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The Logical Problem of Evil and Suffering

I don't like sharing the image above. It was taken in 1945 at the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp. The man standing in the center of this mass grave was the camp doctor, Dr. Fritz Klein, who assisted in the selection of men, women and children to be put in the gas chambers and, in the end, mass graves such as this. He was executed for war crimes in December of 1945.

This is a shocking image. I don't like sharing it because it forces us to confront a scary and disturbing reality of life: evil exists. During World War II, Nazi Germany put to death over 7,000,000 Jews simply because they were Jews, along with others such as gypsies, homosexuals, and disabled people. The Holocaust was horrific, but it was not unique. Genocides, mass killings, and war crimes are common in human history. A helpful Wikipedia page lists genocides by death toll. Some, such as the Holocaust, Armenian genocide, and Cambodian genocide, are common knowledge; many are not. We are currently in the middle of yet another genocide, that of the Uyghurs, a Muslim ethnic group in China, by the Communist Chinese government.

Life can be, and so often is, a confusing mixture between the beauty and joy of life and love and a deep and dark ugliness that seems to permeate and infect all of it. Recently, I watched the follow-up to the popular Lifetime docuseries, "Surviving R. Kelly," on Netflix, and this struck me while watching the show. The structure of the family is beautiful, grounded in God's creation to raise children in the love and instruction of a mother and father, who are committed to each other first in order to provide a safe and loving environment for their children. Yet, how many children do not experience this? So many children instead experience absent, selfish, aloof, or even abusive parents. R. Kelly was sexually assaulted as a young boy. This established in him an apparent pattern of relating to sex that, when unaddressed, apparently led him to an extreme addiction to sexual sin, one which hurt many, many girls. What was good-the family and romance within God's boundaries-was corrupted. Indeed, many, though by no means all, of the victims of R. Kelly's abuse were abused before meeting him, so, tragically, R. Kelly's abuse did not surprise them much. If you think that this is how a man treats a woman, how much more likely are you to accept what is evil being committed against you?

So, in life, there is a confusing mixture between apparent goodness and beauty and evil, which seems to pervade and corrupt all of it. Evil is part of human experience. Therefore, every person must account for this aspect of human experience, must struggle to interpret it and live with it. As we engage in this existential process, the process of accounting for what it means to live in this world so pervaded with evil and suffering, we will be able to see, hopefully, why worldview is so important. One's worldview is the lens through which one looks at the world, the assumptions with which one interprets one's experience of the world. What are your assumptions, and are those assumptions true?

To some atheist philosophers, the existence of evil and suffering contradicts the existence of God. We see this sentiment when people say things such as, "How could a good God allow such bad things to happen?" The idea is that a good God wouldn't allow evil to occur. But evil obviously exists. Does this entail that God doesn't exist? This is the logical problem of evil and suffering. Here is the video:

First, what is the logic of this argument against God's existence? In the video, notice that the argument is formulated in a simple three-step argument:

  1. It is logically impossible that God and suffering and evil both exist.

  2. Suffering and evil exist.

  3. Therefore, God does not exist.

I won't symbolize this argument in this post for two reasons. First, I'm not entirely sure how to properly symbolize this argument and don't want to mislead by getting it wrong. Second, I don't think that it would be very helpful to symbolize the argument because the language itself is clear enough to understand the logical structure of the argument. In this case, symbolizing the argument could be confusing and unhelpful (ha, not least for me).

It might be helpful, however, to point out that the central premise for the logic of this argument is the first premise. Let's use G for "God exists" and E for "suffering and evil exist." To claim that it is logically impossible that G and that E is to say that there is no possible set of circumstances (i.e., no possible world) in which both G and E are true. Therefore, the truth of one in the actual world implies that the other is false, and E is obviously true in the actual world. Therefore, according to the argument, G is therefore false; God does not exist. So the argument is logically valid. The conclusion that God does not exist does follow logically from the two premises.

What about the premises? Are they true? Premise 2 seems quite obviously to be true; suffering, at least, certainly exists. So premise 1 is the key premise. Is the claim that God exists logically incompatible with the claim that suffering and evil exist?

In order to assess this claim, we have to make an important distinction between an explicit contradiction and an implicit contradiction. An explicit contradiction is one in which the contradiction is given in the meaning of the terms. For instance, as the video illustrates, to affirm that David is married and that David is a bachelor is an explicit contradiction, since to be married is not be a bachelor and vice-versa. It is given in the meanings of those terms that they contradict each other. An implicit contradiction is one in which the contradiction is not given in the meanings of those terms. For instance, one may claim that Christianity and Islam contradict one another. Of course, there is no explicit contradiction here in the sense that it is given in the terms themselves. Instead, we have to assess the beliefs underlying these worldviews in order to uncover the supposed contradiction implicit in those terms. When we do, we find a plethora of contradictions. Just to give an example, Muslims do not believe that Jesus is divine, but Christians believe that Jesus is divine. Both beliefs are central to their respective worldviews. So the underlying beliefs that the terms describe reveal these contradictions and make them explicit.

