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Why Horrible Suffering Does Not Disprove God’s Existence

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NOTE: This post adapted from chapter seven of my book Answering Atheism: How to Make the Case for God with Logic and Charity.

UPDATE: William Rowe, a philosopher mentioned in this article, passed away on August 22, 2015. Please keep him in your thoughts and prayers.

Once my wife and I attended a baseball game where our home team was ahead by eight runs in the top of the ninth inning. We decided to leave so we wouldn’t get stuck in the parking lot during the mass exodus after the game. When my wife’s mother called and asked if our team had won, we said it had, but we didn’t know the final score, since we had left early. “Well,” she replied, “how do you know for certain they won?"

She had a point. It was possible that the opposing team had come back to win the game or that the players on the home team had suffered a freak dugout accident that had forced them to forfeit. It was possible but extremely improbable. Since it was so improbable, we felt it was safe to say our team had won.[1]

Atheists advance a similar argument against the existence of God. This argument rests its case on the extreme unlikeliness, in the face of tremendous evil or suffering, that God exists.

The evidential argument from evil

The philosopher William Rowe admits, “There is a fairly compelling argument for the view that the existence of evil is logically consistent with the existence of the theistic God."[2] However, Rowe claims that, while it is logically possible God has good reasons for permitting evil in the world, it seems incredible that there exist reasons that justify the huge amount of suffering we observe.

As a result, this suffering seems more compatible with an absent God than with a purposefully inactive one. Rowe calls this the “evidential argument from evil," because, rather than the mere presence of evil making it impossible that God exists (i.e., the logical argument from evil), the evidence of large amounts of evil makes it unlikely God exists. Rowe’s version of the problem of evil proceeds as follows:

  • P1. If pointless evils exist, then God does not exist.
  • P2. Pointless evils do exist.
  • C. Therefore, God does not exist.

According to Rowe, although God may tolerate some evils because they serve a greater good (like allowing humans to have free will), there are other evils that seem to serve no greater good. Some of these are called natural evils, and they include things not caused by humans, such as hurricanes and cancer, that kill a large number of creatures every year. Rowe provides one specific example of such a natural evil:

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.

Rowe argues that evils like this serve no greater good and are therefore more compatible with the nonexistence of God. Even though Rowe cannot prove these evils are pointless with the same certainty we can prove 1+1=2, he maintains that the evidence makes it highlyprobable the evils are pointless, and therefore it is extremely unlikely that God exists.

How could a theist respond to this argument?

There are several ways a theist could respond to this argument. One less popular approach is to deny P1 or claim that there is no contradiction between the existence of God and the existence of evils that serve no greater good (i.e., pointless or gratuitous evils). The philosopher Peter van Inwagen defends this approach and argues that the concept of “gratuitous evil" is a fuzzy one. He writes:

[God] cannot remove all the horrors from the world, for that would frustrate his plan for reuniting human beings with himself. And if he prevents only some horrors, how shall he decide which ones to prevent? Where shall he draw the line?—the line between threatened horrors that are prevented and threatened horrors that are allowed to occur? I suggest that wherever he draws the line, it will be an arbitrary line.[3]

So, according to van Inwagen, just as a judge must draw a line and impose a sentence that is not necessary for carrying out a goal like “effective deterrence" (e.g., a prison sentence of nine years and 364 days would be just as effective as a ten-year prison sentence when it comes to deterring crime), God has to “draw a line" and allow some evils that are not strictly necessary for attaining a greater good.

Is there pointless evil?

In contrast to van Inwagen, most theistic philosophers prefer to challenge P2, or the claim that pointless evils exist. They ask, “How do we know there are some evils that don’t serve a good end?" After all, we can at least conceive of some good reasons God would have for allowing natural evil to exist.

Natural evils may, for example, serve to build our character and help us develop virtue (this is also called a “soul-making" theodicy). Think of the people who selflessly donate time, money, and even things like blood to help with disaster relief projects. We recognize that such acts of compassion are intrinsically good, and when humans freely choose to perform such acts, their choices gradually change their characters and can lead to the great good of their becoming virtuous people. In fact, many of the virtues that make the world a better place are practiced in response to some evil. Consider:

  • Courage: Doing what is right in the face of danger.
  • Compassion: Suffering alongside someone.
  • Love: Putting another person’s needs ahead of your own.

