If God exists, gratuitous evil does not exist…

Below is a draft of an article which is to be submitted for publication soon. The article considers the problem of gratuitous evil in the context of different approaches to evil by theists and atheists.

The article is intended for a popular/lay readership – not academics. Comments on this draft are welcome.

**********

Amongst the various arguments against the existence of God the problem of evil is the most recalcitrant, with a history stretching back millennia. The problem is responsible for the spilling of rivers of ink from the pens of theists and atheists alike; the former trying to explain it, or at least reconcile it with the existence of an omnipotent, all-loving God, while the latter use it as evidence against the existence of such a being.

Throughout the history of philosophical thought the problem has come in various versions. Some thinkers have held that the mere existence of evil is logically incompatible with the existence of God. Others make the more modest claim that the sheer amount of evil we find in the world makes the existence of God improbable. These arguments have been unsuccessful. With respect to the former, very few atheist philosophers would offer the problem of evil as a strict logical problem. Largely thanks to the work of Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga it is generally agreed that there is no logical contradiction between the existence of God and the existence of evil. With respect to the latter – what has been called the “probabilistic problem of evil” – it has been shown to be incredibly difficult to establish the improbability of God on evil; but in any event, even if we grant that the existence of God is improbable with respect to the evil in the world it might still be incredibly probable once we take into account the total evidence, perhaps various arguments for the existence of God, or our own sense of the divine – the “sensus divinitatis” as John Calvin called it.

And so in recent times we see the argument cast in yet another guise: focusing on the alleged existence of “gratuitous” evil. Gratuitous evil is evil that doesn’t serve any purpose, has no point, and lacks any justifying reason whatsoever. The atheist might grant that some evils exist as necessary to some greater good or purpose, however, he reckons, an all-powerful and all-loving God surely wouldn’t allow gratuitous evil. Therefore, the existence of gratuitous evil, it is claimed, is strong evidence against the existence of God. We might cast the argument in formal terms like so:

1. If God exists, gratuitous evil does not exist.
2. Gratuitous evil does exist.
3. Therefore, God does not exist.

There are atheists who regard this as a water-tight argument and claim to be baffled as to why Christians can’t see the logic of it. But it seems to me that the argument goes wrong on several counts. Granted, if premises 1 and 2 are true then the conclusion logically follows, but do we have any reason to grant premises 1 and 2? It seems to me that both are questionable, but in this article I want to focus only on premise 2.

What reason do we have for supposing that premise 2 is correct, that gratuitous evil does, in fact, exist? Since this argument is the atheist’s argument it is he who bears the burden of proof for its premises. Unfortunately for the atheist this premise is incredibly difficult to establish. The reason for this difficulty lies in the fact that human beings are finite – limited in space, time, insight and intelligence – and thus not in any intellectual position to make such judgments. Certainly we can grant that some evils look gratuitous, but how do we know they actually are? Some seemingly gratuitous evil could in time lead to some great good – perhaps even decades later and in another country. In the world in which we live things are intricately interconnected in such a way that even very small events can turn out to have massive unforeseen consequences. Think of the common illustration, from the science of chaos theory, of a butterfly fluttering around a plant setting in motion events which lead to a hurricane off the coast of Florida. Intellectually limited as we are, humans can’t possibly know or predict the long-term effects of such events. Without such knowledge it is difficult to claim that any given evil is in fact gratuitous.

Even worse: it seems that unless one is already committed to atheism there is no reason to accept premise (2). Those of us who believe in God might counter-argue as follows:

4. If God exists, gratuitous evil does not exist.
5. God exists.
6. Therefore, gratuitous evil does not exist.

So, if God exists no evil is gratuitous. It all has a plan and purpose in God’s providential ordering of the cosmos. This means that the problem of evil is not independent of our prior commitment – or lack thereof – to the existence of God. The atheist’s argument need not therefore have any appeal to theists. Whether or not gratuitous evil exists depends on whether or not God exists.

