The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy summarizes David Hume’s “Argument from Evil” this way:
“The questions are these: Is God willing to prevent evil but unable to do so? Then he is not omnipotent. Is God able to prevent evil but unwilling to do so? Then he is malevolent (or at least less than perfectly good). If God is both willing and able to prevent evil then why is there evil in the world?”
The potential problem with Hume’s argument is that, the moment a person levels the complaint against God that he has allowed evil; they admit that there is a moral standard against which good and evil can be objectively measured. In this sense, most schools of religion and philosophy are in agreement: good and evil, law and chaos, metaphysical light and darkness: these things are real and potent.
If these things exist, however, where do they come from?
When he was still in his atheism, C. S. Lewis had the same argument against God as did Hume. And he came up against the same dilemma:
“My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?”
When a person aims the problem of evil at God, they are implicitly affirming several things:
- · They are stating that they recognize that evil exists in the universe.
- · They are inherently assuming that the presence of evil in the universe is recognizable to everyone such that it is undeniable.
- · They are admitting that this is a problem that requires a solution, and that no solution presents itself.
- · They are admitting that they are powerless to stop the evil themselves, that it would require a higher power.
- · They are assuming that humans have essential value and certain rights which are morally violated by the presence of suffering.
At its root, every major world religion is designed to address this problem of evil, most specifically human evil. Each religion establishes a goal (nirvana, paradise, godhood, etc.) and establishes a system of moral behavior that is required to reach that goal (the eightfold path, the five pillars, the law of Heavenly Father, etc.). Even atheists appear to respect the virtues of ethical behavior. In their 2005 paper – titled “Morality Without Religion” - atheists Hauser and Singer put it this way:
“…there are no moral principles shared by all religious people (disregarding their specific religious membership) but no agnostics and atheists. This observation leads to a second: atheists and agnostics do not behave less morally than religious believers, even if their virtuous acts are mediated by different principles. They often have as strong and sound a sense of right and wrong as anyone, including involvement in movements to abolish slavery and contribute to relief efforts associated with human suffering.”
Inherent in all of these views on moral behavior is a very basic observation: human beings recognize a universal moral principle - and they frequently fail to live up to this moral principle.
The entire enterprise of religion and government spills forth from the belief – the verified fact – that individuals seem incapable of governing their own behavior. This is why whole institutions are established which found and police rules for behavior and penalties for disobedience. This is why these institutions are greater than the individuals that function within them, and why they operate by the “rule of law,” that is, that no one – including the law-maker – is above the law.
What could possibly explain both the shared instinct for good and the shared propensity for evil?
In her 2011 op-ed piece in the New York Times – titled “Good Minus God” - atheist Louise M. Antony said:
“We “moralistic atheists” …find moral value to be immanent in the natural world, arising from the vulnerabilities of sentient beings and from the capacities of rational beings to recognize and to respond to those vulnerabilities and capacities in others.”
If morality is simply a recognized aspect of the natural world as Antony claims, why is it that the same humans that recognize these values overwhelmingly fail to act upon them?
Any sufficient moral theory must explain both the human obligation to good and the human capacity for the bad. One of the earliest known attempts to reconcile this dilemma was the ancient Iranian religion of Zoroastrianism. More than a thousand years BCE, a man named Zoroaster reduced the pantheon of Iranian gods down to two deities that existed in opposition to one another: Ahura Mazda, whose name means “Illuminating Wisdom” and Angra Mainyu, whose name means “Destructive Spirit.”
Zoroaster proposed that standards of goodness, wisdom, and law came from Ahura Mazda, and the effects of chaos, destruction, and evil came from Angra Mainyu. These two eternally warring deities were equally strong, and stood in everlasting opposition, explaining both the good and the evil.
In the Far East, a similar idea developed. Rather than admitting that there was necessarily such a thing as “good” and “evil” as such, the philosophy of Yin and Yang claimed that the universe was balanced such that all things had their opposite and the opposites cycled into one another. Death leads to life and life leads to death. Ecstasy leads to misery and misery to ecstasy. Day begets night and night, day. The things that humans perceive as “good” and “evil” are simply a part of this eternal cycle and the balance of the universe.
In many ways, Yin and Yang is a naturalistic philosophy. It requires no mind or divine force to explain or motivate it. It is simply part of the universe.
Both of these explanations suffer from the same problem: darkness is not a force. It is not energy or material. It has no volume, weight, or properties. It is the absence of light. Even so, evil is not a thing that can be systematized and measured and correlated. It is the absence of good.
Ask the question “What is the WRONG answer to 2+2?” The answer could be anything but “4.” It could be “5.” It could be “armchair.”
Good, order, justice, rule, these are things that - when present - are good and recognizable and praiseworthy. Bad, chaos, injustice, and lawlessness only reflect the absence of these things.
This being the case, the appropriate question is not “How did evil come,” but rather, “Where did God go?”
World religions have generally done a surprisingly poor job of answering this question. The problems with the Eastern concept of good and evil being a bi-product of the balance of the universe has already been addressed. Islam posits the moral law but does nothing to explain or reconcile the human impotence to live perfect lives.
Only the Judeo-Christian worldview addresses the question with the concept of “The Fall.”
This concept proposes that humans willfully chose to reject God’s offer of freedom from evil, resulting in separation from God. Humans are created with an innate knowledge and respect of the moral law, but their rejection of God makes them incapable of realizing it to its full extent.
One does not have to accept that The Fall was a historic event in order to come to the same conclusion. Whether or not it was, one still must admit that if there is a objective standard of morality, one is incapable of perfectly fulfilling it - and does not rely on God to do so. Whether the rejection of God was corporate or individual, it is still actual.
The Apostle Paul masterfully encapsulates this struggle thusly:
“For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
“So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”
Unlike every other earthly religion, Christianity does not simply prescribe yet another moral code under which humans must somehow abide to achieve an eternal reward; rather, Christianity states that Christ lived a perfect life on behalf of all humanity, and then took their punishment on behalf of God. Thus both God’s love and justice are fully satisfied.
Christian moral theory both explains the apparent nature of human morality and provides a brilliant solution.