Mary Jo Sharp, the Problem of Evil, Christianity and Atheism

On Monday night Mary Jo Sharp, Apologist and Professor at HBU, delivered the keynote address on the emotional problem of evil to a packed house at West U Baptist church. Her speech was part of the annual “August Apologetics” series hosted by the church.

august apologetics

It was a stimulating lecture and, as such, I thought its subject would be a good first topic for Neillology.

So what is the “problem of evil”? If God exists, why is there so much suffering in the world? Is the existence of evil incompatible with the existence of an all-loving God? What follows is my response to this problem and my attempt to summarize Mary Jo’s response along the way.

  • What is the Problem of Evil?
  • Answering the Problem of Evil
    • The Logical Problem
    • The Emotional Problem
  • How Should Christians Respond?

What is the Problem of Evil?

The problem of evil, most apologists agree, is the most difficult issue that the Christian theist faces.  Mary Jo shares this view.  The argument comes in many forms, but the thrust of it is always the same – If God is all-knowing, all-powerful and perfectly good, why is there so much evil in the world?

If God were all powerful, the argument goes, he could stop all suffering; if he were all-loving, then he would want to stop all suffering.  Since he clearly does not stop all suffering, the theist has a problem.  God, it appears, is either incapable of stopping all suffering and, therefore, is not all-powerful, or he is capable of stopping all suffering but chooses not to and, therefore, is not all-loving.  The Greek philosopher Epicurus recognized this problem more than 200 years before the birth of Christ:

“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?”― Epicurus

The power of this argument is brought into focus when you consider specific cases of horrendous suffering which do not appear to be the result of sin.  In her talk, Mary Jo used the example of a mother who approached her and asked “Why would God allow my three year old daughter to suffer terribly and then die from cancer?”.  OUCH.  Why indeed?  As a parent, I cannot even countenance the idea.  Compounding the issue, in 2017 alone, we observed thousands of innocent lives being wiped out by natural disasters. The problem appears to be intractable.

But if we remove the emotionally charged context, is the Epicurean objection sound? Are God and suffering really mutually incompatible? Could an all-loving, all-good God have a sufficient reason for allowing suffering? In other words, is there a logical problem of evil?

Answering the Problem of Evil

The first thing that I would like to acknowledge in approaching the problem of evil is that there are two components; The logical problem and the emotional problem.  And they both need to be dealt with seriously.

The Logical Problem of Evil

Is the Epicurean objection sound? Are God and suffering mutually incompatible?

No. In fact, this argument has been completely abandoned (almost) in contemporary scholarship. There are several reasons why this argument is no longer defended. I will focus here on two:

1. There is no inherent contradiction between the existence of God and evil.

To demonstrate this point, it may help to think of an example where temporary suffering obviously produced something good. We can all think of such an example. If you are a parent, consider your children. Have you ever allowed them to suffer in the short term to achieve a greater good in their lives? To a child, their first vaccinations seem cruel and purposeless. This is because their perspective is limited. Does it follow then, that the the parents do not exist? No. Moreover, you would say that you had a good reason to allow this suffering to occur. The same is true if you have allowed your children to fail in order that they would grow in wisdom and maturity. This is not intended as a comprehensive answer and it is certainly not intended to trivialize the issue. It is intended, however, to show that there is no inherent contradiction between suffering and the existence of an all-loving God. There is much more that could be said here, but let me admit once again that this is not a satisfactory answer for all instances of suffering.  In my opinion, a fully satisfactory answer to children dying of cancer, for example, is not forthcoming (at least not by arguments alone). But this does not mean that there is a logical contradiction. We simply do not know why God would allow each instance of evil that we observe, but that is quite different than saying that it is logically impossible for such reasons to exist. Thus the premise “if God is able, but not willing to stop suffering he is malevolent” is false.

2. The existence of evil is not evidence against God. Rather, the existence of evil entails the existence of God and turns out to be one of the strongest arguments against Atheism.

I would argue that if evil exists, then God must exist! This is because, apart from God, there is no standard beyond human beings by which we can ground the concept of good and evil. In other words, if there is no standard outside of human opinion, then good and evil, in the objective sense, are illusory.  Moral judgements on naturalism, therefore, are mere opinions. As such, if two human beings have a moral disagreement, on naturalism, there is no objective standard by which one can claim to be closer to the truth than the other.  Neither party would have such authority.  Yet every time one makes a truth claim, they rise above naturalism by appealing to a standard beyond themselves. This is a major problem for the naturalist.

The existence of evil entails the existence of God and turns out to be one of the strongest arguments against Atheism.

Enter the Moral Argument:

  1. If objective moral values exist, then God exists.
  2. Objective moral values do exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.

