Problem Of Evil: Possibly Not A Convincing Case For Atheism

An English philosopher Michael Palmer boldly contended that there could be no amount of theological ingenuity to resolve “an irreducible incompatibility between scientific evidence [viz., “the theory of naturally selection that Darwin presents is one of unparalleled barbarity, impersonal and haphazard in form and subject only to the vagaries of environment”] and religious belief [viz., “any notion of an omnipotent, benevolent and purposive deity, of a loving God who cares for his creature but is yet quite prepared to subject them to a life of unremitting brutality and hardship”](Palmer 2012: 10)

According to Palmer, “cruelty cannot accommodate benevolence, at least not on this scale, on the scale of omnipotence, when presumably other options were available to God and the creation of a happier and less barbaric world a real possibility”. (ibid) With scientific evidence in place, he concludes, it is reasonable to ditch theistic case altogether.

Late Australian philosopher John Leslie Mackie explained that the problem of evil “is not a scientific problem that might be solved by further discoveries, nor a practical problem that might be solved by decision or an action”(Mackie 1982 150). The problem of evil arises to those who hold to the traditional theism.

For Mackie, unlike Palmer, there is a possible amount of theological ingenuity to resolve the problem of evil. One of them could be what Mackie called a “[m]uch more interesting” suggestion, namely “things that are evil in themselves may contribute to the goodness of an ‘organic whole’ in which they are found, so that the world as a whole is better as it is, with some evils in it, than it could be if there were no evil.”(153).

Mackie explained that this suggestion could be developed in several ways. He wrote,

It may be supported by an aesthetic analogy, by the fact that contrasts heighten beauty, and that in a musical work, for example, there may occur discords which somehow add to the beauty of the work as a whole. Alternatively, the notion of progress may be used: it may be argued that the best possible organization of the world will be not static but progressive, perhaps with what Kant called an endless progress towards perfection: the gradual overcoming of evil by good is really a finer thing than would be the eternal unchallenged sovereignty of good.(ibid)

This theological ingenuity may not have offered a real solution of the problem (154) but as Mackie concluded,

Since this defence is formally possible, and its principle involves no real abandonment of our ordinary view of the opposition between good and evil, we can concede that the problem of evil does not, after all, show that the central doctrines of theist are logically inconsistent with one another”(154)

Free will defence is also another  “amount of theological ingenuity” that may solve the problem of evil. Even though Mackie believed that all forms of the free will defence fail, he noted that “[i]t is plain that [free will defence] is the only solution of the problem of evil that has any chance of succeeding.”(155).

Contrary to Palmer, Mackie concluded that “[w]e cannot, indeed, take the problem of evil as a conclusive disproof of traditional theism”(176)

A Possible Solution: Reducible Compatibility

I think theist could resolve the compatibility between the scientific evidence and the religious belief that Palmer presented by offering a premise that does not even have to be true nor believed by a theist or an atheist, but simply possibly true, to show that the problem of evil is compatible with religious belief of “an omnipotent, benevolent and purposive deity, of a loving God who cares for his creature”.

Theist could argue that it is possible that “an omnipotent, benevolent and purposive deity, of a loving God who cares for his creature” has good moral reason(s) “to subject them to a life of unremitting brutality and hardship”.

If it is possibly true that God, if exists, has just reason(s) to subject the creatures He cares, then contrary to Palmer, there could be amount of theological ingenuity to resolve the problem of evil. So it is not reasonable to ditch theistic case altogether since the problem of evil is not as convincing as Palmer believe it to be, unless he succeed to show that,  God, if exists, can not have any good reason(s) to permit evil.


Mackie, J. L (1982) The Miracle of Theism: Arguments For and Against the Existence of God.  Oxford University Press Inc., New York. U. S.

