The evil in the world is not strong evidence against the existence of God -
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The evil in the world is not strong evidence against the existence of God

cross mountain hope

The evil in the world is not strong evidence against the existence of God

A cumulative answer to the Problem of Evil

That there is evil in the world few people would deny. A special tension arises when this evidence is to be reconciled to God’s existence. Theists normally construe God as omnipotent, omniscient and perfectly good. But if He knows all the evil going on, and is both willing and powerful enough to prevent it, why does He so often refrain from preventing it? This tension has frequently been taken as strong evidence against God’s existence. I will argue to the contrary, namely that the evil in the world is not strong evidence against the existence of God, but can be harmonized very well with a coherent view of God, man and nature.

To do that, I will first examine the major theistic responses to the problem and show where they are lacking. I will then present my own solution to the problem which relies heavily on the biblical doctrine of the Fall, but takes into account the other responses as well.

I.             Preliminary survey

By evil I mean all sorts of physical and mental pain that make their bearers suffer. Pains like muscle ache after a long hiking tour therefore don’t fall under that category. I also would like to exempt from the discussion pains that occur merely as an early-warning system, e.g. the pain we feel when we touch a hot cooktop. The “evil” pains can occur in humans, but also in sentient animals, so I include them in my discussion.

In the philosophical discussion, several versions of the Evidential Problem of Evil[1] have been put forward. One strand takes issue with the amount of evil in the world; another with (seemingly) gratuitous evil and yet another with natural evil. All have their warrant. Therefore, every attempt to give sound justifications for God allowing evil must take into account:

  • The amount of evil in the world
  • An answer to the problem of (seemingly) gratuitous evil
  • Natural evil
  • Animal suffering

My goal is to give a holistic, biblically oriented account of reasons why God is justified in allowing the evil in the world. This account claims to answer all the major objections against the co-existence of God and evil. I admit from the outset that my solution hinges on the truth of the biblical account, which I have no space to deal with here.

II.          Theistic responses to the question and their flaws

II.1      The Punishment approach

John Gerstner propagates the thesis that evil happening to human beings is in fact deserved punishment and that we should rather marvel at the amount of pleasure in the world than at the amount of evil[2].

The real difficulty is the problem of pleasure. While in a sinful world, pain is to be expected, and pleasure is not to be expected.

…suffering is necessary. If there is such a thing as sin, and sin deserves to be punished, then the punishment must be administered, and punishment that does not hurt is not punishment.(…) The person who does sin, who commits a crime, deserves to be punished; he deserves to suffer.

Indeed, Gerstner has his point in that a just God cannot approve of moral evil and is justified in punishing people for it. His approach might even account for the great amount of evil in the world: If so many people constantly sin, it is not astounding that so much pain occurs. There are, however, some very serious problems with his account.

First, not all evil is a consequence of divine punishment. In John 9:3, Jesus replies to his disciples, who inquire about a man’s blindness whether his or his parents’ sin have caused it: “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.”

Second, the punishment approach does not give a good answer to the idea of gratuitous evil. William Rowe defines gratuitous evil as “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”[3], that is roughly, evil allowed for no (good) reason. Rowe argues that the occurrence of such evil is inconsistent with the existence of the theistic God. A theistic answer to this problem must therefore either show that there are greater goods attained or greater evils avoided by the permission of some evil or show that we cannot reasonably be expected to know the reasons. The punishment theory does not fare well here. Some greater good it might posit is the deserved punishment of a sinner. But if we are all sinners, as Gerstner assumes, why aren’t we all punished? Or take the idea that some greater evil was prevented by some evil happening. Gerstner introduces an example in which an “innocent” bystander is being killed in a shooting between two gangs. One possible greater evil avoided by the death of the bystander could be that he would have developed into a Hitler-size dictator, had he stayed alive. But is this plausible even in the minority of cases? And why then was not Hitler stopped by a ricochet?

Third, there is no answer to animal suffering. Obviously, animals cannot sin and therefore cannot be punished. Their suffering remains totally unexplained in the Gerstner approach.

Fourth, the different levels of punishment remain unaccounted for. Why is it that one sinner gets shot, the other merely injured, the third brutally tortured and killed, and the fourth (and perhaps worst) remains completely unscathed? Are their sins of different gravity? Even if we grant that God looks much deeper into people than we can do from the outside, it seems preposterous and implausible to connect people’s sufferings to the gravity of their sins.

II.2      The Soul-Making Theodicy approach

A soul-making theodicy explains the evil in the world as a means to people’s character building. Indeed, character building is a greater good that God is justified to pursue in allowing evil to occur to people. Character building through suffering is also a very clear biblical doctrine[4].

