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How The Problem of Evil Aims to Disprove The Existence of God

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In this essay, I will be discussing how the philosophical ‘Problem of evil’ aims to disprove the existence of God, its soundness and persuasiveness in doing so and why I ultimately believe the premises of the argument to be unsuccessful because of their parochial nature. The Problem of evil described shortly holds the position that God cannot possibly exist because the plethoric amounts of evil in this world would be incompatible with there being a God attributed to being omniscient, omnibenevolent and omnipotent. I will focus extensively on Blackburn (1999) from which most of the objections and counterarguments to this argument will stem, and I will refer occasionally to certain verses in the Christian Bible when contextually discussing the Judeo-Christian God. The three objections I’ll examine are on: God being a different type of God, one whose characteristics deviate from the Abrahamic understanding of him (his omniscience, omnibenevolence and omnipotence). The second being that God exists but is inscrutable (mysterious and beyond human understanding), and the third being that the value of good or good itself presupposes evil, which implies then that evil is compatible with there being an omniscient, omnibenevolent and omnipotent Deity. I will conclude that these objections shine light on the holes and assumptions made in the premises of the Problem of evil and show how they reveal the argument to be parochial and non-persuasive.

One main theme/term in this essay requires a contextual definition in order to avoid confusion, assumptions and/or misinterpretation and that is the one of evil. When referring to evil, the usage entails things like murder, infliction of pain in any form or manner, be it physical, mental or emotional, lust, and other related evils. When referring to broader less human inflicted evils like natural disasters, epidemics, accidents Blackburn (1999), I will make it clear that I’m doing so.

The logical form of the Problem of evil is as follows: (1) If God exists, He is omniscient, omnibenevolent and omnipotent. (2) There is a tremendous amount of evil in this world. (3) The amount of evil in this world is incompatible with there being an omniscient, omnibenevolent and omnipotent entity. (4) So, no omniscient, omnibenevolent and omnipotent entity exists. (5) Therefore, there is no God.

The first objection stems from the first premise of this argument. Here, the assumption is that God (by definition) is all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good/loving. It is all well known that this is how he is described in the Abrahamic religions, but it does not mean that that understanding of God is necessarily true. God could in fact bear none of those qualities – or he could bear one or two of them. Epicurus puts it like this:

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.

Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.

Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?

Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”

If he exists, it is impossible for us to know exactly what kind of God we are trying to prove or disprove. What I mean by that is, if we put aside things like religious experiences and biblical texts (which both intrinsically require the existence of God to be true), there is no logical way we can prove the characteristics of this God. Epicurus asks the question why we should call God God if there is a possibility that he does not possess the traits we’ve assigned to him. I have a response to that question, and it is that he is indeed a different type of God; one whose identity is not known to us and cannot possibly be known through human logical reasoning.

If we are to break the argument down into additional more detailed premises, it is clear to see why the reasoning behind the problem of evil is valid (that is that the conclusion is logically drawn from the premises of the argument) but is ultimately parochial with respect to premise (1). The argument in detail goes as follows: (1) If God exists, he is omniscient, omnibenevolent and omnipotent. (2) If he is omniscient, he knows all about the evil in this world. (3) If he is omnibenevolent, he would want to put an end to this evil. (4) If he is omnipotent, he would have the power to do as he desires i.e. put an end to all the evil. (5) There is much evil in this world. (6) So much evil is incompatible with there being an all-knowing, all-good and all-powerful being. (7) So, no all-knowing, all-good and all-powerful being exists. (8) Therefore, God does not exist. The form of the argument is valid and coherent. But it certainly doesn’t solidify that it is sound – “sound” meaning that all its premises are true. Premises (2), (3), (4) and (5) are all true but Premise (1) could be true or false. So, within reason, any response to this objection would ultimately lead us to questioning whether premise (1) is true and/or logically provable. The argument tries to limit the attributes of God to just those three, and in doing so fails to account for any other possible traits he could possess or lack.

