The problem of evil is perhaps the best-known objection to standard monotheism, which is to say belief in God defined as omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing), and omnibenevolent (all-good). In fact there are two problems of evil, the logical and the evidential. Here I focus on the evidential problem, which is often presented as follows:
If gratuitous evil exists, then God does not exist.
Gratuitous evil exists.
Therefore, God does not exist.
“Evil,” in this context, comes in two varieties:
- Moral evils, such as the morally bad things we do as free moral agents (we start wars, murder, steal, and the like), and
- Natural evils, such as natural diseases and disasters that cause great suffering.
So-called “gratuitous” evils are evils for which there exists no God-justifying reason. Perhaps God has good reason to allow some evils into his creation if that is the price that must be paid for greater goods (there are examples below). But surely God, as defined above, won’t allow pointless, gratuitous evils—evils he lacks a good reason to allow. So it appears the first premise of our argument is true: If gratuitous evils exist, then God does not exist.
Is the second premise true? Surely it is. Consider human suffering. Take, for example, the appalling psychological suffering a parent must go through who has to watch, helpless, as his or her child dies slowly of starvation or an agonizing disease. The consensus among population experts is that, over the sweep of human prehistory—around two hundred thousand years—the parents of each generation have had to watch, on average, between a third and a half of their under-five children die, usually from disease. It’s only very recently that we have managed to bring childhood mortality rates down. The appalling suffering of these preceding generations of children and parents was not something they brought on themselves.
Then consider animal suffering. Awhile ago, I watched a wildlife documentary about Komodo dragons poisoning, tracking for a week or so, and then—finally, when their victim became too weak to defend itself—disemboweling a water buffalo and eating it alive. The cameraman said this had been his first-ever wildlife assignment, and it would probably also be his last, because he couldn’t cope with the depth of suffering he had been forced to witness. That was just one poor creature. Each day, millions of animals are similarly forced to tear each other limb from limb to survive. And this has been going on for hundreds of millions of years. This is, in many ways, a beautiful world. But it’s also a staggeringly cruel and horrific world for many of its inhabitants.
Unspeakable horror on an almost unimaginably vast scale is built into the very fabric of the world we find ourselves forced to inhabit. Surely as we look back across the eons, we witness suffering of such depth and on such a vast scale that it becomes highly implausible that there’s a good, God-justifying reason, not just for some of it but for every last ounce of it. And if there is any gratuitous evil at all, then there is no God.
How might theists respond to this argument? The problem can be sidestepped by simply dropping any one of the three omni-attributes. Suggest, for example, that God is omnipotent and omniscient but not omnibenevolent. He knows about the suffering and has the ability to prevent it, but, being less than entirely good, chooses not to. However, for most religious monotheists, these moves are unavailable. Most religious monotheists are fully committed to the “three-Os God.”
How else might theists respond to the argument? One strategy is to construct theodicies, or explanations for the evils we observe. Here are some examples:
Simple free-will theodicy. God desires that we do good of our own free will. He could have made us puppet beings that always did the right thing, but puppet beings aren’t responsible for their actions and so deserve neither praise nor blame. To allow moral goodness—good done by free agents of their own volition—God had to cut our strings and set us free. Given that freedom, some then choose to do evil. That is the price God unavoidably pays for the very great good of allowing moral goodness to enter his creation.
Simple character-building theodicy. Those who have suffered sometimes say they don’t regret their suffering. We can learn valuable lessons as a result of having been through, say, a difficult illness. The pain and suffering of others also gives us opportunities—for example, to help others and act in morally virtuous ways. Much pain and suffering can be explained in terms of the opportunities they offer to grow and develop morally and spiritually. No pain, no gain.
Simple laws-of-nature theodicy. The laws of nature that govern our universe bring various goods. Perhaps the most obvious good is this: in order for us to be able to interact effectively with each other as free moral agents, we need to know that we live in a stable, regular universe. Suppose I see that you are cold and hungry. Here is an opportunity for me to help you. I might light a fire to warm you and cook you some food, for example. But I can do this only if I know that a spark produces a flame, that a flame produces heat, that the heat will warm you and cook the food, and so on. Without knowledge of such regularities, we can’t properly interact with each other as free moral agents. So God creates such regularities to allow for these and other goods. However, these same laws of nature also result in tectonic plate movements that in turn cause earthquakes and tsunamis that cause great suffering. That suffering is the unavoidable price God pays for such greater goods.
