Evaluating The Argument From Evil

Evaluating The Argument From Evil

May 22, 2017 0 By Ray Carter


In the atheist’s quest to disprove God, one of the most popular arguments is the problem of evil, more appropriately referred to as the argument from evil. This argument has been laid out in various forms; the argument from imperfection, natural evil, moral evil, unbelief, and the emotional problem of evil, among others. While all of these forms warrant serious consideration and response, what follows will be an evaluation of the logical and evidential arguments from evil. One of which is considered even by the top Christian apologists to be the most challenging of arguments against the existence of God.
Andrea Weisberger helps to lay the foundation of the argument by asking a critical

Where was God? Where was the intelligent designer of the universe when 1.5 million children were turned into smoke by zealous Nazis? Where was the all powerful, all knowing, wholly good being whose very essence is radically opposed to evil, while millions of children were starved to death by Stalin, had their limbs chopped off with machetes in Rwanda, were turned into amputees by the diamond trade in Sierra Leone, and worked to death, even now, by the child slave trade that, by conservative estimates, enslaves 250 million children worldwide? Without divine justice, all of this suffering is gratuitous. How, then, can a wholly good, all-powerful God be believed to exist? The existence of evil is the most fundamental threat to the traditional Western concept of an all-good, all-powerful God. Both natural evil, the suffering that occurs as a result of physical phenomena, and moral evil, the suffering resulting from human action, comprise the problem of evil. If evil cannot be accounted for, then belief in the traditional Western concept of God is absurd.[1]

Atheistic philosophers have used the logical and evidential arguments mentioned previously to answer this question and many others like it. The first argument to be evaluated going forward will be the logical form.

The logical argument can be traced back a few millennia to one of its chief formulators, the Greek philosopher, Epicurus (342-270 B.C.). Epicurus also wrestled with the evils of the world and how one could reconcile that with an all loving and omnipotent God. He is often credited with the following riddle:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?[2]

One of the argument’s more recent promoters was John L. Mackie who formulates questions like that of Andrea Weisberger’s in his article, Evil and Omnipotence, in a way similar to the following:

(1) If God exists, God is an omnipotent and wholly good being.(2) A good being always eliminates evil as far as it can.(3) There are no limits on what an omnipotent being can do.(4) Evil exists.(5)Therefore God does not exist.[3]

Using such a formula, Mackie and others attempt to prove that it would be logically impossible for God and evil to coexist. The theist is then left with the task to determine if it is truly a logical impossibility. If no solution is found, then the atheist has been successful in disproving the existence of God.
Most theists are in agreement with the statements (1) and (4). However, does it necessarily follow that because God exists as defined in (1), he always has to eliminate evil as far as he can, as is laid out in statement (2)?

Alvin Plantinga argues that there is indeed a possibility that overturns the argument from logic. He refers to it in his book, Nature of Necessity, as the free will defense. Plantinga writes that a significantly free creature is more valuable than a creature that is caused or forced to choose only what is right. In order to be significantly free, a created being must have the ability to choose. Evil is then a necessary choice that has to be available in contrast to good. [4]

The free will defense is then successful in providing at least one possibility for the coexistence of God and evil. That one successful argument makes the formula null due to its claim of logical impossibility. Mackie even acknowledged the logic’s defeat stating:

Since this defense is formally [that is, logically] possible, and its principle involves no real abandonment of our ordinary view of the opposition between good and evil, we can concede that the problem of evil does not, after all, show that the central doctrines of theism are logically inconsistent with one another. But whether this offers a real solution of the problem is another question.[5]

Objections to Plantinga’s free will defense naturally arose and stem from point (3). The atheists claim that if God is omnipotent, he could have created a world in which man would always choose good and thus eliminate the need for evil but still maintain free will. Again, quoting Mackie:

If God has made men such that in their free choices they sometimes prefer what is good and sometimes what is evil, why could he not have made men such that they always freely choose the good? If there is no logical impossibility in a man’s choosing the good on one, or on several occasions, there cannot be a logical impossibility in his freely choosing the good on every occasion. God was not, then, faced with a choice between making innocent automata and making beings who, in acting freely, would sometimes go wrong: there was open to him the obviously better possibility of making beings who would act freely but always go right. Clearly, his failure to avail himself of this possibility is inconsistent with his being both omnipotent and perfectly good.[6]

From that objection, the discussion would evolve into the argument from the best possible world, which is not focus of this paper. However, Plantinga does offer plausible responses to that argument as well. Instead, we will now turn our attention to another argument which naturally follows after one concludes the defeat of the logical argument from evil.

