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In an article titled “Everybody’s Got the Same Problem,” apologist Greg Koukl attempts to turn the Problem of Evil, often admitted by Christians as their biggest challenge, into a selling point for Christianity.
The Problem of Evil is this: how can a good and loving God allow all the bad that happens in the world? The simplistic answers fail to explain the woman who dies leaving young children motherless, the child that dies a lingering death from leukemia, or the Holocaust.
Koukl begins by saying that he’s found a debating technique that turns this problem into a benefit. Instead of being solely a problem for the Christian, he turns the tables on the atheist.

Evidence of egregious evil abounds. How do I account for such depravity?
But, I am quick to add—and here is the strategic move—I am not alone. As a theist, I am not the only one saddled with this challenge. Evil is a problem for everyone. Every person, regardless of religion or worldview, must answer this objection.
Even the atheist.

Of course evil is a problem for everyone, but that’s not what we’re talking about. Koukl made clear that we’re talking about the Problem of Evil. We’re talking about how a good and loving God can allow all the bad that happens in the world.

What if someone is assaulted by personal tragedy, distressed by world events, victimized by religious corruption or abuse, and then responds by rejecting God and becoming an atheist (as many have done)? Notice that he has not solved the problem of evil.

The atheist hasn’t solved the Problem of Evil; he’s eliminated it. A God who loves us infinitely more than we love ourselves and who stands idly by as rapists or murderers do their work is no dilemma for the atheist. But, of course, the problem still remains for the apologist. Koukl can’t simply redefine the problem away.

The atheist cannot raise the issue, turn on his heel, and smugly walk away. His objection is that evil actually exists, objectively, as a real feature of the world.

Where did objective morality come from?? That’s certainly not something that I would argue for. Are some moral truths objectively right or wrong? If so, show us.

The atheist still has to answer the question, “How do I explain evil now, as an atheist? How do I answer the problem of evil from a materialistic worldview?”

Why—is this difficult?
Richard Dawkins observed, “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” The atheist embraces the obvious explanation for evil, that in a natural world bad stuff happens. It’s just that the Christian doesn’t always like that explanation.

There is only one solution for him. The atheist must play the relativism card. Morality is either the product of a social contract or a trick of evolution. That is the best materialism can do. His own answer to the problem of evil, then, is that there is no problem of evil. Morality is an illusion. Whatever is, is right.

Ah, it’s our old straw man friend, moral relativism (I explore that more here). This is the idea that (1) you decide what’s moral for you and I decide what’s moral for me and (2) I have no right to object to your morals. I’ve never met anyone who accepts point 2, which means that I’ve never met such a moral relativist.
One explanation for morality is that there are absolute or transcendental or supernaturally grounded morals. This kind of grounding is what Koukl claims.
But take away divinely grounded morality, and you still have morals that come from humans’ shared moral instinct and the moral customs of each culture. Koukl imagines that this is an illusion?
Here’s some homework, Greg: look up the word morality in the dictionary and show us where it says that morality must be grounded in something absolute, transcendental, or supernatural.

The great 20th century atheistic philosopher Bertrand Russell wondered how anyone could talk of God when kneeling at the bed of a dying child. His challenge has powerful rhetorical force. How can anyone cling to the hope of a benevolent, powerful sovereign in the face of such tragedy?

Okay—this is an example of the injustice that prompts the Problem of Evil.

Then Christian philosopher William Lane Craig offered this response: “What is the atheist Bertrand Russell going to say when kneeling at the bed of a dying child? ‘Too bad’? ‘Tough luck’? ‘That’s the way it goes’?” No happy ending? No silver lining? Nothing but devastating, senseless evil?

Whaaa … ? “No happy ending”?? The child is dying! No, there’s no happy ending, you insensitive idiot!
And you imagine the atheist has nothing to say? Maybe you mean that the atheist has no happy but groundless stories to weave. That’s true. Atheists won’t tell as true the afterlife stories from the Egyptian Book of the Dead or the Greek myth of Hades or the Hindu idea of reincarnation. Atheists won’t tell the afterlife story of whatever religion happens to be dominant in their culture.
But anyone in this situation with any rudimentary compassion would offer sympathy and try to make the child feel better. They’d read books or tell jokes or weave stories or sing songs or reminisce about happier times or play games with the child. Isn’t that what you’d do, Greg?

They cannot speak of the patience and mercy of God. They cannot mention the future perfection that awaits all who trust in Christ. They cannot offer the comfort that a redemptive God is working to cause all things to work together for good to those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. They have no “good news” of hope for a broken world. Their worldview denies them these luxuries.

Yeah, let’s think about that. Christians could say, “You’re going to heaven,” but is that grounded on anything more substantial than that it’s the predominant myth in our culture? Or do you recommend just lying to make people feel better?
They could say, “Your death is part of God’s plan,” but what kind of comfort is this? And what kind of SOB deity would kill a child, especially an omniscient deity who could surely find a workaround? What kind of savage religion must you invent to support this platitude? (And Christians wonder why atheists get annoyed with their religion.)
Atheists don’t speak of “the patience and mercy of God” just like they don’t speak of the patience and mercy of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Atheists usually prefer the truth, and they tend to believe only things well-grounded in evidence. And this approach has benefits. As George Bernard Shaw observed, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” People seeing things for what they really are gave us the medical and technological progress we see in society today.

Which brings me to the most important question to ask of the problem of evil: Which worldview has the best resources to make sense of this challenge?

Do we take the approach that Ricky Gervais’s character did in the film The Invention of Lying? We just tell people stuff that will make them feel better?
Notice that Koukl has made no attempt to argue that the Christian view (including any rationalization to explain the Problem of Evil) should be accepted because it’s true. I don’t want to mischaracterize his conclusion, but it appears like he argues that it’s preferable simply because it’s nicer. Are we children here? How can any thoughtful, rational adult promote this route to truth?
Let’s recap and see how Koukl did with his stated goal, turning the Problem of Evil into a tool against the atheist:

  • Koukl claimed that objective morality exists, but he provided no evidence.
  • He imagines that without objective morality there is no morality, despite what the dictionary says to the contrary.
  • He imagines that explaining the existence of evil is impossible for the atheist (apparently meaning that it’s impossible to explain in a pleasing way). In fact, atheists do just fine at explaining reality, and whether it’s pleasant or not isn’t the issue.
  • He advocates telling the nice story rather than the accurate story.
  • And he tried, unsuccessfully, to slide away from the Problem of Evil by redefining it.

The Problem of Evil stands, untouched by this clumsy attempt to dismiss what may be Christianity’s toughest problem.

If you want to assert a truth,
first make sure it’s not just an opinion
that you desperately want to be true.
— Neil deGrasse Tyson

(This is a modified version of a post originally published 11/9/11.)
Photo credit: Wikimedia

CROSS EXAMINED In his first career, Bob Seidensticker designed digital hardware and was a contributor to 14 software patents. Since then, he has explored the debate between Christianity and atheism for...