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Published On: Monday 28 Jan, 2013
By: Hamza Andreas Tzortzis

In the philosophy of religion, “natural atheology” is defined as the branch of philosophy that attempts to prove the central beliefs of theists (people who believe in a God) as false1. One of the most impressive and strongest arguments of natural atheology is to do with the problem of evil. The problem of evil claims that it is unbelievable, if an omnipotent and good God exists, that he would permit so much pain and suffering in the world.

The famous philosopher David Hume in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion aptly puts it:

“Epicurus’s old questions are yet unanswered. Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”2

The problem of evil is without a doubt one of the key intellectual obstacles that a Muslim or theist has to overcome in order to be convinced that God exists (or convince others for that matter). There are two versions of the problem of evil, the internal problem of evil and the external problem of evil.

The internal problem of evil is presented as an argument whose premises the Muslim is committed to due to his belief in Islam. The external problem of evil is presented as an argument whose premises the Muslim is not committed to but can have good reasons to believe the premises to be true.

The Internal Problem of Evil

The internal problem of evil presents its premises as follows:

1. A good God that is omnipotent exist.
2. Evil exists.
3. Therefore a good God that is omnipotent doesn’t exist.

H. J. McCloskey in his article ‘God and Evil’ summarises the problem well:

“Evil is a problem for the theist in that a contradiction is involved in the fact of evil, on the one hand, and the belief in the omnipotence and perfection of God on the other.”3

Responding to the Internal Problem of Evil

The first point that needs to be made is that statements (1) and (2) are not logically inconsistent as there is no apparent contradiction. For the atheist to jump to the conclusion that a good God that is omnipotent doesn’t exist is an unwarranted, unless he has assumed, in the words of philosopher William Craig, “some hidden premises”4. These hidden premises seem to be the following,

4. If God is omnipotent, then he can create any world he wants.
5. If God is good, then he prefers a world without evil.

Statement (4) suggests that since God can create and do anything, then he can create free human beings who always decide to do the right thing and do not fall into evil or suffering. Statement (5) suggests that God is all good, so much so that if he could create a world without evil and suffering, he would. Otherwise he would himself be evil to prefer that humans experience evil and suffering.

The proponent of this version of the problem of evil has made some unjustified assumptions. These hidden premises make some daring assumptions; firstly it assumes a Christian type of God, one that is just good and omnipotent. Secondly it assumes that God doesn’t have any reasons to permit evil and suffering in the world.

Responding to the first assumption:

Muslims do not only believe that God is just good and omnipotent. Muslims believe that part of God’s names and attributes include ‘the Just’, ‘the Severe in Punishment’, ‘the Wise’, ‘the Avenger’, and ‘the Compassionate’, amongst many others. So statements (1, 4 and 5) are inaccurate as the Muslim does not reduce God to parts, rather God is seen as one and unique in context of all his names and attributes. So if God was just good and omnipotent, then there may be problem in reconciling suffering and evil in the world. However if you include attributes such as ‘the Severe in Punishment’ and ‘the Wise’, these problems would not exist. Because perceived evil and suffering in the world can be due to:

• God’s punishment as a result of our sins and bad actions.
• God’s wisdom, as there may be divine wisdom in permitting evil and suffering. Even if we can’t evaluate what the wisdom is, it doesn’t mean it is not there. To argue such a thing would be a logical fallacy, known as the argument from ignorance (argumentum ad ignorantiam). The story of Khidr which can be found in the 18th chapter of Qur’an from verses 60 to 82 is an eloquent account of how God’s wisdom, whether understood or not, has positive results and benefits for humanity.

In addition to this, the Muslim can argue that the problem of evil is logically posterior to the existence of God. You need to establish that God exists first before attempting to reconcile who God is with our perception of reality, in this case, evil and suffering.

Lastly the meaning of the word “good” attributed to God needs to be understood in a divine context. In general terms the word ‘good’ has a meaning that relates to human experience, whereas in Islamic theology ‘good’ as an attribute of God is primarily viewed as a unique attribute that can be appreciated but not fully comprehended due to his uniqueness and transcendental nature. Therefore the underlying assumption that evil and a good God cannot coexist may be true with a Christian view of God. However it doesn’t apply to the Islamic concept of God as the atheist will have to reconcile evil and suffering with something that he cannot fully comprehend. So his premises are false due to his incorrect assumption that ‘good’ in the context of God is related to a human understanding of good.

