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The Human Condition (Question of God – Alt. S.S. 10 of 11)

The DVD conversation in this session (and the next) addresses a topic known generally as The Problem of Evil (POE). In this essay I want to first define it, add some corollary definitions, then break the argument and possible responses down into a three-round dialectic.

There are multiple articulations of the Problem of Evil. Epicurus (341-270 BCE) said:

  1. If a perfectly good God exists, then there should be no evil in the world.
  2. There is evil in the world.
  3. How then can a perfectly good god exist?

David Hume (1711-1776) in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion stated it this way:

  1. Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then is he impotent.
  2. Is he able, but not willing? Then is he malevolent.
  3. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?

The first thing to note is that, from the perspective of formal logic, the argument is valid. That is, the conclusion follows from the premises. The argument form is Modus Tollens (if P then Q; not Q; therefore not P). Consequently, if the argument is to be defeated one or more of the premises must be wrong. The second thing to note is that this ‘problem’ is only a problem for those who believe in an ethical God, such as Christians, Moslems and Jews. There is, of course, no Problem of Evil for an Atheist as there is no God to assign responsibility to. And if you worshiped a malevolent deity (like a kind who required virgins to be tossed into volcanoes) you would not have a problem either because you didn’t have a ‘good’ god.

The POE states an apparent paradox, which is a major difficulty for Christians. But there is a stronger form, sometimes called The Argument From Evil which states that the POE is in fact unsolvable and thus a believer in ethical theism (like Christianity) should abandon that faith and consider atheism.

Now some further definitions. A Theodicy is an attempt to answer the POE by explaining what is really going on and, in so doing, justify God’s actions.

A Defense is somewhat less ambitious than a Theodicy. It attempts to provide a plausible story that would defeat the Argument From Evil, much like a defense attorney would seek acquittal based on reasonable doubt whether the prosecution has proved its case. In the Argument From Evil the atheist prosecutes while the theist defends. And the burden of proof lies, of course, with the prosecution. The defender’s strategy is to provide a plausible story to account for evil that may or may not be true, but could be true for all we know. And this story, if true, would exonerate God. While this is less satisfying than a Theodicy the aim of a Defense is to prevent an agnostic from agreeing with the atheist’s position, although not necessarily agreeing with theism either.

In 2003 philosopher Peter van Inwagen presented the Gifford Lectures on Natural Theology [1] and extensively addressed the POE. His talks were later redacted into a book entitled The Problem of Evil [2]. Much of this essay is a summarization of his material. It provides a more extensive and creative treatment of this difficult subject than I have found elsewhere.

One could divide the POE into practical and philosophical concerns. Under the practical heading would be all the pastoral issues of dealing with the effects of evil by comforting others and coping ourselves. That will not be addressed here. Following van Inwagen I will only address philosophical concerns. However, I would note that inadequate understanding often leads to mistakes in practice. So a philosophical examination should, at minimum, precede pastoral considerations.

Final definitions: the POE is frequently separated into two categories:

  1. Moral Evil – evil as a consequence of actions by moral agents.
  2. Natural Evil – evil consequences of the natural world gone awry (e.g. predation, disease, earthquakes, etc.).

Addressing the Problem

Let me start with an elimination (or at least deprecation). One familiar answer for the POE is attributed to Gottfried Leibnitz (1646-1716). His argument essentially tries to deny evil is real, claiming that, since God is good and He created the world, then this world is actually the best of all possible worlds. What we think is evil is actually not and if we could understand better (have a God’s-eye viewpoint) we would see this. The poet Alexander Pope, in his poem Essay on Man, Stanza 10, coined the ‘bumper-sticker’ version, saying: “Whatever is, is right”. Leibnitz is essentially appealing to Transcendence with this position. And, as such, it cannot be completely refuted. In the 18th century Voltaire famously lampooned Leibnitz indirectly in his book Candide. And this idea is hardly considered seriously today by anyone, including philosophers. It would seem to take some major convolution to reclassify historical events like the Holocaust or Stalin’s Gulag from evil into some hidden purpose of God’s.

We’ll now turn more closely to the sequence of arguments made by Peter van Inwagen. What he presents is a three-round dialectic where first an atheist speaks, then a theist responds. The audience is supposed to be completely agnostic concerning atheism/theism – a quality unlikely to be easily found in real-life. As the atheist acts as prosecutor s/he has the burden of proof. So what van Inwagen does is not a Theodicy but a Defense.

Round 1 – Atheist

The Atheist starts with the standard Argument from Evil, as stated above.

