The Problem of Evil (part 1)

December 02, 2007     Time: 00:38:29

Before we look at our topic for today, I wanted to deal with a question that was left over from two weeks ago when we spoke about the hiddenness of God. Someone passed on to me a question via email that someone in the class had after hearing my talk on the hiddenness of God. This person asked, “What do you mean by saying God doesn’t care if we believe that he exists or not?” What I said was that it is a matter of relative indifference to God whether or not we believe that he exists. Rather, what God is primarily interested in is building a love relationship with us – bringing us into a saving relationship with himself. If he cannot achieve that end because of our free will and rebelliousness then relatively speaking it is a matter of indifference whether or not you come to believe that God exists. So you have, for example, the apostle James saying in his epistle, “Do you believe that God is one? You do well. Even the demons believe and tremble.” James there I think is using a bit of irony. He is saying, You believe there is one God? Well, good for you. That is just fine. Even the demons believe, and they tremble because they have no saving relationship with God. I think what James is saying there is that if you believe that God exists but you don’t really know him (you are not in relationship with him) then just believing that he exists doesn’t really do you any good at all. It is a matter of relative unimportance to believe that God exists, unless you truly believe in God, unless you know God, and have a saving relationship with him.

So what the atheist is assuming when he propounds the hiddenness of God is that if God were to make his existence more obvious that there would be more people who would come into a saving relationship with God than actually do in the actual world. My point was that that is sheer speculation on the atheist’s part. He has no way at all of knowing that in a world in which the existence of God was as a plain as the nose on your face that more people would come to love, believe in, and trust God than do in the actual world. Since the atheist cannot prove that, the fact that God’s existence is not more obvious therefore does not cast any kind of improbability upon God’s existence.

Another question that was raised that was passed on to me was this. Someone in the class said, “What about when you try to do God’s will as best you can and all he does is rain down hell on you?” This is the problem that we are coming to today. This is the problem of suffering, or as it goes among philosophers, the problem of evil. That is to say, if there is an all-powerful and all-good God then why does so much pain and suffering in the world exist? Particularly, pain and suffering among innocent people who don’t deserve it. I think this is certainly the principal obstacle to belief in God, both for the Christian and for the non-Christian alike. I think every one of us, even who are Christians, have at times looked at some horrible instance of suffering – a child being terribly burned or mutilated or savagely tortured, or people jumping from the 80th floor of the World Trade Center to escape being burned alive – and asked ourselves how could God permit this kind of suffering to go on. If there is an all-powerful and all-loving God, why doesn’t he intervene to stop it?

The amount of human pain and misery in the world is incalculable when you think about it. On the one hand, there are all of the evils in the world that are the result of man’s own inhumanity to man. Philosophers call this moral evil because it results from human free choices. This moral evil is bad enough when you think of all of the atrocities that men have visited upon each other down through history. But perhaps even more difficult to reconcile with the existence of an all-good and all-loving God is the suffering that is brought on by natural causes in the world. Philosophers refer to this as natural evil.[1] One thinks of, for example, disasters like floods, tornadoes, and earthquakes, or various diseases like smallpox, polio, cancer, leukemia, or congenital disabilities like muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, or other birth defects. One thinks of accidents and injuries like being burned or being drowned or crushed in some sort of an accident. Sometimes these natural evils and moral evils become inextricably intertwined with each other. For example, in the Sudan now hundreds of thousands of people face starvation and famine, but not simply because the area is devastated with drought but also because the evil political rulers of that country are using food as a weapon to crush rebel resistance and so interdict the supplies before they can get to the people in many cases. In light of both this moral and natural evil in the world, the atheist argues that an omnipotent, all-good God does not exist.

During the last quarter century or so an enormous amount of philosophical analysis has been given to this problem by Christian philosophers. As a result, a good deal of genuine progress has been made in the discussion of this problem. I think that we can begin by making a number of distinctions that will help to keep our thinking straight.

