The problem of evil is not a defeater for the Christian faith. Discuss.
The epistemic question posed by evil is whether the world contains unfavourable states of affairs that provide the basis for an argument that makes it unreasonable or outright inconsistent to believe in the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent God (Tooley, 2019). It is customary to quote Hume’s formulation of the atheistic argument from evil:
“Is [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?” (Hume, 1779, p. 186)
Scholars such as Mackie (1955) and McCloskey (1960) concurred with this traditional understanding of the problem, arguing that all forms of theism holding to the omnipotence and omnibenevolence of God succumb before the Epicurean trilemma cited above (Feinberg, 2004, p. 17). The problem of evil allegedly exposes an unsolvable internal inconsistency of the theistic beliefs; in other words—says the atheist—theists must believe not that which cannot be proven, but that which can be disproven by their own beliefs (Mackie, 1955, p. 200).
In contrast, we maintain that not only does evil not constitute a problem for the Christian faith, but it provides a positive case for it.
Arguments from evil are usually brought against an orthodox conception of God, with specific divine attributes that are proper of the Christian God (Hoffman & Rosenkrantz, 2002). The most relevant of such attributes are personhood, omniscience, omnipotence and omnibenevolence. Hereafter, the term God will always refer to the biblical God.
Defence vs. Theodicy
A defence focusses on proving, via a possible reason, that a given formulation of the argument from evil is either invalid or unsuccessful (Peterson, Hasker, Reichenbach, & Basinger, 2009). A theodicy’s goal is to provide a credible reason as to why God actually allows evil, thus justifying or vindicating God.
The problem of evil
It is paramount to understand that we do not deal with a single problem of evil (Feinberg, 2004). The first distinction is between the theological (or philosophical) problem of evil and the religious (or personal) problem of evil (Boa & Bowman, 2006). The former is, in and of itself, a class of intellectual problems that stems from each theological system attempting to resolve the problem of evil within their own belief system; the latter relates to one’s emotional inability to reconcile their personal experience of evil with the idea of a loving and powerful God (Feinberg, 2004).
Within the realm of the philosophical problem, we can distinguish the logical problem of evil from the evidential (or probabilistic) problem of evil (Feinberg, 2004). The former is a deductive argument aimed at proving the logical incompatibility between the existence of God and the existence of any evil in general (Boa & Bowman, 2006, p. 102); the latter is, instead, an inductive argument intended to show that, although God and evil may coexist logically, it is still improbable that God exists, given a set of premises hinging on evidence that focusses on either the sheer existence of evil or specific instances, types, amounts, or distributions of evil (p. 188).
Furthermore, when dealing with specific types of evil, a number of problems become noteworthy: the problem of moral evil (or sin), that is, evil caused by the misuse of free agency by humans and angels (Feinberg, 2004); the problem of physical evils, like pains and diseases (Fitzpatrick, 1981); the problem of natural evil, like earthquakes, floods, and other natural events that cause suffering and pain; the problem of animal suffering (Feinberg, 2004); the problem of psychological evils, such as emotional pain or disturbances (Fitzpatrick, 1981); the problem of Hell(Feinberg, 2004); the problem of gratuitious evil, that is, evil that appears to have no purpose (Brubaker, 2004).
The existence of different problems of evil has implications for both theists and atheists. The former “must identify which problem of evil they are discussing, and provide an answer that is relevant” (Feinberg, 2004, p. 25); the latter must understand that it is fallacious to reject «a theist’s defense against one problem of evil on the ground that it doesn’t solve all problems of evil» (Feinberg, 2004, p. 25).
We shall centre our analysis on the logical and evidential problems; as we do so, we shall touch upon some specific problems of evil.
The logical problem
In the last hundred years, the logical argument from evil has been upheld by scholars such as Mackie (1955), McCloskey (1960) and Flew (1973b). Their claims can be understood as the claim that the following propositions form a logically inconsistent set:
- God is omnipotent.
- God is omniscient.
- God is omnibenevolent.
- Evil exists.
In other words,
- If evil exists, then God is either not omnipotent, not omniscient, or not omnibenevolent.
because—they reason—if He were all those three things, then He would have knowledge of all evil as well as of how to eradicate it, and He would also have the power and the desire to do so.
Since evil does exist, it would follow that:
- God is either not omnipotent, not omniscient, or not omnibenevolent.
Clearly, propositions (1-3) and (6) cannot all be true at the same time.
Since this argument is a theological/philosophical problem of evil, it gives rise to a class of problems, as propositions (1-3) are common to many theologies, Christian or otherwise.