On this basis, it is clear that the first premise of this argument is a claim to an implicit contradiction, so we must assess the underlying assumptions behind these terms in order to make the contradiction explicit. Here, the video makes clear that the concept of God operating behind this term "God exists" includes two properties of God: that He is all-loving and all-powerful. Here are the two assumptions underlying this concept of God:

  • Assumption #1: If God is all-powerful, He can create any world He wants.

  • Assumption #2: If God is all-loving, He prefers a world without suffering.

Therefore, from the assumption that God can create any world He wants and would prefer a world without suffering, the observation that we live in a world with evil and suffering seems to contradict the existence of an all-loving and all-powerful God. Since many theists, and certainly most Christians, believe in an all-loving and all-powerful God, the existence of evil and suffering seems to be a serious objection to theism, in particular Christian theism.

But are these assumptions true? This is the key. Remember that, in order for the claims that G and that E to be a contradiction, G and E cannot both be true in the same set of circumstances, no matter the circumstances. In other words, there is no possible world in which both G and E are true. This means, then, that these assumptions must not only be true, but true in every possible world. In other words, the atheist levying this argument against theism must be able to show that both assumptions are true necessarily. If the atheist cannot show this, then the argument against theism fails.

So let's assess these assumptions. First, let's assess the claim that if God is all-powerful, He can create any world He wants. To clarify, "world" here is not to be taken in the sense of planets but, rather, sets of circumstances. God can actualize any set of circumstances He wants. This claim entails that God could just create a world without any evil and suffering, which seems intuitively true. If God is all-powerful, then why couldn't He? Here, philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga have pointed out that the existence of free will may have a limiting factor with respect to the worlds God can create.

This is often taken to be a limitation in God's power, but this is a mistake for two reasons. First, God can choose whether or not to create free agents. For a God not limited by the need to create determined agents (shout-out to my Calvinist friends), God's choice to create free causal agents is His own. Yet it also means God must take into account the free agent's ability to actualize a set of circumstances (i.e., by making choices and acting on them). Christian philosophers discuss this by distinguishing between possible worlds and feasible worlds. For example, let's say that there is a possible world in which James freely chooses to eat raisin bran for breakfast. Let's also suppose that James hates raisin bran so much that in no possible world does he actually freely choose to eat raisin bran. He could choose to (and thus, there are possible worlds in which he does), but he never makes that choice. This means that, though there is a possible world in which James chooses to eat raisin bran, that world is not feasible for God to actualize. since God cannot force a free agent to do something. Because of this, what's feasible for God to actualize is limited by free will.

Second, though God is all-powerful, the vast majority of Christian theologians and philosophers acknowledge that God's omnipotence does not entail that God can do the logically impossible. And it is logically impossible for God to force someone to freely do something. If He forces them, they are no longer free. If they are free, He does not force them. Again, this does not limit God's power. I often explain logical contradictions by saying that they are little more that grammatical errors, the unfortunate result of misunderstanding and misapplying terms. When I say that God cannot create square-circles, I am not limiting God's power but simply pointing out that whoever put those two words together clearly doesn't understand what he's talking about. God is not limited by grammatical errors. To affirm that He could create a square-circle is to just assert the absurd.

Given these two reasons why free will limits the possible worlds that are feasible for God to actualize, the atheist has a tough job ahead of him. For the atheist now has to show that there exists possible worlds, which are feasible for God to actualize, in which all free agents freely choose never to sin. Can the atheist hold up such a massive burden of proof? No atheist, thus far, has been able to, which is why the logical problem of evil was abandoned long ago in philosophy. Therefore, since it is possible that God is all-powerful and all-loving and that evil and suffering exist, then the claim that G and E contradict is false, and therefore the objection fails.

Notice that I haven't even touched the claim that if God is all-loving, He would prefer a world without evil and suffering. Remember that both assumptions must be necessarily true in order for the argument to succeed, so undermining only one assumption undermines the argument as a whole. But, for the sake of making it clear, it is not at all obvious that God necessarily prefers a world without evil and suffering. He may have morally sufficient reasons for allowing evil and suffering to exist in order to bring about some morally superior good (perhaps eternal life through the sacrificial death of His Son for the sins of the world). So, as with the first assumption, the burden of proof seems much too heavy for the atheist to carry.

So the logical problem of evil quite decisively fails as an argument against God's existence. But this is not the only version of the argument. Next week, we will discuss the probabilistic version of the problem of evil and suffering, a much more modest version of the objection that has proven much more formidable for theists. That will be the subject of next week's post. After that, we will discuss the problem of evil and suffering as an emotional and existential problem, not as an argument against God's existence but as a cause for distrust of God and deep pain and sorrow in our lives. Stay tuned for these posts!

I hope that you have been edified by seeing that Christian theism can stand up to objections lobbied against it. If you find yourself continuing to come back to the blog, please consider subscribing to it, so that you will get notified of each new post. With a subscription, you can also comment below and start a discussion! Finally, if you have any questions or comments about the blog, then you can send me a message from the bottom of the homepage. I look forward to receiving messages from you. Thank you for reading!

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