By Steven B. Cowan
The problem of evil is no doubt the most serious challenge to belief in God. Even religious believers find it troubling that evil exists in the world—and so much evil! It is puzzling, to say the least, that an all-powerful, absolutely good being would allow evil to exist in his creation. And yet it does. Evil and suffering exist and they are often overwhelming in their magnitude. Consider the recent Tsunami in the Indian Ocean that took the lives of almost 200,000 people. Consider as well the infamous Nazi Holocaust in which millions of Jews and others were mercilessly slaughtered. Moreover, we can watch the evening news on almost any day and hear of people in our neighborhoods being robbed, beaten, and murdered. How and why could God allow such things?
Some have found the paradox of evil to be irresolvable. For example, the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus threw up his own hands in despair of solving it, asking his famous series of questions:
“Is he [i.e., God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?”[i]
There are, of course, many dimensions to the problem of evil as Jim Beilby has pointed out elsewhere in this issue of Areopagus Journal.[ii] My concern in this article, though, is with the philosophical problem of evil. I want to answer the question, “Does the existence of evil (or of certain kinds of evil) provide any strong reason to deny the existence of God?”[iii] I will show that evil does not in fact pose any compelling threat to belief in God.
Does Any Evil Provide Reason to Disbelieve in God?
In classical discussions of the problem of evil, this question was the primary focus. Those who proposed the problem of evil (like Epicurus noted above) argued that the existence of any evil whatsoever ruled out the possibility of God’s existence. In other words, the claim was made that the propositions “God exists,” and “evil exists” are logically contradictory. They could not both be true. So, if God existed, there would be no evil at all. Of course, we all know that there is evil. Therefore, the argument goes, God does not exist.
At first glance, though, it does not strike one as obvious that these two propositions are contradictory. For this reason, the late atheist philosopher J.L. Mackie presented the argument in a more formal way in order to bring out what he thought was the implicit contradiction in trying to maintain the simultaneous existence of God and evil.[iv] With some modifications for the sake of clarity and precision, Mackie’s argument goes like this:
(1) If God exists, he is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent.
(2) An omnipotent being has the ability to prevent evil.
(3) An omniscient being has the knowledge to prevent evil.
(4) An omnibenevolent being has the desire to prevent evil.
(5) Therefore, if God exists, there is no evil.
(6) There is evil
(7) Therefore, God does not exist.
Are the premises of this argument true? Every theist will readily accept the truth of premise (1). God certainly has these attributes, though he has many others, too. And, of course, no theist or Christian will deny premise (6)—there is no doubt that there is much evil in the world. If these and all the other premises of the argument are true, then the conclusion follows logically—there is no God.
But, what about those other premises, premises (2) through (4)? Though some have done so,[v] most theists would find it very difficult to deny (2). After all, could not God have prevented evil simply by refusing to create anything else? Or by creating a world that contains only plants and rocks and not morally significant creatures like humans? Likewise, a traditional theist will not deny (3). If God is omniscient, then he knows the truth of all propositions, past, present, and future. Nothing can take him by surprise, not even the evil choices of his creatures. Hence, God, if he exists, would have all the knowledge he needs to prevent any and all evil if he wants to.
The latter phrase is the key one—if he wants to. Premise (4) of Mackie’s argument asserts that God does indeed want to prevent any and all evil. It was Mackie’s assumption that an all-good God would desire to prevent all evil. Is this assumption true? The truth is that the Christian has no reason to accept this assumption. Which means that the Christian can claim that premise (4) is false. If it is false, then the sub-conclusion (5) is unwarranted, and so is the final conclusion (7).
How can the Christian justifiably reject premise (4)? Of course, we know that God hates evil (cf. Ps. 5:4; 34:16; Hab. 1:13; Jas 1:13). So, the Christian theist must admit that, all things being equal, God would prefer that evil not exist in his creation. This is why the Bible teaches that God will one day eradicate evil from his creation. But, premise (4), as stated, is ambiguous. What the Christian theist can agree to is
(4′) An omnibenevolent being has a prima facie desire to prevent evil.
