Problem of Good: More Difficult than Problem of Evil?

Problem of Good: More Difficult than Problem of Evil? April 3, 2021

Atheists love to discuss the problem of evil, which they consider a knockout punch to Christianity: or at least to the notion that God is good and all-powerful. Recently an anti-theist atheist polemicist noted that someone “constructed an annotated bibliography of more than 4,200 philosophical and theological writings on the problem of evil published from 1960 to 1990—nearly one publication every 2½ days, and that is only in English.” They milk it for all it’s worth.

And for our part, many Christian apologists and theologians (including myself) agree that the problem of evil is the most difficult issue that Christians have to deal with and explain: though we do believe (over against atheists and other skeptics) that it’s not fatal to Christianity or the belief in a good God at all, and that we have more than adequate answers to it.

We hear a lot less, however, about the corresponding (and I contend, even more difficult) issue that atheists have to explain from their own perspective: “the problem of good.” After seeing yet another treatment of the problem of evil on my favorite atheist blog (A Tippling Philosopher), I decided to produce this paper, drawn from three previous efforts (the first listed is my favorite debate ever, with anyone):

The “Problem of Good”: Great Dialogue with an Atheist (vs. Mike Hardie) (+ Part Two) [6-5-01]

Dialogue w Agnostic/Deist on the “Problem of Good” [7-18-18]

The “Problem of Good”: Dialogue w Atheist Academic [9-11-19]

I will be selecting “highlights” of my own comments (with a word or a capital added here and there), in order to produce a more succinct or compact version of the argument. Three asterisks will separate the excerpts from each other.

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The atheist:

1) Can’t really consistently define “evil” in the first place;

2) Has no hope of eventual eschatological justice;

3) Has no objective basis of condemning evil.

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Atheist justifications for morality (i.e., logically carried through) will always be — i.e., in their logical reduction and/or ultimate result — either completely arbitrary, relativistic to the point of absurdity, or derived from axiomatic assumptions requiring no less faith than Christian ethics require.

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Atheists are usually as moral and upright as a group as any other group of people. But to the extent that they are moral and good, I argue that this is inevitably in conflict with their ultimate ground of ethics, however it is spelled-out, insofar as it excludes God. Without God it will always be relative and arbitrary and usually unable to be enforced except by brute force. Atheists act far better than their ethics (in their ultimate reduction).

The Communists, though, acted fairly consistently with their atheistic principles (as they laid them out — not that all atheists will or must act this way, which is manifestly false). God was kicked out, and morality became that which Marx (or Lenin) decreed.

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In the atheist (purely logical and philosophical) world, Hitler and Stalin and Mao and other evil people go to their graves and that’s it! They got away with their crimes. They could have theoretically gone out of the world (as well as all through their lives) laughing and mocking all their victims, because there literally was no justice where they are personally concerned. Why this wouldn’t give the greatest pause and concern to the atheist moralist and ethicist is beyond me.

In the Christian worldview, though, the scales of justice operate in the afterlife as well as (quite imperfectly) in human courts and in gargantuan conflicts like World War II where the “good guys” (all in all) managed to win. Hitler and Stalin do not “pull one over on God” (or on an abstract notion of justice). They don’t “get away with murder.” They are punished, and eternally at that, barring a last-minute repentance which is theoretically possible, but not likely. All makes sense in the end. . . .

That doesn’t make it a bed of roses for us, by any means, but it is sure a lot easier to endure than under atheist assumptions, where one returns to the dust and ceases to exist, quite often having utterly failed at life, or having been abused their entire life, with nothing significant to ever look forward to. Where is the hope and purpose in that?

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This is not so much an argument, as it is pointing out that the logical conclusion to atheist ethics is utter despair at what goes on in the world, and the ultimate meaninglessness of it all. It is not arguing that:

1) All is meaningless in the end; therefore no morality (in practice) is possible, and therefore all atheists are scoundrels.”

but rather:

2) The ultimate meaninglessness of the universe and the futility of seeing tyrants like Stalin do their evil deeds and never come to justice in this life or the next, ought to bring anyone who believes this to despair, and constitutes a far greater (“existential”) difficulty than the Problem of Evil — which has a number of fairly adequate rejoinders — represents for the Christian.

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Meaning is put into all human beings by God. But more accurately, I am simply acknowledging — with Sartre — that it is a sad and troubling, devastating thing if God does not exist, that a universe with no God is (when all is said and done) a lonely, tragic, and meaningless place. This is presupposed by the very Argument from Evil that is used against us! So you can scarcely deny it! Most lives on this earth are not all that happy or fulfilled.