Principle of morally sufficient reason
Theistic defences usually hinge on the philosophical notion of morally sufficient reason (Schuurman, 1993), i.e. a higher moral duty that justifies the evil allowed. If God were to have a morally sufficient reason for allowing evil, it would be possible for propositions (1-4) to be all true at the same time; in other words, we could amend propositions (5-6) as (5’-6’) by appending the phrase “—unless God has a morally sufficient reason for allowing evil”.
With that in mind, we shall now look at defences against the logical problem from the point of view of different Christian theological systems; we shall touch briefly on some historically relevant ones, whilst focussing on the defence we personally recognise as the definitive response to the logical problem: the free will defence.
In theonomy all a priori knowledge depends on God’s revelation, and God’s will is the only necessary law. Whilst atheists argue that God is required to remove evil from the world in order to be omnibenevolent, a theonomist will inform us that such a demand is not found in God’s revealed moral law to which, nonetheless, He subjected Himself. Since God is only required to do what He requires of Himself through the moral law, the logical problem posed fails (Feinberg, 2004). The theonomist would argue that God’s morally sufficient reason is found in His own perfect character as disclosed in His revelation. In essence, “who are you, O man, who answers back to God?” (Ro 9:20). Theonomy can remain consistent.
Diametrically opposed to theonomy is Leibnizian rationalism, which holds that all things morally or logically possible can be deduced by reason alone apart from revelation (Feinberg, 2004, p. 45).
According to Leibniz there is an infinite number of contingent possible worlds, but only one of these—the best one—is actual. God was bound to actualise the best possible world (not to create at all was not an option), lest He be found blameworthy.
Leibniz (2001) distinguishes three kinds of evil: metaphysical (mere ontological imperfection), physical (suffering), and moral (sin) (p. 136). Metaphysical evil is the fountainhead of all other evils, hence the primary sense of “good” is also metaphysical. Therefore,
- “the metaphysically best world incorporates the greatest number and variety of existing things compossible” (Feinberg, 2004, p. 53)
The logical problem of evil is thus reduced to asking whether God created the metaphysically best of all possible worlds. Given (7),
- a world with both moral good and evil is metaphysically richer than one with just good (Feinberg, 2004, p. 57)
Thus, Leibniz (2001) concludes the existence of evil does not contradict the existence of God: God’s morally sufficient reason is that “God would have chosen ill if he had chosen otherwise than he has chosen” (p. 202).
We do however find (8) objectionable: we dispute that evil is a thing in and of itself, and would personally espouse the Augustinian idea that “[t]here is no such entity in nature as ‘evil’; ‘evil’ is merely a name for the privation of good” (Augustine of Hippo, 2001, p. 56), idea also upheld and further refined by Anselm of Canterbury (1967).
Greater Good and Moral Perfection defences
Both these defences presuppose a form of theism we can broadly define as Modified Rationalism, as well as a consequentialist account of ethics (Feinberg, 2004, p. 135), and sometimes a compatibilistic view of free will.
Greater Good Defences argue that God created a world with evil for the purpose of establishing some unknown greater good (Yandell, 1974); similarly, Moral Perfection Arguments see evil as a means to a morally perfect world.
However, we believe their “endeavors to prove all evil purposeful have actually proven detrimental” (Brubaker, 2004, p. 71), because such defences make evil necessary (Helm, 1993, p. 206), undermining God’s goodness as well as His redemptive character (Walls, 2011): in Scriptures, God is shown bringing good out of evil, in spite of it and not because of it. Finally, under a compatibilistic view of free will, it would be impossible to counter the objection Flew (1973a) and Mackie (1955) raise, i.e. why did God not create people who always freely choose to do right? This question is not at all fallacious when asked to a compatibilist, and the theology attacked has no answer for it (Hunter, 2013).
Free will defence
The free will defence has been the most frequently used approach in both historic and contemporary discussions (Feinberg, 2004, p. 67). Amongst the earliest formulations there is Augustine’s famous work entitled De libero arbitrio (Augustine of Hippo, 1993).
The free will defence presupposes a Modified Rationalist theology, and includes a nonconsequentialist account of ethics, thus a view of the world that was originally created good but was later corrupted by the free agents within it. Finally, we would argue that this defence requires an incompatibilistic view of free agency, though deterministic (soft or otherwise) theologies have also used this defence, albeit inconsistently so (Hunter, 2013).
