A Brief Treatment of the Problem of Evil

The problem of evil is usually considered one of the strongest arguments for atheism. In this short post we’ll consider it and possible responses available to the classical theist. The argument goes something like this:

  1. If God exists, then he is all-powerful (omnipotent) and all-good (omnibenevolent) and all-knowing (omniscient).
  2. If God is all-powerful, then he is able to prevent all evil from occurring
  3. If God is all-good, then he wants to prevent all evil from occurring.
  4. Evil exists.
  5. Therefore God does not exist.

The argument is certainly valid, but is it sound? Classical theists won’t deny premise 1, and premise 4 is unimpeachable, so if we’re to deny any of the premises it must be premise 2 or 3. In this post we’ll talk mainly about objections to premise 3.

Morally Sufficient Reasons

Often, something like following claim is given in response to premise 3:

SR. God has morally sufficient reasons for allowing the evils in the world

What morally sufficient reasons could God have for allowing the evils we see in the world? A number of different answers can be given to this question.

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A failed analysis of would-counterfactuals

I was thinking about “would-counterfactuals” the other day and wondering how they’re meant to be understood on a libertarian account of free will that holds to contrary choice as a necessary condition for a free choice. I thought I had come up with some way of giving meaning to statements of the form “Agent S would do action A if put in circumstance C”. However, I realised that I had failed. Nevertheless, it was interesting thinking about metaphysics and mathematics so I thought I’d share it.

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More than sharing the gospel

So… let’s talk about apologetics. Christians seem to have very different responses to the idea of apologetics. Some think it is indispensable in the Christian’s life while others sincerely think it’s a bad thing (for various reasons, which we’ll consider further down). To be clear, I fall in the former category.

What is Apologetics?

It might be a good idea to clarify what we mean, exactly, when we talk about apologetics. Roughly speaking, the study of Scripture is understanding what we, as Christians, believe; Evangelism is the act of communicating, articulating or proclaiming what we believe; and Apologetics is the act of defending what we believe.

Apologetics, however, is much bigger than defending what we believe. We can split apologetics into two broad categories. Negative apologetics is where we defend Christianity against various objections. Positive apologetics is where we give a positive case for Christianity and a negative case against other worldviews.

Within the positive and negative categories we have two sub-categories. Natural Theology is theology (study of God) based off the world around us and our experiences. So positive natural theology would involve things like defending arguments for God’s existence, like the moral, cosmological and fine-tuning arguments, while negative natural theology would involve responding to arguments against God’s existence, like the problem of evil, the argument from inconsistent revelations and the argument from poor design. Christian Evidences aim to show that specifically Christianity is true. This usually involves dealing with the historical reliability of books in the Bible (usually the gospels specifically), Jesus’ self-understanding and resurrection. Positive Christian evidences would involve making a case for the historical reliability of the gospels (for example) or making the case that Jesus understood himself as the unique Son of God and then defending the historicity of his resurrection from the dead. Negative Christian evidences would involve defending various objections to the historical reliability of the Bible and arguing against other revelations (like Islam, Judaism, and so on). Because Christian evidences clearly focuses on the historicity of the Bible, a large part of it involves studying historical methodology and understanding the cultures in which the books were written (which usually sheds light on various issues raised).

Overarching all of apologetics is something we can call Worldview Considerations. Here we take great care to understand the distinctives of various worldviews of people we might encounter or people we might study (in the case of understanding ancient worldviews). This helps us to understand what people mean by certain words they use and where they’re coming from, so that our defence can be improved.

Why Apologetics?

OK, so apologetics looks quite big, and quite intellectual. Why should Christians (who aren’t so inclined) be concerned with studying it? I have two reasons I want to share, one based on Scripture and one based on practicality (I don’t mean to imply that Scripture is impractical, mind you). First the reason based on practicality:

  1. There is theoretically, but not practically, a distinction between apologetics and the study of Scripture.
  2. There is theoretically, but not practically, a distinction between apologetics and evangelism.
  3. As Christians, we should study Scripture and evangelise as best we can.
  4. Therefore, as Christians, we should study apologetics.

Maybe I should clarify what I mean in the premises. Apologetics, evangelism and the study of Scripture are “theoretically” distinct in that they’re defined differently. They’re “practically” distinct if one can be done, in practice, without you having to do the other too.

What can be said by way of defence of the three premises? Well, premise 3 seems extremely easy to defend based on the teaching in Scripture. Consider the great commission (Matthew 28:16-20) as a reason why we should be evangelising and passages like 2 Timothy 2:15 (“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.”, ESV. Admittedly Paul’s talking specifically to Timothy, but shouldn’t we also strive for the traits of a leader?) as a reason why we should be studying Scripture. I also mentioned other reasons for Christians to be studying doctrine in a previous post (along with more reasons to be studying apologetics too).

Premise 2 seems obviously true: can we really expect us to be able to just share the gospel with non-Christians without having to defend what we claim? To think otherwise would be arrogant (or ignorant). Furthermore, without a good understanding of worldviews (part of apologetics), Christians can actually do more damage to the gospel than good. An example of this is this: in modern western culture, many people are modernistic in their thinking, meaning they reduce a large part of life to relativism. One thing they put in this “upper story” (to borrow a term from Francis Schaeffer) is religion, meaning that religion is reduced to a personal taste. Now obviously any person who knows anything about the claims of Christianity will have a problem with this (since it makes historical claims that are either right or wrong) but that doesn’t change the fact that many western people think like this. How does this help with evangelism? Well, when Christians talk about what they believe, they might reinforce this erroneous relativistic thinking about religion unless they take great care to pick their words correctly so as not to be misinterpreted.

The converse of this premise is also obviously true: we can’t expect to defend a message we haven’t shared.

Premise 1 is probably the least obvious of the lot. However, if you’ve ever studied a book of the Bible you’ll know that understanding the relevant historical culture and literary structures can be quite helpful and sometimes indispensable. Knowledge of historical approaches to the gospels (such as Source, Redaction or Literary Criticism) can also be helpful in understanding them as well as the a large number of other historical considerations. These approaches [and considerations] would be studied when studying Christian evidences. Also, natural theology can be useful when developing a systematic theology and worldview considerations will help keep us from reading cultural presuppositions into the text. A number of other examples exist, but I think these suffice.

Again, the converse of this premise is also true. I’ve seen too many apologists fail to properly play their part because they don’t handle Scripture faithfully. They end up misrepresenting Scripture because they don’t understand the relevant parts properly. When this happens, they stop defending Christianity and start defending something else. This can hardly be called good apologetics.

So that’s the practical reason for apologetics. Because you can’t help but know apologetics when you study the books in the Bible faithfully and when you evangelise effectively, every Christian should study apologetics. Read More »