Responding to the Problem of Moral Evil

God and EvilWhen the atheist asks– “If God exists how can he allow evils like rape, theft and murder to exist?”– it is critical to take note of the fact that the atheist is working off the assumption that actions like rape, theft and murder are a violation of some particular moral obligation humans ought to have in regards to other humans.

However to speak in terms of “ought” and “obligation”, and not just preference and societal taboo, is to presume we live in a universe where an objective moral law is part of the fabric and furniture of that universe. Objective, moral values are delineations between moral right and right that exist independent from and regardless of majority, human opinion or agreement. If the whole world somehow became brainwashed that pedophilia was a morally acceptable pursuit of one’s sexual orientation, pedophilia would still be morally wrong on objective grounds.

But therein is the perennial problem for the atheist. For to assume there exists a moral landscape that transcends the subjective court of human opinion, is to assume the very existence of God, whose morally perfect nature is the only anchor point for any objective, moral law that transcends human opinion. Moreover to assume objective moral values do exist is to assume there is something intrinsically special and nonnegotiable about human beings, such that violations against human beings can be grounded in moral categories.

For only human beings possess a moral dimension to their existence. Such a moral dimension does not exist within the animal kingdom, which is why we don’t seek to condemn the lion killing the antelope in moral terms. We see it as nature taking its course in terms of predator and prey, not killer and victim. So when the cheetah kills the zebra—it doesn’t murder it. And when the hyena sneaks in and takes a leg—it doesn’t steal it. And when the hyena drives off the encroaching jackal, it is surviving— not being greedy. [1]

The world of animals is a world of moral neutrality in terms of moral values and moral obligation. But therein lies another emerging problem for the atheist who believes only in naturalistic evolution. For in atheistic naturalism humans are simply animals! We are nothing more than more than primates that have evolved on an insignificant speck of dust called earth in the vast, purposeless, meaningless cosmos that is doomed to extinction in the final heat death of entropy.

So where then does this moral dimension arise within alleged human animals? From whence flows these moral obligations, and why is this moral dimension absent in the rest of the animal kingdom? Why are humans special? Where does the intrinsic worth of humans come from within atheistic naturalism? Where is it grounded?

Most atheists will try and articulate a view that suggests that humans are special and have moral value over other animals because humans have a higher evolved sentience and cognitive function than other animals. In other words it just comes down to neural grey matter.

But if moral worth and value is only being anchored in higher sentience and intelligence, would this not mean that mentally handicapped persons such as children with Down syndrome have less moral value and worth than others, such as an Einstein or a Rembrandt? It is doubtful that even hardened atheists would want to concede such a point—so it seems that in the end naturalism fails to provide a reason why human beings possess intrinsic, moral worth.

Therefore when the atheist objects to the existence of God by raising the question of evil, our first response should be to ask the atheist whether or not we are talking about objective right and wrong. If we are talking about objective morality, then the odds are that the question self–destructs, because virtually no atheist affirms universal, objective moral values. If the atheist affirms objective morality then he or she must provide an ontological grounding that anchors those objective morals within a purposeless, naturalistic, non-moral universe.

Within a naturalistic paradigm why should the universe care about humans? One can’t derive morals from molecules. If the atheist admits objective right and wrong do not exist, then the atheist’s initial objection to God on the basis of evil’s existence becomes meaningless. At most the atheist is voicing his distaste of evil. He does not prefer it. He does not like it, but such objections to evil carry no more moral weight than if he were to say, “I don’t like spinach.” In an atheistic world, where objective moral values are absent, morality is reduced to societal preferences that have evolved to support social harmony among the human “herd.” As such to commit rape, theft and murder against one’s neighbor is to only flaunt the normative social taboos and codes of proper conduct and act unfashionably. Much more can be said of this, but I will leave that for another time.

