Reject the Argument That There Is No God Because There Is Too Much Suffering and Evil in the World
Probably one of the greatest challenges faced by Christianity and Christians is the reality of evil and suffering. At times even great thinkers are baffled by the seeming contradiction between the existence of a loving God and the fact of evil. Upon the death of his wife, C.S. Lewis wrote, “Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms … But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is in vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside.”
Why suppose that there is no reason that would justify God in permitting evil? One answer is that it is wrong or unloving for anyone to permit evil under any circumstances. This answer seems false. What if the only way to prevent horrible suffering is to permit less horrible but equally undeserved suffering to occur? Or, what if the only way to prevent horrible, undeserved suffering from befalling many others is to let fewer people suffer? Suppose you're a lifeguard and several swimmers are drowning. If you go after the one furthest away, you'll have to let three others nearby drown, but you can rescue the three nearby swimmers, provided you let the furthest one drown. In that case, it is neither wrong nor unloving of you to save the three and let the one drown. So it is false that it is wrong or unloving for anyone to permit evil under any circumstance. Of course, God, unlike you, is omnipotent and omniscient. You can't get to all the swimmers; God can. One might assert, then, that the only reasons that justify us in permitting evil involve our impotence or ignorance. So while there may be circumstances in which it is neither wrong nor unloving for us to permit suffering, there can’t be any for God since He is neither impotent nor ignorant. He can always bring about the greater good without permitting evil. As plausible as this line of thought might initially appear, it fails. For even if God is omnipotent and omniscient, it does not follow that He can always bring about the greater good without permitting evil. God's power is limited to what is possible; not even an omnipotent being has the power to do what is absolutely impossible. Thus, if there were some greater good that absolutely could not occur unless evil were permitted, it might well figure in God's reason to permit evil.
What if one shifts to a slightly less abstract formulation of the argument from evil that is based upon the premise that the world contains a certain amount of evil, or upon the premise that the world contains at least some natural evil? Then one is including marginally more information. But one is still assuming, in effect, that most of the detailed information about the evils found in the world is completely irrelevant to the argument from evil, and a little reflection brings out how very implausible this assumption is (Swinburne, Richard (1979). So, for example, consider a world that contains a billion units of natural evil. Is this a good starting point for an argument from evil? The answer is that, if either a deontological approach to ethics is correct, or a form of consequentialism that takes the distribution of goods and evils into account, rather than, say, simply the total amount of goods and evils, whether this fact is an impressive reason for questioning the existence of God surely depends on further details about the world. If those billion units are uniformly distributed over trillions of people whose lives are otherwise extremely satisfying and ecstatically happy, it is not easy to see a serious problem of evil. But if, on the other hand, the billion units of natural evil fell upon a single innocent person, and produced a life that was, throughout, one of extraordinarily intense pain, then surely there would be a very serious problem of evil (O’Connor, Timothy. 1995). Details concerning such things as how suffering and other evils are distributed over individuals, and the nature of those who undergo the evils, are, then, of crucial importance. Thus it is relevant, for example, that many innocent children suffer agonizing deaths. It is relevant that animals suffer, and that they did so before there were any persons to observe their suffering, and to feel sympathy for them. It is also relevant that, on the one hand, the suffering that people undergo apparently bears no relation to the moral quality of their lives, and, on the other, that it bears a very clear relation to the wealth and medical knowledge of the societies in which they live.
To sum up, it is right and inevitable to attempt to come to an intellectual solution of this problem. Men of all ages and all religions have set out on this difficult venture. Yet some of the proposed solutions are no solutions at all. To deny the reality of evil is all but absurd. To posit the existence of another cosmic power opposed to God is taking a speculative flight which can have no true philosophical grounding. To suggest a finite God as a solution to the problem is to fall in the pit of humanizing God. The discussion which we have offered above on this dark problem seems to me to shed more light on the problem than most of the familiar theories; It maintains the triangle of the sovereignty of God, the goodness of God, and the reality of evil, attemptint to shed new light on each of these old corners of the triangle. Yet with all of the new light that has been shed on the old problem we still come to a point beyond which we cannot go. Any intellectual solution to the problem of evil will come to inevitable impasses. The ultimate solution is not intellectual but spiritual.
Reichenbach, Bruce R. (1976). “Natural Evils and Natural Law: A Theodicy for Natural Evils,” International Philosophical Quarterly, 16: 179–96.
Perkins, R. M. (1983). “An Atheistic Argument from the Improvability of the Universe,” Noûs, 17: 239–50
Pierce, C. S. (1903) “Abduction and Induction,” in Justus Buchler, ed., Philosophical Writings of C. S., Pierce (New York: Dover Publications, 1955), pp. 150–6. (The selection “Abduction and Induction” is a combination of different writings, with the crucial part being taken from Pierce’s Lectures on Pragmatism, delivered at Harvard in 1903.)
O’Connor, Timothy. 1995. “Agent Causation.” In Agents, Causes, and Events: Essays on Indeterminism and Free Will, Timothy O’Connor (ed.), New York: Oxford University Press, 173–200.
Swinburne, Richard (1979). The Existence of God, Oxford: Clarendon Press.