Ethical Realism

June 2, 2010

My Defense of the Argument From Evil, an Argument Against God

Filed under: metaphysics,philosophy — JW Gray @ 7:52 am
Tags: , , , , ,

The argument from evil (or “problem of evil”) was originally developed by Epirucus, and it is now often taken as an argument against the existence of God(s). If successful, the argument shows that a group of beliefs about God are incompatible (an all powerful and all good God doesn’t exist because then evil couldn’t exist). Although it is possible for a theist (believer in God) to avoid the argument from evil just by adjusting one’s beliefs about God, some theists don’t think that the argument from evil is a problem in the first place. In particular, some argue that God might have a good reason to allow evil to exist. I will attempt to show that it seems either impossible or unlikely that God allows evil to exist for a good reason.


Consider the following beliefs, which seem incompatible:

  1. God is all good (omnibenevolent) and therefore willing to prevent all evil (terrible things).
  2. God is all powerful (omnipotent) and therefore able to prevent all evil.
  3. Evil exists.
  4. God exists.

God is all good. – God is perfectly moral. He wants the best for everyone.

God is all powerful. – God “can do anything” as long as it is logically possible. God can’t make 2+2=3 because it is logically impossible. However, it is logically possible for no evil to exist and to have the best results for everyone. Additionally, God is not constrained by the laws of physics. God can create something from nothing, for example.

Evil exists. – “Evil” denotes any imperfection in the universe. Natural disasters and disease are “evil” insofar as they lead to terrible things. If everyone doesn’t get the best results, then God hasn’t given everyone the “best results” even though he is willing and able to give everyone the best results.

God exists. It is possible that God doesn’t exist and that would explain why the world is imperfect. However, if God does exist, then it would seem that he is either unwilling or unable to give everyone a perfect life.

These beliefs seem incompatible precisely because they can lead to the argument from evil:

The Argument from Evil

  1. God is willing and able to prevent all evil.
  2. If God is willing and able to prevent all evil, then no evil exists.
  3. Evil exists.
  4. Therefore, God does not exist.

Any of these premises could be false, and then the conclusion would no longer be inevitable. Perhaps God is not willing or able to prevent all evil from existing. Perhaps evil doesn’t exist. And so on.

I suggest that we should assess the certainty of each belief to determine which belief should be rejected. I personally think we have a very high amount of certainty that evil exists (horrible things happen and we don’t all get what is best for us), and it is very tempting to think that God’s existence is the least certain of the beliefs involved. Still, I am not at all convinced that God is all powerful or all good, even if he does exist.

An Objection

I will not give objections involving the idea that God is not all good or all powerful, or that evil doesn’t exist. The objection I want to focus on is the view that God is omnipotent and all good, and God has a good reason to allows evil to exist anyway. Such a reason to allow evil is what I will call “the greater good hypothesis” because it suggests that evil might exist because it is “necessary for the greater good.”

Saint Augustine argued that evil exists because we have free will. Free will has a great deal of value, but the best sort of free will allows us to do evil. There is greater value in having free will and evil than no evil at all.

The free will response does not seem to explain why natural disasters or disease are allowed by God. Children suffer and die of horrible diseases without being saved by God, which still doesn’t seem to make sense.

The main defense of the greater good hypothesis seems to be that such a hypothesis might be true. Alvin Plantinga argued that it is logically possible for God to allow evil if doing so would be for the greater good, and in that case evil can exist even if God exists. The main idea is that if God and evil are logically compatible, then as far as we know, God and evil both exist in the actual world. There could be a world in which the only evil exists from free will, and we might be in a world where evil only exists because God has a good reason for allowing evil to exist as well.

My Response

I will discuss two responses to the above objection:

  1. The greater good hypothesis is logically impossible.
  2. Even if the greater good hypothesis was logically possible, it is probably false.

1. The greater good hypothesis is logically impossible.

I am not convinced that the greater good hypothesis makes any sense because God is “all powerful” and can do anything logically possible. Consider the following argument:

  1. God can do anything logically possible.
  2. Therefore, it is possible for God to maximize the good without any evil existing.
  3. Therefore, the greater good hypothesis will not justify the existence of evil given God’s unlimited power.
  4. Therefore, the greater good hypothesis is false.

If being “all powerful” is as unlimited as most people seem to think, then I can’t imagine why God would have to allow evil to exist for the greater good. What sorts of constraints could limit his power?

Consider free will. Even if free will is as wonderful as Augustine thought, and we actually have free will, that doesn’t mean that God should allow us to do evil. It could be possible to have free will without being able to do evil. Free will could be the ability to do one good thing instead of another.

