The Problem of Evil for Atheists

Evil and the Existence of God

If you are a Christian and have ever had a conversation with a non-believer about your faith, chances are you have been hit with the most common objection to belief in God – the problem of evil. You may have even struggled with this same problem in your own life, as most of us will at some point. The objection, in point form, usually sounds something like this:

  1. If a good and loving and powerful God exists, then evil could not exist.
  2. Evil does exist.
  3. Therefore, God does not exist.

It’s a powerful argument, for sure, and one that we as Christians must be prepared to address. It certainly doesn’t take a lot of searching to find examples of the most unspeakable evils in the world. The news and internet are plagued with gruesome murders, rapes, assaults, corruption, theft, human trafficking, and many other examples. Without a doubt – evil exists; which is precisely why atheists will always point to it in their rejection of the existence of God (point 2 and 3).

However, using the existence of such evil to disprove God is a big mistake. People seem to assume that the problem of evil is only a problem if you believe in God. In actuality, it’s a problem for everyone. As Christian apologist Greg Koukl often puts it, “If you get rid of God because of the problem of evil, you haven’t solved the problem. You’ve just gotten rid of one possible solution!” Both Christianity and atheism need to supply answers to the problem of evil. So how do atheists solve this problem?

When someone brings up evil as an objection to the existence of God, it is often helpful to ask them how they explain the problem of evil. What do they mean when they say evil? They are likely taking for granted that in an atheistic worldview, there is no way to ground concepts like good and evil. Something can only be evil if there is such a thing as good. But what is the standard by which this person is differentiating between the two concepts? Since they don’t believe in God, the only standard they are left with is human opinions. So who gets to decide what is good or what is evil? By human standards, the concept of evil makes no sense.

What determines evil or good, if humans are the standard, would turn out to be the person or group of people with the power to impose their view on the rest of the population. This is exactly what happened in Nazi Germany; Hitler thought that exterminating 6 million Jews was a good thing, and he had the power to eliminate anyone who did not agree with him. Does this mass slaughter of Jews now become a good thing because everyone who doesn’t think so is dead? Of course not. It will always be wrong to do such unbelievably horrible things to other human beings, like those that were done in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany.

The Moral Argument and the Existence of God

The obvious nature of the problem of evil plays right into one of the most powerful arguments for the existence of God – The Moral Argument. In its basic form it goes like this:

  1. If God exists, then objective morality exists
  2. Objective morality does exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.

Objective morality simply means that something is right or wrong regardless of anyone’s opinion. For example, when a person says that the Holocaust was wrong they are not talking about their opinion, but the Holocaust itself. They are saying that the act of the holocaust was objectively wrong, regardless of what Hitler thought about it. Likewise, when a person says it is a good thing to save a toddler from a burning building, I don’t think they mean it is just their opinion that this is good. They are saying the act itself is good, even if there is no one around to give their opinion about it.

It is also important to note that I am not saying that a person needs to believe in God to be good. That would be a ridiculous thing to say. There are many atheists out there who live more moral lives than some Christians. I am saying that God needs to exist in order for there to be a standard, beyond human opinion, by which to judge good and evil.

From our perspective, the only way to define good and evil is if there is a standard by which to judge both. If someone throws a dart at a white wall how would they determine whether it was a good throw? There would be no such thing as a good throw on a white wall because there is nothing to aim at. However, if we put a bull’s-eye on the wall we can now say one throw is better than the other by comparing how close it is to the middle. We have a standard. Equally, when it comes to things like good and evil, we need a standard, beyond human opinion, by which to say that one act is better than another.

In the Christian worldview, our sense of morality is derived from the fact that we are created in the image of God. This doesn’t mean we look like Him, but rather that we have the same faculties of reason, rationality, and morality. Our definition of what is good is grounded in the very nature of God Himself. In Him, we unconsciously have the standard we refer to when we call one thing good and another thing evil.

In atheism, however, there is no such standard. We must remember that in this view we are the products of blind evolution. Our thoughts, beliefs, actions, and values are supposedly grounded biologically in the long process that turned us into the creatures we are today. There is no such thing as evil or good, just DNA.  Famous atheist and Oxford Biologist Richard Dawkins admits as much:

In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication some people are going to get hurt, others are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we would expect if there is, at the bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, and no other good. Nothing but blind pitiless indifference. DNA neither knows, nor cares. DNA just is, and we dance to its music.” ¹

The problem should be obvious. Was Hitler wrong because he simply danced to a different DNA than we do? Do we tell a rape victim that her attacker didn’t really do anything wrong, but that he was just dancing to his DNA? With biological evolution as the standard, this is about as good as it gets. If atheism were true, what we call evil is just our opinion, or maybe our evolution. With this view, I am not sure why we think it is wrong to kill or rape. Those things are obviously wrong, but it seems that a person who is willing to rape a woman or kill someone has a better chance of surviving and reproducing. That is what evolution is all about. The fact that humans have a moral objection to acts that would actually help them survive, is a powerful evidence that this worldview is inadequate.

I find it astonishing that even though many atheists like Richard Dawkins, whom I quoted above, will say things like, “DNA neither knows, nor cares. DNA just is, and we dance to its music,” they will then write an entire book complaining about how evil religion is! Why can’t they accept that the only reason they think religion is evil, is because of their DNA? And why can’t they accept that whatever evil things religious people did to make them so angry, were only religious people following their DNA? No matter what people claim, they can’t help using terms like good and evil – even when they say they don’t exist. Evil is too real to deny.

Christians should not be intimidated by the problem of evil. In a sense it is an ally of sorts. For atheists to push the objection, they need to abandon their atheistic view to make sense of evil in the first place. Atheism steals morality from the Christian worldview in order to argue against it. For a consistent atheist, the problem of evil is not really a problem at all – just an opinion. That is all it can ever be. Rest assured though, that when true evil strikes at an atheist or someone they care about, it will no longer feel like just an opinion; it will be as real as gravity.

Conclusion

When it comes to this topic, we see a bigger problem for the atheist than for the Christian. Don’t just let someone demand an explanation for the problem of evil – unless they are also willing to explain it from their own worldview. We may not know why God allows evil, but at least we are not in the unfortunate position of having a worldview that can’t even define evil, or good for that matter. There are many different ways of trying to make sense of why God allows evil, and it is important to educate ourselves on this matter. We may very well come in contact with a person who is the victim of such evil and is seeking answers. Christianity has answers. Atheism does not.

 

  1. Richard Dawkins, Out of Eden (New York: Basic Books) p. 133

 

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