Wednesday, July 26, 2006

A Challenge to Advocates of the Argument from Evil

I'd like to make an methodological point in discussions of the problem of evil, a part of the Plantingian legacy. If the theist begins by offering explanations of the existence of evil, and the discussion focuses on the adequacy of these explanations, the theist puts themselves at an unfair disadvantage. If I as a defender of the argument from reason were to say that since we don't now have a detailed explanation of the evolution of the brain, the argument from reason succeeds, I would be rightly criticized. The same principle applies here to the argument from evil. The correct procedure, it seems to me, is to ask the atheist to present his/her argument against theism. Is it a logical argument, a probabilistic argument, or some other kind of argument. Show me the argument, let me see what the premises are and what the conclusion is. Then an explanation, or a possible explanation, for evil might be required. Or not, depending on the structure of the argument. So I'm going to issue a challenge to atheists. Give me your version of the argument from evil. Numbered premises please.


Victor Reppert said...

I just fixed the comment line on this one. So I expect all you atheists are ready to meet this challenge. Right?

Steven Carr said...

Are we going to see numbered premises for the argument from reason any time soon?

1) God, by definition, is omni-benevolent.
2) An omni-benevelont being, by definition, does all possible acts of benevolence in its power to do
3) Not all acts of benevolence are done.
4) Therefore, there is no omni-benevlent God.

Mike D said...

What does this have to do with evil? It just concludes that God does not make spoiled brats of his children.

the Cogitator said...

Re: premise 2:

What is in in God's power is one thing; what is in mine or yours is quite another. Is it in God's benevolent omnipotence to will my will for me? Love, freely given and received, is a great good; but love cannot be exchanged without freedom; given freedom, however, love can be squelched, perverted, rejected, etc. Hence, God's affirmation of the good of ahem freedom-unto-love entails risking the loss of another good, namely, love itself. I refer you to Plantinga's God, Freedom, and Evil.

To examine your syllogism by analogy:

1) God, by definition, is omniscient.
2) An omniscient being, by definition, knows all things that can be known.
3) God does not know what it is like to be self-conscious of being me myself (as I type or breathe this instant, or whenever). (Ie., God can't self-consciously "have" the qualia/knowledge of being me, but only of being God.)
4) Therefore, there is no omniscient being.

Er, sorry, try again.

This whole approach seems to fall in the same category of fallacy as asking, Can God create an unliftable stone? Or, Can He speak an unutterable word? No, God can't do what can't, by definiton, be done -- including always willing all good for/as all people.

Incidentally, Dr. Reppert presented numerous numbered forms of the AFR in his book (pp. 74ff).

John W. Loftus said...

Let's try a novel approach then.

(P + Q) --> R

If (P) my mother was omnipotent and (Q) if she could create a world containing less suffering and more pleasure than the existing one, then (R) my mother has more goodness than God who purportedly created the existing world.

P + Q

[P is for the sake of the argument and must be hypothetically granted.]

Q My mother could be able to do this by merely eliminating the whole predator/prey relationship among her creatures. She would additionally make all of her creatures vegetarians and she would then reduce the mating cycles and sex urges of her creatures so that there is plenty of vegetation to go around.

But since R by definition would be rejected by theistic beliefs, then God is not good or God doesn't exist.


There are additional arguments about omniscience and whether God knows something we don't know about what makes for a good universe, of course. But it would be hard to argue against what my mother could do here when vegetarian creatures already exist in the natural world.

John W. Loftus said...

BTW: In a debate with William Lane Craig, Dr. Washington said this: “We’ve got to hold theists to what they say…if they say God is omnibenelovent, God is omnibenelovent, if they say God is omnipotent, God is omnipotent. We can’t let theists to sort of play with these words. They mean what they mean. And if God is omnibenelovent, God will not have any more harm in this world than is necessary for accomplishing…greater goods. If there could be any less evil in this world, God would not be omnibenelovent.”

My mother could do better if she was omnipotent!

Hallq said...

I'm surprised you need to write a post to get this question answered. It's like writing a blog post to ask someone to explain the cosmological argument, or the problem of induction. My initial thought was to recommend you seek out a philosophy 101 text book.

Victor Reppert said...

God is supposed to be omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good. Is perfect goodness equivalent to omnibenevolence thus defined here. Is there anything Christianity affirms that logically requires omnibenevolence in this sense.

JD Walters said...

"My mother could do better if she was omnipotent!"