The three theodicies outlined above are for illustrative purposes only. There are many more. Each theodicy considered in isolation has its limitations. For example, while the free-will theodicy might explain some human suffering—that caused by our free human actions—it hardly explains the hundreds of millions of years of animal suffering before we arrived on the scene. Nor does it explain two hundred thousand years of parents and children suffering as a result of causes beyond their control. There’s a similar problem with the character-building theodicy. Perhaps some suffering is necessary to build our characters. But why hundreds of millions of years of animal suffering? Was God trying to build the character of the dinosaurs with the Cretaceous-Tertiary mass extinction event? And how plausible is it that the distribution of human suffering is there to improve our characters? Slowly killing children on an industrial scale doesn’t very obviously improve either their characters or the characters of their parents. Indeed, many of us bow out of this life not with our characters improved by our suffering but in utter despair, psychologically and physically crippled by the torments that have been inflicted on us.
Still, it might be suggested that these and other theodicies, even if they don’t individually deal with the evidential problem of evil, do at least collectively begin to bring it down to size. We can, say some theists, begin to see that it’s not so very unreasonable to believe in God, notwithstanding all this horrific suffering.
Many theists would add that we should acknowledge that even if we can’t explain all that suffering, it does not follow—and it is not reasonable for us to conclude—that there is no explanation. Why suppose that there are gratuitous evils? Because we cannot think of a God-justifying reason for them? But if there are God-justifying reasons for those evils, those reasons could easily lie beyond our ken—beyond our limited human comprehension. So we’re not justified in concluding that there are any gratuitous evils. This is the response of the so-called “skeptical theist”: the theist who is skeptical about our ability to know God-justifying reasons. Skeptical theism is currently one of the leading philosophical responses to the problem of evil.
Do these and other theodicies, perhaps in combination with skeptical theism, deal successfully with the evidential problem of evil? I don’t believe so. To see why, consider a different God hypothesis.
The Evil-God Hypothesis
Suppose that there is indeed a single omnipotent and omniscient deity, only this being is not omnibenevolent but omnimalevolent. His cruelty is beyond our comprehension. His malice knows no bounds. Who believes in a god like that? Almost no one, of course. But why not?
After all, notice that many of the most popular arguments for the existence of God provide no clue as to his moral character. Teleological or design arguments, for example, typically conclude only that there is some intelligence behind the universe. Such arguments, as they stand, supply no more support for a good god than they do for an evil god. The same is true of many cosmological arguments (arguments for a first cause or prime mover, etc., based on the thought that the universe requires some cause or explanation).
So why not believe in an evil god? There is an obvious argument available, of course: the evidential problem of good.
If gratuitous good exist, evil god does not exist.
Gratuitous good exists.
Therefore, evil god does not exist.
Yes, the universe contains much evil. But it also contains a great deal of good, arguably far too much good to allow anyone reasonably to believe this world is the creation of such a powerful and malevolent being. Why all the love, laughter, ice cream, and rainbows? Why does an evil god allow us to see beauty, allow us to help people and reduce suffering, and give us children to love who love us unconditionally in return? Perhaps an evil god will allow some goods as the price paid for greater evils, but surely at least some of the goods we observe are gratuitous in the sense that there’s no evil-god-justifying reason for them. Surely, if the world were the creation of an evil god, it would be much more like a vast torture chamber.
Notice that the evidential argument from good mirrors the evidential argument from evil. In each case, we note that the world just doesn’t look as we should expect if there really were such an omnipotent deity responsible for it.
Is the evidential argument from good an effective argument against belief in an evil god? What if, in its defense, I make the following suggestion: a free-will mirror theodicy?
Why would an evil god allow us to help each other and so reduce suffering? Surely an evil god would clamp down on such benevolent behavior, which thwarts his evil desires? Here’s an explanation. Evil god desires that we do evil of our own free will. He could have made us puppet beings that always did the bad thing, but puppet beings are not responsible for their actions and so deserve neither praise nor blame for their actions. To allow moral evil—evil done by free agents of their own volition—evil god had to cut our strings and set us free. Given that freedom, some of us choose to do good. That is the price paid by evil god for the very great evil of allowing moral evil to enter his creation.
Clearly, the above free-will theodicy mirrors the standard free-will theodicy that I outlined earlier. And in fact very many theodicies (if not all) can be similarly mirrored. Two more examples follow.
