May 10, 2013

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The Problem of Evil: The External Problem

Part 5 of a 5 part series on the problem of evil. Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.

External (or evidential) Problem of Evil

Another argument based on the perception of conflict between God and evil is external problem of evil. It is also referred to as the evidential problem of evil. Before discussing the argument and a response to it, we should camp for a moment on the word “external.” This is important because this argument does not rely on Christian doctrines or distortions of doctrines. It is “external” in that it relies on evidence that is available to everyone. What kind of evidence? I suppose I would have to say our common experience with and perception of “evil.” It is almost universally accepted that there is evil in the world.[1]

This argument is much simpler than the logical version, there are only two premises followed by a conclusion.

(1)  If there is unjustified (or gratuitous) evil, God does not exist.

(2)  There probably is gratuitous evil.

(3)  God probably does not exist.

In addition to being simpler, this argument makes a more modest claim. While deductive in form, the premises and conclusion use the word “probably.” This argument does not demonstrate that the existence of God and evil is a contradiction, rather it appeals to a particular kind of evil as a source of doubt regarding God’s existence. Another unique element of this argument is that it is not about evil in general; rather it rests on the claim that gratuitous evil exists.

Greg Ganssle’s analysis of this argument is very insightful. He suggests an argument for the truth of premise (2) that is instructive.

“It seems as though there is no reason sufficient that would justify God in allowing the evil in question.

Therefore, it is probably true that there is no reason sufficient that would justify God in allowing the evil in question.”[2]

If these two premises are true, then it follows that whatever evil is in view is unjustified. Premise (2) is therefore true. However we need to take a close look at the inference being made to support this premise. (The following is a summary of the analysis offered by Ganssle.)[3]

Consider two inferential arguments similar to the one cited above.

(1)  It seems as if there are no live elephants in the room.

(2)  Therefore, there are no elephants in the room.

 

(1)  It seems as if there are no carbon-14[4] atoms in the room.

(2)  Therefore, there are no carbon-14 atoms in the room.

The first argument seems fairly obvious. Unless you are experimenting with psychoactive substances, you should be able to agree with the first statement and thus agree with the conclusion. The second argument is quite different. The means we might use to detect a “live elephant” are different from the means available to most people to detect the presence of carbon-14.

Applying these examples to premise (2) above with some sort of random or seemingly pointless evil event in mind, we must ask if God’s justification is more likely to be obvious (like an elephant) or mysterious (like a carbon-14 atom). Ganssle argues that we should not expect to understand God’s justification for every kind of evil.

“Since God’s knowledge and wisdom are so far beyond ours, it is eminently reasonable to suppose that he will have reasons for allowing evils in our lives that we cannot grasp. We can figure out plausible reasons for most cases of evil. There will still be some evil events the reason for which we cannot discern. This is exactly what we should expect if God exists. It cannot be counted as evidence against God. So even though it might seem, at first glance, that there are no good reasons to allow certain evils we see, this does not provide strong evidence that these evils are really unjustified.”[5]

Since we have a reasonable argument to reject the existence of gratuitous evil, premise (2) is false, and the argument is not valid.

Postscript

This topic is near the top of many lists as being the most difficult for Christians to answer. I believe the difficulty is not caused by the intellectual aspects but rather not understanding the difference between an intellectual objection and an emotional/experiential one. In addition to understanding the experiential context of the person raising this objection, it is extremely important to understand their worldview context. For the atheist/materialist who brings up this objection, the intellectual arguments presented in this series are irrelevant. Don’t be shocked by that statement. In the materialist worldview, what is labeled “evil” is nothing more than a personal or socio-cultural preference. Calling something “evil” is tantamount to saying, “I don’t like that” or “my culture discourages that.” The materialist, by definition of their worldview, cannot appeal to any transcendent standard of right and wrong. However they choose to explain moral intuitions, they will ultimately have to fall back to something that is relative. As thinking Christians, it is our responsibility to hold them accountable to the consequences of their worldview. All the while, we should try to appeal to what the image of God is telling them. Something is dreadfully wrong. On that we can all agree. If we can agree on the reality of the problem, we are one step closer to sharing the solution, Jesus.


[1] It is also true that for any action or state of affairs, you could find wide disagreement as to whether or not that action or situation is “evil.” I believe there is a tremendous tension in that statement. How is it possible for everyone to agree that evil exists yet have such a hard time agreeing on what things are actually evil. Perhaps in another post or a book I have yet to read, there is an answer. I simply contend the problem is not in our perception of evil; rather it is our unwillingness to confront it in ourselves.

[2] Ganssle, Thinking About God, 144.

[3] Ibid., 145–147.

[4] Carbon-14 is an isotope of Carbon that is used for radiometric dating. An extremely tiny amount of the carbon on earth is carbon-14.

[5] Ganssle, Thinking About God, 147–148.

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Ken Mann is a graduate student in Biola’s Science and Religion program. Ken is a software engineer by way of vocation, a physicist by way of education, and a devout follower of Jesus Christ, in his words, by necessity. Ken is the Chapter Director of Ratio Christi at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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