Tag Archives: Problem of Evil

Short Article: 10 Christian Philosophers on Evil

I thought I’d do a quick fire article on what we can learn from 10 different Christian philosophers about the problem of evil. I’ll summarise the gist of each philosopher’s work, or a single key idea from their work, in a sentence or two. This obviously has limitations, so if you’re tempted to respond to any of these philosophers I suggest getting more familiar with their work than provided in these summaries!

From each of these thinkers, we learn a number of things.

(1) Alvin Plantinga: Argues that the existence of evil is, in fact, logically compatible with the existence of God since it’s possible that God create free beings who choose to do evil things.

(2) Stephen Wykstra: Points out that God’s intellect is exceedingly greater than ours, such that if He has a purpose in evil there’s no reason to suppose we would be aware of it.

(3) William Alston: From Alston we learn that the hope of establishing negative existential claims such as “There are (probably) no morally sufficient reasons for many of the evils we are confronted with in the world” are far from promising, and thus all such arguments face a massive uphill battle.

(4) Peter Van Inwagen: Whilst most theists deny that there are gratuitous evils (and implicitly assume the atheist is right that such evils are incompatible with God’s existence), Van Inwagen claims that due to the Fall we now live in a world which contains gratuitous evils, and thus there is no tension between the existence of God and the existence even of such gratuitous evils.

(5) Richard Swinburne: Argues that natural evils are necessary in a world in which humans can have morally significant free will.

(6) John Hick: Tells us that the evils of our world are part of the necessary environment for humans to grow towards a God-centred life through developing certain character traits that they could not otherwise develop.

(7) Eleonore Stump: Reminds us that many other Christian beliefs are relevant to the proper Christian response to evil, and that the world we live in – with the evils it contains – is the necessary environment for God to fix our wills and make us fit for eternity of union with God.

(8) William Lane Craig: Tells us that the highest good is not happiness or earthly pleasure, but rather the knowledge of God, which is an incommensurable good.

(9) MB Ahern: Reminds us that our knowledge of the goods and evils in the world and the interconnections between things and events is very limited.

(10) William Fitzpatrick: Points out that our grasp of the divine nature and purposes is riddled with enormous deficiencies.

Whether you agree with these authors or not, each of them is worth reading in more detail by anyone interested in arguments from evil.

Stephen J. Graham


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Why Skeptical Theists are Skeptical

Most modern arguments from evil are of the broadly “evidential” kind. Take the argument of William Rowe as a classic paradigm of such an argument type:

(1) There exist instances of intense suffering which an omnipotent, omniscient being could have prevented without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.

(2) An omniscient, wholly good being would prevent the occurrence of any intense suffering it could, unless it could not do so without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.

(3) There does not exist an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good being.

Theists have several retorts open to them. Some propose theodicies to account for the kinds of evil Rowe discusses. Others argue that the evidence in favour of the existence of God outweighs the argument from evil. Whatever strategy they employ, Rowe reckons – quite rightly – that most theists will grant premise 2, directing their fire against premise 1.

In so doing, theists – myself included – will adhere to some version of what is commonly referred to as “skeptical theism:” the view that we simply cannot know that a premise like (1) is true or more probable than not.

Different theistic philosophers will focus of different reasons why we should be skeptical. In his version of skeptical theism, Wykstra emphasises how our intellectual capacities are greatly inferior to God’s, much greater than the gap that exists between a small child and his parents. In the latter case a small child is often unable to understand parental anger, discipline and punishment, or why they might make the child do things they find distasteful or arduous. By contrast, Ahern argues that our knowledge of good and evil and the interconnections between events is severely limited. Fitzpatrick, on the other hand, argues that our grasp of the divine nature is tenuous at best, such that judgments about what an omnipotent or wholly good being would or would not do are virtually worthless. Whilst agreeing with all this, (as do I, particularly with Ahern), Alston focuses on the extreme difficulties faced by the atheist in their attempt to provide adequate support for what Alston describes as “a certain very ambitious negative existential claim,” namely, in Rowe’s case, there is no morally sufficient reason for God to permit certain evils we see.

Here are just a few of the factors discussed by Alston which demonstrate that we aren’t in a position to deny that God has some morally significant reason or other for the suffering we find in the world:

1. Lack of data – including the secrets of the human heart, the constitution and structure of the universe, and the remote past and future, including an afterlife, if any. For example, Christian theism allows for the notion of suffering for character formation, discipline, or even punishment for sin. Since we do not know the secrets of the human heart it seems that any attempt to rule out such explanations for evil is impossible. How can we tell in the case of some person – Bob – that the suffering he is facing might well be caused for such a reason? Bob might seem like a decent bloke, but no-one can really tell what’s going on in his mind, or what types of experiences might work (or will be most likely to work, given Bob’s freedom) to bring him to a better way of life.

2. Complexity greater than we can handle. Here we face the difficulty of holding enormous complexes of fact – different possible worlds or different systems of natural laws – together in the mind sufficiently for comparative evaluation. Take our world – W – and compare it to some other world – W* – which differs from W in some way. How could we even begin to compare these two worlds in such a way as to justifiably conclude that W* would be a better world than W and that therefore God should have made it instead of the world we find ourselves with? We have little idea how particular evils affect later events in the world and even less of a notion as to what God might be up to in the world such that certain evils are permitted. Given our limited spatio-temporal position there is little reason to think we could come close to an accurate comparison.

3. Difficulty in determining what is metaphysically possible or necessary. Bruce Reichenbach appeals to the benefits of law-like natural order, and considers suffering as an inevitable by-product of any such order. Critics often ask: could God not have created a very different natural order, perhaps one that would not involve human and animal suffering either at all or to a much lesser extent? There are various responses to this, but here I wish to point out a significant problem: it is not at all clear what possibilities are actually open to God. We are concerned here with metaphysical possibilities rather than merely conceptual or logical possibilities. The critic points out that we can consistently and intelligibly conceive or imagine a world in which there are no diseases or natural disasters, while all or the vast majority of the goods we currently enjoy remain present. His mistake is in taking his ability to imagine such a world as demonstrating that it is possible for God to create such a world. However, conceivability is not sufficient for metaphysical possibility – what is possible given the metaphysical structure of reality. It is far more difficult to determine what is metaphysically possible or necessary than to determine what is conceptually possible or necessary. The latter requires nothing more than reflection on our concepts. When it comes to what is metaphysically possible, frankly we haven’t the foggiest idea as to what essential natures are within God’s creative repertoire, much less as to which combinations of these into total lawful systems are actualisable. Since we don’t even have the beginnings of a canvass of the possibilities here, we are in no position to make a sufficiently informed judgment as to what God could or not could not create by way of a natural order that contains the goods of this one without its disadvantages. Furthermore, we have no way to know what consequences would ensue by changing some aspect of the natural order. It is notoriously difficult to find any sufficient basis for claims as to what is metaphysically possible, given the essential natural of things, the exact character of which is often unknown to us and virtually always controversial. This difficulty is many times multiplied when we are dealing with total possible worlds or total systems of natural order.

4. Ignorance of the full range of possibilities. This is always crippling when we are seeking to establish a negative conclusion. If we don’t know whether or not there are possibilities beyond the ones we have thought of, we are in a very bad position to show that there can be no divine reason for permitting evil.

5. Ignorance of the full range of values. When it’s a question of whether some good is related to E in such a way as to justify God in permitting E, we are, for the reason mentioned above, in a very poor position to answer the question if we don’t know the extent to which there are modes of value beyond those of which we are aware. For in that case, so far as we can know, E may be justified by its relation to one of those unknown goods. Moreover, just how valuable or worthwhile is something like free will or the ability/chance to show compassion? To what extent do such values justify evil or how much evil do they justify? It seems impossible for us to give an answer to such questions.

Alston therefore chastises such atheists insofar as they claim “that there isn’t something in a certain territory, while having a very sketchy idea of what is in that territory, and having no sufficient basis for an estimate of how much of the territory falls outside his knowledge.” I find myself in full agree with Alston, and thus it seems to me that the likelihood of a semi-decent atheistic argument from evil is, at best, bleak.

Stephen J. Graham

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Reflections on Suffering & the Time I Could’ve Died

And now for something completely different. Well, a little bit different. I thought I’d write this piece as a personal reflection on the value of suffering, rather than a philosophical piece. It was inspired by a question I was asked recently: rather than allow someone to go through suffering and then deliver them from it, wouldn’t it be better if God had kept them from the suffering in the first place? It made me think of the worst moment of my life.

About 20 years ago I was part of an adventure group on a “coastal walk” at the North coast of Northern Ireland. Don’t be deceived by that description. This was no leisurely stroll along the beach. This involved rock climbing, jumping off small cliffs into the sea, bouldering, and swimming. At one particular point in our journey we had to swim from one side of a bay to another. In the middle there was a small rocky island which we had to swim to first to get a short rest before continuing on.

Some rough weather had been stirring and as we were making our first swim we soon became aware that the conditions were much worse than we had thought. We had to get to safety pretty quickly, so we all made for the little rocky island. The sea had become so rough that the edges of the island were being pounded, so we had to wait until the last wave crashed and then swim in and climb up the rocks before the next wave hit. I timed my swim OK but as I attempted to climb up my foot caught on some seaweed and I slid. I was left half-lying and half-clinging to the rocks hoping that I might be able to bear the hit of the wave. I’ve never felt a force like it. Trying to hang onto the rocks was utterly futile (in fact the skin of my hands got badly torn in a few places). I was washed straight across the rocks and into a huge swell of water. Had I not been wearing a helmet my head would, in all probability, have been crushed. I was swept into a huge swell of water, unable to breathe, and too stunned to help myself. One of the others in my group was a trained lifeguard and I was fortunate enough that he was able to get me out and (with a huge effort on the part of the group) onto the island. I was in shock for some time afterwards and couldn’t believe how fortunate I was. I still remember the lifeguard’s words to me: “When things like that happen you realise just how fragile we are and that your life is really quite a precious thing.”

How easy it would have been for some small detail to have been different that would have left my family in mourning. If my helmet had been too loose. If the winds had been just a little bit different and sent me straight onto rock instead of into the sea. If we hadn’t had an experienced lifeguard with us. So many things could’ve been different, and had they been different my life may well have ended that day. Imagine two worlds: the current world and another possible world in which events conspired to kill me off that day. If we compare those worlds as they each look at 9am on 14th September 2017 there will be certain big differences. Consider all the people I have interacted with – for good or ill – in the last 20 years. Many of their lives would be quite different, some hugely so. My son wouldn’t exist. My wife would’ve married someone else and different children might exist who are missing from our actual world. Over time these children might have children, and so on. It’s mind-boggling how even one small event which could have so easily turned out differently can send a wave through time and have such massive consequences, and that’s before we think of the billions of events in billions of lives every single day. This fact is the main reason why I think arguments from suffering fail: they under-appreciate this feature of reality that even small events can have huge and unforeseen consequences that can radically change the future in ways we can barely comprehend.

But what about me? Why would God allow me to go through such an experience rather than prevent it in the first place? Admittedly, my experience on this day was (and remains) the worst experience of my life. At the time, I would’ve preferred that it didn’t happen at all. But on reflection it did change me a lot and taught me a few things I wouldn’t have learnt or appreciated except for having gone through the experience. And thus it seems to me that it might indeed make sense for God to sometimes save us from the midst suffering rather than spare us from it in the first place. In other words, whilst God might have good reason for causing or permitting suffering in the first place, He could also have good reason for saving a person from the midst of it.

Stephen J Graham

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Is the Problem of Evil a Greater Problem for Atheism than Theism? A Response to David Robertson

A link to an article by David Robertson appeared on my Twitter feed recently, in which it is claimed that “The problem of evil is a bigger problem for atheists than Christians.” You can read the full article here:


Now, let me first acknowledge what the article is not. It’s not written by a professional philosopher. It’s not written for a technical or professional journal, but rather a popular Christian magazine. It makes no pretensions as to providing the final word on the matter. Some people might therefore think I’m choosing a fairly soft target here. However, I don’t wish to write a thorough critique of the piece, nor hold Robertson to the sort of standards I might wish to hold a professional philosopher. However, what he says in the article is – I think – a popular misconception which is worth pointing out, if only to help other apologists from making a similar mistake. Moreover, I couldn’t find a scholarly statement of this argument which seems to make various repeat performances across the world of popular apologetics. (I did come across a version of this argument used by William Lane Craig in his debate some years ago with Frank Zindler, though it wasn’t a scholarly treatment either).

Anyhow, what is the claim, and what is the problem with it?

Robertson claims that many atheists, when asked why they don’t believe in God will point to the amount of evil in the world – because evil exists, God does not exist. Robertson sees a problem here for atheists: “I think all of us have a sense of evil and a sense of good – I don’t think morality is relative. . . There really is such a thing as good and evil. To me this truth actually leads to God, rather than away from God.” How so? Well, according to Robertson atheism has trouble making sense of the concept of evil. If you’re a naturalist, says Robertson, “There is no ultimate foundation for morality. It’s just something that happens, and has evolved.” The problem is exacerbated – so Robertson claims – since on naturalism there is no human free will, no meaning, no life after death, and ultimately no-one to answer to. Thus, he challenges: “The problem with the atheist view of evil is that logically it doesn’t make sense. Either you agree that [evil] exists, or you don’t. If it does exist, then on what metaphysical basis does it exist? It can’t just “be” in a world that is just atoms and molecules.”

Now, it seems to me – a theist who has spent a long time on the problem of evil, and who rejects it as a convincing argument against the existence of God – that Robertson (representative of other popular apologists) is unhelpfully misrepresenting the problem of evil. What he is in fact presenting is a moral argument for the existence of God. He’d have been better simply presenting that rather than trying to tie his argument to the problem of evil. In fact, I have some sympathy with the idea that atheism struggles with the notion of objective good and evil. So, it’s not primarily this aspect of Robertson’s argument that’s the problem, but rather his misconstrual of the problem of evil. (Though in passing I should mention that I rather suspect a sizable chunk of the atheist community would believe in and attempt to defend objective morality in a non-theistic universe. Precisely how successful such efforts are I leave as homework for the reader).

Robertson presents the problem of evil “in a nutshell” roughly along the lines of the so-called logical problem of evil, which runs like so:

1. If God is omnipotent, He will be able to eradicate evil
2. If God is omnibenevolent, He will be willing to eradicate evil
3. Evil exists
4. Therefore an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God does not exist.

I agree with Robertson that such an argument is unsuccessful. In fact, most atheist philosophers would likely agree. However, Robertson ignores the fact that the problem of evil is a much bigger beast than this version suggests. In fact, the problem of evil is really a group of several arguments on a similar theme. The significance of this is that an atheist need not actually agree with the existence of objective evil in order to raise the problem of evil as a case to answer for the theist.

So, for example, William Rowe’s argument from evil is that there are many forms of suffering in our world which do not seem to have any possible justifying goods. He famously gives the example of a fawn caught in a forest fire, suffering for days before finally succumbing to death. Seemingly then, says Rowe, there are gratuitous evils (such as many forms of pain, suffering and distress), and such would not exist if God existed. Now, I don’t think Rowe’s argument is a good one (Stephen Wykstra, Alvin Plantinga and William Alston all provide strong cases against it) but notice that this version of the problem of evil doesn’t rely on any claim about the existence of “objective evil,” in the sense Robertson seems to mean. Or take Paul Draper’s version of the argument (which is, in my view, only marginally better than Rowe’s), which says that the evil we find in the world is more likely on naturalism than on theism; in fact, he reckons, given the facts of our universe it appears most reasonable to think that nothing and no-one has the interests of biological organisms at heart. Draper weighs the hypothesis of theism against an alternative hypothesis, namely: “Neither the nature nor the condition of sentient beings on earth is the result of benevolent or malevolent actions performed by non-human persons,” using a set of observations – O – comprising “both the observations one has made of humans and animals experiencing pain or pleasure and the testimony one has encountered concerning the observations others have made of sentient beings experiencing pain or pleasure.” According to Draper O has a much greater antecedent probability on this other hypothesis than on theism, and thus we have a prima facie case for thinking this alternative hypothesis is more likely to be true than theism. Again, an atheist could make use of this form of argument without bringing the “Robertson Retort” down on his own head. Robertson shows no sign of being familiar with such arguments, and even though he’s only a popular level apologist he really should pay these arguments some attention, for in doing so he mightn’t be so quick to claim that the problem of evil is a bigger problem for atheism than theism.

In any event, I hope it’s fairly clear what’s going on here. The problem of evil isn’t just a problem about morally objective evil. It’s about suffering, pain, and seemingly poor biological design. An atheist who cites the problem of evil as part of his or her case for unbelief is quite likely to have all this in mind, not just the rather restricted version Robertson presents. In my own experience I’ve heard atheists complain about things like the process of evolution and the unimaginable suffering that would have occurred as a result of the process; or the destructive power of natural phenomena such as earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis; or the horrendous little beasties that are visible only under the microscope, whose existence causes all manner of pain and trauma to millions of other biological organisms; or the suffering in the animal world caused by predation. Such things, so says the atheist, make it difficult to believe in the God of Classical Theism. I freely admit there are times when the world strikes me as a particularly horrid place, and though I don’t think there’s a good argument from evil I sometimes find doubts rise up in my mind through my own experience of the world’s evils.

Of course, for many reasons way beyond the scope of this short article, I don’t think any of this warrants the rejection of theism. But what it does show is that there are versions of the problem of evil which are not open to the Robertson Retort, and thus the atheist who embraces one or more of these versions of the problem isn’t caught in the contradiction Robertson seems to think he or she is.

Modern versions of the problem of evil are, quite clearly, more of a problem for theism than atheism. There is a case for theism to answer. Robertson and other popular level apologists who use such a line of argument would be better off acknowledging this, and joining the rest of us in honestly trying to make sense of the evils our world contains in light of our theistic worldview.

Stephen J. Graham


Filed under Problem of Evil

Skeptical Theism vrs Theodicy

It’s not uncommon to find theistic philosophers and, more frequently, apologists appealing to both skeptical theism and to various theodicies in their responses to the problem of evil. However, the two approaches are not obviously compatible. Before I examine the compatibility of these two enterprises, I had best briefly outline what the problem of evil is and how each of these approaches traditionally seeks to answer it.

