The Problem of Evil
There are several arguments from evil, but they are usually divided into two basic types: logical arguments from evil and evidential arguments from evil.
The basic Logical Argument from Evil is as follows:
We begin by defining "God" as a being who is, among other things, all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good (in this essay, that is what will be meant by "God", with a capital G). Now, if God is all-good, then he desires that there be no evil. If he is all-knowing, then he knows that there is evil (and arguably knew that there would be evil even before there was any). And if he is all-powerful, then he can eradicate any evil (and could even have prevented it before it had a chance to occur). Hence, if there were a God, there would be no evil. But there is evil. Therefore, God does not exist.
There are several replies possible:
First, someone might disagree with the definition we started with. Perhaps there is a god but he is not all-powerful, or not all-good, etc. (In fact, he might not have any of the above attributes.) Of course, the proponent of the argument could at this point simply maintain that what the argument proves is that God (as previously defined) does not exist. And that is probably the kind of god that most Westerners believe in. But there is another problem with this reply. Even if god is not all-powerful, he is still supposedly very, very powerful, and so ought to be able to prevent most if not all of the evil we see around us. Likewise, even if he is not perfectly good, that by itself would not account for his allowing as much evil as in fact takes place. If there is nothing else wrong with the above argument, an all-powerful and all-knowing god would have to be a moral monster to allow much of what happens in our world. Thus, god would have to be pretty deficient in one or more of the above three attributes for this objection to work.
A second way out is to deny the premise that there is evil. And in fact there are those who claim that evil is only an illusion. But that bad things happen is something that common sense cannot deny. Furthermore, as the philosopher John McTaggart pointed out, an illusion of evil is itself an undesirable thing, something which the world would be better off without. That is, the illusion of evil is itself a kind of evil. So the claim that evil is only an illusion appears to be untenable.
A third way out is to claim that all the evil that exists is justified. An all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good being would not allow any evil unless doing so is necessary for some greater good or for the prevention of some equal or greater evil. But for all we know (the opponent of the argument may claim), all the evil in the world is justified in this way. And if that is the case, then it is compatible with the existence of God.
The standard responses to the argument from evil can be interpreted as attempts to argue this third way. The reason there is evil, some say, is that human beings have free will. But then it must be the case that the existence of free will is sufficiently valuable to more than make up for the evil that results from it. Or the reason there is evil is that without it we could not develop into the sort of beings that God wants us to become. But then the value of our becoming such beings has to more than make up for the evil that God allows for this purpose. And so on.
The basic logical argument from evil is flawed in that it takes the existence of evil to be incompatible with the existence of God. However, it is not the existence of evil per se that is incompatible with God, but rather the existence of unjustified evil. This brings us to the second main type of argument from evil,
The Evidential Argument from Evil:
If there were a God, then there would be no unjustified evil. But it is very unlikely that there is no unjustified evil. Therefore, it is very unlikely that God exists.
This makes a rather strong case against the existence of God (or even of a limited but very powerful and good god). For it does seem extremely unlikely that all the evil in the world is justified that none of it could be prevented without thereby making the world as bad or worse. Consider, for instance, the suffering of a fawn (to use William Rowe's example) burned in a forest fire. The theist must maintain that somehow, if that suffering had not been allowed by God, the world would have to be at least as bad. In other words, that God could not have achieved all the good that he has achieved (or avoided all the bad that he has avoided) without allowing that one instance of suffering, or something equally bad. And that seems far fetched, to say the least.
In reply, theists sometimes point out that our knowledge of the relationship between events is severely limited. A butterfly flapping its wings could be one of the causes of a hurricane. Likewise, the suffering of the fawn could very well be part of a very complex causal chain that eventually leads to a good that far outweighs the evil involved. That is certainly true, but there are at least two flaws with such reasoning. First, the evidential argument does not maintain that the evil in the world could not possibly be justified. It merely maintains that it is very unlikely that it is. Therefore, all the proponent of the argument needs to say is that the evidence that we have is that much suffering that occurs is unjustified. (Compare: a butterfly flapping its wings may cause a hurricane, but if you see a butterfly flapping its wings you have good reason to suspect that it is not going to cause a hurricane.) Second, and more importantly, the theist seems to be ignoring the fact that the cause and effect relationships in his argument must be logically necessary. For God is all-powerful, and therefore can change the very laws of nature. So even if it is the case that, given the way things are, the only way to ensure the existence of some value V is to allow at least the possibility of some evil E, it does not follow that that is the only way God could ensure V. The theist must therefore maintain something far stronger: namely, that it is logically impossible for V to exist without at least the possibility of E.
Note: In the original version of this essay, I mentioned that there would be a second part, explaining a new logical argument from evil. However, because I am currently working on a book on the existence of God, and am including the argument in the book, I have changed my mind about publishing it here.
©2007 Franz Kiekeben