The problem of evil or the problem of pain is a frequent topic of theological discussion, one that any serious theist needs to wrestle with. Many atheists assume that they escape this problem because they don’t believe in the existence of God. That conclusion, I think, is premature. The logical implication of the existence of evil is not necessarily that there is no God. One could equally conclude that the God which exist is either not all-powerful or not all-good. A position like Open Theism sees God as good but neither all-powerful nor all-knowing. His power and knowledge are vastly greater than that of human beings, but he must still respond dynamically to human free-will. Evil exists despite God’s best efforts. Ancient philosophies such as Manichaeism go in a somewhat different direction. It proposed two equally powerful forces or gods. The good god and the evil god are engaged in a never ending conflict. The problem of evil is a problem, but one that theists and polytheist have been grappling with for thousands of years.
When most people hear that a child has been abducted and forced to fight for an African warlord, they feel that something wrong or unjust has taken place. We might even consider failure to feel this way as abnormal. Our reaction to stories about child-soldiers tells us something about human nature. Humans have a deeply buried concept of right and wrong, or even fairness and justice. This is not to say that people agree on what is right and wrong; they don’t. Instead, anyone considering the problem of evil must take this sense of justice seriously.
The atheistic explanation for morality is evolutionary and naturalistic. Moral sense and a concept of right and wrong enabled our ancestors to survive and reproduce. Taboos against incest promoted survival by reducing birth defects. Primitive moral impulses concerning murder enabled certain species of early humans to pass on their genetic material more efficiently than those species which did not have the prohibition. In other words, responses to perceived right and wrong are subjective. They are nothing more than the conditioned actions of neurons and chemicals in our brain. Evil is that which displeases me personally whether the cause be logical, emotional, and/or evolutionary
The practical application of this approach to morality is that we can change inherent moral impulses. Certain moral reflexes that once helped us survival may in fact be hindering the development of the human race. Science and reason can help us rewire the moral portion of our brains in order to advance human evolution. For example, human greediness once allowed early human to survive in environments with few resources. In an age of plenty the greedy impulse causes certain people to acquire beyond their needs while others starve. The solution is not another sermon on the evils of wealth, but the elimination of this trait from our genetic and neurological make-up.
I will continue without commenting on the practical application of such a theory. It doesn’t take a science-fiction writer to see where experimentation in this area could take us. Neither do I necessarily want to make a direct critique of the atheistic approach to morality. Like most systems of belief, it forms a logically coherent whole. Of course, a coherent whole does not ensure veracity. One may draw a circle that is perfectly round, without a single gap, but do so in the wrong place. Instead, I will state why the atheistic explanation is unsatisfying for me personally.
When I see evil, I feel its evilness. There is something very wrong about the wrong. Perhaps this is just neurochemistry, a reaction caused by evolutionary wiring and my own childhood. (Then again, even the rationalism of the most determined atheist is also only a product of evolutionary impulses and his or her childhood environment. The argument cuts both ways.) I often ache inside because I know the world is broken. But to call something broken implies at state of unbrokenness. One is only aware of darkness when one has the concept of light. My recognition of evil suggests that I have an inkling of something called good.
Only with a source of good can evil actually be evil. Otherwise evil is just “the way things are.” Philosophers like Plato and the Christian theologians that followed him identified the source of goodness as God. God was in fact the Good. Only with a good God can evil be objectively evil, instead of mere neurons firing. Evil is the deviance from an standard of good. The fact that people can’t agree on what exactly that standard is does not dismiss the existence of a standard, just as the fact that no one hits the bullseye, doesn’t negate the existence of a red circle. We must ask why people are even shooting in the first place.
For a materialistic atheist, the anger they feel about someone dying of hunger is a subjective response caused by neurons and chemicals in the brain. Evil is nothing more than sophisticated displeasure or disgust. A theist looks at the same situation and sees something that is objectively wrong because it deviates from some kind of standard of goodness. This is one reason why I am a theist and not an atheist. Only theism make satisfying sense of the way I feel about evil. For me, the presence of evil in the world calls my attention to God. That is why C.S. Lewis calls pain God’s “megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
I am also a person who believes in God’s omnipotence. My task, and the task of others like me, is to try to reconcile this with God’s goodness. However, the question in this enterprise is not, “Does God exist?” but rather, “What is God like?”