Disproving God

I’ve been thinking about the problem of evil. Not so much the very pressing and existential problem of my own evil, but the classic three-part gotcha argument that every half-baked neo-atheist trots out these days with a smug smile. It usually goes like this:

An all-powerful God could eliminate all evil and suffering.

An all-good, all-loving God would want to eliminate all evil and suffering.

Given that evil and suffering are everywhere in our world, the all-powerful, all-good, all-loving God does not exist.

Many people much smarter than me have interacted with this argument over the centuries, and come up with various clever responses and answers.

But I’ve been thinking that a simpler approach might be more effective. The next time someone runs this one up the flag-pole, I’m going to say, “You’re absolutely right. The God you’re talking about doesn’t exist. Load of old cods-wallop, if you ask me. And I think people who believe in him are living in fairy-land.”

And when my questioner looks at me askance, I will follow up with: “But then again, the God of the Bible—there’s a God you can believe in. Do you want to read about him with me?”

You see, when non-Christians trot out the ‘problem of evil’ argument, they are often assuming that the God we Christians believe in is the flaccid sentimental benevolent ‘God’ of 19th century deism and 20th century liberalism, the kind of avuncular nice-guy deity who is represented on posters with puppies. How could this sort of ‘God’ possibly allow any suffering? This is the ‘God’ who vanishes in a puff of logic in the face of the suffering of our world.

We need to draw our friends into a conversation about the real, true and living God—the God who is not only good and merciful and loving, but who also is a consuming fire who pours out judgement on a sinful world, a judgement that is currently being revealed in our daily experience.

It takes only a moment’s thought to realise that goodness and love are perfectly compatible with justice and judgement—that, in fact, they are closely related. It is very possible, for example, for a human judge to be a good and loving man, and yet also to cause considerable personal suffering by sending a rapist to gaol for 20 years. In fact, the goodness of the judge, and his love for what is right, would require him to inflict punishment (and thus suffering) on the perpetrator.

If this is possible in our limited human sphere, how much more so with with an infinitely wise, good, loving and just God revealed in the Bible, who has a race of perpetrators to deal with?

But the wonderful thing about the real God is that judgement is not his only response to our sin…

29 thoughts on “Disproving God

  1. With respect, I’m not sure that this is perhaps the best approach.  Your response would suggest that we DENY the omnibenevolence, omniscience, and omnipotence of God, while Scripture everywhere affirms these things.

    You’re correct in identifying the question as problematic, but I think you’re mistaken in locating the error of the question in the conception of God, rather than in the conceptions of goodness and love that the questioner presupposes.

    I’m not at all sure what the value would be of saying, “The God of the Bible is *NOT* all-good, all-loving, all-knowing…but you should worship, love, and obey Him anyway”…immediately the questioner’s response would probably be, “WHY should I worship such a God? WHY should I love him?”  I’ve found much value, however, in a two-pronged response to this kind of attack:

    1. The moment we posit an all-knowing God, we necessarily concede that there could be purposes to evil and suffering that we (who are NOT all-knowing) cannot perceive. Further, we necessarily concede that such purposes could very easily be for the ultimate good of humanity…to insist otherwise (on EITHER point!) would be the height of arrogance.

    2. This part of the approach is somewhat more difficult, but is necessary nonetheless: we have to call into doubt what the other person means by ‘goodness’—if that’s simply the alleviation of suffering, then we could never call a doctor or a surgeon ‘good’, for example. It may be (and this follows closely on the first response) that we are sick in such a way that only suffering can heal us.

    And here there is good news—that in the Person of Jesus Christ God HAS passed judgment on evil and suffering. In the Cross of Jesus Christ we see that evil, pain, and suffering matter SO much to God that He sacrificed His Son, His Only Son, to make a final end of it. The Cross is the supreme demonstration of God’s determination to deal finally, dramatically, magnificently with pain and suffering and evil in a way that doesn’t compromise either His wisdom, His justice, His goodness, or His love.

  2. I think the strongest (and simplest) answer to the problem the critic poses here is simply responding with, “…unless an all-loving, all-knowing, all-powerful God has a reason for allowing evil and suffering to exist.”