Dr. William Lane Craig provides an introduction to our next argument in his article titled, The Problem of Evil:

But we’re not out of the woods yet. For now we confront the probabilistic problem of evil. According to this version of the problem, the co-existence of God and evil is logically possible, but nevertheless it’s highly improbable. The extent and depth of evil in the world is so great that it’s improbable that God could have morally sufficient reasons for permitting it. Therefore, given the evil in the world, it’s improbable that God exists.[7]

Dr. Craig states that this form of the argument from evil is by far the more challenging one and therefore demands the focus of attention between the two. The probabilistic argument is also referred to as the evidential argument and can be understood to flow like this:

(A) There exist instances of intense suffering which an omnipotent, omniscient being could have prevented without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse
(B) An omniscient, wholly good being would prevent the occurrence of any intense suffering it could, unless it could not do so without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally as bad or worse
(C) There does not exist an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good being[8]Examples of gratuitous or pointless evils seem to abound in the world.

Perhaps the most popular example was put forth by William Rowe. He describes a situation in a distant forest where lightning hits a dead tree and causes a fire that traps a deer. Unable to escape, the deer suffers a slow and agonizing death.[9]

In addition to the natural causes of evil like the forest fire, there are moral examples like innocent children who suffer horrible pain at the hands of murderers and rapists. Even the theist, in circumstances such as these would be hard pressed to use the cliché statement: everything happens for a reason. These examples seem to tip the scale in favor of the atheist’s argument. These pointless and horrendous situations seem to provide strong evidence that the existence of the traditional orthodox view of God and gratuitous evils are probably incompatible.

The theist is not left without recourse, however. Arguments have been raised against this problematic evidence, starting with one that is skeptical of the formula’s first statement (A). It has been argued that the limitation of the human mind gives sound reason that we could not possibly know if there is any good reason for God to allow such evils. For example, will a new apprentice know the ins and outs behind a master’s works? Of course not, for there would not be need of an apprenticeship if he already knew everything of the specific trade or skill. The apprentice grows in knowledge of the subject overtime. Just because the reason is currently unknown due to a lack of knowledge, it does not necessarily follow that the reason does not exist at all. If you look at what the theistic characteristics of God are, then it is perfectly reasonable to assume our knowledge is infinitesimal in comparison.

William Rowe’s objection to the limited knowledge claim is recorded in God and the Problem of Evil:

Being finite beings we can’t expect to know all the goods God would know, any more than an amateur at chess should expect to know all the reasons for a particular move that Kasparov makes in a game. But, unlike Kasparov who in a chess match has a good reason not to tell us how a particular move fits into his plan to win the game, God, if he exists, isn’t playing chess with our lives. In fact, since understanding the goods for the sake of which he permits terrible evils to befall us would itself enable us to better bear our suffering, God has a strong reason to help us understand those goods and how they require his permission of the terrible evils that befall us.[10]

In this statement Rowe feels God is obligated to offer humanity a proper explanation as to why he allows the evils to occur. Keeping in mind that the first premise of this argument assumes God exists, that is quite a bold statement to make if you follow it to a logical conclusion. The creature now puts demands and requirements on the creator?

Up until this point we have evaluated the arguments and the responses using various theodicies, which can be investigated empirically and by use of common knowledge. There have been no attempts to appeal to a specific Christian defense of the argument from evil. Dr. Craig rightly notes that although the world may choose not to accept the answers, the Christian faith has much to say in the area of evil. Going forward we will consider a few Christian defenses and examine whether they are valid responses to the problem of evil.

The world would like to say that man is inherently good, but in contrast, the Christian faith tells us we are inherently evil. In fact, from the very beginning, the book of Genesis details how and why evil has entered the world. Through human freewill, we chose to believe the lie of Satan instead of the truth claims of God. Because of the original sin, creation was infected with evil, natural and moral. God then uses the rest of the scriptures to reveal to us how he plans to reconcile mankind back unto himself.[11]

There is also a presupposition behind the arguments from evil that happiness is the chief purpose in life. However, Christian doctrine tells us that true purpose of life is to obtain knowledge of God. Through that knowledge we are led to redemption through Christ who also suffered with us. He is not unsympathetic to the evils of our world and chose to enter into such suffering on a rescue mission for his creation. Dr. Craig states:

c. The knowledge of God spills over into eternal life. In the Christian view, this life is not all there is. Jesus promised eternal life to all who place their trust in him as their Savior and Lord. In the afterlife God will reward those who have borne their suffering in courage and trust with an eternal life of unspeakable joy. The apostle Paul, who wrote much of the New Testament, lived a life of incredible suffering. Yet he wrote, “We do not lose heart. For this slight, momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to the things that are seen, but to the things that are unseen, for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (II Cor. 4:16-18). Paul imagines a scale, as it were, in which all the sufferings of this life are placed on one side, while on the other side is placed the glory that God will bestow on his children in heaven. The weight of glory is so great that it is literally beyond comparison with the suffering. Moreover, the longer we spend in eternity the more the sufferings of this life shrink toward an infinitesimal moment. That’s why Paul could call them “a slight and momentary affliction”—they were simply overwhelmed by the ocean of divine eternity and joy which God lavishes on those who trust Him.d. The knowledge of God is an incommensurable good. To know God, the source of infinite goodness and love, is an incomparable good, the fulfillment of human existence. The sufferings of this life cannot even be compared to it. Thus, the person who knows God, no matter what he suffers, no matter how awful his pain, can still say, “God is good to me,” simply by virtue of the fact that he knows God, an incomparable good.[12]

