Atheists Have No Problem of Evil , but They Have a Bigger One

Jerry L. Walls

The problem of evil” is a loaded phrase. For one thing , it is packed with emotional freight owing to the fact that the phrase calls to mind some of the most hotly contested battles in both historical and contemporary philosophy. It has long been the favorite weapon in the atheists’ arsenal, and has often been deployed proof that God does not exist. The argument from evil has often been advanced with deep sense of painful regret, but sometimes it has been wielded with a sense of sneering triumph.

The issue is massive in scope and importance, as well as enormously complicated, but it involves matters of such fundamental human significance that it does not require any special training to g rasp the fundamental issues and why they matter so much. At stake are cosmic level questions about the very meaning of life and what sort of hopes we can rationally maintain.

Think about what is implied in the very phrase, “the problem of evil.” Notice in the first place the obvious fact that the phrase assumes there is such a thing as evil. And second, that it is somehow a “problem.” Now what is most telling is that these commonplace assumptions cannot simply be taken for g ranted today, and the reasons for this g o back to the “enlightenment.”


The story of how the modern period lost the traditional problem of  evil has been told by Susan Neiman in a fascinating book entitled Evil in Modern Thought : An Alternative History of Philosophy.  There she describes how the problem of evil has undergone a number of transmutations and has come to be viewed in a radically different way as a result.   In the introduction  to that  book, she states the fundamental  conviction  that  drives the  problem of  evil :  “Every time we make the judgment this ought not to have happened, we are stepping onto a path that leads straight to the problem of evil.” 1

However, the  judgment  also raises a  question  that  can  hardly be ignored, and it is this : what reason do we have to think of any given event or incident that it ought not to have happened ? What g rounds this judgment that we often make with such certainty and conviction? What distinguishes those thing s that ought to happen, or that simply happen as a matter of course, from those that ought not to happen?

These questions have a reasonably clear answer in Christian theology, where the reality of evil is apparent, as well as the sense in which it ought not to happen. Beg inning with the Garden of Eden, if not in the primordial fall of Satan, evil has played a vital, if not central role in the drama of sin and redemption. Evil is very much a problem not only in the sense that it impairs the human flourishing that God intends for us and leads to various forms of suffering , but also in the sense that it has corrupted the entire fallen world and causes it to fall short of the purposes for which it was created. Evil is thus very much at odds with God and his purposes, and in this sense it ought not to happen.

But here is the bottom line: our passionate judgment, “this ought not to have happened” only makes sense given certain convictions about ultimate reality.  What  has traditionally driven the problem of evil is that ultimate reality is good because ultimate reality is a God who is not only perfectly loving and good, but also supremely powerful. But  what  becomes of  the  problem of  evil  when  this conviction no longer holds ?

The story Neiman tells is a story of a diminishing tendency or capacity  or conviction to  render the  judgment  this ought not to have happened. Her narrative is bookended by two events, each of which shook western thought and culture to its very foundations, namely, the Lisbon earthquake, and the Holocaust. These e vents, though radically different, are similar in the sense that both of them were devastating because the y  shattered fundamental beliefs and assumptions about our world and the nature of evil.

Prior to the Lisbon earthquake, such natural disasters were invested with great moral and theological significance. While many persons at the time still viewed Lisbon in those terms, there was a g rowing tendency in modern thought after that time to view such e vents as purely natural phenomena , void of moral significance or meaning . By late modernity, the shift was radical indeed.  Neiman writes :

For contemporary observers, earthquakes are only a matter of  plate  tectonics. The y  threaten,  at  most, your  faith  in government building codes or geologists’ predictions. They may invoke anger at lazy inspectors, or pit y for those stuck in the wrong place at the wrong time. But these are ordinary emotions.2

The difference bet ween having your faith in God undermined and having your faith in government codes threatened is a paradigm shift of incalculable proportions. The difference bet ween explaining earthquakes “only ” in terms of tectonics and explaining them in terms of theology simply defies measure. And the difference bet ween “ordinary emotions” of pity and regret and feelings of moral outrage of cosmic significance is similarly inestimable.
In any case, as a result of this dramatic shift in thinking , the problem of evil was largely dissolved, according to Neiman, and confined to a much smaller scale. She writes, “ With natural evil reduced to regrettable accident, and metaphysical evil transformed to recognition of the limits we expect every adult to acknowledge, the problem of evil was as far on its way to dissolution as philosophical problems ever go.”2 But here is a hug e question : is the dissolution of the problem on these terms in fact a good thing? Or is it in fact a profound loss? Is it better to hold fast to the problem of evil, even if it is excruciating to do so, than to eliminate it on these terms?