Moreover, natural evils may be an acceptable consequence of living in a world governed by natural laws that lacks gratuitous miraculous interventions (e.g., the fire that warms us can also kill us unless God always intervenes miraculously when fire gets out of hand). Such a world may be an ideal place for embodied, moral agents to live, grow in virtue, and ultimately come to know their creator. The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it this way:

But why did God not create a world so perfect that no evil could exist in it? With infinite power God could always create something better.But with infinite wisdom and goodness God freely willed to create a world "in a state of journeying" towards its ultimate perfection. In God's plan this process of becoming involves the appearance of certain beings and the disappearance of others, the existence of the more perfect alongside the less perfect, both constructive and destructive forces of nature. With physical good there exists also physical evil as long as creation has not reached perfection (310).

Skeptical theism and “No-see-ums"

Of course, an atheist could say that even if good reasons exist to justify natural evil in general, that is not the same as proving God has good reasons for allowing specific instances of natural or allegedly pointless evil (e.g., the Indian Ocean tsunami, the Holocaust, etc.). The problem with this approach is that it concludes that there are no good reasons for these evils just because those reasons are not immediately apparent to us.

But consider the phenomena of “no-see-ums," which is a term used by the Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga. It refers to insects you can’t see with the naked eye but that have painful bites. The lesson to be learned from no-see-ums is that just because you can’t see something that does not mean the thing in question does not exist.[4]

Granted, when I stand in my backyard and don’t see any elephants, I am justified in saying, “There are no elephants in my backyard." But if I say, “I don’t see any fleas in my backyard," I am not justified in saying, “There are no fleas in my backyard." After all, there might be fleas in my backyard, but because they are so small, I am not able to see them. When it comes to the good reasons God has for allowing particular evils to exist we must ask, “Should those reasons be as obvious as elephants or as imperceptible as fleas?”

This approach to the evidential problem of evil is also called skeptical theism. It argues that since human beings are limited by time and space, we are no more in a good position to see how seemingly pointless evil can lead to greater goods in the future than we are in a good position to see fleas in a yard. The sheer number of possibilities that can be generated by seemingly inconsequential events is simply beyond our ken.

For example, I sometimes ponder in wonder the effects of my wife’s great-grandmother’s refusal to let her daughter travel on the Titanic. It’s amazing to think of all the effects in the future (such as the birth of my son) that would have been drastically different had she not made such a simple choice. And this is just one example, but it is enough to show that an evil that exists in the present can have good effects hundreds or thousands of years from now that we are unable to fathom or predict.

To summarize, the evidential argument from evil relies on the atheist being able to prove that it is very unlikely there are “good reasons that justify serious evils.” But human beings are not in a good epistemic (or knowledge-gaining) position to know those reasons do not exist. Therefore, the evidential argument from evil can’t prove that God probably does not exist.

The reversal approach

Finally, a theist could reverse Rowe’s argument in the following way:

  • If pointless evils exist, then God does not exist.
  • God does exist.
  • Therefore, pointless evils do not exist.

Because the evidential argument from evil tries to show only that God’s existence is improbable (and not impossible), it is only fair that the evidence for the existence of God be factored into the discussion. One important piece of evidence would be the very concepts of objective evils, objective goods, and the moral truth that one may only allow evil in order to obtain a greater good or prevent a greater evil (a premise that lies at the heart of the evidential argument from evil). A successful moral argument for the existence of God could show that the very moral framework that the evidential argument from evil relies on in order to make its case is only consistent within a theistic framework.

Written by Trent Horn



1 comment

  1. Patrick Gannon Reply

    That all strikes me as straining at gnats (or no-see-ums). If there is no God, then what we see in terms of good and evil are exactly what we would expect to see in our physical matter reality. If there is a God, then pages and pages of inference are required to try and paint a picture that supports the existence of that God and to explain why He permits this evil. If there’s no God, none of those backflips and cartwheels are required. The simplest and most obvious conclusion is usually the right one. Maybe there’s a deist god who kicked it off and then stepped out of the way; but a god who intervenes in our lives – that changes the whole ball game. Now He has to explain all this evil because He has the ability to do something about it but doesn’t, or He can’t and He’s not all-powerful.
    All we know for sure is that we don’t know. We have no objective, empirical evidence for gods or afterlives and the brains of intelligent, educated people know this – heck the brains of everyone knows this deep down. When we lie to our brains and tell them to pretend to know something they don’t know (faith), then I have to wonder what sort of cognitive conflict that creates, but it may help explain the hostility of so many religionists.

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