Palmer, Michael (2012) The Atheist’s Primer. The Lutterworth Press. (Uncorrected Proof Copy Review Purposes Only)

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7 thoughts on “Problem Of Evil: Possibly Not A Convincing Case For Atheism

  1. Pingback: The Evidential Problem of Evil « Chance Stoodt's Blog

  2. Hello Prayson,

    There are a number of wrong ideas that block people from appreciating the real reason that evil exists. One is the idea of complete predestination of all events on the part of God. It’s as much as saying that God does not have the ability to choose what he wants to know about the future. Simply put, he does. The proof of that is abundantly clear in the scriptures if people to desire to look. So many think that God HAS TO KNOW everything about the FUTURE because he is God. But is it not true that God should be able to choose what he wants to know? Doesn’t omnipotence cut both ways here?

    If God, chose not to foreknow individual outcome, but allows us to make or not make the right decisions for salvation, would it not go a long way in explaining why things went wrong in the early days of human history? Yes, it would.

    Satan is portrayed as having convinced man that IF he they stepped out from under God’s jurisdiction and established their own, that THEIR sovereignty could somehow prove to be as effective or even better than God’s. In other words, as he told them, you will be like God, knowing good and evil. Or in other words, they would make their own estimations of good and evil. They would establish their own righteousness or lack thereof.

    In order to resolve such a conflict, time was needed to prove to man that they simply can not make this work without the guiding principles of God or without his omnipotence to sustain the universe.

    So, in effect, God unplugged from mankind, but not entirely. For those who seek him and want his sovereignty, he helps along the way in ways which would not jeopardize the solving of the issue raised by Satan and man. He provides for them a way out for what man has created apart from God. He sustains them emotionally and even physically to a degree that doesn’t jeopardize the settling of the issue.

    Reading the book of Job should also shed light upon this question of evil. For a time God blessed and protected Job from any kind of evil or misfortune. Satan, in his demented goal however, challenged and stated that Job did not love God but simply was capitalizing on the situation, obeying God for selfish gain. In order not to stall the settling of the issue, God allowed his own worshipers to suffer the same as all others, yet still sustaining them in ways that did not jeopardize the issue.

    Satan is and was an expert at raising issues that required time to settle, and God in his wisdom will settle this issue for all time when he has determined that man and Satan has had enough time to see that they are simply incapable of doing it right. Satan’s goal is to slander the name of God. Ideas such as eternal torment and total predestination are from his mind, not the mind of God, and they serve the purpose of the Devil, to confuse the righteous. yet God has given us a dependable guide, the Bible.

    Evil exists because evil is the result of the choices of man and Satan. God is basically letting us all see that this is what happens when you remove God from the picture. His universe and his creation runs down, we die, we ail, and as the old proverb says, it proves that man will dominate man to his own injury. We NEED God in EVERY way, spiritually and physically, he is necessary to be involved in order for this universe to function properly. Without it, well, look around.

    When God steps completely back into the picture, the issue will have been resolved to anyone’s satisfaction. he will right every wrong, every injustice and give every soul that has ever lived FULL opportunity for salvation. What else would a truly loving God do for those who have died in ignorance or half-enlightened? That’s the purpose of the resurrection of the righteous AND THE UNRIGHTEOUS. God’s sovereignty will have be vindicated, his name will be sanctified, and mankind past and present, will be allowed to witness the stark contrast between man-rule and God-rule. They will witness first hand the contrast between the old earth under man and Satan, the prevalence of evil and misfortune, and the new earth under God and Jesus Christ which will exist in perfection and righteousness.

    There will be no need to ever suffer the evil that we have suffered in this dispensation. The issue will have been settled for all eternity. But for now, God’s time for man and Satan continues, but fortunately, all indications are that the end of Satan’s term is very near.


  3. Know this, that every soul is free
    To choose his life and what he’ll be;
    For this eternal truth is given
    That God will force no man to heaven.
    He’ll call, persuade, direct aright,
    And bless with wisdom, love and light,
    In nameless ways be good and kind,
    But never force the human mind.
    Freedom and reason make us men;
    Take these away, what are we then?
    Mere animals, and just as well
    The beasts may think of heaven or hell.
    May we no more our powers abuse,
    But ways of truth and goodness choose;
    Our God is pleased when we improve His grace
    And seek his perfect love.