Let us pursue this question further looking at the central claims of three pivotal figures, all of whom profoundly altered the shape of the problem of evil, and recast the terms in which it was understood. Each of these figures played a major role in dissolving the problem of evil as Neiman characterized it.


It  is  a  great  irony  that  one  of  the  books most  recognized  as undermining belief in God is one in which the existence of a God is warmly and persistently affirmed. Although Hume’s philosophy is notoriously naturalistic, none of the characters in his Dialogues Concerning  Natural Religion  espouses atheism. Even the skeptical Philo repudiates atheism as an absurd position that is obviously false. Near the end of the book, he says that if previous generations of atheists could hardly maintain their view in the face of over whelming evidence for God’s existence in the natural order, “to what pitch of pertinacious obstinacy must a philosopher in this age have attained who can now doubt of a Supreme Intelligence!” 4

Of course, Philo criticizes the  arguments for natural  theology, particularly the teleological argument. But the playful urbanity of his speeches that  aim to undermine the analog y bet ween human designers and the  Supreme Intelligence belies the  passion of his moral critique that ultimately motivates his attack . It is only when Philo hammers away at the problem of  evil with such eloquent force that  his real agenda is revealed. At  this point, he can cheerfully concede God’s power and wisdom, fully aware that  these are not nearly enough to sustain meaningful belief in God if his goodness has been undermined.

His power, we allow, is infinite ; whatever he wills is executed : But neither man nor any other animal is happy ; therefore, he does not will their happiness. His wisdom is infinite ; He is never mistaken in  choosing the means to any end ;  But the course of nature tends not to human or animal felicity : Therefore it is not established for that purpose. Through the whole compass of human knowledge there are no inferences more certain and infallible than these. In what respect, then, do his benevolence and mercy resemble the benevolence and mercy of men?5

It is important to emphasize here that Philo’s view of goodness is nothing esoteric or mysterious, and that he insists on an account of goodness that resembles the ordinary meaning of the term. For the creator to be good, he must will the happiness of his creatures. But in view of the widespread misery that characterizes human experience, it is apparent that our world was not designed to achieve this end.

Philo goes on to argue that it is most probable that the designer of our world is neither perfectly good, nor perfectly malicious, nor a combination of these, but rather that he has neither goodness nor malice. This, Philo insists, seems by far the most probable.

Philo presses home the implications of the hypothesis that God is morally indifferent in the final dialogue, and there we see what his belief in God really amounts to. With all moral attributes eliminated, God is reduced to an explanatory hypothesis to account for the order in the universe, a hypothesis that warrants “plain philosophical assent.” This bare assent, however, “affords no inference that affects human life, or can be the source of any action or forbearance.”6

Bluntly put, this God makes no difference whatever to our lives or how we live them. Indeed, Hume even goes so far as to suggest that, since God is so remote from us and his existence has no practical implications whatever, the dispute bet ween theism and atheism is nothing more than a verbal one.

But here is the point I want to emphasize. Hume’s argument for God’s moral indifference is in one way an ingenious move to dissolve the problem of evil. For if the ultimate source of all thing s is not good in the ordinary sense of the word, if he (it ?) has no moral properties, the enormous strain bet ween God and evil is relieved. Here is why : if the ultimate cause of every thing that exists is morally indifferent and has no concern for our happiness, we should not be surprised if our world is not designed for our happiness, and is full of suffering . If God is not good, we have little reason to be confident in our judgments about what ought, or ought not, to happen.

Let us turn  now to Nietzsche, whose response to the  problem is radically different from Hume’s. Here it is worth noting that Nietzsche is not a figure commonly associated with the theodicy debate.   Nevertheless, Nietzsche had  telling  thing s to  say about the problem, albeit very atypical thing s in keeping with the radical nature of his philosophy. In particular, he disdainfully dismissed the whole problem as an embarrassing symptom of the sickly weakness of modern man.