And you would have us believe that after miserable, ragged lives lived all through history (e.g., the millions who don’t have enough to eat right now, or the Christian victims of genocide and slavery in the Sudan), the persons die and go in the ground, and that they ought to be happy during their tortured lives? Why? What sense does it all make?

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It is clearly far worse to have a Hitler and a Stalin do what they did and go to their end unpunished, than it is to believe in an afterlife where monster-morons like that are punished for what they did, and that those who lived a far better moral life are rewarded at long last (for many, the only significant “happiness” they ever had).

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Atheist ethics will always end up being self-defeating, and/or relativistic to the point of being utterly incapable of practical application. Failing God, the standard then becomes a merely human one, therefore ultimately and inevitably arbitrary and relativistic and unable to be maintained for large groups of people except by brute force and dictatorship (which is precisely what happened, if Stalinism or Maoism are regarded as versions of consistent philosophical atheism to any degree, or even corrupt versions of it).

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The atheist problem is: how to arrive at an objective criteria; how to enforce it across the board; how to make such a morality something other than the end result of a majority vote or the power of governmental coercion.

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Christians have the universal and absolute standard: God. What do humanists have? How are worldwide ethics to be determined and lived out? If there is an atheistic ethical absolutism (as I suspect), then that will have to be explained to me: how it is arrived at; why anyone should accept it, etc.

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1. Objective morality must be non relativistic (not relative to cultures, governments, or individuals).

2. Without a higher being, all behavioral imperatives logically and in practice reduce to (ultimately arbitrary) relativism, in the sense that no single standard will be able to be enforced for, or applied to one and all (which is what “objective morality” — #1 — requires); and that because no substantive or unquestionable criterion is given for the grounds for such a standard, as an alternate to the Christian axiomatic basis of God, in Whose Nature morality resides and is defined.

3. Therefore, there cannot logically be a self-consistent objective morality (one able to be consistently practiced by one and all in the real world) without a higher being; all merely human-based efforts will end in arbitrariness (and often, tyranny), due to the inability to arrive at a necessary, non-relative starting point and systematic moral axiom.

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We defeated the Nazis’ and put an end to it. Great (thank God), but how does that bring justice to the 6 million Jews and many thousands of others who perished in the camps and in battle? In the Christian view there certainly is justice, because there is the Judgment and the sentence of damnation for evil persons. This is how we view the world in terms of ultimate justice and meaning, and seeking your alternative system of making sense of such monstrous evils as Nazism and Stalinism.

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You just admitted (as far as I can tell) that “good” is relative to the individual. How, then, can there be an objective standard of “good” applied to all? By what standard do we decide what is good for everyone to do (what obligates them)?

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Hitler thought the Holocaust was good. Stalin thought the starvation of the Ukrainians was good. Corrupt Crusaders in the Middle Ages thought slaughtering women and children was good. Timothy McVeigh thought blowing up a building and killing 168 people was good. Terrorists think blowing up cars in crowded market places is good. The American government (and most of its people) thought annihilating civilians in two entire Japanese cities by nuclear bombs was good. America thought slavery was good (and later institutional racism and discrimination). Pedophiles think molesting children is good. Etc.

How do we resolve this inherent relativism? The Aztecs thought human sacrifice was good; the Catholic Spaniards thought it was a hideous evil. How do we resolve such conflicts? Was Aztec sacrifice good or evil (or neither)? And if the latter, how do we convince someone of a different culture that what they are doing is evil?

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I am trying to understand the atheist rationale for the most important, fundamental issues that all human beings face: Who am I? Why am I here? What is the purpose of life? Is there life after death? What is right and wrong? What is justice? How does one end injustice? What is love? What is truth? Etc.

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I’m saying, “assume that all this afterlife and God business is false and untrue; now tell me how purpose, hope, and meaning is constructed in such an atheistic worldview.”

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Is the atheist view simply existentialism, where one believes whatever they want, so as to achieve “meaningfulness”? That would be no better than the pie-in-the-sky which atheists so despise, of course. It simply substitutes pie-in-the-head (no pun intended).

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Human beings are very curious mixtures of both great evil and great capacity for good and love. This is another thing that the Christian view explains far better than any other I have seen.

Atheists always have to chalk evil up to environment, because they don’t look at it in metaphysical, ontological, or spiritual terms. So McVeigh had a Bircher for a father; Hitler was done in by his anti-Semitism; Stalin by his lust for power, the killers at Columbine High School by the availability of guns and right-wing fanaticism, etc., and what-not. Christians say that all people are capable of great evil or great good, depending on the courses of action they take, and how they respond to God’s graces. Environment is a factor, but not the sole or overwhelmingly primary factor.