In dealing with the question of moral evil it is always helpful to ask the atheist what he thinks the situation should be. Usually the answer is that if God exists and He is all-good and all-powerful then God should intervene before moral evil is ever committed. In other words, God should stop it; He should preempt it somehow before the decision to act in an evil manner is accomplished. But seriously, if we really examine what the atheist is saying he is asking God to strip away autonomy from His created order.

Despite his genius wit and penchant for great insight, the late and much loved (I include my own affection), Christopher Hitchens, was the hallmark of inconsistency on this point. Hitchens was famous for railing against God on the grounds that if God existed it would be like living under a transcendent, tyrannical dictator of the sky whose very existence undermined the sanctity of human freedom. On the other hand, he would argue that if God existed, he ought to intervene and stop occasions where moral evil is committed against innocent persons.

But you can’t have it both ways. Let’s examine how a conversation might go between a theist and an atheist, like Hitchens, over this matter:

Atheist: If your God is real than He should have stopped the Nazi Holocaust and all of WWII!

Theist: What about smaller, lesser evils like a serial killer?

Atheist: Yes, God should stop them too!

Theist: Ok, let’s take it down a notch. What about just a one-time killer?

Atheist: Yes…murder is murder. God should stop them as well!

Theist: What about stealing? Is stealing evil? Should God stop thieves?

Atheist: Well… stealing is evil so, yes, God should stop them too.

Theist: What about lying? Don’t lies contribute to much evil in this world? Should God stop liars?

Atheist: Um, lying is also bad for society, but I don’t necessarily think God has to stop every little, white lie. But certainly many lies have caused enormous human suffering, so yes, God should intervene against them too.

Theist: What about just the thought of lying? After all, all evil actions are preceded by evil thoughts. Therefore thoughts can be evil too can’t they? What about the thought of adultery, lust and greed? Greed has caused a great deal of injustice and oppressive evil in this world, right?

Atheist: Well…I don’t know. I’m not saying God should control everyone’s thoughts. I’m just saying God should stop evil that causes others to suffer.

Theist: But all evil actions originate with evil thoughts and evil desires. In the end what you’re really demanding God to do is coercively control the thought life of every person on the earth—including yours. You would no longer be a free agent. Is that what you really want?

I’m sure if an atheist were to be subjected to a dictatorial thought imprisonment in which his freedom of choice is stripped away he would cry out against such injustice and impingement on his freedom. Why?

Because whether one is an atheist or a theist, deep down inside, we all treasure our free-will and we can get quite violent when we feel it is being violated! We all covet the ability to make free choices and we exercise that freedom everyday—sometimes for good and unfortunately, sometimes for evil. The atheist doesn’t seem to be fully aware that his case against God’s “negligence” in stopping moral evil is constructed on an alternative scenario that would render us little more than God’s robotic pets.

Has the atheist really probed the reality of what he is saying God should do if God exists? Probably not. He is suggesting that if God is good, God should coercively intervene into his or her mind every time they are about to have an evil or immoral thought. But it wouldn’t stop there. God would then have to infuse some sort of overriding stimuli into their thought pattern that short-circuits the evil thought and replaces it with one of God’s thoughts, such that in the end, what was once an evil thought undergoes a coercive manipulation to bring about a good action, rather than the reverse. But seriously—what is the reality of such a world?

In such a world freedom becomes meaningless and it is all but eradicated! We become nothing more than automatons that respond to a limited range of programmed stimuli much like Japanese humanoids do today. Is such a world really to be desired? Would the atheist really be willing to trade in his autonomy of choice for a forced, coercive intervention from God? Almost certainly no—so why should anyone else?

You see the atheist is really saying, “Why doesn’t God stop this person or that person—but not me. I’m a good person so He can leave my freedom untouched. If God does exist, I demand that He strip away the free will of people in my neighborhood that can potentially harm me and my family. I want Him to make them into robotic zombies, but not me. I want divine restraints, controls and handcuffs snapped on the will of the “bad” people, but not on me!”

