What Do You Mean by Evil?

Author Jonathan Noyes Published on 06/25/2020

It was standing room only as people lined the back of the packed room. Students were even sitting in the aisles. This was the scene during one of the three talks I gave at Hume Lake Christian Camps last year.

I spoke to more than 300 students on that Wednesday morning, as they filled Memorial Chapel seeking an answer to one of the most difficult questions a Christian is faced with: What about evil and suffering? My first talk that morning was on the problem of evil.

There’s a reason why we all wrestle with this issue at one time or another. It’s because everyone experiences evil to some extent, and certainly everyone experiences suffering at some point in life. Keep that in mind for a minute.

The so-called “problem” is usually presented as three premises followed by a conclusion. Its intent is to show an internal contradiction between the nature of God and the story of reality. Also known as “the rock of atheism,” the problem of evil argument goes like this:

An omnibenevolent God would want to eliminate evil. An omnipotent God would be able to eliminate evil. But evil exists. Therefore, God is either too sinister to care about people or too weak to oppose evil. God most probably does not exist at all.

To the group, I wanted to make two simple points clear, and I’d like to do the same with you. First, I’m approaching this not as a trained apologist or theologian. I’m approaching it as a human being who lives in the same world as you. I have to answer this problem for myself! The reason I asked you to keep the thought that we all wrestle with evil and suffering in your mind for a minute is my second simple point: The problem of evil is a human problem. It’s not just for the theist to answer—everyone has to answer it. Even the atheist.

I’d take it a step further and say that the atheist who gets rid of God with this objection doesn’t actually solve the problem. He merely eliminates one of the possible solutions. You see, he still has to answer the question “What do I make of all this evil?”

Since we all share the problem, the real issue here is figuring out who has the best answer. I think the Christian theist does, and I’ll share with you one of the many reasons why. In fact, I think as we explore this issue we’ll see that the problem itself hints at the solution.

The first thing we have to do is to define evil. We all agree that evil exists, so it has to be “something.” But is it “some thing”? There’s a difference. Evil is not a thing, in that it has parts or is made of matter. It’s not stuff. I can’t purchase a half-pound of evil at the deli counter. This is important, because if it’s not “some thing,” then God didn’t create it.

For the students at Hume Lake, I explained it like this. We all agree that the problem is real. There is evil in the world. Evil is something, but it’s something like a donut hole is something. It’s actually defined by what it’s not. A donut hole is the absence of donut; evil is the absence of good. Evil is the privation of good. It’s the falling short of goodness.

Let’s take it a step further. If evil is the absence of good, then we have to agree that there is also good. If we are saying there’s such a thing as good, then there has to be a standard by which we are judging good and evil. Evil is the departure from a standard of good.

Have you ever asked yourself what’s necessary for there to be evil in the first place? This is actually a profound question, because if evil is something (it exists), it leads to two conclusions: relativism is false, and so, too, is atheism.

Both systems of belief (relativism and atheism) say moral truths aren’t real and there’s no objective ethical standard. In order to be a consistent relativist or atheist, one has to say that morality is either an invented social construct, a matter of personal preference, or an illusion. Famous atheist Richard Dawkins proved this point when he wrote,

[In a] universe of electrons and selfish genes…some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.

On relativism’s view, the problem of evil evaporates, and the atheist proves his position false by even raising the objection of it. This is why the problem itself hints at the solution.

C.S. Lewis does well explaining this:

My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?

You see, by raising the objection, one must acknowledge not only the existence of evil, but also the existence of goodness and an objective standard by which to distinguish good from evil. They presume God’s existence before they can even begin to argue that God doesn’t exist.

So the next time someone raises the problem of evil, ask them, “What do you mean by evil? Is it something?”