Three centuries prior to the birth of Jesus, Greek philosopher Epicurus posed an enduring question related to the existence of God: “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?” Two thousand years later Epicurus’ words still resonated and influenced the writings of atheist philosopher David Hume. (Hume 1779, 186) A 2018 Barna study showed that this question is still important today; the “problem of evil” is the highest barrier to faith for members of Gen Z and second highest (after Christian hypocrisy) for Millennials. (Barna 2018) The 'problem of evil' is the highest barrier to faith for members of Gen Z and second highest (after Christian hypocrisy) for Millennials. Click To Tweet
The question as originally posed appears on its face to be a logical proof, suggesting God must be either unable to prevent evil, unwilling, or a combination of the two. This line of reasoning rests on the idea that an all-loving, all-powerful God could not have a reason to choose to allow evil to occur. However, this conclusion does not necessarily follow: it is possible that such a God could exist and choose to allow evil for some unknown reason, even if this possibility initially seems unreasonable. It is not logically impossible for God to allow evil, regardless of personal opinions as to the reasonableness of such a God existing. Christian philosopher Peter John Kreeft makes just such an argument, stating, “Even David Hume… said it’s just barely possible that God exists… there’s at least a small possibility.” (Strobel 2000, 33) Christian philosopher William Lane Craig points to the limited knowledge of humanity, stating, “We are not in a good position to assess the probability of whether God has morally sufficient reasons for the evils that occur.” (Craig n.d.) If God’s existence is possible even in light of His nature and the existence of evil, then God cannot be ruled out, particularly if different lines of evidence exist to support His existence.
One such line of evidence is the existence of evil itself. While the presence of evil is pointed to by some as a reason to believe there is no God, Christians have long pointed to the presence of evil as evidence for God’s existence. To call anything evil, whether one is discussing the behavior of mankind or the “unwillingness” of God to stop human suffering, is to accept that some objective moral standard must exist. However, if an objective moral standard exists, one which would apply to all times, places, and cultures, then the moral standard needs to be accounted for. Where would such a moral standard come from?
Some philosophers have attempted to answer this question by appealing to naturalistic functions to explain moral laws. One such argument appeals to the idea of “human flourishing,” that is, “a life that could be objectively determined to be appropriate to our nature as human beings.” (Hill 2009) Two main problems exist with this type of argument: 1) that “human flourishing” is not specific enough to measure. Simply put, humanity does not have enough knowledge to determine what behaviors meet this definition and making moral judgements in the here-and-now would be difficult, if not impossible, using this definition. 2) Intrinsic to the claim that “human flourishing” ought to be used to measure ethics is a moral claim: that “human flourishing” is objectively good and any other standard would be morally wrong. This moral claim must be accounted for; according to what standard is human flourishing morally good? Rather than answering the question of the origins of moral laws, appealing to “human flourishing” (or other, similar concepts) does not actually answer the question. As a result, some atheists have simply accepted that good and evil do not exist in any objective sense. Richard Dawkins writes, “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.” (Copan 2004, 116) However, if there is no objective moral law, then there is no “problem of evil” by which God could not exist.
Christians have long argued that moral laws come from a moral law-giver: God. Scripture teaches that God is the all-powerful, all-loving creator of humanity. Further, scripture insists that God created humanity with a specific purpose. Christian Richard G. Howe explains, “This end or goal toward which all things aim is called good… the capacity to choose for or against God’s good is what makes our actions moral.” (Howe 2006, 86) The Christian worldview can ground the existence of moral laws and explain their existence in a way which an atheistic worldview cannot. Non-theist philosophers have long struggled with this fact; philosopher Paul Draper, an agnostic, states, “A moral world is… very probable on theism.” (Copan 2004, 115) If moral laws exist, it is more reasonable to believe that a God exists than that one does not.
The problem of evil, pain, and suffering is difficult to bear on a personal level. Christians should be careful not to too-quickly dismiss the concerns of people who have experienced these very-real realities. However, the presence of these in our world does not rule out the existence of God. In fact, the presence of evil only makes His existence more likely. One may not understand why God chooses to allow evil, pain, and suffering to occur now, but scripture makes it clear that one day all pain will end and God’s ultimately justice will be accomplished.
For more information about the scientific and philosophical evidence pointing to a Divine Creator, please read God’s Crime Scene: A Cold-Case Detective Examines the Evidence for a Divinely Created Universe. This book employs a simple crime scene strategy to investigate eight pieces of evidence in the universe to determine the most reasonable explanation. The book is accompanied by an eight-session God’s Crime Scene DVD Set (and Participant’s Guide) to help individuals or small groups examine the evidence and make the case.
 This argument was first attributed to Epicurus by the 2nd-3rd century Christian author Lactantius in his work A Treatise on the Anger of God.
Barna. “Atheism Doubles Among Generation Z.” Barna, last modified January 24, 2018. https://www.barna.com/research/atheism-doubles-among-generation-z/
Copan, Paul. “A Moral Argument.” in To Everyone An Answer, edited by Francis J. Beckwith, William Lane Craig, and J.P. Moreland, 108-123. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004.
Craig, William Lane. “The Problem of Evil.” Reasonable Faith, accessed August 31, 2021. https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/popular-writings/existence-nature-of-god/the-problem-of-evil/.
Hill, Thomas E. “Happiness and Human Flourishing in Kant’s Ethics.” Social Philosophy and Policy, Vol. 16, Iss. 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/social-philosophy-and-policy/article/abs/happiness-and-human-flourishing-in-kants-ethics/E8B74EF98A1E0413FDB2336096DC0E6F.
Howe, Richard G. “What Are the Classical Proofs for God’s Existence?” in The Harvest Handbook of Apologetics, edited by Joseph M. Holden, 83- 87. Eugene, Harvest House Publishers, 2018.
Hume, David. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. London, 1779.
Lactantius. A Treatise on the Anger of God. Sydney: ReadHowYouWant.com, 2006.
Strobel, Lee. The Case for Faith. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000.