Bullshit, and you know it. Sometimes a mother's love leads to irrational actions, like holding a baby so tightly to her breast that she smothers the baby, or being so protective of her child that the child is perpetually 'grounded' at home so that the mother can faun over her at will.

My mom has done plenty of bad things to me even though she loves me. She makes mistakes, sometimes she acts selfishly. Can you imagine what an omnipotent but morally imperfect mom would do to protect her child? To give just one example: suppose a neighorhood kid bullied her child, and in a fit of rage fries the neighborhood kid into oblivion. And why not? After all, she is acting out of 'love' for her child!

What atheism basically amounts to is that some people think that they can do better than an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent being. I haven't seen any successful proposal that doesn't somehow disastrously backfire.

Take, as a very light-hearted example, the movie 'Bruce Almighty'. When Bruce acquires God's powers he also has responsibility for everyone's prayers. After trying to answer each one individually and seeing that there's no end in sight, he just replies "Yes" to all of them. Result? Everybody wins the lottery (and so everyone ends up with about $10), everyone's stocks go up, which triggers a new market crash, etc. Chaos, basically.

John W. Loftus said...

Vic, I actually think you're right here. What is there in the Bible, and not merely a philosophically defined "greatest conceivable being" that requires an omnibenevolent being? I do not believe the Bible requires that of her God.

But then you run into a different problem, don't you? Doesn't the Biblical God seem more like an ancient potentate then what God can be conceived to be?

John W. Loftus said...

JD, I was speaking of my mother. Do you know her? She was not overprotective, nor was she of below intelligence or irrational in raising us kids. My example was to be taken as if she were the "mother" of all living creatures as their creator...all of them...not just me. And I suggested one thing she would do. In making this one change it would eliminate 60 million animals from being slaughtered for our consumption. It would eliminate any shark, bear, lion, or wolf attacks on humans, except when suddenly surprised and scared by us (if that were possible in a world where we no longer hunt them for food) mere self-defense. It would eliminate any animal killing another to eat it.

That was just one suggestion. I have many others.

John W. Loftus said...

I should write inside a word processor rather than on the fly, but you can understand what I wrote well enough.

Blue Devil Knight said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Blue Devil Knight said...

A volatile topic. Nice.

There is an interesting tension in theists in response to the argument from evil, on one hand, and their (typical) arguments that only god can ground moral truths.

On the one hand, we have the ability to perceive moral truths, because God constructed us to be able to judge what is right and wrong. This (or something like it) grounds our moral knowledge.

On the other hand, when you point out something clearly horrible, that God had the power to stop, the theists suddenly become quite tentative and hesitant in their ability to trust their own moral faculties. E.g., a child alone, shipwrecked on an island, dying of starvation after being gnawed by an army of rats, roaches, etc. Someone comes along with an infinite of riches (food, plane, etc) and decides not to help her, letting her die as she cries out for God to help her, clutching the crucifix in her emaciated hand as she passes away.

By my moral faculties, if I had a bunch of stuff to help out that kid, I'd do it. I would hope that any Christian would see the morality of doing the same. Why doesn't God?

If you answer "Well, what is your account of morality, you have evaded the question."

Similarly, but tangentially, shouldn't there be a lot more miracles if the Christian God existed? I think everyone here has probably personally known a child, a good child, who has died a painful death from cancer or some other awful disease. I know that the Christians like to construct complicated rationalizations for their God's behavior, but one parsimonious and reasonable explanation is that there is no supernatural agent out there looking out for us. Tell the girl on the island that there is a loving god watching over her.

Blue Devil Knight said...

P.S. The girl suffered for four months on the island, eating roaches to survive.

P.P.S. She is not a Christian, but a Hindu for whom the cross represents something besides Christ.

Steven Carr said...

Are we going to see numbered premises for the argument from reason any time soon?

People in thisn disucssion do seem to agree that there is no being who does all possible acts of benevolence.

To use Peter Kreeft's analogy of God as a good hunter who rescues animals from traps, there is no being who rescues trapped children.

JD Walters said...


