This lengthy post is divided into two parts. The first is a piece written by Counter Apologist (whose blog can be found here) in defense of a version of the problem of evil as an argument against the existence of God. The second is my own response. Many thanks to Counter Apologist for his thoughtful contribution.
It’s not every day that an atheist gets an offer from a Christian to write a post on their blog defending the problem of evil, so I’m very grateful to Harrison for making such an offer to me.
As a bit of background information: I’m an atheist and a Chrsitian apostate, and the argument I’m going to lay out played a large part in my personal deconversion.
The argument from evil is pretty straight forward:
- If evil exists, then god does not exist.
- Evil exists.
- Therefore god does not exist.
Before getting into my defense of the argument I’d like to define my terms since what often happens in debates on the argument from evil is that the atheist and the theist end up talking past each other since we have incompatible definitions of good and evil.
As an atheist, I believe good and evil can be objective in a way; specifically that we can’t individually or collectively decide something “evil” can be “good” or vice versa. I believe that actions can be “good for” or “bad for” something or a class of things, but I don’t believe that there is such a thing as “goodness in itself” or “evil in itself”.
I believe there is such a thing as human nature which is dictated by the brute facts of our biology being what they are as determined by unguided evolution. As such there are certain things which are objectively “good for” us and lead to our flourishing or “bad for” human beings that lead to our languishing. I’m very sympathetic to the idea of Eudaimonia, or “the good life” as Plato put it, and would subscribe to a kind of virtue ethics. That is a very brief overview of the axioms which make the foundation for my moral system.
The other term that needs at least a brief definition is the word god. Here I intend to aim specifically at the Christian god, Yahweh. He is defined as a tri-omni being: omniscient, omnipotent, and omni-benevolent (or all good). This being is also defined to be a Trinity – one being composed of three persons: father, son, and holy spirit.
Defending the Argument
The idea that there is evil in the world seems uncontroversial, the actual world is awash in moral evil and natural evils. So much of the debate here is going to center on Premise 1: whether or not god would permit evil to exist.
It seems clear to me that such a being, if it existed, would not permit evil to exist. This is based on the very intuitive idea that a world with less evil and the same amount of good is better than an equivalent world with more evil. An ideal world would be one where all conscious beings would always flourish and never suffer. Consider the scenario where a person has to undergo some surgery, we would say it is preferable to have the surgery performed under anesthetic where the person feels no pain during the procedure rather than without which would be excruciating.
Theists and Christians seem to accept this rationale, but expect us to believe that there are goods or greater goods that couldn’t be achieved without permitting some evils. This seems to underestimate exactly what’s entailed by omnipotence – the ability to do all things logically possible. It certainly seems as though that any set of goods we observe or are told will occur can still happen even if evil were not possible, and it certainly seems logically possible to create contingent beings and have it be the case that evil doesn’t exist.
Consider moral evils, where an objective moral standard is violated by a human being. It is not hard to imagine a world where the moral law is just as objective as say the laws of nature – that is to say they can’t be violated. Consider Ohm’s law: V=ir [Voltage equals current (i) multiplied by resistance (r)]. Regardless of whether or not I wish it to be so, I will never be able to create generate a voltage that is greater than the product of the current and resistance involved. It isn’t only humans that are limited in these ways, even god is supposedly limited by objective laws when it comes to his omnipotence. God is conceived to be able to do all things logically possible, so regardless of how much god may or may not wish to be able to create a rock so heavy that he cannot lift it, he is unable to do so. To go even further, Christians consider it logically impossible for god to be able to do evil; he has no choice in the matter – it’s simply impossible for him to go against his perfectly good nature.
It could have been the same way with moral laws and contingent beings: god could have simply created us to be bound by the moral laws in the same way we are bound by physical and logical laws. There is no contradiction in this concept, so it is logically possible and within god’s power to actualize it.
Perhaps a Christian would reply that in doing so would be to cause humans to be deficient in some way, like being incapable of genuine love or being worthy of moral praise, but this seems to be special pleading. If god can be unable to commit moral evil and is able to love others, or be worthy of moral praise, then why should we consider the ability to commit evil required for other beings to love others or be worthy of moral praise?
