The Biblical Worldview,
Part I-VII:10; Oct., 1991. Text taken from
Bahnsen's heuristic solution—to deduce from God's goodness that God must
have a morally sufficient reason for permitting excessive,
nondisciplinary evil (ENE), for "plann[ing] evil events for reasons
which are morally commendable and good"—seems to evacuate "morally
sufficient" and "morally commendable" of all meaning. It throws the
challenge back to the objector: if you can't prove that God doesn't
have a morally sufficient reason for permitting—nay, planning—ENE,
you can't disprove God's existence from ENE.
If I may break into
Lonerganese: a heuristic solution is but an "X" that guides further
inquiry. It is, for example, the evidence-based profile of the
yet-unknown criminal that guides a police investigation. It is the
"known unknown" that addresses the alleged "paradox" of inquiry: if we
don't know what we're looking for, how will we know when we've found it?
But a perp's profile is not his actual identity. One cannot arrest a
suggestion that the objection from evil is more "psychological" or
"emotional" than logical is worth pondering, although it is not clear to
me that our psychological or emotional states cannot convey knowledge.
Why doesn't our revulsion at the thought of a tortured child set the bar
for a "morally sufficient reason" impossibly high?
July 7, 2011
I now consider my
rhetorical question (a) evasive of Bahnsen's apologetic against the
perennial attempt to rule out the existence of God on logical
grounds and therefore (b) neither here nor there logically. ENE may present excruciating psychological difficulties for the
believer, but not logical ones. The unbeliever cannot even frame a
problem of ENE without surreptitiously (and so incoherently)
relying on the Christian worldview.
February 23, 2013
The Problem of Evil
We want to turn now to examine some of the recurring and most basic
kinds of objections which are raised against the Christian faith by
those who disagree with the Biblical worldview—whether its intellectual
antagonists, cultured despisers, or competing religions. Our aim will
be to suggest how a presuppositional method of apologetics would answer
these types of argument against Christianity (or alternatives to it) as
a philosophy of life, knowledge and reality.
Perhaps the most intense, pained and persistent challenge which
believers hear about the truth of the Christian message comes in the
form of what is called “the problem of evil.” The suffering and evil
which we see all about us seems to cry out against the existence of
God—at least a God who is both benevolent and almighty. This is thought
by many to be the most difficult of all the problems which apologists
face, not only because of the apparent logical difficulty within the
Christian outlook, but because of the personal perplexity which any
sensitive human being will feel when confronted with the terrible misery
and wickedness that can be found in the world. Man’s inhumanity to man
is notorious in every age of history and in every nation of the world.
There is a long story of oppression, indignity, unkindness, torture and
tyranny. We find war and murder, greed and lust, dishonesty and lies.
We encounter fear and hatred, infidelity and cruelty, poverty and
racial hostility. Moreover, even in the natural world we come across so
much apparently needless suffering and pain—birth defects, parasites,
attacks of violent animals, radioactive mutations, debilitating
diseases, deadly cancer, starvation, crippling injuries, typhoons,
earthquakes, and other natural disasters.
When the unbeliever looks at this unhappy “vale of tears,” he or she
feels there is a strong reason to doubt the goodness of God. Why should
there be so much misery? Why should it be distributed in such a
seemingly unjust fashion? Is this what you would permit, if you were
God and could prevent it?
It is important for the Christian to recognize—indeed, to insist
upon—the reality and serious nature of evil. The subject of evil is not
simply an intellectual parlor game, a cavalier matter, a whimsical or
relativistic choice of looking at things a certain way. Evil is real.
Evil is ugly.
Only when we become emotionally charged and intellectually intense about
the existence of evil can we appreciate the depth of the problem
unbelievers have with the Christian worldview—but, likewise, realize why
the problem of evil ends up confirming the Christian outlook, rather
than infirming it. When we talk about evil with unbelievers, it is
crucial that both sides “play for keeps.” Evil must be taken seriously
A well known passage from the pen of the Russian novelist, Fyodor
Dostoyevsky, readily stirs our emotions and makes us insistent about the
wickedness of men, for instance men who are cruel to little children.