One thing that atheists always seem to forget in discussing the argument from evil is that this world is not the way it's supposed to be. The world is God's good creation, but for many reasons, not least of which is our own continual rebellion against the 'inner voice' which we hear, it has gone bad. God's rescue plan does not involve arbitrarily relieving the plight of single individuals, but defeating death and evil once and for all through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And until God remakes the heavens and the earth through Jesus we are all called to do what we can to renew the world. That is why (as Rodney Stark demonstrates in The Rise of Christianity) during times of plague in Europe the pagans fled but the Christians stayed behind and cared for the victims, why Christians preserved classical learning in the monasteries and universities, why Christian missionaries took the Gospel (as well as food, medicine, etc.) to the ends of the earth. God has chosen primarily to work through human beings rather than flashy direct intervention, but instead of obeying his commands to go and renew the world we sit in front of our computers arguing about the argument from evil:)

And I notice a curious tension when unbelievers argue against God. They complain about there not being that many miracles on one hand, but on the other hand complain that if miracles were to happen that would make science impossible. Even some 'believers' for crying out loud, think it would be beneath God to perform a 'magic trick' to cure a disease or let people walk on water.

And I think you are confusing having an accurate moral sense with having the power and responsibility to orchestrate events such that whatever this moral sense delivers as right, will actually happen. Theists do not question the accuracy of the moral sense in case something truly horrible happens. We recognize the wrong and we shout to God about it. But you have to keep in mind the 'butterfly' effect when it comes to God actually 'doing something about it'. Take the little girl suffering on a desert island. Let's think about possible ways in which God could help her: God could teleport food from the storage containers of a rich restaurant, leaving an equivalent amount of sand so as not to violate energy conservation. So the food ends up on the island, where it immediately goes off (no refridgerator) and is devoured by insects and other small critters who also infect the little girl with all kinds of diseases. The rich restaurant starts an investigation about the sand and an innocent but suspect person is hauled off to court. This man is on the verge of depression so being wrongfully accused of something he didn't do causes him to commit suicide. Meanwhile the girl on the island, though having eaten enough for one day, is still alone on the island and needs rescuing. So God jiggles the neurons of a pilot to fly out to rescure her with her exact coordinates 'downloaded' into his mind. But the guy's marriage is having problems to when the wife hears about the pilot's quixotic quest to rescue a girl, she loses it and divorces him once and for all. The pilot goes to rescue the girl, finds the island but his plane is now out of gas...etc.

I realize this scenario is fanciful and somewhat silly but I think it helps to keep in mind what 'world engineering' actually involves.

BDK also complains that "Similarly, but tangentially, shouldn't there be a lot more miracles if the Christian God existed?"

You should listen to the average missionary working in Africa or Asia. They come back with oodles of miracle stories, so many that I find hard to believe they all actually happened. I myself, when traveling with my family in India and Bangladesh on missions, have seen what I have since taken to be God miraculously at work, furthering the cause of the Gospel.

But of course skeptics never believe us so the point is moot. Even God shouting in your ear wouldn't be enough. You would still convince yourselves that you are just schizophrenic or find some nifty brain anomaly to explain it away.

thomas said...

There are many essays on this topic online written by respected atheists. See here

However, it seems clear you are not interested in hearing the arguments with an open mind. If I understand correctly, you believe in an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God who created a "sinful" humankind (though he, being omniscient as well, must have known that we would be "sinful"), then wiped out humankind because we were bad but promised not to do it again (see Noah myth), then sent an incarnation of himself to save his "sinful" creation from his own wrath. Oh and he gave us free will but if we don't choose exactly what he wants us to choose we'll burn in hell forever.

I'm sure I missed something in that story, though, that doesn't sound like it can be quite right. I'm sure you'll correct me, though.

thomas said...

The url got cut off, it seems. it is

Francois Tremblay said...

Define moral righteousness (a weaker claim than omnibenevolence) as such:

"Posit a volitional being B. When making a choice where there is at least one perfect alternative and the cost of the implementation of all alternatives are identical (or in the case of a god, where the cost is automatically zero), B will choose a perfect alternative if B is morally righteous."

(1) If a god exists, then it is Creator.
(2) If a god exists, then it is morally righteous.
(3) Given (1) and (2), a god would not have created a non-perfect universe (defined as containing natural or human evil/suffering).
(4) We observe natural and human evil/suffering.
(5) No god exists. (from 3 and 4)

Francois Tremblay said...

Here is an argument by Volker Dittman:

1. There is evil/suffering.
2. A god is morally righteous/omnibenevolent.
3. Either:
1. A god can create a universe without evil/suffering.
2. There is an explanation for all evil/suffering. (With a theodicy.)
3. There is no explanation for some evil/suffering.
4. If 3a. or 3c. is true, then there is no god. This point represents the usual Problems of Evil.
5. If 3b. is true, then all evil/suffering is justified.
6. If 3b. is true, then all human evil is justified. (from 5)
7. If all our actions can be justified, then there is no more morality. We can rationalize the worst crimes.
8. If 3b. is true, then there is no morality. (from 6 and 7)

JD Walters said...


