In an apologetics course I am taking this semester, we recently discussed the argument often propagated by atheists that God must not exist due to the existence of evil in the world. Based on the arguments for God’s existence in spite of evil, found in “The Handbook of Catholic Apologetics” by Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli, S.J., I wrote a fictitious dialogue, following below, that expresses a Christian response to this atheistic argument.
Atheist: Good afternoon, Joe!
Christian: Hello, Bill! It’s good to see you.
Atheist: So, our coworkers tell me you’re a Christian now.
Christian: Yes, praise God!
Atheist: Joe, we’ve been such friends for so many years, I can’t help but be blunt with you: how foolish can you be? There is no God and there can’t be a God—hasn’t evil disproven the existence of God already?
Christian: How so?
Atheist: You believe in a good God, right? Well, if He were really as “all-powerful” as you profess, then why would He have permitted evil? Or perhaps He isn’t all-good, and is Himself the author of evil?
Christian: No, He certainly cannot be both all-good and the author of evil. Nor is He. I profess that He is all-good—it is we human beings who have brought evil into the world.
Atheist: Well then! Your God clearly isn’t all-powerful, if there’s something we can do that He can’t!
Christian: Would you say that you are less powerful—perhaps, shall we say, less free—than a convict, justly imprisoned?
Atheist: Of course not!
Christian: So also with God. It is not God’s lack that He did not create evil: it is our own self-imprisonment that we fell into evil.
Atheist: But if we “created” evil, we’re more powerful than God, right?
Christian: Evil can’t be “created” because evil has no being—evil is the disorder or perversion of what God has created. Only being can be created, and evil is best described as non-being.
Atheist: All right, then. I’ll accept that as true enough, I suppose—but, even if I give you that we “fell into evil,” as you say, back in the Garden of Eden (I suppose you’d prefer to refer to “Adam and Eve”), then why doesn’t suffering fit into the world fairly? To refer to your analogy: I haven’t committed any crime, so here I am, free. The convict is justly confined, and receives punishment for the evil he did. If your God is so good as you say, why didn’t He map out the world like that, so that only wicked people suffer and good people don’t? Honestly, as it stands, it’s happened again and again that the saintly suffer, and it’s the wicked that make them suffer!
Christian: Yes, this is often true: but you are speaking of suffering. Physical evil, or suffering, is not the same as moral evil. As human beings, we are hereditary. You can see how every child inherits physical qualities, such as eye and hair color, from his parents. Well, we know that there is more to man than the body: there is also the psyche, or the soul. If our first parents chose evil, isn’t that going to affect their children, and all their descendants?
Atheist: Logically, yes. But that still doesn’t explain why good people suffer.
Christian: Well, first: remember that all men, from the moment of their conception, inherit moral evil. Physical evil, or suffering, is both a punishment due to sin—the evil that so disorders man’s right relationship with God—and also a means of atonement and discipline for the soul. Thus, even a child bears moral evil already. Yet, even a child’s sufferings have value, because we can all suffer together, with and for each other. To get back to the analogy of the criminal: even though you haven’t done anything so terrible as the convict, you are still paying tax dollars to make his imprisonment possible.
Atheist: Hmm, well…I still don’t think you’ve explained how God can be all-good and permit evil—both kinds, according to your terminology: moral evil and suffering. I still don’t see…
Christian: It is difficult to grasp, because it is practically counterintuitive. The very fact that we are so “turned off” by evil of either sort helps point to the truth: we weren’t made for evil! We are meant for something great and good and true: the happiness for which we all long.
Atheist: Happiness, huh? Do you mean the various needs and desires people experience, like wanting a “happy family,” or to make your dog “happy,” or to have a “happy time” watching a movie?
Christian: These have varying degrees of “happiness,” and in some sense that “happiness” is superficial, because it is not the ultimate, filling happiness: none of them ever satisfy to the full, even if they contribute in some way. That’s why people who strive after these things keep seeking them, and keep wanting more: they’re never filled, and the empty longing cries out inside for completion. So, the happiness I’m talking about is not a fleeting sensual experience, or emotional pleasure, or even a passing joy, all of which are usually largely dependent on what happens to us: I’m talking about happiness as something we can not only achieve by choice, but that is firm and lasting, and cannot be effaced from ourselves by any outside forces. This happiness is at the heart of the reason for God’s allowance of both moral and physical evil.
Atheist: How do you mean?
Christian: Animals can’t be truly happy (in the sense I just described): only creatures with free choice. Yet, you can also choose otherwise, and it’s because of our free choice that evil entered the world. So, that’s why God allows moral evil: He desires our potential for happiness, rather than our mere existence. Second, physical evil is an outside force, and not a choice on the part of the person (as a general rule—a person who injures himself or takes his life willfully is principally concerned with moral evil already, and any pain that follows his choice is punishment for that chosen evil). Thus, physical evil cannot break down a person’s happiness.
Atheist: So, God would just as soon let you suffer?
Christian: Rather, God gives us the chance to freely suffer. It’s similar to a situation like this: when your son dumps out all his toys across the room right after you told him not to do so, you don’t clean everything up while he stands by. You have him gather the toys, and endure every tear and grumble, because you know he will never become better unless he works with you to aright what he has done. And well you should: God doesn’t give us free will so that we can commit evil and then stand by to watch Him tidy our mess: He wants us to get in there with Him and choose to aright our wrongs. That’s what much of suffering is about.
Atheist: I can’t say I agree with you, Joe, but I must say I am a bit perplexed: I always thought that evil disproved God’s existence soundly. Now, I am not so sure evil can do anything but prove that evil cannot be the final word…
Christian: No, it cannot. I am always eager to speak with you, whenever you want. God bless—see you soon!