Jon Steingard no longer believes in God.
The frontman of the Christian rock band Hawk Nelson recently announced on Instagram that he has become an atheist. “After growing up in a Christian home, being a pastor’s kid, playing and singing in a Christian band,” he writes in his public confession, “I am now finding that I no longer believe in God.”
Admirably without snark Steingard references a “growing” list of concerns and criticisms of Christianity. Some of his reasons are subjective. But among the intellectual reasons he gives for his atheism, the most substantial is perhaps the most predictable: the problem of evil. The objection may be eminently evergreen, but it is for many—both at the popular and scholarly levels—the most serious of objections. It always has been. Thus, in this article I’d like to critically examine this chief motivating factor behind Steingard’s disbelief in God.
As such, I’d like to address this unremitting human concern—not with the intention of pulling the rug from beneath the feet of advocates like Jon Steingard, but to argue that the existence of evil is not as devastating to the Christian case as it may seem.
“If God is all loving and all powerful, why is there evil in the world? Can he not do anything about it?” asks Steingard, implying a logical discrepancy between the coexistence of God and evil in the world. This is hardly a small question. Indeed, through the ages many of the Church’s brightest minds have considered this to be the principal objection to belief in God. As logician Fr. George Hayward Joyce writes, “The existence of evil in the world must at all times be the greatest of all the problems which the mind encounters when it reflects on God and His relation to the world.”
Nonetheless, the problem of evil has not the force on a philosophical level that it does on the emotional level. This is important because philosophy, aside from divine revelation, is the only real arena for definitively dealing with the question of God’s existence and nature.
Now, to be sure, the emotional problem of evil is significant especially from an evangelistic perspective. An empathetic theist can feel its significance in Steingard’s Instagram confession and, for that matter, in the testimony of any skeptic who is bothered by the problem of evil. Indeed, the theist himself can feel the emotional weight of the “problem.” This is what makes any cold, rational treatment of it poignant and risky. One thinks of C.S. Lewis’ admission: “All arguments in justification of suffering provoke bitter resentment against the author. You would like to know how I behave when I am experiencing pain, not writing books about it.”
Ironically, Lewis wrote these words in his book The Problem of Pain, an apologetic treatment of the problem of evil. But he did so understanding the importance of taking the problem seriously from an emotional and a rational perspective. For not only did Lewis see the problem of evil as a doubter’s objection to be refuted, but also as a clue to the existence of God (which he defended in Mere Christianity and elsewhere). “I am only trying to show that the old Christian doctrine of being made ‘perfect through suffering’ is not incredible,” writes Lewis. “To prove it palatable is beyond my design.” I offer the same caveat.
When it comes to the logical problem of evil, the theist’s argument is essentially this: there’s no obvious reason why God—who has unlimited time and resources, and who is all-knowing and all-powerful—could not allow for evil to work in the long run toward a greater good. Acknowledging such divine potential, atheist philosopher J.L. Mackie allows that “we can concede that the problem of evil does not, after all, show that the central doctrines of theism are logically inconsistent with one another.”
The glory of the human being is his God-like ability to love. But love is an exercise of free choice. If I were to give you a gift solely because I “have to” and not at all because I “want to,” and neither, moreover, because I “choose to,” then I would not be acting out of love. I would not be willing the good of the other (though I might still be causing it). Thus, a world where love is possible must simultaneously be a world where moral evil is possible. As philosopher Alvin Plantinga writes, “The fact that these free creatures sometimes go wrong, however, counts neither against God’s omnipotence nor against his goodness; for he could have forestalled the occurrence of moral evil only by excising the possibility of moral good.”
For many, the free will defense has power and apologetic appeal. Yet we should all be reminded that God need not “justify” his permission of evil in the same way we might be required to justify our actions before a court. Theists and atheists alike must be cautious of committing such a category error. For God is not another moral agent like you and me. He is wholly transcendent—the all-good ground of moral obligation and first cause of the creation—and as such, cannot be treated as one who must meet our ethical standards. For God does not have being; he is being. Thus, as Herbert McCabe points out, God “does not have reasons for what He does. Rather, He is the reason for what he does.” This is why philosophical solutions to divine questions must ultimately meet their terminus where natural reason and language break down. When considering the coexistence of God and evil, philosophy—though it has a part to play in the whole drama—must inevitably give way to theology. We can and must, however, do what we can within the philosophical domain.
What about physical evil, asks Steingard? “What about famine and disease and floods . . . that isn’t caused by humans and our free will?” Again, there may be theological explanations for why these things are permitted—say, for punitive or rehabilitative reasons—but these justifications only have force with those who first believe in God’s existence. There is also the grand eschatological perspective, which provides suffering and pain here and now its soothing eternal perspective. But the unbeliever is unlikely to be impressed by such theological explanations.
Natural evils like famine, disease, and floods may seem completely unnecessary and unjustifiable. Herein lies the scandal of such events. “There exist instances of intense suffering,” argues philosopher William Rowe, “in which an omnipotent, omniscient being could have prevented without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.” Rowe asks us to imagine the instance of a fawn that has been trapped and burned in a forest fire, after which it lays for days suffering in agony before finally succumbing. How could God possibly justify the permission of such pointless suffering?
