The Problem of Evil with Tawa Anderson

In this article, I interview Dr. Tawa Anderson about Christian apologetics. Anderson is an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Assistant Director of the Honors Program at Oklahoma Baptist University. He co-authored An Introduction to Christian Worldview: Pursuing God’s Perspective in a Pluralistic World which released in 2017. Anderson frequently speaks on issues concerning Christian apologetics, worldview, and philosophy for churches, seminaries, universities, and schools.

See my previous interview with Dr. Anderson on Christian Apologetics here.

Or, see my previous interview with Dr. Anderson on Christian Worldview here.

Thank you to Dr. Anderson for taking the time out of his schedule to answer these questions for us. My questions and comments appear in bold font, and his responses follow them.

What is the “problem of evil”? And what makes it a problem?

The ‘problem of evil’ as traditionally held is an argument against the existence of God based on the existence and/or prevalence of evil and suffering in the world.  In its classic form, as articulated by Epicurus, David Hume, or J. L. Mackie, the problem of evil suggests that if an all-powerful and all-good God exists, there should be no evil in the world.  Why?  Well, as the argument goes: (1) if God is omnipotent, he has the ability to prevent evil; (2) if he is all-loving he desires to prevent evil; and (3) if he is omniscient, he knows how to prevent evil.  If the God of Christianity exists, then, he wants to, knows how to, and has the ability to prevent evil.  Given the presence of evil, then, it would seem that God cannot exist.  It would seem, then, that evil presents a ‘problem’ for Christian belief!

I should note, however, that every worldview, not just Christianity, needs to account for the evil and suffering that exists in the world. There are two sides to the broad worldview problem of evil: first, defining and grounding evil; and second, explaining how evil fits coherently within the overarching worldview.

Many people consider the free will defense as a decisive victor against the logical problem of evil. Could you briefly outline the defense and explain why you do or don’t agree on its impact?

The freewill defense, as articulated by Alvin Plantinga, suggests (broadly) two things.  First, if God creates free-willed creatures (like human beings), then he cannot determine that they will use their freedom to always choose ‘good’ rather than ‘evil.’  After all, if God determined that they use their freedom only for good, then they would not be truly free at all.  Hence, even an omnipotent God cannot create free-willed creatures who only do good. 

Second, it is possible (I would argue likely) that God was committed to creating free-willed creatures who (a) would freely do more good than evil and (b) could know and worship him freely.  Hence, it could be that God created human beings with free will, knowing that we would use our free will to cause evil (even tremendous evil on occasion), but also know that it is better to have free-willed creatures who sometimes go wrong, than to have no free-willed creatures at all.

If this is the case, then God has a morally sufficient reason for creating free-willed creatures who cause evil.  Yes, God has the power/ability to prevent evil—but only by not creating free-willed human beings at all.  Yes, God has the prima facie desire to prevent evil—but that prima facie desire is overridden by his desire to create free-willed creatures who will frequently choose to love and serve him.

It is the consensus of contemporary philosophers that the free will defense has conclusively rebutted the logical problem of evil.  That is, there is no logical contradiction between the presence of evil in the world and the existence of God.  I tend to concur with this assessment—Plantinga and others have demonstrated the consistency of God’s existence with evil.

We should note, however, that the logical problem of evil is only one version of the problem of evil. Even if it is defanged, there are other aspects of evil in the world that can cause problems for the Christian faith.

Although the logical problem of evil may have appeared on the debate stage, it seems most people approach evil from a place of emotion. How should Christians engage people that see evil as a natural sign that God does not exist?

There are three versions of the problem of evil: logical, evidential, and existential.  We’ve already talked briefly about the logical problem of evil.  What you’re talking about here is what I call the existential (or experiential) problem of evil.  It seems to me that this is actually the dominant expression of the problem of evil. 

For most people, evil and suffering do not pose an abstract philosophical problem.  It’s not that they think about the attributes of God, and think about the existence of evil, and come to the rational conclusion that God and evil are inconsistent.  Rather, it seems to me that most people question the goodness or existence of God when they experience (or observe) significant evil and suffering in their lives (or in the lives of loved ones).  We encounter someone who hurts us terribly—through physical or psychological abuse, or abandonment, or betrayal.  We experience intense physical suffering—disease, sickness, injury.  We suffer exquisite emotional pain—the death of a beloved friend or family member.  And we wonder why, if God loves us, would God permit this to happen.  If God is all-powerful, surely he could have spared me from this evil and suffering.  So when we encounter evil and suffering personally, we are led to question God’s goodness, and perhaps even his very existence.