Some people suggest that free will is only of value if we can do evil. I don’t really understand why. I am not sure how important free will is in the first place.

An objection: Some people will object to my definition of “all powerful.” Some people define “all powerful” differently than I do, but I find it to be cheating to say that God could be less “all powerful” than “only constrained by logic.” After all, the theist could have just admitted God isn’t all powerful from the start.

Some people believe that God is constrained by metaphysical possibility (constraints on reality). I’m not sure exactly what metaphysical possibility involves other than logical and mathematical possibility, and I even took a class on it. Some people argue that it’s impossible for water to be anything but H2O, but I think that is just how we use the word “water.”

Aristotle thought that it is metaphysically necessary for Socrates to be a human because Socrates would no longer be Socrates if he was a dog. I’m not sure exactly what that means, and some movies might contradict the notion. I could imagine becoming a dog and still be myself, and such an idea is common to those who believe in reincarnation.

I agree that God might be unable to create a “perfect world where everyone is happy” if he is constrained by natural laws, but I don’t think he is. I suspect that the God of the Stoics was constrained by natural laws because it was part of the natural world, but such a God is not “all powerful.” Additionally, some Christians and Muslims agree that a perfect world can exist in heaven. Why isn’t the entire universe heaven? If God is all good and all powerful, I would think that would have been the actual world that exists.

2. Even if the greater good hypothesis was logically possible, it is probably false.

Even if some evil should be allowed for the greater good, some people have argued that there is something about the world that seems incompatible with the “greater good hypothesis.” Perhaps (a) God should help us more, (b) the “sheer quantity of evil” is incompatible with God, and (c) we simply don’t have enough evidence to rationally believe in the “greater good hypothesis.” There couldn’t be any possible reason to allow children to die from horrible diseases, for example.

(a) God should help out more – For example, consider the idea that free will could justify the existence of evil. Even if that were the case, why are we so ignorant? One of the leading causes of bad actions is ignorance, and that issue could be solved if God would give us knowledge. (The bible has not been a sufficient source of knowledge. Many people have thought that genocide was a necessary sort of “pre-emtive strike.”)

Additionally, consider the following argument:

  1. If a child is drowning and you are the only person who can easily save the child (at little cost to yourself), then it would be wrong not to do so.
  2. Some children who are drowning could only be saved by God and at little cost to himself.
  3. Therefore, God should save these children.
  4. But God doesn’t save the children.
  5. Therefore, God does something wrong.

An objection: Theists who disagree with the above argument will often argue that (i) We don’t really understand morality and/or (ii) morality applies to us differently than it applies to God. These responses are unsatisfying because we know some facts about morality very well, and the fact that we need to save children is one of those moral facts we know very well. However, we don’t know much about God very well. It seems strange to demand such certainty involving our moral knowledge, but not our knowledge involving God.

Additionally, if we know so little about morality or morality applies to God so much differently than everyone else, then how can we be so sure God is all good to begin with? The whole point of knowing that God is all good is to think we know what “all good” means and that we have some evidence that God fits the bill.

(b) The sheer quantity of evil – Even if we were allowed to do evil things because of free will, God could intervene at least to some extent. The “sheer quantity of evil” is incompatible with the existence of an all powerful and all good as long as some evil exists that is not for some greater good. If God showed up and told Hitler and the Nazis that genocide was a bad idea, that would have been much appreciated. The notion that the holocaust was “necessary” for the “greater good” is absurd and a horrific notion, especially considering that God could have done so much more to help us without taking away our free will.

(c) The “greater good hypothesis” is inadequately justified – Even if it is possible that God has some reason to allow evil, that doesn’t mean that it is probably true. We can’t argue that something is possible and therefore probably true. (That’s an appeal to ignorance fallacy.) I see no reason to agree that God is all good and all powerful but refuses to help us out more. We should reject the hypothesis because of Occam’s Razor (the idea that the simplest explanation is usually the right one) because we should reject strange explanations unless they are necessary to explain a phenomena. But the greater good hypothesis is not necessary to explain a phenomenon.

Consider that theists often have the following assumptions:

  1. God is all good.
  2. God is all powerful.
  3. God exists.
  4. Evil exists.

These beliefs appear to lead to a contradiction. We don’t know that all the beliefs are true, so we could easily discard one. Atheists want to discard the third belief, but we could also decide that God isn’t all good or all powerful.

