Tactics and Tools

Everybody’s Got the Same Problem—Mentoring Letter June 2011

Author Greg Koukl Published on 07/10/2013

Greg offers a unique tactic in answering a challenge about the problem of evil. Everybody has to answer the question—but only Christianity has an answer.

After decades of addressing the problem of evil, I have discovered an approach that has massively simplified my task, one that subtly turns the tables on atheists, hanging them—appropriately—on the horns of their own dilemma.

Here’s how it works. I do not begin my response with tactical concerns (maneuvering on the specifics), but rather with a strategic point (the big picture) meant to show that the atheist himself is not off the hook with the problem of evil.

To set the stage, I begin by clarifying the challenge in vivid terms. I spell out the logic of the complaint. Then I offer an anecdote, illustration, or graphic piece of news (there’s always some horror in the headlines) accentuating the gravity of the atheist’s protest. In short, I try to increase the emotional force of the objection.

Next, I tell the audience I do not grapple with the problem first as a theologian, or a philosopher, or even as a Christian, but as a human being trying to make sense of my world. Evidence of egregious evil abounds. How do I account for such depravity?

But, I am quick to add—and here is the strategic move—I am not alone. As a theist, I am not the only one saddled with this challenge. Evil is a problem for everyone. Every person, regardless of religion or worldview, must answer this objection.

Even the atheist. What if someone is assaulted by personal tragedy, distressed by world events, victimized by religious corruption or abuse, and then responds by rejecting God and becoming an atheist (as many have done)? Notice that he has not solved the problem of evil. He has simply eliminated one possible answer: theism.

The atheist cannot raise the issue, turn on his heal, and smugly walk away. His objection is that evil actually exists, objectively, as a real feature of the world. Otherwise, why raise the complaint? Even if theism fails to give a satisfying answer, the problem doesn’t disappear. Evil remains.

The atheist still has to answer the question, “How do I explain evil now, as an atheist? How do I answer the problem of evil from a materialistic worldview?” He no longer has the resources of theism to draw from. So what is he left with?

There is only one solution for him. The atheist must play the relativism card. Morality is either the product of a social contract or a trick of evolution. That is the best materialism can do. His own answer to the problem of evil, then, is that there is no problem of evil. Morality is an illusion. Whatever is, is right. Nothing more can be said.

Do you see the difficult place this puts the atheist? If this is the right answer to the problem of evil, then his initial complaint vanishes. The only evil that can get traction as a problem against God must be the real deal—objective evil—not something that is merely a cultural or biological invention.

Here’s the irony. The existence of evil initially made the atheist furious, yet his own worldview turns the objective evil he was so livid about into a complete illusion.

The great 20th century atheistic philosopher Bertrand Russell wondered how anyone could talk of God when kneeling at the bed of a dying child. His challenge has powerful rhetorical force. How can anyone cling to the hope of a benevolent, powerful sovereign in the face of such tragedy?

Then Christian philosopher William Lane Craig offered this response: “What is the atheist Bertrand Russell going to say when kneeling at the bed of a dying child? ‘Too bad’? ‘Tough luck’? ‘That’s the way it goes’?” No happy ending? No silver lining? Nothing but devastating, senseless evil?

They cannot speak of the patience and mercy of God. They cannot mention the future perfection that awaits all who trust in Christ. They cannot offer the comfort that a redemptive God is working to cause all things to work together for good to those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. They have no “good news” of hope for a broken world. Their worldview denies them these luxuries.

Which brings me to the most important question to ask of the problem of evil: Which worldview has the best resources to make sense of this challenge?

The answer is not atheism. The answer to evil is God, in Jesus, on a cross, at Calvary. The particulars still need to be developed. But I start with the strategic issue first. That sets the stage. Only afterward do I get into details.