Do Evil & Suffering Disprove the Existence of God

Written by Michael Horner


Not only are we unable to prove a contradiction, or inconsistency between the existence of God and evil, but we can actually prove that God and evil are logically consistent.

The atheist presupposes that God cannot have a morally sufficient reason for permitting evil, but that is not necessarily true. As long as it is even possible that God has a morally sufficient reason then God and evil are consistent. It is easy to see this when one reads the three premises together.

G – God exists           E – Evil exists           R – God has a good reason for allowing evil

The atheist must prove that it is logically impossible for God to have a morally sufficient reason for permitting evil, a daunting task indeed.

Therefore, it is widely recognized that the logical problem is solved – the co-existence of G & E is logically possible. (Please note we are not asking anyone to believe that God exists because G & E are consistent we are merely showing that there are no rational grounds for disbelieving.)

B. Probabilistic argument – Concedes it is possible that God has a morally sufficient reason but not probable given the amount of evil.

For example, imagine a fellow named Rocky strolling along a beach and coming across a little girl who is clearly drowning in a couple of feet of water. All he has to do is step into the water a few feet and pull her out. But he doesn’t, he just stands there and watches her drown. On a bluff overlooking the beach a crowd of onlookers, who are too far away to save the child themselves, yell at Rocky to save the child.

Rocky, however, simply continues to watch and the girl drowns. An investigation determines that Rocky was in good health, knew what was happening and could have easily saved the child’s life. When asked why he did not save the girl, Rocky is either silent or claims he had a good reason, but will not tell us what it was. He won’t even tell us why he will not tell us his reason. We fail in our best attempts to discover what his reason could have been. We cannot even conceive of what possible reason Rocky could have had. Would it not follow that we would be rationally justified in concluding that Rocky had no good reason and thus was blameworthy? And in like manner are we not justified in concluding that God is not all good when we see some evils in the world and He doesn’t seem to tell us why and when we can’t even conceive of a morally sufficient reason that God might have.

1. We are not in a good position to assess the probability of whether God has a morally sufficient reason.

The Rocky analogy is emotionally powerful. However, it breaks down upon closer scrutiny.

First, in Rocky’s situation, the fact that we are not able to conceive of a morally sufficient reason counts as evidence that Rocky has no good reason, simply because we assume Rocky is a finite human being with approximately the same access to knowledge as the rest of us.

In God’s case, though, the fact that we are not able to conceive of a good reason is not evidence that God does not have one. This is because God’s epistemic access is infinitely greater than Rocky’s or ours. He knows all possible cause and effect connections between good and evil. He knows the future — how all things will turn out in the end.

We, as finite intellects, cannot justifiably make the assumption that we should be able to know and understand God’s reasons. It may be too complicated, or, more than likely, we are lacking crucial information that is available to an all knowing God. Therefore, merely because we can’t think of a good reason why a particular evil should be allowed, it does not follow that God does not have a good reason, nor does it follow that we are irrational in believing God has a good reason. We often confuse, “We know of no good reason.” with “God knows of no good reason.”

If we can’t find an morally sufficient reason we assume there probably isn’t one, but this doesn’t follow. Our inability to come up with an morally sufficient reason in no way entails nor even makes it probable that there isn’t one. Our not knowing the morally sufficient reason could only count as evidence against one existing, if we assume that we should know the reason. But why should we assume that we should know God’s reasons? We are finite persons, limited in our knowledge.

The problem with this thinking can be strongly illustrated. We are to God as a small child is to his parents, only infinitely more removed from Him in our understanding than the child is from his parents. Suppose the child needs a painful operation to save his life. He’s taken to the hospital by his parents.

The doctors perform painful surgery as the parents stand by. “Why do they not prevent this doctor from hurting me?” the child thinks. “Why do they not defeat this evil?” But the child’s understanding is too limited to see why his parents allow his suffering. Our understanding is also far too limited to see why God allows our sufferings and other evils. Just as the child is in no position to judge his parents, so too we are in no position to judge God.

We are finite persons limited in time, space, intelligence, and insight. But the transcendent, sovereign God sees the end from the beginning and providentially orders history so that his purposes are ultimately achieved through free human decisions.

In order to achieve His ends, God may have to put up with certain evils along the way, which humans freely perpetrate. Evils which appear pointless to us within our limited framework may be seen to have been justly permitted within God’s wider framework.

A brutal murder of an innocent man, for example, could produce a sort of ripple effect through history such that God’s morally sufficient reason for permitting this might not emerge until centuries later and perhaps in another land. When we think of God’s providence over the whole of history, I think we can see how hopeless it is for limited observers to speculate on the probability that God could have a morally sufficient reason for permitting a certain evil. We’re just not in a good position to assess such probabilities.

What’s the Next Problem? Read Part III in this Series.

Do you have questions about God or want to talk about your doubts? Talk to a confidential and free mentor.

See other articles by Michael Horner.

Copyright © 2002 Michael Horner. Used with permission.

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