Everything I know about the problems of evil and suffering in a 4 page essay

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 omniscient 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 to for the character of humans 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 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 we observer 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.
    Given that 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. We should not be surprised that people would also reject his moral demands on them, which results in some of the evil we see.
  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. More on this argument for God’s existence from evil here.

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.

For more on the problem of evil, listen to this lecture by Douglas Geivett, professor of philosophy at Biola University. Then you must listen to this debate here between William Lane Craig and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong. Another debate transcript is here, with William Lane Craig and Kai Nielsen. Here’s a book debate between William Lane Craig and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, published by Oxford University Press, 2004.

18 thoughts on “Everything I know about the problems of evil and suffering in a 4 page essay”

  1. That last argument is an absolute disaster.

    First, there is no reason to think that moral objectivity requires a God, or even that theism has an advantage over atheism when it comes to moral foundations. Almost all defenders of moral realism in metaethics are nonbelievers, and theological ethics faces such serious difficulties (related to the Euthyphro dilemma) that it isn’t even taken seriously.

    But second, and more decisively, the argument is blinded by a deep confusion about the dialectics at work. The argument from evil poses a problem TO THE THEIST. Since the theist DOES accept moral objectivity, the theist has a problem. This problem needs to be solved, regardless of whether the nontheist accepts moral objectivity.

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    1. Thanks for your insightful comment. It’s pretty clear to me that you are aware of how this argument works and I am glad that you raised these responses for my readers. And let me just say that this a great comment, concise and effective, with only a little gratuitous snark. My view is that snark is only appropriate after you win? But did you?

      For the first part, here are the problems with objective moral rules on atheism:

      1) Atheism is committed to materialism, that the material world is all there is. If you deny this, you need to explain for me how these moral rules, that apply only to humans, obtain. On atheism, the universe coughed us up by accident. So where did these moral rules that govern the behaviors of accidents arise?

      2) On atheism, what difference does it make ultimately it I follow these objective moral rules? Especially explain why I should do the right thing in secret when it is less pleasurable for me and when I will not get caught. For example, say I am Stalin and I have a journalist in custody who says bad things about me.

      3) On atheism, there is no free will, and therfore no moral choices or moral responsibility. Please provide an account of free will on atheism.

      I could say more, but that’s a start.

      For the second part, here are some questions for you:

      You have it exactly backwards. Evil is consistent with Christianity because we expect it, as I explained. The problem of evil is a problem pressed by atheists. You guys are the ones who are arguing that there is real evil in the world that God would not permit. Let me ask you again, what do you mean by evil when you press the argument from gratuitous evil?

      Is the evil you speak of:

      1) Objectively evil? If so, then you are assuming an objective standard that assumes an objective moral lawgiver. Your argument is therefore self-refuting.
      2) Subjectively evil? If so, then who cares what atheists think? Why should God be bound by your subjective notions of right and wrong, be they individual or cultural? Those standards are arbitrary and God is not bound by them.

      Be specific. Answer the question: what is evil? If you are going to press the argument, you need to define your terms.

      Finally, regarding the Euthyphro dilemma, the solution is to split the dilemma by introducing a third option. Moral values are rooted in God’s unchanging nature. He is the standard of goodness. Therefore, the standard is not arbitrary, and it is not external to God. His moral nature is the source of the prescriptive moral laws, which we, his creatures, are morally obligated to follow.

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  2. On the first point:

    1a. Atheism is not at all committed to materialism. The most prominent philosophical critic of materialism — David Chalmers — is an atheist. Even Quine was a Platonist about mathematical objects. Atheists are perfectly free to introduce immaterial entities into their ontology should they encounter good reason to do so. Thus atheists who think moral commitments require objective non-natural moral properties are free to posit such properties. This is what e.g. Michael Huemer does.

    1b. You’ve haven’t shown any problem with naturalist versions of moral realism, according to which there are objective moral properties that are nothing more than natural properties. These views are very common and deserve consideration.

    2. You’re requesting reasons for being moral. But, assuming that there are objective moral facts, then there already are reasons to be moral: viz., moral reasons. The fact that something is objectively wrong provides an undeniable moral reason against doing it. Of course, if you want reasons of self-interest, those might not be forthcoming. But why think that reasons of self-interest are more important than moral reasons, or that reasons of self-interest have a default justification not had by moral reasons? Those would be mighty big assumptions, with little initial plausibility.

    3. Providing a successful account of free will is an enormous undertaking, but why assume that atheism is even relevant? The main threats to free will — determinism, other kinds of necessity, and any problems internal to the concept of free will — are present (or absent) for atheists and theists alike. It’s not like atheism entails determinism, it’s not like theism is uniquely placed to avoid determinism. And introducing God only raises new problems: e.g., divine foreknowlege, God’s essential goodness versus God’s free will.

    On the second point:

    I don’t agree that your solutions to the problem of evil work, but I’m setting aside my objections for the sake of argument.

    The main point is a logical point about reductio arguments. Those who pose reductios do not and need not accept the truth of the premises. Rather, their job is to show how these premises lead to a contradiction (or at least to some sort of trouble). There is no bad faith in someone who doesn’t accept the premises of a reductio posing it to someone who does accept the premises: it is a perfectly legitimate way of showing that a view leads to trouble.

    Thus even an atheist who denies moral objectivity is within his rights in posing an argument whose premises involve moral objectivity. It is simply a way of showing how the theistic view leads to trouble. And therefore there is no sense in objecting that the atheist is contradicting himself or being hypocritical or setting himself up for a fall or anything like that.

    And there are other ways in which such an objection fails. Many atheists accept moral objectivity, so the charge of hypocrisy doesn’t even get started. And traditional theists are forced to acknowledge that atheists (like all humans) are perfectly capable of recognizing evil when they see it, regardless of whatever views the atheist might have on moral objectivity — so it’s not like the atheist’s favorite examples of evil can be airily dismissed.

    On the Euthyphro dilemma:

    Your intellectualist view is a great improvement over the radical voluntarism of hyper-Calvinists, but it still faces familiar problems. Most importantly, you lose all advantage over atheism. Why? Because you have no answer to the question of why God’s nature counts as good instead of evil. You can’t say anything like “God’s nature counts as good because love (or power) is good and God has a loving (or powerful) nature” — that would only presuppose an independent standard which says love (or power or whatever) is good. You can’t say “God’s nature counts as good because God declared himself to be good” — that would only return us to voluntarism. Instead, you have to say that the goodness of God’s nature is an ultimate fact for which no further explanation can be given. That in itself is okay, but notice that atheists can follow your lead, saying that the badness of suffering or the wrongness of rape is an ultimate fact for which no further explanation can be given. And then both views will be equally good at providing a foundation for morality.

    The other big problem has to do with the constraints your view puts on God’s will. In making commands, God’s will is now determined (and thus constrained) by the goodness found in the rest of his nature (especially, one presumes, his intellect). This means God is not omnipotent: there are logically possible commands which he is incapable of giving. It also compromises his freedom: his will is fully determined, and thus he has no choice in the commands he gives.

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    1. I have more to say on this, but you get the last word. (That’s the commenting policy of this blog, to give challengers the advantage). You grace my blog with your great learning. I hope I wasn’t too mean, you certainly were not mean.

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  3. If I were walking past a swimming pool and saw an unattended child fall in, who appeared to be drowning, I would rescue the child, as best I could.

    We know God doesn’t rescue the child, because these child-drownings are common. It seems that God is less good than me or you. God’s excuse is soemthing to do with free will.

    So who’s free will was I violating when I save the child from drowning? How did I make things worse by rescuing the child?

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  4. So what to say to the atheist who asks, what possible good could justiy allowing the Nazis to murder 6m Jews? How could the deaths of millions of death ever be trumped by a good above that?