Premise 1: If objective moral values exist, then God exists. When discussing the problem of evil, just what do we mean by ‘evil’? When we say a thing is evil, we seem to be appealing to an objective truth about the moral content of an action or circumstance. But if there is no standard beyond human opinion, morality is purely subjective. Few contemporary scholars have denied this premise until recently. Sam Harris argues in his best-selling book, The Moral Landscape, that science can give us an objective moral standard: human flourishing. But there are a few problems with this. Most importantly, this is not a fail-safe standard.  Indeed some people believe that the greatest good that human beings could pursue is voluntary extinction.  Humans, they point out, are consuming the planet’s natural resources, hunting other species to extinction, causing environmental disasters, and more.  What makes Sam Harris right and them wrong? The existence of objective moral values without the existence of a transcendent moral standard is a philosophical dead end.

Premise 2: Objective moral values do exist. This, I confess, I cannot prove. Fortunately, nearly everyone already believes this premise. The alternative is basically unlivable. No one really believes, for example, that there is nothing objectively wrong with killing babies for fun. Is the proposition that “it is better to love babies than to murder them” just a matter of opinion as arbitrary as preferring chocolate over vanilla? This, it seems to me, is absurd. Some things are truly wrong independent of human opinion.  And if just one thing is truly good or truly evil, the second premise is true.

Conclusion: Therefore, God exists. If this syllogism is a sound argument, then the conclusion follows logically and inescapably from its premises. I believe it is sound. The only way to avoid this conclusion then, is to deny one of the premises. I don’t think this can be credibly done as we have seen.  Therefore, God exists.

* What about the Euthyphro dilemma? I believe that this is a false dilemma and it will be the focus of a future blog post. The short version is that God’s perfect and unchanging nature is the objective standard of good. Neither arbitrary, nor a standard beyond himself.

The Emotional Problem of Evil

This, in my judgement, is the more difficult of the two problems. As such, I think it is appropriate to reiterate that a fully satisfying argument is not, and perhaps cannot be, forthcoming. But IF Christianity is true, perhaps some profound and wonderful answers are possible.

With humility and deference to those experiencing great pain, I want to suggest the following:

  • God has not remained distant from suffering. If it is true that God chose to enter into the world through Jesus Christ and endure unimaginable torture and an excruciating death (literally), then this reveals a God who is not indifferent to our pain. This, as John Lennox says “is a window into who God is”. If Christianity is true, there is hope. Hope that death is not the end, that the world will be put right, and that all will be dealt with justly. Borrowing again from Dr. Lennox, the question we should ask then is this, “is there enough evidence amidst all of the suffering to trust God with our pain?”. I believe that there is. Providing that evidence will be the purpose of this blog.
  • Eternity in Heaven eclipses any temporal suffering. At times, the world does seem cruel and unjust. But, at the risk of sounding redundant, I would want to propose that an eternity in Heaven can compensate for even the worst temporary suffering.
  • Atheism removes all hope. It could be the case that Atheism is true and, therefore, we do not have an intellectual problem of evil. This part of reality is just appalling and that’s all there is (“what do you mean by appalling, though” I might ask the atheist). That could be, and wishing it were not so does not help us. We have to confront this possibility. However, I believe this conclusion clashes so powerfully with our innate moral sense of justice that it is rational to return to the second premise of the moral argument here. Either way, Atheism removes the intellectual problem, but takes all hope with it as well.

How should Christians Respond?

This is where Mary Jo shined in her presentation. After acknowledging the immensity of the problem, the always practical apologist offered a formula for responding to someone with this important objection. Her formula is paraphrased as follows:

  1. Refine the problem
    • Reduce the objection into a digestible form. Ex. If a person were to talk at length about an injustice then, with GREAT sensitivity, you may want to distill their remarks into a formal objection like “If God were all good, he would not allow children to die from cancer”. Check in to make sure you are representing their objection accurately.
  2. Define Evil
    • Ask them how they define evil. Ask probing questions. Offer a standard – The problem of evil presupposes the existence of an objective moral standard by which we can call something “evil”.  But this cannot be justified on a naturalistic worldview.  Enter moral argument.
  3. Outline the Christian solution
    • Only God can provide an objective standard of goodness. Mark 10:18
    • God has not remained distant from our suffering, but entered in to it.
    • Creation is a good thing (Gen 1:31) and evil only exists as a privation of good. (Romans 6:23)
    • God’s answer to corruption is redemption and resurrection. (1 Cor 15:20,26)

She was careful to emphasize the need for great compassion and sensitivity throughout the process. She also recommended “checking the temperature” periodically and ensuring that the person wanted to continue the discussion.

For once, I have nothing to add. This formula was delivered with considerable grace and clarity. I simply recommend checking out the link below and following her work.

You can watch a replay of Mary Jo’s speech here (as well as Lee Strobel’s talk from last week) – August Apologetics @ West U Baptist Church

1 Comment

  1. Amazing insights and very well written. I love the moral argument of if there is evil it presupposes something to define it, ie. something perfectly moral to derive morality and therefore to see and accept what evil is. Looking forward to reading about the Euthyphro dilemma when you Neillologize about it.

    Liked by 1 person

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