Stress-testing the
mind of Christ

Where a recovering ex-atheist rams the Bible into other worldviews to see what breaks (note: Scripture cannot be broken)


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An atheistic greater good argument

A brief interaction with an atheistic argument that the existence of evil, under Christianity’s own presuppositions, disproves the existence of God by contradicting his desire for the greatest good. This argument was forwarded by Stan (and also John Loftus) on Debunking Christianity.

As a filler between more complicated theological posts about God’s desires, here’s an atheistic argument against God’s existence, borrowed from Debunking Christianity. The argument is attributed to a commenter there named Stan, although John Loftus claims independent rights to it as well:

If we accept the Theist’s position, then god chose to create. Choosing instead to not-create would have been a greater good, as it would have necessarily avoided any suffering or evil whatsoever.

I’m going to lay this out properly so that I can examine it properly as an argument. No doubt there are alternative presentations than the chain of inference I offer below; but this is one possible representation of all that’s implied in Stan’s statement:

  1. It is a greater good that evil does not exist than that it does.
  2. God exists, and always acts toward the greatest good.
  3. Therefore, God would not act to create a universe wherein there is evil.
  4. God acted to create this universe and everything therein.
  5. There is evil in this universe.
  6. Therefore, God does not exist.

Note that the argument “accept[s] the Theist’s position”—so it’s an internal critique. It is therefore immune to the common rejoinder that an atheist has no grounds for using the term “evil”. Since the atheist is accepting Christian presuppositions for the sake of argument, and since Christian presuppositions provide the necessary grounds for talking about evil, the atheist is within his rights to try to show that these presuppositions can be used to contradict the larger presupposition of God’s goodness.

As an internal critique, however it is simply inept. Instead of demonstrating a contradiction within Christianity, it just contradicts itself. A Christian ought simply to reject premise (i) as contrary to revelation and sound reason; whereafter premise (iii) does not follow, and the argument fails. As it should, since it’s just a jejune appeal to the problem of evil—sans even any attempt to prove what is asserted. (To be fair to Stan, though, perhaps he has argued for (i) at greater length elsewhere. On the other hand, I’ve argued against it elsewhere as well.)

Without any supporting evidence for the first syllogism—premises (i) to (iii)—the argument is at best speculation. But not only is it not underwritten by Christian presuppositions, as a real internal critique would be, but it is contradicted by those presuppositions. A Christian may soundly counter that the existence of evil ultimately leads to a greater good than its non-existence. For example, Calvinists often and rightly cite Exodus 9:16, Deuteronomy 2:30, Amos 3:6, Romans 9:22, Revelation 17:17 and numerous other passages as evidence that sin is both completely within God’s power and plan, and necessary to fully glorify him—which is the greatest good possible. So a Christian can argue:

  1. The existence of evil is a necessary condition for bringing about the greatest good possible.
  2. God exists, and always acts toward the greatest good.
  3. Therefore, God would act to create a universe wherein there is evil (assuming he were to act to create a universe at all).

But even this amount of precision isn’t necessary. Yes, as Christians we are given some idea of why evil exists; and this sufficiently refutes an argument like Stan’s. But really, it is so incompetent an argument that it fails completely even if we know nothing about God’s purposes in creation, because the conclusion doesn’t follow necessarily. You’d only accept the conclusion (vi) if you were more married to premises (i) and (iii) than to faith in God. But (i) and (iii) have no scriptural support, and if you’re more inclined to believe them than to believe that God exists, then you’re not holding to Christian presuppositions at all, and the critique is not an internal one. Then I can rightly ask: on what grounds are you using the term “evil”? So, if this is really an internal critique, and is genuinely adhering to Christian presuppositions, the argument would actually look like this:

  1. It is a greater good that evil does not exist than that it does.
  2. God exists, and always acts toward the greatest good.
  3. Therefore, God would not act to create a universe wherein there is evil.
  4. God acted to create this universe and everything therein.
  5. There is evil in this universe.
  6. Therefore, premises (i) and (iii) are false.

Conclusion (vi) follows necessarily from premises (ii), (iv) and (v)—the only premises necessarily true under a Christian worldview. It also precludes the possibility of arguing further to the conclusion that God does not exist. Thus, as a critique of Christianity the argument is so bad that it’s non-existent. It’s manifestly valid (there’s no error in the inference and no contradiction has been created) but it leads to the opposite conclusion that the atheist wants. The only grounds he can muster for believing (i) and (iii) over the other premises is the Christian’s natural intuitions—and these lack any argumentative force whatsoever, as well as being very weak in their own right. After all, it’s trivial to invent examples where an evil thing can be a necessary condition for a far better thing; let alone the obvious instances in Scripture. Indeed, the conclusion above is manifestly and thoroughly Christian, for who can conceive of a greater evil than the crucifixion of Christ; yet “he was delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23); and we know that this was for a whole host of reasons which all converge into God’s superlatively great and good plan. Thus, under a Christian’s own presuppositions (which is what this argument assumes), the existence of evil in the universe is obviously something which works toward a greater good planned by God, since God always desires the greater good. It doesn’t disprove his existence at all; it presupposes and affirms it.

Under Christian presuppositions, the only even potential difficulty with the existence of evil is an epistemic one, wherein we cannot know exhaustively what the greater good is toward which God is working. But that’s a far cry from the ethical difficulty which Stan’s argument sets out to prove, wherein God is proved unbenevolent. That argument fails completely.

3 comments

  1. Chris

    I have a question related to this about the possibility that God created many people knowing that he would not intevene to bring them to salvation. You have said in a similar post that any objection to God sending to people to hell is based on a humanistic view of man’s worth. I agree with this. But then if we argue that man apart from Christ is worthless, how do we argue for the sanctity of human life and oppose abortion, euthanasia, and murder. Is is because that we are made in God’s image, correct? And even though man is worthless apart from Christ, only God should have the power over life and death–it is not for us to decide who lives or dies. I just wonder how you would reconcile man being worthless apart from Christ, but still deserving respect and protection because he is made in God’s image. Thanks for any insight you can offer.

  2. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Chris, thanks for your question. You’re right that the objection to hell is often based on a humanistic view of man’s worth. However, although a humanistic view which holds man in high regard is wrong, it isn’t so wrong that we should conclude that man is worthless. Rather, we know that man does have worth; but that he is not as valuable as he himself would like to believe, because he is not his own sovereign, but is created for a purpose by the sovereign God. So the error of humanism is not in believing that man has worth, but in judging that worth according to the wrong standard. The correct view judges value in relationship to God, rather than in relationship to man himself, because value is underwritten by God rather than man.

    The Bible does indeed affirm that man has worth. Even though the image of God within him is corrupted, it is still God’s image, and is therefore still intrinsically valuable. Furthermore, God has specific purposes for man, and those purposes (because they are God’s) are intrinsically valuable; thus conferring intrinsic value to their instruments as well. However, even if this wasn’t the case, we still have grounds as Christians for arguing against things like murder (including types of murder such as abortion and euthanasia)—because we have God’s moral precepts which forbid these things. So even if we were to erroneously conclude that man is really worthless apart from Christ, we’d still have objective moral grounds for arguing the sanctity of life. They’d just be somewhat incongruous with what we believe about reprobate man.

    Regards,
    Bnonn

  3. Chris

    Thank you so much for your explanation!
    I’m new to this blog and I”m finding it very helpful.

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