Perhaps one of the most famous responses to the battle of earthly evils and suffering is recorded in the Old Testament book of Job. Though he was considered a righteous man, even in the eyes of God, Job had to endure seemingly pointless suffering. Job held fast to his faith in God through much of what he was enduring, but even a righteous man such as he has a breaking point. Job eventually cursed the day of his birth due to his trials. He thought highly enough of himself to actually require an explanation from God. It is here that what is written in scripture takes us back, linking Christian theology to the argument from limited knowledge. God’s response leaves no doubt about his omnipotence. In the book of Job chapter 38-42, God questions Job’s knowledge and abilities in comparison to his own.

“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone— while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy? “Who shut up the sea behind doors when it burst forth from the womb, when I made the clouds its garment and wrapped it in thick darkness, when I fixed limits for it and set its doors and bars in place, when I said, ‘This far you may come and no farther; here is where your proud waves halt’? (Job 38:4-11 NIV)

God continues, giving more vivid examples of his power, challenging Job to respond. Job realizes his folly and concedes the following:

Then Job replied to the LORD: “I know that you can do all things; no purpose of yours can be thwarted. You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’ Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. (Job 42:1-3 NIV)

Job admits his knowledge is far too limited to place such demands on God. Perhaps we would be wise in recognizing the same when we feel that God should give us good reason for evil and suffering in the world.

In conclusion, without God, where does one obtain the concept of good and evil anyways? How can we even use the terminology and know what it means to be good or evil? We can deny it all we want, but the reality is humans live as if there are objective moral values.[13]

If it were not the case, Andrea Weisberger would have no grounds to be angry at the evils she describes in our introduction. If God does not exist, and we are all just playing the game of survival of the fittest, evil should just be accepted. The problem of evil then, it seems, is more of a problem for the atheist than it is for the theist or Christian. The atheist cannot account for evil apart from the existence of God. Thus, evil gives more evidence for, rather than against God’s existence.

Craig, William L. “The Problem of Evil.” Reasonable Faith. 2007. http://www.reasonablefaith.org/site/news2?page=newsarticle&id=5350 (accessed November 25, 2011).
Larrimore, Mark. The Problem of Evil: a Reader. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2001.
Mackie, John L. “Evil and Omnipotence.” Mind, April 1955: 200-212.
Plantinga, Alvin. The Nature of Necessity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979.
Rowe, William L. God and the Problem of Evil. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2001.
—. William L Rowe On Philosophy of Religion: Selected Writings. Edited by Nick Trakasis. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2007.
The Truth Project: Lesson 3, Anthropology: Who is Man. Produced by Focus on the Family. Performed by Dr. Del Tackett. 2004.
Weisberger, Andrea M. “The Argument From Evil.” In The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, by Martin Michael, 166. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

[1]Andrea M. Weisberger, “The Argument from Evil.” Michael Martin, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Atheism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), page 166

[2] Mark Larrimore, The Problem of Evil: a Reader (Malden, Mass.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2001), page xix.

[3] John L. Mackie, “Evil and Omnipotence,” Mind, New Series, Vol. 64, No. 254. (Apr., 1955), pp. 200-212

[4] Alvin Plantinga, The Nature of Necessity (Clarendon Library of Logic & Philosophy) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, USA, 1979), pages 165-167.

[5] John L. Mackie, “Evil and Omnipotence,” Mind, New Series, Vol. 64, No. 254. (Apr., 1955), pp. 200-212

[6] Ibid., 200-212.

[7] William L. Craig, Reasonable Faith, The Problem of Evil, 2007, [online], available from http://www.reasonablefaith.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=5350, 25 November 2011.

[8] William L. Rowe, William L. Rowe On Philosophy of Religion: Selected Writings, ed. Nick Trakasis (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2007), page 62.

[9] William L. Rowe, ed., God and the Problem of Evil (Malden, Mass.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2001), page 145.
[10] Ibid,. 157

[11] Dr. Del Tackett, The Truth Project: Lesson 3, Anthropology: Who is Man? DVD. Directed by Focus on the Family. 2004

[12] William L. Craig, Reasonable Faith, The Problem of Evil, 2007, [online], available from http://www.reasonablefaith.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=5350, 25 November 2011.

[13] Dr. Del Tackett, The Truth Project: Lesson 3, Anthropology: Who is Man? DVD. Directed by Focus on the Family. 2004