That is, leaving all other possible considerations aside, God has some reason to prevent evil. But, this is consistent with God having some reason to permit evil as well. It is at least possible that God has a good reason—a morally sufficient reason—to not prevent evil. If so, it is clear that premise (4′) will not allow the atheist to draw the conclusion that God’s existence is incompatible with evil.
What might constitute a morally sufficient reason for God to allow evil? There is any number of possibilities.[vi] However, the simplest suggestion is that God allows evil in order to bring about some greater good—a good which could not be brought about unless evil existed as its precondition. This suggestion has the luxury of being open to at least some empirical verification. We all know of examples, in our own experience and that of others, in which good was brought out of evil and suffering. My favorite example is a biblical one. Genesis records the story of Joseph’s brothers selling him into slavery (Gen. 37:25-28). Though Joseph suffered tragically from the evil done him by his brothers, at the end of the story, after his family and many others had been saved from famine by his rise to prominence in Egypt, he was able to declare, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive” (Gen. 50: 20). Of course, the most significant example is the evil murder or Jesus Christ which Christians believe results in the salvation of the world. In both of these cases, we see goods being brought out of evil that outweighs the evils themselves. In these cases, God had a morally sufficient reason for allowing evil.
Now we cannot prove that all the evil that God has permitted in his creation will ultimately result in the production of goods that far outweigh the evils themselves. Nevertheless, it is possible that they will (indeed, it is part of the Christian faith that they will—cf. Rom. 8:18, 28). As long as this is a logical possibility, then we can say that it is at least possible that
(4”) God has a morally sufficient reason to permit evil, and thus an ultima facie desire to not prevent evil (i.e., a desire that overrides his prima facie desire to prevent it).
Given just the possibility of (4”)—we don’t have to prove that it is true—we have no reason to believe that if God exists, there would be no evil. In fact, if (4”) were true, then we would have reason to believe that God’s creation would contain at least some evil. Therefore, the mere existence of evil does not provide reason to disbelieve in God.
Does Pointless Evil Provide Reason to Disbelieve in God?
Most atheists today will agree with our critique of the version of the problem of evil discussed above. God’s existence is not incompatible with the existence of any and all evil. However, perhaps God’s existence is incompatible with a certain kind of evil that exists. For example, the atheist William Rowe has argued that God’s existence is inconsistent with pointless or gratuitous evil. By “pointless evil,” Rowe means evil that does not and cannot serve a greater good. And Rowe believes that there is such pointless evil in the world.[vii] He thus concludes that God does not exist. Rowe’s argument may be simply stated as follows:[viii]
(1) If God exists, there would be no pointless evil.
(2) There is pointless evil.
(3) Therefore, God does not exist.
Not every theist will grant the truth of premise (1). Some may very well argue that God’s existence is compatible with gratuitous evil.[ix] Most theists, however, are inclined to accept premise (1). Indeed, if you agree with the point made above that God has a morally sufficient reason (such as to bring about a greater good) for allowing any evil into his creation in the first place, then you will be inclined to grant premise (1) of this argument.[x] God allows evil, but when he does, he always has a good reason for doing so, namely, to bring about some greater good that could not be had without allowing the evil in question. So, if there is pointless evil in the world, God’s existence would be unlikely.
But, is there pointless evil in the world? Rowe thinks there is. To show that there is pointless evil, Rowe introduces what he calls the “noseeum inference.” Like the pesty little bugs that some readers may be familiar with, a “noseeum” is something that you cannot see—it is a “no-see-um.” And a noseeum inference is a conclusion drawn on the basis of what one does not see. The basic structure of all noseeum inferences looks like this:
(1) I cannot see an x.
(2) Therefore, there probably is no x.
We all make noseeum inferences everyday of our lives. Every time I go to cross a street, I look both ways and I step out into the street only after I “no-see-um” a car coming. Daniel Howard-Snyder gives a couple of more examples:
Suppose that, after rummaging around carefully in my fridge, I can’t find a carton of milk. Naturally enough, I infer that there isn’t one there. Or suppose that, on viewing a chess match between two novices, Kasparov says to himself, “So far as I can tell, there is no way for John to get out of check,” and then infers that there is no way. These are what we might call no-see-um inferences: we don’t see ‘um, so they ain’t there![xi]
Rowe applies this kind of noseeum reasoning to God and evil. Rowe suggests that if we cannot see a reason for a particular instance of evil, then there is probably not a reason. Suppose we hear about a very young child who is tortured to death to amuse some psychotic person. We think about this event and we examine all the circumstances surrounding it. No matter how hard we try, we cannot see any good reason why this child had to suffer the way she did. Since we cannot see a reason why God would allow this child to suffer, there probably is not a good reason—the child’s suffering was pointless. Of course, Rowe would be quick to point out that he is not speaking merely hypothetically. There are cases like this in the news every day—real-life cases in which we shake our heads in frustration, wondering why God would allow such a thing.
Is Rowe correct in his conclusion? Do such examples prove that there is pointless evil in the world? I don’t think so. To see why, we must recognize that noseeum inferences are not all created equal. Some noseeum inferences, as we have seen, are reasonable and appropriate. But, many are not. Suppose I look up at the night sky at the star Deneb and I do not see a planet orbiting that star. Would it be reasonable for me to conclude that there is no planet orbiting Deneb? Of course not. Suppose that using the best telescopes and other imaging equipment presently available, I still cannot see a planet around Deneb. I would still be unjustified in concluding that there was no such planet.
What makes the difference between this latter case and (say) the case of the milk carton in the fridge? Why is the noseeum inference regarding the milk carton plausible and reasonable, and the one concerning the planet around Deneb not plausible? Howard-Snyder explains why by outlining what we may call the Noseeum Rationality Principle:
A noseeum inference is reasonable only if it is reasonable to believe that we would very likely see (grasp, comprehend, understand) the item in question if it existed.[xii]
The milk carton inference is reasonable because it would be reasonable for us to believe that, if there were a milk carton in the fridge, we would see it. The inference about the planet orbiting Deneb is not reasonable because, even if there were a planet orbiting Deneb, it would not be reasonable for me to expect to see it.
The crucial question before us, then, is whether or not Rowe’s noseeum inference regarding God’s reasons for evil is justified or not—whether, that is, it is more like the milk carton example or the planet example. More specifically, the question is this: if God has a reason for allowing an instance of evil such as the child being tortured to death, is it reasonable for us to always expect to see it?
In his noseeum inference, Rowe assumes that it would be reasonable for us to expect to see God’s reasons. But, should he/we assume this? Not if we take account of other things that theists believe about God. On the Christian worldview, we believe that we are finite, while God is unlimited in knowledge and power and very different from us. Surely, at the very least, we should understand our relation to God on the analogy of infant children in relation to their parents. As Stephen Wykstra has pointed out, parents often have good reasons for doing things to and for their infant children that their children cannot begin to fathom—things which the children may think are unjustifiably bad.[xiii] I think, for example, about my own son’s vaccination shots. He suffered pain that he did not want and could not understand. Yet, we had good reasons to get him those shots. So, clearly, the fact that he could not see a reason why he needed those shots was not reason for him to believe that his parents had no good reason.
Moreover, the Bible itself tells us that God is incomparable (Isa. 40-45), that his ways are passed finding out (Rom. 11:33), that his ways are not our ways (Isa. 55:8). God is transcendent and very different from us. We are limited, finite. God is not. God is infinite wisdom. Moreover, the sin in our hearts clouds our minds and makes our innate limitations even worse. So, given what we know about God (that he is transcendent and infinitely wiser than we are) and given what we know about ourselves (that we are limited and sinful), what should be our reasonable expectation with regard to God’s reasons for permitting evil? Would we expect in every case to see them? Or might we expect, in at least some cases, to be mystified? The answer is obvious. Therefore, Rowe’s noseeum inference regarding God’s reasons for permitting evil is not reasonable. It fails the test of the Noseeum Rationality Principle. This means he cannot assert premise (2) of his argument from evil—we have no justification for believing that there are in fact pointless evils in the world.
However, we can go further than this. We can argue that we know that there are no pointless evils. We can make a “table-turning” argument to which Rowe himself alludes. Premise (1) of his argument claims that if God exists, there are no pointless evils. So, what if we have strong, independent reason to believe that God does exist? Wouldn’t we then have strong reason to believe that there are no pointless evils?
The fact is that we do have strong, independent reason to believe that God exists. We do not have the space here to give any details, but it needs mentioning that there are many powerful arguments for God’s existence. Contemporary Christian philosophers and apologists have masterfully defended versions of many of the classic arguments for God’s existence. William Lane Craig has presented the Kalam cosmological argument which contends that the universe had to have a beginning and that beginning must have been caused by a transcendent, personal being.[xiv] Robin Collins and others have defended the fine-tuning version of the famous teleological (or design) argument which shows that the parameters necessary for life to exist in the universe are so incredibly precise that only an intelligent being can adequately explain it.[xv] And Alvin Plantinga has developed a modern version of the ontological argument, arguing that the very possibility of a maximally perfect being (i.e., God) is evidence for the existence of such.[xvi] There are other strong arguments as well.[xvii] With all of this in mind, we can turn Rowe’s argument from evil on its head:
(1) If God exists, there are no pointless evils.
(2) God exists.
(3) Therefore, there are no pointless evils.
The reason that Rowe does not take this argument seriously is that he thinks that Premise (2) is, at best, as likely true as not. Yet, the arguments for God’s existence are more powerful than he would like to believe, a fact that some atheists are starting to realize as evidenced by Antony Flew’s recent conversion from atheism to theism.[xviii] Thus, we have sufficient reason to assert premise (2). Which means that we can be confident that there are no pointless evils.
Does Horrendous Evil Provide Reason to Disbelieve in God?
There are some evils in this world that are especially distressing. Imagine, for instance, a young Jewish child born just before World War II who winds up in a Nazi concentration camp. This child is malnourished, neglected, beaten, and tortured for several years until finally committed to the ovens. The only experiences this child has are ones filled with misery. Evils like this are called horrendous evils. They are evils so heinous that some have wondered whether those who experience them have lives that are worth living. The lives of these people seem to be such that, in the words of Jesus, “it would have been better for them if they had never been born” (cf. Matt. 26:24; Mark 14:21). Christian philosopher Keith Yandell thus defines such evils more precisely as those evils whose “occurrence in the life of a person renders the life that the person lives from physical birth to physical death not one worth living.”[xix]
The critic of theism believes that there are such horrendous evils and that they pose a serious threat to God’s existence. For example, there were children who died in Nazi concentration camps like the one mentioned above. Even if we cannot prove that God has no good reason for allowing these children to suffer, we can say that the lives of these children were so miserable that they were not worth living. But, how could a good God allow there to be lives that miserable? The argument from horrendous evils, then, may be outlined as follows:
- If God exists, there would be no horrendous evils.
- There are horrendous evils.
- Therefore, God does not exist.
Both premises of this argument may be challenged. Let’s start with premise (2). How do we know that there actually are horrendous evils? The critic may point to real examples of people who lived in abject misery during their earthly lives, but to legitimately claim that these lives were not worth living presupposes something that no theist need or should accept. It presupposes that this earthly life is all there is. But most theists, and all Christians, believe that this life if only a small drop in the bucket of our total existence. We believe in life after death which will last for eternity. More than that, we believe that life after death (at least for believers) will be wondrously blissful and glorious. As the Apostle Paul said, “[T]he sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18).
In light of this, we cannot determine whether the life of the child in the concentration camp was worth living merely be looking at the tiny slice of her life while on this earth. There is nothing in our beliefs about God that would lead us to expect that God must insure that a person’s experience in this life be worthwhile for that person. We must look instead at the totality of her life which extends far beyond her mortal experience. When the totality of her life is examined, it may well turn out that her life was, overall, worthwhile. Thus, Yandell concludes,
If life extends at least indefinitely beyond the grave, and an omnicompetent good providence rules, then even the existence of those who do least well will not be such that it would have been better for them never to have been. I do not see how one can answer the question as to whether there are persons such that it would have been better had they not existed without considering the matter of their destiny—of whether, and if so under what conditions, they exist beyond physical death.[xx]
Of course, the advocate of the problem of horrendous evil may respond at this point by reminding us of yet other things we believe. “Don’t you believe in Hell?,” he may ask. “Don’t you believe that there are people (i.e., non-Christians) who will not have a blissful afterlife? And surely some people who wind up in Hell are among those who are victims of horrendous evil in this life. If so, then you cannot appeal to an afterlife to escape the problem of horrendous evils. For some people will truly and eternally have lives that are not worth living.”
Responding to this objection takes me to premise (1) of the argument from horrendous evil. This premise asserts that God’s existence is incompatible with the existence of human beings whose lives are (ultimately) not worth living. And if there are people who spend an eternity in Hell (never mind what their lives may have been like in this life), then there are people whose lives, seen as a totality, are not worth living.
But, is it really the case that the existence of God is incompatible with such horrendous evil? For what it is worth (!), Jesus did not think so. Speaking of Judas, he said, “Woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been good for that man if he had not been born” (Mark 14:21). The implication here is that Judas was going to suffer drastic consequences that entail what we have called horrendous evil—a life not worth living—as a result of his sinful betrayal of Jesus.
So, once again, let us bring to bear other doctrines that Christians hold. We believe that all human beings are sinners, law-breakers, who positively deserve the wrath of God (Rom. 3:23; 6:23a; Eph 2:1-3; Ps. 51:5). More specifically, what we all deserve is eternal punishment in Hell. Since this is what we deserve, we cannot say that a good God would be unjustified in allowing any of us to experience horrendous evil, whether that evil takes place in this life or the next. The problem for the critic of theism is that he assumes that people are basically good and that the “horrendous” suffering that some people (may) endure is undeserved. But, the Christian need not concede that any suffering is (ultimately) undeserved. Hence, we may respond to the problem of horrendous evil this way:
- Every human being is a sinner.
- Sinners deserve eternal punishment in Hell.
- Therefore, every human being deserves eternal punishment in Hell.
- The experience of eternal punishment in Hell constitutes a life not worth living (i.e., a horrendous evil).
- Therefore, every human being deserves a life not worth living.
- Therefore, it is not the case that, if God exists, there would be no horrendous evil.
Given the sinfulness of mankind, the existence of God is actually compatible with the existence of at least some horrendous evil. We cannot look at the Holocaust victim and say that his suffering is inconsistent with the existence of God. It may be that this person will find God’s grace in Jesus Christ and enjoy eternal bliss. In which case, his life, seen as a totality, is not a horrendous evil. But, if he fails to find God’s grace in Jesus and does live a life not worth living (both in this life and the next), then his suffering is no challenge to the existence of God. Since that person is a sinner, any suffering that he experiences in this life falls far short of the suffering that he deserves and the suffering he experiences in Hell is what he deserves. It is not wrong or bad for a good God to mete out justice to sinners. Which means that it is consistent with God’s goodness that there be ultimately horrendous evils.
Evil is often mystifying. We find it difficult, sometimes impossible, to understand how and why God can allow the pain and suffering that we observe. And coping personally with tragedy can try the strongest faith. This article is not intended to answer directly any “why?” questions. It is not intended by itself to offer comfort in the midst of agonizing sorrow. The goal has been to answer one philosophical question: Does the existence of evil (or of certain kinds of evil) provide any strong reason to disbelieve in God? The answer, quite simply, is no.