    I realize that the Christian’s response is that, God only knows his reasons. There is no way that we could possibly know that those deaths were truly pointless and so we must trust that they are not. Yet something I’ve been thinking about is this. Christian ethics hinges on duties, on categorical imperatives and rights. Humans have intrinsic value and so murder/torture/rape is just categorically wrong no matter what the consequences cos humans are ends not means, etc.
    Yet this theodicy defense seems to argue from a consequentialist viewpoint, ie that justifies permissing certain actions by other consequences that result, and so the general wellbeing is increased by that action. Do you see what I mean? Is there not a conflict here?

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    1. I would not say that God is guilty for allowing evil humans to commit evil actions. Humans don’t have a right to take other human lives. But God isn’t a human. As much as it may upset us that he has some other purpose than our happiness and safety, that’s the way it is. I don’t like it either, but I don’t feel that my right to a long and happy life is something that God cannot cut short for his purposes. I’m not God’s pet.

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  5. There’s still something not quite right though.
    I read this somewhere:
    “If I knew about it and it was in my power to stop it, I would stop a man from raping a woman. I would not ‘respect his free will.’

    But if God exists, he allows rape to happen all the time.

    Christians say he has a good reason to allow rape.

    That sounds absurd, but even if it’s true: Doesn’t this mean that WE shouldn’t interfere with attempted rape, either? After all, on the Christian view, every rape that happens somehow works out for the greater good. So if I interfere with rape I’m impeding God’s mysterious plan for the greater good.”

    I think that’s the kind of thing that I’m still finding a problem, despite the “not God’s pet” defense.

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    1. You have a moral obligation to do the right thing if you are present. In fact, God’s allowing evil provides free agents with the opportunity to do good things in the face of evil. If there were no evil and suffering, how could people show their obedience to God by being good? But if you feel that you don’t want to do the right thing when someone is being raped, then God can handle that too.

      This example that you are talking about has to do with when people are using their free will to do evil. Is God obligated to intervene? And I think the answer is that there is more value for us and for God by allowing us to make free decisions. God wants us to prevent rape, but he has a plan for people who don’t want to do the right thing, too. People who do evil will eventually be held accountable by God, but not just yet. If there were no freedom, then there would be no way to freely choose to know God and love God either.

      And why pick on rape? Why not pick on premarital sex? Are the people who complain about things they don’t like as zealous for God to step in and stop them from sinning the way they do like? I don’t think so. And it goes to show that God’s purpose is not to do what we want him to do for our own happiness. The problem with people who complain about why God doesn’t stop this or that evil is that they never start with the evil in their own lives. It’s a smokescreen that is thrown up to avoid doing the right thing now.

      And again, it does boil down to thinking that God owes us happiness in this life. He doesn’t.

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      1. Don’t you think that God using someone, like an extra country who could have joined the war for example, to stop the Nazis from killing the Jews and saving their lives goes a bit deeper than “maintaining ou happiness”. I think that the terminology you use is trying to make it sound like a very shallow objection, yet it seems to be a very deep one when we are talking about the taking of a life, let alone millions of lives. If we think it is morally permissible to allow the genocide of 6m Jews for some greater moral reason, then should we not also act in accordance with these moral conclusions?

        In order to be fully consistent, shouldn’t we also permit evil, as God does?

        Fine then, we can also talk about pre-marital sex. Though if we were in a court of law and I saw someone who had fornicated and someone who had raped, it would be clear to me who had committed the more evil out of the two.

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        1. You’re making the claim that God could do better on your plan, so you bear the burden of proof. Can you show beyond a shadow of a doubt right now that God should have done it your way, and that this would have achieved HIS GOALS of having more people know him and love him? Remember, he isn’t here to make us happy. We are not owed full happy lives by God.

          You can permit evil if you like, explain to God later why you thought it was a good idea since you saw him doing it. Even though he specifically ordered you not to. I don’t recommend this, though, since the Bible teaches otherwise. You have a moral obligation to use your free will to love your neighbor.

          God permits evil because he knows the good that can come from doing that in the future. We don’t know that. So the safest course of action for us is to love God, and love our neighbors.

