Many atheists are fond of using the argument from evil to debunk the notion of God. It goes something like this:
Another variation of the argument was put forward by the Greek philosopher Epicurus, centuries before the time of Christ:
- If God is all-powerful (omnipotent), He could stop evil.
- If God is all-loving (omnibenevolent), He would stop evil if He could.
- Therefore, if an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God existed, evil would not.
- Evil exists; therefore, an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God does not.
Against Catholics, this argument is stronger rhetorically than logically. But against atheists, it's ironically quite devastating. Let me explain what I mean.
I. The Problem of Evil for Catholics
Logically, this argument misunderstands what's meant by God's omnipotence.Omnipotence means that God cannot possibly be more powerful than He currently is. His power is perfect. But within these traditional confines, we still acknowledge that God cannot do the logically impossible. He cannot, for example, will what is contrary to His Will. Why? Because that's a meaningless self-contradiction.
Herein lies the easiest answer to the problem of evil:
Thus, the notion of an all-loving God is consistent with abundant free will, and abundant free will is consistent with the presence of evil (I discuss that more on my own blog.) You may disagree with that solution—you may not see why free will is better than God forcing us to perform on command, for example—but it at least shows that there's no logical problem with the simultaneous existence of an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God and evil.
- God gives us free will, because free will is inherently good.
- Free will entails the possibility of doing what is contrary to God's will (this is what we know as evil).
- Thus, evil exists, because of man's actions, rather than because of God.
II. The Problem of Evil for Atheists
But today, I wanted to show why this is a particularly bad proof for atheism. It relies (in the fourth point of the argument outlined above) on the proposition “evil exists.” Now there are two things that might be meant by this claim:
But here's the problem with that: Objective morality, including objective evil, cannot exist without God. This doesn't mean that atheists can't be moral people, of course. Catholicism teaches that much of objective morality is knowable by natural law. Atheists can and generally do implicitly recognize the moral law, and obey it. The problem is that this behavior appears completely irrational.
- Subjective evil exists: That is, things exist that I don't happen to like. But if that were the case, the whole argument of evil falls apart. Obviously, an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God might well do or permit things that I happen to dislike. The existence of broccoli and the New York Yankees doesn't discredit God, unless I'm such a narcissist as to think that a loving God would create the universe as best suits my own whims.
- Objective evil exists: This is what is obviously meant by the problem of evil. Things exist that aren't just contrary to my personal tastes (like broccoli) but which are contrary to what all moral people know to be good (like genocide or the torture of little children).
More specifically, the problem is that is that there's no way to get from statements about how the world is to how the world ought to be without imposing a value system. And to say something is objective evil—that it objectively ought not to be—you have to believe in objective values, binding everyone (including, in the case of the problem of evil, God Himself). It has to be something infinitely more than whatever your personal values might be.
This, as you can hopefully tell, is a serious problem for atheism, since atheistic naturalism denies any such universally-binding moral laws (since they require Divine Authorship). Christian philosopher William Lane Craig, in his debate with atheist Christopher Hitchens, laid out the problem like this:
Hitchens misunderstood the argument, and flubbed it pretty badly, so I sought out an atheist response. The atheist responding argues that both of Craig's premises are false:
- If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.
- Objective moral values do exist.
- Therefore God exists.
Firstly, objective morals could well exist without God. They could be hardwired into our genes as an evolutionary survival mechanism. So clearly, Craig’s first premise is incorrect.
Others have used this argument before, but it's quite a bad one. A man might simultaneously be sexually attracted to a non-consenting woman, and conscious that rape is immoral. Why, from a strictly biological standpoint, should the man listen to his genetic hard-wiring when it tells him rape is wrong, and not when it gives him an urge to rape? The answer to that question is a moral one, and one that (by definition) can't come from mere evolutionary urges. The urges are the problem, not the solution.
You can see this with virtually any sin: man both desires sin, and knows it's wrong. If both thedesire and the moral aversion are nothing more than evolutionary conditioning, why listen to the unpleasant one? Why not act like simply another member of the animal kingdom, a world full of rape and theft and killing.
But for that matter, is it morally evil to go against our genetic hard-wiring? If the hard-wiring is nothing more than the result of random chance over millions of years, it's not at all clear to me why it would be morally evil to disregard it. Your body may also decide to start producing cancer cells at a remarkable rate, but you feel no moral allegiance to quietly let it have its way. We constantly subdue our bodies to make them perform better, last longer, and the like.
