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Suffering and Evil


Why do you make me look at injustice?

Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?


Our world contains an appalling amount and variety both of suffering and of evil; perhaps no century rivals ours for the magnitude of either. I’m thinking of suffering as encompassing any kind of pain or discomfort: pain or discomfort that results from disease or injury, or oppression, or overwork, or old age, but also disappointment with oneself or with one’s lot in life (or that of people close to one), the pain of loneliness, isolation, betrayal, unrequited love; and there is also suffering that results from awareness of others’ suffering. I’m thinking of evil, fundamentally, as a matter of free creatures’ doing what is wrong, including particularly the way we human beings mistreat and savage each other. Often pain and suffering result from evil, as in some of the events for which our century will be remembered—the Holocaust, the horrifying seventy-year-long Marxist experiment in eastern Europe with its millions of victims, the villainy of Pol Pot and his followers, genocide in Bosnia and Africa. Of course much suffering and evil are banal and everyday, and are none the better for that.

Now the evil and suffering in our world have, indeed, baffled and perplexed Christians and other believers in God. This bafflement and perplexity are widely represented in Christian and Hebrew Scriptures, especially, though by no means exclusively, in Psalms and the book of Job. Faced with the shocking concreteness of 459a particularly horrifying example of suffering or evil in his own life or the life of someone close to him, a believer can find himself tempted to take toward God an attitude he himself deplores—an attitude of mistrust, or suspicion, or bitterness, or rebellion. Such a problem, broadly speaking, is a spiritual or pastoral problem. A person in its grip may not be much tempted to doubt the existence or even the goodness of God; nevertheless he may resent God, fail to trust him, be wary of him, be unable to think of him as a loving father, think of him as if he were far off and unconcerned.

Now many philosophers and others have argued that knowledge of the amount, variety, and distribution of suffering and evil (“the facts of evil,” for short) confronts the believer with a problem of quite another sort.570570   It is worth noting that many different problems, questions, and topics fall under the rubric of the problem of evil. There are, for example, the problems of preventing suffering and evil, those of alleviating it (knowing how to comfort and help those who suffer from it), those of maintaining the right attitude toward those who suffer, the pastoral or spiritual problem I mentioned above, and more; and, of course, a proper response to one of these problems might be totally inappropriate as a response to another. These facts, they argue, can serve as the premise of a powerful argument against the very existence of God—against the existence, that is, of an all-powerful, all-knowing, and wholly good person who has created the world and loves the creatures he has created. Call such an argument ‘atheological’; atheological arguments go all the way back to the ancient world, to Epicurus, whose argument is repeated in the eighteenth century by Hume:

Epicurus’ old questions are yet unanswered.

Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?571571   Dialogues concerning Natural Religion, ed. Richard Popkin (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1980), p. 63. Hume puts the argument in the mouth of Philo, widely thought to represent Hume’s own views.

And the claim is that this argument (more exactly, knowledge of this argument) constitutes a defeater for theistic belief—and if for theistic belief, then also for Christian belief.

Our question in this chapter, therefore, is whether knowledge of the facts of evil does constitute a defeater for theistic and Christian belief. Does knowledge of the facts of evil, together with the rest of what I know, give me a reason to give up belief in God? Does this knowledge make it the case that I cannot continue to hold Christian belief rationally? Note that this is not the traditional problem of theodicy: I will not be making any attempt to “justify the ways of God to man” or 460to give an answer to the question why God permits evil generally or why he permits some specially heinous forms of evil. Our question is, instead, epistemological: given that theistic and Christian belief can have warrant in the way suggested in chapters 6 through 8, does knowledge of the facts of evil provide a defeater for this belief?

Of course the answer need not be the same for all Christians: perhaps the facts of suffering and evil, in our sad world, do not constitute such a defeater for very young Christians, or for culturally insulated Christians, or for Christians who know little about the suffering and evil our world contains, or for those who don’t have an adequate appreciation of the seriousness of what they do know about. Our question, however, is about Philip Quinn’s “intellectually sophisticated adults in our culture” (above, p. 358); can I be mature, both intellectually and spiritually, be aware of the enormous and impressive amounts and depths of suffering and evil in our world, be aware also of the best atheological arguments starting from the facts of evil, and still be such that Christian belief is rational and warranted for me? Could it still have warrant sufficient for knowledge, for me? I shall argue that the right response is, “Yes indeed.” And it isn’t that this can be so just for an exceptional few, perhaps the Mother Teresas of the world. I shall argue that for any serious Christian with a little epistemology, the facts of evil, appalling as they are, offer no obstacle to warranted Christian belief.