This exposes a problem in this form of the problem of evil. Atheists often present it as an argument against belief in God, one they reckon should convince theists. However, they tend to ignore the fact that theists in general – and Christians in particular – approach the problem from a very different perspective. As Christians we believe in God already. Whilst the intellectual credentials of Christian belief are good, most of us probably believe in God because we experience God as a living reality. Our God is not just the God of the philosophers, the conclusion of a deductive argument. Rather our God is the living God; the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the God who took on human flesh and pitched his tent amongst us; the God whose Spirit dwells within us. He is a God of history, working out his redemptive plan day after day and year after year.

An illustration will help show the difference between the atheist and the Christian outlook. The atheist position views the world with its evils like a picture with blemishes and ugly stains all over it. But, a picture is static, it doesn’t change: a picture is only a snapshot in time, not the whole story. In contrast, the Christian view is that the world with its evils is more like a drama. A drama moves across time, it changes. Horrors from an earlier scene can find their meaning and redemption in the end. If we focus on one scene – perhaps where the hero is imprisoned, the villain imposing his will, and little hope in sight – we may well despair. But of course the meaning of a drama isn’t found in any one scene. The meaning of a drama is often only revealed at the end when the drama reaches resolution. The end puts earlier scenes in a new light. We often get glimpses into this sort of thing in our own lives. How often do we look back on something and see it in a different light? Hindsight can be a wonderfully illuminating thing.

One of my favourite illustrations of this kind of principle comes from the movie “Sliding Doors.” [Spoiler alert!] In the movie the lead character is running to catch a train. At this point the movie branches off into two “sub-movies”: in one she catches the train, and in the other she misses it. The movie shows how her life goes in two completely different directions as a result of one seemingly mundane event: catching or missing a train. In one world she goes on to be incredibly successful, while in the other she goes through various trials, frustrations and hardships. However, in the life in which she is successful she ends up dying much younger; while in her other life she finally turns things around. Imagine one day in eternity God shows her just what would’ve happened had she caught the train. She might then be grateful for missing it, even though it brought hardship and frustrations for a time.

We also see glimpses of this principle in scripture. The apostle Paul was able to write in the midst of his hardships: “So we do not lose heart. . . For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to things that are seen, but to things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” [2 Cor 4:16-18]. Paul understood that the Christian lives in the light of eternity. This life is not the end of the story. Earthly life is infinitesimal in comparison with the eternal life awaiting us. As we live in this eternity the sufferings of our present life will shrink towards an infinitesimal moment, a speck on the horizon. Even though there may be evils serving little or no good (from an earthly human viewpoint), they may well be permitted by God so he might overwhelmingly reward in eternity those who go through such trials in faith.

Imagine standing as one of Christ’s disciples watching his crucifixion. The one you followed as Lord, Messiah, healer, preacher, and friend, is nailed to a cross. It’s over. All your hopes are crushed. This was the death of one cursed. This was not meant to happen to the Messiah. For the disciples it was an evil that brought their world to an end. Frozen in time the events of the cross might appear gratuitous, useless, and purposeless; it looks like evil has triumphed. But we know that the story didn’t end here. There’s the resurrection, the appearances, the Great Commission, Pentecost: in short, there’s redemption. Evil is defeated. Good has triumphed. God is not dead. The drama of redemptive history continues.

No one can rightly condemn or adversely judge an artist on the basis of an unfinished piece. Whilst the atheist is content to judge God on the here and now, the Christian need not be so inclined. Our God is one who turns crucifixion to resurrection; fall to salvation; sin to redemption. And whilst we may freely acknowledge that we can’t comprehend all the evils we see and experience, we also know that the Director is still at work, and the curtain has not yet fallen…….

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6 Comments

Filed under Atheism, God, Problem of Evil, Theism

6 responses to “If God exists, gratuitous evil does not exist…

  1. Interesting commentary, and propositions (4) (5) and (6) illustrate well the potential to reverse the original argument.