It also seems to me that we wouldn’t be worse off without having moral free will, what matters is our autonomy. After all there is a great deal about our nature that is beyond our control or choosing: Our biological sex, our sexual orientation, or even the kinds of things we are predisposed to want to eat or avoid eating. Human beings could have been created in such a way that it would make as much sense for us to want to do evil about as much as we would want to jump into a pool of lava for fun. Suffice it to say, I don’t see anything convincing when it comes to a “free will defense” on the problem of evil.
Similarly god could eliminate natural evils by simply creating a world in which they didn’t occur, or making us contingent beings in such a way that we couldn’t be harmed at all. Again there is no logical contradiction in this concept, and so it would be within god’s power to actualize.
Here I believe the problem becomes more acute for Christians, because these aren’t just far-out concepts of logically possible worlds – this is the exact state Christians profess to be the case in heaven. The Bible promises that there will be no sin or suffering in heaven. This raises the question of why go through a middle step of creating a finite life here on earth with evil and suffering if the ultimate end of man is to praise and glorify god in an eternal, sinless, joyful existence in heaven? God could have simply created us all in heaven from the start and we could just get on with eternity.
To answer that question, I generally hear two responses: first is to say that in order for the souls in heaven to get into that state, they must go through a soul-making enterprise here on earth which necessitates suffering. The second is to say that there are certain goods, like say courage, which are supposedly only achievable in a world in which evil and suffering exists. I find both responses to be deficient, and I will deal with each in turn.
The problem with the soul-making response is that there is no proof showing that it is logically necessary for a being to go through a soul-making enterprise in a finite life in order to achieve a state where they are no longer able to sin once they enter heaven. If it’s not logically necessary to do so, god could have just created beings in heaven as is. There is a stronger problem for Christians specifically here however: consider the souls of dead embryo’s, or infants, or the severely mentally disabled. Nearly all Christian’s believe these beings are fully human and go to heaven upon their deaths. These beings go through no soul-making enterprise, in fact most of them go through no conscious development at all in the case of embryos or barely fertilized eggs. Yet they are considered to be in heaven and are transformed into a sinless perfect state. So there can’t be such a requirement for a soul-making enterprise to achieve that heavenly state. These same replies work when it comes to knowledge of what a fallen world is like, which I take to be a subset of a soul-making defense.
The second issue of goods that are supposedly suffering or evil dependent is an odd route for Christians to take. The first question is whether or not god possesses or exemplifies these goods. If god does possess these goods, then they cannot be suffering or evil dependent – because suffering and evil are contingent things whereas god is a necessary being. God is understood to be changeless and to have always been perfect. As such god could just instantiate finite beings that exemplify these goods.
Conversely if god does not possess these goods, then we would be right to question what grounds the goodness of these attributes. Still, even if the issue of grounding can be resolved, we encounter a similar problem with these goods existing in heaven. If these goods are evil dependent and there is no evil in heaven, how then can they be exemplified there for eternity? Consider a popular example of courage – one might say that in order to truly be courageous one must understand fear, or be in danger of something – but those in heaven know they will never be in danger of anything. Can they still be said to be exemplifying courage while in heaven? Again the question of those who died on earth without having gone through any development (infants, embryo’s, etc.), they can’t exemplify these goods either.
One could ask if what matters is exemplifying a limited set of discrete instances of actual courage (aka a finite set of goods) or if having a courageous disposition is what matters. In the first case, the set of these supposedly suffering dependent goods is necessarily finite due to the afterlife and the “fallen world” as we know it ending. So to say that a god had to create suffering just to instantiate some finite number of goods is a bit much to swallow on its own, but even then it wouldn’t be necessary to create the fallen beings to get that. One alternative could be that god could instantiate these goods by going through the incarnation of Jesus in mortal form in a world with only natural evils.
On the other hand if what matters is the disposition to do such goods if one faced the adversity, as presumably is the case for these beings in heaven, or perhaps for god himself to have. If that is the case then there is no logical contradiction to just creating beings with the correct dispositions and as such the goods are not dependent on evil or suffering after all.
Consider the Bad
All of this has proceeded without considering the worst aspect of Christian theism – the supposed existence of hell. Hell is a place of eternal conscious torture of those beings who have sinned and not accepted god’s gift of salvation through Jesus.
Much like heaven is to be the best possible state of existence for any contingent being, hell is the worst possible state of existence for any contingent being. In fact the descriptions of hell in the bible are as gruesome as it gets: eternal burning, darkness, a lake of fire, etc.
I take it as an axiom that non-existence is preferable to continued existence in eternal conscious torture. This can be understood by way of analogy to those who have been tortured so excruciatingly that they beg for death rather than to have the torture continue, assuming they believe they have no escape from their torturers. The euthanasia movement is itself evidence that at least some people prefer death in the face of continued suffering with diseases or a deteriorating body. There is a reason, after all, for hospice care when someone nears the end of their life. We consider it immoral to allow them to continue to suffer when we could ease the pain. In the US we have a constitutional right to not be tortured, even if we are to be punished by the state. Even in cases where a Christian says that somehow the damned “lock the doors from the inside” of hell, we would morally condemn any warden of a jail that allowed a situation to exist in a prison where the convicts locked themselves into a perpetual torturous state.
Simply put, a world where hell does not exist is preferable, infinitely so, compared to a world where hell does exist. Even more so if we consider a world where heaven exists but hell does not.
Here the problem of evil takes on an entirely new dimension. If we assume, unjustifiably in my view, that god must permit evil in order to achieve some greater good, we also must assume that god must also create a hell to condemn billions of conscious beings to in order to achieve those goods.
The question becomes why create beings who would just be condemned to hell? If it is because they must exist so as to create the elect that are to exist in heaven, then they are being used as a means to an end, not an end in themselves. This would be an evil act, so god couldn’t possibly commit it.
This makes the question of why not simply create the beings who will exist in heaven directly there, in their final state from the get go, bypassing the need to create the most evil thing imaginable: a place of eternal conscious torture.
Earlier I referenced how believers and atheists can sometimes talk past each other when it comes to the problem of evil and I want to expand on that theme here. One response I’ve seen to the problem of evil is to point to some feature, likely an aspect of the believer’s religion, which is pointed to as some kind of incommensurable good in its own right that is used as a justification for the existence of evil.
Among Christians I’ve seen the supposed sacrifice of Jesus held up as this kind of good, where evil had to exist so that god could demonstrate just how much he loves us by sacrificing Jesus for our sins.
This reply can potentially work as an inoculator for believers against the problem of evil, but it utterly fails to convince a non-believer. It is to push the debate into the realm of a subjective evaluation of “goodness” that cannot be resolved.
I defined goodness as “good for” something. Here we have either a departure from that definition, or is simply hard to believe.
If say the sacrifice of Jesus is to be an incommensurable good in its own right, then it’s not defined as a “good for” relation and I would deny that such goodness exists. Conversely if you say that Jesus’s sacrifice in itself is so “good for” us created beings that we had to experience sin/suffering/evil so that he could sacrifice himself it is like saying we have a Band-Aid that is so spectacular that we ought to cut our wrists open so that we may use it immediately.
First it is certainly not “good for” those that are condemned to hell just so that Jesus could be sacrificed, if anything the overall context is the opposite. Second, to say that it is “good for” some of the beings at the expense of others (say good for god, or good for the elect in heaven), then it is again using other beings as a means to an end, not as ends in themselves. It is akin to creating a problem in order to look good by solving it, except in this case it is problem of infinite torture and suffering.
To do something “good for” all of the created beings as a whole would be to simply create all of them to always exist in heaven in a perfect state from the get go.
The idea that god must permit some evil in order to achieve some greater good strikes me as extremely implausible on its own, but it is even more implausible in light of the Christian beliefs about the existence of heaven. Christianity teaches the purpose of humanity is to love and glorify god, and we are taught that the saved will do this for all eternity in heaven. That is literally the end game, there is nothing beyond that, no greater good to be achieved as far as humans can be concerned. Since it is logically possible for god to have created beings in heaven doing this, without having to go through a prior existence with suffering and evil, it serves as powerful evidence that such a being does not exist.
What is worse for Christian theism is the idea that a perfectly loving being would create contingent beings knowing some of them would be condemned to a fate worse than non-existence. This strikes me as the exact opposite of an act a loving being would take towards any conscious creature. If a hell was somehow logically necessary to achieve other goods (a principle that has yet to be demonstrated), it seems to me that a perfectly loving being simply wouldn’t create anything at all.
These are some of the primary reasons why I am an atheist, and why I find Christianity to be a detestable religion at its core premise. In fact I find it remarkable that Christians say that atheism entails a bleak outlook on life, or even nihilism, because in an atheistic universe eventually all life ceases to exist. I find the cold silence of the void to be the most beautiful symphony in contrast with the tortured screams that would emanate from a hell.
Once again, I’d like to offer my thanks to Counter Apologist (CA) for his contribution; his work never fails to push me to think more deeply about such topics.
The argument he’s presented above is quite complex and multi-faceted, and I’ll admit up front that I won’t be able to deal with every aspect of it. Specifically, I’m not going to address in this response his remarks about the problem of Hell, since that is such a large task on its own, and probably deserves an entire post to itself.
Instead, I’m going to deal here with the central thrust of CA’s argument, related to evil generally. He gives us the argument in a standard, simple syllogism:
- If evil exists, then God does not exist.
- Evil exists.
- Therefore God does not exist.
He then goes on to briefly explain what he means by evil, saying:
“I believe that actions can be ‘good for’ or ‘bad for’ something or a class of things, but I don’t believe that there is such a thing as ‘goodness in itself’ or ‘evil in itself’.
I believe there is such a thing as human nature which is dictated by the brute facts of our biology being what they are as determined by unguided evolution. As such there are certain things which are objectively ‘good for’ us and lead to our flourishing or ‘bad for’ human beings that lead to our languishing. I’m very sympathetic to the idea of Eudaimonia, or ‘the good life’ as Plato put it, and would subscribe to a kind of virtue ethics. That is a very brief overview of the axioms which make the foundation for my moral system.”
So far, CA and I are in agreement, to an actually pretty significant extent (hey! who said theists and atheists couldn’t agree?) I too adhere to a kind of Eudaimonistic virtue ethics, particular of an Aristotlelian and Thomistic variety. I too think that “good” and “bad” must be defined in reference to the natures of things, where the ultimate good of something is its objective flourishing.
Furthermore, I agree with CA that the second premise of the argument is pretty uncontroversial. It’s fairly obvious that our world contains evils — moral evils and natural evils — to a staggering extent. So the debate primarily centers around premise one: are the presence of evils in the world a good reason to think God does not exist?
On the surface, there’s no strict logical contradiction in holding that both God and evil exist, in the way that saying both “kangaroos exist” and “kangaroos do not exist” would be. But it could be the case that something about the concept of God entails that evil would not exist; in which case how we define the term “God” is of central importance to how we proceed.
CA defines God as “a tri-omni being: omniscient, omnipotent, and omni-benevolent (or all good).” These are, indeed, the most frequently cited traditional attributes of God; and they are true enough, when interpreted correctly. The fact is, coming up with anything like a standard “definition” of God to work with in such discussions is rather challenging. For the sake of dialogue, however, I’ll work with the definition given. Throughout his post, CA explains that by omnipotence he means the ability to do all that is logically possible. Omniscience we can assume to be fairly straightforward. The key will be in how we interpret omni-benevolence. Strictly speaking, omni-benevolence just means being all good; but there are various difficulties here which will need to be addressed as we proceed.
So why think that the concept of an omnipotent, omniscient, and omni-benevolent being entails that evil would not exist as it now does? We can summarize CA’s general argument as follows:
- A world with the same amount of good as this world, but much less evil, is a better world than this world
- Such a world is logically possible
- God’s omnipotence entails that God is able to create whatever is logically possible
- God’s omni-benevolence entails that God would/should create a better world over a worse world, all else being equal
- Therefore, if God exists, God would have created a world with as much good but much less evil than this world
- Such a world does not exist
- Therefore God does not exist
CA takes premise one as reasonably uncontroversial; and so spends a lot of space in his post responding to typical theistic objections which ordinarily amount to the effect that God possibly wills some goods which would not be possible without permitting certain evils. CA sees this reply as ineffective for the following reasons: 1) it’s not clear that it is logically impossible for God to attain those same exact goods without permitting evils; 2) the traditional Christian notion of Heaven seems to imply that a state with such goods without the presence of evils is in fact possible for God to create; 3) the traditional Christian doctrine of Hell entails such an extreme level and amount of suffering that it is difficult to conceive how such could be reconcilable with typical defenses of God permitting evils.
In response, I would like to question two of the above premises, namely the first and the fourth. Premise one — that “a world with the same amount of good as this world, but much less evil, is a better world than this world” — treats the overall goodness of the world as something quantifiably measurable, but seems to ignore the very real qualitative aspects of goodness which make such assessments doubtful. For instance, how ought we to compare one individual zebra with one individual turtle? Both are surely good things in themselves; but can their goodness actually be quantifiably expressed? What about a turtle and a human? Or a human and an ape?
Here’s how such questions impact the first premise. Suppose there’s a world that consists entirely of a million turtles, and nothing else. Contrast this with a world that has a single human. In one world, the overall “amount” of good is much higher (since a million things is a higher amount than one thing); but is world with the turtles actually better than the world with the single human? Arguably not.
But perhaps we should interpret CA’s use of the word “amount” to mean good not simply quantitatively speaking, but also qualitatively. Is it true that a world with the same goods (in both amount and kinds) but less evil is a better world than this one? This might seem initially obvious, but there are a few distinctions we ought to make before attempting an answer.
First, we ought to distinguish between two different kinds of goods relative to an individual being. There is the “essential” good of a being, that which makes it what it is. For instance, having the capacity of rational thought is an essential good to human nature. If something exists that lacks the capacity for rational thought, then it just isn’t a human. Then there is what we might call the good of perfection of a being: those goods which, while not essential to its nature as such, make it a better instance of its nature than it otherwise would be. It is possible to be a human and lack virtue, even though possessing virtue makes one a better human being.
So, if one were to ask the question, “Can God make some being X better than it is?” the answer will depend upon whether by “better” one is referring to good of essence or good of perfection. If X is some individual human person, then it is possible that God could have made the same person better than they currently are by making them with more goods of perfections, e.g. more virtue. But God cannot make some being X a better kind of thing than it now is, while keeping it what it is. You cannot make a turtle a better turtle by turning it into a human being. It might have become a better overall thing, a higher qualitative good, but it is not a better turtle, precisely because it has lost the essential good of being a turtle.
This first distinction is in relation to individual things. But things that exist don’t just exist as individuals; they exist as parts of a whole universe. Accordingly, the good of the whole universe must be considered. The good of the whole universe consists in 1) the order of all the parts in relation to each other and the whole; and 2) the order of the whole in relation to its end. As an analogy, consider an army. The whole army consists of various parts (individual soldiers, units, etc.), which are ordered to the good of the whole. The whole itself, meanwhile, is ordered towards the end of achieving military victory. If there is disorder amongst the parts (e.g., soldiers bickering with each other or being disobedient to generals), the army is not going to be a very good army. Similarly, no matter how much order there is among the parts, if victory is not achieved the army has failed to fulfill its purpose.
Now we can return to the question of whether a world with the same level of good but less evil is a better world than this one; and I hope we can see that the answer is not so straightforward. For there could conceivably be a world with the same amount and kinds of good as this world, with less evil; but which is overall less well ordered, and less able to achieve its end.