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          1. OK let me phrase it like this:
            i) If God exists, then gratuitous evil does not exist.
            ii)God exists.
            iii) God permits all actions of evil in this world.
            iv) Therefore, all acts of evil in this world are not pointless, but have some greater moral good.
            v) Therefore, I KNOW for a fact that all acts of evil in this world have some greater moral good.
            vi) This means that I can also permit all evil as I know that there is definitely a greater moral good at the end of it, and we don’t want to miss out on that.

            Which premise would you dispute?
            I’m guessing that it’s gonna be the last one, but do you see my point?

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          2. I think the problem is that what works for God doesn’t necessarily work for you. You have duty to love the God and to love your neighbor. If you fail in that duty, you will be sinning and will face the consequences for that. Moreover, you will not be in a good relationship with God. The good that God can achieve by creating a world in such a way as to achieve his goals while allowing you (and everyone else) to have free will will not accrue to your moral account! It’s God who is ordering the world so that your free choices don’t block him from achieving his ends. God is able to work evil for good because he can see into the future and order the world in such a way as to bring good out of evil. But you’re not in a position to get the credit for doing that. You have the duty to love God and love your neighbor, and you are not in a position to see that by sinning that you will be able to achieve those ends.

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          3. im taking a logic class going over propositional logic and i figured i would be fun to diagram this… however your version of the argument was invalid even after several attempts of me trying to correct the premises (hence the difference in verbiage):

            if god exists then, then pointless evil does not exist = (G> ~ E)

            god exists = G

            god permits all actions (both good/evil) in this world = P

            therefore all actions of evil in this world are not pointless
            (G> ~E) = (1> ~ ?)
            G = 1
            P = 1
            ——–
            * ~P = 0
            INVALID

            if ? = 1 then Invalid; if ? = 0 then Valid
            ========================

            1)
            if god exists then, then pointless evil

            does not exist = (G> ~ E)

            god exists = G

            therefore pointless evil does not exist. = ~P

            VALID
            [therefore all actions of evil in this world are not pointless]

            2)
            if god is all-good then god has a “greater reason” for allowing evil actions = (G> R)

            god is all-good = G

            god permits all actions (both good/evil) in this world = P

            Therefore evil actions have a “greater reason”.

            (G> R) = (1> 0) = 0
            G = 1
            P = 1
            —————-
            * R = 0

            VALID
            ========================

            on the other hand:

            (i realized that my creative effort here was not original after i visited this blog spot)

            If god exists, then pointless evil does not exist.

            Pointless evil does exists.

            Therefore, god does not exist.

            (G> ~P) = (1> ~ 1) = (1> 0) = 0
            P =1
            ———-
            * ~G =0

            VALID

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          4. Great job! I think the real problem for the atheist is sustaining the premise “Gratuitious evil and suffering exists”. How the heck are they going to do that? Especially without defining an absolute standard of morality that could only be rationally grounded by a cosmic Designer. It’s much easier for me to argue FOR the existence of God using their own argument (you numbered it 1) above) and modus ponens, based on the kalam argument and premises like “The universe began to exist”. Only crazy people doubt that.

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  6. Michael, I realize that many Christians take the view that you cite that “all acts of evil in this world have some greater moral good.” However, I think that this is just wrong. It’s not justified by Scripture or logic, as far as I can tell. God hates evil considerably more than we do – after all, it’s completely foreign to His nature, but obviously not to ours.

    One of the amazing things about God is His ability to partially or completely redeem evil circumstances, and sometimes to bring good from them. That doesn’t imply that the good in the end always outweighs the original evil, or always outweighs the good that would have been done if the evil had not occurred. No matter how great the moral good in the end, sin and evil are never God’s will – but He doesn’t impose His will on us in every case.

    I believe there’s another thread on this site that discusses this point, so I’ll be brief: to allow free will and natural law to operate in this universe, God must allow the possibility of evil and tragedy. Otherwise, we would ultimately have no choices, and would live in a physically unpredictable universe.

    We pray that God’s will be done, knowing that it isn’t always, because His will is always better than the alternative. It’s too bad we don’t stay in His will more often.

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