Christian apologists often respond to the Problem of Evil by pointing out that atheism has its own problem of evil. There’s a good case to be made here. The problem is, frequently I hear Christian apologists making a bad one instead. So this is a bit of internal correction I want to offer my friends on a common apologetic error
The correct version of atheistic problem of evil is one that says atheism has no standard with which to judge anything as right or wrong. I’ll explain that further in a moment. The error comes when one says, “The atheist cannot charge God with evil, because atheism provides no standard from which to charge him with wrongdoing.” I’ll come back to that, too, in another moment.
Briefly on the Naturalistic Problem of Evil
When I speak of atheism, I mean the naturalistic/materialistic version, the worldview that says nothing exists but matter and energy, interacting according to regularities we call “laws of nature.” (Some atheists say abstract objects like numbers may exist, too, but that gets complicated and it’s not necessary for these purposes.)
Now, it’s impossible for mere matter and energy to make anything morally right or morally wrong. It can only make what is, not what should be or shouldn’t be; and in fact it cannot help but make what is, for it’s driven by physical necessity (natural law). Alexander Pope said, “Whatever is, is right.” That was bad thinking on his part, but I’ll borrow it anyway. Naturalism says, “Whatever is, is.”
So naturalism has a problem of evil: There’s no way to call anything wrong or right. Not anything at all, ever. If you want to call anything evil at all — child molestation, slavery, sex trafficking, racism, opioid dealing, whatever — naturalism can only get you as far as saying you don’t prefer it. Or your culture doesn’t prefer it, or it isn’t conducive to human flourishing. Either way, it can’t get you as far as saying any of that is either right or wrong.
How Christian Apologists Sometimes Get the Objection Wrong
That’s hardly a full defense of the naturalistic problem of evil, but it’s a start, anyway; and I need to move on to the mistake apologists often make. I heard it at a conference a couple weeks ago, and I saw it again on Facebook just now. The mistake happens when we jump from, “Atheism has no basis for judging anything good or evil,” to, “Therefore atheists can’t judge God as being wrong.”
Take, for example, the charge that God committed genocide in the Bible. That’s approximately the topic I saw under discussion on Facebook moments ago. Someone wrote, “The question is flawed if coming from an atheist because they are using a moral standard they cannot establish.” That objection is flawed.
Here’s why. The objection wasn’t, “God is evil on my terms, therefore there is no God.” The objection was more like, “God is evil on God’s own terms, as supposedly revealed in the Bible; therefore the Bible’s conception of God is hopelessly self-contradictory and it’s silly to try to believe in him.”
If the objector were really saying, “God is evil on my terms, therefore there is no God,” then the answer would be easy: If there’s a God, his terms rule, not yours. If your terms actually did rule — if they had enough going for them to decide the question — then there couldn’t be any God. So you can’t judge God on your own terms. Period. Either God judges you, or there is no God.
We Need To Answer Based on Our Worldview, Not Atheism’s
But if the objector is saying, “God is evil based on his own revealed moral standards,” we can’t brush that one aside so easily. We have to show that the inconsistency isn’t real. In the case of genocide, for example, we need to show that God didn’t violate his own standards.
I have an example of that kind of explanation in a series starting here. Otherwise I can’t turn this post into an article defending God against various claims of evildoing. My purpose here is met if I can show some apologists that we need to be more careful with how we handle the alleged problem of God’s wrongdoing.
We’ve got to be sure we’re answering the real question. The atheist problem of evil is a problem within atheism’s worldview. The problem of God’s alleged evil, in contrast, arises from within the theistic worldview. To import an atheistic ethical perspective into the latter problem is to commit the taxicab fallacy. We need to explain our worldview’s potential problems from within our own worldview.