Many atheists today argue that the existence of suffering is powerful evidence against the all-good, all-powerful God of Christianity. Many philosophers, both Christian and atheist alike, believe the “problem of evil” to be the most persuasive argument in favor of atheism.
Dr. Peter Kreeft, a prolific author and professor of philosophy at Boston College, states in “Making Sense Out Of Suffering” that “the most powerful argument for atheism that I have ever seen anywhere in the literature or philosophy of the world” is the problem of evil as demonstrated by Ivan Karamazov in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s famous novel, “The Brothers Karamazov.” In the novel, Karamazov describes a child’s suffering in a manner so grotesque that after reading it even the most ardent believer would wonder how a good God could allow such evil.
Formally, the argument states that if God is all powerful, he could prevent suffering and, if God is all-good, he would prevent suffering. But, suffering exists, therefore the Christian God does not.
Sam Harris, a popular author and one of the “Four Horsemen of Atheism,” made this argument in a debate with Christian philosopher William Lane Craig. The so-called Four Horsemen, which also includes Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett, are not the first to make this argument, but they sure have done an excellent job of popularizing it among their followers.
Not So Fast, Four Horsemen
Taken at face value, the problem of evil appears to be a devastatingly convincing argument against the existence of the Christian God. It is emotionally and rhetorically compelling. However, according to Dr. Edward Feser, professor of philosophy at Pasadena City College, the “problem of evil” may not be all that it is cracked up to be. It is rhetorically effective but logically not so much.
In “The Last Superstition: A Refutation Of The New Atheism,” Feser, echoing Thomas Aquinas, notes that the first premise of the problem of evil is “simply false, or at least unjustifiable.” According to Feser, there is no reason to believe that the Christian God, being all-good and all-powerful, would prevent suffering on this earth if out of suffering he could bring about a good that is far greater than any that would have existed otherwise. If God is infinite in power, knowledge, goodness, etc., then of course he could bring about such a good.
Feser demonstrates his reasoning with an analogy. A parent may allow his child a small amount of suffering in frustration, sacrifice of time, and minor pain when learning to play the violin, in order to bring about the good of establishing proficiency. This is not to say that such minimal suffering is in any way comparable to the horrors that have gone on in this world. But the joy of establishing proficiency with a violin is not in any way comparable to the good that God promises to bring to the world.
In Christian theology, this good is referred to as the Beatific Vision: the ultimate, direct self-communication of God to the individual. In other words, perfect salvation or Heaven. Feser describes the Beatific Vision as a joy so great that even the most terrible horror imaginable “pales in insignificance before the beatific vision.” As Saint Paul once said, “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”
Your Argument Assumes Its Conclusion
I can already see the disciples of the Four Horsemen readying their keyboards, opening a copy of Dawkins’ “The God Delusion,” and preparing their response. An atheist may claim that he cannot possibly imagine anything in the next life that could possibly outweigh the Holocaust, children’s suffering, or any other instance of significant suffering in this world. According to Feser, this response is precisely the reason he states that the problem of evil is “worthless” as an objection to arguments in favor of the existence of the Christian God.
The problem is that the only way the atheist can claim that nothing could outweigh the most significant suffering on earth is if he supposes that God does not exist and therefore there is no Beatific Vision. But he cannot presume that God does not exist in the premise of an argument that aims to prove the conclusion that God does not exist. By doing so, he is begging the question, or arguing in a circle, and therefore does not prove anything at all.
As Feser goes on to demonstrate, the atheist is essentially stating: “There is no God, because look at all this suffering that no good could possibly outweigh. How do I know there’s no good that could outweigh it? Oh, because there is no God.”