    There are many, many reasons theologians have offered as to why God allows evil to exist, but I think the most succinct is the answer the Bible itself offers – that evil allows for the development of virtues that would not be possible in an evil-free world.  (i.e. patience, courage, forgiveness, hope, endurance, mercy, empathy, justice, etc)

    These are good virtues, and in a world where evil didn’t exist, humans wouldn’t develop them, nor would God have any reason to demonstrate those virtuous aspects of his character, to his glory.

    Thus, evil exists so that our character may grow more fully, and more importantly, so that God may demonstrate his glory more completely.

  3. Curtis, with respect, I think you read this wrong.  Mr. Payne is saying EXACTLY what you are saying.  He doesn’t suggest that we deny the omnibenevolence, omniscience, and omnipotence of God.  He asks that we deny that such a God would therefore eliminate all suffering.  Which is just what you are also saying.  Mr. Payne is agreeing with you, completely.

  4. @Sam: The problem with that argument is that Tony isn’t addressing the flaws in either of the argument’s premises (A: That an all-powerful God could eliminate suffering; B: That an all-good, all-loving God WOULD eliminate suffering)—instead, he’s AFFIRMING those premises and denying the stated conclusion: he’s denying that the God of the Bible is all-good, all-loving, all-powerful. In his own words:

    The next time someone runs this one up the flag-pole, I’m going to say, “You’re absolutely right. The God you’re talking about doesn’t exist. Load of old cods-wallop, if you ask me. And I think people who believe in him are living in fairy-land.” (emphasis added)

    For the record, I don’t think this is what Tony really believes…however, if one wants to address the fundamental assumptions that make the argument’s premises faulty, one needs to address the premises rather than the conclusion.  In other words, if Tony really wants to address the problems behind the bad premises here, he’s going about his argument pretty unwisely, as it’s going to leave the other person with the assumption that their major premises are actually correct.

  5. Curtis, i guess I don’t understand your objection.  What i see in the above is that when Mr. Payne says, “The God you’re talking about doesn’t exist”, he IS denying the second premise.  I will give that he may be saying inadequately, in such a way that it could be missed, but that’s what I hear him saying – – that the second premise is false, that the “God of the second premise” is the one he says he doesn’t believe in.

    but then, we may be just talking past each other.  I’m very glad that you’re passionate about this.

  6. I like Tony’s response for the shock value.  I believe it will open doors for conversations about the God of the Bible.  I am going to give it a try.


  7. A great point! Instead of focusing on apologetics in responding to the question, focus on exposing the questioner to the Bible, that is, the living word of God which, through acquaintance, is capable of making people “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 3:15). Of course, I take it we can still “do apologetics” but in the context of exposing people to God’s living word first and foremost. After all, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction…” (2 Tim 3:16) and “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12).

    On a related note, this Comparative Apologetic Anatomy by Steve Hays might be helpful.

  8. BTW, for a good response to the question:

    The problem of evil is easily stated. If God is both omnipotent and benevolent, why is there evil in the world? It would seem that he is either unable to prevent it, in which case he is not omnipotent; or else he is unwilling, in which case he is not benevolent. 

    Now, in principle, this dilemma, even if stringent, is not a disproof of the Deity, but only the existence of a rather robust conception of God. Yet it would seem, from the standpoint of the atheist, that the traditional view of God is the only kind of God worth disbelieving!  So both the conservative Christian and the atheist think that the only God worthy of the name is a full-strength God. 

    The most popular theodicy is the freewill defense.  But aside from the question of whether the FWD is even Scriptural, it suffers from some internal difficulties.  Why should freewill be defined in terms of the freedom to do otherwise? After all, even on a libertarian account we can only make one choice at a time, and one choice cancels out another. So why should God not limit the freedom of opportunity to one or another natural goods?

    If, as some liberals would have it, God cannot know which way we’ll choose, then that concedes the dilemma and relieves it by sacrificing the sovereignty of God. Speaking for myself, I’d just say that I’m more than happy to waive all claims to every little godling in the liberal pantheon as long as I’m allowed to keep the only and only God of the Bible. 