This objection places a heavy burden on the believer’s shoulders. But it is not a problem that is altogether irresolvable on the objective level. For one thing, we might ask what God “owes” fawns—or even human beings affected, say, by a famine or flood—that he would be morally obliged to prevent their suffering and preserve their life. But wouldn’t a loving God want to prevent such instances? Sure, and I’m sure he often does. But success and survival in this life are not God’s chief objectives for us. Moreover, no philosophical assessment can ever determine—arguably even on probabilistic grounds—what reasons God might have for permitting certain evils here and now.
But there is also a natural aspect to the existence of physical evils. For if nature is to be freely itself in all its order and constancy, then death and destruction must be permitted as inevitabilities. If water is allowed to exist as water, say, and man as man, then at some point an unlucky man will succumb to water because of what water is and what man is. This is the cost of having a world where things are allowed to be the very things they are. Indeed, the intelligibility of the natural world depends on such a reality, as do the physical sciences which operate on the assumption that such deep-seated intelligibility obtains.
But couldn’t God interject and prevent all cases of natural evil before they occur? He could, one supposes. But it seems hardly consistent with God’s supreme wisdom to create a natural order and then instigate a perpetual miracle by “blocking” every instance of pain and suffering that arises within it.
For one thing, pain and suffering do offer rational creatures—the only beings in nature who suffer self-consciously—something of value. First, pain serves an important purpose when it comes to harm prevention and survival. Functionally, it serves as a beacon of warning. Second, pain and suffering have “soul making” properties (as St. Irenaeus and, in contemporary times, John Hick, have argued), which foster good character and virtues likes fortitude and wisdom. From a theological perspective, the realities of pain and suffering provide opportunities to do penance and convert our hardships into an offering for the sake of others. And as St. Augustine argued in the fourth century, God has stacked the deck so that all suffering and evil may become ingredients of a greater good.
But shouldn’t we expect God to create a world without suffering? The assumption behind such a question is that the best possible world is one where there is no evil. But this is not necessarily the case. St. Thomas Aquinas argues that a universe where good is “unmixed with evil” is inferior to a universe where greater goods arise from lesser evils.
God and nature and any other agent make what is best in the whole, but not what is best in every single part, except in order to the whole, as was said above. And the whole itself, which is the universe of creatures, is all the better and more perfect if some things in it can fail in goodness, and do sometimes fail, God not preventing this. (Summa theologiae, 1.48.2)
Natural evil that seems “pointless” at the micro level (like Rowe’s suffering fawn) may not be so at the macro level. For in such a case, such suffering makes possible a greater good—namely, the maintenance of the natural order itself: a system where things are allowed to exist as the “good” things they are (Gen. 1:31), where fawns can be fawns and lions can be lions, and where lions may eat fawns if that is simply what lions do.
St. Thomas’ approach might seem a little counterintuitive and even unsettling. It’s not the solution we expect. Nevertheless, as the Angelic Doctor says, “Many good things would be taken away if God permitted no evil to exist.” Fire could not exist without the destruction of another. Nor could a lion exist in all its ferocious majesty, unless another animal fall as its victim (a lion whose nature is to eat grass only is not a lion at all, but a comparatively boring, lion-like herbivore). Thus, nature as God created it—which is inherently good in itself—can be such only if generation and corruption are permitted. Will the lion lay down with the lamb in the New Paradise to come? I hope not. A “safe” lion, it seems to me, would retain very little of its wild ancestor’s majesty.
No one is wrong to find the existence of evil troubling. We all feel the sting and scandal of evil’s reality. We can sympathize with the cautious words of the King of France in Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well, who expresses his reservations at the close of the play despite an apparently happy ending:
All yet seems well, and if it end so meet,
The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet. (V.iii.327-328, emphasis added)
Nonetheless, against our own reservations and despite appearances, we can know that the reality of evil makes possible the great goods of human free will and enables the natural order and intelligibility of the universe. Would a world without these goods be a better world?
God is goodness itself. Yet God, in his infinite perfection, neither obligates nor necessitates the flourishing of all that he creates at all times. If he did, it would be to compromise the greatest good he bestows upon all of creation: existential freedom—that is, the freedom bestowed upon creatures to exist as the things they are. As humans, we have been given God-like rationality. Thus, like even the angels, we too have a choice in how we spend life and, what is more, how we spend eternity. God forces nothing upon us except our existence and our freedom.
Jon Steingard has every right to be scandalized by evil. Evil is a scandal. But none of us are to forget whose fault it is that evil exists in the world. It is not God’s. Nor are we to forget the only one who has the power to defeat evil once and for all—indeed the one who has done so. Philosophers can show that evil does not preclude the existence of a good God. But they cannot prove that evil has a cure and a conqueror. For that, they—and we—must lean on faith in Jesus Christ, who is the only sufficient answer to the problem of evil.