Examining the Anti-theistic Argument Based On the Problem of Evil

by John Gay

"I do not believe in a God because there is so much evil and suffering in the world." This is an argument we commonly hear. The existence of evil and suffering, it is believed, refutes the possibility of God's existence. Is there a more succinct way of stating the argument? Consider the following:
The anti-theistic argument based on the problem of evil restated:
A perfect Being must not exist because our world is imperfect.

Three Intrinsic Elements to the Argument
Examining the argument, we notice a few things that are true of the person who gives it.

(1) The first has something to do with desire. Intrinsic to this argument, for the person who offers it, is the desire for a perfect world. There is [implied] the legitimate desire on the part of the arguer for a world free of car bombings, drive-by shootings, terrorism, plague, injustice, theft, famine, racism, birth defects, natural disasters and the like.

(2) The second intrinsic element to the argument is this: The person who gives it can imagine a perfect world. For the arguer, there is an imagined world that differs from our real world (the "imperfect" one that generates the argument). This imagined world is a "perfect" world because it must be, by implication of the argument, free of anything that makes this world imperfect. Any amount of evil and suffering (even a small amount) could be used to argue against a perfect God who is a perfect Governor over the universe.

Thus the arguer must have some notion of what a perfect world would be like. ("The reason I know that this is an imperfect world is because I can imagine a perfect one.") If s/he did not, then an imperfect world would not be used in the argument. It is the mental concept of a perfect world (juxtaposed with the imperfect world we live in) that fuels the argument. "I can imagine a perfect world. This is not a perfect world. Therefore, a perfect Being does not exist. For if such a Being did exist, this would be a perfect world."

(3) We must realize that the argument (mentioned at the start) shows that the person (the arguer) does desire and can imagine a perfect world. That is not all, for the argument also shows that, according to the arguer, a perfect world is possible.

If I said, "I do not believe in good directors because all the movies I see are poor," it obviously shows that I believe that good movies are possible. If I did not believe good movies were possible, I would have to change my argumentation to, "I do not believe in good directors because good movies are not possible." Concerning the problem of evil, the argument would then be: "I do not believe in a perfect Being because a perfect world is not possible" -- but that is not the argument used.

If a perfect world were not possible in the mind of the arguer, an imperfect world would not be held up as an argument against God's existence. The argument hinges on the existence of our imperfect world, a contrast to a more perfect world. If our imperfect world were the only world possible, then it could not be held up as evidence against the existence of God, since a perfect world would not be possible. It would be similar to saying, "I do not believe in God because there are no four-sided triangles." If only an imperfect world were possible, God would be being held accountable for an impossibility. He would be expected to achieve a perfect world, a world that was not possible. Obviously, by implication of the argument, the arguer believes that a perfect world is possible.

As we examine the argument against God's existence due to our imperfect world, we discover three significant beliefs for those making the argument, intrinsic to the argument itself:

  1. A perfect world is desirable.
  2. A perfect world is imaginable.
  3. A perfect world is possible.

The Possibility of a Perfect World?
We must wonder: Where do this desire, this imagination, and this belief in possibility come from? We can understand desiring and imagining a perfect world. What is harder to fathom, however, is why we would think one possible. For example, I could desire to fly like a bird. I could even imagine it in my mind. But would I think it possible? No. Desirable? Yes. Imaginable? Yes. Possible? No.

Yet that is where we find ourselves. Whether people realize it or not, any argument against the existence of God using our imperfect world as its proof implies that the arguer thinks a perfect world is possible. God would not be called into question for an impossibility. In effect the arguers are saying, going back to a previous example, "A good director [God] must not exist because there are no good films [we live in an imperfect world] -- and because I believe in the possibility of good films [the possibility of a perfect world]."

The Great Irony
Often the people who use the problem of evil as an anti-theistic argument are also people who believe that God is merely a concoction of the human mind. (God as invention is the viewpoint of modern psychology and much philosophy.) But here is the rub: Whether these people realize it or not, they are contending that a perfect world is possible (implicit in their argument, as shown above). If a perfect Being is the concoction of the human mind, then would not a perfect world also be? If so, then the anti-theistic argument is shattered, rendered helpless because a necessary premise of the argument -- that a perfect world is possible -- is merely human invention.

