Does the existence of terrible evil in the world mean a perfectly good and infinitely powerful creator cannot exist?
Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb bludgeoned a young boy to death for the thrill of it. Bobby Franks, the 14-year-old cousin of Loeb, was killed by the two young men for nothing more than to know what it felt like. While they originally had hoped to hold him for ransom in their attempt to produce the perfect crime, neither young man needed the money, coming from wealthy families themselves. After being caught and admitting to his crime, Leopold said “A thirst for knowledge is highly commendable, no matter what extreme pain or injury it may inflict upon others.” How can humans be capable of such evil?
Their legal defender in court was none other than Clarence Darrow, a man known today for his involvement in the famous Scopes trial. In that later Scopes trial, Darrow would defend the teaching of evolution by John Scopes, a man placed in that role deliberately to challenge the laws banning evolution in the classroom. Darrow himself was known as a driven opponent of fundamentalist Christianity, with the goal of debunking it and the literalist interpretation of the Bible.
Of course, Darrow’s position was already public knowledge prior to the Scopes trial. His defense of Leopold and Loeb prior to defending Scopes was also sensationalized. With a foundational reasoning based upon an evolutionary worldview, Darrow was strongly against the death penalty, even for murderers like these two young men. How did he come to such a conclusion?
“Science and evolution teach us that man is an animal, a little higher than the other orders of animals; that he is governed by the same natural laws that govern the rest of the universe,” he [Darrow] wrote in the magazine Everyman in 1915. Darrow saw confirmation of these views in the field of dynamic psychiatry, which emphasized infantile sexuality and unconscious impulses and denied that human actions were freely chosen and rationally arranged. Individuals acted less on the basis of free will and more as a consequence of childhood experiences that found their expression in adult life.
Through his beliefs in evolutionary origins, Darrow presumed that a person’s actions were not done by the free will of the individual, but by the predeterminate outcome decided by one’s physical nature or hormonal compositions. Instead of seeing crime as an act of will, Darrow saw it as a medical problem, and thus not something the courts could properly punish with the death penalty. Rather, he suggested that medical treatment could take its place and possibly rehabilitate the criminals.
This was Clarence Darrow’s defense of the child killers Leopold and Loeb: as the products of evolutionary processes and acting on animal instincts, the young men were not responsible for their actions that were predetermined by their inherited dispositions. Such a defense shocked the nation, as it should. If this defense had been successful, the entire justice system would have been toppled. Who can be held responsible for their own actions if all their actions are predetermined hormonal responses of a being that cannot surpass their genes?
This does make one wonder: can a materialistic worldview like evolution allow for something like free will? If we are the product of blind natural processes, can we be more than the workings of our genetics? How could the sum be greater than the parts?
If life has arisen by unguided, materialistic processes, then we as living beings are nothing more than matter and energy. The energy moves through us and causes the matter to change shape or form, etc. Over billions of years, the energy fluctuations through matter gave rise to stars, which birthed planets, comets, and all sorts of space debris, which eventually coalesced just right to make this beautiful planet Earth. On it, all the matter and energy cleaved together to form the first life somehow, a mystery still completely unsolvable by materialistic means. That first life then changed into other life forms, branching out, gaining abilities via natural selection, and always following evolution’s main goal: survival of the fittest. Why do they strive to continue and overcome obstacles? Their “selfish genes,” as evolutionist Richard Dawkins calls them, drives them forward. These selfish genes drive their temporary host on to survive and reproduce, passing themselves on further into immortality. Such a view only further draws us to this: what else could evolution produce except creatures that were bound to their genetic instructions? Free will cannot truly come about through materialistic means because matter and energy cannot really choose anything. Action and reactions are possible, but there is no freedom to choose one’s own actions.
If evolution is true, Clarence Darrow’s conclusions must also be as well: mankind, as the product of matter in motion and animal instincts driven by their genes, cannot be held accountable for any for their actions. Not only would murder most foul like that of Leopold and Loeb’s heinous acts be unpunishable, but neither would any other action mankind would take. Rape would be the animal instinct to spread one’s genes. Murder could be to advance one’s fitness levels. Theft obviously would be greatly advantageous to those skilled at it and those stolen from are just out of luck. We aren’t talking about just a few changes to how we look at murder. From a materialistic worldview, the entire moral framework is without foundation because nobody is greater than their genes. Matter and energy cannot think, so who are we to punish people for their actions? Within the evolutionary worldview, there can be no free will.
Even modern atheist Sam Harris agrees with Darrow. He writes about the actions of two criminals, Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky, and how they broke into the home of Dr. William and Jennifer Petit in 2007. After knocking William senseless, they tied the doctor’s wife and daughters to their beds. While one of the men forced the wife to withdraw money from their bank for him, the other sexually abused the youngest daughter. When the two returned from the bank, they raped Jennifer and strangled her. When they noticed that William had slipped his restraints and gotten away to seek help, they panicked. After dosing the house with gasoline, they lit it on fire, burning it down with the daughters still tied to their beds. Only William survived the incident. The two perpetrators of this ghastly crime were eventually captured and brought to justice; however, even after all this horror, Sam Harris can do nothing but conclude that these men were not responsible for their actions. “How can we make sense of our lives, and hold people accountable for their choices, given the unconscious origins of our conscious minds?”