    And if you insist that a free agent must have unfettered freedom, then this means that Jim can use his freedom to gain power over John and thereby limit or deprive John of his freedom.  Indeed, this happens all the time.  How much significant freedom does John enjoy as a political prisoner in his 5×5 cell or before the firing squad?

    The Bible takes a different tack. History is theodicy. Knowing God is the highest good, for God is the highest good. God foreordained the Fall of Adam (Rom 11:32; Gal 3:22) so that his chosen people should glory in the wisdom of his ever just and most merciful designs (Jn 9-12; 1 Jn 4:9-10; Rom 9:17,22-23; Eph 3:9-10). Although God’s greatness shone forth in the primavernal glory of Eden, it burns more brightly in the autumnal glory of the cross.

    The common good and the greater good are incompatible.  There is no greatest good for the greatest number.  Rather, there is a lesser good for a greater number, or a greater good for a lesser number.  A world without sin is the best possible world for the common good.  But it is not the best possible world for the greatest good. An unfallen world is a lesser good for every creature; but redemption is a greater good for the elect. 

    In the nature of the case, a theodicy pivots on a theological value-system. An unbeliever will find a theodicy that takes the knowledge of God as a second-order good to be unpersuasive, for he is unpersuaded of God’s very existence, much less in his role as the exemplar of good and chief end of man. At this level, there is no common ground. 

    For their own part, many believers try to put an extra layer of latex between God and the fallen world order.  Now there are no doubt models of divine and human agency that would have the effect of inculpating God in evil.  The “gods” of Canaan were guilty of sin. 

    But the danger doesn’t only issue from too much involvement. Too little detachment may also be blameworthy, as in the case of an absentee landlord who fails to maintain the sewer system, so that his tenants die of cholera. What I respect about the God of Calvinism, who, by the way, bears an uncanny resemblance to the God of the Bible, is that he doesn’t relate to the world through a pair of latex gloves.  The God of the Exodus, the God of Job, the God of Isaiah, is not an absentee landlord. 

    Rather, it’s like the relation between an officer and a foot soldier. A foot soldier doesn’t resent having to follow orders, even if the orders induce personal pain and hardship, as long as he respects his commanding officer and thinks that this is all for a good cause. He even takes a filial pride in being treated like a grown man who can be trusted to tough it out under duress. He only becomes resentful if, after having carried out his orders and suffered for the cause, he finds his commanding officer beginning to put distance between himself and the mission.

    Now our God is the Lord of hosts and Captain of the host.  And the Lord God of Sabaoth never says he’s sorry for the mission or the orders—or denies that he was the one issuing the orders. He keeps his word and keeps his own counsel.

  9. Continued from above:

    To speak of evil as “the problem of evil” assumes that evil is nothing but a problem.  Yet that is rather shortsighted.  Although it is only natural to think of goodness as a check on evil, we also need to appreciate the ways in which evil can serve as a check on evil—for one evildoer will often block the malicious designs of another evildoer.  Ambition counters ambition, incompetence gums up the totalitarian apparatus, and petty corruption impedes more heinous schemes.  “Tyrants could do much more harm in the world if all their servants were flawlessly efficient, untiringly industrious, and financially incorruptible.” So even vice, in moderation, has its fringe benefits. Remember that the next time you must deal with a blundering bureaucrat and pencil pusher. His plodding ineptitude is every bit as galling to the ruthless depot as it is to the man in line.   

    The problem of evil takes for granted a distinction between good and evil. But when deployed against the existence of God, this distinction is deeply problematic. For, from a secular standpoint, what is the source and standard of right and wrong? Evil assumes a deviation from an ideal. But if we inhabit an accidental universe, if intelligent life is a fortuitous turn of events, then nothing was supposed to be one way or another. And if, when I die, it’s as though I never lived; and if nice guys and mean men suffer a common fate, then what does it matter how you and I conduct our affairs? [Source]

    Other resources from Steve Hays are available here. Also, he regularly engages in apologetics on his weblog, Triablogue.

    Also, John Frame has written some valuable material (e.g. see here). Frame has a website (with Vern Poythress).