In contemporary discussion, Alvin Plantinga is the free will defender par excellence (Plantinga, 1977). Plantinga holds to a libertarian form of free will (Timpe, 2021), holding that such form of free will is of the morally significantkind, as opposed to a compatibilistic view of free will. Thus, Plantinga’s morally sufficient reason is that a world with morally significant free humans is of tremendous value, because it allows for meaningful relationship between God and man, as well as amongst people themselves, who are also empowered to do genuine good; God could not eliminate much of the evil in the world without eliminating free will. This is sometimes referred to as value thesis free will defence (Himma, 2009).
Objections to the free will defence
Perhaps the best way to assess the efficacy of the free will defence is by working through the objections raised against it.
Compatibilism. Flew (1973a) maintains that God could have made people so that they always freely choose good. In other words, he suggests that causal determinism and free will are compatible. We agree with Plantinga (1977) and Hunter (2013), amongst others, that the two concepts are incompatible, thus the objection is void.
Righteous free men. Mackie (1955, pp. 100-01) suggests that it is not logically impossible that there exists a world where free agents always freely choose to do good, thus God could have created such a world. Plantinga acknowledges that this is at least possibly true. Due to an ambiguity in Mackie’s original formulation, however, he rephrases the objection in both a compatibilistic and an incompatibilistic fashion, before responding. The former form is dismissed as false, the latter as contingent (i.e. although possible for free agents to always choose right, there is no guarantee they will). However, Plantinga thinks this is not a sufficient rebuttal. Adopting Leibneiz’s framework of possible existentsand possible worlds, he reasons that for every person who would commit evil, there is a possible counterpart equal in every respect except that they would do no evil (Feinberg, 2004, p. 82), so God could have created the possible world with those persons instead, just like Mackie suggests. It is at this point that Plantinga questions Leibneiz’s thesis that God could actualise any possible world, and sets out to disprove it. Through an elaborate process, and using the concept of transworld depravity, Plantinga shows that it is at least possible that all persons will always be unable to exclusively do good in all possible worlds (Feinberg, 2004, p. 84). This renders Mackie’s objection void.
Forsaken Omnipotence. Many object that Plantinga forsakes God’s omnipotence (Beebe, 2021); however, this objection misconstrues omnipotence. Though some branches of theonomy may accept the idea that God can actualise contradictory states of affairs (Feinberg, 2004, p. 36), this would make for a world quite difficult to live in, at the very least (Hunter, 2013, p. 25). Many theists understand omnipotence as the power to do anything that is logically possible (Feinberg, 2004). We concur.
Natural and Physical Evil. This objection disputes the link between this kind of evil and human freedom (Feinberg, 2004). The traditional Christian response is that natural evil is indeed linked to the Fall of man, when the whole creation was then subjected to futility because of the choice to sin (Ro 5:20). Various counterobjections are raised to this, but they are usually of the evidential kind, so we shall not address them here. It suffices to say that the Fall does solve the logical problem of natural evil.
Unsatisfactory Value Thesis. Himma (2009) argues that the value thesis has no foundation in common intuition about morality, and that an uncontroversial moral principle is required to show that free agents are indeed a moral good that adds value to the world. The primary issue with this objection is that it assumes that God’s highest purpose in creating was to make a world of the greatest possible value. We think this is a misguided assumption: from a biblical standpoint, the obvious higher purpose is to create creatures endowed with the imago dei that would have the genuine opportunity of coming to know God, the Highest Good (Augustine of Hippo, 2001). Countering the next objection will hopefully show it unlikely that this could have happened any other way.
Utopia Objection. As Mackie (1955) puts it, the concept of a future state of affairs where redeemed man is wholly good, and where evil and suffering are no more, is part of orthodox theism; why did God, then, not create the “utopian state” from the beginning (p. 154)? We should like to offer our own defence to this objection, which hinges on the concepts of unconfirmed and confirmed creaturely holiness (Ryrie, 2007). Adam and Eve were holy when first created, but unconfirmed. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil was the test that, if passed, would have confirmed their holiness. This is what happened to the angels who remained faithful to God, unlike those who rebelled (Chafer, 1942). Within such a framework, faithful angels remain so because they are now confirmed, plausibly with their moral free agency removed once the test was passed. However, this would have not solved the problem with the human race; whilst angels all came into existence by direct special creation, mankind was designed with procreation in mind (Mt 22:30). Therefore, even if Adam and Eve had been confirmed in their holiness, we cannot assume their children would have been born in a state of confirmed creaturely holiness, because this would have taken away their freedom to choose God of their own accord, thus defeating the very reason why God endowed man with libertarian freedom to begin with. It is reasonable to think, as Plantinga showed, that somewhere down the line mankind would have still sinned. Thus, if God’s plan is that humanity would genuinely choose to be with or without Him, the so called utopian state is not achievable until God’s appointed last day for the present order of things comes (Rev 21:4) and procreation is no longer required (Mt 22:30).