Steven B. Cowan (Ph.D.) is Associate Director of the Apologetics Resource Center and the editor of Areopagus Journal.
[i] Epicurus as quoted in David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Part X.
[ii] See James Beilby, “What is the Question? A Look at the ‘Problems’ of Evil,” (pp. XXXXX).
[iii] Though I claim to be addressing the philosophical problem of evil, my arguments below can be seen as providing responses both to what Beilby (see Ibid.) calls the philosophical problem of evil as well as the existential problem. I think he would agree that the existential problem of evil has philosophical aspects.
[iv] See J.L. Mackie, “Evil and Omnipotence,” in Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology, 4th ed., ed. Louis P. Pojman (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2003), 160-167.
[v] For example, Rabbi Harold Kushner has attempted to solve the problem of evil by denying God’s omnipotence (see his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, (New York: Schocken, 1981).
[vi] It is important to note here that most philosophers of religion credit Alvin Plantinga with providing the decisive refutation of the logical problem of evil in general and of Mackie’s version in particular with his famous “Free Will Defense” (see his God, Freedom and Evil [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974], 7-64). Plantinga persuasively argues that it is logically possible that the only way that God could create a world containing free creatures is by creating a world in which at least some of his creatures go morally wrong. Given this logical possibility, there simply cannot be any logical contradiction between the existence of God and the existence of evil.
[vii] See William Rowe, “The Inductive Argument from Evil Against the Existence of God,” in Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology, 186-193.
[viii] My discussion of Rowe’s argument is much indebted to Daniel Howard-Snyder, “God, Evil, and Suffering,” in Reason for the Hope Within, ed. Michael J. Murray (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 101-114.
[ix] See, e.g., Peter Van Inwagen, “The Magnitude, Duration, and Distribution of Evil: A Theodicy,” in God, Knowledge and Mystery (Cornell University, 1995), 96-122.
[x] It may be helpful to note that even those theists like Van Inwagen (see note 9) who think that God could allow pointless evils will still argue that there is at least some over-arching reason that God has which morally justifies him in permitting these “pointless” evils. For example, it might be argued that God allows some evil things to happen which he does not specifically ordain because that is the “price” he has to pay for having a world that contains free creatures. I would suggest, however, that if this is true, then these evils are not really pointless after all. There may not be a specific reason unique to any given instance of evil for why that evil happened, but there is a reason that God has (a general, over-arching reason) for why it happened nonetheless. This means that almost all theists, including Van Inwagen, really do believe that God’s existence is incompatible with truly pointless evil.
[xi] Daniel Howard-Snyder, “God, Evil, and Suffering,” 103.
[xii] Ibid., 105.
[xiii] Stephen J. Wykstra, “The Human Obstacle to Evidential Arguments from Suffering: On Avoiding the Evils of ‘Appearance’” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 16 (1984): 73-94; and “Rowe’s Noseeum Arguments from Evil” in The Evidential Argument from Evil, ed. Daniel Howard-Snyder (Indiana University, 1996), 126-150.
[xiv] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway, 1994), 77-125.
[xv] Robin Collins, “A Scientific Argument for the Existence of God: The Fine-Tuning Design Argument,” in Reason for the Hope Within, 47-75.
[xvi] Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil, 104-112.
[xvii] For other recent presentations of theistic arguments, see Paul Copan and Paul K. Moser, eds., The Rationality of Theism (New York: Routledge, 2003), 149-174.
[xviii] See the account of his conversion in “My Pilgrimage from Atheism to Theism: A Discussion Between Antony Flew and Gary Habermas,” Philosophia Christi 6:2 (2004): 197-211.
[xix] Keith Yandell, “Good, Evil, and Theology,” (forthcoming in an as yet untitled anthology edited by James Beilby and published by Baker).