And indeed, atheists constantly go against their genetic hard-wiring. For example, I'd venture that most atheists use birth control and don't seem to find this immoral, even though it's transparently contrary to both our genetic hard-wiring, and evolutionary survival mechanisms. They're literally stopping evolution from working: a more direct violation of evolutionary hard-wiring is almost unthinkable (except, perhaps, celibacy).
So at most, evolution can explain urges we have for or against certain behaviors. Some of these urges are worth acting upon, some aren't. But to know which to obey and which to ignore is a moral question, not a biological one.
Significantly, when Hitchens eventually understood Craig's argument, he conceded this first premise—because it's undeniably true. That brings us to the second premise, that objective morality exists. The atheist reply continues:
However, objective moral values de facto do not exist. Not everyone has the same moral standards. Our perception of what is right and wrong have changed over the centuries with Richard Dawkins has termed “the shifting moral Zeitgeist”. Indeed, practices in other parts of the World today which are considered the height of piety seem barbaric to Westerners. You only have to look inside the books of our religions and see what these pronouncements mandate to see that this is the case.
If this is true, we cannot criticize the Nazis for killing millions of Jews, any more than we can criticize the Yankees for beating the Tigers. We don't happen to care for Nazi genocide, but their cultural practices are just different from our American values.
More directly, if objective morality does not exist, the problem of evil breaks down. As I said above, if by “evil” you mean nothing more than what you happen to like or dislike, the term is meaningless. So when atheists raise the problem of evil, they're already conceding the existence of objective evil, and thus, of objective morality.
So atheists can either believe that morality is nothing more than a “shifting moral Zeitgeist,” of no more importance than the latest fashion, or they can criticize what's “inside the books of our religions.” But they can't coherently do both.
III. Objective Evil Exists
Just in case some people reading this would be inclined to give up the problem of evil,in exchange that they don't have to admit the existence of universally binding morals, let me be clear. We can see that objective morals do, in fact, exist. We don't need to be told that raping, torturing, and killing innocent people are more than just unpleasant or counter-cultural. They're wrong—universally and completely wrong. Even if we were never taught these things growing up, we know these things by nature.
Incredibly, even the most evil societies—even those societies that have most cruelly warped the natural law for their own ends—still profess these universal morals. Nazi Germany, for example, still had laws against murder, and theft, and rape. They didn't have some delusion that those things were somehow morally good: it's sheer fiction to suggest otherwise. Everyone, with the possible exceptions of the severely retarded or severely mentally ill, recognizes these things to be evil, whether or not they've been formally taught these truths.
So is the problem of evil a problem for Christians? Sure. There are intellectually satisfying answers, but it's not for nothing that St. Thomas Aquinas lists it as one of two logical arguments for atheism in the Summa Theologiae. But we shouldn't let this fact blind us to the paradoxical truth:the problem of evil is a dramatically larger problem for atheists:
Ironically, this evidence lays the groundwork for establishing that God not only exists, but cares about good and evil.
- To complain of the problem of evil, you must acknowledge evil.
- To acknowledge evil, you must acknowledge an objective system of moral laws.
- Objective universal moral laws require a Lawgiver capable of dictating behavior for everyone.
- This Lawgiver is Who we call God.
A friend of mine and brother seminarian who also happens to be a fellow apologist has posted and excellent article on evil and the problem atheists have when they try to use it to prove there is no God. You know, the age old arguments that if God is all-powerful, He could stop evil and if He is all-loving, He would stop evil; thus since there is evil, there is no God. Anyway, it is an excellent article so I am reposting it here for your perusal. Joe also has an excellent blog called Shameless Popery. I encourage you to visit it.
Written by Joe Heschmeyer. Until May 2012, Joe Heschmeyer was an attorney in Washington, D.C., specializing in litigation. These days, he is a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas, and can use all the prayers he can get. Follow Joe through his blog, Shameless Popery or contact him at email@example.com.
While most of my papers written in seminary are of an academic nature, from time to time, I write one which has practical applications as well. This is one of those times. This paper was written for a grief counseling class and provides a tool to teach children about death before they have to experience it directly when a friend or relative dies. I hope that you may find it useful. Please feel free to share this with others and pass it on. don't forget about the sharing, like and e-mail buttons at the end of the post.
