Post Author: Bill Pratt
In Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian, Russell quotes the famed philosopher John Stuart Mill writing about his father’s road to atheism. In the previous post, we looked at the transmission of atheism from one generation to the next. Today we look at another insight from Mill’s quote.
My father [says John Stuart Mill], educated in the creed of Scotch Presbyterianism, had by his own studies and reflections been early led to reject not only the belief in Revelation but the foundations of what is commonly called Natural Religion. My father’s rejection of all that is called religious belief was not, as many might suppose, primarily a matter of logic and evidence: the grounds of it were moral, still more than intellectual.
He found it impossible to believe that a world so full of evil was the work of an Author combining infinite power with perfect goodness and righteousness. His aversion to religion, in the sense usually attached to the term, was of the same kind with that of Lucretius: he regarded it with the feelings due not to mere mental delusion but to a great moral evil.
What is interesting in this quotation is James Mill’s reason for becoming an atheist. It wasn’t about primarily “logic and evidence,” but about a moral problem – the existence of evil. For Mill, the existence of a morally perfect and infinitely powerful God is impossible given the evil in the world. Here is a classical way to state this version of the problem of evil:
1. If God is all good, he would destroy evil.
2. If God is all powerful, he could destroy evil.
3. But evil is not destroyed.
4. Therefore, there is no such God.
How do theists respond to this argument? Christian philosopher Norm Geisler offers the following solution in his Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (I’ve greatly abbreviated his solution below for space reasons):
Theism holds that even though God could not destroy (annihilate) all evil without destroying all good, nevertheless, he can and will defeat (overcome) all evil without destroying free choice. The argument can be summarized as follows:
1. God is all good and desires to defeat evil.
2. God is all powerful and is able to defeat evil.
3. Evil is not yet defeated.
4. Therefore, it will one day be defeated.
The infinite power and perfection of God guarantee the eventual defeat of evil. The fact that it is not yet accomplished in no way diminishes the certainty that it will be defeated. Even though evil cannot be destroyed without destroying free choice, nonetheless, it can be overcome. . . .
Not only can a theistic God defeat evil, but he will do it. We know this because he is all good and would want to defeat evil. And because he is all-powerful and is able to defeat evil. Therefore, he will do it. The guarantee that evil will be overcome is the nature of the theistic God.
What is fascinating to me about Mill’s rejection of God is that it is not based on logic. Philosophers of religion are virtually unanimous in concluding that the logical problem of evil, as stated above, is solvable by theists, and therefore does not demonstrate a true logical problem.
If Mill had used logic and reason, he might have discovered this for himself. Instead, his failure to apply logic and reason to the problem of evil moved him to atheism. In fact, as we’ve argued here before, it is difficult to even account for the existence of evil without a perfectly good God.
None of this is to deny that the problem of evil is a question that Christians must answer. We must take this question seriously and explain how the Christian God can exist with the evil we see in the world. Norm Geisler and many other Christian philosophers over the last 2,000 years have offered answers to this question.
We don’t know what James Mill concluded about the origins and persistence of evil, but it does look like he failed to consider logical solutions to the problem, and instead relied only on his moral intuitions.