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#196 Problem of Evil without Objective Moral Values

January 17, 2011

Dr. Craig,

Hello, I'm a graduate student studying the philosophy of religion (particularly natural theology), and have become well-acquainted with your work. Actually, your defense of the Kalam argument was one of the main reasons that led me to believe in God, and which inspired me to pursue a degree in philosophy. So first, I have to thank you for showing me that there are good reasons for accepting theism. If I had never encountered your work, I would be an atheist today.

I'll turn now to my question, which relates to the moral argument for the existence of God. Specifically, my concern is your application of the moral argument as a response to the problem of evil: in a number of your debates (and also briefly in Reasonable Faith, third edition, p. 195), you've argued, roughly, that one can't appeal to evil as a basis for an atheological argument without presupposing that morality is objective (and thus, according to the moral argument, that God exists).

In your work, you state the moral argument as follows (ibid., p. 172):

[1] If God does not exist, objective moral values (and duties) do not exist;
[2] Objective moral values (and duties) do exist; therefore,
[3] God exists

And in your debates, the atheist generally poses the problem of evil in the following way:

[4] If God exists, then [objective] gratuitous evil does not exist;
[5] gratuitous evil exists; therefore,
[6] God does not exist

Furthermore, in your debates you will sometimes respond to the argument from evil by appealing to premise [1] of the moral argument: If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist. Since [5] implies [2]--in virtue of the fact that if gratuitous evil exists, then objective moral values must exist--then, [1] & [5] entail [3]. So in a sense, the atheist's own argument serves to support for the moral argument, in providing the second premise.

It occurred to me that the atheist may have a way of avoiding this. I don't see that one has to commit oneself to the existence of objective evil in order to pose the problem of evil. This is because, regardless of whether some instance of what we generally take to be gratuitous evil, E, is really objective, E would in fact be objective if God exists. For example, the act of murder may only be subjectively wrong absent of God's existence; but it's still the case that if there is a God, then murder would be objectively wrong. With this in mind, the atheist can reformulate the problem of evil as an indirect proof:

If God exists, then E is an instance of objective gratuitous evil
[ii] If God exists, then objective gratuitous evil does not exist
[iii] God exists (assumption for IP)
[iv] E is an instance of objective gratuitous evil (i, iii, MP)
[v] Objective gratuitous evil does not exist (ii, iii, MP)
[vi] An instance of objective gratuitous evil exists & objective gratuitous evil does not exist (iv, v, ADD)
[vii] Therefore, God does not exist (iii-vi, IP)

In this way, the atheist can argue from the existence of what would be gratuitous evil if God exists, to the non-existence of God; and he can do so without committing himself to the claim that objective gratuitous evil exists. This means that the atheist doesn't appeal to any premise which would entail [2]. Therefore, it looks like the atheist can give an atheological argument from evil without conceding the second premise of your moral argument.

I don't believe I've heard one of your interloculars take this route in your debates, nor have I come across it in your published work. In any case, I don't know how the theist could respond to this without simply conceding the point (that the reductio argument from evil doesn't presuppose objective morality). I'm not sure what would be wrong with it. I would be very interested to hear your response.


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Dr. craig’s response


I do think that the problem of evil can be freed from the assumption that certain acts are objectively evil, but not in the way you suggest.

There is, indeed, a contradiction entailed by your premisses, but the fault lies, not with [iii] but in the fact that and [ii] are contradictory! These premisses are more correctly stated as subjunctive conditionals (counterfactuals):[1]

[i´] If God were to exist, then E would be an instance of objective, gratuitous evil.
[ii´] If God were to exist, then objective, gratuitous evil would not exist.

According to [i´], if there were a God, then objective, gratuitous evil would exist (namely, E). But that explicitly contradicts [ii´], that if there were a God, then objective, gratuitous evil would not exist. So the atheist would be making contradictory assertions, and it would be uncharitable to ascribe such beliefs to him. Nor will any Christian assent to both premisses. So the argument misfires, since neither party will agree with both premisses.

I feel certain that the reason for the confusion is that you’re blending two arguments here, one speaking of objective evil and the other speaking of gratuitous (pointless, unnecessary) evil. So a person can reject a premiss either because he thinks God can permit gratuitous evil or because he thinks the evil permitted wouldn’t be gratuitous. For example, the Christian who would accept [i´] will reject [ii´] because he thinks God can permit gratuitous evil (Peter van Inwagen’s view). But the Christian who would accept [ii´] will reject [i´] because the evil, though objective, wouldn’t be gratuitous (my favored view).

Here’s how I think the atheist should present the problem: he should drop all language of evil and just talk about suffering, or as some have put it, the problem of pain. Then he should argue that the nature of God, at least the Christian God, is such that because He is loving, He wouldn’t permit such terrible suffering. Here the non-theist makes no claim that the suffering is evil or that God would be wrong to permit it; rather he just claims that a loving person such as God is supposed to be wouldn’t allow such suffering.

The question then, of course, will be whether that claim is true. As I’ve sought to show elsewhere, it’s very difficult for the atheist to mount a case that an all-loving, all-powerful person like God wouldn’t permit terrible suffering in view of His over-arching purposes (or that those purposes would not constitute morally adequate grounds for permitting the suffering—which brings us right back to moral values and duties again).

  • [1]

    If we leave them as indicative conditionals, they can both be true, since any indicative conditional with a false antecedent is true, regardless of its consequent. But then the atheist would be begging the question, since no theist will agree that the antecedent “God exists” is false!

- William Lane Craig