If your comment is directed toward my post I can't see how you could have misread it like you did. I believe in an omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent God who created a world which could evolve on its own, having the potential to bring forth creative, intelligent creatures like us with the capacity to either use our intelligence to enhance God's creation through loving communion with God, each other and the rest of creation, or to use our intellect for evil, destructive purposes. History, I think, says it all when it comes to evaluating how we have used our intelligence.

God did not create us 'sinful'. The potential to do both good and evil is present in us. We become more sinful the more we choose to indulge our selfish impulses, ignoring the voice of God and of community. The state of humanity is called 'fallen' because as it turned out the great bulk of humanity choose to be selfish, and selfishness has a ripple effect throughout societies.

"Oh, and he gave us free will but if we don't choose exactly what he wants us to choose we'll burn in hell forever"

Surely I must have misread this sophomoric rant. So many atheists claim that free will isn't all that it's cranked up to be when it comes to responding to the free will defense against the argument from evil, but of course when it comes to being moral and responsible without God, why then of course we need no 'outside help' and we can build a heaven-on-earth all by ourselves. God wants us to choose what he knows will bring us to full flowering as human beings. His one great commandment-to love one another-goes far beyond simply 'getting along' because God knows that we are happiest when serving others. God wants us to choose what will bring us into closer and better relationships with him and others. When relationships fail, do you know what happens? People get depressed, they hurt themselves and other people, they commit suicide. I certainly hope you aren't stuck way back in the past in the ancient metaphors of fire and brimestone to describe hell. Imagine spending an eternity alienated from those you were close to, all because of your own selfish decisions. That would hell for me. Fire and brimstone might actually be a more humane option. Indeed, some depressed people do commit suicide by setting themselves on fire. Physical pain is nothing compared to the spiritual pain of alienation and the absence of God.

Your objection is like complaining that parents act dictatorially when they tell their child to keep its fingers out of an electric plug, because if they don't keep their fingers out they get an electric shock. You want to avoid hell? It's simple: "Abhor that which is evil. Cling to that which is good"

But of course you don't sound like you want to engage with these issues with an open mind. You have a preconceived idea about what the Christian response to evil is and God forbid that facts should get in your way. So I'm waiting to hear your caricature of this post.

Anonymous said...

First off, I think you're right when you say that you're at a disadvantage when you, as a theist, must first set out your proofs for god and how they square everyone's observations of the natural world. It's not an unfair disadvantage, though; it's perfectly fair and right that things are tougher for you than for the atheist, because you're making the positive claim ("God Exists"). If you want that claim to have any weight, you must present the positive arguement and then let others attack the logical edifice to see if it holds together. What you're doing right now is just avoiding your responsibility at a theistic philosopher, trying to get the athiests to do your work for you. I can understand why you want your opponents to play the besieged party (it's easier to be on the attack, sure), but just because you don't want to do the work of establishing your premise doesn't mean you can assume it's true and rest on your laurels.

To put it more succinctly, since you haven't presented any positive arguements for god, the "Arguement from Evil" is meaningless. Try this:

1) There is no reason to believe any god exists.

2) Things we call evil exist.

3) Therefore, evil cannot disprove the existance of god, since it's never been proven.

Flippant, I know. But I'll throw you a bone, just to give you a chance to play defense for change.

1) A god exists who is all-
a) -good
b) -powerful
c) -knowing

2) This god wants people to love him, know him, and rejoice in his presence for all eternity.

3) This god created the whole world, including humans and their brains.

4) Humans' brains control how they preceive the world, including what they see as good or evil.

5) Since god is all-good and all-powerful, everything that happens in the world is actually for the good.

6) Some things (particularly natural evils such as tidal waves and virulent plagues) appear to humans to have no good in them.

7) The appearance of natural evil separates some people from the god described in 1) and 2).

8) By 4), the appearance of natural evil is solely a product of the human brain's inability to see the deeper good.

9) By 1), this god could have created humans' brains as being incapable of seeing natural evils (either by making them less perceptive or more perceptive)

10) Since our brains are capable of seeing any form of natural evil that separates us from the god described in 1) and 3), and since that natural evil would separate us from that god, which cotradicts his will as described in 2), that god does not exist.

