Fact Check

Did Albert Einstein Humiliate an Atheist Professor?

One of the most troubling conundrums is the question of how evil and suffering can survive in a universe created and managed by a loving supreme being.

Published June 28, 2004

 (Wikimedia Commons)
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
While a college student, Albert Einstein humiliated an atheist professor by using the "Evil is the absence of God" argument on him.

[Collected via e-mail, 1999]

Does evil exist?

The university professor challenged his students with this question. Did God create everything that exists? A student bravely replied, "Yes, he did!"

"God created everything? The professor asked.

"Yes sir", the student replied.

The professor answered, "If God created everything, then God created evil since evil exists, and according to the principal that our works define who we are then God is evil". The student became quiet before such an answer. The professor was quite pleased with himself and boasted to the students that he had proven once more that the Christian faith was a myth.

Another student raised his hand and said, "Can I ask you a question professor?"

"Of course", replied the professor.

The student stood up and asked, "Professor, does cold exist?"

"What kind of question is this? Of course it exists. Have you never been cold?" The students snickered at the young man's question.

The young man replied, "In fact sir, cold does not exist. According to the laws of physics, what we consider cold is in reality the absence of heat. Every body or object is susceptible to study when it has or transmits energy, and heat is what makes a body or matter have or transmit energy. Absolute zero (-460 degrees F) is the total absence of heat; all matter becomes inert and incapable of reaction at that temperature. Cold does not exist. We have created this word to describe how we feel if we have no heat."

The student continued, "Professor, does darkness exist?"

The professor responded, "Of course it does."

The student replied, "Once again you are wrong sir, darkness does not exist either. Darkness is in reality the absence of light. Light we can study, but not darkness. In fact we can use Newton's prism to break white light into many colors and study the various wavelengths of each color. You cannot measure darkness. A simple ray of light can break into a world of darkness and illuminate it. How can you know how dark a certain space is? You measure the amount of light present. Isn't this correct? Darkness is a term used by man to describe what happens when there is no light present."

Finally the young man asked the professor, "Sir, does evil exist?"

Now uncertain, the professor responded, "Of course as I have already said. We see it every day. It is in the daily example of man's inhumanity to man. It is in the multitude of crime and violence everywhere in the world. These manifestations are nothing else but evil."

To this the student replied, "Evil does not exist sir, or at least it does not exist unto itself. Evil is simply the absence of God. It is just like darkness and cold, a word that man has created to describe the absence of God. God did not create evil. Evil is not like faith, or love that exist just as does light and heat. Evil is the result of what happens when man does not have God's love present in his heart. It's like the cold that comes when there is no heat or the darkness that comes when there is no light."

The professor sat down.

The young man's name — Albert Einstein.

For those looking for a quick answer to the question of whether the above narrative is literally true, we'll state up front that it is not. Nothing remotely like the account related above appears in any biography or article about Albert Einstein, nor is the account congruent with that scientist's expressed views on the subject of religion (in which he generally described himself as an "agnostic" or a "religious nonbeliever"). Einstein's name has simply been inserted into an anecdote created long after his death in order to provide the reading audience with a recognizable figure and thus lend the tale an air of verisimilitude

As to what this account says from a standpoint of faith, one of the most troubling conundrums is the question of how evil and suffering can survive in a universe created and managed by a loving supreme being. Postulated explanations of this paradox are known as theodicies, and such answers have been for centuries handed out by members of many belief systems when challenged to provide logical answers to the question of how it is possible that a just and moral God can co-exist with evil. Among these answers are:










  • Free Will: God gave his children the right to make up their own minds as to who they would be, and some choose to be rotten.
  • Imperfect Supreme Being: God struggles valiantly to cope with a universe filled with random events (chaos), but as powerful as he is, he can't undo every awful thing the moment it happens.
  • The Devil: An evil entity preys upon the weak of will, winning many of the flawed to his side where they are first welcomed, then sent out to do his bidding. While God is ultimately fated to win the final battle against this adversary, until that time the evil entity's minions will wreak havoc.
  • Incomprehensibility: "Good" and "evil" are human constructs born of mankind's limited understanding of the universe. Were people capable of seeing things through God's eyes, they would grasp the morality and rightness of events that now leave them aghast in horror and riddled with unease at their seeming unfairness.


The online forward quoted above draws upon yet another possible explanation: that evil is the absence of God, in the same way that cold is the absence of heat, and dark is the absence of light. This argument has been around for a long time, as has the legend about the pious student
using it to squelch an atheist professor.

The name of Einstein gets used in legends whose plots call for a smart person, one whom the audience will immediately recognize as such (i.e., modern tellings of an ancient legend about a learned rabbi who switches places with his servant feature Albert Einstein in the role of esteemed scholar). This venerated cultural icon has, at least in the world of contemporary lore, become a stock character to be tossed into the fray wherever the script calls for a genius.

