Good Without God? The Problem of Evil


What follows is another objection covered in my recent response paper to Good Without God by Greg Epstein.

Here I consider what is, in my judgement, the most difficult challenge to belief in an all-loving, perfectly good God: The Problem of Evil.

The Problem of Evil

In the minds of many, the problem of evil is the atheist trump card against the existence of a “good” God and, therefore, against a moral standard that is rooted in his nature.  While I intend to show that the logical form of this argument ultimately backfires when leveled at theism, I do take it very seriously for its obvious emotional power.  To say that the problem of evil gets its appeal from its emotional impact is not intended to be dismissive or insulting to those who level it at Christians.  I was once among their number!  On the contrary, it is an issue that all thinking Christians will struggle with, even if they never consider it to be a successful argument against God’s existence.  No other argument has led more people to walk away from faith in God and, because the problem is often intensely and personally realized, mere argumentation is insufficient for the apologist (is it ever?).  I believe that a robust logical, theological, and pastoral response is needed.  For this reason, it is considered by many apologists to be the most difficult question we face. 

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 is Good, Whence Cometh Evil?

If God were all powerful, the argument goes, he could stop all suffering.  If he were all-loving, then he would 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


As referenced above, 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. 

Consider the example of a mother who asks “Why would God allow my three year old daughter to suffer terribly and then die from cancer?”.  Why indeed?  As a parent, I cannot even countenance the idea.  Compounding the issue, in recent years we have observed hundreds of thousands of innocent lives being wiped out by natural disasters. I write this volume under quarantine due to an unprecedented global pandemic!  The problem appears to be intractable.

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

The Logical Problem

Actually, no.  In fact, most contemporary philosophers have abandoned this argument for several reasons. I want to focus here on two.

First, contra to Epicurus, there is simply no inherent contradiction between the existence of a good God and evil.  This is because the premise “if God is able, but not willing to stop suffering he is malevolent” is false. 

 As I have argued elsewhere, “we can demonstrate the point by thinking 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 parents do not exist or are not good? No. Moreover, you may say that the parents 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 satisfying 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 and that is quite different than saying that it is logically impossible for such reasons to exist.”  Thus, it does not follow that God is malevolent if he chooses to allow suffering.

As philosopher William Lane Craig points out, to establish God’s incompatibility with suffering, “the atheist would have to show that it is logically impossible for God to have morally sufficient reasons for permitting said evil and suffering”.  And, Craig continues, finite persons are simply in no position to claim that kind of knowledge. [10]

Secondly, very simply, the skeptic must accept the existence of evil in order to raise the objection.  But as we have seen, “good” and “evil” only exist if God exists.  Therefore, the reality of evil is evidence for God’s existence!  So the skeptic’s trump card turns out to be one of the most powerful arguments against atheism.

Therefore, the logical problem of evil is not successful.  But if Christianity can offer no greater consolation than this, no hope and no solution, then perhaps Epstein is correct when he argues that theism does not make our lives anymore worthwhile than atheism.

The Emotional Problem

This is the emotional problem of evil and it is, in my judgement, 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 (on this side of Heaven). But if Christianity is true, perhaps some profound and meaningful answers are possible.

With humility and deference to those experiencing great pain, I want to suggest that 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, 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.

Moreover, I want to suggest that eternity in Heaven eclipses any temporal suffering.  This, again, does not take away the sting of a New Town massacre and the like.  In such times the world simply does seem cruel and unjust. But, at the risk of sounding redundant, I would want to propose that an eternity in Heaven cannot only provide meaning and hope, it can fully compensate for even the worst temporary suffering.

Finally, I want to suggest that all belief systems face the emotional problem of evil; and Humanism offers no hope. It could be the case that atheism is true, and that evil does not really exist ontologically, and, in such a case, the Humanist does not have an intellectual problem of evil. Certain features of reality are just appalling and there are no answers to it.  That is just the way that it is.  This could be the case and the atheist is correct in saying that ‘wishing it were not so’ will not help us. We have to confront this possibility. However, Humanism, according to its proponents, offers “the most inspiring answers to life’s most pressing questions”. [11] It seems to me, therefore, that they also face the emotional problem of evil and suffering.  But, in the end, atheism can offer no meaning and no hope for those in pain.  For on this view, life is ultimately meaningless.  Regardless of how we live our lives, it all ends the same.

Despite Epstein’s foundationless embrace of meaning and purpose, his worldview offers precisely what Richard Dawkins has described in The God Delusion.

“In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”

– Richard Dawkins


[10] Craig, 2010, On Guard, David C. Cook, Page 151
[11] Epstein, 2005, Good Without God, HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., Page 32
[12] Ibid., Page 31


What do you think? Is the problem of evil actually evidence FOR God’s existence? Is evil a problem for Christianity in particular? Is cereal soup? If a tomato is a fruit, is ketchup a smoothie? Let met know in the comments and click subscribe if you want to see new posts as soon as they’re published!

Have a topic that you would like to see addressed? Email me at neillology@gmail.com

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