Still, soul-making is not enough to explain all instances of evil in the world. Animal suffering remains totally unaccounted for, because animals cannot grow in character as we do, at any rate not through suffering. Second, it remains doubtful that the concept can explain the amount of evil in the world. Does it really have to be so much? It seems highly plausible that less evil will do[5]. Third, maturing through suffering begs the question against the gratuitousness objection. We can easily construct cases with human beings in which there is seemingly no character building neither in the victim nor in a possible perpetrator. Even moderate suffering might pose a problem here. What if the sufferer does not change for good? The soul-making theodicy lives by the improvement of the sufferer, but what if there are indeed cases of gratuitous evil? Fourth and last, the soul-making theodicy does not explain why maturing through suffering is necessary in the first place. Why are we apparently so crooked that we often need the hard way to change for the better? The Bible does give an answer to this question, as we will shortly see.

II.3      The Free-Will Defence

The Free-Will Defence (FWD), proposed amongst others by Alvin Plantinga[6], views the free will as the greater good that God gains by allowing evil. If free will is indeed such a great good, it justifies God to take the risk of creating human beings equipped with it and therefore with the ability to do evil.

One advantage of the FWD is that it accounts for gratuitous evil. In fact, evil otherwise seen as pointless now becomes justified: free will wouldn’t be possible without the possibility of completely pointless evil, and if free will is such a high good, it justifies the permission of such evil. One could even debate whether this evil should be called gratuitous at all, for there is now a reason for God to allow it. However, it is a reason to preserve free will, not to attain it.

A second strength of the FWD is that it accounts for different effects of the “school of evil” on different people and thus answering one problem of soul-making theodicy. Remember that soul-making theodicy fails where people don’t grow in character through suffering. The FWD has no problem with that; free will is enough of a treasure to make good for the losses of souls who then are themselves, through their own free will, responsible for their fate.

Of course it is debatable whether free will is indeed such a high good as to justify the sometimes horrendous evils done by humans. At any rate, the Bible seems to hold human free will in high esteem. God gave Adam and Eve free will even though He knew the consequences of its abuse[7]. Jesus weeps about his fellow Jews for their unwillingness to be saved[8], showing thus that he valued their wills more than their lives.

Still, the FWD has its problems. It clearly gives no answer to the problem of natural evil. Earthquakes and hurricanes are not caused by any man’s free decisions. If free will were the only good God preserved by allowing evil to happen, natural evil would be totally superfluous.

Second, the FWD only predicts that God will never override the free will of human beings and let them make their free choices. It does not predict the amount of evil that we find in the world. Evil is pervasive, and we know evil thoughts and actions from ourselves. Taking into account that every evil deed has its origin in some thought or attitude, the mountain of malice piled up every day by us human beings becomes so huge that we must ask where the ubiquitous tendency to do and think evil comes from. The FWD can but stand agape here, failing to give an answer.

II.4      The Greater Good Defence

The Greater Good Defence (GGD), proposed for example by Richard Swinburne[9], argues that the possibility of evil is indispensable for the attainment of greater goods such as compassion, love or technological progress. Swinburne claims that

…not merely are certain evils necessary for certain goods, but they are necessary for goods at least as great as the evils are evil.[10]

One great merit of the GGD is that it explains natural evil very plausibly. Cancer, floods and droughts drive people to develop better drugs and nutrition plans, build dams and irrigation plants. More still, the natural evils arouse compassion in people and move them to collaboration.

It remains, however, questionable if the GGD can account for the amount of evil that exists. Swinburne replies to this objection by stressing “that each evil or possible evil removed takes away one more actual good”. This reasoning seems to entail that the more evil is added to the world, the more (potential) good can be performed. It reminds me of St. Paul’s outcry in the Epistle to the Romans:

“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?”[11]

Obviously, St. Paul’s question is rhetoric, because it seems absurd to add more evil in order to obtain more grace or more occasions for doing good.

Furthermore, the GGD does not account for gratuitous evil. What if there really are fawns that die in anguish unbeknownst to all creation? No fellow creature could ever have compassion over them. Surely God would see them all and have compassion over them, but wouldn’t this again lead to the absurdity that more evil should be added so that God could have compassion over the suffering creatures?

Lastly, the GGD leaves open the question why God did not make a world like the Biblical “heaven” right away. Of course many goods are gained by the heroic responses of humans and animals to evil; but isn’t the overall goodness of a world in which there is no evil but only bliss not greater than the goodness of the present world? Swinburne himself concedes that Heaven “is a marvellous world with a vast range of possible deep goods, but it lacks a few goods which our world contains”[12]. A vast range gained…a few goods lost…I think it is clear what tips the scale.

III.       A Fall-based account of God’s reasons for permitting evil

So how can we construct a theodicy without gaps? I suggest that we let the Bible guide us, especially its accounts of the Fall of man and Heaven, to a cumulative case and see if a coherent picture arises.

III.1 In the past: God was justified in creating men with free will

The Bible begins with the account of Creation. Man is made in the image of God and obviously equipped with free will, as God forbids him under penalty of death to eat from the tree of knowledge[13]. Such a commandment would not make sense if man had had no free will; indeed, according to Genesis, the man and his wife made use of it by disobeying God, bringing punishment over themselves and sin, death and misery over their offspring.

Nevertheless, God was justified in creating morally innocent human beings with a free will, because the supreme good of love is impossible without free will (-> FWD). The gift of free will also entails that humans can make significant moral decisions concerning one another (-> GGD). Thus, God was doubly justified to make human beings like this.

One might object here that if God created morally innocent Adam and Eve, it remains obscure why they did the first sin. Shouldn’t morally innocent people not be more resistant to evil, even if there is a seducer[14]? I think this view confuses “morally innocent” and “morally perfect”. Only one being is morally perfect, God. God cannot sin; Adam and Eve could, but they were still morally innocent, which simply means that they had not done any evil before. But the gnawing doubt remains: didn’t they have some built-in tendency for evil that the seducer could exploit or at any rate ultimately led them to sin? I don’t think such an assumption is necessary. For Adam and Eve, the choice between good and evil was simply a choice, with no magnetic attraction to either side. As C.S. Lewis puts it:

The self-surrender which he practised before the Fall meant no struggle but only the delicious overcoming of an infinitesimal self-adherence which delighted to be overcome…[15]

Of course, after the Fall, things changed. Man came under the influence of sin, the “infinitesimal self-adherence” turned into a super-glue. Note how this theory solves one problem of the FWD. We need not trace sin back to God or stand agape at its pervasiveness; it was the first man’s decision that brought sin in, and from there spread to all mankind[16]. Now, positing, as the Bible does, a “hereditability” of sinfulness[17], we can salvage even the Soul-Making Theodicy. Remember that one of its problems was that it could not explain why suffering is needed for personal growth. Now we know: it is the congenital moral weakness of all of Adam’s progeny that makes it necessary. It is reasonable to think that in many cases, pain is needed to correct people’s pernicious ways. As Lewis puts it:

The human spirit will not even begin to try to surrender self-will as long as all seems to be well with it. Now error and sin…are masked evil. Pain is unmasked, unmistakable evil…[18]

The Fall might also explain animal suffering. Some biblical passages seem to indicate that the creation is now not what it was in the beginning[19], and that it will be transformed when God establishes His kingdom on earth[20]. Especially Isaiah 11:6-7 points to an end of animal suffering caused by predators:

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

If lions in a more perfect state than the present one are not predators anymore, this could have been their state directly after their creation. It is then reasonable to stipulate the Fall of man as the cause of lions turning into carnivores and of all the other phenomena in the animal kingdom we intuitively find disgusting.

Can we extend the effects of the Fall to inanimate natural evil? Romans 8:22 speaks of the “groanings of creation” as if creation was in “childbirth”. A childbirth is a painful process that leads to a good thing, namely a child being born. If the “groanings” include painful earthquakes and hurricanes, and the “child born” is the new creation of God (“Heaven”), then natural catastrophes might be a temporary thing introduced by the Fall of man[21].

I admit that the causal connection between Adam’s and Eve’s fall and the nature of all of their offspring as well as effects on the animal kingdom and the inanimate world remained obscure over the last paragraphs. This is not the place to explore this connection; however, I think it plain that the Bible makes it. Also, one might reject the historicity of the first couple. Let me note that this part of my theodicy also works on an evolutionary account (although this would raise further questions like why God used evil processes like death and preying to bring about mankind); the essential point is that at some moment in history, hitherto innocent men disobeyed God.

III.2 In the present: God is justified to allow evil for various purposes

„God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world. A bad man, happy, is a man without the least inkling that his actions do not „answer“, that they are not in accord with the laws of the universe.“ [22]

In this famous passage C.S. Lewis describes God’s purpose with pain. I agree. Experience shows that in many lives, pain and suffering have led to repentance, that is turning away from morally bad ways to morally good ones. The highest moral good, I suggest, is faith in God[23]. So if through pain a person begins to trust in God and to act morally well, the suffering inflicted upon that person is justified. The paragon of such an example is perhaps the apostle Paul. The blindness caused by his encounter with Christ at least contributed to his conversion from fanatic Saul to tender Paul.

What about believers? Is their suffering justified, considering that they already have a trustful relationship with God? The biblical answer to this question is a clear yes. Many passages[24] make it abundantly clear that God can and does use evil to foster faith and build character in His children. The justification again is as follows: an improved character is a good greater than the evil God has to allow in order to obtain the character improvement; hence, He is justified in allowing that evil.

