The Problem of Evil: An Atheist’s Take

by Adrian Z. Jones, Contributor

I met Simon in 8th grade drama class. He was a scrawny kid with a sunny disposition and sarcastic sense of humor. He was relatively outgoing, as was I, so it wasn’t hard for us to get along, not that it was hard for him to get along with anybody. Everyone liked Simon. He was a fun guy. He was smart too, the guy to go to when you had questions about homework.

During the summer following his first year at university, he opened up to me about his health problems. I had always known his health was terrible, but I didn’t know the extent of it—partially due to willful ignorance. He told me that he wasn’t sure how long he had left and was trying to enjoy his time while it lasted. He was eighteen years old, and already trying to come to terms with his own mortality.

The next week, a friend and I went over to his house to visit him. We knocked on his door, but there was no answer. We both called him on our cell phones, still no answer. I was irritated, thinking he had forgotten our plans. That night I discovered the reason he didn’t answer was because he was at the hospital with his family, where he had died that afternoon.

This opened my eyes to what is known as “the problem of evil.” There are dozens of convincing arguments against God’s existence, all well thought out and perfectly reasonable. However, the problem of evil is the one that resonates the most with me. The problem of evil is unique in that has both a strong logical foundation and an intense emotional significance for many people. I can’t comprehend why a loving, omnipotent and just God would let an eighteen-year-old kid with a bright future and a loving family die of cancer.

Why did God do that? What justification could he have had? What excuse could possibly be good enough?

The Problem of Evil

The problem was likely first articulated by the Greek philosopher Epicurus, through what is now known as the Epicurean paradox.

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?
— The Epicurean paradox, ~300 BCE

After Charles Darwin published his book, On the Origin of Species, the problem of evil started to gain more attention. It became clear evil wasn’t just something that humans do to one another — evil seems to be nature’s default mode.

‘The sufferings of millions of the lower animals throughout almost endless time’ are apparently irreconcilable with the existence of a creator of ‘unbounded’ goodness. — Charles Darwin, 1856

It’s not hard to understand where Darwin was coming from. Look how brutal the natural world is. Look at the way lions devour zebras, or animals die of thirst or starvation. Look at all the rape and cannibalism that takes place in the animal kingdom. Look at all the parasites, illnesses, and natural disasters. In order to reconcile this with a loving omnipotent God, there has to be a damn good explanation.

The reasoning put forward by Abrahamic religions leaves a lot to be desired. The common interpretation of the book of Genesis suggests that all this suffering exists due to original sin. In other words, Adam and Eve, people who literally did not have any “knowledge of good and evil” ate a forbidden fruit. Now every life form that exists on this planet experiences suffering as a form of punishment for their actions.

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It’s not a very satisfying answer, to put it lightly. It becomes even harder to accept that God is loving and omnipotent when you look closely at his behavior, or lack thereof. This supposedly omnipotent and benevolent God is the same God who sits back and watches millions of people die of hunger every year. This is the same God who sat back and did nothing, as the slave trade happened. Every tragedy, act of violence, genocide, war, disaster, famine, or drought that has ever happened has supposedly happened under the rule of this omnipotent, benevolent God as he sat in his throne in eternal paradise and did nothing.

If there is a God, he will have to beg for my forgiveness. – Anonymous, carved into a wall in a Nazi concentration camp

I don’t care what Christians say about free will, or original sin, or personal growth. God’s behavior is inexcusable. There is no justification for sitting back and letting every atrocity that’s ever taken place unfold without interference, despite having full power to stop it.

Would the kind of excuses commonly put forward by theists stand any ground in our justice system?

Yeah we saw the war crimes take place, but decided not to do anything about it. These people have free will, we don’t want to take that away from them. Besides, without the bad times how can you enjoy the good times?

Having the power to end an atrocity but failing to do so is an act of evil, period. There is no room for argument on this issue. If you don’t believe me, that’s okay. There are plenty of examples of God actively behaving like a psychopath as well. Look at his behavior in the Bible. God drowns the entire planet, encourages slavery and rape (even instructs us how to beat our slaves), helps his people invade foreign lands and commit genocide, forbids women from speaking in Church, asks us to stone gay people, and punishes the entirety of Egypt due to a Pharaoh’s actions.

