The Rejection of Pascal's Wager
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God and the Problem of Evil

We now come to one of the central problems (and it is a problem for theologians) of systematic theology: if God is all good and omnipotent, why is there evil in the world? By the word "evil" it is meant all kind of calamities that can befall humans and all living creatures such as natural disasters (earthquakes, storms, floods) and the existence of vast amount of suffering and misery (in famines, poverty, crime).

Theologians have tried many sophistries to get out of this predicament (no, they are not worried about getting rid of evil, they are more worried about theologically squaring away the existence of evil with the existence of a good God). The problem of evil, as it confronts Christian theologians, is very aptly summarized by the brilliant nineteenth century skeptic, Charles Bradlaugh (1833-1891):

The existence of evil is a terrible stumbling block for the theist. Pain, misery, crime, poverty confront the advocate of eternal goodness, and challenge with unanswerable potency his declaration of Deity all-good, all-wise and all-powerful. Evil is either caused by God or it exist independently; but it cannot be caused by God, as in that case he would not be all-good; nor can it exists hostilely, as in that case he would not be all-powerful. If all-good he would desire to annihilate evil, and continued evil contradicts either God's desire, or God's ability, to prevent it. Evil must either have had a beginning or it must have been eternal, but according to the theist, it cannot be eternal, because God alone is eternal. Nor can it have had a beginning, for if it had it must either have originated in God, or outside God; but according to the theist, it cannot have originated in God, for he is all-good, and out of all goodness evil cannot originate; nor can evil have originated outside God, for, according to the theist, God is infinite, and it is impossible to go outside of or beyond infinity. [1]

Bradlaugh's points are clear, evil must ultimately originate from God, since God is the ultimate cause of all effects. Yet if evil exists and comes from God, how can God be all-good? We look at the attempts made by theologians and theistic philosophers to defend this:

Defence #1: Evil as a Means to an Ultimately Good End

One attempt by theologians to escape Bradlaugh's charges is to claim that evil is just a means to an ultimate end, which is always good. An example is given where a doctor amputates a patient's leg, an "evil", in order to prevent gangrene from spreading throughout the patient's body, "the ultimate end", which is "good". Yet this example is only justified on the basis that the doctor has limited powers. With the limitations of medical technology at his disposal, he of course chose the lesser evil; since there was no way of saving both the patient's leg and his life. However, this analogy cannot be applied to God and the problem of evil, since God, unlike the doctor, has unlimited powers. In fact, a more accurate analogy is a doctor who first actively infects the leg of his patient (God is the cause of all things), and then decide to amputate his leg when a less severe cure was available (God is all powerful). We would call such a doctor wicked and mad. Why do we call such a God good? [2]

Arguments of this type only assume that the ultimate ends of all evil is good. But this is precisely, the point debated! For assuming that all evil ultimately results in good requires an initial assumption that God is good: which is the very idea that is being proven by the argument. This is another classic example of circular theological reasoning. [3]

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Defence #2: Evil as a Natural Consequence of Free Will

Another argument brought forward by theologians is that evil is a natural consequence of God allowing man free-will. This argument may be allowed to explain some moral evil caused by man such as theft, murder and rape. But how does giving man free-will relate to physical evils such as earthquakes, famines, plagues and floods? Thus, the free-will explanation cannot explain the existence of natural calamities that befall man.

But the free will explanation cannot even satisfactorily explain moral evil. If God is all powerful, he could have created all man with free will and with a predisposition towards doing good. But according to the same theologians, man is sinful by nature, with a predisposition for doing bad. God's action in giving man free-will and at the same time giving him a predisposition towards doing bad is no different morally from a man who drinks, on purpose, in front of a recently reformed alcoholic! If we describe such a man as irresponsible and immoral, why do we persist in calling such a God good? [4]

The abstraction “man” used above is also misleading. All of mankind have free-will; some, a small minority, some men-and women-, chose evil and rob, kill, cheat and maim. Are the more numerous victims to be consoled by saying that this is a consequence of their (the victims) having free will? In other words, are the innocent victims somehow responsible for the crimes on themselves because they have free will? The right to be protected from crimes is basic for all citizens in the world; any government that fails to deliver a reasonable amount of protection from these would be condemned and duly removed from power. Yet somehow it is okay for the all powerful God to give men free will and allow them to suffer the consequences from the minority who misuse it. To say that all will be rectified in the afterlife where the good will be rewarded in heaven and the bad will be punished in hell does not resolve the issue. As George H. Smith observes:

[N]o appeal to an afterlife can actually eradicate the problem of evil. An injustice always remains an injustice, regardless of any subsequent effort to comfort the victim. If a father, after beating his child unmercifully, later gives him a lollipop as compensation, this does not eradicate the original act or its evil nature. Nor would we praise the father as just and loving. [5]

Yet, this is exactly what the Christians claims their God to do. He allows the faithful to suffer (remember Job!) and later rewards them. This God cannot, by any moral yardstick, be called good.

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Defence #3: Evil as a Mean to Increase Moral Urgency

One theistic attempt to explain physical evil is that its existence helps to increase the “moral urgency” in the world. This “moral urgency” will bring out the heroic, the virtuous and the good in people. Thus the theist W.D. Niven in the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics argues:

Physical evil has been the goad which has impelled men to most of the achievements which made the history of man so wonderful. Hardship is a stern but fecund parent of invention. Where life is easy because physicals ills are at a minimum we find man degenerating in body, mind and character...Which is preferable-a grim fight with the possibility of splendid triumph; or no battle at all? [6]

Thus, according to this argument, war brings out the heroic in men, and earthquakes, famines and plagues brings out the virtuous in those people who fought to odds to bring relief to the victims. It is also implicit in this argument that the total evil of these calamities is outweighed by the occurrence of good and virtue brought about by their occurrence. There are three main defects to this argument for the existence of physical evil; which together shows the argument to be untenable.

