Answering Atheisms Argument
Glenn E. Hawkins
I want to express my appreciation to the elders here and to school of Preaching for the invitation to speak on this lectureship. The theme, Christian Evidences, is one near and dear to my heart as it was the major field of my study in graduate school.
The particular assignment given to me is: Answering Atheism's Argument (the answer to the atheistic argument of evil and suffering). Perhaps no argument from atheism has been used with greater frequency and force than this one argument.
This particular argument involving the existence of evil is not a new one. The Greek philosopher Epicuras is quoted by Lactantius, a fourth-century apologist in his "A Treatise on the Anger of God" in The Ante-Nicene Fathers as follows:
God ... either wishes to take evils and is unable; or he is able and unwilling; or he is neither willing nor able, or he is both willing and able. If he is willing and unable, he is feeble, which is not according the character of god; if he is able and unwilling, he is envious, which is equally at variance with god; if he is neither willing not able, he is both envious and feeble, and therefore not god; if he is both willing and able, which is alone suitable to god, from what source then are evils? Or why does he not remove them? (qtd. in Schaff 271)
Other philosophers have taken this argument and enlarged and built on it, such as David Hume and the particular philosopher that Dr. Thomas B. Warren dealt with, J.L. Mackie from Australia.
In its most basic form, the argument takes the following form:
1. God is omnipotent
2. God is perfect in goodness
3. Evil exists
Mackie maintains there is a logical contradiction here. One cannot consistently maintain all three propositions without involving himself in contradiction.
However, Mackie admits that the contradiction is not immediately evident. He also adds the following propositions:
4. Good is opposed to evil in such a way that a good thing always eliminates evil as far as it can
5. There are no limits to what an omnipotent thing can do
6. A good omnipotent thing eliminates evil completely
7. A good omnipotent thing exists
8. Therefore, there is a logical contradiction involved in the conjunction of promises 7 (a good omnipotent thing exists) and 3 (evil exists). (qtd. in Warren, Have Atheists 11-12)
A theist (believer in God and one who is also a Christian) has no hesitancy in affirming proposition (1) that God is omnipotent, or proposition (2) that God is perfect in goodness. He denies, however, that there is a logical contradiction in affirming proposition (3) evil exists.
One point of attack to Mackie's arguments is to deny proposition five—there are no limits to what an omnipotent thing can do. God's omnipotence relates to what is possible to be done. God cannot do that which is in opposition to His perfection in goodness and justice (for example, it is impossible for God to lie). To say that God is omnipotent is to say that God can do what is subject to be done and that in harmony with His nature.
For example, some things that omnipotent power cannot do are to make a rock so big He cannot lift it; to make a four-sided triangle or a three-sided square; to make an object white all over and black all over at the same time; or to have an object be and not be at the same time.
What we are saying with these examples is that such things cannot be done at all! Thomas B. Warren stated:
God is infinite in power but power meaningfully relates only to what can be done, to what is possible of accomplishment—not to what is impossible! It is absurd to speak of any power (even infinite power) being able (having power) to do what simply cannot be done. God can do whatever is possible to be done, but He will do only what is in harmony with his nature. (Have Atheists 27)
Mackie's proposition five—there are no limits to what an omnipotent thing can do—is false.
Also related to this proposition of Mackie's is that God could create persons who would always freely choose to do good and never commit a single act of sin. John Hick pointed out that there would be a contradiction in holding that God made us so shall of necessity act in a certain way and that we are a genuinely independent person in relation to God (Hick 303-04).
God could create a puppet, robot-like creature who would act in certain ways, but "it is logically impossible for God to guarantee that His creatures who are free, will always (i.e., even one exception) freely choose to love and trust him. It is logically impossible for such beings to be created, and since this is the case, it is not a denial of the omnipotence of God to hold that men are, at times, guilty of failing to love, trust, and obey God." (Warren, Have Atheists 29)
It is a contradiction to affirm that it is possible to create an intelligent, true moral agent and then place him in a situation in which he was beyond all possibility of sinning. No power, not even infinite power, can create a being who is a free moral agent and who is yet beyond even the possibility of sinning (cf. 30-31).
Both the atheist and the theist affirm that evil exists. While there are some things, actions, etc., which some would call evil, the only intrinsic evil is sin. The Bible certainly affirms such. Sin is failing to do what is right, or doing that which is wrong (against God's will). Man then becomes responsible for evil, not God.
Since sin is the only evil, pain or suffering is not intrinsically evil. Both may be instrumentally good or instrumentally evil. There are some instances in which pain is good (a doctor inflicting pain to remove a gangrenous foot). Pain is often good because it reveals that something is wrong with our bodies. The same can be said for suffering. Suffering might draw a person away from God, or it may draw a person closer to God.
As a result of sin, suffering and/or pain came into this world. There are many reasons why we suffer—ignorance, accidents, the world we live in which includes natural disasters, the sins of others, our own sins, God's providence in the affairs of men (like Joseph), because we follow Christ (John 16:33), from being tested (like Abraham, Job, Paul and others), and from rejecting God's will. We may not always know the exact reasoning why we are suffering, but with the proper knowledge and faith, we can overcome it.
While the atheist might deny it, there are some benefits of suffering. These benefits come when we react to suffering as God would have us. In his book, Our Loving God-Our Sun and Shield, brother Thomas B. Warren sets forth a number of benefits: (1) Suffering helps the sufferer to know himself; (2) Suffering helps the sufferer to attain a proper set of values; (3) Suffering helps the sufferer to be thankful for his blessings; (4) Suffering helps the sufferer to see the value of prayer, (5) Suffering helps the sufferer to understand what a blessing it is not to be able to see what the future holds. Brother Warren went on to list several more benefits of suffering. Therefore, the fact that human beings suffer does not prove God does not exist. There are benefits that come to us when we do suffer (41-61).
I would encourage everyone to obtain a copy of brother Warren's book, Have Atheists Proved There Is No God, and the book Our Loving God: Our Sun and Shield. The atheist has not made his case that the existence of evil and suffering proves that God does not exist. The very fact that there is good and evil demonstrates that there must be a higher power, God if you wish, by which one can determine good and evil.
Hick, John. Evil and God of Love. London: Macmillan, 1966.
Mackie, J. L. "Evil and Omnipotence." Mind LXVII (1958): 399-403.
Schaff, Philip. Ante-Nicene Fathers: Fathers of the Third and Fourth Centuries: Lactantius, Venantius, Asterius, Victorinus, Dionysius, Apostolic Teaching and Constitutions, Homily, and Liturgies. Vol.7. Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2004 <http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf07.pdf>.
Warren, Thomas B. Have Atheists Proved There Is No God? Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1972.
- - - Our Loving God: Our Sun and Shield. 1963. Colleyville: National Christian, 2003.
Glenn E. Hawkins received the M.A. in Apologetics and Philosophy of Religion from Harding Graduate School of Religion, studying under Dr. Thomas B. Warren. He has studied, taught, and written in Christian apologetics for over 40 years. He serves as Editorial Consultant for Sufficient Evidence and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.