It doesn’t matter that some of those things were only applicable in the Old Testament. It doesn’t matter that these things may make sense in the right historical contexts. The fact that God ever considered any of this behavior to be acceptable at any point in time, in any context is abhorrent. Then, God still demands that we worship him. Hell, he puts not using his name in vain higher up in the ten commandments than “thou shalt not kill.” What has he done to deserve that? Oh right, nothing, but if you don’t worship him you will burn in hell for eternity. God demanding that we worship him is analogous to a physically abusive parent demanding their child be more affectionate.

I did bring you into this world after all, little Johnny. If you don’t give daddy some respect you’re going to get the belt again.

Leaders who imprison those who disagree with them are generally frowned upon. No one likes Stalin or Kim Jong-un except for other tyrannical leaders (or one want-to-be tyrant). Yet, when the leader of the entire universe lets countless souls burn in hell for eternity for disagreeing with him, no one bats an eye. Burning in hell for eternity is an excessive punishment for any crime, but the vast majority of these people are ordinary, innocent people, guilty of being born a different religion, being gay, or not believing something due to insufficient evidence.

When Hitler tortured people based on their religion or sexuality, that was called the Holocaust.

When God tortures people based on their religion or sexuality, it’s called the Good News.

It’s nice to believe that us and our loved ones will go to heaven. However, it becomes considerably less comforting when you realize that since most people don’t belong to your religion, the vast majority of people who have ever lived are currently, or will one day, burn in hell forever. A fraction of humanity living in paradise does not cancel out the evils of a never-ending, universal genocide.

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” Matthew 7:13-14

Either God doesn’t exist, or he’s sadistic asshole. Thankfully, we have good reason to believe the former to be true.

The Actual Good News

Here’s the actual good news: God doesn’t exist.

There is no tyrannical psychopath ruling the universe. No one’s going to end up in heaven, but this also means billions more people will escape the unimaginable horror of being tormented in hell.

We can look at our situation and be pessimistic. We can develop a keen sense of universal angst. Or, we can rise to the challenge of existence and laugh at the absurdity of it all. Reality is unimaginably complex.

I won’t even try to describe how incredibly beautiful, mysterious, and awe-inspiring the universe is. That’s a job a poet would be better suited for. We may not have been put here for some divine purpose, but the fact that we’re here at all — despite seemingly insurmountable odds — is nothing short of amazing. We’ve happened upon an extraordinarily unique opportunity here. The opportunity to exist, to embody the wonder of consciousness, to attempt to understand reality, and to marvel at the mystery of anything even being here in the first place. As far as I’m concerned, you don’t need a God telling you that you’re special to make this ride worthwhile. The privilege of existing is enough.

God isn’t real, and that’s okay.


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12 thoughts on “The Problem of Evil: An Atheist’s Take

  1. “…and punishes the entirety of Egypt due to a Pharaoh’s actions.” It gets even worse than that. In that story, God hardens the Pharaoh’s heart multiple times. God even tells Moses in advance he would do this. There are a couple of times when Pharaoh is willing to let them go but God hardens Pharaoh’s heart and Pharaoh does not let them go. God essentially manipulated Pharaoh and took his free will away. Pharaoh doesn’t get the free will that all humans supposed have.

  2. Just to comment on the free will excuse, the reason free will doesn’t work is because there is no free will. You do what you desire to do, or else you’re acting randomly. If you have multiple desires, without a basis for choosing one over the others, the “free choice” is random; if there is a basis, the “free choice” is determined.

    It is very good that God does not exist. However, it would be nice if god (with a lowercase g) existed — one that is not all-powerful (which is why he or she can’t immediately stop all pain) and doesn’t punish. Maybe through transhumanism, we’ll invent a loving god.

    1. How about cases where a murderer (say) would violate the will of his victims to live?

      Why can’t I shapeshift? I want to shapeshifr. That will be cool and not being able to do it violates my “free” will.

      How about natural disasters?

      The existence of pain?

      Free will sucks all around.

  3. I love this post! Thanks so much.

    One note: Although Epicurus is often quoted this way, I think he more likely was actually referring to “the gods” rather than “God” (which, in our culture, implies Yahweh). But the point stands: If he was right that the Greek gods weren’t gods at all, should not we question Yahweh?