It is found in his novel, Brothers Karamazov.1 Ivan
makes his complaint to Alyosha:
People talk sometimes of bestial cruelty, but that’s a great injustice
and insult to the beasts; a beast can never be so cruel as a man, so
artistically cruel. . . .
I’ve collected a great, great deal about Russian children, Alyosha.
There was a little girl of five who was hated by her father and mother.
. . . You see, I must repeat again, it is a peculiar characteristic of
many people, this love of torturing children, and children only. . . .
It’s just their defenselessness that tempts the tormentor, just the
angelic confidence of the child who has no refuge and no appeal that
sets his vile blood on fire. . . .
This poor child of five was subjected to every possible torture by those
cultivated parents. They beat her, thrashed her, kicked her for no
reason till her body was one bruise. Then, they went to greater
refinements of cruelty—shut her up all night in the cold and frost in a
privy, and because she didn’t ask to be taken up at night . . . they
smeared her face and filled her mouth with excrement, and it was her
mother, her mother did this. And that mother could sleep, hearing the
poor child’s groans! Can you understand why a little creature, who
can’t even understand what’s done to her, should beat her little aching
heart with her tiny fist in the dark and cold, and weep her meek unresentful tears to dear, kind God to protect her? . .
. Do you
understand why this infamy must be and is permitted? . . . Why, the
whole world of knowledge is not worth that child’s prayer to ‘dear, kind
God’! . . .
Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object
of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but
that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny
creature—that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance—and to
found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the
architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth.”
“No, I wouldn’t consent,” said Alyosha softly.
Incidents and soliloquies such as this could be multiplied over and over
again. They elicit moral indignation within us. They also elicit moral
indignation within the unbeliever—and that fact must not be disregarded
by the apologist.
Once when I was doing a radio call-in show, a caller became very snide
about my saying that we should worship and adore God. The caller wanted
to know how anybody could adore a God who permitted sexual abuse and
mutilation of a baby, such as the caller had witnessed in certain
courtroom photographs at the trial of some horrible specimen of
humanity. The description was sickening and surely evoked revulsion in
everyone who heard it. I knew the caller meant to press his hostility
to Christianity upon me hard, but I was actually glad that the caller
was so irate. He was taking evil seriously. His condemnation of
child abuse was not simply a matter of personal preference to him. For
that reason, I realized it would not be difficult to show why the
problem of evil is not really a problem for the believer—but rather for
the unbeliever. More on this later.
Evil as a
The “problem” of evil has not always been properly understood by
Christian apologists. They have sometimes reduced the difficulty of the
unbeliever’s challenge to Christianity by conceiving of the problem of
evil as simply the angry presentation of evidence contrary to the
alleged goodness of God. It is as though believers profess God’s
goodness, but then unbelievers have their counterexamples. Who makes
the best case from the facts around us? The problem is presented
(inaccurately) as a matter of who has weightier evidence on his side of
For instance, we read a popular apologist say this about the problem of
evil: “But in the final analysis, the evidence for the existence of the
good (God) is not vitiated by the anomaly of evil.” And why not? “Evil
remains a perplexing mystery, but the force of the mystery is not enough
to demand that we throw out the positive evidence for God, for the
reality of good. . . . While we cannot explain the existence of evil,
that is no reason for us to disregard the positive evidence for God.”2
This seriously underestimates the nature of the problem of evil. It is
not simply a matter of weighing the positive evidence over against the
negative evidence for goodness in God’s world or in God’s plan (say, for
redemption, etc.). The problem of evil is a much more serious challenge
to the Christian faith than that.
The problem of evil amounts to the charge that there is logical
incoherence within the Christian outlook—regardless of how much evil
there is in the universe, compared to how much goodness can be found.
