“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?” These words of Epicurus were spoken at around 300 B.C. and they’re still pretty powerful. In fact, many skeptics today still use this quote when the question of evil arises. However, it’s not a question that Christians should be afraid of. The reality of evil points to God, not away from him, simply because without God nothing can be called evil, objectively.
The Problem of Evil
The existence of evil is a topic that many learned philosophers, religious gurus, and wise men have meditated on for countless centuries. Sad to say, for most of my life, I was not one of those people. I never gave much thought to any of it. To me, there were “bad people” and “good people” and that was that. I can say with all honesty, that it never occurred to me to link evil with God’s existence or non-existence.
However, many people do make such a connection. In fact, the A Clear Lens crew has written quite a few articles on the subject, addressing arguments and questions (which you can find here, here and here.) And I’ve stated in a previous article, my father considered the death of my sister a great evil and couldn’t fathom a world where a loving God would exist and four-year-old girls drown. So he came to the conclusion that God was a figment of the imagination.
While other skeptics (and some believers too) may not draw on personal tragedies in order to feel justified in quoting Epicurus, one need only read the paper or turn on the news to see that evil is very much a part of reality.
How Can You Call a Line Crooked?
The question of God and evil was one of the hurdles that kept C.S. Lewis from coming to faith. Art Lindsey, Ph.D. recounts in his piece for the C.S. Lewis Institute‘s Knowing and Doing, “When Lewis met Christians, he would pose this problem to them. He felt that their attempts to provide an answer were attempts to avoid the obvious difficulty. However, it gradually dawned on him that his argument depended on the idea that there was, in fact, real evil in the world. Evil was not an illusion or just a feeling or emotive response to an unpleasing event. But, where had he gotten this idea of evil? He realized that his atheism provided no basis for it.”
“My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?” – C.S. Lewis
Oftentimes, when theists and skeptics come together and debate evil and objective morality, the theistic argument is usually accused of denying that skeptics can be “good.” That’s not the case at all. The theistic position is that, without God, there is nothing to ground a belief in objective morality. And without objective morality nothing can be called “objectively evil.” It all becomes a matter of opinion.
Atheist Art Leff wrote and published a powerful piece for Duke Law Journal on the subject of establishing ethics without God (I highly recommend reading it). In it, he states that “It is of the utmost importance to see why a God-grounded system has no analogs. Either God exists or He does not, but if He does not, nothing and no one else can take His place.”
He goes on to say, “I have pursued this discussion for so long because it will make it much easier to understand why there is discontent verging on despair whenever some theorist tries to develop a system in which ‘found’ ethical or legal propositions are to be treated as binding, but for which there is no supernatural grounding. God’s will is binding because
it is His will that it be. Under what other circumstances can the unexamined will of anyone else withstand the cosmic ‘says who’ and come out similarly dispositive? There are no such circumstances.”
Basically, Leff asserts that trying to define anything as evil without grounding it in the supernatural (i.e. God) crumbles under the simple question, “Says who?” What we want to define as evil becomes nothing more than our personal opinion. In order for us to call anything truly evil, the supernatural must be invoked.
J. Warner Wallace explains this in clearer terms:
“…evil is not actually an exculpatory piece of evidence at all. In fact, unless there exists a righteous, perfect God to serve as the standard of good by which we measure any act and call it ‘evil,’ the notion of evil becomes little more than a matter of personal or cultural opinion. We need a true standard of good to recognize anything as evil. That’s why the presence of evil in our universe is another piece of inculpating evidence. It demonstrates the existence and involvement of God, because, without a standard for moral perfection, evil doesn’t really exist at all.”
Dr. William Lane Craig also echoes this point in his article for Reasonable Faith by saying, “If God does not exist, then what is the foundation for moral values? More particularly, what is the basis for the value of human beings? If God does not exist, then it is difficult to see any reason to think that human beings are special or that their morality is objectively true. Moreover, why think that we have any moral obligations to do anything? Who or what imposes any moral duties upon us?”
He even goes a step farther and quotes ethicist Richard Taylor who said, “Contemporary writers in ethics, who blithely discourse upon moral right and wrong and moral obligation without any reference to religion, are really just weaving intellectual webs from thin air; which amounts to saying that they discourse without meaning.”
No God, No Objective Morality, No Evil
Without God, we can’t have objective morality. It’s all just “he said, she said” and our subjective opinions on right and wrong. If it’s just our subjective opinions that determine what is right and wrong, then how can we call anything truly evil.
In order for evil to exist, God must exist. Otherwise, why call it evil at all?
Taking the words of Art Leff at the close of his paper:
“…looking around the world, it appears that if all men are brothers, the ruling model is Cain and Abel. Neither reason, nor love, nor even terror, seems to have worked to make us ‘good,’ and worse than that, there is no reason why anything should. Only if ethics were something unspeakable by us, could law be unnatural, and therefore unchallengeable. As things now stand, everything is up for grabs.
Napalming babies is bad.
Starving the poor is wicked.
Buying and selling each other is depraved.
Those who stood up to and died resisting Hitler, Stalin, Amin, and
Pol Pot-and General Custer too-have earned salvation.
Those who acquiesced deserve to be damned.
There is in the world such a thing as evil.
d[All together now:] Sez who?
God help us.”
Dr. William Lane Craig explains in detail why without God, there simply is no reason to call anything truly “evil” in his debate with Sam Harris: