Tag Archives: Theodicy

Why does God let people suffer? Why is there so much evil in the world?

I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery
I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery

I just wanted to draw your attention to this 4 page essay by Joe Manzari, which is the best darn summary of the state of the art on the problems of evil and suffering I have seen. The problem of evil is an objection to the existence of God based on the presence of evil or suffering in the world. The arguments basically infer that if God is all-good and all-powerful, then there should not be any evil or suffering.

There are two kinds of problem of evil.

The Logical/Deductive Problem of Evil:

The first kind is called “the deductive problem of evil” or “the logical problem of evil”. An exampel of evil would be Saddam Hussein murdering some journalist who told the truth about him. This version of the problem of evil tries to introduce a logical contradiction between the attributes of God and the presence of evil, like this:

(1) God exists.
(2) God is omnipotent.
(3) God is omniscient.
(4) God is omni-benevolent.
(5) Evil exists.
(6) A good being always eliminates evil as far as it can.
(7) There are no limits to what an omnipotent being can do.

In order to avoid a contradiction, we need to explain how there could still be evil, since the conclusion of this argument is that there should not be any evil!So how are we going to get out of this mess? The solution is to attack premises 6 and 7.

Premise 6 is false because in order to eliminate human evil, you would have to eliminate free will. But eliminating free will is worse than allowing it, because good things like love are impossible without free will.

It is in response to this proposition that the Free Will Theodicy of G. W. Leibniz applies. God, valuing man’s freedom, decided to provide him with a will that was free to choose good over evil, rather than constraining his will, allowing him to choose only good.

Premise 7 is false because there are limits on what an omnipotent being can do. God cannot perform contradictory things, because contradictory things are impossible. God cannot make a married bachelor. Similarly, God cannot force free creatures to do his will.

In the same manner that God cannot create a square circle, he cannot make someone freely choose to do something. Thus, if God grants people genuine freedom, then it is impossible for him to determine what they will do. All that God can do is create the circumstances in which a person can make free choices and then stand back and let them make the choices.

One last point. In order to solve the problem of natural evil for this argument, you can point out that free will requires predictable and regular natural laws in order to make free will meaningful. Natural laws mean that individuals can predict what will happen when they act, allowing for moral responsibility. More on that next time.

Inductive/Probabilistic Problem of Evil

There is a second version of the problem of evil, though, which is more dangerous than the first. This is the one you see being argued in debates, whereas the first version is not used because it has been defused as seen above. Here is the second one:

(1) If God exists, gratuitous evil does not exist.
(2) Gratuitous evil exists.
(3) Therefore, God does not exist.

This argument tries to argue that while God may have some reason for allowing free will, there are other evils in the world that are not the result of human action that God has no reason for permitting. Theists usually like to argue that God has morally-sufficient reasons for allowing some evil in the world, in order for the character of humans to develop through suffering and endurance. But what about gratuitous evil, which doesn’t have any point?

Consider the case of a fawn running in the forest, who falls and breaks his leg. Ouch! Then a forest fire starts and the poor fawn suffocates to death in the smoke. Why would God allow this poor small animal suffer like that? And notice that there is no morally sufficient reason for allowing it, because no human knows about this and so no human’s character or relationship with God is impacted by it.

The solution to this problem is to deny premise 2. (You can also deny 1 if you want). The problem with premise 2 is that the atheist is claiming to know that some instance of evil really is gratuitous. But since they are making the claim to know, they have to be able to show that God’s permission of that evil achieves nothing. But how do they know 2 is true?

The problem with 2 is that the atheist is not in a position to know that the permission of some evil X really doesn’t achieve anything. This is because the atheist cannot look forward into the future, or see into other places, in order to know for certain that there is no morally sufficient reason for allowing God’s allowing evil X to occur. But since the atheist argues based on premise 2, he must be able to show that premise 2 is more probable than not.

Manzari’s article also argues why apparently gratuitous evil is less problematic for Christians in particular, because of certain Christian doctrines. He lists four doctrines that make the apparently gratuitous evil that we observe more compatible with an all-good, all-powerful God.

  1. The chief purpose of life is not happiness, but the knowledge of God.
    Some of the things that we experience may wreck our feelings of contentment, but we need to remember that God may be permitting those troubles in order to remind us not to get too comfortable with life on earth, and to think ahead to the after-life. And remember, even Jesus learned endurance through suffering. His suffering was not pointless and neither is ours.
  2. Mankind is in a state of rebellion against God and God’s purposes.
    We humans seem to be on a dead run away from God, trying to keep our autonomy by knowing as little about him as possible. Part of knowing God is knowing what he designed us to do – to love him and to love others. And so, the less we know about God, the more we stray from his design for our lives.
  3. God’s purpose is not restricted to this life but spills over beyond the grave into eternity.
    Sometimes it seems as if our sufferings really are catastrophic, but when you realize that you are offered eternal life without any suffering after you die, the sufferings of this life are a lot less upsetting than they would be if this life was all we had.
  4. The knowledge of God is an incommensurable good.
    This one is the biggest for me. Knowing God and knowing his actual character by studying the historical Jesus is a wonderful counterbalance for all the problems and sufferings of this life. A little bit of historical study reveals that Jesus was not spared the worst kind of suffering in his life, making it is a lot easier for us to bear with whatever God allows us to face.

In section 3, Manzari shows how you can also argue against this version of the problem by supplying evidence for God, such as from the big bang, the fine-tuning, the origin of life, the origin of free will, the origin of the first living organism, the origin of the mind, the sudden emergence of phyla in the fossil record, molecular machines, irreducible complexity, the resurrection miracle, and the objective morality argument.

The argument goes like this:

(1) If God exists, gratuitous evil does not exist.
(2) God exists.
(3) Therefore, gratuitous evil does not exist.

Just support 2 with some evidence, and you win, especially when they can’t support their claim to know that gratuitous evil exists.

The Argument for God from Evil

In the paper, Manzari actually makes an argument for God from evil. That’s right. Far from disproving God, the presence of evil (a departure from the way things out to be), actually affirms God’s existence. How?

(1) If God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist.
(2) Evil exists.
(3) Therefore, objective moral values do exist.
(4) Therefore, God exists.

That’s right. If evil exists in any sense such that it is not a personal or cultural preference, then objective morality exists. If objective morality exists, then there is an objective moral lawgiver. Game over. If the atheist backtracks and says that the existence of evil is just his opinion or his cultural preference, then this standard does not apply to God, and you win again. Game over again.

So, although the problems of evil look pretty tough, they are actually easy. The toughest part of evil and suffering is the emotional problem. I could tell you stories about what I’ve been through… but then, that’s why the arguments matter. You can hold your position under tremendous fire when you have the arguments and evidence to ground you.

A possible reason why God permits suffering and evil: the soul-making theodicy

I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery
I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery

Steve Hays has a post up at Triablogue about one my favorite defenses to the inductive problem of evil – the soul-making theodicy.

He writes:

The soul-making theodicy was popularized by John Hick. In Augustinian anthropology, Adam and Eve were finished products. They fell from a state of moral perfection. Hick contrasted that with his own position, according to which Adam and Eve were created with the potential for moral growth. They were still in the process of creation. They had the potential for moral maturation. (Mind you, Hick denied the historicity of Adam and Eve.)

There’s some truth to this analysis, although it suffers from equivocation. To say unfallen Adam and Eve were morally “perfect” simply means they were sinless. It doesn’t mean there was no room for moral improvement.

Paradoxically, fallen humans can be both better and worse than unfallen humans. Inasmuch as they are sinners, they are worse. Yet Christians can have a moral grace that surpasses the mere sinlessness of Adam and Eve. Saints have virtues that angels lack.