It is safe to assume the theist and the atheist alike would both resist coercive divine controls over their wills, because even the atheist can realize that if his freedom of thought, conscience, and choice is stripped away, he suffers the tremendous price of losing the very place from which flows the tender love and affection he shares with his wife and children. Would he be willing to give all that up to ensure that his children never suffer hurt or harm at the hands of others?

That is a heavy price to pay. In a way, we can say God was faced with the same choice on a much larger scale–a cosmic scale. He could have created all persons as His robotic pets or action figures, but in such a world how could God have genuine communion and fellowship with people? Despite the possibility of people introducing hate into His creation, God chose to have a world where tender love, adoration and devotion were possibilities of real choice—in much the same way that any loving father would be unwilling to surrender away the tender love he shares with his family just so the neighbor next door can’t abuse his own.

Once the value of freedom is realized, the typical response many skeptics throw out is: “Why didn’t God just create a world in which our wills are free, but they also always freely choose to do the right thing?”

The faulty logic of this is quite simple to observe. For how can God guarantee that our supposed “free” wills will always and perfectly choose the right thing— unless He coercively makes us choose the right thing. But that would be absurd. Not even God can make or force someone to freely do anything. Such a statement is logically contradictory. “To force” and to “freely do” are oxymoronic and cannot exist logically in the same affirmation. It’s like I want God to make a round square or create a married bachelor. “Married” and “bachelor” logically cancel each other out and so we are left with a nonsensical, contradictory, meaningless statement.

In creation God was not in pursuit of a nonsensical, contradictory, meaningless world. He was in pursuit of a purposeful world! He sought to infuse His creation with great purpose and meaning by creating a world of people whose natures were capable of love and hate, kindness and cruelty, courage and cowardice. In a sense we can say that moral evil is nothing less than the wrong use of the right thing—freedom.

The brilliant Christian philosopher and apologist Alvin Plantinga sums it up nicely: “Now God can create free creatures, but He can’t cause or determine them to do only what is right. For if He does so, then they aren’t significantly free after all; they do not do what is right freely. To create creatures capable of moral good, therefore, He must create creatures capable of moral evil; and He can’t give these creatures the freedom to perform evil and at the same time prevent them from doing so. As it turned out, sadly enough, some of the free creatures God created went wrong in the exercise of their freedom; this is the source of moral evil. The fact that 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 removing the possibility of moral good.”[2]

On this view then it is necessary that we understand that unlike the animal kingdom, God has endowed humanity with freedom of thought, conscience and choice from which arises our moral dimension. When we abuse this freedom wrongly, we have the unfortunate corollary of introducing into our lives and the lives of others calamity, disaster, suffering and pain.

Lastly, in examining issues such as this, it is important that we don’t overlook the Christian understanding of God’s creational intention, and why, from the very beginning, God chose to institute a source of testing through the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. After all, wouldn’t mankind have been better served if God had decided to leave out such a tree and such a choice from His created order? Or if God knew the consequences, why didn’t He—at minimum— stop Adam and Eve?

To answer these difficult questions it must be understood that the Christian worldview holds that God placed an enormous value upon free will when He freely chose to create mankind in His own image. This was the critical centerpiece of His whole creation. Men and woman became endowed with a personality of intelligence, creativity and freedom that no other earthly creature possesses. God placed such a high degree of import and significance on the freedom of his humanity, that if He had intervened with Adam and Eve’s choice, He would have completely killed off and aborted His own intention in creating humanity in the first place.

When we understand God’s heart and the original intention of His creative genius, we can better understand why God saw fit to place a source of testing in the Garden of Eden— and why He had to allow Satan’s tempting influence.

As one writer insightfully explains: “He did not want automatons and robots, but a family and friends. He wanted cooperation based on love, not fear or compulsion…God created man with a free will because you cannot really have fellowship with a computer… That is why He put the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden. He did not do this to cause Adam and Eve to stumble, but to give them the opportunity to prove their obedience and love. There can be no true obedience if there is no opportunity to disobey. There had to be freedom to not worship God for the worship to mean anything.”[3]

So in concluding the moral category of evil, we can begin to see the absurdity of life that arises if God were to oblige the skeptic or atheist and make the committal of evil an impossible choice.

