Evil’s existence, and God’s existence.

by K.W. Leslie, 09 April 2018

Every so often I bump into a nontheist who complains God can’t be real, can’t exist… because there’s such a thing as evil in the universe.

Here’s how they’re figuring: If God’s real, God’s almighty, and God’s good like we Christians claim, he should’ve done something to get rid of evil, right? After all they would, if they were God. They’d have wiped out evil long ago, like with a great purging flood or something.

They can’t fathom a God who’d be gracious enough to grant his wayward kids any leeway, any second chances to repent and return to the fold. He’d shut that s--- down on sight. So since God isn’t their kind of God, he must not exist.

This is hardly a new idea. It’s been around since Epicurus of Athens first pitched it in the 300s BC. Or at least we think Epicurus pitched it. That’s what Christian author Lucius Caecilius Firmianus Lactantius claimed in his anti-Epicurean book De ira Dei/“On God’s Wrath.” The way Lactantius described Epicurus’s argument, breaks down into four views about how God and evil work, sorta like yea:

  1. God wants to eliminate evil, but he can’t. (’Cause he’s not really almighty.)
  2. God doesn’t wanna. (’Cause he’s not really good.)
  3. God’s neither willing nor able. (’Cause he’s not really God.)
  4. God’s both willing and able. So… why does evil still exist then?

This, folks, is what Christian philosophers call “the problem of evil.” We’ve been knocking it around ever since Lactantius.

Nontheists have obviously taken the third view: God’s neither willing nor able. But their explanation is a little different from Epicurius’s: It’s because he’s not really there. Evil exists because there’s no God to stop it.

For the most part Christians have taken the fourth view, then pitch various explanations for why evil nonetheless exists. Most of them have to do with free will: In order for free will to truly exist, evil has to be a possible freewill option—so that’s the risk God chose to take in granting his creatures free will. Of course that’s not the only explanation we’ve come up with, but it’s the most common.

Dabbling in the other two views.

However there are Christians who decided, of all things, to take a serious look at the first and second views.

First of all the first view: God wants to eliminate evil but isn’t really almighty. This is the view we tend to find among Unitarians, Open Theists, and various other deists who figure God either stays uninvolved in human activity, or doesn’t know the future, and is just as shocked by acts of evil as the rest of us.

Basically they believe in God, but he’s a weak God or an absent God. He’s there, but he’s just not there for us. You know, exactly like the nontheists believe, except these folks actually like God, and aren’t anywhere near as hostile towards religion and religious people. Evil exists, but they figure God can’t personally help it, so that’s why he instructs us to do good, and try to stop it or mitigate it.

And maybe there’ll be a last day and a final judgment. Some of ’em hold out the possibility. At that time, God may do something final to get rid of evil once and for all. The rest of ’em imagine evil won’t follow us to the afterlife, and it’s in the afterlife we finally get an evil-free existence.

The second view, where God doesn’t care to eliminate evil, we tend to find among Calvinists and other determinists. Because if God ordains everything in the cosmos, and nothing happens without his say-so… well, notice how much evil there is in our world. If God actually ordained all that, he clearly doesn’t have a problem with evil.

Now because the scriptures make it pretty darned clear God is anti-evil, these Christians go out of their way to avoid saying God isn’t truly good. They figure God has some secret purpose for all that evil. It only looks evil to us, but somewhere at the back of it, somewhere in a mysterious ends-justify-the-means sort of way, it’s actually some form of goodness.

No, seriously. I’ve heard some Calvinists actually attempt to claim evil is good—because if God determines it, and God is by definition good, it can’t be evil. Even though it totally looks like evil… and totally is evil. Basically they’re practicing doublethink.

Lastly I’ll mention the folks who believe either the first or second view, or bits of both… and as a result they became nonreligious. Still believe in God, but they don’t really feel like following or worshiping him. After all, he’s not almighty, so what good is he? Or not good, so not worthy of worship.

The problem of the problem of evil.

The first time I came across Epicurus’s argument, somebody had rearranged it into a logical syllogism, which looked like this:

  1. If an almighty, all-knowing, good God exists, then evil doesn’t.
  2. Evil exists.
  3. Therefore such a God doesn’t.

Of course I had a problem with the initial premise. Because I grew up in a church which taught God is almighty, all-knowing, and good—and yet evil exists, ’cause the devil and humans went wrong, and God isn’t gonna judge us just yet.

Epicurus didn’t grow up in church, so naturally he had his own ideas about what God should and shouldn’t be, or should and shouldn’t do. God should suit his ideas of how sovereignty and almightiness should deal with evil. After all, human sovereigns try to stamp out evil; why wouldn’t God do the same, and do it better and more effectively?

When pagans don’t know God, they regularly presume he thinks like them. Even if they imagine he’s better than they are, they still limit him to their standards of right and wrong, good and evil, fair and unfair. And to humans, “fair” means reciprocity and karma: People should get what’s coming to us. That’s what we deserve. No more and no less.

No grace, either.

That’s where the problem of evil falls apart. If an almighty, all-knowing, good, gracious God exists, then evil might exist. Because such a God would be patient with evildoers, try to reform them, and undo their evil. As God does.

The reason the existence of evil is a problem, is because people don’t know God, don’t do grace, and can’t fathom why such a God would be patient with people who clearly deserve what’s coming to them. His kindness doesn’t suit them. Wrath—now you’re talking. They want wrath. They want vengeance meted out sevenfold upon evildoers.

In short it’s because they’re evil. But they’ve convinced themselves their vengefulness is fairness, and don’t know why God can’t be as “fair” as they. (And sometimes can’t imagine they’d be on the receiving end of some of his smiting—as they would be, ’cause who other than Jesus has never sinned?)

Anyway you can see why such pagans turn nontheist: As soon as they realize their made-up idea of God doesn’t work and can’t be real, they leap to the conclusion the actual God can’t be real. But they’ve started from a false premise. They never got to know the real God, who does exist despite evil, and who is doing something about evil. And will indeed one day wipe it out.