The problem of evil comes in various guises, but for my purposes here one of the most popular forms will suffice:

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

This argument will, of course, be nuanced differently by different thinkers; sometimes it will come in a deductive form, other times in an inductive form, for instance.

Take now two theists: Joe Skeptic and George T O’Dicist.

Joe Skeptic – as the name suggests – is representative of the skeptical theist school of thought. Joe will be quick to point out that mere mortals such as you and I are not epistemically well placed to make the kinds of judgments required to make the problem of evil a successful atheistic argument. God, surely, has lots of reasons for acting as He does; reasons which we simply do not know – and possibly cannot expect to know. Many evils certainly look gratuitous, but we see only through the eyes of finititude. Joe, being a Tolkien fan, reminds us of Gandalf’s words in Lord of the Rings: “For even the very wise cannot see all ends.” And thus, for the skeptical theist, we simply cannot make such judgments. We have no way of knowing if any evil is gratuitous or such that there is no morally sufficient reason for God to allow it, even though we do not – or cannot – know these reasons. “How do we know? We can’t know,” says Joe.

George thinks Joe is punting to skepticism far too soon. George reckons that we can plausibly know why God allows certain evils. Perhaps God allows some suffering for the greater good of permitting morally significant freedom. Perhaps other forms of suffering play their part in the world as a “vale of soul-making.” Or, maybe some instances of suffering are plausibly divine punishments for sin. These are just a few of the bewildering array of theodicies on offer from George and his cohorts.

The main difference between Joe and George is that George is claiming detailed knowledge concerning the morally sufficient reasons God has for allowing suffering, whilst Joe is pleading agnosticism on the matter. Joe says: “We don’t/can’t know why God allows suffering.” George says: “God allows suffering because X, Y, Z.” But, of course, in real life many of those who engage with the problem of evil are neither Joes nor Georges, but rather a curious hybrid of the two. Frequently, and this is nothing other than my own observations, I see my fellow theists begin with bold theodicies and, in the course of debate, weaken their claims until they arrive at skeptical theism. Other times theists will change their hat to suit the occasion (or their mood). And this, I’ve also noticed, can be a source of frustration to atheist thinkers: “Do you know or not?” “If you claim we don’t or can’t know, why don’t you spend some time criticizing theodicists?”

Despite all this it seems to me that skeptical theism need not be in conflict with the enterprise of theodicy, though the latter will require certain restrictions to be put upon it. In order to be fully compatible with skeptical theism, theodicy must refrain from any attempts at big, sweeping, assured statements. What I mean is that theodicy should refrain from saying such things as: “This instance of suffering is due to X,” or “Suffering in general is due to Y.” Critics might here complain that I am effectively saying theodicy should cease to be theodicy. I admit, if a full compatibility with skeptical theism is to be achieved then theodicy must make compromises. However, I don’t mean to make theodicy redundant – and readers of my blog may well know that I defend a form of theodicy which attempts to combine a modified form of Leibniz’s best possible world with a version of Irenaeus’ soul-making approach. What I do think needs to happen is a humbling of the theodicy enterprise. Instead of claiming God allows some specific or general type of suffering because X, Y, Z, the claim needs to be restricted to something like, “God might allow some instance or type of evil because of X, Y or Z.” Or, alternatively, “X, Y and Z are, plausibly, morally sufficient reasons for God to allow some instances or types of suffering, even if we do not or cannot know if X, Y or Z constitute God’s actual reasons for allowing some instance or type of suffering.”

This, I think, would make theodicy fully compatible with skeptical theism. But is there any benefit in such a weakened form of theodicy? I think there is. There are lots of areas of human knowledge where it can be important to venture even tentative explanations for seemingly recalcitrant facts. Certain aspects of origin of life studies or evolutionary theory can be like that, for instance. Theories can often seem more plausible in the face of uncertainty if we are able to at least take stabs a possible explanations for data that proves difficult to account for. In particular with respect to the problem of evil, we can note that forms of suffering and evil are not all equal. There are some forms which might be accounted for fairly easily; whereas other instances seem intractable. By providing plausible explanations for certain forms or instances of suffering, theodicy can increase our confidence that plausible explanations exist also for these more difficult instances of evil.

Perhaps the skeptical theist might also make a compromise here. Rather than dogmatically asserting that we can’t know, perhaps he should hold to the weaker statement of skeptical theism – that we don’t know, or don’t know fully, why God allows some instance or form of suffering. This attitude would then allow theodicy some role in at least investigating whether or not plausible reasons for some evils can indeed be found, or at least rationally surmised. This surely would be a sensible compromise for the skeptical theist to make, since it avoids for him a rather uncomfortable knowledge statement (“we can’t know”) which sits uneasily with his overall outlook. Skeptical theism of the form “don’t know” seems, to me anyhow, more internally consistent than the “can’t know” form.

Such an “agreement” between these two approaches has analogues in other disciplines. Take, for example, the philosophy of mind. Some philosophers of mind – most notably Colin McGinn – reckon the problem of consciousness is one which we are simply cognitively unequipped to solve, and we need to simply live with it. Others – rather hopefully – think it is solved. Though these two positions aren’t immediately compatible, we can adopt elements of both: we can agree with McGinn that the problem has not in fact been solved; but agree with the optimists that we can make some progress, even if we can’t solve the problem at present.

What this gives us is a much healthier attitude, one that appeals both to our sense of realism and to our sense of curious optimism and which might lead us to say something like: “I’m not sure we can know, but let’s try.” And thus, with one or two compromises made, it seems to me that Joe and George can safely sit at the same table.

Stephen J Graham


Filed under Problem of Evil

Is Theodicy Offensive?

This week a few comments appeared on my Twitter feed concerning the apparent offensive nature of theodicy; theodicy being that branch of theistic thought that attempts to explain why God allows evils and suffering in the world.

A frequent retort to this project of theodicy – and one that occurred this week – goes something like this: “Yeah, go and tell that to a rape victim!” [The precise tweet I saw read: “theodicy is often offensive. Who’s gonna look at a rape victim & tell them it was a reminder from God?”] The idea here is that some explanation or other would be offensive to those who have suffered gross wrongs. But what is supposed to follow from this? That some explanation or other is false? That’s hardly the case, unless we seek to equate offensiveness with falsity. To my mind all that follows is that even if some explanation is true it isn’t necessarily helpful in some given context – such as counselling a rape victim. However, any responsible person wouldn’t approach a counselling situation in this way; not because the explanation is false, but because in this context it is both inappropriate and unhelpful to the recovery of the victim.

I remember several years ago having to attend counselling sessions for extreme anxiety. At the beginning of these sessions the counsellor delved into lots of things in my past, explaining how they had a bearing on my current psychological state and how that state comes about within the human body. It was certainly an education and much of what she told me was undoubtedly true. However, I found this approach extremely unhelpful and frustrating; even counter-productive. I felt like I was being treated as a psychological research project rather than being helped. The truth in my case was unhelpful, inappropriate and at times even offensive. It was still true.

There’s a time and place for everything. Giving a long-winded explanation of why God permits suffering may well be of no use to the victim of some act of evil. A philosophical explanation is not what they need at that moment in time. To judge a philosophical explanation by how it would perform in a counselling context is to set a false standard. Of course, we should note in passing that there are people who have been helped by seeing their suffering in a larger context. It is not uncommon to hear stories from Jewish people who suffered the hell on earth of the Nazi concentration camps about how their belief in God’s providence sustained them, that believing there was at least some reason or explanation for what was happening. Suffering, it seems, can be easier to bear when it’s set into a wider context of having some meaning.

Anyhow, we could make the point by flipping the situation around. Take an atheist who is utterly convinced that there is no God, that this life is all there is, and that each of us faces nothing but personal annihilation in a relatively short time. Say this atheist visits Africa to do charity work in a remote hospital. A mother has just arrived with a sick 10 year old boy on the verge of death. In fact, there’s nothing doctors can do except to bring some modest pain-relief and to help ease the suffering of both the son as he dies and the mother as she grieves. This mother and son are devout Christians. Despite living an impoverished and malnourished existence they look forward to a better future, the heavenly blessing of being reunited after death, when all fear is banished from their hearts, all pain from their bodies, every tear wiped away, and wrongs and injustices righted. Now, suppose our charitable atheists stands by the bedside to ease this boy into his death and help to comfort the mother. Is now a good time to offer the problem of evil? Is now a good time to point out the contradictions in the Bible and that it cannot be trusted when it speaks of the life to come? Wouldn’t to do so be crass and offensive? And yet the atheist believes all this is true.

The point should be obvious: that it is hardly a sensible critique of atheism to say “yeah, well you wouldn’t preach atheism to a dying child,” and likewise it’s rather unreasonable to critique a theodicy on the basis that “yeah, you wouldn’t tell that to a rape victim!”(Of course some given theodicy could be false for many other reasons).

So, how should we judge a belief system or argument? Not on its emotional appeal; not on whether someone considers it offensive; not on how many people agree with it; not even with regard to how effectively it makes the hairs on the back of our neck tingle when we consider it. We judge them in so far as we consider them true or false; correct or incorrect. Any given proposition could be considered offensive; many are true nonetheless.

Stephen J Graham


Filed under Problem of Evil

Football, Atheism & The Problem of Evil

What do football commentators and atheists have in common?

Watching the World Cup I’ve noticed that commentators and pundits suffer from the same confusions that many atheists suffer from. Let me explain.

It’s half time in the match and the pundits are in the studio drooling, ready to share their wealth of footie wisdom with viewers. And in loads of games so far I’ve noticed that one particular irritating habit that seems to afflict even the most experienced and sensible pundit (say, the ones with an IQ above 80) is the tendency to add up all the chances a particular team had during that half – say 5 chances – and declare that the score could therefore be 5-0 by now. Arrrrgh!! No! no! no! no! no! Don’t they teach you anything about causation in Commentary College?!

“If Holland had taken all their chances they would have been 3-0 up by now.”

Whilst the average footie fan might be nodding in agreement, this claim should strike the more philosophical footie fan as patently fallacious. Let’s say Holland missed easy goal scoring opportunities at 5 minutes, then after 7 minutes and then again at 45 minutes, right before the end of the first half. Is it the case that Holland really should be 3-0 up by now? I don’t see how we can make that claim at all. If Holland had scored in the 5th minute the game will have turned out very different. The set of events leading up to Holland’s chance after 7 minutes is dependent on earlier events – which included the miss after 5 minutes. Had Holland scored in the 5th minute then the stream of events leading to the chance in the 7th minute would not have occurred. In fact, maybe scoring so early would have caused a change of tactics in the opposition such that it’s very possible that had Holland scored in the 5th minute they may have actually conceded several goals shortly after. We have no way whatsoever of knowing given the complicated matrix of events. Every writer of science fiction understands this point: you change something in the past then you change – often radically – how events pan out after that point.

What has this got to do with atheism? Well, it’s related to an approach some atheists take to the problem of evil. If only God had removed all the Ebola viruses or all the flu viruses, or all the hurricanes. He’s all good and all-powerful, right? Then couldn’t he quite easily remove some evils at least and therefore make the world a better place?

This sort of all too frequent comment makes the same mistake as the football pundits. It assumes that you can make some change and that everything else will just continue on as it would have without the changes. If Holland had scored in the 5th minute they still would have had the same opportunities in the 7th and the 45th – If God removed the Ebola virus everything else would be just as good and we have the added bonus of no Ebola virus. But of course, we have no way to know this at all. If we have two different worlds – W1 and W2 – and God removes the Ebola virus from W1 in 2002, then W1 is now a radically different world from W2. The changes that now occur in W1 makes it impossible to say whether this world is better than W2, and only a simplistic football commentator approach to causation and the interconnection of events could lead us to claim that it is. Just as its possible that Holland scoring in the 5th minute could have lead to their defeat, so it’s possible that by removing the Ebola virus from W1 actually leads to a worse world.

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Hell versus Theodicy

John Hick’s main contribution to the problem of evil debate came with his masterful book “Evil and the God of Love.” This text deserves to be read, re-read, discussed, underlined, quoted, digested, memorized, margin-noted, and read again by anyone – scholar or layperson – Christian, atheist, or undecided – who is interested in this most fundamental and age-old question. And even if you’re not interested you should get interested and read this book. It is, quite easily, the greatest discussion of the problem of evil in print.