Now until twenty or twenty-five years ago, the favored sort of atheological argument from evil was for the conclusion that there is a logical inconsistency in what Christians believe. They believe both that there is such a person as God (a person who is omnipotent, omniscient, and wholly good), and also that there is evil in the world; it isn’t logically possible (so went the claim) that both of these beliefs be true. Thus the late John Mackie:

I think, however, that a more telling criticism can be made by way of the traditional problem of evil. Here it can be shown, not merely that religious beliefs lack rational support, but that they are positively irrational, that the several parts of the essential theological doctrine are inconsistent with one another.572572   “Evil and Omnipotence,” Mind (1955). The article has been widely reprinted. For difficulties with Mackie’s argument, see my God, Freedom, and Evil (New York: Harper and Row, 1974; and Grand Rapids: W. B. Eerdmans, 1977), pp. 12ff. In Mackie’s posthumous The Miracle of Theism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), he wavers between his earlier claim that the existence of God is straightforwardly inconsistent with that of evil, and the claim that the existence of evil is powerful but logically inconclusive evidence against the existence of God. See pp. 150–75, and see my “Is Theism Really a Miracle?” Faith and Philosophy (April 1986). The claim that the believer in God (the God of theism) is committed to a contradiction goes back to some of the French encyclopedists, F. H. Bradley, J. McTaggart, and J. S. Mill. More recently (in addition to Mackie), see, for example, H. J. McCloskey, “God and Evil,” Philosophical Quarterly 10 (1960), p. 97; and Henry David Aiken, “God and Evil,” Ethics 48 (1957–58), p. 79.


Mackie goes on to argue that the existence of God is logically incompatible with the existence of evil; he concludes that since the theist is committed to both, theistic belief is clearly irrational.

At present, however, it is widely conceded that there is nothing like straightforward contradiction or necessary falsehood in the joint affirmation of God and evil; the existence of evil is not logically incompatible (even in the broadly logical sense) with the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good God.573573   For argument for this conclusion, see my God, Freedom, and Evil, pp. 7ff. For a fuller and more accurate account, see my The Nature of Necessity (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974), chapter 9; and Alvin Plantinga (Profiles series), ed. James Tomberlin and Peter van Inwagen (Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1985), pp. 36–55. Many fascinating problems and questions have emerged from the discussion of the free will defense over the last twenty-five years. In particular, there are arguments against the existence of (true and nontrivial) counterfactuals of freedom by Robert Adams (“Middle Knowledge and the Problem of Evil,” American Philosophical Quarterly [1977]) and by William Hasker (“A Refutation of Middle Knowledge,” Noûs [December 1986]). One particularly interesting strand here is the “grounding and founding” objection (according to which counterfactuals of freedom with false antecedents couldn’t be true because they are incapable of being properly grounded or founded). This objection goes all the way back to the Jesuit-Dominican controversy in the sixteenth century, a dispute whose increasing rancor finally induced the pope to forbid the disputants to vilify one another in public (although he apparently didn’t object to vilification among consenting adults in the privacy of their own quarters). The grounding and founding objection has been dealt with in magisterial fashion in my colleague Thomas Flint’s Divine Providence: The Molinist Account (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998).
   Another issue of great interest is the question of “selective freedom” (David Lewis’s term) (See G. Stanley Kane, “The Free-Will Defense Defended,” New Scholasticism 50, no. 4 [1976], and David Lewis, “Evil for Freedom’s Sake?” Philosophical Papers [November 1993]): couldn’t God have let go forward those creaturely free choices he foresaw would be right, and cut off those he foresaw would be wrong? This question is connected with another fascinating issue, that of backtracking counterfactuals (see David Lewis, “Counterfactual Dependence and Time’s Arrow,” Noûs 13, no. 4 [November 1979], p. 455). It is extremely tempting to go into these issues here, but doing so would take us from epistemology deep into metaphysics (some would say abstruse and arcane metaphysics, but of course they would be mistaken); self-restraint must be the order of the day.
An important line of thought in the demise of the traditional claim of contradiction has involved the notion of free will: although it is logically possible that there be free creatures (creatures whose actions are not antecedently determined, e.g., by God, or by natural law and antecedent conditions) who always do only what is right, it is not within 462God’s power to create free creatures and cause them to do only what is right. (If he causes someone to do what is right, then that person does not do what is right freely.) Of course that doesn’t necessarily suffice to get the theist off the hook. There is also no logical contradiction in the thought that the earth is flat, or that it rests on the back of a turtle, which rests on the back of another turtle, and so on, so that it’s turtles all the way down; nevertheless these views (given what we now think we know) are irrational. (You would be distressed if your grown children adopted them.) Those who offer atheological arguments from evil have accordingly turned from the claim that the existence of God is flatly incompatible with that of evil to evidential or probabilistic arguments of one sort or another. Here the claim is not that Christian belief is logically inconsistent, but rather that the facts of evil offer powerful evidence against the existence of God. These evidential arguments are also typically probabilistic: in the simplest cases, they claim that the existence of God is unlikely or improbable with respect to the facts of evil together with the rest of our background knowledge—that is, what we all know, or perhaps what all reasonable and well-informed people now believe. So the typical atheological claim at present is not that the existence of God is incompatible with that of evil; it is rather that the latter offers the resources for a strong evidential or probabilistic argument against the former.

