The problem of evil presents such a severe challenge to Christian belief that Hans Kung referred to it as “the rock of atheism.” On one level, the problem of evil can be presented as a logical puzzle. As John Hick noted “As a challenge to theism, the problem of evil has traditionally been posed in the form of a dilemma; if God is perfectly loving, He must wish to abolish evil; and if He is all-powerful, He must be able to abolish evil. But evil exists; therefore God cannot be both omnipotent and perfectly loving.” As such, the logical problem of evil demands Theodicies or logical defences of God against charges of creating or allowing evil. On another level, the problem of evil can be presented as conclusive evidence that God cannot exist – at least in any form that would be worthy of worship – rendering any attempt at Theodicy… and religious faith… nigh-on impossible. For example, Dostoevsky’s character Ivan Karamazov presented an evidential challenge to the simple faith of his brother Alyosha, rendering him speechless and certainly not rushing to God’s defence. In the end, the evidential aspect of the problem of evil is a greater challenge to belief than the logical aspect.
So challenging is the evidential aspect of the problem of evil to faith that it was presented as an argument for atheism by William Rowe in “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism” (1979) Rowe focuses on a particular kind of evil that is found in our world in abundance: “intense human and animal suffering” which is, Rowe argues, intrinsically evil…meaning that it is bad in and of itself, even though it sometimes is part of, or leads to, some good state of affairs (p.335) He uses this kind of evil as the basis for a DEDUCTIVE disproof of God, which is clearly VALID.
P1: There exist instances of intense suffering which an omnipotent, omniscient being could have prevented without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.
P2: An omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good being would prevent the occurrence of any intense suffering it could, unless it could not do so without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.
C: There does not exist an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good being.
If there are rational grounds for accepting its premises, to that extent there are rational grounds for accepting the conclusion, atheism. Rowe gives two powerful examples to support his first, factual premise; the fawn and Sue. While Stephen Wykstra tries to reject this premise, arguing that “if we think carefully about the sort of being theism proposes for our belief, it is entirely expectable – given what we know of our cognitive limits – that the goods by virtue of which this Being allows known suffering should very often be beyond our ken” (1984: 91) playing the “mystery card” in this way will only ever persuade those with deep and unfalsifiable faith to the point of being what RM Hare called a BLIK. The author of the Biblical book of Job tried what became known as Wykstra’s CORNEA argument centuries before Christ and it hardly reduced the force of the evidential challenge to belief. Attempted defences of Wykstra from Alston, Hick and Swinburne do no more than restate the claim that human beings are in no position to judge why an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God would allow the fawn and Sue to suffer. They do not make this claim any more persuasive in the face of the agonies that Rowe describes. Rowe sees his second, theological premise, as self-evidently true. While advocates of OPENNESS THEOLOGY disagree, suggesting that God’s existence as everlasting-in-time rather than eternal outside time places logical constraints on God’s power and knowledge so that God may not prevent instances of intense suffering that come about as a result of human free-will. They argue that “the theistic worldview is not only compatible with, but requires or demands, the possibility that there is gratuitous evil” [Nick Trakakis IEP article on Evidential Problem of Evil] because it hinges on the existence of genuine free will. Nevertheless, this fails to answer the question posed by JL Mackie in relation to his presentation of the logical problem of evil; why could not an omnipotent God create free beings who always choose what is right? In practice, advocates of Openness Theology are advocates for a limited, anthropomorphic God for whom there is no credible evidence at all. It follows that Rowe’s first and second premises are true, making his deductive disproof of an omnipotent, omniscient and wholly good being is sound, making his evidential argument the biggest possible challenge to belief.
