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Digital Subscriptions > Skeptic > 23.1 > God, Heaven, and Evil

God, Heaven, and Evil

A Renewed Defense of Atheism
Drawn after Ercole Setti’s “God the Father Seated Among the Clouds (c.1530–1618).

After EgyptAir Flight 804 crashed on May 19, 2016, I asked the same question that many others undoubtedly asked as well: How could God let this happen? Of course, this plane crash is just one relatively small tragedy in the whole scheme of things. When we add in all of the other tragedies—all the violence, pain, suffering, and premature death that occur on this planet—the same question becomes correspondingly more difficult to answer.

This is the problem of evil, an argument that is typically used in support of atheism. If God were omnibenevolent, He would want to minimize such evils as violence, pain, suffering, and premature death; if God were omniscient, He would know everything that is happening in the universe; and if God were omnipotent, He would be able to act on His omnibenevolence and omniscience to prevent most or all evil from occurring. Yet all of this evil still occurs. Therefore God—an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent being—probably does not exist. If a higher intelligence exists at all, it probably lacks at least one of these three qualities.

Theists, or believers, generally respond to this argument by proposing two reasons to believe that God’s existence is perfectly compatible with all of the evil that we observe and experience:

1. Despite His omnipotence, God simply could not have created a world that lacked evil. If there is to be good, there must also be evil. The existence of evil makes good possible.

2. Evil contributes to a much greater or higher good. For example, suffering builds moral character or brings victims much closer to God or to each other.

Believers always have at least these fallback answers at their disposal to allay any theological doubts. But the very fact that these two hypotheses can be applied no matter the kind or degree of evil in question should make us suspicious. Quite simply, they prove too much. They commit theists to the incredible position that God’s existence should not be doubted even if the degree of evil in the world far outweighs the good. Atheists are right to respond to this theistic “spin”: if God exists no matter how much evil there is, then what good is He in the first place? Better, it would seem, to have much less evil and no God than much more evil and God.

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About Skeptic

EVIL, THEISM, and ATHEISM Answering the Hard Question “You’re an Atheist?! How Do You Find Meaning and Morality in Life if There is No God?”; God, Heaven, and Evil: A Renewed Defense of Atheism; The Devil’s Mark: The Evaluation of Evil, the Measurement of Morality, and the Statistical Significance of Sin; Whence Cometh Evil? The Concept and Mechanics of Natural Evil; Virtuous Reality: Why Right and Wrong Seem Real: a Critique of Moral Realism; Tearing Down Mr. Hume’s Wall: A Response to Moral Realism Skeptics; Brazilian Cancer Quackery; The “Sonic Attack” on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba: Why the State Department’s Claims Don’t Add Up; Understanding Human Skeletal Variation; Updating the Software and Hardware in Educational Practice: A Way Forward for Science and Mathematics Education; Why Freud Matters: Sigmund Freud, Anna Freud, and the Skeptical Humanist Tradition; Hope and Hype for Alzheimer’s; I, Too, Am Thinking About Me, Too; Junior Skeptic: The Incredible Claims of Pet Psychics…