FURTHER Answers to the Problem of Moral Evil

The following is a selection of other possible answers I have gleaned or encountered that I believe are noteworthy in regards to the perennial tension between the existence of evil and a belief in God.

Question: How can God just stand there in heaven and watch a little girl be raped? If there is a God than he is obligated to stop such things from happening. If he doesn’t then either he doesn’t exist or he isn’t worthy of our worship because he doesn’t care enough to stop the evils of our world.

Answer #1 Because I believe there is a God, then it means little girls who are raped live in a universe where they have justice coming. If little girls are living in your (atheist) universe then there is no justice— ever! That’s the issue. Consider John Lennon’s song, “Imagine There’s No Heaven… no Hell below us, above us only sky.” It means the only thing above girls who suffer terrible evil is just empty, non-moral “sky.” That’s all you can offer. However in my world “justice” is real. It’s not just an empty social invention of human sentiment. My world says, “Hold on—justice is coming. Every tear will be wiped dry. Every wrong will be put right. Everything will be straightened out and reconciled in the end.”

But in your word there is only “sky.” As a Christian I’m in a position to condemn evil and say, “Patience, confidence, faith—it will be put right.” As an atheist, you’re saying it will never be put right because there is no objective, over-arching, moral dimension of justice in the universe that would require anything to be put right. However that cuts the nerve of saying there is anything wrong with it now. That’s the difference between your view and mine. Your atheist “sky” doesn’t care about evils like rape or Auschwitz, so the question is why do you care? (my adapted paraphrase of an answer given by Douglas Wilson in a debate against Christopher Hitchens) [4]

Answer #2 It is very natural to want God to intervene when people misuse their freedom and do horrendous things. I often find myself wanting God to do that, because if I were God I would intervene if I saw someone misusing their freedom to do horrendous things. But then I would have to ask myself, “Where do I draw the line?”

Let’s say we draw the line at saying God must intervene if someone is about to use their freedom to commit murder. I don’t want anyone to murder my sons, so I will draw the line there.

But when I think about it further, neither do I want anyone to harm my sons. So now we step the line back.

Now I want God to intervene whenever anyone is about to use their freedom in any way that will hurt my sons physically.

But upon further reflection I don’t want anyone to hurt my sons morally or personally or emotionally, so I’m going to draw the line there.

In fact I don’t want anyone to hurt my sons in any way—so I am going to draw the line there.

The problem is, at what point when God starts intervening to stop people’s free use of human free, does God stop intervening? The Bible tells us God weeps, God grieves at the outrages he sees among his children. So how does God feel when he sees horrible evil committed by his children against his children? He is first and foremost a father, therefore he grieves when they grieve, he cries when they cry, he hurts when they hurt. If he intervenes by removing freedom where does he stop?

That’s the issue that is troubling. The question of sovereignty and freedom has troubled Christians across all the generations of Christian theology. Orthodox Christianity answers the question in the following way. God, because he is sovereign and absolute, wants a relationship with us. But he knows that relationship of worship must depend upon our choosing worship or else it’s not worship, it’s not love—it’s not relationship. So God chooses to give us that freedom and chooses to honor that freedom. It’s God’s sovereign choice to give me freedom and to honor the freedom that he has given me. That makes him no less sovereign, and at that same time allows me the freedom that he has chosen as my Creator to give to me.

It’s the same thing parents do with their children. When we give our children limited freedom, we give them autonomy so they can make the right choice and grow into the adulthood we wish for them, but all the while what they are choosing is in the context of our sovereignty as parents. That is how sovereignty and freedom work together in such a way that God is sovereign and we are free. (my adapted paraphrase of answer given by Jim Denison in a debate with Christopher Hitchens) [5]

Answer #3 The following exchange would go something like this:

Atheist: “ I don’t believe in God because any God that would knowingly allow his creatures to be brought into this world where he knows they will suffer, pain, evil and death, would be an evil being unworthy of belief.”