Do these stories shock you? They should. Humans naturally see the horror in such actions. Murdering for the fun of it or brutally raping and killing are things that we naturally know are wrong. Yes, some repress this moral realization, killing their own conscience, but even they know it is wrong. It is because of this innate knowledge of moral absolutes that this matter-over-mind materialistic view must be wrong. Not only do we naturally know that such things are wrong, humans frequently act opposite to them, which hinders any conclusions that we do not have free will. We can choose to abide by these moral absolutes, or we can choose to ignore them. That is the nature if free will.
But why would God grant humans such an ability that allows for such heinous abuses? How could a loving God give mankind the ability to murder, rape, steal, or any other form of sin? The book of Galatians tells us to walk by the Spirit, not the desires of the flesh, since they are in conflict. Why would we be given these desires of the flesh if they can produce so much pain and suffering? Many an atheist has used this problem of evil as their excuse to disregard God’s existence. After all, if evil exists in the world and God has not stopped it, does that mean he is not truly good or powerful enough to do so? No, the existence of evil is actually proof of God’s perfect existence and of our own free will.
How could the existence of evil prove that God is absolutely good? Think about the two stories we have covered thus far. How do we know that Leopold, Loeb, Hayes and Komisarjevsky committed evil acts? Why are we absolutely sure they did wrong? The only way to assume that something is absolutely wrong for there to be a measure of what is absolutely good. Without the ability to measure what is good against an absolute source, we would never know what is evil. Without the existence of God, murder, rape, theft, and all the worst actions you can think of are merely actions of equal value as love, self-sacrifice, and giving gifts. Murdering someone would be of equal merit to saving them if there was no absolute source to tell us what is good. As Greg Koukl says,
This is a profound realization. We have, with a high degree of certainty, stumbled upon something real. Yet it’s something that can’t be proven empirically or described in terms of natural laws. This teaches us there’s more to the world than just the physical universe. If non-physical things—like moral rules—truly exist, then materialism as a world view is false.
Thought itself is an immaterial entity, just like morality. This must mean that materialism is false since immaterial things do indeed exist. Based off of that and the conclusion that morals exist, we can conclude that if evil exists, good exists. You cannot have shadows without light. This argument from morals, as Koukl says, demolishes the materialistic views of Clarence Darrow and Sam Harris. Materials cannot produce morality, and therefore must come from an immaterial source, like God himself.
So how about the other claim? How does this prove free will? Think of it this way: if there are absolute morals, how can we break them? Isn’t our own ability to choose the most reliable explanation? Let’s look back at the problem of evil again. If God is purely good and absolutely powerful, why does he not end suffering? If God had stepped in, would Bobby Franks be dead? Would Dr. William’s family have suffered such brutal deaths? Of course not! So why didn’t God do it? As the antitheist argument goes, the logical conclusion is that God is ether not powerful enough to stop the actions, or he is not truly good because he allows evil. The question should actually be how would God stop such actions? Clearly, he would have to stop the perpetrators of course. If God created us with free will to choose our own actions and futures, wouldn’t he have to remove that free will to stop us?
Why then would God even create us with free will if suffering were the result? Maybe it was because he values relationship! It is a humbling thought that the creator of the universe desires relationship with us, but that is what the Bible implies throughout. Can an intelligent being have meaningful relationships with automatons? If you program a computer to say “I love you” on repeat, will you feel loved by it? Of course not! A computer programed to automatically echo those sentiments is not only unable to truly love, but it is being forced to do it! Love cannot exist unless it is an action chosen willingly. The same exists here with our relationship with God: he wants a real, willing relationship. Just as a husband wants his wife to willingly love him, so does God want us to have the ability to truly mean it when we love him. Otherwise, love does not exist. If God were to stop these criminals, he would have to remove their free will, just as he would have had to do to stop Hitler or any other major evil the world has seen. Humans would be reduced to nothing more than a hollow echo if they weren’t given the ability to choose to love God or not, or to do good or not. Since God loved us long before we loved him, he clearly desires us to seek him willingly, and to remove that freedom to choose our path to or away from him would be the antithesis of this powerful love.
Neither Darrow nor Harris can see the logical flaws in their positions. Not only do these instances of evil not prove the lack of a creator, but they actually do the opposite. Shadow cannot prove that light doesn’t exist. Cold doesn’t prove that heat doesn’t exist. In fact, both only exist because there is a lack of their counterparts present. You only know what is dark and what is cold because you know there is light and heat. In the same way, evil is simply a shadow that proves the existence of God. The creator, in his wisdom, knew that the relationship he wanted was that of father and children, and that love can never be forced. The evil that exists is not because of God’s lack of empathy or insufficient power, but because his great love and desire for us grants us this freedom to choose to love him back or not. No matter the darkness that humans are capable of, the light of God’s love is brighter.
“But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”