    For a more pastoral approach, I think it’s hard to find anything better than D.A. Carson’s How Long, O Lord?. Although there are other helpful books and booklets (e.g. Jerry Bridges’ Trusting God: Even When Life Hurts, John Murray’s Behind a Frowning Providence).

  10. Hi Patrick,

    Very helpful comment and thanks for the link to the comparative study of the apologetics.

    Where would you put your view (that you described in your comment) within the comparative view of apologetics?


    P.S. The article hasn’t been updated since 1999, are there any other good works since?

  11. Hi, Hank! Actually I had an additional part to my post which might answer your question. But it looks like it didn’t get posted. I’m not sure why that is? I don’t think there was anything objectionable in the post? I don’t suppose one of the moderators might know? Kind thanks.

  12. Here are some additional resources:

    1. Two books hosted on CalvinDude.com:
    * Apostasy and Perseverance. This discusses apostasy and perseverance from several different vantage points.
    * The Infidel Delusion. This responds to a popular atheist book called The Christian Delusion.

    2. Several books hosted on Triapologia.com:
    * Musica Mundana. This is a work of Christian fiction.
    * This Joyful Eastertide. This is a response to atheist historian Richard Carrier’s book The Empty Tomb.
    * Sola Ecclesia. This is a response to Catholic philosopher Philip Blosser.
    * Love the Lord with Heart and Mind. This is a collection of interviews with several notable Christian scholars. Steve put this together with James Anderson who is a professor of theology and philosophy at RTS.

    3. Also, an interview with Steve Hays mainly on apologetics.

    4. Most recently, Monergism Books helped publish an ebook of his called God’s Canon (HTML) which is on the Bible.

  13. Hi Patrick,

    That’s happened to me more than once, I think it is just a bug, so I always copy my text before hitting ‘submit’. I can almost guarantee it wouldn’t have been bounced by a moderator, the comment threads are moderated fairly lightly – you would have at least seen it before it disappeared.

  14. Hi Patrick,

    Because your comments contained links, they got caught in the spam filter. I’ve set them free, so they now appear above.  Sorry about that.

  15. It’s too bad that you’re not consistently Reformed on this issue.  If God is sovereign in Scripture and in salvation, then the God revealed in Scripture ought to be the one we consistently preach.  The idea that Christ died for those already in hell is ludicrous.  Christ came to save His elect and only His elect.  There are no hypotheticals in God’s mind—including a hypothetical atonement.  That idea is more Arminian or semi-pelagian than Scriptural or Reformed.

    Charlie J. Ray

    P.S. I might add that salvation/justification is absolutely by faith alone, nothing added whatsoever.  Confusing justification with sanctification is the Roman Catholic error.


  16. @Mark Baddeley,

    Hi Mark,

    I’m not sure whether you will get to read this comment.

    But, while ago I wrote an email to Sola Panel (email – from contact us page) to ask you some questions about your old articles on Briefing.

    Your article was on understanding modern theology (in 3 parts).

    I wrote an email to sola panel asking whether they could ask you to provide few helpful books for further reading purpose to grow in understanding in that area.

    Would you be able to give us some?

    Thanks, Hank.

  17. Here is a [very] summarised version of how I address this issue:

    God COULD remove all suffering immediately, but to do so would require removing the source of the suffering – sinful human beings.

    Because he loves us, he allows the suffering to continue for a time because the alternative is to simply destroy us.

    But, one might argue, if God is all-powerful, then surely he can remove suffering, without destroying sinful human beings.

    The answer is, that he HAS provided a way to remove suffering without destroying human beings – the Gospel.  However, the human beings [at a minimum] need to want to be non-sinful or else they would simply re-introduce the sin that caused the suffering in the first place – this is why the gospel is so critical.  It provides the means by which sinful human beings can be rescued from their sinfulness, and be able to [one day] enjoy a perfect world free of suffering.

    One could argue – if God is all powerful, surely he could find a way to remove suffering from the world without requiring the sinful people to [want to] change.

    The answer to that, is if God allowed sinful people who had no desire to change, to live in a perfect world [and who due to their free will would destroy this newly perfect world], then he would not be Good, because he would be allowing people who are BAD and who have no desire to be anything other than bad to enter into a perfect world and thereby destroy it.

