I’ll begin with some biblical authors, since ultimately I find the Bible to speak most significantly to this issue.
Moses (or the author of the first five books of the Bible) and Solomon (the author of most of the book of Proverbs) both present a generalized view that goes like this…
Do good—by obeying God and treating others well—and your life will be blessed. Conversely, if you disobey God and serve self, your life will be cursed.(This can most clearly be seen in Deuteronomy chapters 27 and 28.)
But the author of Job (which may actually have been written before the other books just mentioned) and “Kohaleth” (the author of Ecclesiastes) both present a contrasting (balancing) view. In these books, we see that there is not always a straightforward equating of goodness with blessing and of disobedience with cursing. Life is messy, and suffering is common to all humans—bad things happen to good people, and the wicked often seem to get away with murder.
Next (in my scan of history) comes Augustine, the fourth-century bishop of Hippo. He famously argued that evil is not a created thing of itself. Rather, it represents the lack or privation of perfect good. Just as darkness is not an actual entity but the absence of light, in the same way, evil is the absence of goodness.
The French mathematician, inventor, and founder of modern science Blaise Pascal put the “human enigma”—the fact that humans are capable both of amazing good (art, accomplishment, philanthropy) and of unspeakable depravity (wanton cruelty toward other creatures and fellow humans)—at the core of his search for truth. And he found in Christianity—with its dual doctrines of the Imago Dei and the Fall—the uniquely satisfying answer. The good of which we are capable is due to the fact that we are made in the image of God; the depths of depravity to which we tend are the result of our fallenness. Thus Pascal provided an important answer regarding at least this category of evil, so-called moral evil.
Although modern science was born and flourished within a Christian worldview, it has become dominated in our day by a view known as naturalism. Naturalism at least denies the intervention of God in the universe and at worse denies God’s existence altogether. But (as science historian Cornelius Hunter shows) it was not scientific evidence but theological considerations that led to the adoption of naturalism within science. In an effort to absolve God from any responsibility for perceived evil and suffering (including animal death, catastrophic weather, and such things as disease and parasites), believing scientists came to see God as (at most) only initiating the universe, and not involved in its subsequent history.
For Charles Darwin—whose 1859 publishing of The Origin of Species gave naturalism its biggest boost—it was the problem of suffering (in the specific instance of the death of a young daughter) that led him to seek a naturalistic explanation for the diversity of life (not evidence, which was and remains largely contrary to his theory).
Albert Einstein later showed that one of the basic assumptions on which Darwin’s theory was based—that the universe was eternal—is false, and his research led him to acknowledge God’s existence. But for Einstein, the problem of evil remained unresolved, and he received no good answers from the rabbi or the priest that he consulted. He never embraced Christianity, but apparently remained a deist because he could not reconcile the existence of suffering with a caring Creator.
The 20th-century atheist philosopher J.L. Mackey attempted a deductive proof that God doesn’t exist. He said (in essence) that if God were all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving, He would be able, know how, and want to eliminate all evil, pain and suffering. Since these things still exist in this universe, there must not be a God.
There were a number of problems with Mackey’s reasoning, but the most important response to it came from Dutch Reformed philosopher Alvin Plantinga. Among other things, Plantinga argued that creating beings (humans) with free will is a generally good thing and yet that endowing them with free will may entail the possibility (or even the necessity) that some or all of those beings will choose to actualize evil. Modern philosophers almost universally concede that in his “free-will defense” Plantinga has satisfactorily demonstrated that the existence of God cannot be disproved using the existence of evil as a basis.
Philosopher G.D. Moore (among others) has pointed out that the argument from evil is only one of many that bear on the question of the existence of God. And so, even if we were to grant that the presence of suffering provides evidence that God might not exist, that evidence is overwhelmed by all sorts of evidence for His existence. This includes (as I have been at pains to establish in many of my blog posts) the latest research from a variety of scientific disciplines (cosmology, astronomy, physics, chemistry, paleontology, geology, biochemistry, cellular biology, genomics, and origin-of-life research, to name a few). On the strength of such evidence, traditional arguments for God’s existence—like the Cosmological and Teleological (design) Arguments—are better-supported than ever.
In the next post, I’ll finish this historical look at the Problem of Evil. In the meantime, check out what my pastor, Ken Wytsma had to say on this difficult subject at the last meeting of the Bend (Oregon) Apologetics Guild.