Likewise, "the atheist professor" is a stock figure common to a number of urban legends and anecdotes of the faithful: he gets flung into the mix where there's a need for someone to play the role of Science Vanquished in Science-versus-Religion tales. But he is not inserted merely to serve as an icon of learning to be humbled in tales that aim to teach that faith is of greater value than provable knowledge; he is also woven into these sorts of stories for his lack of belief. Just as the villain in
oldtime melodramas had to have a waxed moustache, a black cape, and an evil laugh, so too must the bullying professor of such stories be an atheist: it would not be enough for him to be merely an insufferable, over-educated git arrogantly attempting to stretch the minds of his students by having them question something deeply believed. No, he must instead be someone who rejects the existence of God, an assignment of role that re-positions what might otherwise have been a bloodless debate about philosophy as an epic battle between two champions of faith and denial and sets up the action to unfold as one putting the boots to the other.

"The atheist professor" plays his expected role of getting his pants kicked in the Dropped Chalk tale, where he (once again) challenges his browbeaten students on the topic of God's existence. He is also pivotal to these following tales, which are yet other variations on the same theme:

A college class was led by an atheist professor, and every day he'd stand in front of his class and say, "Have you ever seen God?" to which nobody would answer. Then he'd ask, "Have you ever felt God?" and nobody would answer. Finally he'd ask, "Have you ever heard God?" and, like the other times, nobody would answer. He then would say, "It is obvious that there is no God."

One day a Christian student had been having an extremely bad day; her car broke down, her mother was sick, her boyfriend was out of town, and she'd gotten a bad grade on one of her exams. She had been fed up with her professor's little act every morning, so she decided to do something about it.

While the professor stood up at the beginning of class and did his thing, the student had an idea. She got up and said, "Professor, would you mind if I said something?" He said, "Of course not. This is an expressive classroom, and I think it would be fine if you spoke your mind."

The girl said to the class, "Have you ever seen our professor's brain?" and nobody answered. Then she asked, "Have you ever felt our professor's brain?" and nobody answered. Finally she asked, "Have you ever heard our professor's brain?" and, like the other times, nobody answered.

She then said, "It is quite obvious that our professor has no brain."



An atheist professor was teaching a college class and he told the class that he was going to prove that there is no God.

He said, "God, if you are real, then I want you to knock me off this platform. I'll give you 15 minutes!"

Ten minutes went by.

The professor kept taunting God, saying, "Here I am, God. I'm still waiting."

He got down to the last couple of minutes and a Marine just released from active duty, and newly registered in the class, walked up to the professor, hit him full force in the face, and sent him flying from his platform.

The professor struggled up, obviously shaken and yelled, "What's the matter with you? Why did you do that?"

The Marine replied, "God was busy, so He sent me."



Navy SEALs are always taught

1) Keep your priorities in order and
2) Know when to act without hesitation.

A Navy SEAL was attending some college courses between assignments. He had completed missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of the courses had a professor who was an avowed atheist and a member of the ACLU. One day he shocked the class when he came in, looked to the ceiling, and flatly stated, "God, if you are real, then I want you to knock me off this platform. I'll give you exactly 15 minutes."

The lecture room fell silent. You could hear a pin drop. Ten minutes went by and the professor
proclaimed, "Here I am God. I'm still waiting."

It got down to the last couple of minutes when the SEAL got out of his chair, went up to the professor, and cold-cocked him; knocking him off the platform. The professor was out cold. The SEAL went back to his seat and sat there, silently. The other students were shocked and stunned and sat there looking on in silence.

The professor eventually came to, noticeably shaken, looked at the SEAL and asked, "What the hell is the matter with you? Why did you do that?"

The SEAL calmly replied, "God was too busy today protecting America's soldiers who are protecting your right to say stupid shit and act like an asshole. So He sent me."

The key to understanding the allure of these tales lies in this one line from the "evil is the absence of God" story: "The professor was quite pleased with himself and boasted to the students that he had proven once more that the Christian faith was a myth."

Faith can't be proved (or disproved); if such validations were possible, those concepts would stop being matters of faith and start being matters of fact. Unfortunately, this leaves those who are convinced of the existence of God without an incontrovertible, irrefutable answer to those who challenge them to provide evidence of the veracity of their belief systems' tenets, or to demonstrate beyond any shadow of doubt that their inner direction is the right one to those who insist on independently verifiable proof of that which can't be proved.

That God permits evil to exist (and some would say to thrive) is taken by non-believers as an inarguable sign that there is no supreme being. This puzzle is pointed to by them as the unanswerable fallacy that proves the negative: they reckon that a loving, all-powerful God would have stamped out evil, ergo He doesn't exist, or He is not all-powerful, or He is not all that enamored of His children. As such, this paradox can be disquieting to those who do believe: not only do they themselves have to wrestle with the seeming disconnect, they are left unable to convincingly answer their critics when this topic comes up. They find themselves similarly hamstrung when pressed to prove the existence of God.

Stories about atheist professors being bested by true believers who did have answers at the ready are both ventings of this frustration and expressions of delight in finally seeming to have been armed with deft responses to fling back. These are tales of affirmation, modern-day parables of trials overcome and fierce adversaries bested by those who held fast to what they believed in, even in the face of ridicule rained down by authority figures. Like parables, they are meant to inspire similar resolve in those with whom they are shared: should those members of the flock ever find themselves in like circumstances, they should feel moved to emulate the brave students of legend who stood up to the atheist professors.

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