Responding to the second assumption:

A sufficient response to the second assumption is to provide a strong argument that God has justified reasons to permit suffering and evil in the world. The intellectual richness of Islamic Theology provides us with many reasons, some of which include:

1. The primary purpose of the human being is not happiness, rather it is to know and worship God. This fulfillment of the divine purpose will result in everlasting bliss and happiness. So if this is our primary purpose, other aspects of human experience are secondary. The Qur’an, the book of the Muslims states: “I did not create either jinn or man except to worship Me.”5

2. God also created us for a test, and part of this test is to be tested with suffering and evil. The Qur’an mentions “The One Who created death and life, so that He may put you to test, to find out which of you is best in deeds: He is the all-Almighty, the all-Forgiving.”6

3. Having hardship and suffering enables us to realise and know God’s attributes such as ‘the Victorious’ and ‘the Healer’. For example without the pain and suffering of illness we would not appreciate the attribute of God being ‘the Healer’. Knowing God is a greater good, and worth the experience of suffering or pain as it will mean the fulfillment of our primary purpose.

4. Suffering allows 2nd order good. 1st order good is physical pleasure and happiness and 1st order evil is physical pain and sadness. 2nd order goodness is elevated goodness such as courage and can only happen if suffering or evil exist.7

5. People can also suffer from past, present or future sins. God has knowledge of everything which is not contingent on time. Please refer to the story of Khidr in the Qur’an where it mentions Khidr’s reply to Prophet Moses “All this was done as a mercy from your Lord. What I did was not done by my own will. That is the interpretation of those actions which you could not bear to watch with patience.”8

6. God has given us free will, and free will includes choosing evil acts.9

The external problem of evil

The internal problem of evil fails to convince, however the external problem of evil seems more persuasive because it seems to acknowledge the co-existence of God and evil in the world, but denies God’s existence due to the level of the evil in the world. The external problem of evil argues the following:

1. A good God that is omnipotent exists.
2. Gratuitous evil exists.
3. Therefore, God does not exist.

For the Muslim statement (2) is subjective and not entirely true. The Muslim will believe that evil exists, but not that gratuitous evil exists, and since this is based upon human subjectivity then the external problem of evil carries no weight. The proponent of this argument will have to show that gratuitous evil or evil itself are objective without reference to human subjectivity.

The essential problem with this argument is shown in the following questions:

• What makes our value judgments objectively true?
• What are our definitions of gratuitous evil?

The proponent of the problem of evil is faces a problem because God is required a rational basis for objective good and evil (whether gratuitous or not). Without God these terms are relative as there is no conceptual anchor, apart from God himself, which transcends human subjectivity. So the terms evil and good make no sense or are just ephemeral without God. Therefore in order for the atheist’s premise to make objective sense, God’s existence is necessary. In this light, the Muslim or theist may argue:

1. If God did not exist, then objective moral values would not exist.
2. Evil exists.
3. Therefore objective moral values exists. (from premise 2)
4. Therefore, God exists.

Explaining the key premise: Premise (1)

The question about objective good or bad, in other words objective morality, has been discussed by many theists and non-theists alike. Many have concluded that there is no objective morality without God. Humanist philosopher Paul Kurtz aptly puts it,

“The central question about moral and ethical principles concerns this ontological foundation. If they are neither derived from God nor anchored in some transcendent ground, are they purely ephemeral?”10

Paul Kurtz is right because God is the only conceptual anchor that transcends human subjectivity, so without God there is no rational basis for objective morality. In God’s absence, there are only two possible alternative conceptual foundations:

• Social pressures
• Evolution

Both social pressures and evolution provide no objective basis for morality as they both claim that our morality is contingent on changes: biological and social. Therefore morality cannot be binding, in other words true regardless of who believes in them.