To begin with, it is very important that we distinguish between what I will call the intellectual problem of evil and the emotional problem of evil. The intellectual problem of evil concerns how to give a rational explanation of the co-existence of God and evil. On the other hand, the emotional problem of evil concerns how to comfort those who are suffering and how to dissolve their dislike or resentment or bitterness toward a God who would permit them to suffer so. The intellectual problem of evil lies in the province of the philosopher; the emotional problem of evil lies in the province of the counselor or the pastor. I think it is very important to keep these two problems distinct because the solution to the intellectual problem of evil is apt to appear dry and uncaring to someone who is suffering emotionally from evil in the world. On the other hand, the solution to the emotional problem of evil is apt to appear superficial and inadequate to someone who is merely contemplating it philosophically as a purely intellectual problem. I remember, for example, reading several years ago about how Joni Eareckson Tada, after her diving accident which left her as a quadriplegic, was in the hospital and had a train of visitors coming through each one offering an explanation as to why God had allowed this terrible accident to occur in her life. As I read these explanations that these folks gave, I thought some of them appeared pretty good! They were very philosophically sophisticated explanations. But to Joni Eareckson these people took on the appearance of Job’s comforters. Their dry intellectual explanations were of no help and comfort to her as she suffered emotionally from the accident that she had gone through. Therefore, it is exceedingly important that we keep the intellectual and emotional problems distinct because the solutions to them will be tailored to each problem and will not apply to the other problem in each case.

With this distinction in mind, let’s turn first to the intellectual problem of evil. Again, there are two versions of this problem – what we can call the logical version of the problem of evil and then what we can call the probabilistic version of the problem of evil. There isn’t any uniform terminology for this distinction. Everybody has seen the distinction between these two types of arguments but there isn’t any uniformly accepted terminology.[2] Sometimes the logical version is called the deductive problem of evil. Sometimes the probabilistic version is called the evidential problem of evil. I have elsewhere called it a difference between an internal and an external problem. But I think we can capture the idea in a rough and ready why by characterizing these two versions as logical and probabilistic.

Let’s talk first about the logical version of the problem. In the logical version of the problem of evil, the atheist claims that it is logically impossible for God and evil to both exist. There is no possible world in which God and evil co-exist anymore than there is a logically possible world in which an irresistible force and an immovable object exists. If one exists then the other one does not exist. They are logically incompatible with each other. Yet, evil clearly exists. Indeed, the Christian faith, unlike, say, Hinduism which regards evil as illusory, is committed to the reality of evil because the Christian believes in the reality of sin. Therefore, Christianity holds that not only is there an all-loving and all-powerful God but there is real and genuine evil in the world. But, if God and evil are logically incompatible and it is evident that evil exists then it must be the case that God dos not exist.

By contrast, in the probabilistic version of the problem of evil, the atheist admits that it is logically possible for God and evil to co-exist, but nevertheless he will insist it is highly improbable that both God and the evil in the world exist. Given the evil and suffering in the world it is highly unlikely or improbable that God exists if not impossible.

These are the two versions of the argument that we want to examine in turn. Today let’s look first at the logical version of the problem of evil.

As I say, the logical version of the problem of evil claims that there is a logical contradiction between saying that (1) an all-powerful (I was going to say omnipotent but we will use a more colloquial way of putting it), all-loving God exists, and (2) evil exists. The atheist says that these two propositions are logically incompatible with each other. This has been the version of the problem of evil that has been propounded by atheists for centuries, all the way back to the ancient Greek philosophers. Indeed, as late as the mid-20th century, the Oxford philosopher J. L. Mackie was still propounding the problem of evil in this logical version. However, it is largely due to the work of the contemporary Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga, who is a philosopher at the University of Notre Dame and probably the greatest living Christian philosopher today, that the logical version of the problem of evil has been significantly solved.

Plantinga distinguished in his work between what he called a defense and a theodicy. A theodicy would be an attempt to give the actual explanation as to why God permits evil and suffering in the world. It would attempt to explain, if you will, why God permits the evil and suffering in the world. By contrast, a defense is much more modest. A defense does not pretend to know the reason why God permits the evil and suffering in the world. Rather, all a defense does is try to show that the atheist has not succeeded in proving that these two propositions are inconsistent with each other. The person who offers a defense will merely offer a possible reason as to why God might permit the suffering and evil in the world, but he won’t claim that he knows the actual reason. He will say as long as this is even possible the atheist has failed to show that the existence of God and the existence of evil are logically inconsistent with each other.[3] Thus, he will defeat the atheist’s argument by his defense even though he will not offer an actual account of the reasons why God permits evil in the world.

