"Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human
destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving
them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable
to torture to death only one tiny creature . . . and to found
that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the
architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth."
--Fëdor Mikhailovich Dostoevski
The Brothers Karamazov
Bk. V, Ch. 4
trans. by Constance Garnett
- Terms and definitions
- The argument from evil
to the conclusion that God does not exist
Moral evil vs. natural evil
Evil vs. the mere absence of good
The Argument from Evil
The atheist's argument from evil to the conclusion that God
does not exist can be outlined as follows:
1) If God exists, then there exists a being who is omniscient,
omnipotent, and perfectly good.
2) If there existed a being who were omniscient, omnipotent, and
perfectly good, then there would be no evil.
3) But there is evil.
C) Therefore, God does not exist.
The first premise follows directly from the theist's definition
of God. "Omniscient" is taken to mean "one who
knows all true propositions," "omnipotent" is understood
as "able to do anything logically possible," and "perfectly
good" is defined as "one who does no morally bad action."
Thus, in the second premise of the argument from evil, the atheist
asserts that the existence of God and the existence of evil are
incompatible, since a being who knows when evil will occur and
is both able and willing to abolish all evil would necessarily
create a world free from serious evil. Yet, a considerable amount
of severe evil undeniably exists as evidenced by the appalling
depth and range of human wickedness and suffering witnessed during
the twentieth century. Hence, according to the atheist, the fact
of evil poses a powerful positive objection to belief in God because
the existence of evil entails the nonexistence of God.
Moral Evil vs. Natural
Evil can be divided into two distinct categories: moral evil
and natural evil. Moral evil is evil that results from an act,
or failure to act, of man. Without the action, or omission of
an action, by a human agent moral evil would not occur. For example,
murder is an evil brought about by a human agent, and therefore
is a moral evil. Even if the murder victim's death was directly
caused by the effect of a poison on his central nervous system,
the ultimate agent of the victim's death was the murderer responsible
for introducing the poison into his system. Likewise, the mass
starvation in Ethiopia is a moral evil resulting from the refusal
of Ethiopian government officials to distribute emergency relief
food supplies, which would alleviate the famine, or to allocate
more of the country's annual budget for agricultural assistance,
which would help Ethiopia's farmers produce more food.
In contrast to moral evil, natural evil arises through no fault
of man. Man has no control over natural evil, and is completely
powerless to prevent its occurrence. Thus, an excruciatingly painful
death resulting from an incurable terminal disease is a natural
evil, as is the suffering caused by catastrophic natural phenomena
such as tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes.
Evil vs. the
Mere Absence of Good
It is important to distinguish between the presence of evil
and the mere absence of good. A murderer's malice is more than
just the absence of a sunny disposition. Similarly, the pain of
a terminal illness entails more than simply the absence of euphoria.
Furthermore, despite the grief and mourning that it may cause,
death after a long fulfilled life can hardly be considered an
evil or an objection to the existence of a good God. Only severe,
undeserved evil is a real threat to a belief in God.
The Theist's Response: The
Free Will Defense
The theist wishes to maintain that God exists in the face
of the world's various evils and that the conclusion of the argument
from evil is false. Since the argument from evil is deductively
valid, the theist must assert that at least one of the premises
of the argument is false if he is to deny the truth of the conclusion.
Therefore, he argues that the second premise is false and that
the existence of God and the existence of evil are not incompatible.
According to the theist, Premise 2 depends on the false assumption
that God could only allow evil to exist if: 1) God does not know
about the occurrence of particular evils, and therefore is not
omniscient; 2) God is not able to get rid of all evil, and therefore
is not omnipotent; or 3) God does not want to get rid of all evil,
and therefore is not perfectly good. Because of this assumption,
claims the theist, the atheist overlooks the possibility that
God may have a good, morally justifiable reason for allowing evil
to exist. Therefore, all the theist must do to avoid the charge
of inconsistency is to posit a possible reason God may allow evil
despite his ability to abolish it.