In a purely materialist world, one where a God is not needed, one in which everything is caused by random chance plus time, why would anyone think that a perfect world is possible? Yet that is what people think. That is what atheists think who use the problem of evil as an anti-theistic argument. As we have seen, the argument hinges on the possibility of a perfect world. Without that possible perfect world, we are asking God to be responsible for an impossibility. ("I do not believe in God because there are no four-sided triangles.")

But is not a perfect world just as grand an assertion as a perfect Being? We could take it a step further: Is not the atheist's assertion (whether s/he realizes it or not) that a perfect world is possible even more outrageous than a theist's assertion that a perfect Being is possible? Why, if all is random chance plus time, would someone ever believe that volcanoes, hurricanes and other natural disasters, as well as evils caused by humanity, would ever cease, since the universe is simply chaotic? Yet the atheist who uses the problem of evil as an anti-theistic argument is saying just that: A non-chaotic, non-evil world is possible. And because that world is possible, the fact that our world is not like that now, is proof that there is no God. In essence, what is being said is, "I do not believe that good film directors exist, but I believe in the existence of good films." We would expect to find a perfect world part of the theistic paradigm, but not of a non-theistic one. Yet, for those who use the above-mentioned anti-theistic argument, it is.

Will Evolution Bring About a Perfect World?
Someone could argue that the world is becoming a "good film" without the need of a "good director" -- that the world will become a perfect one on its own. But if one looks at the statistics, one will notice that our present world is getting more chaotic, not less. It is not moving toward perfection, but actually away from it. The universe is in a state of decay, not self-repair. And among humanity there is more war, more famine, more crime -- in spite of increased knowledge and technology.

Nature has proven itself to be much more powerful than humanity. When natural disasters hit, our technology cannot prevent them. We are succeeding better at recording them and foreseeing them, but not at stifling them. Will we ever have enough knowledge and technology to halt a typhoon? Will humanity ever be able to harness the winds? And what of human nature? In spite of increased technology and knowledge, humanity is still as evil as ever. We are as greedy and selfish as ever. Technology merely gives us more tools with which to be so. It does not prevent us from being such. Instead, it gives us greater ability to be destructive.

It is a blind hope to believe that we will evolve into a perfect world. To accomplish that, our world would have to achieve total mastery over natural disasters and total eradication of all the evils of human nature. It takes faith to believe in a perfect Being, but doesn't it take just as much faith, or more, to believe in a humanly generated perfect world or a perfect world born out of random chance plus time?

Humanity seems to have more than a God-consciousness. We also have a perfect-world-consciousness. The widespread use of the problem-of-evil anti-theistic argument bares this out. By and large, humanity desires, can imagine and believes in the possibility of a perfect world. If evolution and humanity cannot get us to that perfect world, we are left with not getting there at all, or with arriving there through the power of a perfect Being.

Heart Beliefs vs. Mind Beliefs
Is it possible that atheism, agnosticism and even pantheism do not start with human philosophy? But rather with human choice? In other words, our beliefs about God start in our will, not in our intellect.

When Paul (in the letter to the Romans) spoke of the Christian gospel, he stated that it must be believed in the heart. It is interesting that he omitted mention of the mind with regard to the gospel. In biblical thought, the heart is the seat of not only the emotions but of the will. Could Paul have meant that believing in our "hearts" is somehow different from believing in our minds?

It is possible that all humans are born as theists. We come into the world naturally believing in the existence of God. For many, however, that changes as we get older. Why the change?

When we are children, we have a somewhat unprejudiced belief system. As we grow older, those beliefs change through prejudice. What started out (when we were young) as a natural belief in our minds "passes" through our hearts and back up to our minds again. It is in our hearts (the seat of the will) that we can choose either to believe in something or not. Even if we have believed in God in our minds and hearts as children, through our own choice, we can decide to disbelieve in God later on. This heart belief then affects our intellect and becomes an intellectual belief. This cycle of disbelief -- beginning in the heart and then moving to the mind -- I believe, is found in the largest measure concerning the existence of God. People choose not to believe in God. In other words, the rejection of God is first volitional, and then becomes intellectual.

Why People Really Choose Not to Believe in God
There are numerous intellectual beliefs for not believing in a theistic version of God: naturalism, pantheism, deism, the problem of evil et al. These, I would argue, however, are secondary reasons. Because our beliefs about God (as adults) begin in our hearts and then influence our minds, the above-mentioned reasons for disbelief are secondary in that they come after another belief. That prior belief is one born in the heart. It is a choosing not to believe.