If Christianity is logically incoherent, no amount of positive,
factual evidence can save its truth. The internal inconsistency would
itself render Christian faith intellectually unacceptable, even
granting there might be a great deal of indicators or evidence in
our experience for the existence of goodness or for God, otherwise
The 18th century Scottish philosopher, David Hume, expressed the problem
of evil in a strong and challenging fashion: “Is [God] willing to
prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not
willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence
then is evil?”3 What Hume was arguing is that the Christian
cannot logically accept these three premises: God is all-powerful, God
is all-good, and nevertheless evil exists in the world. If God is
all-powerful, then He must be able to prevent or remove evil, if He
wishes. If God is all-good, then certainly He wishes to prevent or
remove evil. Yet it is undeniable that evil exists.
George Smith states the problem this way in his book, Atheism: The
Case Against God4: “Briefly, the problem of evil is this:
. . . If God knows there is evil but cannot prevent it, he is not
omnipotent. If God knows there is evil and can prevent it but desires
not to, he is not omnibenevolent.” Smith thinks that Christians
logically cannot have it both ways: God is completely good, as well as
Therefore, the charge which unbelievers make is that the Christian
worldview is incoherent; it adopts premises which are inconsistent with
each other, given the evil in this world. The unbeliever argues that,
even if he were to accept the premises of Christian theology (regardless
of evidence for or against them individually), those premises do not
comport with each other. The problem with Christianity is an
internal one—a logical defect which even the believer must acknowledge,
as long as he realistically admits the presence of evil in the world.
This evil, it is thought, is incompatible with either God’s goodness or
is Evil Logically a Problem?
It should be obvious upon reflection that there can be no “problem of
evil” to press upon Christian believers unless one can legitimately
assert the existence of evil in this world. There is not even
apparently a logical problem as long as we have only these two premises
to deal with:
1. God is completely good.
2. God is completely powerful.
These two premises do not in themselves create any contradiction. The
problem arises only when we add the premise:
3. Evil exists (happens).
Accordingly, it is crucial to the unbeliever’s case against Christianity
to be in a position to assert that there is evil in the world—to point
to something and have the right to evaluate it as an instance of
evil. If it should be the case that nothing evil exists or ever
happens—that is, what people initially believe to be evil cannot
reasonably be deemed “evil”—then there is nothing inconsistent with
Christian theology which requires an answer.
What does the unbeliever mean by “good,” or by what standard does the
unbeliever determine what counts as “good” (so that “evil” is
accordingly defined or identified)? What are the presuppositions in
terms of which the unbeliever makes any moral judgments whatsoever?
Perhaps the unbeliever takes “good” to be whatever evokes public
approval. However, on that basis the statement “The vast majority of
the community heartily approved of and willingly joined in the evil
deed” could never make sense. The fact that a large number of people of
feel a certain way does not (or should not rationally) convince anybody
that this feeling (about the goodness or evil of something) is correct.
Ethics does not reduce to statistics, after all. Ordinarily, people
think of the goodness of something as evoking their approval—rather than
their approval constituting its goodness! Even unbelievers talk and act
as though there are personal traits, actions or things which possess the
property of goodness (or evil) irrespective of the attitudes or
beliefs or feelings people have about those traits, actions or things.5
There are even further problems with taking “good” to be whatever evokes
the approval of the individual (rather than public at large). Not only
does this too reduce to subjectivism, it absurdly implies that no two
individuals can make identical ethical judgments. When Bill says
“Helping orphans is good,” he would not be saying the same thing as when
Ted says “Helping orphans is good.” Bill’s utterance means “Helping
orphans evokes Bill’s approval,” whereas Ted’s would mean “Helping
orphans evokes Ted’s approval”—which are altogether different matters.
Not only would this view make it impossible for two people to make
identical ethical judgments, it would likewise (absurdly) imply that a
person’s own ethical judgments could never be mistaken, unless he
happened to misunderstand his own feelings!6
The unbeliever might turn, then, to an instrumental or consequential
understanding of what constitutes objective goodness (or evil). For
instance, an action or trait is good if it tends to achieve a certain
end, like the greatest happiness of the greatest number. The
irrelevance of such a notion for making ethical determinations is that
one would need to be able to rate and compare happiness, as well as to
be able to calculate all of the consequences of any given action or
trait. This is simply impossible for finite minds (even with the help
of computers). But more devastating is the observation that good may be
taken to be whatever promotes general happiness only if it is
antecedently the case that generalized happiness is itself “good.” Any
theory of ethics which focuses on the goodness of achieving a certain
end (or consequence) will make sense only if it can establish that the
chosen end (or consequence) is a good one to pursue and promote.
