Skeptics Answered: Evidential Problem of Evil

(Author’s note: This continues a series answering objections to the Christian worldview.  A week or two ago I made a call for folks to send me their “best shot.” For the other posts in the series, simply follow the links and the pingbacks in the comments section.)

Another form of the problem of evil is the evidential problem of evil.  This argument takes several incarnations.  Some are more ambitious than others, and some focus on a particular form of evil, while others point to evil in general.   They all have three things in common:

1) They purport to show that, while the existence of evil might be logically compatible with the existence of God (defined as a maximally perfect being worthy of worship…sorta redundant, but whatever), the existence of evil nevertheless counts as evidence against theism.

2) They attempt to show that there exists of some amount of gratuitous, unneeded evil.  They all hold the premise that “there probably exists some form, type, or pattern of evil that is gratuitous.”

3) They all start by putting the positive evidence for theism aside.  “If the playing field were equal,” they ask, “how does the existence of gratuitous evil tip the scale?”  They all find it tips the scale in favor of atheism.

Notice that this argument is weaker in its scope–it deals in probabilities, not lock-tight verified conclusions.  This makes it somewhat tricky to answer–and to argue.

William Rowe has put forth the argument like so:

  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. (Therefore) There does not exist an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good being.

In arguing for premise one, he utilizes two examples as representative cases of certain kinds of evil: “Bambi” and “Sue.” (I am using the terms William Alston employs..they are better than simply “E1” and “E2.”)


“In some distant forest lightning strikes a dead tree, resulting in a forest fire. In the fire a fawn is trapped, horribly burned, and lies in terrible agony for several days before death relieves its suffering”


“This is an actual event in which a five-year-old girl in Flint, Michigan was severely beaten, raped and then strangled to death early on New Year’s Day in 1986. The case was introduced by Bruce Russell (1989: 123), whose account of it, drawn from a report in the Detroit Free Press of January 3 1986, runs as follows:

The girl’s mother was living with her boyfriend, another man who was unemployed, her two children, and her 9-month old infant fathered by the boyfriend. On New Year’s Eve all three adults were drinking at a bar near the woman’s home. The boyfriend had been taking drugs and drinking heavily. He was asked to leave the bar at 8:00 p.m. After several reappearances he finally stayed away for good at about 9:30 p.m. The woman and the unemployed man remained at the bar until 2:00 a.m. at which time the woman went home and the man to a party at a neighbor’s home. Perhaps out of jealousy, the boyfriend attacked the woman when she walked into the house. Her brother was there and broke up the fight by hitting the boyfriend who was passed out and slumped over a table when the brother left. Later the boyfriend attacked the woman again, and this time she knocked him unconscious. After checking the children, she went to bed. Later the woman’s 5-year old girl went downstairs to go to the bathroom. The unemployed man returned from the party at 3:45 a.m. and found the 5-year old dead. She had been raped, severely beaten over most of her body and strangled to death by the boyfriend.”

Rowe argues that since we don’t know of any goods that would possibly justify God allowing cases like Bambi and Sue, it’s likely that no reasons actually exist.  He seems to be asking the rhetorical question, “what could possibly justify God permitting that?”

What can the Christian and/or theist say in response?

First, this argument is normally considered apart from other evidences and arguments for God’s existence.  Those who put forth the evidential argument from evil ask us to put aside the other arguments and ask: “all things being equal, how does gratuitous evil tip the scales?”  I find this to be a bit of jerry-rigging, for in doing so, the atheist is attempting to take away some key points from the theist.

When the cumulative case has had its day, the evidential argument doesn’t seem as powerful, for the other evidences and arguments serve to countermand the weight of this argument…more on that cumulative case later.

Second, keep in mind that no matter how intractable this problem is for the theist, the atheist is in quite a bigger pickle.  On an atheistic worldview, some existence of “evil” might make us feel bad, and we might want to say “I would never do or allow that,” but that is where it stops.  In the end, objectively, it’s just stuff, just flotsam and jetsam.  The moment an atheist calls something “wicked” or “unjust” objectively, she is borrowing capital from a theistic worldview.   She can know what is good and evil epistemologically, but grounding her judgments metaphysically is quite difficult.

Third, we must question the inference from

1) there are no goods we know of that would justify God allowing gratuitous evil.


2) it is likely that no such goods exist

Our perspective is quite limited.  God’s is not.  Simple as that.  He has a perch and a perspective we lack.  We find this in the human world all the time.  As 4 year old kid sick with Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, I had no idea why I was receiving a spinal tap.  All I knew is that it hurt like the dickens.  My parents, on the other hand, had more knowledge, and this knowledge justified them allowing me to get stuck by long needles in my spine.

We lack reason to suppose we have a sufficient grasp of wisdom in our relationship with God.  Our grasp of the reasons God has for permitting what seems to us as gratuitous is analogous to my grasp of my parents reasons for allowing the spinal tap.

One might respond that in those situations, we don’t have the expectation to be able to grasp the full knowledge, but with God, we should expect such.  As a 4 year old kid, I should not expect to understand even a smidgeon of what my parents understand, and it is the same with us and God.

This, however, is hasty.  Neophytes do, indeed, have such expectations often.  As a beginning teacher, you bet I expected to be able to grasp why the vets did what they did.  When I found myself baffled, in my pride I judged them as incapable teachers.

Lets just say that experience and a few hard knocks in the classroom have proven my judgment wrong.  We have false expectations all the time, and there’s no reason to assume it’s any different with God.

Some may also respond with: “if my kid suffers from the same fate as Sue, isn’t it reasonable to at least expect God to reveal His reasons for permitting that?”

Short response: no.  Again, going back to the analogies used, sometimes, when I questioned my father, his response was “because I’m your dad.”  If he explained it to me, it would make matters worse (a few arguments with a foolhardy teenager will convince you of this.  I, too, doubted it…until I tried to teach a room full of foolhardy teenagers.).  I see no reason for us to foist an obligation of revelation upon God, at least this side of eternity.

What about comfort?  Should we expect God to comfort us when we experience severe evil and suffering?

Stay tuned for the next installment!!!

In writing this post, I liberally used the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on the evidential problem of evil.

3 responses to “Skeptics Answered: Evidential Problem of Evil

  1. Pingback: In the Meantime « The Pugnacious Irishman

  2. Pingback: Skeptics Answered: Through the Dark Mystery of Evil « The Pugnacious Irishman

  3. Pingback: Skeptics Answered: no Evidence for God? « The Pugnacious Irishman

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