“The Problem of Evil”
Possibly the greatest impediment to theistic belief is the presence of evil in the world. For atheists, it is “the problem of evil,” by which they mean that the existence of evil refutes the existence of God. When they say “evil,” they don’t just mean immoral bad things, but all bad things, including accidents and natural disasters.
If God is all-powerful, and He is good, then He can eliminate all evil. But He doesn’t, so He is either not all-powerful, or He is not good. Either means that He is not God. God does not exist, therefore. So goes the atheist trope.
Theists typically respond that God gave us free will, and we act wrongly, and God does not interfere with our choices. This is helpful, somewhat, but incomplete. For one thing, it doesn’t help us with accidents, or natural disasters. No person exercised their free will in order to create a tsunami, presumably.
Another problem with it is that it leaves out a broad range of God’s affirmative conduct in history, if the written revelation of the Bible is to be accepted. When God directed the Israelites to slaughter the Canaanites, was the resulting bloodshed only the exercise by people of their free will? Of course not. There must be more complexity to God’s interaction with people.
Reformed Protestant theology seems to get closest to a solution to the problem of evil. To summarize it neatly, consider R.C. Sproul:
The most violent expression of God’s wrath and justice is seen in the Cross. If ever a person had room to complain for injustice, it was Jesus. He was the only innocent man ever to be punished by God. If we stagger at the wrath of God, let us stagger at the Cross. Here is where our astonishment should be focused.
The point is that people are born into sin. We carry corruption in our bodies from the time of birth. We are at heart evil. Only God is good.
Whether or not we believe in the Bible, or Christianity, or Calvinism, we still must grapple with this basic principle of human nature. Are people good? Or are they bad? Well, we tend to think that everyone is an admixture of both, and it’s true that we sometimes see good and sometimes see bad in the same person. But what is the default position? Is man basically good, or basically evil? Are we born innocent, and then corrupted to varying degrees to evil, during the course of a lifetime? Or are we born corrupt, and encouraged to varying degrees to good, during the course of a lifetime?
The Great Divorce
Christians and Jews hold that there is a great divorce, between man and God. The reason for it is that God is holy; man is not. Before God, man is deserving of punishment. We all live before God. We get what we deserve, unless God pardons us. The presence of evil is easily explainable: it is what people are. That God does not always immediately relieve us of the consequences of it is, frankly, His business. His sovereignty is not to be trifled with, as by arguing that He does or does not meet this or that definition we come up with for His attributes. There simply is no such thing as a “problem of evil” for theists.
The Problem of Good
But for atheists, there is a problem of good. There is no atheist explanation for good. The best that we have so far is rather wistful theory: that empathetic reciprocity explains good conduct as a function of social evolution. The problem with this is that it does not go nearly far enough. At best, it explains man’s ability to live cooperatively so long as he receives an immediate benefit in doing so. It does not explain heroism, courage, self-sacrifice, or consistent altruism at personal expense.
Evil is something that theists should ponder. Its presence is an important consideration in understanding who we are, and who we are before God.
Good is something that atheists should ponder. Its presence is not reconcilable, if there is no God. It is a serious problem for the atheist point of view.