Our Catholic faith provides us a number of opportunities to teach the lay faithful about how to handle life. This ranges from the day-to-day decisions to the extreme and most life shattering events. One of the things which must be taught to any child is how to understand and handle death. Yet, this is one of those conversations that parents are extremely reluctant to have with their children. Like physical intimacy, the matter is grave and must be taught but parents do not know how to approach the topic, feel unequal to the task and wish to shield their children for as long as possible. I propose that our faith provides several possibilities to assist parents in accomplishing this task, one of which is the use of the Stations of the Cross.
The Stations of the Cross are a reflection on the Passion and Death of Jesus Christ and as a result, death and how we view death is intimately connected to this pious observance. Additionally, children who are raised in the Catholic Church are already exposed to the Stations every lent and therefore should be comfortable or at least familiar with this observance. Use of the familiar can help the child understand the unfamiliar and uncomfortable topic. Furthermore, placed in the area of catechesis, parents may find it easier to discuss death with their children in the abstract rather than waiting until an actual incident occurs. It is often the case that the biggest obstacle to discussion of serious subjects between parent and children is the lack of a way to broach the subject. The Stations of the Cross provide a remedy to just that issue. The use of this tool provided by our faith will not only help deepen the faith of the children and their understanding of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, but can also help them to deal with and understand death when it affects them personally through family members or friends.
Below, I have taken the Stations of the Cross and added discussion topics, appropriate for children, to each of the stations. These are only suggestions and can be modified as the teacher (parent, priest, catechist) sees fit based on the individual child or children they are teaching. I believe that this process can be used either individually or in a classroom setting.
Here are some things to keep in mind: 1) This lesson should be a discussion and not a lecture. Be sure to receive input from the child. Have the child express his views, concerns, and imaginings. 2) Refer to both the Bible and the Catechism especially in those areas where you are not familiar with Catholic teaching. They both can provide great help and consolation. 3) Remember that the child is the center of this lesson not the teacher. Be sure to ask enough questions to ensure understanding and encourage participation and attention. 4) Finally, remember to remain hopeful during each station. Death is frightening to adults and even more so to children. Remember to reassure them and express the hope that our faith gives us no matter what the situation. Above all teach them that in all things they should trust in Jesus Christ and the love of God the Father. Reassure them that all the saints and Our Blessed Mother have gone through this before them and that above all there is hope and joy in looking forward to joining Jesus in heaven.
1. Opening Prayer
a. As with any endeavor it is important to start with a prayer that God may direct our actions, provide us the help necessary to be successful in our endeavors and bring our work to a successful conclusion. I recommend that the child be encouraged to pray this prayer. He can talk to Jesus in his own words or use a formulary such as the “Our Father”, “Hail Mary” or “Glory Be”.
2. 1st Station: Jesus Is Condemned to Death
a. This is the opening step and provides us the opportunity to talk to the child about death in very general terms and explain how we must all eventually die. We can talk about how all things die from plants and grass to animals to humans and how this is, for us, a natural part of life. Talk to the child about his ancestors - great, great, great, great grandparents. Tell them stories that are particular to the family. Teach them that because of sin we are all condemned to die.
3. 2nd Station: Jesus Carries His Cross
a. This is an opportunity for us to talk with the child about the struggles that we encounter every day. Maybe we want to talk about bullying on the playground, maybe we want to talk about a sick friend, relative or even a pet. Maybe we want to talk about things that the child struggles with on a daily basis such as lessons, obeying parents, going to bed, etc. This is an opportunity to discuss things that are very hard for us that occur in our lifetime.
4. 3rd Station: Jesus Falls the First Time
a. This station gives us the opportunity to talk to the child about failure. Things don’t always go as we want but we have to pick ourselves up and keep going. Sometimes what we want to happen doesn’t happen but we don’t give up. (This discussion should be structured with the second and third falls (station 7 and 10) in mind so read ahead before beginning this lesson.)
5. 4th Station: Jesus Meets His Mother
a. This station gives us the opportunity to talk about how much we loving care for our family members. In this Station we can reinforce to the child that no matter what they go through, the family will be there to help them and support them. Remind the child that there is nothing that the love of family will not overcome, even death. Love does not cease with death.
6. 5th Station: Simon of Cyrene Helps Jesus to Carry His Cross
a. This station is a perfect opportunity to discuss with the child how there are always people to help them through any struggle. We can remind the child that even Jesus needed help. In the darkest part of our lives, we can remind the child, that there are always people that they can turn to for assistance. Talk about school counselors, parents, relatives, the priest and so on. Remind the child that there is nothing so dark that it cannot be overcome with help. (The key point is to reinforce with the child that no matter how dark the situation suicide is not an option.)