For Nietzsche, the problem is not that the world is hostile to human happiness. Rather, it is Christian morality that is hostile to happiness because it requires us to exercise moral restraints on the expression of our instincts in ways that Nietzsche found unnatural and stifling . “ To have to combat one’s instincts—that is the formula for decadence: as long as life is ascending, happiness and instinct are one.”7

Nietzsche is zealous not only to celebrate this world in its entirety just as it is, but also ready to pour scorn on any invidious comparisons bet ween this world and some other world purported to be more real, whether that world is an ideal Platonic realm or the Kingdom of God that Christians pray to come. To affirm this world just as it is represents Nietzsche’s ideal of the Dionysian spirit as portrayed in classic Greek tragedy.

Affirmation of life even in its strangest and sternest problems, the will to life rejoicing in its own inexhaustibility through the sacrifice of its highest types—that is what I call Dionysian, that is what I recognize as the bridge to the psychology of the tragic  poet. Not so as to get rid of pit y and terror, not so as to purify oneself of a dangerous emotion through its vehement discharge—it was thus Aristotle understood it—: but, beyond pit y and terror, to realize in oneself the eternal joy of becoming —that  joy which also encompasses joy in destruction….8

To affirm “joy in destruction” as a component of “the eternal joy of becoming ” has large implications not only for what would traditionally be categorized as natural evil, but also moral evil. Indeed, what Christian morality would see as paradigm cases of moral evil is recast by Nietzsche as raucous examples of the lads just having a good time.

…I expressly want to place on record that at the time when mankind felt no shame towards its cruelty, life on earth was more cheerful than it is today, with its pessimists. The heavens darkened over man in direct proportion to the increase in his feeling shame at being man…. I mean the sickly mollycoddling and sermonizing , by means of which the animal ‘man’ is finally taught to be ashamed of all his instincts…. Now, when suffering is always the first of the arguments marshalled against life, as its most questionable feature, it is salutary to remember the times when people made the opposite assessment, because the y could not do without making people suffer and saw first-rate magic in it, a veritable seductive lure to life.9

It is important to emphasize that Nietzsche utterly rejects the idea of free will and moral agency. In his view, the lads on a rampage have no more freedom to do other wise than a bird of prey has to refrain from eating and enjoying a tasty lamb. Strength naturally and inevitably expresses itself in domination and destruction.

And just as the common people separates lightning from its flash and takes the latter to be a deed, something performed by  a  subject, which  is  called  lightning ,  popular  morality separates strength  from the  manifestation  of  strength,  as though  there  were  an  indifferent  substratum  behind  the strong person which had the freedom to manifest strength or not.10

As Nietzsche sees it, the will merely accompanies e vents, but does not explain any thing . Free will is a massive and perniciously motivated error that was fabricated to justify blaming people and holding them accountable.

In short, the real problem with  the problem of evil is that  we consider it a problem. Nietzsche’s dismissal of the problem is very much in keeping with his larger project to get “ beyond good and evil” by rejecting Christian  morality and restoring noble morality. If there is no God and no objective moral truth,  we hardly have reason to think this world should be good in the Christian sense of supporting either our happiness or our moral virtue. And if there is no free will and moral agency, moral evil as traditionally construed is also eliminated.

It  is  hard  to  beat Nietzsche in  terms of bracing rhetoric,  but the view he takes of those who see evil as a problem was perhaps communicated  more  persuasively  by  a  psychologist   (although Nietzsche saw himself as a psychologist as well as a philosopher), namely, Sigmund Freud. Our culture, after all, is much more attuned to  psychological  categories  than  philosophical  ones,  and  much inclined  to interpret  thing s psychologically  than  philosophically. Freud’s influence here is due to his general thesis that religious belief is an illusion fostered by childish needs for security in a frightening world. The terrifying sense of helplessness that we feel as children is mitigated by the loving protection of a father, and our lasting sense of vulnerability leads us to cling to the idea of a more powerful father.

