As far as I know, the most famous articulation of the “Problem of Evil” in relation to the existence of God was by a guy called Epicurus around 300 BCE. It’s so famous that most people will have heard it or said it in their lifetime, though most don’t know where it comes from. It usually goes something like this:
“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”
Seems quite powerful.
The argument basically breaks down like this:
Premise 1: If God exists then he’s all-powerful and all-loving.
Premise 2: If he’s all-powerful then he can prevent all evil.
Premise 3: If he’s all-loving then he would prevent all evil.
Premise 4: Evil exists.
Conclusion: Therefore an all-powerful and all-loving God does not exist.
On first glance it seems watertight, and people often put the argument forward like it’s a knockout punch. It feels really persuasive and those who crack it out do so with a fair amount of confidence. But the problem is the conclusion does not follow from the premises. No logical inconsistency has ever been shown between the statements “God exists” and “Evil exists”.
And the reason is because in the argument above there is a little unargued-for assumption that has been slipped in to premise 3. The assumption is that “love” must mean something like “always and in every circumstance protecting the one loved from any and all suffering”. The argument assumes that if someone is all-loving then they would as a consequence always prevent any type of evil from the life and experience of the one they love.
That definition of love is an assumption that needs to be defended.
And as far as I know no one has ever done it.
Is it really true that intrinsic to love is keeping any and all suffering from the experience of a loved one? Think about that for a moment. Is that really true? Is it, by definition, unloving to have a child undergo surgery which would save their life but require them to need painkillers for a time during recovery? That’s a tough case to argue. But if the assumption is true then it would also necessarily be true that it is unloving to inflict any pain or suffering on anybody in any circumstance. And we would then need to say that parents who opt for their children to undergo surgery or chemo-therapy do so not because they are loving but because they are imperfect at loving and in that instance are being unloving. Because they are consciously and purposefully inflicting suffering on their loved one, knowing it is in the end for their good. This is a very difficult position to argue for, and to my knowledge no philosopher has ever done so.
Now the point here isn’t to argue necessarily that that is what God is doing. Maybe he is and maybe he isn’t. All we’re showing is that premise 3 is false. The premise hides an indefensible assumption. And if premise 3 is false then the argument is not coherent and therefore the conclusion is false. There is nothing logically inconsistent with loving someone and, under certain circumstances, having good moral reasons for allowing them to experience suffering.
And that’s all we need to show that the argument is not logical. Premise 3 hides an unarticulated and indefensible assumption.