It is important to emphasize that people who encounter the existential problem of evil do not need philosophical answers to philosophical questions.  Instead, they need personal comfort and love.

In terms of engaging people who see evil as a sign that God does not exist, I suggest a couple of things.  First, remember that every worldview needs to account for the problem of evil.  Why is evil objectively evil?  And why does it exist?  It is fair to require Christianity to deal with the problem of evil; but it is also fair to require someone who uses evil as a reason to disbelieve in God to account for the reality and existence of evil.  So, for example, if someone uses evil as a reason to reject the existence of God and becomes an atheist; then we should ask them how an atheistic worldview can explain the objective reality of evil.

Second, Christians need to do a better job of presenting the full reality of a biblical worldview.  It is a tragedy that so many people in contemporary Western society believe that God is supposed to be like our personal genie—providing us with health, wealth, and happiness (sugar, spice, and everything nice).  But Scripture does not give us any reason to expect such a peaceful and pain-free life—at least, not on this side of death and resurrection.  A faithful biblical worldview will expect there to be pain and suffering in this life—we live in a world beset by the fall, in which humans perpetrate evil, and there is no reason to expect our lives to be exempt from the suffering.

How should local churches teach, preach, and counsel their people on issues of evil?

As mentioned above, churches need to teach the full breadth of the Christian worldview, particularly emphasizing the reality and impact of the Fall.  There is a desperate need to recapture the biblical notion of lament, and the biblical expectation of suffering in this life.

In addition, it would be helpful to be pro-active and pre-emptive in our preaching and teaching on evil and suffering. It seems to me that the contemporary church is frequently reactive: we preach and teach about evil after events like 9-11. Far better, it seems to me, that we preach and teach about evil six months before 9-11. We need to help prepare our congregations to face the evil and suffering that will inevitably come to them by presenting the fullness of the biblical teaching.

You’ve given an argument before for God’s existence from evil. Can you explain your motivation behind that argument and when you find it useful? Is there a time when it may not be the right approach?

In fairness, I consider the argument for God based on evil to be a purely intellectual exercise.  Here’s how it works (in short).

  1. ~(~PE) It is not the case that there is not a problem of evil. That is, there is a problem of evil.
  2. ~OEכ~PE If there is no objective evil, then there is no worldview problem of evil. If there is no objective evil, then worldviews need not explain, ground, or accommodate evil.
  3. ~(~OE) Combining 1 and 2 (via Modus Tollens), therefore it is not the case that there is no objective evil. That is, there is objective evil.
  4. ~OMVDכ~OE If there are no objective moral values and duties, then there is no objective evil. The understanding here is that objective evil requires an objective moral standard, such that acts (or intentions) that violate (or fall short of) the objective moral standard are objectively wrong (or evil).
  5. ~(~OMVD) Combining 3 and 4 (via Modus Tollens), therefore it is not the case that there are no objective moral values and duties. That is, there is such a thing as objective moral values and duties.
  6. ~Gכ~OMVD If there is no God, then there are no objective moral values and duties. This part of the argument is far too involved to defend briefly here; but simply put, it seems to me (and many other philosophers, theists and atheists alike) that the only way to ground the existence of objective moral values and duties is in the existence of a transcendent moral divine being (i.e., God). Hence, if there is no God, there are no objective moral values and duties.
  7. ~(~G) Combining 5 and 6 (via Modus Tollens), therefore it is not the case that God does not exist. That is, God exists. If you start with the ‘worldview problem of evil’ (Premise 1), or even if you start with the existence of objective evil (Premise 3), then you arrive at the conclusion: Therefore, God.

I find this approach to the question of evil and God most helpful with people who are abstractly raising evil as a reason to reject Christianity.  I think it is profoundly unhelpful in responding to the existential problem of evil, or in ministering to those who are hurting.  But it poses a robust challenge to those who want to maintain the reality of evil in the world while simultaneously avoiding God.

I also think this argument can be helpful in reinforcing the faith of believers, whether they are struggling in the presence of evil and suffering or just wavering in their faith.

Thank you again to Dr. Anderson! Look for my other interviews with Tawa Anderson here.