Problem of Evil


God exists because evil existsMany think that the existence of evil disproves God’s existence. Nothing could be further from the truth. Evil is a real problem we must wrestle with, but it argues for God’s existence, not against it.

For evil to be a problem, evil has to be real – not just an expression of human desires, preferences, or opinions.  Evil is the absence of good, so for evil to be real, an objective standard of goodness must exist that transcends human beings.

What is the source for that standard?  God.  He is the Good, and we recognize good because we are made in His image.

Besides, denying God’s existence because evil exists does nothing to solve the problem of evil.  Only if God exists can we have hope that evil will be overcome and those who commit evil face true justice for their moral crimes.

If God is good, why is there evil? Because love requires freedom, and freedom entails choosing either the good or the evil. God was good to give us free will. We are responsible for abusing this good thing, not God, and yet God has taken it on Himself to fix the problem we created. God is not just observing the pain and suffering we experience from evil, but became one of us and experienced it Himself so that He can empathize with us and ultimately overcome evil for us.

One of the distinguishing marks of the new atheists is that they not only think religion is false, but that it is dangerous and immoral too.  Even God himself is not above their judgment.  They regularly chide the God of the Bible as being a moral monster!  They accuse Him of being pro-genocide, anti-women, pro-rape, pro-slavery, etc.  Rather than the paradigm of moral goodness, God is an evil despot that is to be shunned.  You know it’s a bad day when even God is evil!

Is what they say true?  Is God – particularly as He is portrayed in the OT – morally evil?  Many Christians are sympathetic to this charge because they themselves struggle to understand God’s actions and commands, particularly as revealed in the OT.  Thankfully there have been some well-written responses to the problem of “theistic evil” written in recent years to dispel this negative portrait of God.  

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The evidential problem of evil points to the improbability that the amount of evil we see in the world – particularly gratuitous evil – would exist if an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God exists.  The argument usually takes the following form: 

(1)   If God exists, gratuitous evil would not exist
(2)   Gratuitous evil exists
(3)   Therefore God does not exist 

Many theists attempt to undermine this argument by attacking the veracity of premise two.  For example, William Lane Craig and William Alston argue that humans are not in an epistemic place to judge any act of evil as gratuitous since we cannot see the big picture of history.  For all we know, an act of seemingly gratuitous evil will result in a greater good years or even centuries from now, either in the life of the person who experienced the evil or in the life of another person in another country.  Our cognitive limitations should not be used as evidence that gratuitous evil exists.  At best we must remain agnostic on the question.

This is an appeal to the Greater-Good Defense, which argues that God has a morally sufficient reason for permitting all evils—including those that appear gratuitous to us—such as using them to bring about some greater good that could not have been brought about apart from those evils.

In the latest issue of Philosophia Christi, Kirk R. MacGregor provides some reasons for thinking that this response to the evidential problem of evil is misguided.  Just because our cognitive and temporal limitations make it impossible for us to prove that any act of evil is truly gratuitous does not mean that gratuitous evil does not exist.  He argues that the belief that some evils are gratuitous is a properly basic belief.  For example, we do not believe that every time we are bitten by a mosquito or stub our two that these evils have some greater purpose or will be used to accomplish a greater good.  Such things make virtually no difference in our own lives, yet alone on the grand scheme of things.  Given the proper basicality of belief in gratuitous evil, MacGregor says the burden of proof is on those who would deny the existence of gratuitous evils, and to meet their burden of proof they must explain how every instance of gratuitous evil actually results in some greater good.  This is not possible, and thus the person who believes in the existence of gratuitous evil is prima facie justified in maintaining that belief, even given his cognitive and temporal limitations.

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While I have already written an assessment of Stephen Law’s evil god challenge, after listening to Law engage in an informal debate on the topic with Glenn Peoples on Unbelievable, I have a few more observations to make. 

Law seems to take as his starting point the idea that people reject the existence of an evil God based on the empirical evidence: there is simply too much good in the world for an evil god to exist.  Then he reasons that if the presence of good in the world makes the existence of an evil God absurd, people should also recognize that the presence of evil in the world makes the existence of a good God equally absurd.  The success of his argument depends on three assumptions:

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After the failure of the logical problem of evil (deductive argument) to demonstrate the impossibility of God’s existence given the presence of evil in the world, atheists have largely turned to the evidential problem of evil (inductive argument) to provide a probabilistic argument against the existence of God.  Whereas the logical problem of evil argued that the mere existence of evil in the world proves God cannot exist, the evidential problem of evil argues that the amount of evil in the world is so great that it is highly improbable that a good God exists.  Those who advance the evidential form of the argument claim that if the amount of evil in the world reaches some threshold, then it is no longer reasonable to believe that a good God exists—and of course, they believe the amount of evil in the world has reached this threshold.  The argument could be stated as follows:

(1) The probability of God’s existence is commensurate to the amount of evil in the world.
(2) The probability of God’s existence declines as the amount of evil increases
(3) There is much more evil in the world than we would expect there to be if a good and all-powerful God existed
(4) Therefore, it is improbable that God exists.

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There’s been a lot of buzz in both theistic and atheistic camps regarding Stephen Law’s evil-god argument, and many think it poses a serious challenge to the theism. Edward Feser sums up the essence of the argument nicely when he writes:

Law claims that the evidence for the existence of a good God is no better than the evidence for the existence of an evil god, and that any theodicy a theist might put forward as a way of reconciling the fact of evil with the existence of a good God has a parallel in a reverse-theodicy a believer in an evil god could put forward to reconcile the presence of good in the world with the existence of an evil god.  Now, no one actually believes in an evil god.  Therefore, Law concludes, since (he claims) the evidence for a good God is no better than that for an evil God, no one should believe in a good God either.  That’s the “evil god challenge.”[1]

Perhaps I am missing something, but I don’t think the evil-God “argument” is actually an argument against God’s existence at all, yet alone a good argument. Consider the following three points:

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