What is the Evidential Argument from Evil?
Editor's Note: There has been rising interest in the "problem of evil" in our comment boxes, and many atheist commenters requested a stronger engagement with the so-called "evidential" version of that argument. So on Wednesday we featured a defense of the "evidential" version from atheist Brian Green Adams. Today, Catholic author Trent Horn offers a critique.
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 then 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. She then asked, “Well, 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 that it was a safe bet to say our team had won.1
Atheists advance a similar argument from evil against the existence of God. This argument rests its case on the extreme unlikeliness that God exists in the face of tremendous evil or suffering.
The Evidential Argument from Evil
The philosopher William Rowe—who incidentally passed away this week—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 incredibly unlikely 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 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 millions 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 non-existence 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 highly probable 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 9 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.”4
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, however, 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 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.5
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 that “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 be 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 from the seats on a typical backyard porch. The sheer number of possibilities that can be generated by seemingly inconsequential events is simply “beyond our ken.”
For example, I sometimes ponder in astonishment the effect my wife’s great-grandmother had when she refused 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 could have been drastically different were she to not have 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 only tries to show that God’s existence is improbable (and not impossible), then 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.
In closing, please consider this to be a general introduction to this topic from a theistic perspective. The space required for a short article does not permit me to address objections raised by atheistic philosophers like Paul Draper and Erik Wielenberg, which I hope to address in a future post. For now, if you want to learn more about this argument I recommend the following resources:
Overview of the Argument
- Nick Trakakis – “The Evidential Problem of Evil”
- Daniel Howard Snyder Ed. – The Evidential Argument from Evil
Defenses of the Evidential Problem of Evil
- William Rowe – “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism”
- Paul Draper – “God and Evil: A Philosophical Inquiry”
- Nick Trakakis – The God Beyond Belief: In Defence of William Rowe’s Evidential Argument from Evil
Critiques of the Evidential Problem of Evil
- William Lane Craig – “The Problem of Evil”
- Stephen J. Wykstra – “The Humean Obstacle To Evidential Arguments From Suffering: On Avoiding The Evils Of 'Appearance'”
- Michael Bergmann and Michael Rea – “In Defense of Skeptical Theism: A Reply to Almeida and Oppy”
This post was adapted from chapter seven of Trent Horn's book, Answering Atheism: How to Make the Case for God with Logic and Charity (Catholic Answers, 2013).
- Michael Murray uses a similar example to this in his book Nature Red in Tooth and Claw: Theism and the Problem of Animal Suffering. A real-life example did occur in 1998 when eleven members of a Congolese soccer team were all killed by lightning while the opposing team was left unharmed. See “Africa Lightning kills football team.” BBC News, October 28, 1998. Available online at: http:// news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/203137.stm ↩
- See William Rowe. “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism.” American Philosophical Quarterly 16 (4): 335–41, October 1979. ↩
- Peter van Inwagen. The Problem of Evil (Oxford University Press, New York, 2006) 104-105. ↩
- CCC 310 ↩
- Alvin Plantinga. Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2000) 466-467. ↩
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