The Problem of Evil, Part III: The Evidential Argument & Natural Evil

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File:US Navy 050102-N-9593M-040 A village near the coast of Sumatra lays in ruin after the Tsunami that struck South East Asia.jpgIn this last post of the series on the problem of evil (here are parts one and two), I will skim the surface of the two issues that now take up most of the conversation among contemporary philosophers.

The Evidential Version

The evidential version of the problem of evil (also known as the probabilistic version) differs from the logical problem in that it does not claim there is an explicit contradiction in God and evil both existing; rather, it simply seeks to show that God's existence is improbable, given that evil exists, especially the amount of evil we see.

It certainly seems to have some force.  While it is possible that God has morally sufficient reasons to allow evil, it does seem, in light of the horrors that have taken place as well as their disturbing frequency, rather unlikely.  Many of these evils we see seem utterly pointless.  The evidential version is also easier to prove, since it does not seek a definitive deductive proof.  William Rowe and Paul Draper (from our alma mater!) have put forth their own versions of the evidential argument.  The conversation remains lively today.

In their book, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland offer three responses to the evidential problem.

The first is that relative to the total evidence, God's existence is probable.  Obviously if the logical version were sound, there would be no God.  Full stop.  But this version relies on probabilities, and probabilities depend on one's background information.  The probability of being struck by lightening is quite low; but the probability of being struck by lightening if one is standing in the middle of nowhere sticking a giant metal pole in the air is a good deal higher.  The probability of being struck depends on a number of factors.

The atheist claims that God's existence is improbable.  "Relative to what?" we might ask.  If we only consider the evil in the world, then it does seem improbable.  But if we are really interested in determining the probability of God's existence, we must include other evidence, such as the classical arguments for the existence of God, the argument from reason, the argument from morals, the historicity of the resurrection, and the reliability of the Bible and its manuscripts.  Taking all of this into consideration, God's existence seems quite probable.  The evidential version of the problem of evil taken in isolation may make God's existence improbable, but the total evidence seems to at least balance it.

The second response is that we are not in a good position to actually determine the probability.  How so?  The probability of God's existence given that evil exists itself depends on the probability that God has morally sufficient reasons for permitting the evils that we see.  And how do we know the probability that God as morally sufficient reasons?  It seems we don't.  To quote Craig and Moreland:
What makes the probability here so difficult to assess is that we are not in a good epistemic position to make these kinds of probability judgments with any sort of confidence.  As finite persons, we are limited in space and time, in intelligence and insight.  But the transcendent and sovereign God sees the end of history from its beginning and providentially orders history so that his purposes are ultimately achieved through human free decisions.  In order to achieve his ends God may well have to put up with certain evils along the way.  Evils that appear pointless or unnecessary to us within our limited framework may be seen to have been justly permitted from within God's wider framework.1
In short, the probabilistic version depends on knowing the probability that God has morally sufficient reasons to allow evil.  And to know that, we would have to be omniscient.  Much as we would like to, we are not in the epistemic position to make the call.

The third response is that there are some doctrines of Christianity that may increase the probability of the coexistence of God and evil.  In this case, Christian theism has more of a defense than theism simpliciter (i.e. mere  or "barebones" theism).  What are some of these doctrines?  One is that - contrary to Joel Osteen - the chief purpose of life is not happiness but knowledge of God.  It is often assumed that if God exists the purpose of his creating us is that we would be happy.  But this belief is at odds with Christianity.  Craig and Moreland offer this profound thought: "Many evils occur in life that may be utterly pointless with respect to the goal of producing human happiness; but they may not be pointless with respect to producing a deeper knowledge of God."2  And this knowledge of God is a greater good than all others.

Another doctrine of Christianity is that humankind is in an active state of rebellion against God.  Not only that, but there is another realm in which there is rebellion against God.  And the two rebellions can and have wreaked havoc in this world.  A third doctrine is that God's purposes are not limited simply to this life but also include eternal life.  The Apostle Paul's perspective is a fascinating one, as he suffered tremendously during his life, yet thought is his sufferings as nothing compared to the everlasting joy that awaited him.  It may be that some of our sufferings fulfill no purpose on this earth, but we will be rewarded in heaven.

Natural Evil

As far as I can tell, the discussion regarding natural evil is not yet fully developed.  There are no well known formal arguments for natural evil as there are for moral evil, although some of the the arguments certainly overlap.  Nonetheless, I think it is important to at least cover the subject.

Natural evil, as made clear by the term itself, deals with evils that come about through the natural world, rather than through some moral agent.  These include natural disasters, such as earthquakes and hurricanes, and can also include human suffering and death caused by non-moral creatures, such as disease, venomous snake bites, and predators (e.g. getting mauled by a bear).