    Ultimately, the reason that an all-good, all-powerful and all-knowing God allows suffering to continue in this world is that he loves us – he loves us who are the source of the suffering – and is therefore allowing it to continue for a time to give everyone the opportunity to repent and to live forever in a perfect world in which there is no more suffering.

    The means by which this occurs is the Gospel.

  18. BTW, sorry, I realized I forgot to answer this bit:

    Where would you put your view (that you described in your comment) within the comparative view of apologetics?

    1. I usually take a more eclectic approach. All things equal, I don’t think I’d favor one over another, per se, although it depends on a number of factors. I think different approaches speak to different people at different times and in different contexts. It’s rare if not perhaps impossible to find a catch-all apologetic suitable for everyone. If I might paraphrase Abraham Lincoln: You may persuade all the people some of the time, you can even persuade some of the people all of the time, but you cannot persuade all of the people all the time.

    I should add we don’t always have to do apologetics solely in order to convince the person with whom we’re speaking. If there are others present, we should also do apologetics for their benefit. If they’re Christians listening in, so to speak, our apologetics could strengthen their faith. If they’re non-Christians, then it could persuade them too. I think it’d be wise to operate with an audience in mind, say, when we do apologetics online. That’s in part what Steve et al do on Triablogue.

    2. As far as apologetic methodology, Kenneth Boa and Robert Bowman have written a helpful introduction in his book Faith Has Its Reasons. If I recall, it’s available online for free via Boa’s website.

    Similarly helpful is Five Views on Apologetics edited by Steven Cowan.

    3. I’ve already mentioned the following above, but it bears repeating. Love the Lord with Heart and Mind is a nice collection of interviews with top-notch Chrisitan scholars speaking on apologetics, among other things. They provide helpful pointers on apologetics and other topics.

  19. I hope not but I suspect this might go straight to the spambox for all its links!

    Peter Pike has written a post on apologetic methodology as well.

    Likewise Steve Hays here. Steve evaluates William Lane Craig’s apologetic here.

    On a much lesser note, I posted this a little while back. In addition to what I’ve already cited above, it references a helpful outline by John Frame.

  20. <i>“If God is both omnipotent and benevolent, why is there evil in the world?</i>

    For a reason that’s perfectly sufficient to God.

    God isn’t obligated to tell us why particular evils exist.  He didn’t tell Job, and He’s not obligated to tell us.

    Moreover, if there is no God, there is no objection since good and evil don’t exist in a godless universe.  You don’t get objective morality from mere matter in motion.  With philosophical materialism, by logical extension, there can be no evil since evil is an immaterial concept that doesn’t have extension in space.  But since immaterial things don’t exist given philosophical materialism then evil can’t exist.  Also, there is no objective, transcendent standard that exists in a matter-only world, thus, there can be no evil in an objective sense since there is no standard by which to measure it.  The only way the objection can make sense is if the personal, theistic, transcendent God of Scripture first exists to make sense out of the question in the first place.

  21. Dustin Wrote:

    Moreover, if there is no God, there is no objection since good and evil don’t exist in a godless universe.  You don’t get objective morality from mere matter in motion

    No, the problem of evil, is ONLY a problem, if one proposes that a all-good, all-knowing, all-powerful God exists.  It is used against Christians (and other theists) because it pupports to prove that such a God is logically impossible given the provable existence of what theists would term evil.

    The atheists/agnostics/secularists would pupport that indeed – as you have pointed out – there is no such thing as Objective evil – only a set of behaviours which, for various cultural, and sociological and relative reasons are undesirable.

    Which leaves theists with an apparent problem of a God who (given the existence of what theists would label as evil), is (at first glance) a logical impossibility.  It’s not so much that he doesn’t eixst – but that he cannot exist.

    Unless…. there is some way that one can demonstrate that the existence of evil is consistent with a God who is all-good, all-knowing and all-powerful.

    I propose that the way to demonstrate that this is demonstrable is using the Gospel (I am unaware of any other alternative that DOES demonstrate it).