Instrumental theories of goodness eventually must address the issue of
intrinsic goodness, so that they can correctly determine what their
goals ought to be.
Philosophically speaking, the problem of evil turns out to be,
therefore, a problem for the unbeliever himself. In order to use the
argument from evil against the Christian worldview, he must first be
able to show that his judgments about the existence of evil are
meaningful—which is precisely what his unbelieving worldview is unable
Unbeliever Take Evil Seriously, Then?
Unbelievers complain that certain plain facts about human experience are
inconsistent with the Christian’s theological beliefs about the goodness
and power of God. Such a complaint requires the non-Christian to assert
to existence of evil in this world. What, however, has been presupposed
Both the believer and the unbeliever will want to insist that certain
things are evil, for instance cases of child abuse (like those already
mentioned). And they will talk as though they take such moral judgments
seriously, not simply as expressions of personal taste, preference or
subjective opinion. They will insist that such things are
truly—objectively, intrinsically—evil. Even unbelievers can be shaken
from their easy and glib espousals of relativism in the face of moral
atrocities like war, rape, and torture.
But the question, logically speaking, is how the unbeliever can make
sense of taking evil seriously—not simply as something inconvenient, or
unpleasant, or contrary to his or her desires. What philosophy of value
or morality can the unbeliever offer which will render it meaningful to
condemn some atrocity as objectively evil? The moral indignation which
is expressed by unbelievers when they encounter the wicked things which
transpire in this world does not comport with the theories of ethics
which unbelievers espouse, theories which prove to be arbitrary or
subjective or merely utilitarian or relativistic in character. On the
unbeliever’s worldview, there is no good reason for saying that anything
is evil in nature, but only by personal choice or feeling.
That is why I am encouraged when I see unbelievers getting very
indignant with some evil action as a matter of principle. Such
indignation requires recourse to the absolute, unchanging, and good
character of God in order to make philosophical sense. The expression
of moral indignation is but personal evidence that unbelievers know this
God in their heart of hearts. They refuse to let judgments about evil be
reduced to subjectivism.
When the believer challenges the unbeliever on this point, the
unbeliever will likely turn around and try to argue that evil is, in the
final analysis, based on human reasoning or choices—thus being relative
to the individual or culture. And at that point the believer must press
home the logical incoherence within the unbeliever’s set of
beliefs. On the one hand, he believes and speaks as though some activity
(e.g., child abuse) is wrong in itself, but on the other hand he
believes and speaks as though that activity is wrong only if the
individual (or culture) chooses some value which is inconsistent with it
(e.g., pleasure, the greatest happiness of the greatest number,
freedom). When the unbeliever professes that people determine ethical
values for themselves, the unbeliever implicitly holds that those who
commit evil are not really doing anything evil, given the values which
they have chosen for themselves. In this way, the unbeliever who is
indignant over wickedness supplies the very premises which
philosophically condone and permit such behavior, even though at
the same time the unbeliever wishes to insist that such behavior is
not permitted—is “evil.”
What we find, then, is that the unbeliever must secretly rely upon
the Christian worldview in order to make sense of his argument from the
existence of evil which is urged against the Christian worldview!
Antitheism presupposes theism to make its case.
The problem of evil is thus a logical problem for the unbeliever, rather
than the believer. As a Christian, I can make perfectly good sense out
of my moral revulsion and condemnation of child abuse. The
non-Christian cannot. This does not mean that I can explain why God
does whatever He does in planning misery and wickedness in this world.