Plantinga believes that the proponent of the logical version of the problem of evil has assumed an enormous burden of proof which is so heavy that he simply cannot successfully sustain it. At face value, propositions (1) and (2) are not logically incompatible with each other. After all, one is not the negation of the other. In order to be a logical contradiction, (1) would have to be “an all-powerful, all-loving God exists” and (2) would be “an all-powerful, all-loving God does not exist.” Those would be logically incompatible with each other. But there isn’t any explicit contradiction between (1) and (2). So if the atheist is saying, as he must be, that these are implicitly contradictory then he must be assuming some hidden premises that would bring out the contradiction and make it explicit. So the question is: what are the hidden assumptions being made by the atheist when he claims that (1) and (2) are logically incompatible with each other? The answer seems to be that he is assuming:

(3) If God is all-powerful then he can prevent the evil in the world.

(4) If God is all-loving then he would prevent the evil in the world.

Since premise (1) says that God is all-powerful and all-loving, it follows that he both can and would prevent evil, and therefore it would follow that evil does not exist, which contradicts (2) that evil does exist. So these seem to be the hidden assumptions that the atheist is making.

Notice that when the atheist says that if God is all-powerful he can prevent evil, the atheist is assuming that God could create a world of free creatures that would always choose to do the right thing freely. He is not claiming that this would be a robot world or puppet world. Rather, in any situation in which moral agents find themselves they are able to choose the right thing. So there must be a logically possible world in which everybody in every moral circumstance makes the right choice and so there would never be any sin. Moreover, since God is omnipotent (or all-powerful) he could prevent any natural evils from occurring – any accidents or diseases or other natural sorts of evils that occur in our world. Since God is all-powerful he could create a world of free creatures in which there would be no suffering. Moreover the atheist says since God is all-loving he would surely prevent evil if he could. An all-loving God would prefer such a world to the actual world. If God had a choice between a world in which there was no sin and no suffering and this world then surely he would prefer the other world. If you deny that then you impugn his own goodness. God himself would be evil if he preferred a world with unnecessary suffering and evil in it over a flawless world in which everybody does the right thing freely and in which no natural suffering takes place.

The Scottish skeptic David Hume nicely summarized this version of the problem of evil. Hume was a philosopher who lived in the 18th century. He put it this way: “Is God willing to prevent evil but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?” So the question is how can evil exist if there is an all-powerful and all-loving God?

In opposition to this version of the problem of evil, Professor Plantinga proposes what he calls the free will defense.[4] He argues that if it is even possible that creatures have freedom of the will then the two assumptions made by the atheist (namely (3) and (4)) are not necessarily true. Therefore, the atheist has not been able to show any incompatibility between the existence of God and the existence of evil.

In the first place, if it is possible that creatures have genuine free will then it is not necessarily true that an all-powerful God can prevent evil – that he could create a world of free creatures in which everybody always does the right thing freely. You will remember, I hope, during our discussion of the divine attribute of omnipotence (God’s being all-powerful) that we saw that God’s being all-powerful does not mean that he can bring about logical impossibilities like making a married bachelor or a round square. But it is just as logically impossible to make someone freely do something as it is to make a married bachelor or a round square. It is logically impossible to make someone freely do something. If you cause the person to make a specific choice then the choice is no longer truly free. So if God grants to people genuine freedom to choose as they like, it is impossible for God to guarantee what their choices will be. He can simply create the circumstances in which he places the person with free will and then, so to speak, stand back and let the person make that free choice.