A counterobjection to this defence could appeal to the implied removal of mankind’s moral free agency from the utopian state, since the value of a morally significant free will is the morally sufficient reason at the heart of the free will defence. But a morally significant free will functions as morally sufficient reason inasmuch as it is necessary for man to fulfil his task of choosing for or against God. Once this choice is made, the person acquires a state of confirmed creaturely holiness. Thus, the removal of moral free agency does nothing to affect the perfection of the future utopian state.
The evidential problem
We shall here present the evidential problem as stated by Rowe (1978, 1979), since it can be considered “the clearest, most easily understood” (Sennett, 1993, p. 220), the one “with the best chance of success” (Christlieb, 1992, p. 47). Rowe chooses to focus on a particular kind of evil that occurs daily and abudantly: intense human and animal suffering. We shall refer to such evil as E, to an equivalent evil as E’, to a worse evil as E+, and to some greater good as G. Rowe’s argument can be posed as follows (Rowe, 1979, p. 336):
- (Factual Premise) There exist instances of E which God could have prevented without losing G or permitting E’ or E+
- (Theological Premise) God would prevent the occurrence of any instance of E, unless it could not do so without losing G or permitting E’ or E+
- Therefore, God does not exist.
What this argument really brings forth is the problem of gratuitous evil.
Some theists try to question (10), arguing that we should just accept the existence of gratuitous evil, and focus on demonstrating that it is nonetheless compatible with God’s existence. This is what Peterson (1998) attempts. Creation Order Theodicy also has the same aim; in fact, Little says the world “seems to be exactly what one would expect in a place alienated from God” (Johnson & Falconer, 2019, p. 60). Proponents of Open Theism have gone as far as suggesting that God’s existence requires the existence of gratuitous evil (Hasker, 2013). Open Theism does, however, redefine omniscience to such an extent that we may no longer have the God of orthodoxy.
Those who maintain that gratuitous evil cannot and does not exist, focus their defence on (9). Here, Rowe does not claim to know that there is indeed gratuitous evil, but he concludes, via an inductive inference, that it is reasonable to think so, since we do not see goods that justify horrendous evils (Trakakis, 2021). He takes as an example two specific instances of evil, and reasons that since no good state of affairs we are aware of is such that God would be morally justified in allowing those evils, then it is reasonable to conclude that those evils are gratuitous.
Wykstra (1996) calls this Rowe’s Nonseeum Assumption, and argues that it is untenable on the basis of the great gulf between God’s infinite wisdom and man’s limited understanding. We cannot but concur; Rowe’s assumption seems weak: for his argument to work, he would have to be certain that there exist gratuitous evils.
Evil as proof of Christianity
In rebutting Gordon Stein, Greg Bahnsen said:
“philosophically the answer to the problem of evil is you don’t have an absolute standard of good by which to measure evil in an atheist’s universe. You can only have that in a theistic universe, and therefore, the very posing of the problem presupposes my worldview, rather than his own.” (Meister & Sweis, 2012, p. 160)
Bahnsen’s school of apologetics is reformed and presuppositional (Bahsen, 2008). Iconic of this school is the Transcendental Argument for God’s existence, which, summarised, purports to establish the rational inescapability of Christian theism (Anderson, 2011). A corollary of this is that no absolutes can be justified apart from God. When atheists use the evil in the world as evidence against the existence of a good God, they are assuming moral absolutes; if it were not so, theists could simply argue that what is evil for the atheist is not evil for God. In Christianity, God is the moral standard. Good things are not good because He arbitrarily decides so or because He refers to a standard outside of Himself, but because they are a reflection of His nature (Craig, 2010, p. 135-136). His transcendence, eternality, immutability, omnipresence, and omniscience ensure that such a standard is absolute and invariant.
Therefore, though we cannot analyse every single worldview, we can use broad macrocategories and show that no other religion or philosophy provides the same standard. Atheism (whether materialistic or otherwise) has no absolute standard to appeal to. In pantheism, the deity is either part of the world (immanentism) or constitutes the entire reality (acosmism). Thus, the evil we observe cannot be severed from the deity. Similar conclusions can be drawn for panentheism (Richardson & Bowden, 1989). In polytheism, we have multiple non-transcendent deities with conflicting and mutable wills. If we turn to other monotheistic worldviews, the god of Islam is arbitrary and unpredictable (Reynolds, 2020).