3. Let’s take an example: Suppose you have a family of five. Both parents are social climbers and overachievers. The husband is consumed with career advancement. The wife is a tiger mom. She makes sure the kids are enrolled in all the right student clubs and extracurricular activities that will look good on a college application. The two teenage sons and a daughter are into the usual things kids in their age-bracket are into. At dinner, each member of the family is glued to the display on their smart phone.

The members of the family aren’t Christian. Aren’t into meaning-of-life questions. They lead superficial lives.

One son starts to forget routine things. At first this is amusing. They think he’s absent-minded. Distracted by too much multitasking. But he begins to complain about headaches.

His parents take him to the doctor, and he’s diagnosed with brain cancer. Suddenly their priorities come to a screeching halt.

They now have a sick family member who will just get sicker. Their social world contracts. Their center of gravity shifts.

Instead of being frivolous and self-absorbed, they make the most of the remaining time with their dying family member. The wrenching experience changes them. Deepens them. Makes them better people. Develops their unrealized moral potential.

Perhaps, in their distress and despair, they turn to God. They regret the missed opportunities. Regret taking life for granted. Regret taking one another for granted. Regret all the things they should have said and done differently, in retrospect.

That kind of regret can refine character. Moving forward, that prompts them to treat others with greater patience and understanding.

This is hypothetical, but there are real life examples of Christians like Eric Liddell and Ernest Gordon who exhibit moral heroism in the face of extreme adversity.

The rest of the article considers some objections to this defense.

Have you ever had that happen to you? Where something terrible happened and you found yourself having to pray, and care for others, and drop all your plans, and be unselfish? It’s happened to me. In fact, I think this is one of the main things that Christians should be doing. We ought to respond to setbacks as if they were opportunities for us to show our real character. Don’t treat the needs and sufferings of others as something to avoid, treat it as your opportunity to be more like Jesus. I know that we all have dreams of things that we would like to do and achieve. But sometimes, an opportunity arises for us to imitate Jesus by being obedient with suffering, or by caring for the suffering of others by putting our own needs and desires second. It’s tempting to think that our super-duper plan to change the world is the most important thing, but it really isn’t. Don’t miss the chance to form your character when you suffer, or when someone close to you is suffering.

I have to mention Dina, who has been busy visiting the elderly in a hospital for the last two weeks. She is a busy lady, and has things she would rather be doing. She hasn’t done any cross-stitching in months, because she is so stressed with work. Nevertheless, she didn’t take that as an excuse to put herself first. She found some people close to her who were suffering and thought “here is an opportunity for me to imitate Jesus by putting myself second, and serving others first”. Evil and suffering gives you the opportunity to be who God wants you to be.

Stephen Cowan asks: does God have a reason for allowing evil and suffering?

Theology that hits the spot
Philosophy of religion that hits the spot

Here is an article by Steven Cowan about the problems of evil and suffering.


The problem of evil is no doubt the most serious challenge to belief in God. Even religious believers find it troubling that evil exists in the world—and so much evil! It is puzzling, to say the least, that an all-powerful, absolutely good being would allow evil to exist in his creation. And yet it does. Evil and suffering exist and they are often overwhelming in their magnitude.

Now let’s find out what a noseeum is, and how it relates to the existence of evil and suffering:

However, perhaps God’s existence is incompatible with a certain kind of evil that exists. For example, the atheist William Rowe has argued that God’s existence is inconsistent with pointless or gratuitous evil. By “pointless evil,” Rowe means evil that does not and cannot serve a greater good. And Rowe believes that there is such pointless evil in the world. He thus concludes that God does not exist. Rowe’s argument may be simply stated as follows:

  1. If God exists, there would be no pointless evil.
  2. There is pointless evil.
  3. Therefore, God does not exist.

[…]But, is there pointless evil in the world? Rowe thinks there is. To show that there is pointless evil, Rowe introduces what he calls the “noseeum inference.” Like the pesty little bugs that some readers may be familiar with, a “noseeum” is something that you cannot see—it is a “no-see-um.” And a noseeum inference is a conclusion drawn on the basis of what one does not see. The basic structure of all noseeum inferences looks like this:

  1. I cannot see an x.
  2. Therefore, there probably is no x.

We all make noseeum inferences everyday of our lives. Every time I go to cross a street, I look both ways and I step out into the street only after I “no-see-um” a car coming.

[…]Rowe applies this kind of noseeum reasoning to God and evil. Rowe suggests that if we cannot see a reason for a particular instance of evil, then there is probably not a reason. Suppose we hear about a very young child who is tortured to death to amuse some psychotic person. We think about this event and we examine all the circumstances surrounding it. No matter how hard we try, we cannot see any good reason why this child had to suffer the way she did. Since we cannot see a reason why God would allow this child to suffer, there probably is not a good reason—the child’s suffering was pointless. Of course, Rowe would be quick to point out that he is not speaking merely hypothetically. There are cases like this in the news every day—real-life cases in which we shake our heads in frustration, wondering why God would allow such a thing.

Is Rowe correct in his conclusion? Do such examples prove that there is pointless evil in the world? I don’t think so. To see why, we must recognize that noseeum inferences are not all created equal. Some noseeum inferences, as we have seen, are reasonable and appropriate. But, many are not. Suppose I look up at the night sky at the star Deneb and I do not see a planet orbiting that star. Would it be reasonable for me to conclude that there is no planet orbiting Deneb? Of course not. Suppose that using the best telescopes and other imaging equipment presently available, I still cannot see a planet around Deneb. I would still be unjustified in concluding that there was no such planet.

In that example, the planet is the noseeum. Just because you look really hard, you can’t be confident that the planet is not there. And similarly with the problem of evil and suffering, looking really hard and finding no reason does not mean that there is no reason. It just means that you are not in a good position to see the reason. You don’t know enough to to be sure that there is no reason, because of your limitations as a human being.

To know that any given instance of evil or suffering is gratuitous/pointless requires a high level of knowledge. How much knowledge? Well, consider this paper by the late William Alston of Syracuse University, who lists six problems with the idea that humans can know that any particular instance of evil and suffering is gratuitous. (You can get the PDF here)

According to the paper, human beings just do not have the capability to know for certain that God has NO morally sufficient reason for allowing any particular instance of evil and/or suffering. God’s morally sufficient reason is a noseeum. To know for sure that there is no reason, we would need to have more knowledge than we do.

Also, remember that on the Christian view, the good aim that God has is NOT to make humans have happy feelings in this life, regardless of their knowledge, wisdom and character. That’s what atheists think, though. They think that God, if he exists, is obligated to make them feel happy all the time. They don’t think that God’s goal is being actively involved in forming their knowledge, wisdom and character. God has a purpose – to work in the world so that everyone who can freely respond to him will respond to him. The Bible says that allowing pain and suffering is one of the ways that he gets that group of people who are willing to respond to respond to him – FREELY. To be able to claim that evil is gratuitous, the atheist has to show that God can achieve his goal of saving all the people he wants to save while permitting less suffering in the world. And that is a very difficult thing for an atheist to show, given our human cognitive limitations.

I also found this opening speech from a debate that Steven Cowan did on the problem of evil, which may also be useful to you.

The best place to learn more about no-see-ums is in this excellent lecture by Biola University professor Doug Geivett.

William Lane Craig debates Walter Sinnott-Armstrong: evil, suffering and God

This is one of the top 4 best debates that William Lane Craig has done in my opinion. (The other three are Craig-Millican debate and the first and second Craig-Dacey debates).

Sinnott-Armstrong is very courteous, respectful and intelligent scholar and he is very good at defending his side. This is a very cordial and engaging debate, and because it was held in front of a church audience, it was targeted to laymen and not academics. So if you are looking for a good first debate to watch, this is it!

The MP3 file is here.

There is also a book based on this debate, published by Oxford University Press. I was actually able to find a PDF of it online. I should also remind people that you can get the wonderful Craig-Hitchens debate DVD from Amazon.com if you are looking for a debate to watch, or show in your church, this is the one to start with.