      1. God can’t exist because of Eric The God-Eating Magic Penguin.

        Since Eric is God-Eating by definition, he has no choice but to eat God. So, if God exists, He automatically ceases to exist as a result of being eaten. Unless you can prove that Eric doesn’t exist, God doesn’t exist. Even if you can prove that Eric doesn’t exist, that same proof will also be applicable to God. There are only two possibilities: either you can prove that Eric doesn’t exist or you can’t. In both cases it logically follows that God doesn’t exist.
        —————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————-

        Also:

        Imagine the greatest possible god-eating penguin. A penguin that existed and had eaten a god would be greater than a non-existent one that had eaten no gods, therefore a god-eating penguin that has eaten a god must exist.

        That said, a god-eating penguin who has eaten entire pantheons of gods would be even greater, therefore all gods have existed and Eric has eaten them all.

  4. “punishes the entirety of Egypt due to a Pharaoh’s actions.” actually it was because of GOD’s actions! After all, remember that God ‘hardened pharaoh’s heart’ so he was punishing people for his own damned behavior.

  5. GW: Thanks for this mostly rational and articulate essay. However, I would like to comment on a few points.

    “I can’t comprehend why a loving, omnipotent and just God would let an eighteen-year-old kid with a bright future and a loving family die of cancer.”

    GW: If God did exist, he wouldn’t do this.

    “It became clear evil wasn’t just something that humans do to one another – evil seems to be nature’s default mode.”

    GW: I think we should reserve the term “doing evil” as generally one person doing harm to another without good reason.

    “Look at the way lions devour zebras, or animals die of thirst or starvation.”

    GW: I think bringing in the animals reduces the force of the argument.

    “The common interpretation of the book of Genesis suggests that all this suffering exists due to original sin.”

    GW: That would be impossible. If God did exist, he would not violate the principle of individual accountability. He would not punish descendants of sinners on account of the sins of those sinners.

    “I don’t care what Christians say about free will, or original sin, or personal growth. God’s behavior is inexcusable.”

    GW: God doesn’t exist! If an all-knowing, all-powerful, perfectly moral god did exist, all this suffering would not exist.

    “Hell, he puts not using his name in vain higher up in the ten commandments than “thou shalt not kill.””

    GW: What is the evidence that the commandments were listed in order of priority or importance? None that I know of.

    “Yet, when the leader of the entire universe lets countless souls burn in hell for eternity for disagreeing with him, no one bats an eye.”

    GW: We secular humanists do bat an eye at this suggested atrocity.

    “However, it becomes considerably less comforting when you realize that since most people don’t belong to your religion, the vast majority of people who have ever lived are currently, or will one day, burn in hell forever.”

    GW: They won’t because the theory of hell is false.

    “Either God doesn’t exist, or he’s sadistic asshole.”

    GW: By definition, God cannot be a “sadistic asshole,” so this disjunctive statement is false. But “God doesn’t exist” is true. If an eternal, all-knowing, all-powerful Creator of the universe did exist, he could be malevolent, sadistic, or just apathetic, but not perfectly moral, good, or benevolent.

  6. Saudi preacher who ‘raped and tortured’ his five -year-old daughter to death is released after paying ‘blood money’ | The Independent

    Local reports say public anger over the settlement is growing across Saudi Arabia

    A ‘celebrity’ Saudi preacher accused of raping, torturing and killing his five-year-old daughter has reportedly been released from custody after agreeing to pay ‘blood money’.

    Fayhan al-Ghamdi had been accused of killing his daughter Lama, who suffered multiple injuries including a crushed skull, broken back, broken ribs, a broken left arm and extensive bruising and burns. Social workers say she had also been repeatedly raped and burnt.

    Fayhan al-Ghamdi admitted using a cane and cables to inflict the injuries after doubting his five-year-old daughter’s virginity and taking her to a doctor, according to the campaign group Women to Drive.

    Rather than getting the death penalty or receiving a long prison sentence for the crime, Fayhan al-Ghamdi served only a few months in jail before a judge ruled the prosecution could only seek ‘blood money’.

    https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/saudi-preacher-who-raped-and-tortured-his-five-year-old-daughter-to-death-is-released-after-paying-8480440.html

    He received no punishment in this world. He will receive none in the ‘next’.

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