Below is a draft of an article which is to be submitted for publication soon. The article considers the problem of gratuitous evil in the context of different approaches to evil by theists and atheists.
The article is intended for a popular/lay readership – not academics. Comments on this draft are welcome.
Amongst the various arguments against the existence of God the problem of evil is the most recalcitrant, with a history stretching back millennia. The problem is responsible for the spilling of rivers of ink from the pens of theists and atheists alike; the former trying to explain it, or at least reconcile it with the existence of an omnipotent, all-loving God, while the latter use it as evidence against the existence of such a being.
Throughout the history of philosophical thought the problem has come in various versions. Some thinkers have held that the mere existence of evil is logically incompatible with the existence of God. Others make the more modest claim that the sheer amount of evil we find in the world makes the existence of God improbable. These arguments have been unsuccessful. With respect to the former, very few atheist philosophers would offer the problem of evil as a strict logical problem. Largely thanks to the work of Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga it is generally agreed that there is no logical contradiction between the existence of God and the existence of evil. With respect to the latter – what has been called the “probabilistic problem of evil” – it has been shown to be incredibly difficult to establish the improbability of God on evil; but in any event, even if we grant that the existence of God is improbable with respect to the evil in the world it might still be incredibly probable once we take into account the total evidence, perhaps various arguments for the existence of God, or our own sense of the divine – the “sensus divinitatis” as John Calvin called it.
And so in recent times we see the argument cast in yet another guise: focusing on the alleged existence of “gratuitous” evil. Gratuitous evil is evil that doesn’t serve any purpose, has no point, and lacks any justifying reason whatsoever. The atheist might grant that some evils exist as necessary to some greater good or purpose, however, he reckons, an all-powerful and all-loving God surely wouldn’t allow gratuitous evil. Therefore, the existence of gratuitous evil, it is claimed, is strong evidence against the existence of God. We might cast the argument in formal terms like so:
1. If God exists, gratuitous evil does not exist.
2. Gratuitous evil does exist.
3. Therefore, God does not exist.
There are atheists who regard this as a water-tight argument and claim to be baffled as to why Christians can’t see the logic of it. But it seems to me that the argument goes wrong on several counts. Granted, if premises 1 and 2 are true then the conclusion logically follows, but do we have any reason to grant premises 1 and 2? It seems to me that both are questionable, but in this article I want to focus only on premise 2.
What reason do we have for supposing that premise 2 is correct, that gratuitous evil does, in fact, exist? Since this argument is the atheist’s argument it is he who bears the burden of proof for its premises. Unfortunately for the atheist this premise is incredibly difficult to establish. The reason for this difficulty lies in the fact that human beings are finite – limited in space, time, insight and intelligence – and thus not in any intellectual position to make such judgments. Certainly we can grant that some evils look gratuitous, but how do we know they actually are? Some seemingly gratuitous evil could in time lead to some great good – perhaps even decades later and in another country. In the world in which we live things are intricately interconnected in such a way that even very small events can turn out to have massive unforeseen consequences. Think of the common illustration, from the science of chaos theory, of a butterfly fluttering around a plant setting in motion events which lead to a hurricane off the coast of Florida. Intellectually limited as we are, humans can’t possibly know or predict the long-term effects of such events. Without such knowledge it is difficult to claim that any given evil is in fact gratuitous.
Even worse: it seems that unless one is already committed to atheism there is no reason to accept premise (2). Those of us who believe in God might counter-argue as follows:
4. If God exists, gratuitous evil does not exist.
5. God exists.
6. Therefore, gratuitous evil does not exist.
So, if God exists no evil is gratuitous. It all has a plan and purpose in God’s providential ordering of the cosmos. This means that the problem of evil is not independent of our prior commitment – or lack thereof – to the existence of God. The atheist’s argument need not therefore have any appeal to theists. Whether or not gratuitous evil exists depends on whether or not God exists.
This exposes a problem in this form of the problem of evil. Atheists often present it as an argument against belief in God, one they reckon should convince theists. However, they tend to ignore the fact that theists in general – and Christians in particular – approach the problem from a very different perspective. As Christians we believe in God already. Whilst the intellectual credentials of Christian belief are good, most of us probably believe in God because we experience God as a living reality. Our God is not just the God of the philosophers, the conclusion of a deductive argument. Rather our God is the living God; the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the God who took on human flesh and pitched his tent amongst us; the God whose Spirit dwells within us. He is a God of history, working out his redemptive plan day after day and year after year.
An illustration will help show the difference between the atheist and the Christian outlook. The atheist position views the world with its evils like a picture with blemishes and ugly stains all over it. But, a picture is static, it doesn’t change: a picture is only a snapshot in time, not the whole story. In contrast, the Christian view is that the world with its evils is more like a drama. A drama moves across time, it changes. Horrors from an earlier scene can find their meaning and redemption in the end. If we focus on one scene – perhaps where the hero is imprisoned, the villain imposing his will, and little hope in sight – we may well despair. But of course the meaning of a drama isn’t found in any one scene. The meaning of a drama is often only revealed at the end when the drama reaches resolution. The end puts earlier scenes in a new light. We often get glimpses into this sort of thing in our own lives. How often do we look back on something and see it in a different light? Hindsight can be a wonderfully illuminating thing.
One of my favourite illustrations of this kind of principle comes from the movie “Sliding Doors.” [Spoiler alert!] In the movie the lead character is running to catch a train. At this point the movie branches off into two “sub-movies”: in one she catches the train, and in the other she misses it. The movie shows how her life goes in two completely different directions as a result of one seemingly mundane event: catching or missing a train. In one world she goes on to be incredibly successful, while in the other she goes through various trials, frustrations and hardships. However, in the life in which she is successful she ends up dying much younger; while in her other life she finally turns things around. Imagine one day in eternity God shows her just what would’ve happened had she caught the train. She might then be grateful for missing it, even though it brought hardship and frustrations for a time.
We also see glimpses of this principle in scripture. The apostle Paul was able to write in the midst of his hardships: “So we do not lose heart. . . For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to things that are seen, but to things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” [2 Cor 4:16-18]. Paul understood that the Christian lives in the light of eternity. This life is not the end of the story. Earthly life is infinitesimal in comparison with the eternal life awaiting us. As we live in this eternity the sufferings of our present life will shrink towards an infinitesimal moment, a speck on the horizon. Even though there may be evils serving little or no good (from an earthly human viewpoint), they may well be permitted by God so he might overwhelmingly reward in eternity those who go through such trials in faith.
Imagine standing as one of Christ’s disciples watching his crucifixion. The one you followed as Lord, Messiah, healer, preacher, and friend, is nailed to a cross. It’s over. All your hopes are crushed. This was the death of one cursed. This was not meant to happen to the Messiah. For the disciples it was an evil that brought their world to an end. Frozen in time the events of the cross might appear gratuitous, useless, and purposeless; it looks like evil has triumphed. But we know that the story didn’t end here. There’s the resurrection, the appearances, the Great Commission, Pentecost: in short, there’s redemption. Evil is defeated. Good has triumphed. God is not dead. The drama of redemptive history continues.
No one can rightly condemn or adversely judge an artist on the basis of an unfinished piece. Whilst the atheist is content to judge God on the here and now, the Christian need not be so inclined. Our God is one who turns crucifixion to resurrection; fall to salvation; sin to redemption. And whilst we may freely acknowledge that we can’t comprehend all the evils we see and experience, we also know that the Director is still at work, and the curtain has not yet fallen…….