Firstly, isn’t it better to eradicate forever the occurrence of physical evils-such as famine and plagues-than to simply treat the victims when they occur? It is clear to everyone that the former is more desirable. But if that is the case, this would mean that eliminating physical evils would make the world a better, not a worse, place. Accepting that the presence of physical evil makes the world a better place would mean that the elimination of smallpox, the discovery of the polio vaccine and the discovery of the antibiotic are three of the most disastrous events to have happened this century! This is, obviously, an absurd proposition. Therefore the idea that physical evil generates more good is immediately put into question.

Secondly, the action that results from physical evils are not always due to morally praiseworthy reasons. Thus the formulation of a drug to cure a certain pestilence may be due purely to the profit motive of a pharmaceutical company and has nothing to do with any heroic struggles to do good.

Thirdly, some physical evil simply cannot be squared away with promoting virtuous actions. The resent outbreak of the ebola virus in Africa is a case to point. The disease kills within a couple of weeks and no cure is possible. What possible good could have resulted from that? Earthquakes volcanic eruptions, floods have been known to kill thousands people instantly, leaving the people behind to simply pick up the pieces. What good came out of those? [7]

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Defence #4: Evil as Punishment for Sins

Other attempts at explaining physical evil includes the argument that natural calamities that befall men are punishment for their sins, that they occur to warn men to return to God and that they are the result of the functioning of the laws of nature. The first can easily be dismissed. In natural disasters there is no difference in the moral nature of the victims; people are killed and injured indiscriminately. In fact there is even a traditional saying that the good seems to suffer more. The second is even more ludicrous. Experiencing natural disasters do not turn people to God. In fact, more often than not, it acts as a catalyst to the feelings of doubt in God’s divine goodness. The third assumes that God could not create a set of natural laws that do not allow physical calamities such as earthquakes and floods. A world without earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and diseases is not a logical impossibility; so the theist, if he accepts the third argument, must implicitly accept that his God is not omnipotent.[8]

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Defence #5: Evil as an Illusion

Theologians seems to share the same conclusion; for some have resorted to sophistry to resolve this problem.

One form of the sophistic argument is to define the problem away by saying that evil does not exist! To these theologians, evil is somehow unreal or something purely negative in character: evil is simply the absence of the good just like darkness is simply the absence of light. But how does this solve the problem of evil? We can tell a paralytic that his condition is simply the lack of mobility; that his condition somehow has no existence of its own. This, however, still leaves the paralytic in the same condition as he is. It is the same situation with the problem of evil. Simply defining evil as an absence of good does not resolve the issue that evil exists and it certainly does not absolve the theist’s God from responsibility for it. [9]

Perhaps one of the most abhorrent (to non-believers) sophistic argument in defence of the theistic position, is the assertion that all that we see as evil in this world is an illusion. That things we call evil, these theologians assure us, are actually not evil at all but good according to God's higher morality. The abhorrent part about this argument is that it makes any human attempt to remove or eradicate evil morally wrong, for it goes against God's higher good.

The main philosophical objection to the argument is that if "higher good" and "higher morality" is something that is different from our ordinary ideas of "good" and "morality", then it is a notion devoid of any meaning, for we know of no other meaning for these words. [10] As B.C. Johnson observed:

The claim could be made that God has a “higher morality” by which his actions are to be judged. But it is a strange “higher morality” which claims what we call “bad” is good and what we call “good” is bad. Such a morality can have no meaning to us. It would be like calling black “white” and white “black.” [11]

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Conclusions on the Problem of Evil

We have examined all the serious theistic defence on the problem of evil and have found them all wanting. The alternatives available to the theist is not attractive; if God exists, the existence of evil seems to indicate that either he is not all good or not all powerful. This dilemma was clearly brought out by the Aphorisms of Epicurus (c300BC):

Either God wants to abolish evil and cannot,
or he can but does not want to,
or he cannot and does not want to,
or lastly he can and wants to.

If he wants to remove evil, and cannot,
he is not omnipotent;
If he can, but does not want to,
he is not benevolent;
If he neither can nor wants to,
he is neither omnipotent nor benevolent;
But if God can abolish evil and wants to,
how does evil exists?

No argument forwarded by theists to explain the problem of evil has been successful. In fact the unfailing recurrence of failures in the theologians' defences and the limited permutations in the strategies of their defence gives compelling reason for non-believers to conclude that no solution is possible. The problem of evil is proof of the non-existence of the Christian God.

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1.Bradlaugh, Humanity's Gain From Unbelief: p28-29
2.Knight, Humanist Anthology: p132-133
3.Johnson, The Atheist's Debater's Handbook: p100
4.Stein, The Encyclopedia of Unbelief: p191
5.Smith: Atheism: p84
6.quoted in Angeles, Critiques of God: p213
7.Angeles, Critiques of God: p214-215
8.Ibid: p209-211
Knight, Humanist Anthology: p133-134
9.Smith, Atheism: p82
10.Stein, The Encyclopedia of Unbelief: p189
11.Johnson, The Atheist's Debaters Handbook: p104
12.Quoted in Phyllis Graham, The Jesus Hoax, Leslie Frewin, London 1974: p86

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