Therefore without God there is no objective basis for morality. God as a concept is not subjective therefore having God as basis for morality makes them binding and objective, because God transcends human subjectivity. The following statement by Richard Taylor, an eminent ethicist, correctly concludes:

“Contemporary writers in ethics, who blithely discourse upon moral right and wrong and moral obligation without any reference to religion, are really just weaving intellectual webs from thin air; which amounts to saying that they discourse without meaning.”11

Therefore evil in the world actually proves that God exists. This argument shows how God and evil can co-exist without attempting to explain why. So in a rhetorical response to the atheist, the Muslim or theist can pose the following question:

“How can the atheist formulate an argument against the existence of God when God is required as an objective basis for the formulation of the argument in the first place?!”

At first sight the problem of evil seems to present insuperable difficulties for the Muslim. However under intellectual scrutiny, the problem of evil actually fails to present a convincing argument.

Concluding with the Emotional Argument

There is a well-known Buddhist saying that states ‘desire causes suffering ‘and since human beings desire then we will always suffer. Whether this is true or not clearly reinforces our intuition that we will suffer and experience evil at some point in our lives. This suffering can be the making of our own hands, other peoples or external forces like natural disasters. A consequence of this suffering is that many of us may fall prey to our emotional dispositions thereby questioning God’s existence or entering into a state of some form psychological malady.

Islamic theology however provides the conceptual ‘tools’ necessary for the Muslim to overcome this problem. Islamic Theology is derived from two main sources, the Qur’an and the hadith literature. The Qur’an is a divine book that Muslims believes to be the word of God, and the hadith are divinely inspired statements attributed to the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him). The following verses from the Qur’an and sayings from hadith provide all the necessary comfort for the Muslim.

The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said:

“Amazing is the affair of the believer, verily all of his affair is good and this is not for no one except the believer. If something of good/happiness befalls him he is grateful and that is good for him. If something of harm befalls him, he is patient and that is good for him.”12

“Anyone who dies of the plague is a martyr. Anyone who dies of a stomach illness is a martyr. Anyone who drowns is a martyr.”13

“There are seven classes of martyrs except the one who is killed while fighting in the cause of God: one who dies in plague is a martyr; one who dies due to drowning is a martyr; one who is killed of Zat al-Janb disease (a disease that attacks ribs and causes inner ulcerations) is a martyr; one who dies of diseases of stomach is a martyr; one who is killed by fire is a martyr; one who is crushed under a wall is a martyr; and a woman who dies while delivery (or pregnancy) is a martyr.”14

“No calamity befalls a Muslim but that Allah expiates some of his sins because of it, even though it were the prick he receives from a thorn.”15

The Qur’an says:

“Do you think that you will enter Paradise without any trials, while you have known the examples of those who passed away before you? They were afflicted with suffering and adversity and were so violently shaken up that even the Prophet and the believers with him cried out: ‘When will God’s help come?’ Be aware, God’s help is close.”16

“Surely with every difficulty there is relief. Surely with every difficulty there is relief.”17

“Let there rise from among you a band of people who should invite to righteousness, enjoin good and forbid evil: such are the one, who shall be successful.”18

Since the Muslim is intellectually convinced that these statements are from God, then it follows they are truth claims that not only comfort the Muslim, but fills his heart with tranquility.Explaining Islam

  1. Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom and Evil (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1977), p 7 []
  2. David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, part 10 []
  3. “God and Evil”, Philosophical Quarterly, X (1960), p 97 []
  4. J.P. Moreland and William L. Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (IVP Academic), p. 538 []
  5. Qur’an, 51:56-57 []
  6. Qur’an, 67:2 []
  7. Although this is contended by some philosophers such as John Mackie, philosopher Alvin Plantinga provides an interesting response in his book God, Freedom and Evil. []
  8. Qur’an, 18:82 []
  9. This requires an in-depth discussion in another article []
  10. Paul Kurtz, Forbidden Fruit (Prometheus, 1988), p 65 []
  11. Richard Taylor, Ethics, Faith, and Reason (Prentice Hall, 1985), p. 83–84 []
  12. Sahih Muslim, no. 2999 []
  13. ibid. []
  14. Narrated by Abu Dawood and Ibn Majah []
  15. Sahih Bukhari, 70:544 []
  16. Qur’an, 2:214 []
  17. Qur’an, 94:5-6 []
  18. Qur’an, 3:104 []
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