The problem of evil is one of the most common arguments used by non-believers, atheists, agnostics, and seekers when trying to develop an intellectual argument against God. Trying to reconcile the cognitive dissonance of acknowledging evil while accepting the reality of an all-powerful (Omnipotent), all-knowing (Omniscient), and always present (Omnipresent) supreme being is seemingly untenable. Alvin Plantinga is considered by many one of the most influential Christian philosophers. He is credited with formulating the most robust and well-respected response to the “logical problem of evil.”
An approach to help reconcile this seeming inconsistency begins with Ontology. Ontology is the branch of philosophy that deals with the study of “being” and the essence of things that exist in our world. The word ontology is derived from two Greek words’ ontos’ (which means being), and ‘logos’ (which means a word as embodying an idea). Logic is also derived from this Greek word “logos.” Ontology attempts to provide answers to questions that begin with ‘What.’ Questions like “What is the composition of Mars?” “What is the cause of Diabetes?” “What is eternity?” and “What is God?” Since our language and use of words have limitations, we are sometimes left with difficulties in describing the real “essence” or “being” of things we know to be part of our reality. Ontology is dedicated to helping us understand whether things exist, how things are related, and what characteristics they contain.
Evil falls into this study of Ontology. What is Evil? What are its characteristics, and what are its relationships to other things? The first step in answering the question of evil is to describe what this thing called “evil” actually is or is not. Since ontology implies logic by its root word “logos,” using logical syllogisms can assist us in the discussion of evil. We can state the following premises:
• God created all things
• Evil is a thing
• Therefore, God created evil.
If the first two premises are true, it is logical the third premise is also true, and this is a valid syllogism. The problem here is the second premise is not true. St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas were instrumental in clarifying why the second premise is false. Evil in and of itself has no ontological basis. Evil is only a word utilized in our English language to describe something we know exists, but it only exists if there is a standard to measure it.
To help us understand this concept, we can utilize other examples. Heat is a form of thermal energy (it is a positive reality containing something we can measure). It can be created at the expense of other forms of energy, and it can be transferred from one object to another. We use temperature as the measure of what we describe as hot and cold. Being hot (having a positive reality) is having the ontological presence of thermal energy, and being cold (negative reality) is the loss, lack, or absence of thermal energy. Another example is light. Light is the presence of electromagnetic radiation (positive reality) in the visible wavelength spectrum. Darkness is the absence (negative reality) or lack of this specific wavelength of electromagnetic radiation. Darkness in and of itself has no ontological basis and is only a word we use to describe the absence of something. Other examples of this concept are shadows and donut holes. Shadows in and of themselves have no ontological basis. Shadows are the word we utilize to describe the absence of light (negative reality) as it projects around an object. Likewise, the hole in the donut where the actual piece of the donut was removed in and of itself has no ontological basis. The donut hole is the absence of the donut piece (negative reality) that was removed. Cold, darkness, shadows, and donut holes really do not exist from an ontological basis.
Using these same principles, we can better understand the statement that evil has no ontological basis in and of itself. Evil is only a word we use to describe something we experience in our reality. Evil only exists as a description of something that has an ontological basis and measurement standard. Evil, therefore, is the absence, lack of, or loss of moral principles. Moral principles or moral laws only exist if they themselves have an underlying moral lawgiver that is unchanging. This unchanging moral lawgiver is God, and therefore the word evil describes the absence of God. Evil people or evil events don’t contain more “evil stuff,” as evil isn’t a thing as in the second premise above. Since evil isn’t a “thing,” evil doesn’t cause our actions. Our choices (libertarian free will), along with the actions that follow, create the absence and loss of goodness (God). God provided man with the “fact” of free-will, but we demonstrate the “act” of free-will. Therefore, God allows evil to occur because, without free-will, and the ability to make choices, a true loving relationship with God is impossible. God cannot create anything logically impossible, and creating a loving being without free-will is logically impossible. One comes with the other, and anything short of this would be against God’s own logical nature.
We have supportive evidence Biblically of this concept where the absence of God is evil (sin). In Genesis 3:9, just after Adam and Eve eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:17), we read, “But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?” The implication of this verse is the original sin occurred in the absence of God, and God asks explicitly where they were. God, being omniscient, knew where they were, but they chose to exclude God when they made the choice to eat and afterwards when they hid. We also see supportive evidence in Isaiah 63:17, “Why, Lord, do you make us wander from your ways and harden our hearts, so we do not revere you? Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes that are your inheritance.” The writer of this verse suggests it is the absence of God, which causes sin (“wandering from your ways”). This is implied when he says “Return for the sake of your servants,” Several verses later in Isaiah 64:7; the writer says “There is no one who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities.” This verse once again supports the conclusion that the absence of God (“the hiding of his face”) explains the sin.
There are plenty of examples of good coming out of evil, and since God is omniscient and knows the future, we can take comfort in knowing God is in control of the endgame, even if we find it distressing and personal at times. The temporally defined natural world limits our perspective, whereas God is in a position to know all possible future outcomes. Without God and the potential for goodness and redemption, evil occurrences have no meaning and no standard to judge them. Having a relative die, raped, or murdered in the absence of God and a standard of good, really has no meaning. An atheist would really just have to say “tough luck” as they have no standard for judging this so-called evil. But with God, at least there’s the possibility that evil can be used for good, and this is the promise of the Scriptures and the Christian message. The better logical syllogism is:
• All things God created are good (Genesis 1:31).
• Evil isn’t good
• Therefore, God didn’t create evil
Extrapolating this further with the logical syllogism:
• God created all things (Genesis 1)
• God didn’t create evil
• Therefore, evil is not a thing
These premises seem much more likely to be true, and further studies in apologetics, science, philosophy, and history provide much more evidence supporting the claim God is good. Using this logic assures that when God allows a privation of good (evil) to influence our lives, He does it for ultimately good purposes.