This happens all too often. I’m (mentally) yelling at the screen, wondering how a well-respected apologist—sometimes even an apologist with a PhD—gets the basics of their own field so wrong. Are they lying? Being deceptive for some imagined greater good? Or is this a good mind deluded by unsupportable supernatural beliefs?
In the naughty corner today is Greg Koukl, who recently wrote “How to Respond to the Problem of Evil” (podcast and transcript here). The Problem of Evil (PoE) is his bread and butter. How does he get it so confused?
The Problem of Evil
The PoE is often stated this way: Why would a good God allow bad things to happen to good people? Here’s Koukl’s version, which (at this moment) sounds good to me.
You think God is good and he’s powerful . . . but if he’s good, he’d want to get rid of all evil. If he’s powerful, he’d be able to get all rid of all evil. But there’s evil, right? So, there you go—God probably doesn’t exist.
This is roughly the PoE as given by Epicurus in the third century BCE.
Dwelling on how Koukl defines the PoE may seem like an unnecessary detour, but it’s important to get this in writing. Before the cock crows, Koukl will deny knowing this argument.
Flaws in the PoE?
But first, Koukl wants to push back against the PoE as he described it above: “When you press the issue, you can’t build a valid argument from those facts.”
Or maybe you can. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy gives a more comprehensive argument and declares that it is indeed valid. But let’s set this aside.
To prove his point, Koukl took one of the premises in his statement of the PoE—if God is good, he’d prevent all evil—and argued that it fails with this example.
[A vaccination is evil from the standpoint of my daughters] because it causes them pain, but Daddy makes them get shots, so why does he do that? Because Daddy’s evil? No. Because I know that the short-term evil to them is going to result in a longer-term good. And so, there is a moral justification for the shorter-term bad.
Right—that’s a moral justification for a human. God is omnipotent, while Daddy and the medical profession aren’t. God could achieve any goal, whether it’s the vaccination of one child or the worldwide elimination of a disease, without side effects. That’s what “omnipotent” means.
There could be a morally sufficient reason for allowing it because it leads to something good, okay? Or maybe something bad that prevents something even worse from happening. . . .
Now, the possibility [is that God] could have a reason; we don’t have to tell them what that reason is.
And you’re already backing away from your own argument. I don’t blame you—I wouldn’t want to defend that either—but yes, you do need to give a plausible reason.
4 mandatory steps before objecting to the PoE
And there’s more: I have four demands of apologists who make this “God could have reasons that we can’t even imagine” argument.
- Admit how bad the PoE makes God look. Even if God had some non-obvious justification, admit that he looks like a Bronze Age barbarian when he allows evil that he could easily prevent.
- You say that God could have his reasons? Give some. That is, move from vague, ungrounded handwaving to specific reasons for actual evil events in the world. I suggest you start by listing plausible benefits that would justify World War II and the Holocaust. (Do you seriously think a God a billion times smarter than you couldn’t come up with anything more benign than the Holocaust to achieve his goals?)
- Does “God” even exist? Let’s worry about God’s reasons for evil after we have solid grounding that he exists.
- Why would God allow suffering when he has magic? He’s omnipotent! Any goal he can achieve through human suffering, he can achieve without it.
(I expand on this list here.)
Follow this list, and when you start struggling to find explanations for God’s absence (or might it be . . . nonexistence?) you begin to see the problem. Nonexistence explains the evidence so much better.
Evil happening to people vs. other animals
A rock could tumble down a mountain and hit a person or a deer. Is there a moral difference? Accidents, disease, and natural disasters hit both humans and other animals.
When a calamity hits a person, we often critique the event to search for a silver lining. Maybe someone broke their leg, but the downtime finally prompted them to begin writing that book. Maybe a teenager lost a parent to cancer, but that pushed them to become a doctor or missionary.
Christians could see God using these disasters for his Grand Plan, but is that what this really looks like? Animals by the billions die in pain. Most will die outside of any human awareness as mere statistics, and no moral benefit comes from these. Why then imagine moral benefit from human suffering? (h/t commenter Ignorant Amos and author John Loftus)
Koukl declares the PoE defeated
Remember the type of objection that this is: [it’s a strong defeater to the conclusion,] “It’s not possible that there is a God because there’s evil in the world.”
I’m easy to please—just show me where the preponderance of evidence is.
I don’t say “it’s not possible” for God to exist, and in fact, neither do you! Remember that you ended your summary of the PoE (above) with “So, there you go—God probably doesn’t exist.” There’s a big difference between “God probably doesn’t exist” and “It’s not possible for God to exist.”
But let’s revisit your characterization of the atheist position: “It’s not possible that there is a God because there’s evil in the world.” I’ll actually accept that. You’re not talking about some ill-defined supernatural something-or-other but Yahweh of Christianity. Given Yahweh is as Christians bill him now—all-good, omnipotent, and omniscient—he is indeed incompatible with evil.
Conclusion next time: Koukl tries to turn the Problem of Evil from a liability to an asset (with limited success) and redefines it here.
by imagining that it serves for his moral improvement.
But the number of men in the world is nothing
compared with that of all other sentient beings,
and these often suffer greatly without any moral improvement.