I don’t say this as some kind of rabid Hick groupie. In fact I disagree with Hick on a number of points. For instance, his critique and dismissal of Leibniz’s position is all too quick, and I have shown in other articles that Leibniz’s position can be easily modified to defuse Hick’s criticisms of it.

In this article I want to focus on another point of disagreement with Hick: his dismissal of the doctrine of Hell as somehow being incompatible with theodicy, the quest to defend the goodness and justice of God in the face of the evil and suffering in the world.

Hick on Hell

Hick agrees that a central plank in any viable Christian theodicy is the idea that God will eventually bring an over-riding good out of the evil in the world. However, Hick sees a problem here. If, as certain traditions of Christianity teach, few are saved and most are lost to Hell, then what we have is not the drawing of good out of evil but rather an endless series of sin and suffering which is, says Hick, “an evil that is never turned to good, but remains forever a blot upon God’s creation.” Hick wonders then, whether Hell itself might simply be part of the problem of evil. He writes: “those exigencies of Christian theology that have led to the doctrine of eternal punishment are directly in conflict with those other Christian impulses that underlie the search for a theodicy.”

It’s important to know what Hick means when he speaks of Hell: “eternal suffering inflicted by God upon those of His creatures who have sinfully rejected Him.” Since such sufferings are unending they can never lead to any constructive end beyond themselves – it is, thinks Hick, “utterly pointless and wasted anguish.” Hick has little time for theories, such as that advanced by William Lane Craig, that the damned continue to sin and therefore deserve to be punished. Hick thinks even this idea is fatal to theodicy, viewing it as amounting to unending evil – even a much greater frustration of God’s purposes than the misery of the damned. In such a world, argues Hick, sin would never be defeated, and creation would be eternally shadowed and spoiled by evil.

We come then to the crux of Hick’s argument, which he presents in the form of a dilemma: Hell presents problems for either God’s sovereignty or perfect goodness. Why? “The doctrine of Hell,” argues Hick, “has as its implied premise either that God does not desire to save all His human creatures, in which case he is only limitedly good, or that His purpose has finally failed in the case of some – [or most] – of them, in which case he is only limitedly sovereign.”

Hick continues by denying the route of annihilationism to escape his argument, since in this case God’s purpose would have failed with respect to those whose fate is extinction: “To this extent evil would have prevailed over good and would have permanently marred God’s creation.” And this brings us to the core of Hick’s solution: “God will eventually succeed in His purpose of winning all men to Himself in faith and love.”

Hick-Up on Hell

Before I tackle Hick’s dilemma, I want to pick a few holes in his conception of Hell. Not all theologians are in agreement that Hell is a place of eternal suffering inflicted by God. Some thinkers – Kreeft and CS Lewis, for instance – see the essence of Hell as a self-separation from God. On this conception the existence of Hell simply follows from the existence of Heaven and free will, as a place for those who freely reject Heaven. Even those who adopt a more traditional understanding of Hell – such as JP Moreland – deny this torture chamber image. Moreover, I don’t think Hick has done enough to reject those views – such as William Lane Craig’s – which hold that Hell could be self-perpetuating as the damned continue to sin and therefore accrue more punishment on their own heads. The view of punishment underlying Hick’s argument is that unless punishment is restorative it is pointless, a view that is far from obvious. Punishment might well be perfectly meaningful and legitimate purely on retributive terms. It seems to me that a case could be made that the retributive punishment of sinners is a good, not an evil. Rejecting the idea that Hell as a place of retributive punishment is an evil, Augustine writes: “since there is happiness for those who do not sin, the universe is perfect; and it is no less perfect because there is misery for sinners. . . the penalty of sin corrects the dishonour of sin.” This means that the perfection of God’s universe is not marred by the existence of Hell, since all sin is balanced immediately by just punishment.

In any event, is there any reason to suppose that the existence of Hell is a massive frustration of God’s purpose? Does the existence of Hell necessarily mean that God’s creation is eternally spoiled? I want to agree first of all with the first horn of Hick’s dilemma: if God does not desire to save all then He is only limitedly good. I think that’s something that most (certain breeds of Calvinist aside) would agree with. But is it true that the existence of Hell means that God’s purpose has finally failed in the case of some people, and thus that God is only limitedly sovereign? I don’t see how that follows at all.

Hick appears to think there is something inconsistent between these propositions:

(1) God can accomplish everything he desires to accomplish.
(2) God desires that all be saved.
(3) All are not saved.

The problem is that God’s desires are arguably a tad more complex than Hick allows. Whilst God might desire that all be saved, he might also equally desire that all be saved according to their own will. Further, God may also desire that those who wish to reject Him are permitted to do so. God’s desire that all be saved might be called a secondary desire. His primary desire is to create free creatures that can reject Him if they wish to do so. God remains fully sovereign; nothing happens without his say so or permission.

Holding propositions 1-3 above is no more inconsistent than holding:

(A) Stephen can help his son with his homework test, and if he does his son will pass.
(B) Stephen desires his son to pass his homework test.
(C) Stephen’s son fails his homework test.

As with the case of God there are other desires at play, making the situation more complex than it appears at first glance. In this instance whilst I desire my son to pass and can ensure he does so by giving him all the right answers, I also desire to see the true level of his ability, to see where his weak points are, and for him to learn the lesson that good results often come only with hard work. The point is that desires are complicated and often qualified by other desires we have.

Oddly enough we could throw Hick’s argument right back at him. Presumably God wants all to be saved now. And yet, some will not be saved now but they will in, say, 10 years time. Why, on Hick’s understanding, is this not regarded as a frustration of God’s will and thus a question mark against His sovereignty?

I think then that the dilemma that stands at the heart of Hick’s argument is a false one. It is no barrier to theodicy to hold that God wills to save all but respects the humanity of those who freely refuse Him. If Hell is a just punishment for sin or a freely chosen self-separation from God then there needn’t be any problem presented for theodicy by the existence of Hell.

Stephen J. Graham

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The Horrors of Creation

I remember sitting in a church men’s meeting I had been invited to watching images of the universe on a screen while a song played asking “how can you say there is no God!” The images were all of stunning beauty and natural wonder, and only a cold emotionless being could fail to be moved by them.

All these dazzling images before me were taken by the Hubble space telescope, which opened up the heavens to us in a way that wasn’t available to previous generations. Anyone with an internet connection can marvel at the spiral arms of the Milky Way galaxy, or the rather splendid Sombrero galaxy.