    You suggest proposition (1) is up for debate, but, from my reading, it’s really only proposition (2) you deconstruct.

    And just a thought – sometimes when you use “Christian” you mean exactly that. On other occasions you use it effectively interchangeably with “Theist”. Consistency could make the steps in your commentary clearer.

    I’d love to see a couple of references – particularly links to the “discrediting” of the more generic argument, and to atheists who have argued that gratuitous evil disapproves the existence of God.

    And the final line sums it up brilliantly 🙂

    • Thanks for the comments, very useful. I spotted the theist/Christian interchange yesterday! When I’m writing philosophy I tend to focus generally on theism, but this article is aimed particular at Christians so I’ve flip-flopped a bit there! Quite correct. As for references, I debated that one…I probably should footnote them at least – I didn’t want to include too much discussion in the body of the text.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment! Very useful!

      SJG

  2. Pingback: Contra God | stephenjgraham

  3. (500 words)
    You are writing philosophy but this article is aimed particularly at Christians. Why the “but”?
    Philosophy+Christianity sounds a lot like apologetics to me, but since you announced in a tweet that you are not an apologist, I am at a loss to understand what you are trying to do here.
    It looks like apologetics and it uses the tricks of apologetics. Here are two of the worst:
    1. The reification of “gratuitous evil”. Evil is a “thing”. A bland generalization which exists out there because it is a “thing”, but you do not even attempt to prove that. Avoiding specific examples allows apologists (Yes, I know you’re not an apologist) to blather on, using philosophical-sounding language as a comforter for anxious Christians.
    If you addressed specific acts of “gratuitous evil” you would be on the way to making a case. I understand that you dare not do this. It would involve your having to say things like, “Your little girl has been raped and strangled, but maybe it’s all part of God’s plan. Maybe the torture of your child could in time lead to some great good – perhaps even decades later and in another country. So, as good Christian parents you must say, with Paul, ‘For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory’. Slight – got it, ” I can understand why you might want to avoid this.
    2. Inventing stupid syllogisms, using badly-worded premises. Even the grammar is skewed. It looks like Logic, sounds like Logic, but stinks of Fallacy.
    4. If God exists, gratuitous evil does not exist.
    5. God exists.
    6. Therefore, gratuitous evil does not exist.
    Why is the grammar bad? Because in this case, you can not say, “If God exists”. You can go no further than “If God existed, gratuitous evil would not exist.” You’re trying too hard to play the philosopher. This always backfires on apologists.
    You could say, simplistically:
    1. If the sun is shining here, it is day-time here.
    2. The sun is shining here.
    3. Therefore it is day-time here.
    In this case I can verify the premises by taking a look outside.
    There is no way you can verify the existence of God, so your logic is what is politely but correctly called – unsound.
    You would do better to say:
    1. If I believe that God exists, I believe that nothing is gratuitous, including evil.
    2. I believe that God exists.
    3. Therefore I believe that gratuitous evil does not exist.
    I would prefer to say:
    1. If God existed, gratuitous evil would not exist.
    2. I have no evidence for the existence of God.
    3. Therefore I don’t know if gratuitous evil exists. Now let us sing our closing hymn, “God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform.”
    But would you say that to the Christian parents of the little girl who had been savagely raped and murdered? I think not. As always, it is the real world which threatens your beliefs.
    .

    • Richard,

      I’ll keep this brief.

      You open with “I am at a loss to understand what you are trying to do here.”
      The clue is at the very beginning when I say: “Below is a draft of an article which is to be submitted for publication soon. The article considers the problem of gratuitous evil in the context of different approaches to evil by theists and atheists. The article is intended for a popular/lay readership – not academics”
      To clarify, this article was written for a specific Christian magazine, and thus a specific Christian audience.

      You accuse me of using “tricks,” and again I’m frustrated at your willingness to dish out slurs against those you disagree with – you did a similar thing in your other response to me. It’s really rather tiresome.