A character-destroying mirror theodicy. Why does an evil god allow love, ice cream, rainbows, and healthy, wealthy, happy folk? Again, explanations are available. Consider the suffering of parents who had had to watch around a third of their children under five die for the last two hundred thousand years. If these parents did not love their children, they would not suffer nearly so much. Love is a necessary precondition of some of the most appalling forms of suffering. An evil god will also allow some goods—rainbows, for example—as a contrast to make the dreariness and ugliness of the rest of his creation all the more obvious. He will no doubt give a few people wonderful things—great wealth and privilege, for example—in order to make the rest of us feel resentful and jealous. Resentment and jealousy are so-called “second order” evils requiring the “first order” good of some people having great stuff. Why would an evil god give us delicious ice cream? Ice cream has to be tasty to tempt us to eat it and make ourselves fat, miserable, and guilt-wracked for succumbing. We can begin to see that what goods there are all exist for an evil reason: to intensify our pain and misery.
A laws-of-nature mirror theodicy. Without a stable, law-governed universe, various important evils are unavailable to an evil god. Suppose I want to commit some horrible crime—kill you and your family, say. That’s something an evil god will want to allow. But to commit such a crime, I need to know that when I strike a match it will produce a flame, when I pour petrol through your letterbox and throw the match it will ignite, and that the resulting fireball will kill you and your family. Without knowledge of such regularities, we cannot properly interact with each other as free moral agents and thereby create moral evil. So an evil god creates such regularities. However, the downside to the same laws of nature that result in the fireball is beautiful rainbows and other goods. Beautiful rainbows are the price an evil god pays for such evils.
Notice that a defender in belief in an evil god, just like a standard theist, can also supplement his or her theodicies by appealing to skeptical theism. For if reasons that would justify a good god in allowing evils are likely to be beyond our ken, then reasons justifying an evil god in allowing goods are no less likely to be beyond our ken. If our inability to think of God-justifying reasons for observed evils fails to justify the conclusion there are no such reasons, then our inability to think of evil-god-justifying reasons for observed goods similarly fails to justify the conclusion that there are no such evil reasons.
It appears that these various defenses of belief in an evil god are about as effective as the standard theistic defenses of belief in a good god.
So why is belief in a good god very significantly more reasonable than belief in an evil god? Theists invariably do think belief in a good god, if not “proved,” is at least by no means unreasonable. Yet they consider the evil god hypothesis absurd, which it surely is. How do they account for this difference in reasonableness?
After all, these two god hypotheses appear to receive roughly similar support from the standard teleological and cosmological arguments, at least considered in isolation. Both hypotheses face an evidential problem (in the form of good or evil) but then in each case a response is available in the form of theodicies and appeals to skeptical theism.
Yet, surely, the evil god hypothesis is absurd. Surely, we can reasonably rule out an evil god on the basis of observation, notwithstanding the various ingenious mirror theodicies we have now cooked up, plus skeptical theism. So why is the good-god hypothesis significantly less absurd? I don’t believe there is a satisfactory answer to this question.
True, answers have been offered. Some theists insist there are cogent arguments for a good god not mirrored by arguments for an evil god. There are moral arguments specifically for a good god, for example. However, even many theists find these arguments unpersuasive. Or perhaps the theist will insist that religious miracles, religious experiences, and Scripture support belief in a good god, there being no comparable evidence for an evil god. But there are numerous religions, and each has its own stock of miracles, religious experiences, and scriptures. These religions contradict each other, having received incompatible messages and directives from their respective god(s). This is a recipe for endless strife and conflict. Now isn’t revealing himself in such dangerously misleading ways just the sort of recipe an evil god would follow? Surely a good god would avoid generating such confusion and hostility! So perhaps miracles and the like are, on closer examination, better evidence for an evil god than a good god.
We might not know why the universe exists. But surely we can still reasonably rule out the suggestion that it is the creation of either of these two gods.
What we haven’t done, as yet, is explain precisely what is wrong with the theodicies, mirror-theodicies and also with skeptical theism, as responses to the problems of evil and good. Explaining that requires more space than is available here. But I’ll finish with this suggestion: the strategy of constructing theodicies/mirror theodicies to explain away the observed good/evil suffers the same fundamental defect as the strategy of young-Earth creationists who, in response to powerful evidence that Earth is much older than six thousand years, proceed to cook up endless convoluted explanations (in terms of the biblical Flood and so forth) to explain that evidence away. When we are presented with powerful evidence against what we believe, it is always possible to cook up such explanations. That doesn’t mean it’s not good evidence.