A friend of mine asked for my opinion on this article, and since I ended up writing so much, I felt I ought to share. Essentially, it is a Christian response to the “How can there be a God if there is so much evil in the world!?” question. My own opinion is that the question is rather irrelevant to whether there is a God or not-if there isn’t, it doesn’t matter, and if there is, I can find explanations that are not constrained by the specific attributes of the christian God.
The “problem of evil” has a lot of problems of its own. It’s a favorite of atheists and other people who argue against the God of Christianity, and it generally runs something like “if God is all good, and all powerful, then why is there suffering (or evil; or, why do bad things happen to good people)?” The implication, of course, is that God is either not all good, or not all powerful — either of which would destroy the Christian God’s exclusive claim to deity.
There are quite a few interesting things about this idea. First, of course, is the obvious assumption on the part of our atheist, that suffering is evil and therefore wrong. Usually it’s a good idea to start by taking this apart. What is wrong with suffering? What is evil as opposed to good? This separates the men from the boys right away, because the atheist has to realize that he is mounting an internal critique of Christianity.
An external critique on this basis is hard to justify, because in a naturalistic world of survival of the fittest and the pretensions of meat machines to higher function, “good” and “evil” are either meaningless, or to be defined in terms of what is best for (a) me, or (b) my offspring.
And nobody can deny that suffering and “evil” are powerful applications of nature to cull the weak and encourage the ongoing life and multiplication of the strong. Let’s not fight straw men, though; some atheists believe that they have a workable system of ethics without religion. Whether they actually do isn’t part of the scope of this post.
So, our atheist is trying to mount an internal critique of Christianity.
Perhaps we should rephrase the problem for him: if God is good by His own (revealed) standards, and all powerful, then why is there evil in the world? If God really loved His creation, then would He allow crack-addicted babies to be born, or six million Jews to be brutally murdered in a space of a few short years, or people to go to eternal conscious torment? The obvious answer to the atheist is usually that He cannot be good and allow those things, and therefore Christianity is either a religion of horrors serving a God Who delights in misery, or an inconsistent system of beliefs.
Bahnsen points out that the syllogism need not end like this. He recommends that we actually try to grasp this internally, like so: God is good. God is all powerful. There is evil in the world. Therefore God has a morally sufficient reason for the existence of evil. This is consistent with the Scriptures, and logical.
However, the atheist has a problem with that, because he does not see how there can be a morally sufficient reason for crack babies, holocausts, or hell. And generally speaking, the Bible does not provide direct answers for such things, beyond the glory of God (doubly repugnant to somebody who is already disinclined to glorify Him). So, the atheist judges God’s standard of goodness, and finds it wanting…
And at this point, the atheist’s attempt at an internal critique fails, because he had to step outside the critique to come to his conclusion (that God is not good).
How can I say this?
Consider: the internal critique begins with the premise that God is good. Everything that God does is good; one might say that good is defined by the character and action of God. Under the circumstances, the God of the Bible is in fact the only One capable of judging the goodness of a thing, but nobody is good except for Him. And anything He does, and anything He chooses, is good. When the atheist decides that something God has ordained or allowed is not good, he is effectively taking God’s place as the judge of what is good, and setting himself above God. The atheist is on the bench, and God is in the dock once again. That is usually where the atheist chooses to be, but we must point out that there can be no internal critique anymore, because internally, the system of Christian theology presupposes that God is good, and the atheist must declare that, no, he will be the judge of what is good, effectively switching places with God, and breaking any hope of consistency.
To put it simply, the atheist is not comparing himself to the Christian God if he thinks that he can judge God. The Christian God, and the revelation that He has delivered, exclude any possibility of that fact.
Once the atheist is outside the paradigm of Christian ethics again, he has the same problem we outlined above; he must defend his concept of good and evil without God. Inside the paradigm, the atheist finds himself begging the question of God’s transcendental goodness.
Truly, though, we have a point of contact with the atheist at this stage. He can’t get away from the idea that there is such a thing as good and evil. Now it is only a matter of proclaiming to him the truth of the God Whose ethical system he is borrowing in ignorance.
I wonder if the author would concede that it could possibly work the other way around?
Do check out the comments on the page, specifically this link, which has arguments that most of us will already have seen about altruism and morality in a non-theistic sense.
* I should probably explain that I prefer my utilitarianism garnished with some virtue ethics, and maybe a little deontology on the side, too. I haven’t worked out if this is merely because of an instinctive prejudice that pure utilitarianism/consequentialism is “meaninglessly” hedonistic, or what implications that has. There are refinements galore to all these theories which make them more acceptable to me than in their standard forms, but most are outside the scope of this post.