    Source: current LDS hymnbook with music by Roger L. Miller, b. 1937

    Many people believe there is a Satan, sin, and dark forces and that these manifest themselves in and through humans, yet many more believe there is no devil, no hell, no sin, no guilt except in the creative mind of humankind. That people believe there is no devil suits the devil just fine. He has always tried to blur our view of evil and our sensitivity to sin. While the evidence for supernatural evil multiplies all around us, more and more people deny it. Sure, they may believe in cosmic forces and bad vibes. But sin or Satan? They don’t fit the new paradigm.

    So why does God allow the Devil-Evil to exist?

    It can be said that the Bible is fundamentally a book about rescue – it tells us how we’ve gone wrong with God, and how Jesus came to put us right with God. The urgency of this message (and how we respond to it) means that a number of abstract, perplexing, philosophical-type questions are left unanswered. The serpent turns up enigmatically in Genesis chapter 3 without any introduction.

    I’m going to approach the question at a fairly abstract level, but I don’t want to give the impression that this is a passionless issue. It cuts right to the center of all the evil, pain and suffering we see in our world. And this is not something that leaves God unmoved. He cares so much that he was prepared to come to earth in the person of his son, Jesus, and be put to death so that all this evil could be dealt with. The question raises the issue of why God let any of this happen. We may not be able to answer that fully, but we can know one thing for sure: it’s not because he doesn’t care.

    Having said all of that, let me give some thoughts. The question, Why did God let the Devil exist is related to other questions like Why did God allow sin/evil to ever happen? I think both of these tap into an important issue often described in terms of God’s sovereignty and our responsibility. Bear with me for a moment, I’m going to come at the question in a roundabout way.

    God being sovereign means that God is completely and utterly in control of everything. Nothing happens outside his plans.

    Us being responsible means that when we do things wrong, we are responsible for them. We are responsible because we do want we want to do. When we sin, no one has forced us to do something that we were totally opposed to.

    Two examples:

    Joseph speaking to his brothers about them selling him as a slave, Genesis 50:20 – “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” The brothers did evil (and were responsible for it) and yet at the same time God was in control and using this event to bring good.

    Most profoundly of all, Jesus’s death on the cross, Acts 2:23 – “This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” The chief priests wanted to kill Jesus, and they did so, and they are responsible. But at the same time God was bringing his purposes about – He had always intended that Jesus would die, an innocent man giving his life to accomplish the saving of many lives. God had always intended that the chief priests would put Jesus to death – God is sovereign AND they are responsible.

    It is important to hold sovereignty and responsibility together. Deny Gods sovereignty and he is no longer God. Deny our responsibility and we are no longer human (more like robots).

    With the devil, the issues will be similar. God created humans and angels with the ability and responsibility to worship and serve Him. In the beginning, God created everything good. God did not create robots which were unable to do anything but follow their programs – God created responsible agents who were free to worship him willingly. The devil was not evil to start with, but chose to rebel against God. God is still in control, and the devil is responsible for what he has done.

    Neither sin nor evil can be imagined away. Nor is anyone immune to Satan’s lies or temptations. That’s why the apostle Paul reminds us to “put on the whole armor of God.” When he looked at life’s struggles from God’s perspective, he saw how God used evil for His good purpose. Realizing how pride could have blocked his vision of God, he welcomed the pain that made him strong in Christ:

    “Lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me. . . . I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me,

    “‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.'” (2 Corinthians 12:7-12)

    I understand what he is talking about. Disappointments, divisions, slander, and persecution often break our hearts and test our faith as we try to serve our King. Yet they serve God’s purpose, for they help us see the malignancy of what God calls evil. Better yet, they also prompt us to trust God rather than our feelings, to exercise the faith and discipline needed to respond with love, and to make every effort to avoid the consequences of tolerating evil. Thus evil, when seen from His perspective, becomes a catalyst to make us strong in Christ, not in ourselves.

