‘Problem of Evil’ or ‘Argument from Evil’?

In a previous post I addressed one objection made by the author of the blog Sola Ratione to Dr. Michael Kruger’s short video on the issue of “Morality and Evil” found on this website. In this post, I will turn to address another.

Objection #2: “It is not at all clear (even to many Christian theologians and philosophers) that the problem of evil and suffering HAS been satisfactorily ‘answered’ by anyone – let alone repeatedly. It is the most serious enduring objection to Christian theism.”

First, let me say that I agree that the argument from evil is and will continue to be the most serious challenge to God’s existence (i.e. theism). I do believe it presents a real intellectual obstacle for many thinking people. With that said, I would assert that the cogency of theological responses to this matter likely depends, once again, on a person’s heart orientation and basic presuppositions (i.e. worldview). I am not sure this point will delight every reader, but it is true. For example, while I thank the author of Sola Ratione for responding to my first post, I think he misunderstood some of my discussion of worldview.

To address each of his points one by one would take us far adrift of the present discussion, but it is worth pausing here to make a crucial point. There are plenty of rational, thinking men and women who do not believe in or who claim ignorance of the existence of God. They write blog posts (e.g. the author of Sola Ratione) and books (e.g. Dr. Ehrman) persuading readers to follow their arguments and make certain conclusions. Thus, the issue is NOT whether every human being uses his or her reason (we do), but rather whether or not one’s worldview provides an adequate justification for doing so. Truly, we are “homo sapiens” (literally “knowing men”). We want explanations and justifications. In short, we want universal answers to our most basic and fundamental questions. Otherwise, the argument from evil is really no problem at all. After all, a postmodern relativist can say that while it may be a problem for me, it is no problem at all for him. Thankfully, I do not believe that either myself or the author of Sola Ratione is quite so delusional. And yet, I do hold firm to the stance that Christian theism provides the best explanation and justification for such things as our rationality and desire for universal truth. Thus, it is my belief that Christians can and should provide a reasonable response to the argument from evil.

This brings me to my second main point. The “problem of evil” is better phrased as the “argument from evil” and the reason for the adjustment is simple. We all (at least those of us in the Western World) recognize evil as a problem and want an answer for it. As I asserted in my last post, we all want justice. Thus, evil is not just a problem particular to the Christian worldview or theism in general. Atheists and agnostics alike must provide some sort of explanation for what it is and why it is exists. The real issue then is not the “problem of evil,” which all worldviews must account for, but the notion that the existence of evil is somehow incompatible or improbable with the coexistence of an wholly good, all powerful, and all loving God. For example, if God is just some sort of nasty sycophant then there is really no problem at all. So, what we have is an argument from evil against the existence of God as He is traditionally understood, particularly within the pages of the Bible.

Third, there are two forms of the argument from evil: deductive and inductive. Keeping the two separate is key to understanding the discussion. The deductive argument, often attributed with the writings of Australian philosopher J. L. Mackie, posits that the existence of God is logically incompatible with the biblical idea of a good, omnipotent, and omniscient God. Obviously, such an argument, if true, would have damning consequences as it would mean that Christianity is necessarily false. Thankfully, Alvin Plantinga, who appears on this website, has provided a definitive and satisfactory reply to this version of the argument from evil.  This post affords me neither the space nor the time to adequately lay out Plantinga’s “Free Will Defense,” but the reader is urged to pick up a copy of his massively important work, God, Freedom, and Evil. In short, he lays out six propositions essential to Christian theism and then shows them to be entirely consistent and compatible with the coexistence of evil. Thus, while the author of Sola Ratione may assert that “it is not at all clear (even to many Christian theologians and philosophers) that the problem of evil and suffering HAS been satisfactorily ‘answered’ by anyone,” this is NOT true about the deductive argument from evil. On this, Mackie and fellow atheistic philosopher William Rowe concur. In Miracle of Theism, Mackie conceded that the deductive “problem of evil does not, after all, show that the central doctrines of theism are logically inconsistent with one another.” Rowe, in his article “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism,” agreed, noting:

“Some philosophers have contended that the existence of evil is logically inconsistent with the existence of the theist God. No one, I think, has succeeded in establishing such an extravagant claim. Indeed, granted incompatibilism, there is a fairly compelling argument for the view that the existence of evil is logically consistent of the theistic God.”

In sum, even atheistic philosophers and atheologians agree that the deductive form of the argument from evil HAS been satisfactorily answered. The enduring problem then, if I may borrow from Ehrman, is the inductive form of the argument. It holds that while the existence of God is not logically incompatible with the coexistence of evil, His existence seems improbable or highly inconceivable given the great quantity and quality of evil present in our world. As Rowe notes, “There remains, however, what we may call the evidential form – as opposed to the logical form – of the problem of evil: the view that the variety and profusion of evil in our world, although perhaps not logically inconsistent with the existence of the theistic God, provides nevertheless, rational support for atheism.” Thus, the current discussion centers on the inductive form of the argument and Christian responses take different shapes and sizes. Examples include the “Free Will Theodicy,” “Natural Law Theodicy,” “Soul Making Theodicy,” and “Creation-Order Theodicy.” Even as a Christian, I will admit that not every theodicy is fully convincing. Still, I do believe that Christian thinkers have and will continue to provide satisfactory responses to the inductive argument from evil.

As many of my future posts will deal more specifically with different aspects of the inductive argument from evil and the various answers that Christians give, I will ask for the reader’s patience as I put these posts together. Until then, I highly recommend that everyone check out the many helpful resources on this site.

David Baker, PhD
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary