If the Problem of Evil Is Uncomfortable, Just Redefine It Away

If the Problem of Evil Is Uncomfortable, Just Redefine It Away May 28, 2021

This is post #1500 of the Cross Examined blog! Thank you everyone for making the Cross Examined community a vibrant place to share ideas. I’ve probably learned more from your comments than from any other source. If it weren’t for you, I’d be doing something else!

This is the second half of a critique of Greg Koukl’s recent podcast “How to Respond to the Problem of Evil” (part 1). To get out of a bind, Koukl will redefine the Problem of Evil, not once but twice. He’s so casual about it that I wonder if he’s unaware that he’s doing it. Or if he knows how that looks to observers.

The PoE as an argument for God

This is Koukl’s primary argument. He knows the Problem of Evil (PoE) is a liability, but he wants to flip it into an asset. Given that evil exists:

This helps us. Evil is on our side, in that sense, because if there were no God, there would be no evil at all . . . because there’d be no lawmaker.

Nope. This won’t work when at every turn God is invisible. God ignores every chance to swoop in and overtly resolve some problem. He’s always a no-show. Why imagine this lawmaker of yours even exists when he’s indistinguishable from nonexistent?

A precedent in the Bible

Remember the public bonfire-lighting contest of Elijah, God’s last prophet, versus the priests of Baal? The hundreds of priests went first and were having no luck rousing their god. In one of the Bible’s rare bits of humor Elijah mocked his opponents:

“Shout louder!” Elijah said. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” (1 Kings 18:27)

And that’s my encouragement to Koukl. Is God asleep? Using the bathroom? Getting his hair done? Pedicure? God is no more obvious than Baal. Maybe shout louder?

Koukl is now celebrating evil, but in so doing, he’s digging deeper the hole of God the Bronze Age barbarian. Remember the four-point list from part 1 (admit how bad the PoE makes God look; turn your vague assurance that God might have reasons into specific justification for the Holocaust; show that “God” exists; and justify suffering when God could achieve his goals without it). To give your argument any kind of standing, you need to respond to that list to show that you’re taking seriously the consequences of your argument. And those consequences aren’t pretty.

Objective evil?

The only supportable statement that can be salvaged from Koukl’s attempt to turn this lemon of an argument into lemonade is: Without God, there’s no objective evil, though there would still be the ordinary kind, which we find in the definition of “evil” in the dictionary. Koukl would dearly love to be able to defend the idea of objective morality, for which he has no evidence.

He next wonders how the naturalist explains evil.

[With no God,] it’s just molecules clashing in the universe. Okay, so then, what is “wrong”? Says who? Your grandma? kind of thing.

Says who? Says our moral programming—thanks, evolution. If we were honey badgers or meercats or Klingons, evolution would’ve given us different programming for how to behave among our peers.

So if there is no God, how can there be evil? . . . [If] there’s no lawmaker; there would be no law, right?

That’s a cute argument for children. Not so much for adults.

Rivers don’t meander according to the all-loving direction of a divine lawmaker. Natural principles are sufficient. And natural explanations are also sufficient to explain human morality.

The sun is about to rise, and the cock is about to crow . . .

At the beginning of Koukl’s podcast, he summarized the PoE this way: “[If God is] 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.” I agreed that that was correct.

And now, six paragraphs later, the PoE is so hard to rationalize that Koukl wants to redefine it away. That first definition has become inconvenient, so let’s just discard it. Who will notice?

Here’s the new version. You can play “Spot the Differences!” at home.

You [atheists] just complained about the problem of evil. There must be evil in the world, right? So, what do you make of evil now that God doesn’t exist? How do you get traction to even complain about evil in the world? You can’t. . . . People think that they somehow solve the problem of evil by getting God out of the equation.

Yes! You do solve the Problem of Evil by getting rid of God! Your first definition correctly stated that the PoE requires a God, so remove God as a presupposition, and the problem is gone. QED.

This is so crazy that I must repeat it. Koukl’s Problem of Evil was: Given a good and powerful God, how is there so much evil in the world? And now, four minutes later, that definition no longer exists. It has been disappeared like a nosey journalist raising uncomfortable topics in a totalitarian state. The Problem of Evil is now, How do you respond to evil without God to define evil?

Deliberately conflicting definitions

I frequently see evangelists use two contradictory definitions. It’s one of their tricks to keep the disjoint Christian story together. They will use one definition of a word for the Christian insiders and a different definition for the skeptics. Or maybe it’s one definition to make sense out of Bible passage A and a conflicting one for passage B. For example, there are two definitions of “faith.” And there are many definitions of “morality.”

Usually the incompatible definitions will be in different articles, giving evangelists some plausible deniability. Koukl’s podcast shows an especially abrupt redefinition and nicely illustrates the problem.

It’s been said that you can’t ride two horses with one ass, though evangelists desperately try.

Problem of Evil, redefined

Koukl has now clumsily jumped to the other horse. Let’s see how satisfied he is with his new mount.

You [atheists] got God out of the picture. You didn’t get rid of evil. You still got all the things that you used to call evil. They still are existing, and you still probably consider them evil. Okay, now solve the problem.

Okay, there is no God. Problem solved. QED.

And did you catch that? That’s his third definition of the Problem of Evil! The problem is now: Evil exists in the world, so what are you going to do about it?

That’s not the actual PoE, but I’ll respond. Evil is easily understood. Reality has no obligation to be fair or nice. That’s the Petri dish for the evolution of life: there’s good luck and bad luck, some individuals live long lives and some don’t, and not everyone passes on their genes. We can call things we detest “evil,” but that’s no support for a claim that objective morality exists.

Well, heck—let’s just declare victory anyway

His argument is in ruins around him, but Koukl pops up from behind the rubble to declare victory.

The point I’m making is, atheism can give you no traction to even make sense out of evil to begin with. . . .

See, our answer makes sense of all the facts. We don’t have to play games like that. The world is broken. That’s why there’s evil in the world. . . . We broke it. And so, we’re responsible.

You can make sense of “the facts”? “We broke the world” is no fact. Nor is it an argument. It’s just dogma.

Koukl changes definitions in plain view. He points to the Garden of Eden as if it’s an argument. He declares that his perfect, omniscient God somehow let his human experiment get out of control. And it’s the atheists who are playing games?! I can see the irony even if he can’t.

Natural explanations make clear why the world isn’t perfectly tuned to our wishes and why we see evil in the world. That’s much easier to digest than evidence-free supernatural presuppositions.

If there is a God, his plan is very similar
to someone not having a plan.
— Eddie Izzard

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I form the light and create darkness;
I make peace and create evil; 
I, the Lord, do all these things.
— Isaiah 45:7

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Image from Valerie Everett (license CC BY-SA 2.0)
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