If God has a reason for allowing evil and suffering, should we know what it is?

This tiny little thing is a No-See-Um
This tiny little thing is a No-See-Um

Have you heard about the terrible noseeums? Then read on, for Steven Cowan will tell you about them.


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. Consider the recent Tsunami in the Indian Ocean that took the lives of almost 200,000 people. Consider as well the infamous Nazi Holocaust in which millions of Jews and others were mercilessly slaughtered. Moreover, we can watch the evening news on almost any day and hear of people in our neighborhoods being robbed, beaten, and murdered. How and why could God allow such things?


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.

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. Humans 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. Just because we don’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there, and the burden of proof is on the person who says there is NO morally sufficient reason. They’re making the claim, they have to shoulder the burden of proof.

By the way, I HAVE the PDF of the William Alston paper. But I can’t post it publicly because it’s copyrighted.

However, here is a summary of his argument: (it’s unnecessarily wordy – this is not Thomas Sowell or Theodore Dalrymple writing this)

The recent outpouring of literature on the problem of evil has materially advanced the subject in several ways. In particular, a clear distinction has been made between the “logical” argument against the existence of God (“atheological argument”) from evil, which attempts to show that evil is logically incompatible with the existence of God, and the “inductive” (“empirical”, “probabilistic”) argument, which contents itself with the claim that evil constitutes (sufficient) empirical evidence against the existence of God. It is now acknowledged on (almost) all sides that the logical argument is bankrupt, but the inductive argument is still very much alive and kicking.

In this paper I will be concerned with the inductive argument. More specifically, I shall be contributing to a certain criticism of that argument, one based on a low estimate of human cognitive capacities in a certain application. To indicate the point at which this criticism engages the argument, I shall use one of the most careful and perspicuous formulations of the argument in a recent essay by William Rowe (1979).

  1. There exist instances of intense suffering which an omnipotent, omniscient being could have prevented without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse. ,
  2. An omniscient, wholly good being would prevent the occurrence of any intense suffering it could, unless it could not do so without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.
  3. There does not exist an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good being (p. 336).

Let’s use the term ‘gratuitous suffering’ for any case of intense suffering, E, that satisfies premise 1, that is, which is such that an omnipotent, omniscient being could have prevented it without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.’

[…]The criticism I shall be supporting attacks the claim that we are rationally justified in accepting 1, and it does so on the grounds that our epistemic situation is such that we are unable to make a sufficiently well grounded determination that 1 is the case. I will call this, faute de mieux, the agnostic thesis, or simply agnosticism. The criticism claims that the magnitude or complexity of the question is such that our powers, access to data, and so on are radically insufficient to provide sufficient warrant for accepting 1.And if that is so, the inductive argument collapses.

What the atheist has to show is that God could have prevented some instance of evil that appears to be pointless without losing any overall goodness. I.e. – suppose someone gets sick and has to stay home instead of going to a party. The person is suffering, but how do we know that God isn’t justified in allowing this suffering? What if, by allowing this suffering, God protects the person from being killed by a drunk driver? If the atheist says that there cannot be ANY moral justification for allowing the suffering, he has to be able to know what would happen in the future to know that nothing good would never come out of it. That’s the burden of proof on the atheist, and Alston claims that the atheist is not in a position to know that.

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.

But as I said before, atheist confuse the purpose of life. They think that the purpose of life is to have happy feelings, and they wonder “how could allowing me to suffer create MORE happy feelings?” And that’s where the problem arises. They can’t accept the idea that God has a right to form their character, to put them through certain experiences, and to place humans in times and places where he can orchestrate a world that meets his needs, not our needs.

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 about no-see-ums is in this excellent lecture by Biola University professor Doug Geivett.

8 thoughts on “If God has a reason for allowing evil and suffering, should we know what it is?”

  1. I find it fascinating that a-theists, who would ignore the possibility that some future good could come from present suffering, on the other hand support abortion because it “prevents future suffering.” They seem willing to look into the future for possible bad but not potential good.


  2. What can we say to those who say mosquitoes and other insects (like ticks) are such a nuisance in one case and very dangerous in others. Why would God create such creatures? Did they have a better purpose originally?


    1. The purpose of life is not happiness, but knowledge of God. Allowing some suffering can help people to not only reach out to God but also take action to alleviate the suffering of others. The natural law theodicy is useful here, too. Moral actions require a predictable framework in order to me meaningful.


    2. Many YECs believe that mosquitoes and ticks were originally designed to suck plant juices, not blood. In fact, mosquitoes do suck plant juices. Male mosquitoes do so exclusively. It is only the females that suck blood. Ticks are closely related to mites, who primarily suck plant juices, although some species are parasitic like ticks. It is entirely reasonable to suggest that mosquitoes and ticks were originally vegetarian and have become parasites only after the Fall.


  3. Reblogged this on Entertaining Christianity and commented:
    It’s getting nerdy in ha, It’s getting nerdy in here! Check out today’s reblog on the problem of Evil. Why doesn’t God stop evil from happening? Why do people have to suffer? Is it reasonable to say that God doesn’t exist because He doesn’t act as we think He should? Check it. It’s long, but worth the read.


  4. Atheism cannot argue against the existence of God based on the existence of evil.
    To call something evil, you need an objective moral standard that tells you what good and evil is but that requires an objective moral authority (aka God).
    Since atheists deny the existence of an objective moral atuhority, this argument fails right there.
    Sam Harris came up with his “Moral Landscape” but as William Lane Craig demonstrated in his debate with Harris, that attempt failed too.

    God could have created three possible worlds.

    1. A world in which no suffering exists.
    2. A world in which there is some suffering.
    3. A world in which there is the maximally possible suffering.

    We know that neither #1 or #3 is true.
    We know that suffering exists and we can easily imagine a world in which there is even more suffering than we observe.

    As you said, God can have perfectly good reasons (unknown to us) to allow suffering but I would go even further.and say that a world in which there is no suffering AND in which there are beings with a free will and the possibility to act on it is logically impossible.

    Because of His love for us God gave us free will and freedom but that makes it possible that we choose to ignore His commands, thus causing suffering to ourselves and to other beings.
    At least in this regard a world without any suffering is logically impossible.

    Atheists have to show that the maximally possible good can be achieved with less suffering in order to have any argument. Of course, they fail again.


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