Round 1 – Theist

The Theist’s initial response is what is typically called as the Free Will Defense (FWD). Basically that God gave humans freedom. Humans then misused it and this is responsible for evil, not God. I would note as an aside that this defense has almost always been the initial counter to the POE and was also used by Ellen White in The Great Controversy, although she didn’t give it a name.

Round 2 – Atheist

It is now the Atheist’s responsibility to counter the Free Will Defense. S/he does this by allowing that the FWD could plausibly be responsible for some evil, but not all. Two objections are made:

  1. Quantity. There is a tremendous amount of suffering, more than the FWD could account for.
  2. Natural Evil. This type of evil has no human component, so the FWD doesn’t apply.

Round 2 – Theist

The Theist now expands the FWD in an attempt to account for natural evil. The argument is that humans need to know what it means to be separated from God. So nature is left to randomness and decay. If God ‘propped up’ the natural world all the time to avert any damage it would frustrate His goal of reconciliation.

As for the Quantity argument, how can we really know what quantity of evil should be allowed in aiding the reconciliation?

Round 3 – Atheist

The Atheist turns to what is sometimes called the Local Argument From Evil. This asks why some particular evil ‘X’ had to happen. Could not God’s purpose be realized without ‘X’ occurring? And an all-powerful, all-good God would not wish a worse world than necessary and so would have prevented ‘X’. Yet such random, apparently senseless acts occur. This type of argument is patterned after what has come to be known as ‘Rowe’s Fawn’ [3]. Philosopher William L. Rowe (1931-) wrote:

Suppose in some distant forest lightning strikes a dead tree, resulting in a forest fire. In the fire a fawn is trapped, horribly burned, and lies in terrible agony for several days before death relieves its suffering. So far as we can see, the fawn's intense suffering is pointless. For there does not appear to be any greater good such that the prevention of the fawn's suffering would require either the loss of that good or the occurrence of an evil equally bad or worse.

Round 3 – Theist

Theist attempts a rebuttal using an argument type known as Reductio ad Absurdum (reduction to the absurd).

  1. Assume Atheist’s argument is correct – that if some specific ‘X’ did not occur the world would be better off.
  2. Then instead of N evils God would reduce it to N-1.
  3. But now we would expect Atheist to suggest the same argument at the N-1 level of evil.
  4. If agreed then we move to N-2 evils.
  5. But where do you stop? It would seem that at whatever number God drew the line it would appear arbitrary to us.

There is, of course much more profitable reading in the book. But that is not to say van Inwagen’s Theist has succeeded. Would a jury of pure agnostics acquit God or remain neutral because the Theist has provided adequate plausibility and, for all we know, these conjectures could be true? As I noted earlier finding pure agnostics for this task may be impossible. We all have ‘skin’ in the game and have various views and prejudices. And van Inwagen humorously defines a pure agnostic as someone who does not know whether the number of Douglas Firs in Canada is odd or even, yet cares about the answer. And that’s just it. Getting a neutral jury on an issue this difficult yet important is problematic.

Some final thoughts

The further you go in the above exchange the less convincing the arguments become. And potency is in the eye of the beholder.

The Theist understandably needs to appeal to Transcendence as the argument progresses. But this is always problematic as it is essentially what is known as an Argument from Ignorance. But the atheist likewise appeals to plausibility (e.g. Round 2, point 1) without the ability to adequately measure.

The atheist’s reference to Natural Evil remains potent, in my opinion, arguing that the Free Will Defense doesn’t apply. One move that has been made by some theists is to reclassify Natural Evil as Moral Evil by assigning it to some demonic power. So, for example, one might suggest Satan directly caused an earthquake or flood. This too is an appeal to Transcendence, albeit a malevolent power.

The Video Conversation [7 minutes, 26 seconds] – Transcript

Handout Material for Week 9

Some Questions to Consider:

Q: How far do you go in accepting the Theist’s defense, as stated by van Inwagen? What are the arguments’ weakest points?

Q: Margaret Klenk states, in the video: “if there's no evil, if there's no bad, if there's no sad, there can be no love, there can be no good.” Do we need a bad counterpart to see/understand good? E.g. the virtue of longsuffering – must a counterpoint to evil?

Q: How much of a rational defense do you need before you could say, with Job, “though he slay me, yet will I trust in him” (Job 13:15 KJV)?


2 Van Inwagen, Peter, The Problem of Evil (Oxford University Press, 2006)
3 Rowe, William L., “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism”, American Philosophical Quarterly 16 (1979): 335-41.

Links to the other essays in this series:

1) Introduction

2) A Transcendent Experience

3) Science or Revelation

4) The Exalted Father

5) Why Believe?

6) Miracles

7) Moral Law – Part A

8) Moral Law – Part B

9) Love Thy Neighbor

10) The Human Condition

11) Suffering and Death

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