By employing the free will defense the theist maintains that evil
is logically necessary for a greater good, which outweighs the
evil state of affairs. Unless the evil state of affairs is allowed
to occur, the good state of affairs cannot come about since it
is logically impossible to have the good without the evil. The
greater good for which evil is logically necessary is the formation
of morally excellent characters. Morally excellent characters
are only valuable when they are the result of freely choosing
good actions. Therefore, God must create people as free agents
if the existence of morally excellent characters is to be made
possible. If God instead made people choose only good actions,
then their choices would not be free, and his effort to create
morally excellent characters would be defeated.
It is logically impossible for God to create free agents and guarantee
that they will never do evil. If God gives an agent the power
to choose between moral alternatives, i.e. good actions and evil
actions, how the agent exercises that power is beyond God's ability
to control while the agent remains free. If God were to interfere
to stop the evil actions of man, then man would no longer be free,
and God's plan to create moral excellence through free choice
would be undermined. Therefore, free will requires that the possibility
of choosing to do bad actions may sometimes be realized. Thus,
much evil can be attributed to the actions of men exercising their
free will. However, it is not morally wrong for God to create
men as free willed beings, even with the possibility of their
doing moral evil, because free will is a logically necessary condition
for the formation of excellent characters.
Counter-Arguments Regarding the Compatibility of God and Natural
According to the free will defense, moral evil is a result
of human free will and is necessary for the formation of morally
excellent characters. Therefore, assuming that men have free will
in the libertarian sense, the existence of moral evil is compatible
with the existence of God since God must remain a passive spectator
of the world's moral evils if he is to allow human beings to freely
choose between good and evil. However, even if a perfectly good
God is justified in allowing moral evil to exist, the existence
of natural evil remains to be reconciled with the existence of
an omniscient, omnipotent, perfectly good deity. Some theists
attempt to use the free will defense to justify natural evil as
well as moral evil. One such attempt is based on the assumption
that, despite outward appearances, men are ultimately to blame
for natural evils. Theists who advance this view maintain that
God links man's moral goodness to the well-being of the world
and that human wickedness leads to natural disasters. However,
the assumption that all evil is essentially moral evil is unable
to explain the natural evil that existed before there were men,
such as volcanic eruptions and animal pain. Therefore, man cannot
be held responsible for the occurrence of natural evil.
A second suggestion of the free will defense advocate is that
God gave free will to creatures other than men and that these
creatures, who freely choose to do evil, cause natural evil. Thus,
the devil and his minion of fallen angels are held accountable
for the existence of natural evils not brought about by human
actions. According to theists who hold this point of view, these
evil-doing creatures have abused their duty to care for the natural
world, but God is not obligated to interfere to prevent the suffering
that stems from natural evil because it was caused by free willed
beings whose decisions are logically beyond God's power to control.
However, while the thesis that fallen angels are responsible for
natural evil is not clearly false, neither is it clearly true.
There is no positive evidence that such beings exist and an argument
based on their existence cannot be highly cogent. If the possibility
that natural evils stem from the free choice of an agent other
than man is disregarded on these grounds, then neither man nor
a free willed agent other than man can be held accountable for
natural evil. Therefore, the theist must attribute natural evil
to the direct action of God.
In order to explain why God may act directly to bring about evil,
or at least why God has created a world in which natural evil
inevitably occurs in certain circumstances, other theists maintain
that natural evil, like moral evil, is logically necessary for
soul making. However, moral evil is of sufficient frequency and
severity to provide for this end without the addition of natural
evil. Often the most exalted characters arise from the most severe
evils. Nonetheless, the evils resulting from a severe moral evil,
such as a war, are no less severe than those resulting from a
natural evil, such as a hurricane. A soldier who saves a comrade
during war is no less brave than a man who risks his life to save
a child during a hurricane. Furthermore, moral evils are not held
in check by any natural laws and therefore are potentially more
widespread than natural evils. With respect to every type of moral
virtue, the danger, anguish, and pain resulting from the free
action of men is enough to generate evil on a large enough scale
to produce morally excellent characters on a level with those
produced by natural evils. Therefore, natural evil is extraneous
evil that is over and above the amount of evil necessary to produce
morally excellent characters.
Since moral evil is caused by man, it is conceivably within his
power to rectify it. Therefore, a just God may refuse to interfere
in morally evil circumstances, no matter how awful. However, it
hardly seems compatible with the notion of a good God that he
would inflict natural evil on the world which man is powerless
to mitigate. For example, poverty is a moral evil which man can
conceivably eradicate, and therefore a good God may justifiably
refuse to correct it since it is man's duty as a free willed being
to responsibly deal with those problems whose causes lie within
the realm of human action. However, a benevolent God would not
bring about evils, such as tornadoes and earthquakes, which man
is powerless to put an end to.
Furthermore, since moral evil is brought about by the action of
a human agent it provides the opportunity for the moral virtue
of forgiveness, whereas natural evil, which results from the laws
of nature implanted by God, does not afford such an opportunity.
For instance, a survivor of a death camp could conceivably forgive
his oppressors and thus move toward a more morally perfect character.
A victim of a violent earthquake, on the other hand, may be able
to accept the cause of his suffering, but it makes little sense
to forgive the impersonal forces of an earthquake. Thus, moral
evil provides more fully for the development of moral excellence
than natural evil because it fosters interpersonal moral virtues.
Another justification a theist may give for the natural evil implanted
by God in the world is that natural evil is necessary to spur
man toward right action. According to this view, God created an
imperfect, but improvable world in order to further his end of
soul making. To make the world perfect requires cooperative effort
by men to subdue evil. God also has a choice as to how he creates
the men in the world. A good God would give man some incentives
to do good. However, if God made men inclined by nature to do
good, he would be imposing a character on them, thereby taking
away their free will. Therefore, God must provide causally influential
reasons for men to do what is right no matter what their character.
According to the theist who adopts this view, God ties some of
the imperfections in the material world to biological and psychological
pain to motivate man to put things right and eliminate suffering.
For example, the pain of a cancer sufferer spurs men to find a
cure for the disease through their sympathy for the sufferer.
However, it is inconsistent with the notion of a good God that
he would use the mental and physiological pain of innocent people,
especially children, to motivate others to do right action. Rather
than disciplining man through positive punishment, God could conceivably
give man a slight push toward doing right action through positive
reinforcement. A dog owner who beat his pet every time it failed
to sit would hardly be considered a good master. A more benevolent
owner would give his dog a bone each time it obeyed. Likewise,
a kind God would encourage man through pleasant feelings when
he succeeds in bettering his environment rather than inflicting
unpleasant feelings on him when he falls short of improving the
Furthermore, the mental anguish and physical torture felt by the
victim of a moral evil are more than adequate to elicit the sympathy
of his fellow men and move them toward improving the world. For
example, the pain of a war victim moves other men to improve the
world around them by abolishing the causes of his pain just as
surely as the pain of a cancer patient pushes men to find a cure.
Thus, men can be spurred to do what is right by moral evil alone,
without additional natural evils.
Although an omniscient, omnipotent, perfectly good God could
be justified in allowing moral evil, such a God is never justified
in creating a world in which natural evil occurs. Moral evil is
both necessary and sufficient to produce moral characters and
spur men to right action. Natural evil confers no additional benefits
that moral evil cannot accomplish to the same degree and extent,
and in fact natural evil is not even adequate to foster interpersonal
moral virtues, such as forgiveness and tolerance. A benevolent
God would allow no more evil than is absolutely necessary to achieve
his ends. Because natural evil is gratuitous, its existence is
incompatible with the existence of God. God, if he existed, could
conceivably alter the laws of nature so that evil would only result
when triggered by human action. However, manifest natural evil
independent of human will, such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes,
tornadoes, and disease, undeniably exists. Since the existence
of God and the existence of natural evil are incompatible and
natural evil exists, the following revised argument from evil
is both valid and sound, entailing a true conclusion:
1) If God exists, then there exists a being who is omniscient,
omnipotent, and perfectly good.
2) If there existed a being who were omniscient, omnipotent, and
perfectly good, then there would be no natural evil.
3) But there is natural evil.
C) God does not exist.
- Hick, John H. Philosophy of Religion. 2nd ed. Englewood
Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1973.
- O'Hear, Anthony. Experience, Explanation, and Faith.
Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984.
- Swinburne, Richard. "The Problem of Evil." Reason
and Religion. By Stuart C. Brown. London: Cornell University
Brian H. Marston <email@example.com>