Some theists will want to keep all the beliefs and argue that “God has a good reason to allow evil to exist.” The problem is that this sounds like an ad-hoc hypothesis. We don’t have any evidence in the “greater good hypothesis,” but theists will accept it just to keep their potentially contradictory beliefs despite the fact that we have little to no reason to actually believe that the greater good hypothesis is true. It is one thing to admit that we might sometimes falsely think that a terrible event is unnecessary for the greater good, and believing that all terrible events are necessary for the greater good.

We have good reason to think that some terrible events warrant divine intervention despite a lack of divine intervention. Genocide, for example. Not to mention that most theists believe that divine intervention has happened (and were therefore warranted) in the past. It is utterly mysterious why divine intervention was warranted when Jesus was born, but not when Nazis wanted to commit genocide.

To see how the greater good hypothesis appears to be unjustified, consider the following analogy:

  1. If any person or animal moved my keys in the last 10 minutes, I would have seen it.
  2. I didn’t see any person or animal in the last 10 minutes.
  3. Therefore, no person or animal moved my keys.
  4. But my keys were moved.

We could admit that one of these uncertain beliefs are false or we could keep all of these beliefs by accepting an ad-hoc hypothesis. For example, I might think that a ghost must have moved my keys. However, this sort of ad-hoc hypothesis should be rejected. It is probably false that a ghost moves my keys considering that I don’t know that ghosts even exist. Instead, we would prefer a simpler explanation. For example, I might be wrong that I didn’t see anyone move my keys. I might even forget moving my own keys.

In the same way it is unjustified to accept the greater good hypothesis. We don’t know that God exists, that God is all powerful, or that God is all good, but some theists want to keep all their beliefs by accepting the greater good hypothesis.

The “great good hypothesis” requires us to accept something probably false just so that we can continue to keep other beliefs that could also be false, such as “God exists, “God is all powerful,” or “God is all good.” It does not seem rational to accept that something is true only because you don’t want to give up one of your other beliefs that might also be true.


I have only taken a quick look at some specific issues involving the Argument from Evil, but these are issues that are still relevant to theologians and other theists today. Some theist think that omnipotence is perfectly compatible with the greater good hypothesis, but I am not convinced; and if I am right, the greater good hypothesis should be rejected even if it is logically compatible with God’s existence.

I have not actually argued that God does not exist, but I do think that the argument of evil continues to be a challenge to theists who believe that God is all good and all powerful.

The Argument from Evil is discussed in much greater detail at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which can be viewed here. Much of my discussion was inspired by a conversation with Marc Belcastro.

Update (5/20/13): I changed the introduction and made some more clarifications.


  1. Eh, I really don’t think “sheer quantity of evil” is a very effective argument here because it requires drawing arbitrary lines of how much evil is too much evil? World War 2 and the holocaust WERE products of free will, and the God that we’re supposing does not mess with free will because people have to choose goodness through their free will. As far as natural disasters are concerned, if God created for us a world with no natural dangers at all… that might actually be horrible.

    Comment by John — July 21, 2010 @ 1:40 pm | Reply

    • Any amount of evil is too evil if God should use his power to help us out. If someone who knows how to cure AIDS should tell other people how, then so should God. If God’s morality is nothing like human morality, then human morality is so incredibly flawed and imperfect that we don’t really know what we are talking about. In that case we have no way to judge that God is “morally good” in the first place. This was already discussed in the section “(a) God should help out more.”

      I also mentioned that “If God showed up and told Hitler and the Nazis that genocide was a bad idea, that would have been much appreciated. The notion that the holocaust was “necessary” for the “greater good” is absurd and a horrific notion, especially considering that God could have done so much more to help us without taking away our free will.” That means that free will is irrelevant. You said nothing against my argument, you merely restated the view that I object to.

      Comment by James Gray — July 21, 2010 @ 7:35 pm | Reply

  2. I find it interesting that people use the free will defense when this argument can then be applied.

    1. If something is all knowing, it knows all facts about the past present and future.
    2. If something knows the future, free will does not exist, as we cannot act differently than that known future.
    3. God is omniscient.
    4. Free will does not exist.

    God and free will are incompatible, thus causing the free will defense to fail.

    Comment by Evan — August 17, 2010 @ 6:52 pm | Reply

    • God as traditionally conceived might be incompatible with free will. We could agree that God is not omniscient, that we don’t have free will, or with the Christians who argue that God is outside space and time.

      Comment by James Gray — August 17, 2010 @ 8:53 pm | Reply

      • On the one hand it looks like God could have done a bettor job while on the other hand (given the extent and complexity of His creation) what it looks like to God is beyond human thought.

        Comment by jbonnicerenoreg — May 16, 2013 @ 9:20 pm

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