Thus the benevolent rule of a divine Providence allays our fear of the dangers of life ; the establishment of a moral world- order ensures the fulfillment of the demands of justice, which have so often remained unfulfilled  in  human civilization ; and  the  prolongation  of earthly  existence in  a  future  life provides the local and temporal framework in which these wish fulfillments shall take place.11

To expect the world to be a friendly place where justice will prevail and evil will  be overcome and defeated is a childish fantasy not worthy  of adult  assent.   To  experience evil  as a  problem in  the traditional sense is an embarrassment for adults, who come of age. Neiman concisely expresses Freud’s view as follows : “If the problem is a form of metaphysical whining , we can only hope to g row out of it.”12

Again, evil is not a problem in the sense that it is if one believes ultimate reality is good. Rather, evil is simply a part of the fabric of life to be expected and coped with by those who have a realistic assessment of things.

Before concluding this sketch I want to underscore the reality that powerful streams in modern thought undermined moral evil no less than natural evil. Indeed, the move to neutralize natural evil as bad stuff that just happens, with little if any moral significance, spread to human actions as human being s increasingly saw themselves as entirely continuous with the natural order.   Particularly as human being s came to be viewed as entirely physical being s determined by natural laws like every thing else, so called moral evil was viewed more and more as simply another unfortunate fact about the fabric of reality.



The urgent question that remains, however, is whether neutralizing evil in this fashion and dissolving the problem of evil along these lines is a gain or a loss. Neiman speaks eloquently of the deeply divided condition of those who live in the wake of those streams of thought that attempt to naturalize evil, but cannot give up moral judgments.

Lisbon ought not to have happened, but it did. Accepting this came to seem a minimal sign of maturity, and Voltaire’s long lament about the earthquake appeared but an elegant version of the child’s curse at the chair over which he stumbled. Neither earthquakes nor chairs are properly viewed as objects of outrage  because neither  contains  any  moral  properties at all….  For those who refuse to give up moral judgments, the demand that the y stop seeking the unit y of nature and morality means accepting a conflict in the heart of being that nothing will ever resolve. 13

Neiman leaves us with disquieting choices indeed. We can give up the sort of moral judgments that generate the traditional problem of evil, and quit insisting that the world ought to be a different sort of place than it is. We can be mature adults who are no longer under the illusion that ultimate reality is good in some sense that is at odds with “evil” and come to g rips with the fact that the world is what it is, and quit “whining ” about what it ought to be. However, if we “refuse to give up moral judgments” we must reconcile ourselves to a deep rupture that will never be healed. This means coming to terms with the severe truth that reality is not what it ought to be and never will be. Evil simply is intractable reality and we are destined to live with a bitter conflict in our hearts and minds that mirrors an even deeper divide in the very heart of being .

I would suggest that we are much better off to have a problem of evil than to eliminate the problem on these terms.  Indeed, atheists who do not have a problem of evil have a much big g er problem. So ironically, the problem of evil, which has been the main weapon in the arsenal of atheism, may provide an interesting argument for God’s existence. For it is precisely the existence of God that makes best sense of why evil is a problem, and why we are making a true moral judgment when we say of some terrible e vent, that it ought not to have happened.

In short, for those who believe in God, we have another alternative besides giving up moral judgments, and “accepting a conflict in the heart of reality that nothing will ever resolve.”   We have reason to believe that evil is real, that it ought not to be this way, and that ultimately, when God’s purposes of redemption are complete, that the deep divide in the very heart of being will finally be healed. The best reason to believe that evil really is a problem is also the best reason to believe it is not a problem beyond resolution.

1Susan Neiman, Evil in Modern Thought : An Alternative History of Philosophy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), 5.
4David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, ed. Richard H. Popkin (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1980), 78.
7Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols and The Antichrist, trans. R . J. Holling dale
(London : Peng uin, 1990), 44
9Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality, trans. Carol Diethe (Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1997), 43
11 Sigmund Freud, The Future of An Illusion, trans. W. D. Robson-Scott, revised and newly edited by James Strachey (New York: Anchor Books, 1964), 47-48
12Evil in Modern Thought, 320
13Ibid., 267-268.

[Editor’s Note: Atheism image from Jan Matejko’s Stańczyk, 1862, found at  Wikipedia Commons.]