Probably the most-cited argument against the existence of a theistic God is the logical form of the problem of evil, which argues that the existence of an all-good and all-powerful God is logically incompatible with the existence of evil because an all-good God would want to prevent evil and an all-powerful God could prevent evil, and yet evil exists. From this, it follows that God is not all-powerful, not all-good, or more likely does not exist at all. There could be a world in which God exists, or there could be a world in which evil exists, but there can be no world in which both God and evil exist. Since it’s empirically evident that evil exists, God does not.

Most people are unaware of the fact that this form of the argument has been definitively answered: God and evil can coexist without logical contradiction so long as God has a morally sufficient reason for allowing evil. Theologians differ, however, on what God’s morally sufficient reason is (or might be):

  • Some argue that God allows evil because evil produces additional goods that would not be possible in a morally pure world, such as courage, compassion, and forgiveness. We shall call this the “new goods” view.
  • Others argue that God is morally justified in permitting evil because each act of evil will be compensated by a good, even if the good is not as great as the evil it is compensating, not always identifiable, or not even realized in our lifetime. We shall call this the “compensation” view.
  • Others argue that God is morally justified in permitting evil because each act of evil will be compensated by a greater good, even if the good is not always identifiable or even realized in our lifetime. We shall call this the “greater compensation” view. It differs from the former only in the amount of compensation we receive for each act of evil.
  • Others have argued that God is morally justified in permitting evil so long as the total amount of evil in the world is eclipsed by the total amount of good; i.e. the good outweighs the bad (even if not every person experiences more good than evil). We shall call this the “more good” view.

Are these explanations satisfactory understandings of why God permits evil? Not surprisingly, skeptics don’t think so. For example, in William Lane Craig’s debate with Daniel Came, Came challenged the “new goods” characterization of God’s moral justification by asking how the evil of a young child suffering and dying from leukemia can be justified by the loving expressions of sympathy toward the grieving parents or the intense closeness the family may experience due to their mutual loss and shared suffering. While those new goods are truly good, surely they do not outweigh the evil of the child’s death!  No parent would choose those goods over the good of their child’s continued life. While some good may come out of evil, it rarely seems to outweigh the evil itself.

While “new goods” are truly good and valuable, they do not seem worth the price of all the evil and suffering in the world. If you gave people a choice between (1) a world containing evil plus these extra goods and (2) a world devoid of evil as well as these extra goods, I surmise that most people would choose the latter. The goods of love, peace, joy, friendship, equality, honesty, kindness, generosity, beauty, loyalty, pleasure, and wisdom are plenty!

Came also challenged the “compensation” and “greater compensation” characterizations of God’s moral justification. He thinks it probable that some evils are gratuitous (pointless); i.e. they could be eliminated without eliminating any good in the world and without causing a greater evil. Examples of gratuitous evil include animals dying an agonizing death in a forest fire, being bit by a mosquito, or stubbing one’s toe. If even some gratuitous evils exist in the world, the “compensation” characterization of God’s moral justification must be false because there would exist some evils for which no good was realized.

The compensation views also suffer from their reliance on epistemic ignorance. It’s not possible to empirically verify that every act of evil is compensated by some good. Even if it was possible, the view holds that some goods may not be realized in our lifetime. How could such a view ever be confirmed or falsified? Even if we could prove that someone experienced more evil than good in their lifetime, the theist could always argue that the missing goods will be realized in the future in the life of someone else.

The greater compensation view also suffers from the problem of moral intervention. We have a basic intuition that we have a moral responsibility to prevent evil insofar as we are able. If each instance of evil produces a greater amount of good, however, then to prevent any instance of evil is to prevent a greater instance of good. It would seem reasonable, then, that the moral person should not intervene to prevent evil insofar as he is able, lest he prevent greater amounts of good in the world. Since this flies in the face of our basic moral intuitions, the greater compensation is most assuredly false.

What about the “more good” view? It’s not clear what is meant by the good “outweighing” evil. Are we referring to the number of acts, such that if there were 99 evil acts and 100 good acts, then good would outweigh evil? Or are we referring to the quality of the acts? Clearly some acts of goodness carry more moral weight than others. Risking one’s life to save the life of another carries more moral weight than the act of telling the truth. Likewise, some acts of evil carry more moral weight than others. Genocide is more evil than lying. If the world contained 99 acts of evil and 100 acts of goodness, but all 99 of those evil acts were acts of murder while all 100 of those good acts were acts of truth-telling, surely no one would suggest that the good outweighs the evil because the moral weight of those acts of evil outweighs the moral weight of those acts of good, even though there were fewer acts of evil.