It simply means that moral outrage is consistent with the Christian’s
worldview, his basic presuppositions about reality, knowledge, and
ethics. The non-Christian’s worldview (of whatever variety) eventually
cannot account for such moral outrage. It cannot explain the objective
and unchanging nature of moral notions like good or evil. Thus the
problem of evil is precisely a philosophical problem for unbelief.
Unbelievers would be required to appeal to the very thing against which
they argue (a divine, transcendent sense of ethics) in order for their
argument to be warranted.
the Alleged Paradox
The unbeliever might at this point protest that, even if he as a
non-Christian cannot meaningfully explain or make sense of the view that
evil objectively exists, nevertheless there still remains a paradox
within the set of beliefs which constitute the Christian’s own
worldview. Given his basic philosophy and commitments, the Christian
certainly can and does claim that evil is real, and yet the Christian
also believes things about the character of God which together seem
incompatible with the existence of evil. The unbeliever might argue
that, regardless of the ethical inadequacy of his own worldview, the
Christian is still—on the Christian’s own terms—locked into a
logically incoherent position by maintaining the three following
1. God is completely good.
2. God is completely powerful.
3. Evil exists.
However the critic here overlooks a perfectly reasonable way to assent
to all three of these propositions.
If the Christian presupposes that God is perfectly and completely
good—as Scripture requires us to do—then he is committed to evaluating
everything within his experience in the light of that presupposition.
Accordingly, when the Christian observes evil events or things in the
world, he can and should retain consistency with his presupposition
about God’s goodness by now inferring that God has a morally
good reason for the evil that exists. God certainly must be
all-powerful in order to be God; He is not to be thought of as
overwhelmed or stymied by evil in the universe. And God is surely good,
the Christian will profess—so any evil we find must be compatible
with God’s goodness. This is just to say that God has planned evil
events for reasons which are morally commendable and good.
To put it another way, the apparent paradox created by the above three
propositions is readily resolved by adding this fourth premise to them:
4. God has a morally sufficient reason for the evil which exists.
When all four of these premises are maintained, there is no logical
contradiction to be found, not even an apparent one. It is precisely
part of the Christian’s walk of faith and growth in sanctification to
draw proposition 4 as the conclusion of propositions 1-3.
Think of Abraham when God ordered him to sacrifice his only son. Think
of Job when he lost everything which gave his life happiness and
pleasure. In each case God had a perfectly good reason for the human
misery involved. It was a mark or achievement of faith for them not to
waver in their conviction of God’s goodness, despite not being able to
see or understand why He was doing to them what He did. Indeed, even in
the case of the greatest crime in all of history—the crucifixion of the
Lord of glory—the Christian professes that God’s goodness was not
inconsistent with what the hands of lawless men performed. Was the
killing of Christ evil? Surely. Did God have a morally sufficient
reason for it? Just as surely. With Abraham we declare, “Shall not the
Judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25). And this goodness of
God is beyond challenge: “Let God be true, though all men are liars”
Problem is Not Logical, But Psychological
It turns out that the problem of evil is not a logical difficulty after
all. If God has a morally sufficient reason for the evil which exists,
as the Bible teaches, then His goodness and power are not challenged by
the reality of evil events and things in human experience. The only
logical problem which arises in connection with discussions of evil is
the unbeliever’s philosophical inability to account for the objectivity
of his moral judgments.
The problem which men have with God when they come face to face with
evil in the world is not a logical or philosophical one, but more a
psychological one. We can find it emotionally very hard to have faith
in God and trust His goodness and power when we are not given the
reason why bad things happen to us and others. We instinctively
think to ourselves, “Why did such a terrible thing occur?” Unbelievers
internally cry out for an answer to such a question also. But God does
not always (indeed, rarely) provide an explanation to human beings for
the evil which they experience or observe. “The secret things belong to
the Lord our God” (Deuteronomy 29:29). We might not be able to
understand God’s wise and mysterious ways, even if He told us (cf.
Isaiah 55:9). Nevertheless, the fact remains that He has not told us
why misery and suffering and injustice are part of His plan for history
and for our individual lives.
So then, the Bible calls upon us to trust that God has a morally
sufficient reason for the evil which can be found in this world, but it
does not tell us what that sufficient reason is. The believer often
struggles with this situation, walking by faith rather than by sight.
