I keep coming across posts about how “ridiculous” it is that atheists use the problem of evil to “disprove God.” The problem of evil is a very interesting argument. For one thing, it isn’t meant to disproves gods in the sense that many people think. Gods can still exist and this argument can still be, for the most part, right. Rather, it is meant to disprove a very specific kind of god: an all good, all powerful, and all knowing god. As such, it seems that a lot of Christians view this argument as the strongest one that atheists have, while atheists tend to view it as the weakest.
So lets look at the problem of evil:
Premise 1: If God exists, then God is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect.
Premise 2: If God is omnipotent, then God has the power to eliminate all evil.
Premise 3: If God is omniscient, then God knows when evil exists.
Premise 4: If God is morally perfect, then God has the desire to eliminate all evil.
Premise 5: Evil exists.
Premise 6: If evil exists and God exists, then either God doesn’t have the power to eliminate all evil, or doesn’t know when evil exists, or doesn’t have the desire to eliminate all evil.
Conclusion: Therefore, God doesn’t exist.
The first Premise stated that if God exists, he must be all knowing, all powerful, and all good. There are gods who have been said to exist in the past who are none of these things, or who only have one or two of these properties. As such, this argument either states that these gods couldn’t possibly exist, or that these are not the gods being referenced for this argument. Given the time period in which this argument was created, it can be assumed that the author believed that only the Christian God could possibly exist, so was only concerned with showing why the Christian God could not exist. The Christian centrism of this argument is one reason why atheists tend to say it is a weak argument: it is perfectly possible to say “my god is not all knowing, all powerful, and all good, so your argument isn’t about my god.” However, it seems like most Christians do believe that their God does have those three qualities. Since Christians also tend to believe that only their God can exist, it makes sense why they would feel that this is either the strongest argument or the argument most worth responding to. Personally, I can see both sides of this coin. On one hand, I was swayed by the problem of evil. It wasn’t the only thing that swayed me, and I didn’t have the argument in the premise/conclusion form, but I was swayed by the problem of evil. On the other hand, it is too Christian centric to be very useful. There are better arguments to use.
The second premise simply states than an all powerful god can eliminate evil. I doubt anyone would be willing to argue against this, since it is definitionally true. And I’ve heard a number of Christians say that they do in fact believe that their God could eliminate evil if he so chose.
Premise three states that an all knowing God knows that evil exists. This is also definitionally true, so it is unlikely that anybody would argue against it. And, again, Christians seem to accept that God knows evil exists, they just believe that humans are at fault for it.
The fourth premise is interesting. The premise states that an all good god would desire to eliminate evil. Again, nobody seems to disagree with this. In fact, many Christians state that God is saddened by the evil in the world and wants it gone. It is that claim made by Christians that interests me. It sounds as though the Christian God is powerless against humanity. It sounds like the God they perceive is all god, but is not all powerful.
Premise five states that evil exists. I don’t know of any Christians who would disagree with this, though I do know of a few atheists who would. Personally, I think calling something evil is a cop-out. Yes, bad things happen. Yes, people do bad things. But I don’t see any reason to blame ill-defined evil on the bad things that happen, or to call bad things evil. However, since this argument is meant to convince Christians and not me, I think this premise is worth having, since it is accepted by those who are meant to accept the argument.
Premise six states that, if both God and evil exist, then there are three choices: either God cannot stop evil, he doesn’t know that evil exists, or he doesn’t care if evil exists. This tends to be the bit that most Christians dislike. And it is the focus on this premise that makes me disagree with the Christians who attempt to discredit this argument. If you accept every premise up until this point, then I cannot see how you can possibly disagree with this premise. For those of you who do agree with this argument up until this point, please explain this to me: how is it that an all knowing, all powerful god, who allows evil to exist, all good? How do you justify this?
The argument concludes that God doesn’t exist. Again, this is only true of a god that is all good, all knowing, and all powerful. A god that does not have all three of those properties could still exist if this argument is true. As such, this conclusion is problematic if you were to attempt to apply it to gods in general. It only works for the Christian (or rather, the Abrahamic) God, and only for those who believe the Christian God has all three properties.