Perhaps we ought to measure the amount of good and evil via a combination of both number and quality. This doesn’t seem to help, however. Our epistemic finitude prevents us from being able to obtain an accurate count and our lack of objectivity prevents us from being able to accurately identify the moral weight of each act. I fear that the limitations inherent within this enterprise leads to the tail wagging the dog. Those who have experienced more/worse evil than good are more likely to conclude that evil outweighs good and side with the atheists on the question of God’s existence. Those who have experienced more good than evil and are more likely to conclude that good outweighs evil and side with the theists.

Given the liabilities of these characterizations of God’s morally sufficient reason for permitting evil, we ought to seek another.

Against a maximalist characterization of God’s morally sufficient reason for permitting evil

It seems to me that any characterization of God’s morally sufficient reason for permitting evil that requires a corresponding good for every instance of evil, or that requires the sum total of goodness in the world to exceed the sum total of evil overextends itself empirically, Biblically, and logically, and unnecessarily gives the skeptic reason to reject the theist’s defeater to the logical problem of evil, as well as a rational basis for positing the evidential/probabilistic form of the problem of evil.

 Empirically Overextended

Empirically speaking, there are all sorts of instances of evil for which we cannot identify any corresponding good that was produced by it, or for which the good produced by the evil did not outweigh the evil itself. It’s true that our epistemic limitations may prevent us from identifying all the goods that have been or will be realized as a result of some instance of evil, but the fact remains that – from an empirical perspective – we have good reason to think that some evils are pointless or do not produce a corresponding/outweighing good.[1]  While appealing to epistemic finitude may be enough to reduce the skeptic’s undercutting defeater to a mere rebutting defeater and save the compensation characterizations of God’s morally sufficient reason from refutation, it will not persuade most people. While it’s possible that there are goods produced by evil that we’ll never be able to identify due to our epistemic limitations, possibilities come cheap and do not give us reason to believe that it’s actually true.

Biblically Overextended

Biblically speaking, while God has promised to redeem evil, there is no promise that the total amount of good in the world will be greater than the total amount of evil, or that every instance of evil will produce some corresponding good. Romans 8:28 is often appealed to in support of these notions, but it fails to support the claims when examined more closely.

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. (ESV)

This verse promises that all things will work together for good, but says nothing about how much good will be produced (e.g. more than the amount of evil), when that good will be realized (in the present vs. the future), or even the relationship of good to evil (each evil act has a corresponding good vs. evil more generally will produce a general good). This verse is a promise that God will redeem evil for our benefit – nothing more. And it’s not even a principle that applies to all people, but only to those who love God and are called according to His purpose. Those who are not followers of Christ have no promise that they’ll experience any redeeming good from the evil they experience (though they might).

Logically Overextended

Logically speaking, there is nothing inherent to the notion of a morally sufficient reason that requires such a robust characterization of God’s morally sufficient reason for permitting evil. It merely entails that God have a morally justifying reason. There are other ways of characterizing God’s morally sufficient reason that could morally justify God’s permission of evil without committing ourselves to the idea that the good must outweigh the evil in the world or that every instance of evil must have some corresponding good. We would do well, then, to reject these maximalist characterizations of God’s morally sufficient reason in favor of a more minimalistic characterization that is not only more plausible, but is also able to undercut the skeptics’ rebuttals.

A minimalist characterization of God’s morally sufficient reason for permitting evil

I propose that minimally, God’s morally sufficient reason for permitting evil is that the possibility of evil is necessary for the possibility of loving relationships, and the ultimate good of a loving relationship with God in particular.[2]  Free will is logically necessary for a genuine, loving relationship between God and humans because real love requires a real choice. Love is not the kind of thing that can be coerced or programmed. While we could program a robot to say and do things we associate with love, the robot would not experience or express genuine love. Love requires freedom, and freedom entails both the possibility of choosing to love and the possibility of choosing not to love; it entails both the possibility of choosing what is good or choosing what is evil. Free will is a moral good that allows for a loving relationship with each other and with God, but that good can also be used to defy God and hurt others.

God could prevent the possibility of evil in this world, but only by eliminating free will. That sounds great until we recognize that doing so would eliminate the possibility of love and goodness too, because the very thing that makes evil possible (free will) is the same thing that makes love and goodness possible. So God had a choice: prevent freedom to prevent evil, or create us with freedom so we could experience love. God knew that the good of love is morally superior to the horrors of evil, so He created free creatures that could choose both good and evil, and gave them the responsibility to choose rightly.[3] In other words, the possibility of experiencing a loving relationship with God and each other is worth the risk of people using their good freedom for evil purposes. To prevent the possibility of evil would prevent the possibility of love, and the good of love is worth the evils we experience. We don’t need to identify any particular good for every instance of evil, nor argue that the quantity or quality of good must exceed the evil to morally justify God’s permission of evil. The possibility of a loving relationship with God justifies any and every instance of evil. While God may have other reasons for permitting evil, the possibility of love is the supreme moral justification for permitting evil.