Now from an atheological point of view, the old argument for inconsistency in Christian belief had a lot to be said for it. It was short and sweet; if there is a contradiction in Christian belief, then Christian belief is false, and that’s all there is to it. It doesn’t matter what else is or isn’t true, and it doesn’t matter whether there are any good arguments or evidence of other kinds for Christian belief: if it is inconsistent, it’s false, and that settles the matter. Furthermore, once you see that a proposition is false, you can’t rationally continue to believe it; so such an argument would show at one stroke that Christian belief is false and that it is irrational, at least for those apprised of the argument. But things are very different with contemporary evidential arguments from evil. First, suppose evil does constitute evidence, of some kind, against theism: what follows from that? Not much. There are many propositions I believe that are true, and rationally accepted, and such that there is evidence against them. The fact that Peter is only three months old is evidence against his weighing nineteen pounds; nevertheless I might rationally (and truly) believe that’s how much he weighs. Is the idea, instead, that the existence of God is improbable with respect to our total evidence, all the rest of what we know or believe? To show this, the atheologian would have to look into all the evidence for the existence of God—the traditional ontological, cosmological, and teleological arguments, as well as many 463others;574574   See my “Two Dozen or So Good Theistic Arguments,” not yet published. he would be obliged to weigh the relative merits of all of these arguments, and weigh them against the evidential argument from evil in order to reach the indicated conclusion. This is vastly messier and more problematic than a terse and elegant demonstration of a contradiction à la Mackie.

Another problem for this atheological argument can be brought out by considering responses to the most popular contemporary version of the argument from design—the so-called fine-tuning argument. This argument begins from the apparent fact that the fundamental constants of physics—the speed of light, the gravitational constant, the strength of the weak and strong nuclear forces—must apparently have values that fall within an exquisitely narrow range for life to be so much as possible. If these values had been even minutely different (if, for example, the gravitational constant had been different in even the most minuscule degree), habitable planets would not have developed and life (at least life at all like ours) would not have been possible. And this suggests or makes plausible the thought that the world was designed or created by a Designer who intended the existence of living creatures and eventually rational, intelligent, morally significant creatures. One contemporary response is that possibly “there has been an evolution of worlds (in the sense of whole universes) and the world we find ourselves in is simply one among countless others that have existed throughout all eternity.”575575   Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), p. 177. And given infinitely many universes, Daniel Dennett thinks, all the possible distributions of values over the cosmological constants would have been tried out (p. 179); as it happens, we find ourselves, naturally enough, in one of those universes where the constants are such as to allow the development of intelligent life. But then the probability of theism, given the whole array of worlds, isn’t particularly high.

In the same way, then, a theist might agree that it is unlikely, given just what we know about our world, that there is such a person as God. But perhaps God has created countless worlds, in fact, all the worlds (all the universes) in which there is a substantial overall balance of good over evil. In some of these worlds there is no suffering and evil; in some a good deal; as it happens, we find ourselves in one of the worlds where there is a good deal. But the probability of theism, given the whole ensemble of worlds, isn’t particularly low.576576   For a development of this idea, see Donald Turner’s Ph.D. dissertation, God and the Best of All Possible Worlds (University of Pittsburgh, 1994).


Still further, suppose theism were improbable with respect to the rest of what I believe; alternatively, suppose the rest of what I believe offered evidence against theism and none for it. What would follow from that? Again, not much. There are many true beliefs I hold (and hold in complete rationality) such that they are unlikely given the rest of what I believe. I am playing poker; it is improbable on the rest of what I know or believe that I have just drawn to an inside straight; it doesn’t follow that there is even the slightest irrationality in my belief that I have just drawn to an inside straight. The reason, of course, is that this belief doesn’t depend, for its warrant, on its being appropriately probable on the rest of what I believe; it has a quite different source of warrant, namely, perception. Similarly for theism: everything really turns, here, on the question whether, as I have been arguing, theism has or may have some source of warrant—perception of God, or the sensus divinitatis, or faith and the internal instigation of the Holy Spirit (see above, chapters 8 and 9)—distinct from its probability on other propositions I believe.

The important questions with respect to these atheological evidential arguments, therefore, are of the following sort: precisely what are they supposed to prove? That theism is false? Or that it is irrational for any thoughtful person apprised of the facts of evil to accept it? Or that the facts of evil and those probabilistic considerations together constitute a defeater for it? Or for at least some reflective theists, even if not for all? Or that the facts of suffering and evil make it more rational to reject belief in God than to accept it? Or what? One of the main problems here is to make out the proposed bearing of the atheological arguments from evil: precisely what are they supposed to accomplish? We’ll have to bear this question in mind as we look at some of these arguments. Twenty-five years ago, there were no developed atheological evidential arguments from evil; that is understandable because (apparently) nearly all atheologians were of the opinion that the existence of God is flatly inconsistent with that of evil. Since then, however, there have been several attempts to state and develop evidential arguments from evil. Some of these efforts are ingenious and indeed revealing; I shall argue, however, that they are no more successful than the older argument for inconsistency. Indeed, what is most surprising, here, is the weakness of these arguments. I shall then go on to suggest that there is a wholly different (and more promising) way in which the atheologian could claim that the facts of evil constitute a defeater for theistic belief. Promising as it is, however, this claim, in my opinion, also fails.

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