To sum up without the annoying numbered premises: our ability to perceive and feel outrage at natural evils is the essence of the argument from evil, not the evils themselves. If god had created us with either greater knowledge (so we could see the good that supposedly lies behind the evils) or less moral sense (so we didn't care about drowning children) the problem of evil vanishes. We have the problem of evil, though, and it is the primary problem appolgists have in justifying belief in god. Since no god would let this problem exist, no god exists.

Duke York

JD Walters said...


Atheists would like to ASSUME that the problem of evil puts theists on the defensive, but why that should be so is beyond me, since we are not omniscient and cannot hope to know the general plan of the world and how it's going to work out. Even Jesus, son of God, couldn't see past his agony in the garden, but he trusted God anyway. A successful theodicy is almost by definition impossible, because it implies knowing how an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent being would bring 'all things together for good'. The best we can say is that, no matter how the problem of evil got that way, God offers us a way out through the death and resurrection of Jesus. That's the only theodicy we have. If you want to bite the hand that rescues you, that's fine, but that's the help that's on offer, and it's better than anything any atheist can come up with in their accidental universe.

Your argument, as it stands is full of holes and can be hotly contested on almost all its premises, but I'll respond to it a little later, since I have to leave for work in a few minutes.

Jim Lippard said...

J.D. Walters: "One thing that atheists always seem to forget in discussing the argument from evil is that this world is not the way it's supposed to be."

I don't think atheists forget that--I think the argument is pointing out that this is a fact in need of explanation. How is it that an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent being's creation could end up as something other than what it's supposed to be?

"God's rescue plan does not involve arbitrarily relieving the plight of single individuals, but defeating death and evil once and for all through the resurrection of Jesus Christ."

If this has already happened, where's the elimination of death and evil?

"And I notice a curious tension when unbelievers argue against God. They complain about there not being that many miracles on one hand, but on the other hand complain that if miracles were to happen that would make science impossible."

Can you point to examples of the latter complaint? If we lived in a world of magic, that would certainly make science (and the law) more difficult, but I don't see that it would make it impossible.

JD Walters said...


Jesus' death conquered death once and for all, so it does not have the final say, but its complete reversal in our experience occurs at the end of time, with the new heavens and the new earth. As far as this 'interim' is concerned, there could be any number of reasons why God chose not to bring about the New Creation right after the Resurrection. Some Christians see this time as a period of grace, where people have the chance to freely accept God's salvation when it is still up to them to make a choice whether God is real or not, as opposed to after the Second Coming when 'every eye shall see him' and those who rejected God will have some pretty serious explaining to do. But I can only be agnostic about these reasons since I am not God. That doesn't mean I don't accept the fact that Jesus' death and resurrection does, in fact, mean that 'death is swallowed up in victory'.

As for the science/miracles issue, thank you for acknowledging that miracles do not make science impossible. You'd be surprised how many skeptics think that, including David Hume, Richard Dawkins and others. I think, though, that there are good reasons for God not to constantly intervene in the world's affairs. For one thing, how many miracles would be 'enough' for God to be vindicated in the eyes of men? For each miracle that happens we could always demand one more. And if miracles happened all the time, that would really create a problem for science, and it would also make God seem even more capricious than he already appears to be (in the eyes of skeptics). I think there are good reasons for God to work mostly inobtrusively, perhaps through built-in potentials that were present since Creation.

When flashy miracles do happen, they are usually faith-building or important for evangelistic purposes, not for the personal convenience of God's people. Like I was saying to BDK, during my family's missionary travels we did witness (and hear others witness) of extraordinary healings or signs which brought many people to God, but we ourselves still suffered from sickness, disease, legal trouble, etc. We had no magic wand. But God did work to bring about His purposes.

Anonymous said...

The arguement from evil does not argue against the existence of god but instead it argues against a specific definition of god that was first given to us by the catholic church. The arguement from evil suggest this definition is logically impossible.

The problem is that theists believe that they 'know what God is'. Atheist in truth simply do not believe in what they have come to believe God is.

Is it really such an insane thing to believe that we know everything about God. That we can put God into a box definition and then become angered when people disagree with us.

Maybe (just maybe) we have no clue what God is. That atheists are created by our own zealoism. Maybe the argument from evil is a big hole in what we believe God is maybe. Maybe we need to rethink our understanding of God? Is this really that insane?