s.v. “Free Will.”
 C. S. Lewis, “The Problem of Pain,” in Signature Classics: Complete(New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007).
 William Lane Craig, “The Absurdity of Life without God,” in Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics(Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008).
 Ibid.Craig quoting fromKai Nielson, “Why Should I Be Moral? Revisited,” American Philosophical Quarterly no. 21 (1984).