A Brief Treatment of the Problem of Evil

The problem of evil is usually considered one of the strongest arguments for atheism. In this short post we’ll consider it and possible responses available to the classical theist. The argument goes something like this:

  1. If God exists, then he is all-powerful (omnipotent) and all-good (omnibenevolent) and all-knowing (omniscient).
  2. If God is all-powerful, then he is able to prevent all evil from occurring
  3. If God is all-good, then he wants to prevent all evil from occurring.
  4. Evil exists.
  5. Therefore God does not exist.

The argument is certainly valid, but is it sound? Classical theists won’t deny premise 1, and premise 4 is unimpeachable, so if we’re to deny any of the premises it must be premise 2 or 3. In this post we’ll talk mainly about objections to premise 3.

Morally Sufficient Reasons

Often, something like following claim is given in response to premise 3:

SR. God has morally sufficient reasons for allowing the evils in the world

What morally sufficient reasons could God have for allowing the evils we see in the world? A number of different answers can be given to this question.

Free will

Depending on our view of God’s providence (his control over human free choices) we might be able to give the “free will” answer. All of these require the following premise:

FW. Every possible world in which humans have free will is morally better than a possible world in which they don’t

For a definition of possible world, see my previous post on would-counterfactuals (essentially a possible world is a complete description of how all of reality could have been). Behind this premise is the intuition that free will is of incomparable moral value and so lacking free will is always morally worse than having it, regardless of the other evils that might come because of it. This isn’t enough, however, because certain views of God’s providence hold that he can meticulously control human history without affecting human free will. For these views, any mention of free will won’t really help. However, consider two views that don’t hold to such a doctrine: Simple Foreknowledge and Molinism.

Simple Foreknowledge says that while God has perfect knowledge of the future, it is contradictory for him to affect human free choices. Clearly, on this view, if FW is true then God will do the morally best thing by creating a world in which humans have free will, even though he cannot guarantee that they won’t sin and bring evil into this world.

Molinism is slightly more complicated than the Simple Foreknowledge view. Molinism says that before God decides which possible world he’s going to actualise (create), he knows what every one of us would freely do when put in certain circumstances (Molinists are PSD-libertarians). These would-counterfactuals, however, are not determined by him. There is a proper subset of all the possible worlds (called feasible worlds) which God can actualise in which humans still have free will. Now the Molinist can say that it’s possible that evil occurs in every feasible world, but because FW holds, God being all-good means he won’t actualise a non-feasible world. This, again, would adequately respond to premise 3, assuming FW.

Knowledge of God

But free will might not be the only factor involved. A very relevant factor (on the Christian worldview) is how many people come to a saving knowledge of God. After all, every person who comes to such a knowledge spends an eternity in heaven, where there isn’t any evil at all. The Molinist needn’t say, then, that there are no feasible worlds in which there is no evil (even though it’s still possibly the case). All they need say is that the worlds in which the most people that come to the knowledge of God have evil in them, which seems quite plausible.

God’s Glory

The “free will” and “knowledge of God” answers clearly aren’t available to classical theists who hold that God has meticulous control and that humans have free will (or those who deny FW). They need to respond in some other way. The “God’s glory” answer is probably the hardest to swallow, but I think it’s probably the best answer that can be given, because it properly understands God’s moral value: it puts Him first, not us.

It seems that part of what it means to be all-good is to value things (morally) as they should be valued. Thus God’s ultimate goal should be to further His glory, since He is the most important (and most valuable) being in all of existence. Another way of saying this is to say that since God is God, the furthering of His glory is an incomparable moral good. But what if God’s glorification requires that evil occurs? Well, then I think we have another reason to reject premise 3. We can phrase this as such:

G1. If God is all-good, then He seeks to glorify himself above all else.

G2. God’s glorification requires that evil occurs.

G2.1. God has consigned some to disobedience to show his mercy (Romans 11:32), to show his justice and power eternally (Romans 9:22-24) and to have Christ reign as Saviour-King over all (Ephesians 1:7-12), all of which serve to further His glory more than it would’ve otherwise.

G2.1 serves to give the Christian a theological reason for accepting G2. However, it seems that any classical theist could, in principle, accept G2.

Inscrutability

Maybe the classical theist doesn’t like the “free will”, “knowledge of God” or “God’s glory” answers but still insists that God has morally sufficient reasons for allowing the evils we see in the world. They might well have a better answer than the ones I’ve listed, or they might feel they don’t need one. This is because, as William Lane Craig says:

We are not in a good position to assess the probability of whether God has morally sufficient reasons for the evils that occur. As finite persons, we are limited in time, space, intelligence, and insight. But the transcendent and sovereign God sees the end from the beginning and providentially orders history so that His purposes are ultimately achieved through human free decisions. In order to achieve His ends, God may have to put up with certain evils along the way. Evils which appear pointless to us within our limited framework may be seen to have been justly permitted within God’s wider framework. To borrow an illustration from a developing field of science, Chaos Theory, scientists have discovered that certain macroscopic systems, for example, weather systems or insect populations, are extraordinarily sensitive to the tiniest perturbations. A butterfly fluttering on a branch in West Africa may set in motion forces which would eventually issue in a hurricane over the Atlantic Ocean. Yet it is impossible in principle for anyone observing that butterfly palpitating on a branch to predict such an outcome. The brutal murder of an innocent man or a child’s dying of leukemia could produce a sort of ripple effect through history such that God’s morally sufficient reason for permitting it might not emerge until centuries later and perhaps in another land. When you think of God’s providence over the whole of history, I think you can see how hopeless it is for limited observers to speculate on the probability that God could have a morally sufficient reason for permitting a certain evil. We’re just not in a good position to assess such probabilities.

The Christian theist at this point can insist that even though, in general, we don’t know God’s morally sufficient reasons for allowing evil, we can still know the reasons (at least in part) for specific situations. Two such examples are having Joseph’s brothers’ sin against him in order to save many lives (Genesis 50:20) and, of course, using the greatest evil of the death of Christ (God incarnate) to glorify God in bringing about forgiveness, and thus eternal life, for the world (Acts 2:22-24, John 17:1-5).

Evil implies God

So far we’ve just looked at premise 3. However, it is also possible to reject the conjunction of premise 4 and the conclusion that God doesn’t exist. This is because (as the moral argument affirms), without God no objective moral duties can exist, which means, in particular, that objective evils don’t exist. We might formulate this as follows:

  1. If God doesn’t exist, then objective moral duties don’t exist.
  2. If objective evil exists, objective moral duties exist.
  3. Evil exists (the 4th premise of the problem of evil)
  4. Therefore, objective moral duties exist.
  5. Therefore, God exists.

Clearly the conclusions of these two arguments aren’t compatible! Premise 2 of this second argument comes almost by definition and there’s good reason to accept premise 1 as many (theistic and atheistic) philosophers do (it’s certainly seem more plausible than premise 3 of the problem of evil considering all the objections we’ve raised). So it seems that the atheist simply can’t affirm premise 4, meaning the problem of evil can’t even get off the ground.

Further reading

This was quite a short treatment of the problem of evil, especially compared to other treatments out there (entire books have been written on the subject!). Some online treatments include the following, which I recommend:

If I find more, I’ll add to the list. Happy reading.

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