      Anyhow, to respond to your specific complaints:

      “The reification of “gratuitous evil”. Evil is a “thing”. A bland generalization which exists out there because it is a “thing”, but you do not even attempt to prove that. Avoiding specific examples allows apologists (Yes, I know you’re not an apologist) to blather on, using philosophical-sounding language as a comforter for anxious Christians”

      Huh? I’m not even sure what your problem here is. That I refer to evil as a “thing”? It’s regarded as a “thing” by atheist philosophers who advance arguments against the existence of God from the existence of evil! If evil were not a “thing” then there would be no problem to answer! In fact, you later speak of evil as if it is in fact a thing, and thus contradict yourself on this first point. But to be honest it isn’t terribly clear what on earth you’re saying here.

      ”If you addressed specific acts of “gratuitous evil” you would be on the way to making a case.”

      You’ve obviously missed the point I made in the article that we don’t know if any evil is in fact gratuitous! Moreover, the burden of proof here lies with the atheist as I have already explained in the article.

      “I understand that you dare not do this. It would involve your having to say things like, “Your little girl has been raped and strangled, but maybe it’s all part of God’s plan. Maybe the torture of your child could in time lead to some great good – perhaps even decades later and in another country. So, as good Christian parents you must say, with Paul, ‘For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory’. Slight – got it, ” I can understand why you might want to avoid this.”

      You are correct that I would not approach a grieving family with such comments. They may be unwelcome and an intellectual explanation is not what emotionally hurting people need. However, I’m writing here a piece of popular philosophy – I’m not trying to be a counselor. In any event, I’ve known a great many people who have experienced incredible loss in their lives and come to think of those losses as part of a good plan of God, and in fact in many cases their faith in God is what gets them through it and helps them to put their lives in context. In any event, I could flip your example around. Would you, as an atheist, go to the third world and preach to the starving people there that there is no God and no hope of a better life after this one? Although you think that this would be the truth it would be utterly out of order to destroy the one hope that dying people possess. There is a time and a place for everything under the sun.

      ”2. Inventing stupid syllogisms, using badly-worded premises. Even the grammar is skewed. It looks like Logic, sounds like Logic, but stinks of Fallacy.”

      OK, now we’re back to slurs. This time you describe a syllogism as stupid, badly worded, skewed grammar and fallacious. If you’re going to make such claims at least demonstrate them. Where exactly is the fallacy? There is no fallacy. I have given an obviously logically valid argument; in fact the argument I give is as logically valid as the atheist’s argument. You’ll not find a single logician who’d agree with you here. Moreover, where is the grammatical error? There is none. Your own personal style might differ from mine, that doesn’t mean there’s a grammatical error on my part. There’s a simply a stylistic difference.

      ”There is no way you can verify the existence of God, so your logic is what is politely but correctly called – unsound.”

      Well you’ve just gone and big fat missed the point now, haven’t you? The point here is that we are dealing with an atheistic argument against the existence of God. We are not trying to demonstrate the existence of God. I explicitly state in the article “Since this argument is the atheist’s argument it is he who bears the burden of proof for its premises. Unfortunately for the atheist this premise is incredibly difficult to establish.” The difficulty stems from the fact that we cannot know whether or not any given evil is in fact gratuitous, and further that we cannot know if some evil is gratuitous unless we already know that God does not exist. The point therefore is that the problem of evil is not independent of our prior commitment – or lack thereof – to the existence of God. The atheist’s argument need not therefore have any appeal to theists. Whether or not gratuitous evil exists depends on whether or not God exists. As such the problem of evil fails as a piece of natural atheology, that is, as an argument that should convince theists.

      What I think you need to do is to demonstrate that some given example of evil is in fact gratuitous, and show how that can then be used as an argument against God that theists should be rationally obliged to accept.

      Stephen J Graham

  4. I have responded to this on my own blog:
    https://counterapologistblog.wordpress.com

    I would welcome your comments either here or on my blog

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