There has always been evil and suffering in the world, and how to make sense of it is a principal object of Christian apologetics. Often, the argument is made that God gave us free will and, as a result, people have the liberty to choose to do evil. But this answer does not satisfy the atheist; often, he will challenge God’s goodness, with comments such as the following:
You claim your God is omniscient. When he created the universe, he saw the sufferings which humans would endure as a result of the sin of those original humans. Surely he would have known that it would have been better for those humans to never have been born (in fact, the Bible says this very thing), and surely this all-compassionate deity would have foregone the creation of a universe destined to imperfection in which many of the humans were doomed to eternal suffering…or alternatively only create those humans who will freely choose God, and eliminate the possibility of their suffering.
This challenge has considerable intuitive appeal. We all rail against the suffering that each of us must face, to varying degrees, as our lives progress. We realize the fragility of our human condition, and how inhospitable this creation seems to be to flesh and blood human beings. It is frightening, indeed, to think of all the ways that our lives can be tragically altered, or ended. But does the harshness of this reality “prove” that God is not “good”?
The first step in responding to this challenge is to get a better idea of what is meant by “good.” Generally speaking, “good” is a measure of quality; how a thing or an idea measures up to a standard of performance. A “good” knife is one that well performs its function, or its intended use. A “good” person is one that lives up to a standard of behavior. But how can one determine what that standard should be? For example, any time two opposing forces are in conflict, whether they are teams, or armies or ideas, the quality of the outcome will be decided from the perspective of the party involved. For instance, the American victory in World War II was a “good” outcome for Western democracy, but a decidedly “bad” outcome for those who staked their future fortunes on the Nazis. A good outcome for my son’s soccer team is when the other side loses. Generally speaking, then, a “win” is good for the winner and bad for the loser.
With this basic distinction in mind, it would seem that, at least preliminarily, answering whether it was “better” to have “foregone the creation of a universe destined to imperfection in which many of the humans were doomed to eternal suffering” would depend on the person being asked. For those spending eternity in heaven in the joyful bliss that an infinitely loving and power God can provide, He certainly did the right thing in creating us and in giving us this opportunity. Infinite and eternal joy and fulfillment versus, well, oblivion – that’s not a difficult choice. By contrast, for the person suffering torment in hell, realizing that he will spend eternity aware of, but separated from, this awesome being, it will probably seem “better” that man was never created.
But let’s take it to a deeper level. How does one decide which of two sides is right in claiming that a successful outcome according to their desires is an objectively “good” outcome. For example, the Nazis deemed domination of Europe a good outcome. Would their victory actually have made Nazi control of Europe a “good” result? The purpose of the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials after World War II was to establish that crimes against humanity had been committed. The underlying premise was that the “good” accomplished by the Allies was not a subjective good, i.e. we’re glad we won and you lost, but an objective good, i.e. Nazi officials were guilty of conduct that was objectively bad, and therefore justly punished. The premise of the trials was that such objective knowledge of good was available to us, and not that the might of the victor makes right. But how can this objective assessment be made, if each side can claim that “good” is what suits them?
This, of course, is a frequent argument of the theist. While an atheist can be moral, he cannot ground his morality, because only the existence of a transcendent being provides the basis for judging objectively the “good” or “evil” of conduct here. Without such a judge, the atheist’s conclusions are mere opinions, mere statements of likes or dislikes. By that standard, the challenger is left saying that having people end up in hell displeases him. To conclude that allowing anyone to suffer in hell is worse than not creating at all, the atheist must appeal to a standard of right and wrong, a standard of goodness. But what is that standard?
Christians can at least make sense of this standard: it is for the creator to decide. Given his perfect knowledge, he is in a better position to judge which is a better outcome. Indeed, challenging God in this fashion seeems rather presumptuous. The creator of this universe is obviously immensely intelligent and powerful. That we should decide what He should do in creating – how he should go about assigning a value to competing options – makes about as much sense as my dog giving me advice on careers or on moral issues. Without the proper frame of reference, a basic sense of humility should prevent us from telling God how he should have approached his creative work.
In the end, foregoing creation would not have been a “good” solution for the many individuals who responded to God’s gift and are, or will be, experiencing eternity in His presence. When you combine this with the realization that people who are separated from God are separated by their own choice and not simply chosen at random, then it would not be fair to deprive so many of such joy when those who have refused God’s gift have done so willfully.
Posted by Al Serrato