    That the reason evil exists, is that the all-knowing, all-powerful and all-good God LOVES the source of that evil and suffering – US.  And, furthermore that this all-knowing, all-powerful and all-good God has (being all-powerful) found a way that he can erradicate the evil and suffering while at the same time rescuing the ones he loves – even though they are the source of the evil and suffering.  He has done this via the gospel.  A side-effect of this (that is universally observed by theist, Christian and atheist alike) however, is that the evil and suffering must (and does) continue – but only for a finite time so that we who are the source of the evil and suffering have sufficient opportunity to repent and thereby be rescued (through the gospel) from the consequences of our evil.

    This is how I demonstrate that an all-good, all-knowing and all-powerful God is NOT logically impossible given the observable reality of behaviours and experiences generally labelled evil and which are the root cause of suffering.

  22. Hi David
    I’m interested in your claim that we (humans, I suppose) are the source of all evil and suffering.  Would you explain how you arrive at this conclusion?

  23. Brian Alexander Wrote:

    I’m interested in your claim that we (humans, I suppose) are the source of all evil and suffering.  Would you explain how you arrive at this conclusion?

    The short answer is that this is a key element of the Christian world-view. 

    In the Bible it goes right back to the original descriptions of the beginning in Genesis Chapter 1-3.

    Genesis Chapter 1-3 describes that God made the world and that it was perfect when created, and that human sin was the reason that the created order became imperfect and filled with evil and suffering.

    My contention that Christian theism [as opposed to non-Christian theism] provides a [logical] solution to the particular philosophical conundrum of how an all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing God can logically co-exist with a world that is observably full of evil and suffering.

    I content that this particular philosophical issue goes away if you accept the Christian world-view.

    The issue of the truth [or otherwise] of Christianity itself is a separate issue to be debated separately.

  24. Further to my last post, I might add that I only contend that it provides a logical resolution to the matter of suffering.  Emotional resolutions are an entirely separate matter.  Knowing the resolution I describe won’t make the suffering go away or help you feel better.  At best, (if you accept the Christian world-view) it might give you a measure of hope that the world won’t always be the way it is.

    But this life is always going to be filled with a certain degree of suffering and grief, and none of my description of a logical solution to the matter can [or is intended to] necessarily change this reality.

  25. Hi David
    Do you believe that the events as described in Genesis Chapters 1-3 literally occurred – i.e. Adam and Eve as real individuals in a real garden, etc?

    Also, what do you think about animal suffering from natural causes?  How is it justified?

  26. Hi David Buddedge,

    I agree with your answer, and I also realize after thousands of witnessing encounters and hundreds of times open-air preaching on campus that the atheist probably won’t buy it but will accuse you of circular reasoning, etc.  Of course, that shouldn’t stop you from giving the answer, but I often give them this:

    1.  God exists and is wholly good.
    2.  Evil exists.
    3.  There are no non-logical limits to what an all-powerful, all knowing being can do.
    4.  Our perfectly good God always prevents evil unless He has a morally or logically sufficient reason to allow it.
    5.  God prevents all evil that doesn’t have a morally or logically sufficient reason to allow (per Scripture),
    6.  Thus, evil exists and our perfectly good God exists and there is no contradiction.

    Your explanation above provides the theological grounding for the above premises and makes for excellent apologetical preaching.  Thanks for the interaction!

  27. Tony,

    Agree that any athiest worth their salt should be slapped around the ears with a wet fish if they proferred the argument you suggest as proof against a god-being.  We all know that the ‘problem of evil’ conversation can only get us so far, ending in opinions about the nature of the god-being, not wether the god-being exists.

    Equally so, any ‘half-baked, neo-religious practicioner’ should be slapped with said fish if they offer this flimsy argument for the existance of a god-being, something I hear often:

    1. Scripture is true.
    2. Scripture says a god-being made the world.
    3. the world exists
    4. therefore the god-being made it.
    5. the god-being exists.

    Both arguments are a cocktail of a-priori and a-posteriori statements that get us nowhere.

    The athiest should always start with the argument from improbablity, and invite the religious practicioner to respond accordingly.  Then the conversation can move onto things like “if there is no god-being, why be good?”  This can then lead to discussions of morality and ethics, and what is foundational for us in our day-today lives.


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