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How about committing genocide or child molestation, or deliberately oppressing people through wealth or political power? What if those things gave a person “meaning,” since you have admitted that these things are relative to the person, and strictly subjective? No one else can tell the person who does these evils (which we all — oddly — seem to agree are “evil”) that they are wrong — it being a relative matter in the first place. This is now very close to the heart of my logical and moral problem with atheist morality (which, in my opinion, always reduces to relativism and hence to these horrendous scenarios).

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The atheist is simply living off the cultural (and internal spiritual) “capital” of Christianity, whether he or she realizes it or not.

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I am talking about the ultimate logical implications of atheism, regardless of how one subjectively reacts to them. The very fact of objectivism and subjectivism (assuming one grants both as realities) allows the possibility that the atheist is not subjectively facing the objective logical implications of atheism (which I maintain are nihilism and despair).

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Just because I think atheism has bad logical implications, doesn’t mean that I think atheists are therefore “bad” people.

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When all is said and done, the Christian believes there is a certain sort of God, and this affects everything else, and the atheist says there is no such God, and that affects everything in their view.

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Atheism doesn’t account for the evil person whose reflection amounts only to a ruthless, Machiavellian calculation as to how he can get ahead, indifferent to how many others suffer in the process. If your “standard” is rationality and a sort of abstract utilitarian outlook, then it breaks down when we get to the quintessential evil, selfish person.

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[2nd dialogue]

I used Hitler and Stalin in order to highlight and make it clear (by using the worst-case scenarios) what atheism entails, in terms of “cosmic justice.” It’s a scenario which is both incomprehensible and outrageous to me, and I don’t believe that the universe is like that: whatever it turns out to be in the end. In any event, Christianity (whether true or not) at least offers final justice and ultimate meaning in a way that atheism never has, and never will.

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It is this inherent quest for meaning and happiness (which I believe is put into us by God), that causes atheists (who still have it within them too!) to deny that the universe is meaningless. I think their view that it is meaningful without God is an “unconscious” carryover from the Christian worldview. In my opinion, they have not fully grappled with the implications of a universe without God. For the Christian, such a universe would be like hell: the ultimate horror.

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[3rd dialogue]

The problem of good is at least as big of a problem for atheism, as the problem of evil is for theism (it’s a classic turn-the-tables argument).

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The problem of good is well  summarized in Dostoevsky’s statement, “If there’s no God and no life beyond the grave, doesn’t that mean that men will be allowed to do whatever they want?” [see more on this quotation from The Brothers Karamazov (1880)]. The way I used the argument (back in 2001) was not to assert that it proves God exists. Rather, I think it helps to establish that theism (considered as a whole) is more coherent and plausible than atheism.

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In the Last Judgment the scales will be weighed and divine / cosmic justice will be applied. Evil people will be judged and sent to hell, and those who are saved by God’s grace will be allowed to enter heaven. Atheism obviously has no such scenario, since it denies the existence of God, the afterlife, human immortality, heaven, and hell, so my statement is absolutely true, as to atheism. It has no such thing, and cannot, by definition. And from where we stand, this is a huge problem. It’s central to the problem of good.

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“Objective” in this context means a binding, non-arbitrary standard of absolute morals within the framework of atheism. I’m not denying that individual atheists have such moral / ethical standards for themselves. Of course they do. What I’m saying is that they are all ultimately arbitrary and relativistic without a God to ground them in, and that large atheist systems act in accordance with this moral relativism and/or amorality (Mao, Lenin, Stalin et al): and we see what they produced.

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Any good and noble impulses within atheist consciences are there because they are innate in human beings: put there by God in the first place. If there were no God, they wouldn’t be there and evil would be far, far greater than it is now (and it is a huge and troubling problem now).

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In the atheist outlook, the next person can always say, “who cares what you think about morality; that’s just you, and your view is no more worthy of belief or assent than the next guy’s . . .”

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The Christian “rock bottom” is God. The atheist rock bottom is like peeling an onion: it’s nothing.

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Many atheists (at least those in power) did indeed conclude that any evil was possible in a godless universe. If there is no ultimate morality and justice, of course this is true. It comes down to raw power and “might makes right” and reducing human beings to the “red in tooth and claw” state of primal nature and the animal kingdom, where the strong rule, in an amoral state of affairs.

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What is the measure? And how and why would all human beings be bound to it, in a godless ethical system?

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On what absolute / objective basis do you define “kindly” and how and why would all human beings be bound to it?

