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B.C. Johnson is an anonymous author who describes and argues against the concept of an all-good God by illustrating the example of innocent deaths—in particular, the suffering and death of small children. This line of argument against the traditional concept of God is not an especially new kind of argument; in fact, it is known by its popular name “the Problem of Evil,” which is part of the title of Johnson’s essay. Evil is principally problematic for theists in the sense that they may not really know the God they worship is truly (a) capable of or (b) willing to or (c) knowledgeable of the evil that is going on in the world.
B.C. Johnson intends to use this problem to advocate for his own position, which is the position of atheism (or the belief that there is no God). Atheism is built on Johnson’s position that if God is omnibenevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient, then it is impossible to believe in a God when we live in a world in which there is an enormous amount of evil.
The author builds toward that conclusion by giving a series of criticisms, arguing in their favor, and then responding to potential defenses for God by theists in attempting to answer the Problem of Evil.
The author’s set of three criticisms follow the “Argument from Evil” begin by setting up Johnson’s overall position: taking the example of the suffering baby in a house fire, God had the ability to save the child but failed to do so (omnipotence) and God upheld goodness by not saving the baby (omnibenevolence).
Johnson proceeds to ask why these characteristics of God are logically possible in the death of an innocent child. One argument he anticipates immediately is that the child will be rewarded in heaven; however, if suffering was not truly necessary, then why allow it? If the suffering was necessary, then an explanation for that suffering is important in the same way a jury might demand an explanation for any other kind of crime. To the demand for an explanation, Johnson anticipates the theist claiming that the baby’s suffering is a net positive in the long run, making it permissible.
However, based on that position, one is claiming that any evils in the world always result in overall good in the long run—which means causing harm is actually causing good and violating the laws of logic. Besides, Johnson responds by saying one would not accept such an explanation in “real life”, such as in a courtroom, where we evaluate the guilt or innocence of a defendant in the present, not in the distant future. Another avenue for a theist to pursue is the idea that God gave man free will to develop virtues and follow moral urgency to solve these kinds of problems. True, moral conventions would not hold a bystander in the situation as “good” if he knowingly and willfully stood by and watched the child suffer. But, then, why can we not extend that same moral judgment to God’s actions, assuming that He was capable of preventing the child’s needless suffering?
Generally, it may be important for people not to rely on outside help, but using that line of argument to its fullest potential would mean the abolishment of hospitals, fire departments, and other public services. Johnson does not see a problem with the idea that people should have the opportunity to develop important virtues, which are learned in response to suffering, but the amount of suffering endured by a baby dying in a fire is not fully explained by this need. Also, why would we need virtues in a world without evil? In theory, an all-good God, Johnson argues, would remove evil and therefore remove the necessity for virtues. The same goes for the claim that if there was no evil, humans would not know “goodness”: only a small amount of evil is necessary in that case, not evil and suffering on the scale of holocaust and genocide. Johnson also dismisses the idea that God’s actions are to be judged on a different moral scale; however, if God’s “good” is actually what we would call “bad”, that begs the question of what makes Him a respectable figure for guiding our own behaviors. In addition, whether we could know this “higher morality” poses a difficult question of whether we know anything about morality at all.
All of these claims rest on the idea that God is fully omnipotent, which is a widely accepted tenant of religion, and it is foundational in the sense that if God cannot enforce His own natural laws, then there must be a non-theistic explanation for the apparent order in the universe. Even if God is not all-powerful, but still capable of preventing evil, as philosophers like John Mill and William James have argued, the essential issue is the same: why doesn’t the Supreme Being intervene in cases of holocaust and genocide, which are examples that Johnson makes use of in his argument. With this alternative concept of God as just “somewhat powerful” rather than omnipotent, one must still question whether one ought to worship God or the evil powers at be that actually rule the order of things. Overall, as Johnson points out, it seems doubtful that God could “create a universe and yet is conveniently unable to do what the fire department can do—rescue a baby from a burning building” .
Trying to escape the Problem of Evil by rescinding the condition that God is omnipotent, for Johnson, is really “straining” the meaning of the word “God” to mean something else entirely. In fact, God need only be as powerful as a man to stop many horrendous evils. Johnson’s last set of arguments follows the theist’s retreat back to the last bastion of religious belief: faith. Basically, to the theist who claims that he does not know why God permits evil and who thinks he does not need an answer because he has faith, Johnson replies that this is only justified if one has good evidence that God is good. But while Johnson makes good points and analogies in response to the faith-based claim, it seems problematic to invite those who rely on faith alone, without the need for rational or evidential basis for the beliefs, to consider the evidence of God’s moral goodness. Asking for evidence in a faith-based discussion is akin to asking for a square peg to put in a rounded hole. Nevertheless, I think it is appropriate for Johnson to end the discussion there as that is typically how most evidential arguments about God end for those who believe strongly, based just on faith, in his omnipotence and omnibenevolence.
Interestingly enough, the paper first appeared in The Atheist Debater’s Handbook, meant to arm atheists with the rhetorical firepower they need to convince the other side of the merits of their position. But, again, that relies on a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of faith in religion: conceptually, it is more aligned with trust than it is aligned with knowledge. I think it is fine for Johnson to ask individuals to question a friend’s (i.e. God’s) innocence when there is substantial evidence to the contrary; but, for many, a faith-based relationship with God is about an impenetrable trust, not a deep knowledge of Him or his actions. That complaint with Johnson’s treatment of faith near the conclusion of his paper in no way faults him for the content of his arguments in the previous sections, which are utterly convincing from an evidentiary point-of-view; rather, it only faults him for his approach. Despite its short-length, which is important for guiding the arguments of atheists against their theist counterparts, the essay could have been more logically organized, which is another problem perhaps with the author’s approach. If the purpose of the article is to truly capture and defeat arguments from theists, the organization of the paper could have been more explicit. In other words, no two arguments are exactly the same, and while the arguments Johnson crafts are good ones, it might be easier for an atheist to follow if the paper was written in terms of points and counterpoints, rather than leaving the reader to pick through the narrative in order to find where arguments lead and where they terminate.
Ultimately, though, based on the structure of the essay, all arguments terminate when the theist resorts to closing the discussion off to evidence and rational thinking and instead finds solace in faith and trust that God is performing good deeds in the long run, in spite of all of the evidence to the contrary. The result is that Johnson wins, but wins in the sense that he convinces only those who already agreed with him: those who do not already agree have other priorities. For those that do agree, however, the message of the essay is powerful, as the author concludes: “Such a God if not dead, is the next thing to it. And a person who believes in such a ghost of a God is practically an atheist. To call such a thing a god would be to strain the meaning of the word”.
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