So far we have been considering strengths of the FWD, the GGD and Soul-Making Theodicy. But Gerstner’s Punishment approach also has its warrant. It seems reasonable that sometimes God does use evil to punish people, as in the example of the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem. The Babylonians acted morally reprehensible by usurping another country and razing their capital; still, God allowed it as a judgment of Judah’s sins[25]. Again, God is justified in doing so, because the good attained (just punishment, in most cases with a pedagogical aspect) is greater than the evil permitted.

Unbelief and self-centeredness can be construed as consequences of the Fall; hence, the Fall is the backdrop against which those justifications of divine permission for evil make good sense.

So far, we’ve seen how the biblical account of the Fall and its consequences explains free will, the present human bias for sin (and hence the amount of evil in the world), animal suffering and perhaps even natural evil. Can we also explain gratuitous evil? The answer comes easy, because the FWD already contains it, and I have urged that the FWD is included in the biblical “theodicy”. So long as God maintains free will as an invaluable good, the consequence must be to allow – perhaps very rarely – even completely gratuitous evil. I am aware that even this might not convince everybody. Let me therefore quickly mention one biblical doctrine that might lift the fog of the last doubts: Heaven. There, the Bible tells us, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore”[26]. Again, if the comfort of Heaven is a good greater than the evil of even gratuitously malicious deeds, God is justified in letting even those occur. But the eschatological line of argument cuts both ways. Just as the Bible depicts a Heaven, it talks of Hell. There, all unredeemed evil is punished. If God is justified to let sinners do gratuitous evil in order to preserve free will, he is a fortiori justified to avenge gratuitous evil in the afterlife.

IV.          Summary

I’ve looked at four theistic attempts to solve the problem of evil and found them covering only a limited scope. I have then tried to establish a theodicy that is based on the historicity of the Fall of man and that knits together the four approaches, answering all the relevant questions that no one of the four attempts could answer on its own. In passing, I have brought in Heaven as a “backup” for remaining doubts and spotted the causal connection between man’s fall and its purported consequences as a field that needs further exploration in order to buttress my theodicy.

[1] The form of the problem of evil at hand here is the evidential one, which infers from the existence of concrete evils that it is more rational to deny the existence of the classical theistic God. The logical form of the problem of evil, which asserts a logical inconsistency between God’s existence and the occurrence of evil, can be regarded as refuted.

[2] (Gerstner, 2003); quotes taken from an online excerpt on (visited on Oct 16, 2017)

[3] (Rowe, 1979), p. 336

[4] see for example Romans 5:3-5

[5] In The Problem of Pain (p. 115.116), C.S. Lewis’s interjects that the amount of suffering is not increased by more people suffering, because one sentient being can only experience what itself is suffering, not the suffering of all the others. If that is true, more instances of evil would not increase the total amount of evil, but only an increased intensity in each sufferer would. I suppose that usually philosophers mean “more instances of evil” when they write of “more evil”, but the objection against from the allegedly too great amount of evil also works if the intensity is meant.

[6] (Plantinga, 1989)

[7] Genesis 2:17

[8] Luke 13:34

[9] (Swinburne, 1996)

[10] ibd., p. 43

[11] Romans 6:11

[12] Swinburne, p. 46

[13] Genesis 2:17

[14] The book of Genesis reports that Adam and Eve were seduced by the serpent, which is traditionally identified with Satan. The assumption of satanic influence would reinforce my point that the first two human beings had nothing intrinsically evil about them, but it would raise further questions like the origin of Satan, which I do not have space here to expound on.

[15](Lewis, 1962), p. 81

[16] Romans 5:12

[17] as perhaps Psalm 51:5 suggests

[18] Lewis, p. 92

[19] perhaps Romans 8:20

[20] see Isaiah 11:6-9

[21] Romans 8:20 might be expounded in this way.

[22] (Lewis, 1962), p. 93

[23] Not just belief, an intellectual acknowledgement of God’s existence or certain other doctrines, but trust in God as a person.

[24] Just a few examples: Romans 5:3-5; Hebrews 12:5-6; James 1:2-4.

[25] see e.g. Jeremiah 1:15.16

[26] Revelation 21:4



Gerstner, J.H., 2003. Primitive Theology: The Collected Primers. Soli Deo Gloria Ministries, Morgan, PA.

Lewis, C.S., 1962. The Problem of Pain. MacMillan.

Plantinga, A., 1989. God, Freedom, and Evil. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids.

Rowe, W., 1979. The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism. Am. Philos. Q. 1979, 335–341.

Swinburne, R., 1996. Some Major Strands of Theodicy, in: The Evidential Argument from Evil. Indiana University Press.

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