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You certainly believe (or act like you believe) that rape is a thing that is essentially a moral absolute [i.e., absolutely immoral] in all times and places. It’s presupposed in your arguments . . . But Japanese troops during the Rape of Nanking (not particularly religiously observant) did not do so, did they?:

In the mere six weeks during which the Japanese perpetrated the Nanking Massacre starting on Dec. 13, 1937, an estimated 20,000-80,000 Chinese women were brutally raped and sexually assaulted by the invading soldiers. They sometimes went door-to-door, dragging out women and even small children and violently gang-raping them. Then, once they’d finished with their victims, they often murdered them. . . .

The invaders, though, didn’t even stop at simply murder. They made these women suffer in the worst ways possible. Pregnant mothers were cut open and rape victims were sodomized with bamboo sticks and bayonets until they died in agony.

You don’t think that rape is a moral absolute, and that it is wrong at all times? If you don’t, then you just justified the Rape of Nanking, or at least provided the “ethical” basis for someone else (in power) to justify and rationalize it. In atheist “eschatology” there is  no ultimate justice for perpetrators of monstrous crimes such as these. In Christian cosmology there is ultimate justice and hell awaiting those who do such things and who do not repent of them.

I think you would agree with me, on the other hand that the nuclear bombing of Japan was immoral insofar as it killed innocent civilians (the US then became as evil as their enemy). But in an atheist world of morality, there is no compelling reason to explain why it is immoral, and must never be violated.

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The problem of evil presupposes that there are things that are indisputably wrong, and agreed to be so by all, as virtually self-evident. Otherwise, the atheist indictment against God (which fails, even as is) could not even begin to succeed. In other words, the atheist has to tacitly admit that the problem of good is a problem for atheism, in order to proceed against God and theism; and that is incoherent and self-contradictory. He or she winds up arguing as much for God as against, by utilizing such weak arguments.

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I’m saying, “these are the consequences on the ground of atheism, taken consistently to its logical extreme.”

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Societies construct legal systems, which hold that certain behaviors are wrong, and therefore, punishable by law. Law presupposes moral absolutes. Jails and judges and laws all presuppose an absolute system of morals and right and wrong. Otherwise, there could be no laws at all, and “everything would be permitted” (legal and moral anarchy). We would be back to Dostoevsky.

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You have to casually assume moral absolutes to discuss morality at all (i.e., if you condemn any particular behaviors).

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It can be shown that all societies agree on basic moral principles. C. S. Lewis in fact did this at the end of his book, The Abolition of Man. (what he called the Tao). We would say that is natural law and the human conscience, grounded in God. Commonalities don’t “prove” God’s existence, but this is perfectly consistent with what I wrote above, and what we would fully expect to find if God did exist. All societies, for example, have prohibitions of murder, as inherently wrong. They may differ on the parameters of murder (the definition). But they don’t disagree that there is such a thing as murder: that ought not be done, and for which there are strict penalties.

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Related Reading

I have written a lot of material on the problem of evil as well (the first listed being my most in-depth effort):

Problem of Evil: Treatise on the Most Serious Objection (Is God Malevolent, Weak, or Non-Existent Because of the Existence of Evil and Suffering?) [2002]

God and “Natural Evil”: A Thought Experiment [2002]

Dialogue on “Natural Evil” (Diseases, Hurricanes, Drought, etc.) [2-15-04]

Replies to the Problem of Evil as Set Forth by Atheists [10-10-06]

The Problem of Evil: Dialogue with an Atheist (vs. “drunken tune”) [10-11-06]

Dialogue w Atheist John Loftus on the Problem of Evil [10-11-06]

“Logical” Problem of Evil: Alvin Plantinga’s Decisive Refutation [10-12-06]

Reply to Agnostic Ed Babinski’s “Emotional” Argument from Evil [10-23-06]

“Strong” Logical Argument from Evil Against God: RIP? [11-26-06]

Why Did a Perfect God Create an Imperfect World? [8-18-15]

Blaming God for the Holocaust (+ Other Such Bum Raps) [11-1-17]

Atheists, Miracles, & the Problem of Evil: Contradictions [8-15-18]

Alvin Plantinga: Reply to the Evidential Problem of Evil [9-13-19]

Ward’s Whoppers #14: Who Caused Job’s Suffering? [5-20-20]

God, the Natural World and Pain [National Catholic Register, 9-19-20]

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Photo credit: Billie Burke (1884–1970), playing Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, in The Wizard of Oz (1939) [WizardofOz.com]

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Summary: Atheists love to discuss the problem of evil, which they consider a knockout punch to Christianity. But we rarely hear about the equally or even more difficult atheist “problem of good.”

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