That has the very interesting consequence that there may be worlds which are possible in and of themselves but which God is nevertheless incapable of creating. Here you may recall our discussion of divine omniscience and our discussion of God’s middle knowledge. Remember when we talked about God’s middle knowledge we said that in certain cases there may be situations which are logically possible in themselves but they are not feasible for God to create. For example, if God knew that Peter would freely deny Christ in exactly those circumstances that he placed him in then God was not able to put Peter in precisely those circumstances and bring it about that he not freely deny Christ. He could make Peter freely affirm Christ, or he could change the circumstances, but if it is true that Peter would freely deny Christ in precisely those circumstances then if God chooses to create Peter in those circumstances and leave him free then God cannot guarantee how Peter will choose. He has to simply stand back and let Peter make the free choice. Thus, it is possible that there is no world of free creatures which is feasible to God which is a sinless world. It is possible that in every world of free creatures that God could create that someone in that world would go wrong and would freely sin and introduce evil into that world.

Moreover, Plantinga points out with respect to natural evils, it is possible that these are the result of demonic activity in the world. Demons have free will just as human beings do, and it might be the case that God could not preclude these natural disasters without taking away the free will of these demonic beings. You might think that such a solution to the problem of natural evil is ridiculous and maybe even frivolous, but then you would be confusing the logical version of the problem of evil with the probabilistic version of the problem of evil. Someone who is offering merely a defense does not have to offer a plausible solution. All he has to do is show a possible solution – a possible explanation – and if he can show that it is even possible that God and evil coexist then it follows that the atheist’s argument has been unsuccessful. The atheist has not been able to show that God and evil are logically incompatible with each other.

So the first assumption that the atheist makes – that if God is all-powerful he can create a world of free creatures in which no evil exists – is not necessarily true.[5] It is possible that in any world of free creatures that God might create someone would go wrong and introduce moral evil into that world.

What about the second assumption – that if God is all-loving he would prevent evil? Is that necessarily true? Again, it doesn’t seem to me necessarily true. We are all aware of cases in which we allow pain and suffering to occur in the life of another person in order to bring about some greater good, for example. Or because we have some adequate or morally sufficient reason for allowing this. Every parent knows this fact. There comes a point in which a parent can no longer intervene to protect his child from every instance of suffering that that child might undergo. There are other times in which the parent actually inflicts pain upon the child in order to teach that child to become a mature and responsible adult who understands that choices have consequences. In exactly the same way God may permit suffering in our lives in order to build us or to test us or to build and test others or to achieve some other overriding end that we aren’t even aware of. So even though God is all-loving and all-good he might well have morally adequate reasons for permitting the pain and suffering in the world. I remember a comment by C. S. Lewis once when he said, “What do people mean when they say, ‘I don’t fear God because God is good?’” Lewis said, “Have they never been to a dentist?” Lewis’ point is that sometimes someone whose intentions are wholly good may nevertheless permit or even inflict pain upon a person in order to bring about some greater good. Therefore, the second assumption is also not necessarily true.

Therefore, the logical version of the problem of evil is doubly invalid. The atheist has not been able to show that if God is all-powerful he can create a world of free creatures without evil, nor has he been able to show that if God is all-loving that he would prefer such a world. Therefore the argument is simply invalid.

Those who propose the logical version of the problem of evil could try to regroup and come back for a second wave of attack. They may say, “All right. I admit there is no inconsistency between God and evil in general, but nevertheless there is an inconsistency between God and the quantity of evil in the world, and the quality of evil in the world.” In other words, even though abstractly speaking there is no inconsistency between God and evil, nevertheless there is an inconsistency between God and the types of evil that are in the world. For example, suppose God’s existence is compatible with the fact that innocent people are sometimes murdered. Nevertheless the atheist might say it is not compatible with the fact that so many innocent people are murdered or that they are murdered in such gruesome, torturous, painful ways. An omnipotent and all-loving God would not permit those sorts of things to happen.