He knows of the evil in this world. He has the power to stop this evil. He desires to stop this evil. However, He chooses not to. That is my understanding of the second objection to this argument. The second objection states that God is mysterious, inscrutable (meaning impossible to understand or interpret) and works, cares and loves in his own “Godly” way unperceivable to the human mind. For this objection, the focus will be on the Abrahamic God and the Holy Bible as these are largely what it is based on. According to (Isaiah 55:8-9), God proclaims:

“8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts,

neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.

9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth,

so are my ways higher than your ways

and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

The general idea established across multiple religions (as seen above) is that God is incomprehensible to us. His thoughts transcend the capabilities of our limited human minds. “5 Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; his understanding is beyond measure.” (Psalm 147:5)

His ways surpass ours. We cannot begin to describe how and why he does the things he does. This is where the critic atheist joins the conversation.

As Blackburn says: “The problem then becomes one of explaining how it should have any consequences whether we believe in an incomprehensible God.” Blackburn (1999). He then goes on to quote Wittgenstein who says: “A nothing will serve just as well as a something about which nothing could be said.” If we can’t explain the reasons why he does the things he does, or at the very least know clearly and certainly of his existence – what do we gain by believing in this God? If we can’t distinguish God from being good or evil, why believe in him? Plainly put, what would be the point of believing in something about which we know nothing of.

A rebuttal to this response could be that – if we could understand him, wouldn’t that in a sense make him less of a God and more so on a level in line with mankind. Equating the level of thought of God and mankind would contradict the problem of evil argument, specifically where it attributes God to being all-knowing. We are not all-knowing. We’re far from it. So, if God exists and is all-knowing; and we try to disprove his existence on the basis that we do not understand him, we are then contradicting the first premise and saying that God is not the limitless, all-knowing entity we claim he is. This yet again points to the lack of scope in the problem of evil. The assumptions it makes are not certain and neither are they provable nor disprovable.

Lastly, it is possible that God could have reasons for allowing evil to persist (namely, viewing pain as a prerequisite for value). Take for example, needless if these are true or not and/or possible, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, where his murder brought about the redemption of mankind. The pain (evil) of the death (evil) of Christ in return bared forgiveness (good) and value to mankind in God’s eyes. An atheist’s point could be made in this hypothetical example whereby a mother and her child have a flight from Ethiopia to Kenya in a couple of hours. On their way to the airport, the child suddenly falls ill. The mother is then forced to admit her child to a hospital and subsequently misses her flight to Kenya. Several hours later, as she is sitting at the bedside of her child, a doctor comes in to her relief and tells her that her child will be fine. As the doctor leaves, a news report appears on the telly, informing viewers of a recent plane crash wherein no survivors exist. To the mother’s disbelief it is the very same plane she and her child were going to board. The mother’s situation would be viewed by most atheists as purely coincidental. Theists would view this a miracle. But the obvious question would arise being that, why would God ‘save’ her (which is good) but not the people on that plane (bad). The same applies to Jesus’ situation; why not just save humanity out of his own divine mercy rather than putting his only son through gratuitous crucifixion. Or even when assessing evils wherein no human intervention is present e.g. bubonic plagues, natural disasters, accidents, etc. What good could possibly come out of these. We could say that maybe God has his own reasons for doing the things he does or willing the things wills. Maybe his definition of good and evil is different from our idea of it. Maybe the death of 150 people in a horrific plane crash could be for the greater good or some grandiose purpose. It is impossible to know.

So, if God does exist, and is the helm of all the events in the world that happen, his ways and classifications of good and evil will remain forever unfathomable to the human mind. In respondence to the problem of evil, specifically premise (1) and (3), assuming God and evil cannot coexist – reason being that it would be incompatible, brings about questionable situations in which in fact it could be possible that such a being would allow for evil to exist. Situations like the ones aforementioned. Therefore, it is not certain whether a God of all power, love and knowledge would cease to exist because of the concurrent existence of evil. In the end, the argument proves to be rather lacking in clarity, scope and understanding of how God (if he exists) works. It’s approach to God and evil is narrow-minded. It is for these reasons that I believe the argument is unsuccessful in disproving the existence of God.                  

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