What is the primary reason for this disbelief? I believe the answer is human deity. We want to be God/gods. To acknowledge the God, however, means a usurping of our own "deity." Subconsciously we know that. Subconsciously we understand that a relationship with the true God will result in subjection, and we do not want to be subjects, we only want to be king. So, rather than have a relationship with the true King and thus become subjects, we choose to remain kings ourselves. This choice is, initially, a betrayal of our intellectual beliefs (we begin with belief in God); however, after the heart choice is made, our intellectual beliefs begin to change. We take on new intellectual beliefs to corroborate the choice of our hearts to reject God.

Even works theology (the notion that we can earn salvation through good deeds) is an attempt at human deity. In essence it is an assertion that we are on God's level. We deserve heaven because we are good enough for it. God could never fathom keeping us out. We are too essential. We are His peers. We are God/gods. We belong there. Reincarnation, too, is a form of works theology. The belief is that, given enough lives, we will eventually earn salvation. Eventually we will be good enough for paradise. God had made it clear, however, that we can be good enough for Him only through Him (Christ/the Cross), not without Him.

Paradise, Not God
Human beings often want paradise but not God. We will work for a place in His heaven but we do not want to know Him. We want heaven, but we want nothing to do with its primary Occupant. Why? Because our own "deity" would then be usurped. When God says, "Quit trying to earn heaven and just accept my gift of salvation and get to know Me," we reply (by a choice in our hearts), "I don't want to know You, but I do want the benefits of Your home, so I'll continue to try to win Your favor. In that way I will retain my own kingship and still receive the pleasures of paradise." The story of Adam and Eve bares this out. They wanted paradise but not God, and they wanted to become God.

The problem-of-evil anti-theistic argument is merely more of the same. Those who subconsciously desire, can imagine and believe in the possibility of a perfect world (heaven) will yet reject the very One who offers it and without Whom it is not possible. The problem-of-evil anti-theistic argument shows that a person wants paradise but not God. And so, in an attempt to "maintain the throne," people choose to disbelieve in God in their hearts (the primary reason for disbelief) and then gather up mental ammunition for this choice. This intellectual ammo takes the form of any number of reasons (secondary reasons) for not believing in God (the problem-of-evil anti-theistic argument is but one example). These smokescreens are merely justification for a prior decision to reject God and thus "remain king."

Paradise Found
The irony is that the God of the Bible offers to share His royalty with those who subject themselves to Him. By subjecting ourselves to the King we become co-rulers over the universe. When we reject Him, however, while we may remain kings of a sort, our "universe" is a very small one.

Too, only those who subject themselves to the King obtain paradise. Those who wish to remain king, even though they may desire, imagine and believe in the possibility of a perfect world, will not see experience one. God has made it clear (biblically) that those who reject Him do not get paradise -- and we should not expect it any other way. Why would someone let you live in His home (forever) if He knew you secretly hated Him? He knows that even though you may think you want His paradise, it would not be paradise for you. Everything in it would remind you of Him. Everything in it would remind you of a King who is vying for your throne. In this case it would not be heaven, but rather, a type of hell.

C.S. Lewis believed that in the end there would be only two groups of humanity: 1) those who will say (or will have said) to God, "Thy will be done"; and 2) those to whom God will say, "Thy will be done."

The gospel of Christ is God's acid test for determining in which camp we will fall. The message of Christ is that we can be reconciled to God through Christ, through His sacrificial death and through our reliance upon that sacrificial death. The Christian gospel is highly rational. It is a statement that the perfect Being is capable only of perfect relationship. We achieve that perfect relationship with Him by proxy, through the work of another (Christ).

The problem arises, however, not over the rationale of this gospel message but over its outcome if one believes it. Human beings implicitly know that the other side of forgiveness is reconciliation with God; but many of us, maybe even the majority of us, do not want to be reconciled to God. Reconciliation means the usurping of our throne, so why would we be interested in forgiveness of sin? We do not want to be forgiven because we do not want the result of that forgiveness. We do not want peace with God primarily because we do not want God. Thus the Cross of Christ loses its meaning. It has meaning only for those who have already decided to give up their own kingship and "deity" and who then are freed up to subject themselves before Him who is the true God and King.

John Gay is a graduate of Dallas Theology Seminary and the University of Texas.