The unbeliever, however, finds the situation intolerable for his pride,
feelings, or rationality. He refuses to trust God. He will not believe
that God has a morally sufficient reason for the evil which exists,
unless the unbeliever is given that reason for his own examination and
assessment. To put it briefly, the unbeliever will not trust God unless
God subordinates Himself to the intellectual authority and moral
evaluation of the unbeliever—unless God consents to trade places with
The problem of evil comes down to the question of whether a person
should have faith in God and His word or rather place faith in his own
human thinking and values. It finally becomes a question of ultimate
authority within a person’s life. And in that sense, the way in which
unbelievers struggle with the problem of evil is but a continuing
testimony to the way in which evil entered human history in the first
place. The Bible indicates that sin and all of its accompanying
miseries entered this world through the first transgression of Adam and
Eve. And the question with which Adam and Eve were confronted way back
then was precisely the question which unbelievers face today: should we
have faith in God’s word simply on His say-so, or should we evaluate God
and His word on the basis of our own ultimate intellectual and moral
God commanded Adam and Eve not to eat of a certain tree, testing them to
see if they would attempt to define good and evil for themselves. Satan
came along and challenged the goodness and truthfulness of God,
suggesting He had base motives for keeping Adam and Eve from the delight
of the tree. And at that point the whole course of human history
depended upon whether Adam and Eve would trust and presuppose the
goodness of God. Since they did not, the human race has been visited
with torments too many and too painful to inventory. When unbelievers
refuse to accept the goodness of God on the basis of His own
self-revelation, they simply perpetuate the source of all of our human
woes. Rather than solving the problem of evil, they are part of the
Therefore, it should not be thought that “the problem of evil” is
anything like an intellectual basis for a lack of faith in God.
It is rather simply the personal expression of such a lack of
faith. What we find is that unbelievers who challenge the Christian
faith end up reasoning in circles. Because they lack faith in God, they
begin by arguing that evil is incompatible with the goodness and power
of God. When they are presented with a logically adequate and
Biblically supported solution to the problem of evil (viz., God has a
morally sufficient but undisclosed reason for the evil that exists),
they refuse to accept it, again because of their lack of faith in
God. They would rather be left unable to give an account of any
moral judgment whatsoever (about things being good or evil) than to
submit to the ultimate and unchallengeable moral authority of God. That
is too high a price to pay, both philosophically and personally.
Trans. C. Garnett (New York: Modern Library, Random House, 1950), from
book V, chapter 4. The quotation here is taken from the selection found
in God and Evil: Readings on the Theological Problem of Evil, ed.
Nelson Pike (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1964).
R. C. Sproul, Objections Answered (Glendale, CA: Regal Books, G/L
Publications, 1978), pp. 128, 129.
Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, ed. Nelson Pike
(Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Publications, 1981), p. 88.
Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books, 1979.
Intuitionism would suggest that goodness is an indefinable (basic or
simple) property which we do not come to know empirically or through
nature, but “intuitively.” What, however, is a “non-natural property”
unless we are speaking of a “supernatural” property (the very thing in
dispute for the unbeliever)? Further, intuitionism cannot provide a
basis for knowing that our intuitions are correct: not only must
we intuit the goodness of charity, we are also left to intuit that this
intuition is true. It is a well known and embarrassing fact that not
all people (or all cultures) have identical intuitions about good and
evil. These conflicting intuitions cannot be rationally resolved within
the unbeliever’s worldview.
Similar difficulties attend the notion that ethical terms do not
function and are not used to describe anything at all, but simply to
give expression to one’s emotions. The related (performative)
theory of ethical language known as “prescriptivism” holds that moral
utterances do not function to describe things as good or evil, but
simply to get one’s hearer(s) to behave or feel in a certain way. On
this theory, no attitude or action is good or evil in itself, and one is
left without any explanation why people go around “directing”
others with gratuitous and veiled imperatives like “Helping orphans is
Greg L. Bahnsen page