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.
- P1. If pointless evils exist, then God does not exist.
- P2. Pointless evils do exist.
- C. Therefore, God does not exist.
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: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, 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:[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.
- Courage: Doing what is right in the face of danger.
- Compassion: Suffering alongside someone.
- Love: Putting another person’s needs ahead of your own.
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. 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: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).
- If pointless evils exist, then God does not exist.
- God does exist.
- Therefore, pointless evils do not exist.