When people think of creation, often it’s the beautiful things they have in mind. It’s not uncommon to hear people speak of experiencing God through a majestic sun-set, or in the grandeur of a mountain range, or the vast expanse of the oceans. There is certainly no shortage of natural wonders; beauty is not in short supply. We see it in the night sky when we gaze at the stars; we see it through phenomena like rainbows or the northern lights. On one occasion I remember seeing a toucan at a bird park on a family holiday in Spain and welling up, so moved was I at how beautiful it was. Seriously. A toucan. It’s easy to see the hand of God in such things.

I also remember a song that used to be sung when I was in primary school:

“All things bright and beautiful;
All creatures great and small;
All things wise and wonderful;
The Lord God made them all.”

Indeed. The verses of the song go on to cite example after example of the wonderful beauty of the natural world. How loving is God to give us such a wonderful and beautiful world to live in!

Alas, the world isn’t all rainbows and toucans. Needless to say my old primary school song doesn’t tell the whole story: about parasitic worms that infect and feed on human eyeballs, causing blindness; swarms of hornets that attack beehives and tear the heads off all the bees; hyenas that begin to eat their prey before it’s even dead; various animal species that reject the young if their parents die. The Lord God made all these too, presumably. Creation might indeed be stunningly beautiful, but it’s often an incredibly fearful place too: bloody, cold, cruel, dangerous, and merciless. Most of the earth isn’t safe. The earth is wild. Beautiful, yes – but so very wild.

And what are we to make of the wildness, the danger and the sheer bloody cruelty of it all?

The traditional answer in Christian circles, even in countries which typically boast a high degree of scientific sophistication, is that creation used to be perfect but has been adversely affected by the sin and fall of humankind. So, God made all things perfect, but when the first humans rebelled against God certain consequences followed – not only for humankind but also for the created order. The sin of the first humans corrupted the earth, leaving pain, suffering, death and misery in its wake.

Regrettably this rather tidy explanation is utterly untenable given what we now know of natural history. If we go back in time prior to the appearance of homo sapiens we won’t find lions lying down with lambs. Polar bears did not eat snow-cones prior to the appearance of the first humans and the first sin. Nature was just as red in tooth and claw as it is today. Animals ate other animals. Even some plants ate animals! The suggestion that the natural world got ugly as a result of the sin of the first humans was OK for Saint Augustine but it’s unbelievable these days.

In any event it isn’t at all demanded by the biblical narrative itself. In the primitive simplicity of the Genesis account there is no indication that the natural world was perfect and then completely corrupted with the first sin. According to the Genesis story Adam was not created in some paradisal state, but rather he was created in an earthly garden which he has to tend. When we compare the relative simplicity of the actual biblical account with the later theological developments – mainly via Saint Augustine – we see really how massively overstated these theological developments were, both in terms of exaggerating the heights from which creation fell as well as the depths to which it fell.

Of course it’s not just the empirical problems with the traditional – Augustinian – account of sin and suffering in the world that make it implausible, there are weighty theological considerations against it too. One crucial problem is that the traditional account doesn’t shed any light on suffering and evil by pointing back to the fall of man or a prior fall in the angelic realm. This theology presents us with a paradox: man (or angels) created as finitely perfect in a perfect environment and then somehow engaging in evil. As John Hick points out this doctrine of the “self-creation of evil ex nihilo” is difficult to make sense of, if indeed it isn’t downright incoherent. Hick puts it: “To say that an unqualifiedly good (though finite) being gratuitously sins is to say that he was not unqualifiedly good in the first place.” Moreover, it raises massive problems for the doctrine of heaven: if perfect humans in a perfect environment fell once why could it not happen again? And of course this entire theology was made all the more bewilderingly incoherent once Calvin came along with his doctrine of strong divine determinism.

And thus I think it’s time for Christian thought to explore other avenues with regards to the nature of the world and the suffering it contains. To this end I want to briefly sketch another Christian approach, one which is actually older than the Augustinian approach but which never achieved the same systematic organisation and development and thus was largely ignored by the Western church in its obsession with Augustine.

We see hints of this different theodicy very early in Christian thought. Tatian argued that God did not make human beings perfectly good but in such a way and in such an environment (not an idyllic paradise) as they could become perfectly good through obedience to God. In a similar vein Theophilus speculated that Adam and Eve were created as children – immature – and were placed in the garden of Eden to grow in maturity and obedience.

These tentative themes were developed further by the church father Irenaeus. Irenaeus made the (exegetically dubious, but ideologically useful) distinction between the image of God and the likeness of God in humanity. The former concerns our nature as rational agents capable of relating to God; the latter refers to our final perfecting by the Spirit, a goal which we must ourselves cooperate with.

This distinction then allows Irenaeus to argue that whilst humankind is created in God’s “image” we are not perfected in God’s “likeness.” We must use our moral and rational faculties to grow towards this perfect nature, a nature which must be freely chosen and developed, and which will be rejected by some. Under this scheme, therefore, Adam was only potentially perfect, not actually perfect. All human beings are in the same spiritual boat: presently only potentially the perfected beings God seeks to make. In fact Ireneaus also argues that this way of creating humankind is morally superior to the creation of a perfect finite being. The argument is that it’s good to grow and develop in moral knowledge; it’s good even to experience failure and suffering because through them we experience the great goods of forgiveness and mercy and have a deeper appreciation of God’s love and grace, since, in the teaching of Christ, “[for] he to whom more is forgiven loveth more.” As part of this scheme Irenaeus also stresses the epistemic distance between God and man, which makes a degree of cognitive freedom possible and allows us to move towards or totally ignore God as we see fit.

What is required, given God’s purposes for his creatures, is an appropriate environment in which these purposes can be realised. The world, then, was never an idyllic paradise but is intended – (at least partially since God may well have other purposes in creation besides humanity) – as an appropriate environment to develop those made in God’s image into the likeness of God. The world, according to this view, then naturally contains good and evil, suffering and pleasure, which God uses to teach his creatures lessons and values, and ultimately build them into the type of creatures he desires. The world was never a paradise with no suffering or physical death, but rather has always been a place with suffering, but this suffering has a divine purpose.