That leaves us with the biblical worldview being the only one where the question about evil can be raised. Whether the particular biblical worldview should be orthodox Christianity rather than modern Judaism or a cult such as Mormonism or Jehovah Witnesses is outside the scope of this essay; it suffices to say, we believe the task is easily accomplished by appealing to the internal inconsistency of non-orthodox and non-Christian theologies.
Before concluding, we should like to touch briefly upon some other points.
The religious problem of evil
This is something very real for believers around the world. Fideists would argue that treating the problem of evil as an intellectual issue alone is a problem in and of itself; the real question is whether one will trust the goodness of God (Boa & Bowman, 2006, p. 402). Whilst we believe that possessing a wholesome theology will help in times of trouble, we should indeed remember that the personal problem of evil is a pastoral issue (Plantinga, 1977, p. 64).
The limits of theodicy
Renconciling God and evil only takes us halfway: a good theodicy may explain why there is evil, but it is likewise important to promote good in the world (Clooney, 2011). Paul Ricoeur argues that Scriptures enjoin us to act against evil, and offer us wisdom through which we can learn how to grieve (Monge, 2016, p. 41), giving us tools to both combat evil and handle suffering. John Paul II argues a similar point:
‘Christ does not explain in the abstract the reasons for suffering, but before all else he says: “Follow me!” Come! Take part through your suffering in this work of saving the world, a salvation achieved through my suffering!’ (Pope John Paul II, 1984, v. 26)
That man should be the bearer of God’s love in a broken world has always been God’s intention. God elected Israel, which He used to display (Is 49:6) and share (Jnh 4:2) His goodness, as well as to punish extreme evil (Gundry, Cowles, & Merrill, 2003). Presently, the Church is the light of the world (Mt 5:14), and it can also be argued that it is the restrainer of evil (2 Th 2:6-7). And both entities have been called to love their neighbour (Lv 19:18; Gal 5:14).
God is always at work
Contrary to the atheist’s claim that God does not restrain evil at all, Scriptures reveal things have been (Gn 6:5) and will be worse (Mt 24:37). Throughout history, God restrained evil via the deterrent of capital punishment (Gn 9:6), via the institution of the nations (Gn 10-11), via Israel, and via the Church.
We are confident to have shown that evil is not a defeater of the Christian faith; indeed, we hold that both logical and evidential problems can be reduced to a “perceived incoherence” (Harrower, 2018), thus are psychological in nature (Bahnsen, 1996, p. 172). Moreover, it is only within the Christian worldview that concerns about the existence of evil can even be raised, for what does one compare this universe with when they call it unjust? (Lewis, 2009, p. 12). And it is still Christianity alone that can satisfactorily provide answers, whether all evil has a purpose, or some of it is indeed gratuitous.
A broken world as result of the God’s curse after the Fall seems, in conclusion, reasonable: a malfunctioning creation can be a logical and powerful reminder that something went wrong with the world. As Lewis (1947) put it, “God […] shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world” (p. 81).
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 Leibniz goes on formulating a full theodicy, which shall not be discussed here.
 These, too, extend to full-fledged theodicies.
 A mediating position between theonomy and Leibnizian rationalism: God has reasons for everything He chooses to do, has no obligation to create, and is free to create any good world, not necessarily the best one (Feinberg, 2004, p. 67).
 Hick’s famous Soul Building theodicy does incorporate incompatibilistic free will (Hick, 2010).
 Examples are Irenaeus’ Soul Making theodicy and Norman Geisler’s Soul Deciding theodicy (Newton, 2003, p. 30-34).
 As far as we can see, the only way to guarantee that a truly free agent always acts rightly would have been to create a morally perfect being with free will; for this to happen, such a being would have needed perfect knowledge and perfect power, too. In other words, God would have had to create a replica of Himself, which is an impossibility (Is 43:10).
 Procreation seems to be necessary in order to make mankind a redeemable race, unlike the angels (Heb 1:13), since the Redeemer was supposed to be Adam’s nearest suitable next-of-kin (Lv 25:25; Ruth 3:12; 4:1, 6, 8). Even Eve was created out of Adam, so that she would be related to him.
 Whilst at the same time complaining when He does (Copan, 2011).