The debaters:

The format:

  • WSA: 15 minutes
  • WLC: 15 minutes
  • Debaters discussion: 6 minutes
  • Moderated discussion: 10 minutes
  • Audience Q&A: 18 minutes
  • WSA: 5 minutes
  • WLC: 5 minutes


WSA opening speech:

Evil is incompatible with the concept of God (three features all-powerful, all-god, all-knowing)

God’s additional attributes: eternal, effective and personal (a person)

He will be debating against the Christian God in this debate, specifically

Contention: no being has all of the three features of the concept of God

His argument: is not a deductive argument, but an inductive/probabilistic argument

Examples of pointless, unjustified suffering: a sick child who dies, earthquakes, famines

The inductive argument from evil:

  1.  If there were an all-powerful and all-good God, then there would not be any evil in the world unless that evil is logically necessary for some adequately compensating good.
  2.  There is evil in the world.
  3.  Some of that evil is not logically necessary for some adequately compensating good.
  4. Therefore, there can’t be a God who is all-powerful and all-good.

Defining terms:

  • Evil: anything that all rational people avoid for themselves, unless they have some adequate reason to want that evil for themselves (e.g. – pain, disability, death)
  • Adequate reason: some evils do have an adequate reason, like going to the dentist – you avoid a worse evil by having a filling

God could prevent tooth decay with no pain

God can even change the laws of physics in order to make people not suffer

Responses by Christians:

  • Evil as a punishment for sin: but evil is not distributed in accordance with sin, like babies
  • Children who suffer will go straight to Heaven: but it would be better to go to Heaven and not suffer
  • Free will: this response doesn’t account for natural evil, like disease, earthquakes, lightning
  • Character formation theodicy: there are other ways for God to form character, by showing movies
  • Character formation theodicy: it’s not fair to let X suffer so that Y will know God
  • God allows evil to turn people towards him: God would be an egomaniac to do that
  • We are not in a position to know that any particular evil is pointless: if we don’t see a reason then there is no reason
  • Inductive evil is minor compared to the evidences for God: arguments for a Creator do not prove that God is good

WLC opening speech:

Summarizing Walter’s argument

  1. If God exists, gratuitous evil does not exist.
  2. Gratuitous evil exists.
  3. Therefore, God does not exist.

Gratuitous evil means evil that God has no morally sufficient reason to permit. WSA doesn’t think that all evil is incompatible with God’s existence, just gratuitous evil.

Everyone admits that there are instances of evil and suffering such that we cannot see the morally sufficient reason why God would allow it to occur.

The claim of the atheist is that if they cannot see that there is a moral justification for allowing some instance evil, then there is no moral justification for that instance of evil.

Here are three reasons why we should not expect to know the morally sufficient reasons why God permits apparently pointless evil.

  1. the ripple effect: the morally sufficient reason for allowing some instance of evil may only be seen in another place or another time
  2. Three Christian doctrines undermine the claim that specific evils really are gratuitous
  3. Walter’s own premise 1 allows us to argue for God’s existence, which means that evil is not gratuitous

Christian doctrines from 2.:

  • The purpose of life is not happiness, and it is not God’s job to make us happy – we are here to know God. Many evils are gratuitous if we are concerned about being happy, but they are not gratuitous for producing the knowledge of God. What WSA has to show is that God could reduce the amount of suffering in the world while still retaining the same amount of knowledge of God’s existence and character.
  • Man is in rebellion, and many of the evils we see are caused by humans misusing their free will to harm others and cause suffering
  • For those who accept Christ, suffering is redeemed by eternal life with God, which is a benefit that far outweighs any sufferings and evils we experience in our earthly lives

Arguing for God in 3.

  1. If God exists, gratuitous evil does not exist.
  2. God exists
  3. Therefore, gratuitous evil does not exist.

Four reasons to think that God exists (premise 2 from above):

  • the kalam cosmological argument
  • the fine-tuning argument
  • the moral argument
  • the argument from evil

William Lane Craig debates Austin Dacey: Does God Exist?