The contrast with Augustine is clear. Whereas Augustine looks back to a time when man was supposedly created finitely perfect and then somehow (inexplicably) fell from this state and plunged the entire human race into catastrophe and the natural order into death, suffering and cruelty; Irenaeus sees man as created immature and placed into an appropriate environment and thus looks forward to a time when humanity and the created order will be perfected.

Insofar as we can claim the world is “perfect” we can only mean a functional perfection – the suitability of the created order to accomplish the divine purposes, which includes what Irenaeus called the “likeness” of God, and what Schleiermacher later referred to as the “God consciousness” of human beings which can be awakened and challenged by pain and pleasure alike. This type of perfection is one which exists now – always was and always will – but it doesn’t – contra Augustine – refer to some primordial and long lost condition of perfect human virtue and its accompanying natural paradise.

It seems to me quite clear that the dominant Augustinian notions of an “original righteousness” of humankind and “original perfection” of the environment are empirically false and theologically dubious. The way forward for theodicy and an understanding of sin, evil and suffering lies elsewhere: in the notions of our human propensity to respond to God and share in his work and purposes – or not – and the conception of the goodness of the created order as lying in its being an appropriate environment for the outworking of God’s plan for his creatures.

Stephen J Graham

These ideas will be fleshed out in forthcoming articles.

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Leibniz, Hangnails & the Best Possible World

In a brief Twitter conversation it was suggested to me that a world with one less hangnail would be a better world than the world we live in, and thus the world we live in cannot be the best possible world (BPW). Take that, Leibniz!

Let’s call our world up to 2014 W1. Now let’s go back in time to Billy Bob in 1956 when he suffered a hangnail and intervene ever so slightly so he avoids suffering a hangnail. Let’s call this new world W2. Now, fast-forward again to 2014. Are W1 and W2 identical except that in W1 in 1956 Billy Bob suffered a hangnail? I don’t see how we can make such a claim, and in fact we can easily imagine how by 2014 W1 and W2 could very well be radically different worlds. How so? Well, in W1 after suffering a hangnail, Billy Bob went to get medical treatment. He met a nurse at the hospital; they hit it off, eventually got married, and had 4 children. When we consider the enormous number of different events that take place in W1 as a result of Billy Bob’s hangnail it should be fairly obvious that by 2014 W1 is very different from W2.

But is it different for the better? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe for a time it gets better, after which it gets horrendously worse. Or maybe it’s horrendously worse for a time but ultimately gets far better. Maybe Billy Bob’s kids turn out to be wonderful philanthropists, and humanity reaps all manner of boons. Or perhaps they end up a family of serial killers and bring misery to hundreds. But regardless of how they turn out we still can’t tell if W1 is ultimately better or worse than W2, since there are further multiple consequences of both scenarios which we, as creatures of limited intelligence and insight, simply cannot trace.

But isn’t a world with one less hangnail – W2 – better than a world – W1 – which is identical in all respects except there is one additional hangnail? Again, this isn’t obvious. It relies on a certain understanding of “better” which we needn’t agree with. If we understand the chief purposes of God for the world to lie in the maximisation of pleasure and the minimisation of pain then perhaps W2 is “better.” But of course in Christian theism this is not God’s sole or ultimate purpose. In any event, for the sake of argument let’s grant that W2 would indeed be better than W1. But, now we must ask: is W2 a feasible world? It’s not clear that it is. Take Billy Bob again. Perhaps every world in which he suffers the hangnail turns out differently from all the worlds in which he doesn’t, such that there simply are no two worlds which are identical in all respects except that Billy Bob suffers a hangnail in one of them. And this should not surprise us as such cases – even relatively minor ones like a stubbed toe – are always part of the matrix of events. Such pains have a number of uses in the grand scheme of things. Firstly, that such pains are of biological value is well documented. Secondly, as Swinburne argues, the experience of pain is an intrinsic part of any world where creatures are to have significant moral responsibility and freedom to do good or evil. Thirdly, such experiences form part of our “epistemic environment,” contributing to the background against which we reflect on the world and form opinions about good, evil, value, and about God and the nature of ultimate reality. Fourthly, they play a role in our development as moral creatures, as we respond daily to the aches and hurts that accompany daily living.

Thus, even relatively minor hurts like stubbed toes and hangnails play a role in life, even a significant one such that a world with one less hangnail – W2 – might have over-ridding deficiencies that make W1 preferable.

The principle behind this has been named “the butterfly effect.” The basic idea is that something seemingly unimportant – a butterfly fluttering around some flower – can potentially set in motion a chain of events (or play a small but crucial role in the “events matrix”) that leads to something massive – a hurricane off the coast of Florida; and we have no way to predict or trace it.

The same idea appears in the movie Sliding Doors. In this movie the lead character is hurrying to catch a train. The film then branches off into 2 strands or “mini-movies.” In one of these worlds she catches the train, while in the other events conspire to cause her to miss it. The movie then plots how her life goes in two completely different directions as the result of this one seemingly benign and insignificant event (which of course was itself dependent on millions of prior contingent events either occurring or not).

The upshot of all this is that we really can’t tell which is better – W1 or W2 – by engaging in observation and imaginative thought experiments. In fact, whilst Leibniz believed that this world is the BPW, he didn’t believe it on the basis of observation. He understood that drawing such a conclusion was impossible. His belief that this world is the BPW was a deduction from his prior belief that the world is the creation of an omnipotent and perfectly good God. If the universe is the creation of such a being then, reckoned Leibniz, there is some reason to think it is the BPW. But Leibniz would have had no time for modern atheistic arguments that run like so:

(1) If God exists our world would be the best possible world.
(2) Our world is not the best possible world.
(3) Therefore God does not exist.

Whilst Leibniz would agree with (1), he would regard (2) – quite rightly in my view – as utterly speculative. William King put it like so: “You’ll say that some particular things might have been better. But, since you do not thoroughly understand the whole, you have no right to affirm this much.”

Thus, though Leibnizian arguments might rationally conclude that this is the BPW because it has been created by an omnipotent and perfectly good God, atheist arguments to the opposite conclusion will always rely on a premise that is fundamentally unknowable.

Stephen J Graham.

See also:

My main essay on Leibniz here:


and another shorter article here:


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