But the crucial assumption behind this reasoning is that God cannot have morally adequate reasons for permitting the amounts and kinds of evil that exist in the world. Again, it is simply not clear that this assumption is necessarily true. First, consider for example, the amount of evil in the world. As terrible as the evil in the world is, still on balance there is a great deal more good than evil in the world. Despite life’s hardships people generally agree that life is worth living, and when things are going bad people typically look to the future in the hope that things will improve. If there were really a preponderance of suffering over good in the world everyone would commit suicide. But people don’t. People generally enjoy the life they have and they want to go on living rather than cease to exist. It is possible that given human freedom that in any other world of free creatures, that the balance between good and evil would not have been any better than the balance in the actual world.[6] That is to say, it is possible that in any world of free creatures that God could have created that the balance between good and evil would have been just the same as this world or worse than this world. That God could not have decreased the suffering in the world without also decreasing the good in the world. It may be the case that the actual world has in it the greatest amount of good that God could achieve for the least amount of pain. The same goes for the kinds of evil in the world. It is possible that God might have overriding reasons for permitting the world’s most terrible atrocities to occur. Somebody might say that God could have created a world of free people in which fewer atrocities occur. But then the same point would apply as before. It is possible that if the world had fewer atrocities that it would have also been lacking in some other overriding important goods.

Again, somebody might say that seems pretty unlikely that God couldn’t have decreased the evil in the world without also decreasing the good significantly. But then, once again, you will be confusing the logical version of the problem of evil with the probabilistic version of the problem of evil. To refute the logical version of the problem of evil the theist does not have to present a plausible or likely solution. All he has to do is to present a possible solution. In order to present a successful defense as opposed to a theodicy he merely has to suggest a possible solution to undercut the atheist’s claim that it is logically impossible for an all-powerful, all-loving God to exist and for the kinds and quantity of evil in the world to exist. I think that the theist has done that.

The point is that if the atheist is claiming that it is logically impossible for God and the evil in the world to co-exist then he has to prove that God cannot have morally sufficient reasons for permitting the suffering in the world. The atheist has never been able to do that. There is simply no way that the atheist can prove that it is impossible that God has morally sufficient reasons for permitting the kinds and quantities of evil that exist.

Plantinga argues that we can go even further than this. He claims that not only can we show that the atheist has been unsuccessful in proving (1) and (2) to be incompatible with each other, he says we can actually prove that (1) and (2) are logically consistent with each other. In order to do that, all you have to do is to find some third proposition here that would be compatible with the existence of an all-powerful and all-loving God and yet would entail that evil exists. Here is such a possible explanation.

(5) God could not have created a world that had so much good as the actual world both in terms of quantity and quality but had less evil. Moreover, God has morally sufficient reasons for permitting the evils that exist.

The “could” here should be understood in terms of feasibility – that a world in which there is more good but less evil is infeasible for God.[7] Doubtless there are any number of logically possible worlds that have no evil in them and exceed the actual world in goodness, but those worlds may not be feasible for God given human freedom. Given human freedom those worlds are not logically possible for God to create. As long as (5) is even possibly true, it proves that (1) and (2) are logically consistent with each other. Thus, God and the evil in the world are logically compatible with each other.

Of course, the atheist might always deny the possibility of (5). He might say that is not possible. But then the atheist would have to show that. Remember it is the atheist in this debate, not the theist, who bears the burden of proof. It is the atheist who is claiming that God and the evil in the world are logically incompatible with each other – that it is impossible that God and evil co-exist. Therefore it is the atheist who has the burden of proof to show that (1) and (2) are logically incompatible with each other. If he is to rebut our argument he has to show that (5) is not possible.

So it seems to me that the atheist who claims that God and evil are logically incompatible with each other has indeed taken on a burden of proof which proves to be truly unbearable. It cannot be sustained. So I am very pleased to report that after centuries of discussion, it is widely recognized among philosophers today – both theists and atheists as well – that the logical version of the problem of evil has been solved. Virtually no one today propounds the logical version of the problem of evil. The existence of God and evil are logically possible.

Of course that doesn’t take us out of the woods yet because now we face the probabilistic version of the problem of evil. It is that version of the problem that we shall turn next week.[8]



[1] 5:07

[2] 9:59

[3] 15:01

[4] 20:01

[5] 25:05

[6] 30:14

[7] 34:57

[8] Total Running Time: 37:34 (Copyright © 2007 William Lane Craig)