Is the Problem of Evil Only a Problem for Christians?
Traditionally, the problem of evil has been presented as the best argument against the existence of God. It comes in two forms. The first is the logical problem of evil which says that it is not logically possible for an all-powerful and good God to exist when there is evil in the world. The second can be called the evidential problem of evil. This version of the argument claims that God’s existence is not logically impossible, but the probability of God’s existence is very low in light of the amount of evil and suffering in the world. The argument based on the logical problem of evil is not really used among philosophers anymore since it has been soundly refuted, most notably in Alvin Plantinga’s “Free Will Defense”. However, the argument from the evidential problem of evil is considered by many to be a solid argument against God’s existence. While I certainly do not want to minimize the seriousness of the challenge from evil and suffering for God’s existence, I do think there has been an imbalanced perspective in the discussions. Critics of Christianity argue as if the existence of evil and suffering is a problem that Christians alone must face. In reality though, it is not only Christians who must answer the challenge from evil. Every person and every worldview must explain the existence and nature of evil.
Worldviews and Evil
Worldviews are like maps of reality, they aim to provide us with details of the universe as well as what destinations are important and how to get there. Thus, evil is something that is a part of the universe which calls out for an explanation. In one way or another, we all experience evil and suffering and we all face the same questions surrounding its nature and existence. No one escapes the responsibility to try and make sense of it. So, how do various worldviews try to explain evil?
Atheism and Evil
Many atheists frequently cite the problem of evil as their reason for not believing in God. From their perspective, there is not a satisfying way to make sense of evil in a universe where a good and all-powerful God exists. But, if atheists reject God on the basis of evil, do they have a better answer to the problem? Atheism struggles to make sense of real, objective evil because it does not provide a foundation for objective morality. In other words, atheism as a worldview lacks the ability to ground objective good and, since evil can only be defined in contrast to good, it cannot support the category of objective evil.
You see, on atheism, we can say that things like rape and slavery are wrong. But, these things can only be “wrong” or “evil” in a limited sense. These things are “evil” only in the sense that we may personally dislike them. What we cannot say, on atheism, is that these things are objectively evil or wrong. To say that something is objectively evil or good means that this applies universally. We are saying something about the action or state of affairs itself that is either good or evil, not merely our own personal preferences. The problem for atheism is that this worldview provides no foundation to make objective moral claims such as these.
To understand this, you must go back to what atheism says about the universe. Atheism says that this universe is the result of an accident, an explosion out of nothing which has no prior explanation. It says this universe is physical all the way down. Reality is purely described and understood in terms of physical processes of cause and effect. In other words, everything in the universe (including you and me) can be explained as “molecules in motion.” While Genesis says “In the beginning God created…” atheism says “In the beginning were the particles…”. If this picture of reality is correct, it means there is nothing transcendent that exists. There is nothing which exists above and beyond the physical world and this would include objective morality. When we make claims like “that is wrong!”, we are making objective (and therefore transcendent) moral claims. Such claims appeal to a standard of morality which is beyond the physical world.
You might say then that atheism has “the problem of evil” and “the problem of the good”. It does not give a satisfactory account of the existence and nature of evil and it does not explain the existence and nature of the good either.
Eastern Religions and Evil
While the religions of the east are diverse and multi-faceted, the basic worldview lying at the heart of Hinduism and some versions of Buddhism is called eastern pantheistic monism. The idea behind “pantheism” is that what we call “God” is in everything. God is in the trees, the wind, and even us. “Monism” is a term which teaches that ultimate reality is all One. Christianity says ultimate reality is a personal God who has created everything and is distinct from His creation. Atheistic naturalism says that the ultimate reality is the physical universe. In Christianity and atheism, there are meaningful distinctions to be made between ultimate reality and ourselves. As we will see, a monistic worldview says such distinctions are really illusions.
Now, it is important to see that the eastern worldview we are discussing teaches that the spiritual dimension to reality is actually the whole of reality. The true center and ground of reality is an impersonal spiritual One. The implications for this are significant on many levels, but especially when it comes to morality. This One is said to be beyond the distinctions we take for granted each day, such as the difference between good and evil. If this view is correct, then it means that there really is no such thing as “good” or “evil”. But if the distinction between good and evil is merely an illusion, what becomes of the problem of evil? Well, it evaporates. There is no problem of evil in a universe where such a distinction is illusory. The notion of karma does not help here either. Karma is the principle that a person’s present existence is the result of their past moral actions. However, in a universe without meaningful categories of good and evil, it is difficult to see how karma makes sense.
Christianity and Evil
Christianity says that real, objective good and evil do exist. Good is grounded in the perfect nature and character of the God who brought everything into existence. Evil is corruption of the things He has made good and it is the result of sin. Humanity’s fall into sin had cosmic effects on the entire universe because it broke their relationship with God.
However, God stepped into this world in the person of Jesus Christ. He experienced the evil and sufferings inherent in this world and has conquered sin. Through His death and resurrection, the way is open for all who trust in Him to find eternal life and a hope that cannot be taken away. One day, He will make all things new. He will right every wrong and wipe all of our tears away. This is the Christian hope. And while we may not have an answer for every evil we experience in this life, Christianity contains the resources to both make sense of evil as well as to provide a solid hope in the face of evil.