7. 6th Station: Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus
a. This station provides us the opportunity to talk to the child about how to help those who are grieving. We can talk about caring for people who have lost a loved one, doing things for them. We can talk about how much it means to a person in grief just to know that someone else cares.
8. 7th Station: Jesus Falls the Second Time
a. In this station (keeping in mind the 3rd station) we can continue the discussion about not always getting what we want. This should take the form of how God does not always answer our prayers the way we expect. We can teach the child that everything happens for a reason and that God allows bad to happen so that good may come of it. Again reinforce the idea that when we fall, when things don’t go our way or prayers aren’t answered the way we expect, we get up and keep moving forward in life.
9. 8th Station: Jesus Meets the Women of Jerusalem
a. This station provides us an excellent opportunity to discuss how death affects other people. We can talk about grief. We can teach the child that it is okay to cry and to show how hurt we are. We can teach that it is okay to share that hurt in grief with others. We can remind the child that all death hurts those who care about the person. (This is another opportunity to reinforce the idea that suicide is not romantic and that the survivors have to deal with a great amount of pain and grief. Suicide is not an option.)
10. 9th Station: Jesus Falls a Third Time
a. Keeping the 3rd and 7th station in mind, it is time to the talk to the child particularly about prayers for suffering and dying friends and relatives. Explain to the child how sometimes when we pray for someone who is sick, they die anyway. Talk to the child about loss which seems contrary to what they want or expect from God. Talk to the child about being angry with God. Tell them it is okay to be angry with God and to talk to God about the hurt they feel. Tell the child that this pain should be shared with others and they don’t have to deal with it all by themselves. Remind the child than the end we pick ourselves up and continue on.
11. 10th Station: Jesus Clothes Are Taken Away
a. This station provides us a wonderful opportunity to talk to the child about leaving everything behind when we die. Teach them that what it comes to death the “things” of this world don’t matter. We don’t get to take our favorite video games, bicycle, and doll, etc. with us. What matters is how we pray and love God. Teach the child to look at the wonderful accomplishments of the person who has died and to reflect on their life with joy while giving thanksgiving to God. Teach what is truly important and to see that in others.
12. 11th Station: Jesus Is Nailed to the Cross
a. Talk to the child about suffering and the redeeming value of suffering that we are taught by our faith. Talk not only about the suffering of Jesus but also the suffering of the Martyrs of the Church. Perhaps the stories of some of the Saints of the early church would be helpful here. Talk to them about the suffering that goes on in the world today. Talk to them about how people may suffer, sometimes for long periods of time, before they die. Make it personal for the child, talk about how the child sees and view suffering.
13. 12th Station: Jesus Dies on the Cross
a. This, of course, is the station where we should talk about death specifically. Talk about the physical separation of the body and the soul. Talk to the child about what they can expect when they see a dead person. As the child their feelings about death. As the child about how they see death and then teach as necessary remembering that they often viewed death as a physical person. Reassure them that death is part of God’s plan. Remind them that it is only through death that we get to heaven.
14. 13th Station: The Body of Jesus Is Taken down from the Cross
a. This station and the next provide a perfect opportunity to talk about what happens to a person after they have died. Discuss what a funeral is. Discuss what a casket is. Discuss why some people are cremated and some people are buried. Talk about the difference between our bodies which die and our souls which do not. Talk about the joys of heaven.
15. 14th Station: Jesus Is Laid in the Tomb
a. Talk about the burial of the body and what they can expect when they go to visit the cemetery. Talk to them about the efficacy of visiting cemeteries, praying for the dead and building a relationship with those who are deceased.
16. 16th Station: The Resurrection of Jesus Christ
a. This station is not normally a part of the Stations of the Cross; however, I believe that in this case it is important to include this station. It is important to remember that in death there is hope. Not just any hope, but the hope which is given to us by our faith in Jesus Christ. We must remind the child that after death, having lived a good life, we go to join Jesus Christ in heaven. We must remind the child that death is not the end but only a passing into another form of existence with God himself. We must teach the child about how our faith teaches us that our bodies will be resurrected. This resurrection of the body will perfect our bodies and there will be no more suffering and pain. It is most important that we in this lesson on a positive note and inspire in the child the hope which Christ has given us.
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I am a Roman Catholic Priest for the Diocese of Colorado Springs. I am currently assigned to St. Dominic Catholic Church in Security, CO.
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