The evidential problem of evil

This characterization of God’s morally sufficient reason for permitting evil has the practical advantage of undercutting both the logical and evidential/probabilistic forms of the problem of evil. Whereas the logical form of the problem of evil argues that God’s existence is logically incompatible with the existence of evil, the evidential/probabilistic form only argues that God’s existence is improbable given the amount/kinds of evil that exists in the world. It’s said that if an all-loving and all-powerful God existed, we would expect less amounts and less grotesque forms of evil in the world. Since the amount and kinds of evil in the world are beyond what we would expect if an all-loving and all-powerful God exists, then such a God probably does not exist.

The argument assumes that the probability of God’s existence is tied to the amount/kinds of evil versus good in the world (ironically, that assumption is shared by theists who hold to the “more good” and “greater compensation” characterizations of God’s moral justification for permitting evil). If God’s morally sufficient reason for permitting evil is that the possibility of evil is a logical prerequisite for loving relationships, however, then the amount/kinds of evil in the world is irrelevant. Whereas maximalist conceptions of God’s morally sufficient reason – such as the “greater compensation” and “more good” views – empower the evidential argument from evil, the minimalist characterization I am proposing undercuts it. If God permits evil because it is the only way to make loving relationships possible (and this is the supreme good), then the amount/kinds of evil in the world is an irrelevant distraction. A loving relationship with God and each justifies any kind/amount of evil in the world. Even if the world contained twice as much evil and half as much good as it does, God would still be morally justified in permitting evil since the freedom to choose that evil is necessary to make loving relationships possible.[4]

Conclusion

While there are many possible reasons for which God allows evil, we ought to advance a minimalist characterization over maximalist characterizations. While there may be a corresponding good for every instance of evil, and while good may ultimately outweigh evil, such maximalist conceptions are not necessary to show that God is morally justified in permitting evil. A loving relationship with God is the ultimate good, and the possibility of such a relationship morally justifies God’s permission of evil in whatever form or amount. This understanding of God’s morally sufficient reason for permitting evil not only justifies God’s permission of evil, but also has the advantage of undercutting the evidential form of the argument against God from the problem of evil, and doesn’t require the theist to defend the impossibility of gratuitous evil. A freedom-permitting world that makes love possible may also be a world in which there is more evil than good, or a world in which evils exist for which there is no corresponding good.

 

See also:

 

 

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[1]Some will say that for all we know, the good may manifest itself in the lives of people unknown to us in either the present or distant future. That’s true, but so is the reverse. For all we know, there may not be any good produced by the instance of evil – not even in the distant future. The blade cuts both ways.

[2]I do not pretend to be the originator of such a characterization. Alvin Plantinga defined the free-will defense in the mid-1970s and many others have proposed variations of it. I am merely suggesting that we favor this characterization of God’s morally sufficient reason over the others – not only because I think it is true, but also for the strategic purpose that it is open to fewer criticisms than the other characterizations. It may be true that there are no gratuitous evils because God will bring about a greater good for every act of evil prior to (or at) the end of this age. Likewise, it may be true that God’s morally sufficient reason for permitting evil is that the sum total of good will outweigh the sum total of evil in the end. And perhaps good reasons can be given for defending these maximal characterizations. My contention is simply that they are not necessary to answer the logical problem of evil, they invite unnecessary criticism, and they provide cogency to the evidential form of the problem of evil, and thus should be avoided in our apologetic.

[3]While God permits evil now, He will not continue to do so forever. There is coming a day of judgment where those who do not choose rightly will be held morally accountable for their evil choices and given the appropriate punishment.

[4]God cannot be held morally responsible for the amount/kinds of evil in the world because He is not the one committing those acts of evil. The amount/kinds of evil in the world is determined by the choices we make. God makes morally significant choices possible, but it is our use of our own freedom that determines how much evil is in the world. The amount/kinds of evil in the world can’t make God’s existence any more or less probable because the amounts/kind of evil in the world only tell us about human psychology, not divine ontology. God’s existence would be just as probable if humans chose evil twice as often as they in-fact have, because the amount of evil we choose to commit tells us nothing about God.

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