This conclusion is further supported by Gregory S Paul in “Theodicy’s Problem” (2007). Where Rowe begins with very specific examples of dysteleological suffering, Paul widens the scope of the evidential argument by citing “THE HOLOCAUST OF CHILDREN” as proof that there cannot exist any omnipotent, omnibenevolent God. Like Rowe, Paul fine-tunes his argument to evade classical theodicies, but he also improves on Rowe’s argument because it is much harder to suggest that God could have an unknown purpose for designing the whole world to create maximum suffering than it is to suggest that he has an unknown purpose for allowing specific instances of animal or child suffering. As Paul writes, “The full extent of the anguish and death suffered by immature humans is scientifically and statistically documented… Probably hundreds of billions of human conceptions and at least fifty billion children have died, the great majority from nonhuman causes, before reaching the age of mature consent. Adults who have heard the word of Christ number in the lower billions. If immature deceased humans are allowed into heaven, then the latter is inhabited predominantly by automatons. Because the Holocaust of the Children bars an enormous portion of humans from making a decision about their eternal fate while maximizing the suffering of children, the classic Christian “free will” and “best of all possible worlds” hypotheses are falsified.” He goes on, “The situation could not have been much worse than it actually is. If prenatal and juvenile mortality and disability were significantly higher than they actually are, then the population would not be able to grow, and would be at high risk of crashing, leading to human extinction. The level of natural evil has been about as severe as is practically possible.” p.132 Continuing… “If a creator exists, then it has chosen to fashion a habitat that has maximized the level of suffering and death among young humans that are due to factors beyond the control of humans over most of their history.” It is very difficult to respond to Paul’s challenge as a believer. Just as Darwin, Mill and Dawkins found, when faced with the “pitiless indifference” of nature laid bare, it becomes impossible – even ridiculous – to maintain a faith position. This shows that the evidential aspect of the problem of evil presents the greatest possible challenge to belief.
Of course, the logical problem of evil is still a significant challenge to belief. JL Mackie (in his essay “Evil and Omnipotence” (1955)) pointed out that Christians usually believe that
P1. God exists and is omnipotent
P2. God exists and is omnibenevolent
P3. Evil exists
Mackie went further than Hume, who had called this an “inconsistent triad” of beliefs, stating that holding these three propositions as co-beliefs is “positively irrational”. In this way, the logical problem of evil seems to force Christians to choose between God’s omnipotence and His omnibenevolence, or else deny the existence of evil. Yet it has been the attempt to show that faith is (possibly) rational that presents a greater challenge to belief than the logical problem itself. If only theologians had been content to admit that faith is irrational, or to choose which of Mackie’s propositions to drop! The effect of doing so on belief would have been far less dramatic than the logical gymnastics of St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas have been. Firstly, both thinkers demanded that Christians believe that evil is “privatio boni” making God less responsible for its effects. Aquinas used the analogy of silent pauses which add sweetness to the chant! Yet, as Rowe and Paul have shown, it is difficult to categorise evil as a simple lack of good when the whole of nature seems designed to inflict maximum suffering. Can the suffering out of which evolution is fashioned really be explained in terms of silent pauses making the totality of nature better? This Theodicy only serves to highlight how out of touch Christian theology is and this to challenge peoples’ belief. Secondly, St Augustine claimed that human beings deserve the effects of both moral and natural evil because as a species they misused their free will. Again, this fails to account for the suffering of animals, which is hardly to be dismissed as an illusion. It also fails to account for the suffering of innocent children, documented in such detail by Rowe and Paul, without appealing to “Original Sin”, a concept as incredible and abhorrent as it has become necessary to mainstream Christian doctrine. These examples show how it is the logical gymnastics resorted to by Christian theologians in their blind attempt to defend their position against the logical aspect of the problem of evil that has twisted and distorted the position they sought to defend and presented an enormous challenge to belief, not the logical problem in itself. As Marilyn McCord Adams noted, to a large extent philosophical reflection on the problem of evil makes the suffering worse. She wrote ”There is a time to drop philosophical reflection, to forget about questions of meaning… in order to act to get the suffering to stop…”
In conclusion, the evidential aspect of the problem of evil presents the biggest possible challenge to belief, closely followed by Christian responses to the logical aspect of the problem. The logical aspect of the problem in itself is not so much of a challenge; believing that God has the all three attributes of omnipotence, omniscience and omnibenevolence and as defined by Mackie is not really demanded by the Bible or by Religious Experience or by the rational arguments for God’s existence, Cosmological, Teleological, Moral or Aesthetic.