    As we come to Him in humility, gratefulness, and obedience — He reminds us that the hurtful things that touch our lives keep us where we long to be: close to Himself at the foot of the cross. There, each morning, we can give Him our lives, our minds, our plans, and all the struggles that would distract and defeat us that day. Freed from the lures of resentment and self-pity and filled with His life and peace, we can say with Paul,

    “God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”

    Hidden in the true Jesus, we are ready to face evil in His strength. Like Jesus, we have the Word of God, which “is living and powerful, sharper than any two-edged sword.” When we speak it in faith, it cuts through the veil of illusions, shows us the truth, and frees us from the seductive pull of the particular evil that might have corrupted our thoughts and defeated our witness:

    For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ. (2 Corinthians 10:4-5)


  4. In response to somepcguy above, I am not an atheist who struggles with the “problem of good.” In fact, that is the topic of my blog post yesterday, about community. I, an atheist, do good because it’s an investment in my future. The more people I help, the more chances I have of getting helped when I need it. Atheists who are not kind to others are probably more secure in their own ability to take care of themselves, and therefore do not see the benefit of caring for strangers. I, on the other hand, subjected to huge varieties of suffering throughout my lifetime as I alluded to above, am all too aware that a comfortable life can be taken away in an instant. This is an anthropological science: shared “wealth” in a community. For me, the question of a god doesn’t come into my kindnesses to strangers in the least. It’s all about survival.

  5. I agree that having evil in the world makes it a more interesting place to me. It gives me a better backdrop to see beauty and kindness. The full range of evil and good that humans can do is exciting for me to comprehend, and living amongst all that potential evil keeps me on my toes.

    Prayson, the idea that God might intentionally “subject them to a life of unremitting brutality and hardship” makes sense to me as a way to do good for people. It is not the only way to do good, and not the best way, but a hard life can bring out inner strength, determination, and generosity in people. I have known people who are well-provided for all their lives, and who live absent of the common dramas of the rest of us, and those people have a hard time learning some of life’s better lessons about humility, and they don’t get to sharpen their skills for how to react in emergencies, or how to stay sane during trauma. They also have a harder time clearly defining who and what they are as individuals. As much as I have suffered in my life, I am glad that the suffering forced me to become more of the person I wanted to be. So in that sense, suffering can be a gift in disguise.

    And here, I conveniently ignore the ugly truth that a life of suffering commonly turns many people into a worse version of themselves. Those are the people who cannot trust others, who become selfish, cold, dishonest, addicted, etc. out of necessity to survive. This happens more frequently than my first argument, and I wonder why the authors mentioned above don’t give up their arguments altogether based on the sheer numbers of people who have turned more evil because of their hard lives vs. people who have turned good because of their hard lives.

    But going back to suffering as the gift of a benevolent God, the argument smacks of ego. When a theological argument sounds like it’s about how important humans are, I start to get uncomfortable. If a god were truly directing all this pain and suffering, and someone were trying to argue that it was to help us become better people, then why is He also directing the suffering of animals and plants and the environment itself? Surely ecosystems and watersheds do not need to resolve moral conflicts, so why are they suffering? Why are entire forests dying from beetle infestations? I do not believe that forests, or even beetles, have any sense of self, and they might not even feel pain, so what is the point of that whole experiment?

  6. If God’s purpose is to be known by His creation (on Earth temporally and everywhere eternally), the existence of evil demonstrates the glory of His justice and the depth of His compassion for unworthy rebels. It would not be possible for God to be known in this way without the existence of evil. I think the Westminster divines had it exactly right when they described the fate of both the wicked and the righteous – “to the praise of His glorious justice” and “to the praise of His glorious mercy.”

  7. I came across an interesting counter-argument to the “problem of evil”. The author Robert R. Chase in his book “The Game of Fox and Lion” suggested that the “problem of good” (why certain people are willing to suffer in order to do good for others, unrelated to themselves) is as much, or more, of a problem for atheists as the “problem of evil” is for theists.

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