Theist: “Do you consider yourself evil?”

Atheist: “I do not.”

Theist: “Do you have a child?”

Atheist: “Yes.”

Theist: “Did you choose to bring your child into this world?

Atheist: “Yes, but I don’t see what that has to do with anything.”

Theist: “It means by your own logic you must be evil, because you chose to bring a child into this world knowing full well the possibility existed for your child to suffer, have pain and eventually die! You deny the existence of God because he allows evil, suffering and death but you refuse to apply the same judgment to yourself. However I can affirm that your decision to bring your child into this world, knowing he will experience pain, disappointment, sickness and eventually death doesn’t make you evil anymore than it makes God evil for creating a world of freedom and choice and allowing it to be populated by people who he knows have the capacity to choose love or hate, kindness or cruelty, life or death—not just for themselves but others.

In choosing to create a world of free creatures, God only creates the possibility—not the actuality— that evil may occur. It is only through our wills that we make moral evil an actual occurrence. But it is also through our wills that make virtues like love actual. God only could have removed the possibility of all moral evil occurring by removing the very nature of freedom that makes other goods like love and kindness equally possible. (I have to thank Steve McNelley for his helpful insight on the above exchange)


[1] I must credit William Lane Craig’s debates for the inspiration behind many of these remarks

[2] Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 30.

[3] Rick Joyner, Morning Star Journal update, 2007.

[4] See:

[5] See:

About StriderMTB

Hi, I'm Matt. "Strider" from Lord of the Rings is my favorite literary character of all time and for various reasons I write under the pseudonym "StriderMTB. As my blog suggests I seek to live out both the excitement and tension of a Christian walk with Christ in the 3rd world context of Asia. I started my blog as an unmarried man who was blessed to oversee an orphanage of amazing children in South-East Asia. As of 2022, I am a happily married man to an amazing missionary wife serving together on the mission field. I hate lima beans and love to pour milk over my ice-cream. I try to stay active in both reading and writing and this blog is a smattering of my many thoughts. I see the Kingdom of God as Jesus preached it and lived to be the only hope for a broken world and an apathetic church.
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7 Responses to Responding to the Problem of Moral Evil

  1. cjsorelle says:

    Great, logical points!

  2. cjsorelle says:

    Natural evil is difficult to understand from our limited, human perspective as God’s ways are far beyond our ways and thoughts (Isaiah 55: 8-9). What I do know about God is that He is love. His mercy triumphs over judgement and His intent is on our ultimate and eternal good. God loves His creation with an unspeakable love, and is mysteriously working in all things to bring about mankind’s ultimate redemption in Jesus Christ, in whose name every knee will bow and every tongue confess is Lord to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:11).

    • StriderMTB says:

      Yes it is the more difficult arena of evil to address because appealing to wills other than God’s will is not as readily apparent…and like you said our minds are very limited and the range our sight to perceive how God can redeem the evils of this world is limited. However I do believe much of the natural “evil” of our world, such as tsunamis, are events of consequence that stem from a creation in turmoil due to both human and cosmic rebellions. Moreover the high death toll from many disasters, like tsunamis, is largely the result of perpetual human error to persist in ignoring repeated warnings and building too close to the shore line in known areas of great risk. For example the island of Phuket off the coast of Thailand that was devastated in the tsunami of 2004 has had its tourist infrastructure rebuilt even bigger than before–right up to the shore line with no breakers or tsunami walls to speak of…I’ve been there. It is a disaster waiting to happen again. Other examples of high death tolls due to natural evil, like starvation in parts of Africa due to famine, is largely a result of warlords and rival, political factions refusing food deliveries access to these sensitive parts. It is very well documented. There is more than enough food to feed everyone and agricultural practices can achieve a high degree of success in dry climates WHEN the mind of humanity is teachable enough to listen and adapt. Just look at what the Israelis have done in the Negev dessert. It is stunning.

  3. Pingback: Society of Evangelical Arminians | This Week in Arminianism

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