Here is the video and summary of a debate between Christian theist William Lane Craig and Austin Dacey at Purdue University in 2004 about the existence of God.

The debaters:

The video: (2 hours)

The video shows the speakers and powerpoint slides of their arguments. Austin Dacey is one of the top atheist debaters, and I would put him second to Peter Millican alone, with Walter Sinnott-Armstrong in third place. This is the debate to show people who are new to apologetics. The debate with Peter Millican is better for advanced students, and that’s no surprise since he teaches at Oxford University and is familiar with all of Dr. Craig’s work. The Craig-Dacey debate is the one that I give to my co-workers.

By the way, you can get the DVDs and CDs for the first Craig-Dacey debate and the second Craig-Dacey debate and the second Craig-Sinnott-Armstrong debate. The Peter Millican debate is not available on DVD, but the link above (Peter Millican) has the video and my summary.

Dr. Dacey’s 5 arguments below are all good arguments that you find in the academic literature. He is also an effective and engaging speaker, This is a great debate to watch!

SUMMARY of the opening speeches:

Dr. Craig’s opening statement:

Dr. Craig will present six reasons why God exists:

  1. (Contingency argument) God is the best explanation of why something exists rather than nothing
  2. (Cosmological argument)  God’s existence is implied by the origin of the universe
  3. (Fine-tuning argument) The fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life points to a designer of the cosmos
  4. (Moral argument) God is the best explanation for the existence of objective moral values and objective moral duties
  5. (Miracles argument) The historical facts surrounding the life, death and resurrection of Jesus
  6. (Religious experience) God’s existence is directly knowable even apart from arguments

Dr. Dacey’s opening argument:

There are two ways to disprove God’s existence, by showing that the concept of God is self-contradictory, or by showing that certain facts about ourselves and the world are incompatible with what we would expect to be true if God did exist. Dr. Dacey will focus on the second kind of argument.

  1. The hiddenness of God
  2. The success of science in explaining nature without needing a supernatural agency
  3. The dependence of mind on physical processes in the brain
  4. Naturalistic evolution
  5. The existence of gratuitous / pointless evil and suffering

One final point:

One thing that I have to point out is that Dr. Dacey quotes Brian Greene during the debate to counter Dr. Craig’s cosmological argument. Dr. Craig could not respond because he can’t see the context of the quote. However, Dr. Craig had a rematch with Dr. Dacey where was able to read the context of the quote and defuse Dr. Dacey’s objection. This is what he wrote in his August 2005 newsletter after the re-match:

The following week, I was off an another three-day trip, this time to California State University at Fresno. As part of a week of campus outreach the Veritas Forum scheduled a debate on the existence of God between me and Austin Dacey, whom I had debated last spring at Purdue University. In preparation for the rematch I adopted two strategies: (1) Since Dacey had come to the Purdue debate with prepared speeches, I decided to throw him for a loop by offering a different set of arguments for God, so that his canned objections wouldn’t apply. I chose to focus on the cosmological argument, giving four separate arguments for the beginning of the universe, and on the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. (2) I reviewed our previous debate carefully, preparing critiques of his five atheistic arguments. In the process I found that he had seriously misunderstood or misrepresented a statement by a scientist on the Big Bang; so I brought along the book itself in case Dacey quoted this source again. I figured he might change his arguments just as I was doing; but I wanted to be ready in case he used his old arguments again.

[…]The auditorium was packed that night for the debate, and I later learned that there were overflow rooms, too. To my surprise Dr. Dacey gave the very same case he had presented at Purdue; so he really got clobbered on those arguments. Because he wasn’t prepared for my new arguments, he didn’t even respond to two of my arguments for the beginning of the universe, though he did a credible job responding to the others. I was pleased when he attacked the Big Bang by quoting the same scientist as before, because I then held up the book, specified the page number, and proceeded to quote the context to show what the scientist really meant.

Dr. Craig is always prepared!