This last point may seem questionable, so let me provide an example. The existence of zebras, and the existence of lions, are both in themselves good things. It is part of the nature of lions to hunt and slay zebras as prey. If there is to be a world with both lions and zebras, then necessarily there must be a world where zebras must undergo the evil of being hunted and eaten by lions. A world with only zebras and no lions would perhaps have the same amount of good and less evil, but it still necessarily lacks the kind of good that a lion is, and furthermore disrupts the overall natural balance/order (lions feed on zebras, zebras on grass, etc.).
The fact is, if God were only going to create one creature, he would ensure the absolute perfection of that creature. But God desires not to create a single creature, but rather a whole universe of different kinds of creatures. And this requires the possibility of some individuals suffering defects/corruptions/evils, for the sake of the good of the whole.
One might not object by asking: couldn’t God have made lions such that they don’t need to eat zebras? This goes back to our earlier point about goods of essence and goods of perfection. God could indeed make a creature that looks very much like a lion but which doesn’t eat zebras, but such a creature wouldn’t be a lion. It is part of the essential good of the lion that it is the kind of creature that needs to hunt and slay zebras in order to flourish.
Perhaps, however, this seems an unsatisfying response. Sure, a universe without lions lacks the good of lions, but isn’t preventing the pain and suffering of other creatures worth it? More to the point, wouldn’t an omni-benevolent God choose to create a universe with as little suffering as possible, even if that universe had to lack certain creatures such as lions?
Here is where we run into difficulties concerning the meaning of “omni-benevolence.” Does omni-benevolence mean that God would always choose a better option over a less good one? Does it mean that God would choose to minimize suffering over maximizing overall good? Does it mean that God wills the most possible good to his creatures?
These questions reveal some of the general problems in the way that omni-benevolence is typically thought of. So here I’d like to suggest another approaching to God’s goodness. Recall that, on both our views, “goodness” is defined in relation to the nature of a thing, where the ultimate good of something is its objective perfection and flourishing. For finite moral agents like humans, goodness requires choosing between options in cases where some options might legitimately be “bad for” us, harmful or detrimental to our natures. A perfect human would be a human who, at minimum, never chooses such a bad option.
But God is not a finite moral agent like we are. God is intrinsically and essentially good and perfect, in such a way that his perfection could never be dependent or contingent upon anything external to himself. This is, I suggest, how we should think about God’s being “all-good.” Whether God chooses to create, or not to create, he is always and immutably perfect in himself. If he does choose to create, it is not because he has any need for anything other than himself, or stands to gain anything from doing so; it is simply out of a pure desire to share and manifest his own infinite perfection. Everything that God creates is in some limited and finite way a participation in and a reflection of his own nature.
It is good to be a rock. Somehow, in some way, being a rock manifests something about the divine goodness. But it is better to be a human than a rock. Being a human manifests more of the divine goodness. In creating a rock and a human, God gives more good to the latter than the former; but there is no injustice in this. All of the goodness and being in each are totally received from God; and neither could possibly be “owed” anything by God.
God could have chosen to create only a rock. Or God could have chosen to create only a cat. Or God could have chosen to create only a human. Each of these is “more good” than the former. But God’s goodness does not entail that he had any sort of “obligation” to create one over the other; or even that he would desire one over the other. All are good in their own limited ways; all reflect the divine goodness. What God creates, he freely chooses to create, without any sort of necessity imposed upon him. Since God is infinitely perfect in himself, and has no need whatsoever for anything external to himself, there is not any need for him to create what is better over what is less good.
How does this apply to the problem of actual pain, suffering, and evil, though? As we’ve already suggested, if God were to create a single creature, he would ensure its absolute perfection, so that it could more completely reflect his own nature. But if God chooses rather to create a universe of creatures, he will ensure that the universe as a whole is brought to its uttermost perfection; and this might very well require that individuals within the whole suffer various defects/imperfections. If it is part of the overall order/perfection of the universe that there be both lions and zebras, then God brings the whole to perfection by allowing imperfection to befall individual zebras who are slain by lions. We could hardly say that God “owes” it to the individual zebra to prevent its suffering and ensure its perfection, since all that it is, its very existence, is already a complete gift from God.
Much of my thought here is inspired by Brian Davies’ book “The Reality of God and the Problem of Evil.”