For many, the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami that claimed the lives of a quarter million people brought natural evil to the forefront.  How could an all-loving, all-powerful God allow such a thing?  This was not the first time in which a tremendous natural disaster caused the Christian world to reflect on the nature of God and evil.  The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 had a profound influence of the then-blossoming Enlightenment, including theistic thinkers.3

The earthquake took place on All Saints Day, when the largely Roman Catholic population was worshiping in churches.  The earthquake destroyed many buildings - including packed churches - killing thousands.  It also caused fire to spread throughout the city.  In an attempt to escape the flames, the surviving residents fled towards the sea, where they found it has receded.  While contemplating whether or not this was the end of the world, the tsunami came rushing in, killing many more.  This disaster led philosophers such as Rousseau and Kant to grapple with the nature of God anew.

The earthquake sparked debate as to whether the earthquake was a natural or supernatural event.  Some claimed that the earthquake was God's judgment on the city.  This position was difficult to reconcile with the fact that many churches were destroyed, killing thousands of pious Catholics, and the red light district, which was further inland, remained relatively undamaged.  Others saw it purely as a natural event, while yet others saw it as a natural event that was nonetheless used by God for his purposes. (Here is an interesting talk on the Lisbon earthquake and the thoughts following it)

At any rate, how do we deal with natural evil?  There are a number of varying responses.  One, as discussed after Lisbon, is that natural evil is the result of divine judgment.  However, the fact that many Christian die as a result of natural disaster makes this position difficult.  Perhaps only some disasters are God's judgment, but it is unclear how to determine which are natural and which are divine judgment.  A similar position is that natural evil is a result of "The Fall."  Creation was perfect not only in the morals of Adam and Eve and their communion with God, but there apparently were no mosquitoes, earthquakes, droughts, disease, or predators either.  This position suffers from the difficulty in explaining just how the natural world worked before the fall, and how it transformed into what we see today.  Further, why the moral shortcoming of Adam and Eve resulted in the collapse of the paradisaical world must also be accounted for.

Alvin Plantinga posits the possibility that natural disasters are the work of other supernatural forces, such as fallen angels. Coming up with a comprehensive defense of this position based on the Bible may be a bit difficult, but there do seem to be some examples, such as some of the hardships Job faced.

A very useful partial answer to the problem is to realize that where there is natural evil, it is often exacerbated by moral evil, so that the two are often tied together.  For example, a Wall Street Journal article shortly after the 2004 tsunami argued (quite independently of the problem of natural evil) that the tsunami's impact was worsened by the destruction of the coral reefs in those areas; more remote areas in which the reefs were not destroyed suffered relatively few losses by comparison.  Or consider the fact that much of the housing in natural disasters was shoddily constructed, so that better construction - either by codes or by first world countries assisting developing countries - would mean fewer losing their lives.  Global warming may have an impact on the severity of weather.  And finally, droughts today should not be an issue, even accounting for the cost of shipping food.  The main issues are an unwillingness to help, and - even more so in many cases - the corrupt authoritarian governments using supplies for their own gain by extortion and blackmail.  That being said, this obviously does not answer the full question.

There are two more possible responses.  The first is that in the natural order of things, evil must be possible if good is possible.  If gravity helps in many ways - keeping things stable, creating water flow - it may also hurt - falling out of a tree and breaking your arm. To quote John Polkinghorne:
It is a very general insight - both in physics and in biology - that the regimes where true novelty can emerge are necessarily existing on what we may call the edge of chaos.  Regimes where regularity and contingency, order and openness, intertwine.  Too far on the orderly side of that frontier, and things are too rigid for anything really novel to emerge.  Too far on the haphazard side of the frontier, any novelty that emerges will be unable to persist....  The anguishing fact of cancer is not gratuitous - something that a creator who was a bit more competent, or a bit less callous, could have easily avoided - but is the necessary cost of the great good of a world in which creatures are given the freedom to be themselves, to make themselves.

And lastly it is worth remembering that, as Plantinga pointed out (see this post), evil may bring about great good through perseverance and steadfastness.  Further, as Craig and Moreland discussed, brave deeds and compassion in the face of evil may be rewarded as well.  So while the natural evil itself may seem pointless, it is possible that the results of such evil is a greater good.

Closing Remarks

To sum up the series, moral evil is in no way incompatible with the existence of God since free creatures must be allowed to do evil if they are to remain free, and it is possible that they all may fall short of perfection.  Further, moral evil does not seem to make the existence of God uncertain or unlikely for a variety of reasons.  For one, it is impossible to even know whether God has morally sufficient reasons.  Finally, while natural evil is something with which every Christian must grapple, arguments against God's existence given natural evil have not yet reached the level of the arguments dealing with moral evil.  Even so, there are several possible responses, though some are not without their difficulties.  But given our limited epistemic position, it is perfectly reasonable for a believer to simply trust in the Lord, despite the trials and tribulations of this world.  In the Bible, the reality of evil and its incessancy is a given, not a reality it seeks to cover up.  And the many before us who have believed the words of that book have trusted its author through grief and trouble.


1.  Craig, William Lane and Moreland, J.P. Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, p. 543
2.  Ibid., p. 544
3.  And the Lisbon earthquake was not the first time, either, for that matter.  Theism has grappled with the problem of evil since Job.
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